The majority of my part-time, independent computer building work is spent assembling budget and midrange systems. Budget systems represent an interesting challenge in wringing as much performance as possible out of a limited amount of money. Midrange systems are, to me, more fun because of the flexibility that a larger budget offers—it's easier to tailor a rig to each buyer's particular needs. It's also great building midrange rigs because the prices on hardware are generally lower than ever, the hardware itself is absolutely more capable than ever, and software development has, at least for generalized daily use, not kept pace with hardware development. These factors all culminate in an opinion I find particularly exciting: I think it is reasonable to expect today's midrange, $1000 or so desktop PC to be more than adequate for the average user for the next five years.

Five years ago we witnessed the arrival of Intel's Conroe CPU architecture, which wrested the performance crown from AMD's Athlon 64 X2 CPUs. While the Conroe chips (and to a lesser extent, the original AMD dual-cores) are still serviceable, using them for more than basic tasks on a modern OS (read: Windows 7) with the common at the time 2GB DDR2 configuration is not an entirely painless computing experience--though a simple and inexpensive upgrade to 4GB RAM will do wonders. Even more so than the midrange PCs of 2006, I am confident that the systems outlined in this guide will remain capable of delivering an enjoyable computing experience to the average computer user until the end of 2016.

Windows 7 is clearly another "decade OS" like Windows XP was. Mainstream monitor resolutions have likely topped out at 1080p for the foreseeable future, and I simply don't see 3D monitors ever catching on at the mainstream level. Microsoft Office 2010 is no more demanding hardware-wise than Office 2007 was, and it's unlikely Office 2013 will be substantially different in this regard. As for the web, the explosion of mobile devices means content owners will either need to increase the separation of their mobile sites, or slow down the advance of what they're currently giving visitors. While increasingly powerful mobile processors mean the web's more demanding content (like Flash) will inevitably proliferate, right now, and for the near-term future, the limitations of mobile hardware will likely inhibit the web from becoming much more demanding of hardware than it is now. Further, development of graphics card technology has slowed down over the last few years and shows no signs of speeding up again anytime soon—though this may very well change with the launch of next-generation video game consoles.

Thus, right now is a good time to be in the market for a midrange DIY PC. On the Intel side of the chip, Sandy Bridge's immediate successor, Sandy Bridge E, is priced well above the midrange market segment. Ivy Bridge will likely be available for midrange buyers, though its performance increases over current Sandy Bridge CPUs represent a 'tick' in Intel's development scheme—better power consumption and higher frequencies, but likely not dramatic performance improvement. Graphics will be a healthier upgrade on IVB, but even a moderate discrete GPU will be much faster, not to mention Ivy Bridge is still almost half a year away. On the AMD side of the chip, to be candid, unless Bulldozer improves substantially with upcoming revisions and/or more capable Llano APUs are released, we don't expect AMD to bring anything particularly exciting to the midrange desktop processor segment for a while, either. Trinity is currently scheduled for Q2'2012, putting it in the same time frame as Ivy Bridge.

Over the next three pages we'll cover an $800 AMD Llano APU system aimed at casual gamers and general computer users, a $1000 Intel Core i5-2500K rig designed for enthusiast gamers who also use their PCs more intensively, and a $1200 Intel Core i7-2600K box geared towards folks who use their systems for computationally demanding tasks.

$800 AMD Llano A8-3850 System
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  • Will Robinson - Tuesday, December 6, 2011 - link

    I agree a good SSD makes a big difference to the feel and function of the rig.
    I recently installed a Patriot Wildfire SSD 120GB running Win 7 64-bit and it is impressive.
    Great bang for the buck.
  • demonbug - Tuesday, December 6, 2011 - link

    Definitely agree, my 64 GB SSD has made a world of difference. It provides plenty of space for OS and applications; games go on my spinning drive.

    It can be a pain to manage manually, though, as even if you tell Windows to put all your documents etc. on the HDD there are a lot of programs that will ignore this and automatically put things on your SSD (they seem to assume that your document folders are in the standard location and don't bother checking or asking where you want to put user data). This is probably where the Z68 method of using the SSD as a cache drive would be really nice (I put my system together about a year before Z68 came out), just to save you the trouble of managing things by hand when software companies are idiots (biggest issue I ran into was actually Amazon's downloader - not only does it prevent you from selecting a download location, once it downloads it also unpacks without asking you where to put it; when the program you are downloading is 10 GB [BF3], meaning you actually need 20 GB+ free on a 64 GB SSD, this is an issue).
  • stanwood - Tuesday, December 6, 2011 - link

    Some of the geeks who read your site don't game. But we do use our computers for work. So I really appreciate the high-end "worker" build.

    One question. My current setup chokes in RAW image processing in Adobe Lightroom 3. Is HT in the 2600K likely to help here? (does LR3 make good use of multi-threading?)
  • Z Throckmorton - Tuesday, December 6, 2011 - link

    Hi Stanwood - I do a bit of image processing in Lightroom 3, and when rendering previews, LR3 pegs all eight 'cores' of my i7-2600K. So it is worth considering springing the extra $100 on the 2600K vs the 2500K. If nothing else, you can always buy both chips, compare them, and then sell the chip you don't end up keeping. The 2500K and 2600K hold their values very well and you'd likely only end up losing out $20-30.
  • LeftSide - Tuesday, December 6, 2011 - link

    Stanwood, it would help to know what your current hardware is. My old system would stutter while editing, viewing, and processing raw images. It was a q6600 with 4gb of ram.
    My new system is a an 2500k with 8gb of ram, and it runs smooth. I think the ram was my biggest bottle neck, although I now edit my RAWs on a separate hard drive that has no programs installed on it. I can see how you could choke down a system if windows, lightroom, and the raw files are all on the same HD.
  • stanwood - Tuesday, December 6, 2011 - link

    Thanks for the response Zach! I will go with the 2600K.

    LeftSide, currently I have no desktop system. Only a T61 notebook that I dock into a nice big Dell UltraSharp 2408WFP display. The Thinkpad runs Win7pro 64 on a C2D T9300 @ 2.5GHz with 4GB ram and an NVidia Quadro NVS 140M with 128MB . I run LR3 in 64-bit.

    For most work this system has been great. And of course I can move easily to the couch. But once I started to take pictures in RAW and process them I noticed the limitations. It works (choke was really an exageration) but life is a bit slow. Also ripping DVDs to put onto my HDD for travel takes a while.

    My work issued laptop is a newer T410 but has a comparable processor. And it can really slow down when I have lots of PPT and XLS files open, plus running Emacs, Exceed, Lotus Notes and Lotus Sametime. For work my system seems to be CPU and RAM limited.

    So I'm thinking to build myself a more powerful desktop system and use it for work, photo processing, and ripping DVDs. A SB system on Z68 with HD3000 graphics seems like a good start. I can spend my money on CPU cores, RAM, and an SSD. And I get access to Quicksync. I don't game but I may later try out a retail dGPU and see it it helps. If not I'd return it.

    I can always couch surf on my T61 and there's an excuse to start eyeing tablets . . .
  • Achilles97 - Tuesday, December 6, 2011 - link

    Is it really worth spending $140 on a case in a $1000 build? That's 14%. What about a $60 Antec 300 Illusion?
  • tsnorquist - Tuesday, December 6, 2011 - link

    I'm with you. Get a cheaper case and invest in a video card.
  • erple2 - Tuesday, December 6, 2011 - link

    Normally, I'd agree with you. However, that $140 case will last you as long as you want it to, probably through several "builds". And that's where the niceness of the $140 case comes into play.

    If you plan on throwing everything out on the next "upgrade", then case prices don't really matter all that much. But I can tell you that I've enjoyed working on my Antec P182 case for the past 3 builds I've made for it. It's more than paid for its $140 price tag IMO.

    Had I only made a single build, and trashed it for the next one, I'd agree with you. So, if you intend to reuse as much as you can for the "next" build (which, by the wording in the article seems to be "2016"), maybe that doesn't matter that much. But then again, saving 80 dollars over 7 years is only about 12 dollars per year. Is that worth it? Particularly if the cheaper cases are more difficult to live with? I dunno.
  • DanNeely - Tuesday, December 6, 2011 - link

    Depends how often you upgrade your systems. Cases from 5 years ago often won't hold modern full length GFX cards, are generally lacking in PSU mounts with external intake, won't have behind the board cable management, and will have obsolete front panel connectors. I don't know what to expect over the next 5 years; but I do assume our current state of the art cases will be found lacking in multiple must have feeatures for a good enclosure.

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