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

  • SteelCity1981 - Friday, November 19, 2010 - link

    I honestly don't care if I have the latest tech. the way I look at it new tech comes out every 6 months to a year anyhow. I get tech that suits my needs not what's out there. I'm one of those people that wait until the current tech gets replaced by the latest tech which ends up pushing the last gen tech down in price.

    I'll prob be looking at a first gen AM3 system or a LGA 1156 system early next year to replace my aging S939 system I currently have now. By then a lot of the processors and sockets for those systems should see a nice price drop from where they are now.
  • mapesdhs - Friday, November 19, 2010 - link

    A small note on budget systems one might build for friends, etc.
    (especially those without the tech knowledge). I built a PC for my
    neighbour & his family back in May; decided to see what I could do re
    mixing 2nd-hand 'professional' parts and consumer tech, try to make
    something with a bit of quality. I found a mbd/CPU/gfx/RAM combo for
    135 UKP (ASUS M2N-BM-DVI, Athlon64 X2 6000+, OCZ 2GB DDR2/800, ASUS ORB
    8800GT PCIe), LSI 21320-IS SCSI card for 5, U320 SCSI 73GB 15000rpm
    Fujitsu MAX3073NC and cable/adapter for 15 (knocks the socks off SATA
    for access time), and a company was offering a new Coolermaster
    Centurion Plus 534 case half-price for 25. The rest I bought new: 500GB
    SATA Samsung F1 for 40 (as it was back then), CiT 700W PSU for 30,
    Wireless 54Mbit PCI card for 7 and DVDRW for 18. Total: 275 UKP

    The main idea was to have a fast & responsive system disk, but with a
    normal SATA for data, so it feels very nippy but still has decent
    storage. The resulting setup ran very nicely (and the mbd combo came
    with Stalker, complete/boxed. :)


    For a display though, I recommended they buy new, something decent,
    which they did for 138 (LG W2254TQ-PF 22" 1680x1050, 2ms, 300 cdm/2,
    1000:1). Same cost today gets 1920x1080.

    They do a lot of surfing, so the fast system disk really helps.

    Just thought I'd mention for those who like to be a bit adventurous...

    (the landscape of what is available has changed since then, but the
    same concepts still apply)


    PS. Access time speed ref (the Fujitsu beats a WD VR 10K):

  • precarious - Saturday, November 20, 2010 - link

    "never mind the old single-core Athlon 64 3800+ running in my daughter's computer!"

    does she really need more than that to download recipes and msds sheets for the latest household cleaning products?
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, November 20, 2010 - link

    FYI, my daughter turns eight tomorrow. LOL It's more like Noggin.com for her. Reply
  • ManjyomeThunder - Saturday, November 20, 2010 - link

    I see that you mention the Das in your ultimate-uber-badass dream gaming rig. And that's perfectly fine, it's a great keyboard, but I thought I'd take a second to clarify a few things.

    1) The link specified is for the "Silent" model of the Das Keyboard, which uses non-clicky, tactile Cherry MX Brown switches. While these keyboards do provide tactile feedback just like, say, the Model M, the majority of any sound produced is from "bottoming out" the keys. The normal Das keyboard uses Cherry MX Blue switches, which are tactile and clicky, and produce a more distinct sound like the Model M, only much more high pitched.

    2) The Das Keyboard is far from being the "modern Model M". If anything, the direct equivalent of the Model M would be the Customizer 101, manufactured by Unicomp in Lexington, Kentucky. They own the rights to the patents and such on the Model M, and produce nearly identical keyboards for an affordable price. I'm typing on a black Customizer 104 now, which costs a fair bit less than the Das keyboard. There are also somewhat smaller models such as the "SpaceSaver" available. Make sure to pick up a model that uses "buckling spring" switches (most of theirs do), because that's what makes it mechanical and clicky.

    3) In addition to Unicomp, there are a large number of mechanical keyboards, including Razer's new BlackWidow, the Deck Legends, Filco Majestouches and Steelseries 7G. There are a lot of different switches, each with their own unique properties, so it's best to look into these things before you buy them. A good place to start would be over at GeekHack. We're all keyboard nerds there.
  • raghu1111 - Saturday, November 20, 2010 - link

    I would like to know estimated idle power consumption for AMD and i3 budget systems. Dell 580s with i3 550 lists idle power at 40 watts.. which is very good.

    My use case : this is an always on computer running ubuntu. I don't plan to put it in sleep mode and hence the sensitivity to power consumption. I have been using a laptop as desktop for this reason so far.
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, November 20, 2010 - link

    Here's Anand's figures from Bench for two similar setups:

    Note that those both have a 5870 GPU, so you can knock off around 10-15W if you go with IGP or a low-end GPU. I figure an Intel i3-550 setup can probably get down to around 40W idle power draw for the entire system, depending on components, where an Athlon II X4 will end up 10-15W higher. Running 24/7 you're looking at a power bill difference of around $10-$15 per year in most places, so it's nothing major -- though if you were doing something like a Folding@Home PC I think the difference might be more like 35-40W at load.
  • raghu1111 - Saturday, November 20, 2010 - link

    Thanks Jarred. The page lists 66 W at idle. IGP should be good enough to start with for me. I can disconnect DVD drive (may be just a couple of watts). May be I am looking at best case of 50 W. Reply
  • Out of Box Experience - Saturday, November 20, 2010 - link

    I want a tablet PC that can control a REAL computer in realtime, with compressed graphics sent wirelessly from my tower to the tablet at FULL frame rates.
    It needs wireless usb3 for sending data and controlling the tower with bidirectional throughput (USB2 is a one way street)

    I also want a mini-ITX tower with a built in KVM switch and a power supply that can handle 2 or more motherboards

    I want hard drives that have a read only switch (like SDHC cards) so I can backup ALL my stuff without worrying about viruses & worms

    I want mini-itx motherboards with built in digital audio amps (Low powered for mobility)

    and while I'm dreaming, lets make XP-Pro open source so we can fix it properly and add SSD support!

    and I want it all by Christmas
    Thanx Santa
  • raghu1111 - Saturday, November 20, 2010 - link

    What would be the idle power consumption for i3 550 based budget system. would AMD based much different. Dell lists Inspiron i3 550 based 580s at 40 Watt, which is pretty good.

    My use case : always-on Ubuntu desktop. not planning to set it to sleep mode. 3D graphics performance is a not an issue.


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