Buyer's Guide - Entry Level to Mid-Range, March 2005by Jarred Walton on March 15, 2005 1:30 PM EST
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IntroductionWe 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!
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LoneWolf15 - Wednesday, March 16, 2005 - linkNote on the Hitachi hard disk drives:
Hitachi is the ONLY major company that does not allow advance-exchange RMA of their hard disks. To me, this is huge when looking at a hard disk. Western Digital, Seagate, and Maxtor all have advanced exchange. After the nightmares I have had with IBM and Hitachi technical support, I could not in all honesty recommend them in a system. Personally, I can't afford that kind of downtime, having an advance replacement makes it easier to try and recover data from a crashed drive if necessary, and you aren't waiting in limbo while someone receives your defective drive, checks it in, diagnoses it bad, then sends you out a replacement, also placing you at the mercy of their stock-on-hand or whomever they choose to ship to you the replacement drive.
neologan - Wednesday, March 16, 2005 - linkThere's another buyers guide at http://www.pureoverclock.com/review.php?id=9 but it doesn't choose its recommedations due to a really strict budget. Worth a read though i guess.
JarredWalton - Wednesday, March 16, 2005 - link26 - Thanks. Identity crisis indeed! I was originally looking at upgraded S754 instead of S939, but decided against it. :)
As a side note, RAM prices have suddenly taken a massive cut. The PDP 2-3-2-5 is now $20 less than last week, and it's about $50 less than a couple months ago. Heck, you can even get 1GB (2x512) of Corsair CL2.5 for under $100 now - again, $50 less than last Guide!
chrisd154 - Wednesday, March 16, 2005 - link"Socket 754 Alternative Motherboard: Chaintech VNF4 Socket 939"
"Socket 754 CPU: AMD Athlon 64 1.8 GHz 512KB L2 90nm socket 939"
Your socket 754 motherboard and cpu are having a bit of an identity crisis (i.e theyre 939). You might want to correct that mate.
JarredWalton - Wednesday, March 16, 2005 - link24 - you want benchmarks of the speakers? Sorry, that's *way* beyond the scope of this Guide. Speakers costing $60 or less aren't being purchased primarily for their quality; they're being selected for price.
If you mean benchmarks in general, that's something that would be great to have but not practical to do. Our various hardware reviews are meant to address the theory of what makes a good component/computer. For many of the parts in a budget system, price is a bigger factor than the final performance or quality. Sure, we'd like to have both, but the truth is you're not going to get SLI in a budget system. We do not have all of the parts available in one location for testing, and some of the parts may not even be in AnandTech's possession [anymore]. This is especially true of entry-level Guides, as many of the parts were new a year or more in the past
If you'd like specific information or you have a specific question, feel free to email me.
crimson117 - Wednesday, March 16, 2005 - linkI'd appreciate if you could add some benchmarks to compare "beeps and boops" quality. This guide is pretty much worthless without them.
JarredWalton - Wednesday, March 16, 2005 - linkThe MSI uATX is the only ATI Xpress 200 board currently available, and it's basically the same price as the Chaintech. Given that it's still pretty new, I'm a little hesitant to go with that over the "proven" nF4. Oh, and there are *no* overclocking options on the MSI board right now. Is that a BIOS problem or a chipset problem? I don't know. If you really like ATI or if you want a uATX form factor, it's definitely an option.
kmmatney - Tuesday, March 15, 2005 - linkI'd consider the MSI ATI Radeon XPRESS 200 motherboard board for a budget system as well. From reviews I've read, using the on-board video doesn't seem to degrade overall 2D performance.
Pair it with an Athlon 64 3000+ winchester for $235. A decent system for the non or light gamer, and you have the option of upgrading the video later. Too bad there aren't any budget 939 cpus.
JarredWalton - Tuesday, March 15, 2005 - linkI haven't had issues with the Chaintech, but that's only one person's experience with a specific RAM/GPU setup. The documentation is pretty lacking, but other than that it works well. Are you speaking from personal experience, and if so, what was the exact configuration (RAM, CPU, PSU, etc.)? It works well in the following configuration, although I had to manually set the RAM timings:
Chaintech nForce4 VNF4
ATI X800 XL 256MB PCIe
1GB (2x512) Corsair DDR400 CAS2.5
Antec True430 PSU
NEC ND-3520A DVD±RW
WD 200GB SATA
SB Audigy 2 ZS
As for the DVD+RW, why save $20 when there won't be anything faster than a 16X burner, and the ability to backup 4.5GB of data rather than 700MB can come in handy? (And if that sounds like too much data, consider that a lot of people take digital pictures these days. A few hundred high quality images will fill a CD.) I mentioned the possibility to downgrade the optical drive, but I'm not going to recommend it.
mostlyprudent - Tuesday, March 15, 2005 - linkAre you serious ... recommending a motherboard with compatability and stability problems just to save $10? And why put a DVD-RW drive in a budget system? Optical drives are quite simple to upgrade down the road. You would have to be crazy to skimp on the quality of the motherboard to fit in an upgraded optical drive. You can get a DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive for about $20 less than the NEC drive you suggest. I would take that $20 dollars and invest it in a stable/reliable motherboard -- there is nothing worse than a finiky mobo as far as I'm concerned.