Dustin's AMD Pure Budget System
Hardware Component Price
Processor AMD Athlon II X4 640
(Propus 45nm, 3.0GHz, 4x512KB L2, 95W)
Video Integrated ATI Radeon HD 4250 -
Motherboard MSI 880GM-E41 (AMD 880G/SB710 AM3) $75
Memory Corsair 4GB (2x2GB) DDR3-1333 CL9 (CMV4GX3M2A1333C9) $59
Hard Drive Samsung Spinpoint F3 500GB
(HD502HJ 7200RPM 16MB)
Optical Drive LG 22X DVDRW (GH22LS50) $17
Case Cooler Master Elite 360 $40
Power Supply Antec EarthWatts Green EA-380D 380W
(380W 80 Plus Bronze Certified)
Base System Total $375

Over the past summer I wound up building a rash of budget systems for friends and family; over the past year you can chalk a couple more up. I actually have about two more queued up for the holiday season, so suffice it to say I keep a list of go-to parts for my builds that I've been consistently satisfied with. For this build I decided to go for a sort of "optimum budget" machine, and with most selections I'll have a suggestion as to how to reduce the price tag without hurting overall quality. There are some compromises made here—note the lack of a video card—but I'm perfectly happy putting my stamp on this system.

The first big decision is the processor, and I want something that'll last. It's true that Grandma Millie may not need all that power, but I've found that the AMD Athlon II X4 has been my go-to for nearly every budget build since its inception; it's just that good of a deal. The price-performance is undeniable and when you can get a quad core for $99, why would you settle for less? If you need to make a deeper cut for users who aren't going to push the system that hard, I've been remarkably impressed by the AMD Sempron 140. It's a 2.7GHz single core, but of the three I've built, two have unlocked into stable dual-cores—i.e. Athlon II X2—and at $33, it's an absolute steal.

Picking the motherboard turned out to be a bit trickier, but I've found myself consistently satisfied with boards from MSI, Gigabyte, and ASUS. After narrowing the brand down, I want an integrated chipset that's going to pass my "Grandma Test:" is it powerful enough to play Hulu and YouTube HD video? That leaves us with the 785G and 880G chipsets, and since those have hit price parity (actually the 880G is cheaper now!), I opted to go with MSI's 880GM-E41. I'm not too thrilled about the SB710 Southbridge, but the lack of 6Gbps SATA isn't devastating. The ATI Radeon HD 4250 integrated graphics part offers enough horsepower to even play the odd game, but mostly it's there for hardware-accelerated video and Flash (with 10.1), which can make a big difference with Hulu. Unfortunately, this is about as low as I'll go; other cheaper integrated chipsets don't bring that acceleration to the table.

As far as memory goes, I'll be blunt here: I only buy Corsair for my own builds. Jarred recommends an A-DATA set on his build and I've been happy with them; the fundamental deal with RAM is this: it either works or it doesn't. The problem is that when RAM is bad, it can be difficult to figure out. I've used Corsair on nearly every build I've done for friends and family and I've seen a whole one bad stick of it. With 2GB kits only shaving maybe $20 off the cost of the build, it's hard to justify not going the full 4GB. If every penny must be spared, I wouldn't be unhappy with this Kingston 2GB (2x1GB) DDR3-1333 kit at $38; in my experience Kingston is another good, reliable brand.

With hard disk prices the way they are, your bottom rung should really be 500GB of storage; the amount you pay for the capacity you get below $50 just isn't worth it. I've also been consistently happy with Western Digital's Caviar Blue drives, but this would be a good time to bring out a new cult favorite: the Samsung SpinPoint F3 1TB drive is stupid fast, and if you know where to look you can usually get it for about $60. For the budget sector, we opted to go with the 500GB model and save $20.

As far as budget cases go, I've been very happy with the Cooler Master Elite 360 and have used it on a few builds; in fact, I actually have one in my house for my media center PC. The Elite 360 isn't built for big, power-hungry builds, but it's usually cool and quiet enough for even a decent gaming machine provided you opt for a video card that will fit in the enclosure. I've elected to pair it with a 380W Antec EarthWatts Green power supply (don't forget the power cord if you don't have extras!); there's enough room to breathe for an efficient video card like an ATI Radeon HD 5770 down the road (which will fit just fine in the Elite 360), and you never want to cheap out on the power supply if you can avoid it.

The rest is going to be a matter of religion and taste. You can get a decent display with (crappy) built-in speakers for a low price. For the operating system, there's always Ubuntu, or you can usually find a good deal on Windows 7 if you know where to look (student discounts are amazing for this). But the build I've specced out here is something I'd be confident with. I've got comparable parts running in machines at home and in the machines of friends and family, and there's been nary a peep from anyone. That should tell you the real value of speccing out a good system from the get-go and not cutting corners on parts: peace of mind, and peace and quiet.

Holiday 2010 System Builder's Guide Balraj's Intel Budget System


View All Comments

  • raghu1111 - Saturday, November 20, 2010 - link

    Sorry for the repost. I thought my earlier comment didn't make it. Reply
  • sjfischr - Saturday, November 20, 2010 - link

    I think that it's a fantastic setup. To those commenting on the number of drives, let me tell you...as a Ceton owner myself, it's extremely easy to eat up space. I am already eating about 25% of my 4 TB of space thanks to this wonderful card, and I have owned mine for less than four weeks. 1080p HD takes up a good 5.5GB/hr, so let's be certain that many movies approach 12-15 GB apiece. To be sure, I can record up to 4 NFL games at once, and watch them in fast forward (these of course eat up space like crazy). You will need a huge amount of space over time--6TB will be a fine amount of space for now, but think about the fact that as it progresses, the media library will continue to grow.

    My only disagreement is on the case. Why get a $300 tower when the Thermaltake DH101 provides arguably one of the best examples in the $250 range? The DH101 is full ATX, is quiet enough for most tastes, has 4-3.5" bays, is tool-less, and has a built-in LCD display/remote. The LCD display recently had a firmware update, making it very easy-to-read, and it extremely customizable. With a supplied IR remote, this enables anyone (not just iPhone/Android folks) to point at the device and find what they want. I combine this with a Logitech diNovo Mini (it's much sleeker), and I agree that this combination of case, remote, and keyboard rate the highest on the Spousal Approval Factor.
  • just4U - Saturday, November 20, 2010 - link

    With options out there for memory that is in the cas 6-7 range I am not quite sure I understand why those of you building the more expensive systems are not considering them..

    It doesn't make sense. Please explain.
  • just4U - Saturday, November 20, 2010 - link

    A prime example comes from this link (the cas 6 lineup at Newegg)


    For me it's at the point where I don't care if it it goes higher I want those latancies to come down so ... C9 is great for a budget system but higher end?
  • JarredWalton - Sunday, November 21, 2010 - link

    My personal experience with high-end RAM over the years has been less than ideal. Notice how all the CL6 RAM requires 1.6 to 1.65V, and compatibility with motherboards is less certain. A good mobo should work with it, and it would be faster than CL9 or CL8 memory, but it's not going to be such a huge difference that I'm personally ready to recommend spending $30 more on it. Besides, many of the DDR3 kits can do better timing with a bit of added voltage (just like the CL6 kits). If you want better RAM, by all means go for it, but I'm not promising it will always work. Reply
  • iMav - Sunday, November 21, 2010 - link

    Another recommendation for Unicomp. Their keyboards ARE the modern-day Model M's. Not Model M-like, they are honest to goodness Model M keyboards.

    Definitely check out geekhack.org for more information you'd ever care to know about regarding mechanical keyboards.
  • jonup - Sunday, November 21, 2010 - link

    I can't agree more with Anand's mobo/CPU recommendation. I am personally waiting for Sandy for my next build. Meanwhile, I picked up this yesterday: http://www.newegg.com/Product/ComboDealDetails.asp... . For an extra $4 I got P2X4 940 and a similarly/slightly better spec'ed 785G mobo. I think that the extra core and 6MB of cash are worth the for buck. The trade off is that I am stuck with DDR2 but it is not an issue for me since I have 4GB in the system I am putting it in.
    All in all, stick with Anand's choice of picking up a cheap CPU/mobo and wait till January/February of next year. I would even extend this recommendation to the choice of SSD. With many new and exciting SSDs coming out soon after the holidays and the lower production costs of the 28nm manufacturing we should expect higher performance/capacity and lower prices once the next generations start popping up. Maybe 60GB for $100-130 or 80-90GB for <$150 would be a smarter investment.
  • ivaxona - Sunday, November 21, 2010 - link

    I've already placed the orders, most of the components arrived.

    Pjenom II X4 955 - bought second hand
    Gigabyte 880GM-UD2H
    Corsair xms3 2x2GB 1600MHZ
    Seagate 500GB and dvd-rw from my old PC
    Antec p180 mini
    Seasonic M12II 430W

    I will buy a 6850 as soon as i have the money, until then the onboard 4250 has to keep me covered. A Corsair force 60 gb on the long run and better cpu cooler. Maybe i'll wait for a new revision of coolermaster Hyper 212 after the new amd socket arrives :)
  • GullLars - Sunday, November 21, 2010 - link

    I have a couple of points i want to make in critique of this so called "dream PC".
    First off, while the RevoDrive x2 is a great single part that will not be a bottleneck in any normal system, this is not a normal system, and if you clock the CPUs a bit, it can still be a major bottleneck for bandwidth of incompressible data (like media, compressed or encrypted files).
    RAID-5 off ICH10R with 4x 1,5TB HDDs isn't dreamy either (4R5).

    Since this is a $8K+ "dream system", i feel it warrants a real hardware RAID controller, like the Areca 1880 with a 4GB stick of RAM. This controller supports 6Gbps SATA/SAS and plays nice with SSDs, and comes with 8-24 ports with good support of expanders, should they be needed. You can also hit 2GB/s bandwidth and >100K random IOPS.
    I'd suggest 8R6 Hitachi/Seagate Green 2TB drives + 4-8R0 Crucial C300 from the 12 or 16 port versions. The capacity of the SSDs dedicated by the budget, 8R0 of lower capacity taking priority over 4R0 of higher capacity. OFC with an image of the SSD RAID kept on the HDD RAID, and daily backups of userdata kept on the SSDs.

    I'd also list water cooling as an alternative, especially since 2x 580 in SLI would benefit from being watercooled.
  • eBob - Sunday, November 21, 2010 - link

    I was wondering if there are any companies that provide remote control hardware for HTPCs other than Soundgraph/iMon. My current HTPC case has this solution pre-installed and it has been a huge headache. Basically, I am unable to turn power on from the remote after turning power off. If I turn off power at the power supply and turn it back on the remote works, but only once. I am running a Linux OS on this box and apparently Soundgraph is unable or unwilling to support such a setup and their customer support is useless. Reply

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