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Building the Perfect Budget PC, Part 1

by Robert Bruce Thompson and Barbara Fritchman Thompson
02/15/2005

Introduction

Inexpensive doesn't have to mean cheap. The myth persists that you can't save money building your own PC, particularly a budget system. In fact, it's easy to match the price of a mass-market commercial system with a homebuilt system that uses higher-quality components. Of course, you could instead match the quality level of a mass-market commercial system by buying the cheapest components available and save a few bucks by doing so, but we don't recommend doing that. We think there are good reasons to build inexpensive systems, but no reason at all to build cheap ones.

So we set out to design two inexpensive systems--one AMD and one Intel--using only high-quality components. Our budget was $500 for a complete system; that is, the system itself with monitor, keyboard, mouse, and speakers. (If you already own a suitable monitor, keyboard, mouse, and speakers, you can build the system for less than $350.) We did not consider shipping or sales tax, since those vary considerably, nor did we budget for an operating system or other software. To keep costs down, it's important to avoid the Microsoft tax, so we installed the free Xandros Desktop Linux Open Circulation Edition, which includes the full-featured OpenOffice.org office suite and numerous other useful applications. Of course, we also installed Windows XP temporarily, to verify compatibility.

On a $500 budget, it's important to make every penny count. Accordingly, we chose carefully, avoiding the temptation to spend $5 more here and $10 more there, unless those extra dollars were really going to pay off in terms of increased reliability, functionality, or performance. Still, we recognize that many readers will want to modify our configurations slightly for better performance, functionality, reliability, or noise level, so we've included alternative recommendations where we think that spending a few extra dollars might be worthwhile for those whose priorities differ from our design goals.

When budget is a top priority, it's important to take advantage of sales, rebates, daily specials, and so on. Big-box stores often run promotions on components. For example, one of our local retailers recently advertised a CD writer for $25, but with a $10 instant rebate and a $10 manufacturer rebate. The net cost for that CD writer is $5 plus the price of the stamp to mail in the rebate form. Newegg.com, from which we frequently buy components, runs very attractive daily specials on popular components.

It's also important to minimize shipping costs and taxes. For that reason, although we link to Newegg.com for price references, we recommend buying heavy items--particularly the case and monitor--locally if possible. Also, it often makes sense to consolidate your component order rather than place multiple orders and pay separate shipping charges.

Design Goals

Our fundamental design goal is to configure and build a reliable, inexpensive system that provides reasonable performance for web browsing, word processing, email, and similar productivity applications under Windows XP or Linux. We would like this system to be usable for 18 to 24 months without an upgrade. With that in mind, here are the design considerations we set and the priority we assigned to each:

Design Consideration Priority
Price 5 stars
Reliability 4 stars
Size 1 star
Noise level 2 stars
Expandability 1 star
Processor performance 2 stars
Video quality/performance 2 stars
Disk capacity/performance 2 stars

Price Price is the primary design consideration, tempered by our insistence that the system be reliable and have reasonable performance. Any time we spend more than absolutely necessary, we demand a high return for those few extra dollars.

Reliability We refuse to design an unreliable system, no matter how tempting the price of cheap components may be. For example, we could save $30 by using a cheap, no-name case and power supply, $40 by using a cheesy motherboard, $10 by substituting generic memory, and so on. Those are exactly the kinds of compromises that the designers of cheap mass-market systems cheerfully make, but we refuse to play that game.

Size Size is unimportant. Although we'll choose a small standard case, we won't go down the small-form-factor road, which would increase costs significantly for no real benefit.

Noise level We'd love to build a quiet system, but quiet costs money. Accordingly, although we won't spend extra money for a quiet power supply, a quiet CPU cooler, and so on, we will keep noise level in mind and choose the quietest inexpensive components we can find.

Expandability Expandability is of no concern, so we won't spend anything extra to improve expandability. Of course, to the extent that we can improve expandability at no cost, we will. For example, we'll choose a motherboard that provides an AGP expansion slot in favor of a similar motherboard that supports only embedded video.

Processor performance Processor performance is a minor consideration. Even inexpensive current processors are more than capable of running Windows XP or Linux and mainstream applications.

Video quality/performance Video quality and performance are minor considerations, except to the extent that we demand high-quality 2-D video. This system is not intended for gaming beyond the most casual level, so we will not devote any extra money to improving 3-D video performance.

Disk capacity/performance Disk capacity and performance are minor considerations. Even the smallest current hard drives are 40GB or larger, which more than suffices for mainstream use. We do insist on a 7,200-rpm hard drive, though, rather than a 5,400-rpm drive like that used in many cheap mass-market systems. The additional cost for a 7,200-rpm model is small, and the performance boost is noticeable.

With those decisions made, we set out to choose specific components for our AMD and Intel systems.

Component Selection

With the exception of the processor, motherboard, and memory, our component selections are identical for the AMD and Intel systems. A good inexpensive optical drive, for example, doesn't care if it's running in an AMD box or an Intel box, nor does a good inexpensive case care whether you install an AMD motherboard or an Intel motherboard.

AMD and Intel are both in the midst of platform changes, AMD from Socket A and Socket 754 to Socket 939, and Intel from Socket 478 to Socket 775. The older platforms lack support for the newest technologies, such as PCI Express video, and may be more difficult to upgrade in the future, but they are less expensive than the newer platforms. For budget systems, there's no question that the older platforms offer acceptable feature sets and performance while delivering much more bang for the buck.

Accordingly, we focused our attention on optimizing performance, features, and reliability at a price point, and disregarded the marketing hype. Here are the components we chose:

Processor (AMD): Sempron 2400+

For a budget system, our rule of thumb is to allocate about 12 to 15 percent of the total budget to a retail-boxed processor, which also includes a bundled CPU cooler. AMD produces processors to fit various sockets, including Sockets 754, 939, and 940 for midrange to high-end processors and Socket A for low-end to midrange processors.

Our budget limits us to using a $60 to $75 processor, which in turn limits our choices to the Socket A Sempron models. Socket A (or K7) Semprons are close cousins of the Athlon XP processor, which is no bad thing. (Socket 754 Semprons are based on the K8 Athlon 64.) K7 Semprons have a smaller L2 cache than Athlon XP processors do, which reduces their performance for large data sets such as multimedia files. But even the slowest K7 Sempron is more than fast enough to provide decent performance on the tasks for which a budget system is generally used.

At the time we configured this system, the least expensive retail-boxed K7 Sempron, the 2200+, sold for $57. The Sempron 2300+ sold for $60, the 2400+ for $63, and the 2500+ for $77. The difference in performance between those models is very small, so ordinarily we would have chosen the Sempron 2200+. However, the 2200+ and 2300+ were not in stock, so we ended up spending a few extra few dollars for the 2400+ model. The Sempron 2500+ costs $14 more than the 2400+, which is significant for a budget system and provides very little additional performance.

The Sempron 2400+ won't win any awards for raw performance, but at $63 it provides incredible bang for the buck.

As it turns out, the two processors are quite similar in overall performance. The Sempron wins a few benchmarks by a small margin, as does the Celeron, but most benchmarks were within a few percentage points either way. The only exceptions are SSE-3 benchmarks, which the Celeron wins by large margins. For typical tasks, though, you won't be able to tell the difference between the Celeron D 320 and the Sempron 2400+. Both have overall performance similar to a 2.0GHz Pentium 4. Not leading edge, certainly, but not too shabby either.

Processor (Intel): Celeron D 320

The Celeron D is Intel's budget processor, a trimmed-down version of its mainstream Prescott-core Pentium 4 processor. Earlier Celeron models were based on the Northwood-core Pentium 4. Their performance was, to be polite, pedestrian. The Celeron D is a whole different kettle of bits. For the Celeron D, Intel increased L2 cache from 128K to 256K and increased the front-side bus speed from 400MHz to 533MHz. Those two changes made the Celeron D, if not a barn burner, at least a respectable choice in terms of performance.

Intel makes many Celeron D models, ranging in speed from 2.26GHz to 3.06GHz. The faster models are out of our price range, but the 2.26GHz Celeron D 315 ($67) and the 2.4GHz Celeron D 320 ($72) fall within the $60 to $75 range we'd budgeted for the processor. Ordinarily we'd choose the Celeron D 315, because the Celeron D 320 costs $5 more for only an imperceptible performance boost. However, the Celeron D 315 was out of stock, so we went with the Celeron D 320. That's probably just as well, because it allowed us to compare the Celeron D 320 head-to-head with the Sempron 2400+.

Motherboard (AMD): ASUS A7N8X-VM/400

For a budget system, we allocate 15 to 20 percent of the total budget to the motherboard, which is to say $75 to $100 for a $500 system. To stay within the overall budget, we needed a motherboard with embedded video, audio, and LAN functions. There are many Socket A motherboards available, but some of them support only Athlon XP processors. We considered only motherboards that explicitly list support for K7 Sempron processors, which narrowed the field.

Sempron motherboards that use various chipsets are available, but we strongly prefer motherboards based on nVIDIA nForce-series chipsets. For the K7-class Sempron 2400+, we think the nForce2 IGP chipset is the best choice. Of the nForce2 IGP motherboards available, we chose the ASUS A7N8X-VM/400 based on the reputation of ASUS for top-notch build quality and rock-solid reliability.

The microATX A7N8X-VM/400 motherboard includes integrated GeForce4 MX video, which provides decent 2-D display quality and 3-D acceleration sufficient for casual gaming. There is also a standard 8X AGP 3.0 expansion slot available for future video upgrades, and three PCI slots. The A7N8X-VM/400 supports a maximum of 2GB of DDR memory in two memory sockets, which we consider marginal but adequate for a budget system.

Integrated 6-channel PCI audio is provided by a C-Media 8738 audio chipset and a Realtek ALC650 codec, and Ethernet connectivity by an integrated nVIDIA 10/100 Ethernet controller. The A7N8X-VM/400 provides the usual complement of ports, including six USB 2.0 ports. About the only thing missing is Serial ATA, which we do not consider a significant drawback.

At $78, the ASUS A7N8X-VM/400 motherboard provides all the functionality we need at a reasonable price. The only other nForce2 IGP-based motherboard we'd consider using is the MSI K7N2GM2-LSR.

Motherboard (Intel): Intel D865GBFL

The full-ATX Intel D865GBF is our "default" Socket 478 motherboard, which is to say we use and recommend it unless there's good reason to use something else. The D865GBF exhibits Intel's typical top-notch build quality and is rock-solid reliable. We have never had any stability or compatibility issues or other problems attributable to the D865GBF.

The D865GBF includes integrated Intel Extreme Graphics 2 video, which provides excellent 2-D display quality. Despite the name, Extreme Graphics 2 provides pedestrian 3-D graphics performance at best, although it can handle nondemanding games. The D865GBF provides a 1X/4X/8X Universal AGP 3.0 expansion slot for future video upgrades, and six PCI slots. It supports a maximum of 4GB of DDR memory in four memory sockets, which allows plenty of room for future memory upgrades.

The integrated SoundMAX 4 XL with AudioESP audio subsystem provides 6-channel audio using the Analog Devices AD1985 codec. The D865GBF is available in three variants that differ only in LAN support. The D865GBF has no LAN adapter; the D865GBFL has an integrated Intel 82562EZ 10/100BaseT LAN adapter; and the D865GBFLK has an integrated Intel 82547EI 10/100/1000BaseT LAN adapter. All three models provide the usual complement of ports, including eight USB 2.0 ports, two standard ATA interfaces, and two Serial ATA interfaces. (We elected to use standard ATA drives for our budget Intel system because S-ATA drives sell at a small premium, but having S-ATA interfaces is a plus for future upgrades.)

At $99, the Intel D865GBFL motherboard is at the top of our price range, but it provides all the features and functions we want. You can save $5 or so by using one of our alternative selections, the Intel D865GLCL or the ASUS P4P800-VM, without giving up much other than a few PCI slots. Both are microATX boards based on the Intel 865G chipset.

Memory: Crucial PC3200 DDR-SDRAM

We thought carefully about how much memory to install in these budget systems. Some cheap mass-market systems provide only 128MB of memory, which we consider insufficient, particularly for Windows XP. We think 256MB of memory is reasonable for a budget Windows XP or Linux desktop system, so that's what we decided to install.

Cheap memory is one of the two leading causes of PC problems, the other being cheap power supplies. We use only first-rate memory even for budget systems, and we strongly suggest you do the same. Using generic memory, we could save a few dollars, but at the expense of frequent crashes and potential data corruption. We'll stick with good memory, and it doesn't get any better than Crucial.

We used the Crucial Memory Configurator to list the memory modules that are compatible with each of our motherboards. We chose one $43 Crucial PC3200 256MB CT3264Z40B DIMM for the AMD system and one $43 Crucial PC3200 256MB CT3264Z40BB DIMM for the Intel system. We could have chosen two $27 Crucial PC3200 128MB CT1664Z40B DIMMs for the AMD system and two $27 Crucial PC3200 128MB CT1664Z40BB DIMMs for the Intel system. That would have increased our memory cost by $11 for each system, but there were reasons we considered doing so.

If you've delved into the technical specs for the AMD processor and ASUS motherboard, you might wonder why we chose PC3200 memory rather than PC2700 memory. The AMD Sempron uses a 333MHz memory bus, which requires only PC2700 memory, but we chose PC3200 modules for improved flexibility in the event we later decide to swap those modules into a different system. A system that requires PC2700 memory can use PC3200 memory; one that requires PC3200 memory cannot use PC2700 memory. In theory, using memory that's "too fast" can actually degrade memory performance. In practice, we've never seen that effect, and most motherboards allow you to configure memory speed in BIOS setup.

The ASUS A7N8X-VM/400 motherboard has only two memory slots. If we installed two DIMMs, there would be no room for expanding memory later without removing one or both of the modules we'd already paid for. By installing one DIMM, we left one memory slot open for future expansion. It's true that using only one DIMM forces the memory controller to operate in single-channel mode, but the additional bandwidth of dual-channel memory is wasted on the Socket A Sempron. With a 166MHz bus (dual-pumped to an effective 333MHz), the memory bandwidth of the Sempron is 2,667MB/sec, the same as that of single-channel PC2700 memory. So, for the AMD motherboard, installing one 256MB DIMM is not only cheaper than installing two 128MB DIMMs, but it also leaves our options open for future memory upgrades.

Choosing memory for the Intel D865GBF motherboard introduces other issues. The D865GBF has four memory slots, so populating two of them still leaves room for expanding the memory later. Like the ASUS A7N8X-VM/400, the Intel D865GBF can operate memory in single- or dual-channel mode. But the Celeron D uses a 133MHz quad-pumped bus, for effective memory bandwidth of 4,267MB/sec. That's well above the bandwidth of single-channel PC3200 memory, so if we use single-channel memory the processor will sometimes sit idle waiting for data from memory. so enabling dual-channel memory improves performance.

But enabling dual-channel memory operation requires installing DIMMs in pairs, so the question becomes whether improved memory performance is worth the additional $11 cost of two 128 MB DIMMs versus one 256MB DIMM. That's a difficult question to answer, because the performance benefit of dual-channel memory depends on the application being run. Considering the mix of applications likely to be run on a budget system, we decided to save the $11 for use elsewhere and install a single 256MB DIMM.

While 256MB of RAM is sufficient for Windows XP or Linux running typical productivity applications, it is marginal for memory-intensive applications such as multimedia, image editing, and so on. If you will use the system for such applications, consider spending the additional $40 or so that it costs to upgrade memory to 512MB. To upgrade the AMD system to 512MB, use one Crucial PC3200 512MB CT6464Z40B DIMM. To upgrade the Intel system to 512 MB, use two Crucial PC3200 256MB CT3264Z40BB DIMMs. (Two 256MB DIMMs cost only $5 more than one 512MB DIMM, which we consider worth spending in a 512MB system for the additional memory performance.)

Hard drive: Seagate ST340014A 40GB Barracuda 7200.7

Many cheap mass-market systems use 5,400-rpm ATA drives, which we consider a foolish way to save a few bucks. A 5,400-rpm hard drive has no place in a modern system, even a budget model. The difference between a 5,400-rpm drive and a 7,200-rpm drive is clearly perceptible to most people. With the 5,400-rpm drive, everything seems slower--the system takes longer to boot, programs load at a leisurely pace, even web pages seem to take longer to load. So we decided that even on a tight budget, it made sense to go with a 7,200-rpm model.

The brand wasn't in question. We've used and recommended Seagate hard drives for years. Seagate Barracuda-series drives are inexpensive, fast, quiet, cool-running, extremely reliable, and come with a five-year warranty. The only decision was which model. Seagate makes Barracuda drives in various capacities in standard ATA and Serial ATA interfaces. Some models have a 2MB cache and others an 8MB cache. In general, Serial ATA models, all of which have an 8MB cache, are slightly faster and slightly more expensive than standard ATA models. Some models are available in retail packaging and others in OEM (bare drive) packaging. To minimize cost, we decided to look at only OEM models.

For a budget system, we normally allocate 10 to 15 percent of the available funds to the hard drive, or about $50 to $75. If disk capacity is a high priority, we may go as high as $100. The table below shows the Seagate Barracuda OEM drives available in that price range.

Model Interface Capacity Cache Price
ST340014A ATA 40GB 2MB $53
ST380011A ATA 80GB 2MB $62
ST380817AS S-ATA 80GB 8MB $72
ST3120022A ATA 120GB 2MB $85
ST3120026A ATA 120GB 8MB $89
ST3120827AS S-ATA 120GB 8MB $99
ST3160021A ATA 160GB 2MB $89
ST3160023A ATA 160GB 8MB $97

Seagate hard drives under $100

Keeping our budget in mind, we chose the 40GB model for our system. But this system will be a node on our network, which has terabytes of shared disk space available. If this were a stand-alone system, we might install a larger hard drive. An extra $9 buys us 40GB of additional disk space and still keeps us within our original $50 to $75 budget.

S-ATA models sell for about a $10 premium, which we can't justify for a budget system. Increasing the cache from 2MB to 8MB costs only $4 for the 120GB models but $8 for the 160GB models. The larger cache improves performance marginally. We probably wouldn't pay $8 extra for the 8MB 160GB model, but we might consider springing for $4 to upgrade the 120GB model to an 8MB cache. On the other hand, that extra $4 might be better spent upgrading to a 160GB model with only 2MB of cache, depending on your priorities.

Keep in mind that the prices we use here are snapshots taken at one moment in time. When you purchase a drive for your own system, check prices on the various models and make your decision based on your own priorities. Also remember that hard drives are on sale frequently and various rebate offers are available. With careful shopping, you may be able to find much more hard drive for your money.

Optical drive: Lite-On LTR-52327S CD writer

Even the least expensive system needs an optical drive, if only for installing software. If we were really pinching pennies, we might install a $15 ATAPI CD-ROM drive. But spending only a few more dollars to install a CD writer greatly enhances the functionality of the system, so we opted for an inexpensive CD writer as our optical drive. Having a CD writer gives us what we need to back up the system and duplicate audio and data CDs, which we consider worth those few extra dollars.

Related Reading

PC Hardware Buyer's Guide
Choosing the Perfect Components
By Robert Bruce Thompson, Barbara Fritchman Thompson

There are any number of cheap CD writers available, but our pick in this category is the Lite-On LTR-52327S. At $21, it has everything you'd expect in a good CD writer, including high read and write speeds, Mt. Rainier support, and SmartBurn to help avoid coasters. As a bonus, this drive includes an OEM version of Nero Express, a competent CD-burning application for Windows. Lite-On CD writers are, in our experience, more reliable and durable than other inexpensive CD writers.

If we needed to read DVD discs and could afford $40 or so, we'd install a combo CD-RW/DVD-ROM drive. Our first choices in that class are the Teac DW-552G and the Toshiba SD-R1612, although the Lite-On SOHC-5232K and the Samsung TS-H492A are also good choices. If we needed a DVD writer, we'd install the $65 NEC ND-3520A, the standout choice among inexpensive DVD writers.

Case and power supply: Antec SLK2600AMB

The case and power supply for a budget system is one place where it's easy to spend too little. We have seen no-name ATX minitower cases with 300W power supplies advertised for as little as $14. You can imagine how shoddy the case is at that price, and the power supply is worse. For our budget system, we want better. A lot better.

At a minimum, we insist that the case be solidly constructed, with no sharp edges or burrs, and that everything fits and aligns properly. We require a well-built power supply of at least 300W that meets ATX specifications. Realistically, we expect to spend at least $50 for a case and power supply that meets those minimum requirements.

In that price range, the standout choice is the Antec SLK2600AMB minitower case. The SLK2600AMB accepts full-ATX motherboards and has eight drive bays, so there's plenty of expansion room, and cooling is less problematic than it might be in a smaller case. The SLK2600AMB has mounts for two 80mm cooling fans, front and rear, although none is supplied as a standard feature. It also provides several convenience features, including removable side panels, a quick-release drive cage, and front USB ports. The SLK2600AMB includes a 300W Antec SLK300S SmartPower ATX12V power supply that is worlds better than the power supplies bundled with cheap cases. In this price range, it's hard to do better than the SLK2600AMB.

We confess, though, that we might squeeze the budget a bit to upgrade to the Antec SLK2650-BQE (Black Quiet Edition), which is better in every respect. As its name indicates, the SLK2650-BQE is optimized for quiet operation, but that's not the only reason to consider it. For only $10 or $15 more than the SLK2600AMB, the SLK2650-BQE provides an upgraded power supply, the 350W SLS350S, and includes a very quiet 120mm rear exhaust fan as standard equipment. The BQE is also features TAC (thermally advantaged chassis) compliance by providing a side-panel duct to route room-temperature air directly to the processor. The result is a cooler, quieter, more reliable system.

If you're already at the limit of your budget, choose the Antec SLK2600AMB. Otherwise, choose the Antec SLK2650-BQE.

Monitor: NEC AccuSync AS700 17" CRT

A flat-panel display is simply too expensive for a budget system, which leaves a CRT monitor as the only option. Although a few 15" monitors are still available, we consider them too small to be usable, even for a budget system. Comparable 17" models are available for little more money than 15" models, so we opted for a 17" monitor.

Among inexpensive 17" monitors, the NEC AccuSync AS700 is a standout choice. Image quality is excellent for an inexpensive monitor. The AS700 supports an 85Hz refresh rate at 1,024-by-768 resolution, which is optimum for a 17" monitor. Many inexpensive monitors have only a one-year warranty, but the AS700 has a three-year warranty on parts, labor, and CRT. For $120 or so, it's tough to beat the NEC AccuSync AS700.

Although we consider the AS700 suitable for light use, if you're staring at your screen all day you may want to spend another $20 or $30 to upgrade the monitor to a flat-screen, aperture-grill model. If so, choose the NEC FE771SB or the Samsung 793DF/793MB, both of which are widely available at Best Buy, CompUSA, and similar big-box stores. The NEC FE771SB Super Bright feature boosts brightness dramatically, which is unnecessary for routine use but may be helpful for playing games or watching videos. The Samsung 793MB (but not the 793DF) includes a similar feature called Magic Bright. Otherwise, these models have similar specifications and image quality.

Keyboard/mouse: Logitech Internet Pro Desktop keyboard and mouse

The choice of keyboard and mouse is very personal. Still, we had to make reasonable choices for a keyboard and mouse, if only to avoid leaving a hole in the table. We use and recommend only Logitech and Microsoft keyboards and mice. Our goal was to spend no more than $20 to $25 for a decent keyboard and optical mouse. In this price range, Logitech clearly offers better value than Microsoft. The $18 Logitech Internet Pro Desktop includes a decent keyboard and a surprisingly good optical mouse. If you prefer Microsoft keyboards and mice, consider the $24 Microsoft Basic PS/2 keyboard and mouse.

Speakers: Creative Labs SBS260

Even a budget system deserves a decent set of powered speakers. You can buy a cheap, no-name 2.0 speaker set for less than $10, but spending just a few dollars more on the Creative Labs SBS260 buys you noticeably better sound quality. At 2.5W RMS per channel, you're not going to rattle the walls with the SBS260, but that output suffices for listening to music. If you need more power, consider upgrading to the Creative Labs SBS270, which doubles output to 5W per channel.

Component Summaries

Table 1 summarizes the components we chose for our Budget AMD system. With the exception of the memory, which we priced directly from Crucial, the prices shown for all components were obtained from NewEgg in late January 2005.

Component Product Price
Processor AMD Sempron 2400+ processor (Socket A), retail boxed $63
Motherboard ASUS A7N8X-VM/400 nForce2 IGP motherboard for AMD Socket A CPU $78
Memory Crucial PC3200 DDR-SDRAM DIMM, 256MB $43
Hard drive Seagate ST340014A 40GB 7200-rpm ATA hard drive, OEM $53
Optical drive Lite-On 52X32X52 CD-RW drive, model LTR-52327S, OEM  $21
Case & power supply Antec SLK2600AMB midtower case with 300W power supply $54
Display NEC AccuSync AS700 17" CRT monitor $120
Keyboard/mouse Logitech Internet Pro Desktop keyboard and mouse $18
Speakers Creative SBS260 2.0 speakers $13
$463

Table 1. AMD component summary--base configuration

Starting with the base configuration, we decided to see how much it would cost to make some significant improvements, shown in Table 2. We decided to upgrade the hard drive to 80GB, replace the CD writer with a DVD writer, and upgrade the case to the Antec SLK2650BQE. With all of those upgrades, the total price came to $526--more than we'd budgeted, but not by much.

Component Product Price
Processor AMD Sempron 2400+ processor (Socket A), retail boxed $63
Motherboard ASUS A7N8X-VM/400 nForce2 IGP motherboard for AMD Socket A CPU $78
Memory Crucial PC3200 DDR-SDRAM DIMM, 256MB $43
Hard drive Seagate ST380011A 80GB 7200-rpm ATA hard drive, OEM $62
Optical drive NEC ND-3520A DVD±RW drive, OEM  $63
Case & power supply Antec SLK2650BQE Quiet Black midtower case with 350W power supply $66
Display NEC AccuSync AS700 17" CRT monitor $120
Keyboard/mouse Logitech Internet Pro Desktop keyboard and mouse $18
Speakers Creative SBS260 2.0 speakers $13
$526

Table 2. AMD component summary--enhanced configuration

Table 3 summarizes the components we chose for our budget Intel system. As is usually true with Intel systems, we paid a slight premium: $30 in this case.

Component Product Price
Processor Intel Celeron D 320 processor (Socket 478), retail boxed $72
Motherboard Intel D865GBFL motherboard (Socket 478), retail boxed $99
Memory Crucial PC3200 DDR-SDRAM DIMM, 256MB $43
Hard drive Seagate ST340014A 40GB 7200-rpm IDE hard drive, OEM $53
Optical drive Lite-On 52X32X52 CD-RW drive, Model LTR-52327S, OEM  $21
Case & power supply Antec SLK2600AMB midtower case with 300W power supply $54
Display NEC AccuSync AS700 17" CRT monitor $120
Keyboard/mouse Logitech Internet Pro Desktop keyboard and mouse $18
Speakers Creative SBS260 2.0 speakers $13
$ 493

Table 3. Intel component summary

Making the same enhancements to the Intel system that we made to the AMD system, our cost again increases by $63, to $556. Whether those enhancements are worth the expense, only you can say.

AMD versus Intel

Although the overall performance level of these two systems is comparable, each has minor advantages and disadvantages. The AMD system has better 3-D graphics performance. Although you won't be running Doom 3 on it, the AMD 3-D graphics are fast enough to run older 3-D games. The Intel system has better 2-D text quality, at least to our eyes. We also prefer the integrated Intel audio and networking, particularly if the system will run Linux.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article, where we'll build the AMD budget system and find out whether our concerns about Linux compatibility were warranted.

Robert Bruce Thompson is a coauthor of Building the Perfect PC, Astronomy Hacks, and the Illustrated Guide to Astronomical Wonders. Thompson built his first computer in 1976 from discrete chips. Since then, he has bought, built, upgraded, and repaired hundreds of PCs for himself, employers, customers, friends, and clients.

Barbara Fritchman Thompson is a coauthor of "Building the Perfect PC" and "PC Hardware in a Nutshell." She runs her own home-based consulting practice, Research Solutions.


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