Since Intel's launch of the Core 2 Duo in 2006, AMD has relied primarily upon two strategies to stay relevant as a CPU producer: competitive pricing and more cores at specific price points. While the recent launch of AMD's Bulldozer CPU architecture has for some purposes narrowed the gap between the two chipmakers, it seems AMD will continue to compete mostly on pricing for the low-end and mid-range segments of desktop CPU markets. But does the recent launch of Sandy Bridge architecture Celerons by Intel threaten AMD's reign as budget king? The possibility of increased competition at the lower end of CPU performance leads to the question, "How low can prices go?"

Fortunately for consumers the answer is arguably lower than ever before—though not necessarily with CPUs. SSDs continue to drop in price, and DDR3 prices remain very low with sales regularly hitting the less than $5/GB threshold—even without rebates. As GPU development has slowed in the past year, graphics cards are exhibiting longer lifespans; older cards are becoming less expensive but not necessarily less capable. Until the recent flooding in Thailand, hard drive prices were holding low, with 500GB drives usually available at $40 and sometimes even less; it is unclear how hard drive prices will change in the short-term.

The kind of computing experience these budget systems are capable of delivering is as important as the absolute cost of components. While enthusiasts are always interested in the latest and greatest technology, many people rely on a smartphone and/or a netbook for most of their computing needs. That is, the average user does not need a particularly powerful computer anymore to perform basic tasks like shopping online, checking email, playing games on Facebook, and producing office documents. The components discussed in this guide are all more than adequate for the average home and office user.

It's important to keep in mind that prices on these parts fluctuate wildly and rapidly. We present in this guide a wide array of products representing all of the desktop component classes—the more price alerts you set on more websites, the more likely you are to be able to score killer deals on computers for friends, relatives, or perhaps yourself. Also keep in mind that with the rise of mobile OSes such as Apple's iOS and Google's Android, more people are increasingly comfortable learning a new operating system—so while all of the builds detailed in this guide include the cost of Windows 7, it's worth considering saving $100 or so by going with a user-friendly free OS like Ubuntu Linux.

All that said, the next page provides a few benchmarks comparing Intel's and AMD's $60 CPUs as well as AMD's $70 APU, which will set the tone for overall system performance. Once we've covered the performance expectations, we'll move on to the actual component recommendations.

Battle of the Budget Processors
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  • DanNeely - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    Unless you're more concerned about squeezing every last watt of efficiency out of your system than noise under load, you want a PSU that maxes at 200-300W more than your peak consumption level so that its fan never goes above idle speeds. For a gaming box that typically means an extra 10-20W drawn while the system is idle since you're in the <20% load low efficiency zone on most PSUs.
  • piroroadkill - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    That's odd, because my i5-2500k @ 4.5 with a Radeon 6950, 8GB RAM and 7 hard drives pulls around 150w idle. Seasonic X-660. Under load, we're talking north of 300w easy.

    When I had a Q9550 @ 3.8 and a Radeon 4890, it pulled about 230w idle. That was with a Corsair HX520. I easily pushed 400w at the wall under CPU + GPU load, and I was actually pretty afraid to load both to the maximum.

    I have a power meter permanently hooked up to my PC.
  • piroroadkill - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    I realise this is AC load, not DC load. However, I have been running pretty efficient PSUs.

    I do completely agree people overestimate vastly.
    Actually, with my old Radeon HD 2900XT, that used MORE power than my 4890.
  • Taft12 - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    It's the hard drives that are pushing up your idle power usage. WD Blacks or 2+ TB "green" drives use 6-8W each at idle.
  • erple2 - Friday, November 11, 2011 - link

    No, it's the 4890 combo with the Q9550 that's pushing that kind of output, even at idle. Drives typically consume "only" 7-8 W each at idle, and only about 10W under load. So expect the drives alone to contribute 49-56W alone under idle. The top 2 consumers in that setup are clearly the GPU, then the CPU.

    My i7-950 + 6870 and one WD Black drive eats 200W at idle.

    My old computer (core2duo 6750, 4890, and similar drive) used to idle at 240W give or take.
  • Iketh - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    That's funny, because I have a 2600k @ 4.2ghz converting to x264 as I type this and using a steady 170w. That's with 2 Seagate greens, an ssd, and a Radeon 6870. My power supply is an Antec 380w. If I game at the same time, it's at 250w. Idle is 92w. Sounds like there is a little tweaking you can do in your bios.

    I also have a power meter permanently hooked up to my PC.
  • wifiwolf - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    Just as a side note: you're in the 50% spot, so max efficiency.
  • DominionSeraph - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link


    Inspiron Desktop 560 Mini-Tower
    Processor: Intel Pentium Dual Core E6700 (3.20GHz 2MB)
    Genuine Windows 7 Home Premium
    500 GB SATA Hard Drive (7200 RPM)
    3 GB DDR3 SDRAM 1333MHz (3 DIMMs)
    16X DVD +/- RW Optical Drive

    $289 at Dell outlet.

    Why the heck would anybody build a budget system?
  • slayernine - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    For friends and family that mostly just Internet browse but want a system that could perhaps be upgraded in the future as most prebuilt systems don't allow.

    Also building your first entry level system lets you get into system building or gaming without breaking the bank. Your Dell system will not play any games without a dedicated card and would likely need a power supply upgrade if you wanted to install a dedicated video card. Also airflow in most consumer desktops is not suitable for a gaming system unless you buy something like a Dell XPS which then puts you into a much higher price bracket. At that point you will realise why custom built is better :)
  • jabber - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    Indeed, had many a Dell Dimension or similar in for 'upgrades' and by the time you check them over the HDD and ram is about all that's worth upgrading. If you want to put another HDD in then you have to contend with their bafflingly over complicated HDD mounting systems. Why they have to use 8 parts when other cases use just a simple slot and screw method I don't know.

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