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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  • Taft12 - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    Non-terrible graphics performance and a Windows install free of "value-add" bloatware for starters
  • slayernine - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    Did I just hear you say Intel onboard graphics offer "Non-terrible graphics performance" ? I hope you are just trolling me because that may just be the most ridiculous statement I've seen all day.
  • slayernine - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    This comment system lacks an oh crap how do I delete that last post function. I get what you are saying taft12, you are saying a budget system not using onboard graphics allows for non-terrible graphics.
  • Esben84 - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    Thanks for an interesting article. I like that there's also focus on more budget oriented systems. It's not everyone that needs high-end components like us enthusiasts. Though I find it difficult to recommend building budget systems, when the prebuilt ones can be found so cheap. At work I've introduced the Vostro 460 basic config, and now we are now up to using 7 in total. They've been on offer for a long time now. We buy the basic config, which in the US costs $469 and it includes a Core i5-2400 quad-core Sandy Bridge CPU, H67 chipset, 2 GB memory, 320 GB harddrive, GBit LAN, Win7Pro, HDMI connector and Intel HD Graphics 2000. It's quiet, very cheap and it's a decent looking case. Only 2 GB extra memory is needed, and if used with two digital monitors, a cheap graphics card. With such a fast system, it feels very bottlenecked by not having an SSD. If only they would add a DisplayPort and change the harddrive to a 64 GB SSD, this would be the perfect system.

    Copenhagen, Denmark
  • Halnerd - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    Why would you compare the APU($70) vs a Celeron($60) + AMD5670($70)? The Celeron had a built in GP, right? The APU would be expected to perform markedly slower than a CPU and discrete GPU. You need to run both the APU and Celeron with and without AMD5670 for proper comparison. This section of the article is ridiculously lopsided.

  • frozentundra123456 - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    well, to be fair, he did test the Athlon with a discrete GPU too. He did basically say that the integrated GPU on the Celeron was worthless for gaming except in the very undemanding LFD 2.

    However, I agree with you in that I would have liked to see a comparison between the HD2000 of the Celeron and whatever integrated graphics the Athlon had (HD 4200??).

    Maybe some older, non-demanding games or whether the integrated GPUs could handle 1080p video or Netflix streaming, or whatever. Or at least address whether the APU of the Llano offered any improvement over the other two integrated solutions (except in gaming) for the typical uses of such a budget system.
  • Wierdo - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    Yeah makes no sense, the article's writing is so unfocused, the goalposts keep moving allover the place. For example, showing benches of Llano product vs X2 product + video card, but then in the build section using integrated mobo video card with the X2, wth.

    Interesting collection of info if you ignore the goal of the article though.
  • Halnerd - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    Yeah, It would have definitely been more informative had they run all three CPU's with and without a discrete GPU. That would have given us a good idea of the full capabilities of each, whether for HTPC or gaming. As it stands the test methodology is bunk.
  • Taft12 - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    Agreed, it would allow a conclusion that points out the tradeoffs made between the 3 platforms. None are truly better or worse than the others, just different strengths and weaknesses.

    The article was actually terrific until the gaming benchmarks. That's when things went off the rails.
  • Halnerd - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    I would really like to see some analysis of the socket FM1 Athlon II X4 631. That is a really interesting product at around the same price point. Might be a winner if we are going to look at discrete GPU solutions. A full review of the 631chip (or any other FM1 Athlons you can get your hands on, i.e. 641?) would be very awesome.

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