We like to start our Guides by explaining what the target market is, just to avoid confusion. There are numerous ways to tweak any system within a given budget, and more often than not, we hear comments about why we didn't use product X or forgot to mention feature Y. For some people, specific features and upgrades are going to be important, while others are really just interested in a decent computer that will handle the typical tasks that they are likely to perform.

The Budget sector is the low end of computer systems, naturally, and expecting a computer that only costs $500 to be fast in all areas is unrealistic. Compromises must be made, and most often, we look to drop performance and features a bit while still maintaining an acceptable level of performance. The biggest deficiency in most budget systems is their graphics support. Pre-built OEM systems from Dell, Gateway, etc. often limit the amount of upgrading that can be done; for example, by removing the graphics slot (either AGP or PCI Express X16). If you never plan on running complex graphics on your computer, it may not matter, but with hardware accelerated graphics becoming a more central component of future versions of Windows, we consider an AGP or PCI Express expansion slot to be mandatory in our recommendations.

One thing that we would like to get out of the way right now is the possibility of purchasing a pre-built system. They are rarely ideal configurations, but most of the large OEMs can offer software and hardware bundles that are difficult to match. We won't bother recommending them in our Guides, but feel free to comparison shop. One pre-built system that we would like to specifically mention is the new Apple Mac Mini. If you haven't already heard about it, you can read up on the features and performance in Anand's initial review as well as his attempts at turning the Mac Mini into a Home Theater PC / Digital Video Recorder. Starting at $500, the Mac Mini is an attractive, small design. By the time you add a display and upgrade the memory to 512MB, it will cost significantly more than our budget recommendations. Still, for a computer neophyte, it may be the best solution.

We would like to be able to put together a reasonable PC for $500, but realistically and given some of the current trends, we're going to end up at closer to $650 for this Guide. We feel the upgrades that we've made for the additional $150 are worthwhile, but if you want something cheaper, the recommendations from our last Budget Guide can be had for about $550. That said , we'll move into our actual recommendations. Prices and availability are subject to change at any time, but we try to select parts that are easily acquired just about anywhere in the world. We will also have some alternative recommendations for those looking to improve performance by spending a bit more money. Now, on with the show!

CPU and Motherboard - AMD
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  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, March 16, 2005 - link

    38 - I changed to the 9550 after the earlier corrections, as I had a 9600SE initially. I'll fix the text to suggest the purchase of a fanless 9550 and make the 9600 reference more appropriate. Thanks.
  • doganti - Wednesday, March 16, 2005 - link

    The article reads:
    "AGP Graphics Recommendation:MSI Radeon 9550 128MB DDR 128-bit, 250/400 GPU/RAM clock (bulk/OEM)
    There isn't a whole lot to differentiate the 9550 cards from one another, as they are all fanless.."

    I have Asus A9550 GE - Radeon 9550,128MB DDR,128 Bit and it has a fan (which has turned bad=noisy in a month).
    Thus, also this is not clear: ".... The Radeon 9600 (without the SE) is also a decent alternative that will only cost an extra $15, and with it, you bump the memory bus up to 128-bits."
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, March 16, 2005 - link

    31 - If you can afford the bump to Athlon 64 3000+, the MSI RS480M2-IL would definitely be my pick for a board with IGP. Unfortunately, that adds $75 for the CPU upgrade (relative to the Sempron 2600+), but it also improves performance a decent amount. The ATI Xpress 200 is currently the best (BY FAR!) IGP on the market. It gives you S-VIDEO as well as VGA out. Too bad it doesn't have a DVI port as well. :)

    If that's too much... well, there are a lot of NF2 IGP boards for under $70. The NF2 is probably the better IGP between that and the K8M800 chipset, but the socket 754 CPUs are generally faster. With the price differences between platforms, I'd probably shoot for the Sempron 3000+ on socket A if you go for that platform. (The Barton core is simply the better choice, IMO.) That would compare relatively well with the socket 754 Sempron 2800+ - win some, lose some in benchmarks. I guess it really doesn't matter *too* much if you're not looking for the best performance possible. $150 gets you a decent CPU and mobo for socket A of socket 754, while on socket 939 it only gets you a CPU.
    For the other comments, the PDP isn't great for overclocking, but with a price now at $130 and 2-3-2-5 timings, I'd take the GB of RAM even at stock speeds. If it OCs decently, great. If it doesn't, you should still be fine at stock speeds.

    The Hitachi drives may not have the best RMA process, but let's be honest: if you need to use the RMA on *any* hard drive, you'll be very unhappy. I don't think any of the 7200 drives would fail in most systems if they're the only HDD. Just don't put a bunch of them next to each other without proper cooling. At $60 for an 80GB drive, I would probably make backups and if the HDD failed I'd buy a new drive while I RMA'ed the old one. That's just me, though.

    Finally, the motherboard area is just such a hard one to give *one* recommendation. Even a recommendation and alternative doesn't really do justice to the available parts. There are so many good boards these days that are all within close proximity in terms of price. If I were looking for socket 939 boards, I'd go as follows in terms of chipsets:

    nForce 4 (preferrably not 4X, but any are good)
    ATI Xpress 200 (not many available yet)
    VIA K8T890
    nForce 3 Ultra
    VIA K8T800 Pro
    ALi/ULi/SiS whatever

    I'd go with the top three over the bottom three by a pretty significant margin. K8T800 Pro is now about 9 months old, IIRC. It's still okay, but I wouldn't look to save money by going that route. The nF3 is the same, but it's the better chipset for AGP, IMO. Given the price the K8T800 Pro usually wins out, however.
  • Messudieh - Wednesday, March 16, 2005 - link

    I have the PDP RAM that you mentioned in your review, and I can honestly say that the ability to overclock any one set is sort of a crap shoot it seems. It sounds to me like they use a couple of different types of chips (some being the TCCD chips, while others Infineon) that can all run at the stated 2-3-2-5 speeds, at 2.6 volts in my case.

    I think I got a set of something other than TCCDs, because I can't overclock them past about 210 with ANY timings on a DFI NF4 ultra-D with a watercooled 939 3000 and keep it stable, even at 3.1 or 3.2 volts.

    Like I's a crap shoot; some people get lucky, and others don't. I'm getting this RAM:
    And selling my Patriot to my friend, who doesn't overclock.
  • Jep4444 - Wednesday, March 16, 2005 - link

    oops forgot that the MSI board is 939, either way the Winchester based Athlons are good overclockers anyways
  • BPB - Wednesday, March 16, 2005 - link

    "Semprons K8s are typically very good overclockers so i wouldn't rule out that noones is going to overclock them in a budget machine"

    Do they make socket 939 Semrpons?

    As for me, I went with the MSI ATi based board and am very happy. Put in a 939 3000+, and a Hitachi 80GB SATA II drive. The Hitachi was only $62 at ZipZoonFly. So for a tad more got SATA II (I know, no SATA II controller on this board, but at least the drive has it). The board also has slightly better than average onboard sound, going with the Realtek ALC658C, not the 650 or 655 found in other boards.

    Eventually will put a capture card and mid-level video card. I now have a pretty fast system for the price. Oh, went with the 1GB PDP Patriot memory in the article. No problems to report with anything. Very, very happy with the setup.
  • Jep4444 - Wednesday, March 16, 2005 - link

    "The only downside is that the MSI's uATX board doesn't have any OC capability, but who's looking for that in a budget-minded PC?"

    Semprons K8s are typically very good overclockers so i wouldn't rule out that noones is going to overclock them in a budget machine
  • razor2025 - Wednesday, March 16, 2005 - link

    Why no mention of MSI Neo4-F? It's less than the Chaintech @ $95 shipped at ZZF and it has same PCB as the Neo4 Platinum. That's much better choice over the Chaintech if you're going NF4 route. I also belive that the Xpress200 chipset should've been included as alternative. It's the perfect board for budget PC and it'll allow LOTS of options for upgrades later down the road. The only downside is that the MSI's uATX board doesn't have any OC capability, but who's looking for that in a budget-minded PC?
    If AMD can get a Sempron out for Socket 939 for around $100... then we can have some really nice sub $400-500 PC with lots of options for upgrade.
  • jxtramd - Wednesday, March 16, 2005 - link

    OK I've followed the budget guide now for about 6 months and I'm on the cusp of a decision about building an AMD IGP based system. The choices are either from the Jan 05 guide with the MSI (or other) MB with the nForce2 IGP or the Mar 05 Chaintech (or other) MB with the VIA K8M800 IGP. Both systems with an appropiate Sempron 2600 and 512 memory. Between the two which combo gives the better graphics performance? I'm not interested in gaming. Just a basic system with the ability to capture video and watch DVD's as examples. A IGP system fits my budget - any comments?
  • Jep4444 - Wednesday, March 16, 2005 - link

    A little look on newegg has shown that every 32-bit 6200TC has 16MB of onboard RAM, oddly enough their are NO 32MB 6200TCs on newegg at all(whether 32 or 64-bit)

    also i looked at the review you guys posted on the 6200TC and here's a little bit of info on the 16MB and 32MB parts

    "With NVIDIA talking about bringing the new 32MB 64-bit TurboCache part out at $99 and the 16MB 32-bit part out at $79"

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