Office CPU and Motherboard Recommendations

We've wavered back and forth between choosing integrated graphics vs. discrete graphics for the budget systems. Outside of gaming, though, there isn't really a need for even a low-end graphics card. The woefully inadequate - at least for games - Intel Extreme Graphics 2 in the 865G chipset is still perfectly good for office work. Newer options like the 915G's GMA900 and the 945G's GMA950 are quite a bit faster than the 865G, but they're still slower than almost any add-in card. We also have IGP options from both NVIDIA and ATI now, rounding out the possibilities.

What about Windows Vista, right? If Vista ships and you find that your IGP can't meet the demands, the solution is simple: buy a graphics card at that point in time. The $50 budget cards of late 2006 will be far more powerful than the $50 cards that are currently available. The only thing that you need to do is to make sure that your motherboard has an add-in graphics port, preferably PCIe X16. Our recommendations will meet that requirement. We'll start with the AMD choices.

Click images to enlarge.

AMD Office Motherboard: Biostar GeForce 6100-M7
Price: $66 shipped
AMD Office CPU: Sempron 64 (754) 2600+ - 128KB, 1.60 GHz Palermo
Price: $63 shipped (Retail)
Total: $129

We covered the launch of the NVIDIA 6100 chipset recently, and we've even done a follow-up with some BIOS updates for the ATI board. The end result is that performance is relatively close between the two contenders, so the purchase decision really depends on price. Biostar makes the only currently shipping 6100 board, while there are a few shipping Xpress 200 boards. However, only one socket 754 Xpress 200 board is available, and since we'd just as soon not spend an extra $50 on the processor, our choice is narrowed to the MSI RS480M-IL 754 or the Biostar GeForce 6100-M7. $91 vs. $65 makes the decision a no-brainer.

Athlon 64 for socket 754 represents a much faster solution, but it carries a higher cost as well. We took a look at all the shipping socket 754 processors that include 64-bit support - why get a regular Sempron when the 64-bit enabled versions typically cost less than a dollar more, right? The Sempron 2500+ starts at $63, as does the 2600+. Do you want 1.40 GHz with 256K of cache or 1.60 GHz with 128K of cache? Or do you spend the extra $11 to get both with the Sempron 2800+? Perhaps another $10 to drop back to 128K cache, but increase the CPU speed to 1.80 GHz, courtesy of the 3000+, would be best? Beyond the 3000+, prices jump $20 for the 3100+. OEM versions are $10 cheaper, but since a heat sink and fan will cost that much, there's little reason to pick up such a chip. (OEM chips from AMD are going to disappear soon, if that concerns you.) If your budget is really tight, though, the Sempron 2600+ packs the most bang for the buck.

We're going to downgrade performance as well as lower the price relative to the last Budget Guide, and save the slightly faster picks for the gaming configurations. Compared to our mid-range picks from last month, you're getting the CPU as well as the motherboard for less than the cost of just the CPU. Sure, it's a slower system overall, but it's still plenty fast for most computer needs. If you're doing something that requires more processing power, we're doubtful that you'd even consider a budget system.

If you really want a faster CPU, Athlon 64 chips are a good buy, but we'd suggest moving to socket 939 if you can manage to spend the extra money. Overclockers looking for bang-for-the-buck could try out the Turion chips, but at current prices, you would be far better off with socket 939 and Venice cores. Sempron Palermo parts like the 3000+ and 3100+ work pretty well at speeds up to 2.5 GHz, but the reduced cache of the 3100+ will just about equal a 2.2 GHz 512K Athlon 64. For overclocking on the cheap, you can save around $100 relative to a non-overclocked 939 system. (Did we just use "cheap" and "overclocking" in the same sentence? Yeah, it's probably asking for too much - move along, nothing to see here...)

Click images to enlarge.

Intel Office Motherboard: ASUS P5RD1-V
Price: $91 shipped
Intel Office CPU: Celeron D 331 - 256KB, 2.66 GHz Prescott
Price: $79 shipped (Retail)
Total: $170

Intel platform motherboards are almost always more expensive, and that's the case here. There is as yet no NVIDIA competitor for socket 775, so our IGP choices are limited to ATI's Xpress 200 or Intel's 915G and 945G. The 915G and Xpress 200 both lack support for Pentium D chips, but the likelihood of upgrading to such a processor during the life of the computer is small. 945G costs about $10 more than 915G - you'll want to avoid the GL and GV versions of the chipsets if you want dual-channel RAM support. Since 915G is at EOL (End of Life), we narrowed the final choice down to the 945G and Xpress 200, and opted to go with the latter for the improved IGP. If you really don't care about graphics performance at all, the 945G has slightly better overall performance. In either case, you can always add a faster discrete card in the future.

There are at present two Xpress 200 socket 775 boards on the market. One is from ECS and the other is from ASUS, and while the ECS board is $20 cheaper, it also comes with two DDR and two DDR2 slots. DDR2 is no more expensive than DDR these days, but since you can't use both in the ECS board, you end up with two usable DIMM slots. Even for a budget system, we would much rather have the potential to add more RAM, so we went for the ASUS with its four DDR slots. The word on the street is that, unlike the early AMD Xpress 200 boards, the ASUS board for socket 775 can actually overclock decently. Most budget shoppers probably won't care one way or the other, of course.

The CPU prices on Intel bottom out around $75, where AMD CPUs can go for as little as $60. We looked at all the Intel processors and found that the best choice was the Celeron D 331. The 331 is a newer version of the 330 chip with enabled EM64T support. Budget computing and 64-bit power seems a bit of a mismatch right now, but if you plan on keeping the computer for three or four years, 64-bit support might become important. Performance, as with the Sempron selection, should be adequate for most business and home user tasks. Even light gaming will work well, provided the IGP is sufficient - integrated graphics will be the bottleneck for just about any game anyway.

Index Gaming CPU and Motherboard Recommendations
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  • artifex - Thursday, October 27, 2005 - link

    I helped my mom get a $300 eMachines desktop at Office Depot (after rebates) earlier today. It's got a Sempron 3100+, 256MB Ram, "Unichrome" shared 64M graphics but free AGP slot, 100GB hard drive, DVDRom/CD burner, a 17 inch (16 inch viewable) CRT and some Canon Pixma printer, all in the bundle. And of course, a legit copy of Win XP, home version. I'm not supporting teaching her or my dad how to use Linux, not when this cheaper machine has XP for "free."

    To me, this is entry level for office or home use. Not a gaming machine, but something the average adult person can use to solve productivity needs, do word processing, etc. If she wants to, she can upgrade it to 2GB RAM later, drop in an AGP video card, buy a DVD burner, etc. I don't expect her to do anything except maybe get me to upgrade it over time to 1GB RAM and maybe a DVD burner. After Christmas, that'll be maybe $100 extra, tops. And after all, this is a $300 machine. By the time she really needs much more, in a few years, she'll be able to buy the next OEM deal for $300-400 or whatever, and this will be a secondary machine for my dad, or yet another file/media server for me, or something. Oh, and she'll have another new monitor and printer, too. Does she need PCI-E now? No. She will get more value from buying a new system 3 or 4 years from now than you will get from spending $300-400 to upgrade yours with a faster processor, mobo, and memory.

    Oh, don't forget, the OEM, eMachines in this case, gets to pay to replace stuff for the next year. If I buy entry level parts from mail order or Fry's, I'll have a heck of a time getting someone to replace most of it after 90 days, without lots of mailing of parts at my time and expense. She is taking some of the money she saves to buy another hard drive to back up to, so there is hope she's not totally screwed even if the hard drive dies one day after the expiration, if she and my dad remember to back their junk up. (I have had a few Hitachis and Maxtors throw errors 13 months in, so I assume it will happen. The backup will be a Seagate, of course)

    So anyway, all this rambling hopefully suggests that OEM machines can be a better deal than you think.
  • JarredWalton - Friday, October 28, 2005 - link

    OEM systems aren't terrible, but they are lowest common denominator. I would hate to use a 256MB RAM system these days. Rebates are also something of an issue, as it can take months to get the larger rebates back, and often they'll make you jump through additional hoops - all in an effort to get you to forget (or miss the deadline for) the rebate. But yeah, a $400 PC will work well enough for many people.

    I have to say that personally, I don't touch such systems. If someone calls with a Compaq, Dell, HP, etc. $500 "special" and says they're having problems, I tell them that I don't work on such PCs. The reason for my stance is that people who purchase such cheap systems don't care about quality, they just want cheap. You "fix" a system like that for someone, and they'll come back to you next time a part breaks and lay the blame at your feet.

    My philosophy is that getting someone to understand more about the computer hardware and buy a better product will result - long term - in a person that is happier with their computer and hopefully more knowledgeable. It's my pipe dream, I know. :)
  • Evan Lieb - Monday, October 17, 2005 - link

    Just thought I'd pop in and say great guide Jarred. Hard to disagree with any of those components save for the speaker system, which will be overkill for a lot of home/home office users. Otherwise a superb guide. You're doing them better than I did. ;)
  • JarredWalton - Monday, October 17, 2005 - link

    Thanks Evan!

    Good to hear from you - where you at anyway? :p

    Anyway, I like to think that anyone who doesn't want speakers will know that. It's very easy to not include them, and I also mentioned the option of free Logitech speakers with keyboard purchase. I know my office PC has some garbage $10 speakers that get the job done, and I use cheap headphones if I want "quality" (or to isolate myself).
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, October 15, 2005 - link

    Another reader email, which mentioned something I wasn't aware of. Here it is:
    Congratulations on what I found to be a very good guide - I'm sure anyone in the market for a budget PC would find it to be extremely useful.

    I have just one suggested addition - my understand is that in the Sempron 64 range, the 3000+ model is the lowest one to support the Cool 'n' Quiet feature. Given that this Cool 'n' Quiet doesn't work if the CPU is overclocked, this isn't of any use for an overlocked gaming rig but may be important for those who are building a Media PC or simply would like a quiet PC.

    Thank you for your consistently high quality articles and guides!
    I hadn't heard about Cool and Quiet not being on the lower end Semprons, though it would make sense. Once you're running the 90nm SOI chips at 1.6 GHz, they only consume about 25 to 30W I'd guess. Total power draw at 1.80 GHz for the 3100+ (whole system) is about 140W, but that's in a 3D intensive application with an X800 Pro GPU. The GPU looks to be using somewhere around 50 or 60W, so without the GPU you'd be well under 100W.

    I guess some people would like to have added power savings, but really we're talking about $20 per year for cutting power draw by 30W, and that's running 24/7. :)

    Jarred Walton
    SFF and Guide Editor
  • JarredWalton - Friday, October 14, 2005 - link

    I received the following email from a reader, and thought some of you might find it useful, along with my response:
    Am in the market for a low end PC so found your">latest review very

    Am wondering if you happened to note the capacitor mfrs on the mainboards
    you tested.

    Am asking because of cap problems">with even "Good Mfrs".

    FYI">this is the most complete listing I have found so far concerning "Bad
    Hi [reader],

    No, I didn't look for capacitor brands - in fact, I don't have most of the parts listed in this article. It's a Buyer's Guide based off of what's on the market and prices, and performance results are not included for a reason. We have tested many of these components individually, but the parts are likely scattered across the AnandTech staff.

    As far as leaking capacitors, the majority of cases occurred back in the Athlon XP/P4 and earlier days. I had at least two Pentium 3 and one Athlon XP board fail due to leaking capacitors. (The last was 18 months ago, and the first was over three years ago.) A few of those boards are still out there and are only now failing, but I haven't encountered problems with any of the Athlon 64 of socket 775 boards. Gigabyte, DFI, Biostar and ASUS should be relatively safe choices. If the board were to fail within 3 years, I believe all four companies provide at least a 3 year manufacturer warranty. (Someone else may have specific details, though.)

    Jarred Walton
    SFF and Guide Editor
  • mino - Friday, October 14, 2005 - link

    I'l definetely stick to 2500+/2800+ fo OC setup.

    256k IS really usefull, and I know, the benchmarks say othewise. But try doing some multitasking or any really new software titles-the newer the SW, the bigger the cachesize it is generally optimised for...
    Also low multiplier is no issue if You stick to nf4 infinity where 350MHz+ base speeds are standard.

    Other than that quality of Your BG's climbing steadily with time.

    Keep it this way and there may soon be no place to improve:)
    just kidin'...

    BTW Jared:
    what about to do a an multitasking test of the budget CPU's ? AT did las budget CPU test in april and roundup a bit before. Roundup of possible options that appeared snce (higher grade Semprons&Celerons + 2500+).

    I will list the CPU that will be nice to have tested:

    s754: 2500+,2600+,2800+(the budget trio) & some higher Sempron grades
    s939: 3000+Sempron, 3000+A64 & 3700+SanDiego,3800+X2 for comparison

    s478: 310
    s775: 331,351 Cellys & 506,521,630 P4's & 820 PD

    as a GPU try something in the 6600/X700/X1300 range

    also an 2500+@2.1GHz and 310@3.2GHz to show what budget OC could bring one
    It will also show what 800FSB would give to 351 cellys and what difference 1MB cache makes.
    I believe the 3.2/256/533 vs. 3.2/256/800 vs. 3.2/1M/800 could be very interesting and also pretty unique.

    You should also mention that s478 Cellys start at $60 since there are sold big numbers o those and some good boards are available for 478 at bargain prices.

    Power consumption test should be also present since at these prices the power consumption make huge part of the TCO.
  • mino - Friday, October 14, 2005 - link

    Reduced test suite would be perfectly OK here also.

    We all know it takes _much_ time to test all those configs, but at least for Semprons You would need just one 128k&one256k chip setup thanks to lower multis option :)
  • JarredWalton - Friday, October 14, 2005 - link

    I'm actually trying to get an overclocking article put together using a Sempron 3100+ base. Maybe I should buy a 3000+ as well, to cover the 128K variant? Hmmm... about 100 more hours of benchmarks if I add the 128K, unfortunately. :( We'll see what I can manage. It might be more than a month before I can get it all finished up.
  • mino - Sunday, October 16, 2005 - link

    Huh, 100+ hrs is huge..

    even so I believe that some comparison of 128k/256k 754 + 512k/1M 939 at points like:

    1.6G, 2.0G, 2.4G would be really nice and pretty sufficient to show many trends.

    The Celly 310@3.2G I was asking for is just to be able to see what 1M L2 and 1ML2+HT means for Prescott. Everything other being equal.

    Anyway, keep on track.

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