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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  • cjs150 - Tuesday, December 6, 2011 - link

    Got admit I like the 2500K system.

    Anyhow I like Micro-atx boards, I just cannot think what to include in a normal build which needs all the slots of a full ATX board.

    If you want the dubious pleasures of SLI/Crossfire fine (but why not use a single card with dual GPUs).

    Would be more happy when the old PCI slots are fazed out and only PCIe slots are in.

    As a water cooling fanboy I am intending to use the Fractal cases for next build so I definitely approve
  • TerdFerguson - Wednesday, December 7, 2011 - link

    Great comment. You're the guy I"d want building my machine. For that matter, you're the guy I'd want writing the articles. THanks
  • slippyrocks - Tuesday, December 6, 2011 - link

    llano cpu is equal to an ancient athlon ii x4
    llano cpu is smoked by the $70 sandy bridge pentium would that not make more sense on the low end
    gfx w/ hdmi are included on-chip sandy bridge
    or HD 6450 cost $40 right now for more fps
    $20 ar corsair CX400v2 will power most any setup
    go with the cheapest ssd c400 or vertex 3 they are both good and proven
    cheaper mechanical drives can still be found on sale <$80 1TB
    llano never made sense to me outside of laptops your are paying more for less
  • shivoa - Tuesday, December 6, 2011 - link

    On the 2500K system you specified a 60GB SSD and back-up spinning drive (as games hit 20GB installs the advice to only put OS and apps on the SSD makes sense). Obviously these aren't being budgeted as totally gaming focussed boxes (maybe there is a case for waiting for a die shrink on buying a gaming box right now, unless the mainstream well priced cards take a while to release or hit these value prices for great performance) but I think no mention of SRT is amiss here.

    Unless there are details I haven't read about, then SRT seems like an ideal option for a light gaming rig with a 60GB SSD to provide those 50%+ faster load times in games that the Anand benchmarks indicated when looking at what a basic 40GB SSD could do with SRT. The OS and common apps should be picked up by the caching and so be close to SSD speeds for any large reads and as the i7 rig is the one designed for processing intensive tasks the low write speeds probably wouldn't be a major issue. My experience with SRT is rather positive for a gaming focussed machine.
  • Calin - Tuesday, December 6, 2011 - link

    "You might also have noticed that we skipped out on keyboards,"
    I'm still using at home a AT keyboard (with adapter), so decent keyboards do indeed last a long time (and in many cases, old keyboards feel better than many new ones)
  • WiZARD7 - Tuesday, December 6, 2011 - link

    There is no VGA in the 1200$ system?
  • WiZARD7 - Tuesday, December 6, 2011 - link

    I can't read, it writes:
    "You lose the ability to game as this PC has no discrete video card (and the integrated Intel graphics are not gaming-level). "

  • Bty - Tuesday, December 6, 2011 - link

    AMD's HD 7000 series should come out in the not-too-distant future, but we can't share any details on where those will rank right now.

  • antef - Wednesday, December 7, 2011 - link

    Yeah, does this mean they do know where they will rank but just can't share it yet?
  • Mathieu Bourgie - Wednesday, December 7, 2011 - link

    Well, AMD did announce that they would launch the 7xxx this year and with less than 3 weeks before Christmas, the launch could any day now.

    Usually, reviewers get several days, if not 1-2 weeks+ to test products, so Ryan could very well be testing some Radeon HD 7xxx cards as I write this ;)

    Thing is, all reviewers who get products before launch have to sign a NDA (Non disclosure agreement), which prohibits them from talking about any specifics/performance regarding the product.

    Assuming that he is, the question here is: Which 7xxx cards is it? The higher-end ones (a la 6950/6970), mainstreams ones (a la 6850/6870) or lower-end ones?

    Only time will tell. Hopefully sooner than later :D

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