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 - Tuesday, March 15, 2005 - link

    17 - The older Maxtor are like the older WD: they use standard bearings and are prone to develop a whine (in my experience). If you can verify that the drive has fluid dynamic bearings, you could get Maxtor as well. I haven't had great experiences with the Maxtor drives, although I've heard the latest models are better.
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, March 15, 2005 - link

    15 - Sorry, I meant "9550" but typed "5500". The article lists the correct card, though. :o Most of the FX cards aren't worth consideration.

    As for the 6200TC, there are actually 3 versions, all of which were tested in the AnandTech article. There is a 16MB 16-bit card (one RAM chip), a 32MB 32-bit card (two RAM chips), and a 64MB 64-bit card (four RAM chips). The 32MB cards are not a 64-bit interface as far as I am aware. Many companies are causing confusion on the TC cards as they'll count the PCIe connection as bandwidth in order to make the features look better. Even if the RAM were 700 MHz instead of 550 MHz, you're looking at 2800 MBps on-card bandwidth for the 32-bit version vs. 4400 MBps on the 64-bit version. In theory, the PCIe connection will add an additional 2000 MBps (roughly - 2000 up and 2000 down) , but some of the RAM bandwidth is going to the CPU.

    16 - I'd take the guaranteed 6600 for $7 more over the 6200. The 6200 also lacks support for certain memory compression schemes as I understand it.
  • Klober - Tuesday, March 15, 2005 - link

    I know this is a minor point, but I'm curious as to why Maxtor isn't mentioned in the price guide for hard drives. Is there something I don't know about them concerning speed, noise or reliability?
  • filterxg - Tuesday, March 15, 2005 - link

    To most people I'd continue to recommend a 6200 over a 6600 vanilla. Rivatuner unlocks the 4 pipelines (softmod), so it becomes an indentical card.
  • Jep4444 - Tuesday, March 15, 2005 - link

    "Oh, as far as the budget PCIe card recommendation going to the 64MB 6200TC, please read the benchmarks in our 6200TC article before saying that the 32MB/32-bit version is better (due to memory speeds)."

    you seem to be confusing cards, i'm talking about the 32MB/64bit part thats clocked at 700mhz(as opposed to 550mhz of the 64MB one)
    you're thinking of the 16MB version thats 32bit

    PS who said to use the 5500? he mentioned the 9550 which is faster than the 5500
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, March 15, 2005 - link

    13 - Regarding refurb, that's something for the individual to decide. Warranty and availability are limited, so we don't recommend them in Guides. I still don't know about the Chaintech, as I can't find concrete information on specs for the Ultra vs. standard. According to Chaintech, it's the standard nF4 vs. the Ultra, which means the only thing that gets lost is SATA-2 support and a few network "enhancements". They're the same chipset with different resistors cut.
  • Fricardo - Tuesday, March 15, 2005 - link

    Same as those above, I'd say go with a 6600 non-gt for the upgraded setup. If you're actually going to upgrade the vid-card -- indicating you care somewhat about gaming -- you might as well do it right and spend the extra $7.

    Is it worth the $10 savings to go from the Ultra mobo to the vanilla? I don't know but I've heard that chipset wasn't made to OC well. Seems like you'd get a bit more value and $99 is still a great price for a mobo. I'm just wondering.

    Another possibility for reducing cost is refurbed parts. I've been looking through NewEgg's refurb video section lately and there's tons of great cards for cheap. PCI-Express too. It seems to me you can really raise value that way.
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, March 15, 2005 - link

    Oh, as far as the budget PCIe card recommendation going to the 64MB 6200TC, please read the benchmarks in our 6200TC article before saying that the 32MB/32-bit version is better (due to memory speeds). The bump from 32-bit to 64-bit more than makes up for the slower RAM (if it is indeed slower). The 64MB 6200TC also beats the X300 in *every* test, so there's no reason to go with the X300 card unless you insist on ATI.

    I'm actually not fully convinced the "TurboCache" architecture really works all that well. Looking at the various cards, the performance scales almost directly with local memory bandwidth. But that's a topic for another day.
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, March 15, 2005 - link

    Oops... some bad picks on the GPUs this time. I keep forgetting the 5500. I have updated the GPU page with new picks, and will shortly update the summaries. I guess after seeing 6600 AGP prices I forgot that the PCIe cards were substantially less. Sorry.

    I also corrected the VNF4 to omit the Ultra. I can't tell if the Ultra includes Firewire support or not. Newegg, at least, is using the same images for both models. I think that's what threw me off in the first place.
  • rivethead - Tuesday, March 15, 2005 - link

    Sorry about my post #7. I just re-read it and I wasn't very clear.

    What I was trying to say is that I think you're wanting to recommend the Chaintech VNF4 mother board (currently $89 shipped from newegg). This board is different than the Chaintech VNF4/Ultra which is about $100 shipped. For the extra $11, you get a motherboard powered by the nvidia nForce 4 Ultra chip which includes onboard firewall, SATA2 support, and nvidia nTune performance software.

    For me, I think the extra $11 is worth the features.

    I beleive you'll need to either change the price or alter the narrative to be clearer on your board selection.

    But if you really can find the Chaintech VNF4/Ultra for $89 please let me know where!

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