Developments in the Budget Marketplace

Since our last budget buyer's guide back in November 2011, there have been many developments in the budget sector of the DIY market. Perhaps most noteworthy, SSD costs have finally fallen far enough that they are within reach of price-conscious builders. Given that mechanical hard drive prices remain inflated in the wake of last year's flooding in Thailand, I have been putting lower capacity SSDs in budget builds more frequently than HDDs in the last few months.

That said, it's worth elaborating that while you might have become used to larger capacity hard drives in the last few years, a 60/64GB SSD is more than enough space for a basic machine that will have Windows 7, Office, and a few other productivity applications installed on it and not be used for personal storage. Even a 40GB SSD can comfortably contain Windows 7, Office, and many small applications. Of course, the small size of SSDs might very well preclude their inclusion in your system if you need more space—know what your storage needs will be. Thus, in the office builds, we include both SSD and HDD options. Gamers will likely want to stick with larger HDDs because a gaming library will quickly surpass the capacities of less expensive SSDs.

Also of note is the disappearance of AMD's lower-end Athlon II CPUs from retail channels. I probably built more computers with the AMD Athlon II X2 250 than every other CPU model combined from 2009 to earlier this year. That chip and its close relatives are now rarely available from retailers, and that limits budget processor choices. In the previous budget buyer's guide, I compared the Athlon II X2 250 with the then newcomer Intel Celeron G530, a super-cheap chip based on the Sandy Bridge microarchitecture. The G530 has become the king of the budget CPUs. While AMD's Llano APUs offer acceptable computing, for CPU-centric tasks—that is, non-gaming—the G530 remains a better choice than the comparably priced lower-end Llanos. Since most home and office users aren't playing games, I've built more and more G530 systems as X2 250s have become harder to find. However, the higher-end Llano APUs offer a very good value for gamers on a very tight budget.

There are also a few new budget cases that have caught our attention here at AnandTech in 2012 that we'll highlight in the guide. NZXT's Source 210 case is a capacious offering that's easy to work in, offers attractive, subdued lines, and is well-built; its 'elite' brother is one of the least expensive cases with front panel USB 3.0 support. Dustin recently reviewed the Cooler Master Elite 120, an inexpensive ITX case that I just got my own hands on that has impressed me.

Finally, new video cards—as well as old video cards with new prices—put more gaming power in the hands of budget gamers than ever before. Those are covered on the gaming build page. First, though, we'll start with the basic office productivity builds on the next page.

Budget Office/Productivity Builds
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  • Draconian - Saturday, September 1, 2012 - link

    The 250GB hard drive for $60 seems like a pretty bad deal. Newegg is selling the Seagate Barracuda 1.5TB for $80 + FS.
  • Z Throckmorton - Saturday, September 1, 2012 - link

    Hi Draconian - Both of those are bad deals compared to pre-flood prices! I recommended the worse $/GB HDD simply because its absolute cost is lower and 250GB is typically more than sufficient for basic office and gaming builds. Spending more money on capacity you don't need is always a waste even if the higher capacity drive is a better $/GB value. Furthermore, that $60/250GB drive is a day-to-day price while the Seagate you mention is a sale price. I mention explicitly in the article to keep an eye out for sale prices on HDDs, because their pricing right now is particularly volatile. Here's hoping we'll be back to $30/500GB drives sooner than later. Best - Zach
  • Esben - Saturday, September 1, 2012 - link

    I think the places that you have chosen to save money are well thought out. For an office machine the SSD gives a much faster system, than putting the money towards faster processors. The i5-2400 I use at work with mechanical harddrive is painfully slow.

    A suggestion to the guide is to consider a B75 based motherboard, such as e.g. the Gigabyte GA-B75M-D3V ($60). It will give you native USB 3.0, SATA 6 GB/s and support for Ivy Bridge if you need a very fast workstation. I would also scrap the optical drive, since that is so rarely used. Windows installation via USB or PXE netboot, the remaining apps through ethernet/USB.

    I would choose the Samsung 830 64 GB instead of the Intel 330, as it's the least handicapped ~60 GB SSD, with high R/W speeds, and solid reputation for stability.

    I have in the past found good deals on e.g. Vostro 460, but no more. Now it makes more sense to build yourself. Next week I'm assembling my new work PC: Gigabyte B75, i5-3470, 16 GB DDR3-1600, 128 GB Samsung 830, Fractal 1000 and Antec 380D. Same price as stock Vostro 470.
  • Z Throckmorton - Saturday, September 1, 2012 - link

    Hi Esben - Thanks for the kind words. I'm particularly glad that you recognize an i5 with an HDD can seem slow compared to a less powerful CPU with an SSD in many office/productivity workflows. I agree that optical drives are not always necessary; I build as many systems without an ODD as with an ODD nowadays. But IMHO any basic configuration should still include one, especially since many people do not know how to install applications via USB or a network. Plus, many people still use DVD drives to rip and burn CDs and DVDs. You or your customers know whether you'll need an ODD, and it is nice to be able to eschew that $20 from a build, but not always a possibility. I'm not sure if the ODD will ever go the way of the FDD given the pervasiveness of optical media in non-computer devices like car stereos and home theaters. The main reason I recommended the Intel SSD over the Samsung 830 is simple: cost. The 830 64GB has never been as cheap as the 330 AFAIK, and it's still more expensive right now. While it is faster than the 330, I wouldn't consider the 830 more reliable than the 330. (I consider the 830, M4, and 330 to be the most reliable consumer/mainstream SSDs.) It's also interesting to note your findings on cheap outlet desktops vs. DIY systems: they resonate with my own observations over the last few months. Regardless, I'm sure you'll be happy with the PC you're planning on building - sounds like a great system! Best - Zach
  • kmmatney - Saturday, September 1, 2012 - link

    "It's worth noting that for a basic productivity machine, the Windows 7 license by itself accounts for a large percentage of the build's total cost."

    This. You can find plenty of systems on sale for around the same price, or less, that include the OS. This includes a recent shell-shocker at NewEgg that sold out quickly. The pre-built system will have a crapper power supply, but otherwise will do the job for less money.
  • apmon2 - Saturday, September 1, 2012 - link

    "It's worth noting that for a basic productivity machine, the Windows 7 license by itself accounts for a large percentage of the build's total cost. This is a nearly unavoidable cost for system builders"
    With $91 the Windows license is the most expensive individual item and it constitutes nearly 1/3 of the total costs!! Not using Windows would drop you from $371 to $280, which is much more "budget", or you could get significantly better components for the same price.

    Why do you therefore not recommend Linux for budget systems? For the basic productivity system, it is imho just as (if not more) user friendly as Windows and has all of the productivity software like office already included. Installation of Ubuntu Linux is also quite a bit simpler than windows (if you choose the appropriate hardware).

    While in Linux after installation, everything just works, including firefox, thunderbird, LibreOffice and any other standard productivity software, in Windows after installation pretty much nothing works until you install all of the additional components. In my case not even the wired ethernet controller worked out of the box in Windows7 enterprise edition and I needed a second computer to download the driver and copy it onto a usb stick (as coming from Linux I hadn't expected that to fail). Then I had to install graphics drivers to get more than 640x480 resolution, install sound drivers, wireless drivers, motherboard drivers, ....

    Furthermore, Linux took up only 2.7Gb of my SSD after installation, and that is including office and all other productivity software, so I can use it quite happily on my 32Gb SSD.
  • Z Throckmorton - Saturday, September 1, 2012 - link

    Hi apmon2 - I wholeheartedly agree with you that a free OS like Ubuntu makes more sense than a $90-100 Windows 7 license for a very low budget build. That said, Ubuntu is simply not mainstream, while W7 is. While you and I are savvy computer users and have no trouble using Ubuntu, many people are simply uncomfortable learning a new OS, even one as user-friendly as Ubuntu. I used to offer customers super-budget Ubuntu machines, but the response from them was mostly negative. I spent a lot of time helping people learn Linux (which helped them, but ended up eating into my bottom line - time is money). Fully half of the people I sold Ubuntu machines too eventually ended up dropping another $100 to get Windows 7 after getting frustrated with Ubuntu. Furthermore, I disagree that LibreOffice is just as good as Microsoft Office. For basic uses, it is, but for more sophisticated productivity users, it is not. For example, dozens of my own Excel macros simply don't work in LibreOffice, and this is a sentiment echoed by many of my customers and friends. Anyway, this really isn't the appropriate forum for the eternal Windows vs Linux debate - I will simply conclude by saying that there are many, many reasons to not build Linux machines for people who are not particularly computer-savvy. Best - Zach
  • jwcalla - Saturday, September 1, 2012 - link

    I've been out of the loop on these things, but how much does a MS Office license cost these days?
  • bgold2007 - Monday, September 3, 2012 - link

    Great article ZT. Agree with your response to apmon2 - disagree with your computer-savvy qualification. I consider myself moderately PC-savvy (A+ years after building my own systems, some N+, lite hex programming in the dot matrix days, some cmd line, tech center support etc). I have been playing around with dual-booting Linux for years - on laptops. Due to the closed and open source issues, lots of crap with wireless support (fw-cutter horrors, anyone?).

    Nowadays I often boot to ubuntu - because it is fine for email, basic web browsing etc. So I reboot to it because that's where I was using it last.
    Nowadays, yes Ubuntu "just works" -mostly. But audio visual is NOT windows class. How many times have I been in youtube (in ubuntu) and get a "you need to install a plugin" which I attempt (nevermind ZERO info about selecting the firstr default option or the "386" option) [don't worry - NEITHER will work!] to be followed by a "cannot install - dependencies not resolved" error. Why is it harder to print many images to a page with Linux freeware than Win7?
    Why do I often get sync issues on av, esp. if I pause the (eg youtube) video?

    It is NOT because i am not "computer-savvy", it is in part due to ubuntu defects/limitations and, if solovable, because I am not a linux/Ubuntu expert.

    And although not STRICTLY within a budget article, I thought ZT could've added a comment/reminder about the W7 family packs on sale. Great way to rehab older systems and have available as backups, or split the cost with a family member and reduce the budget system cost.

    That said, it would be nice if someone build some of these systems and verified all systems go with Ubuntu as os.
  • bigjer - Saturday, September 1, 2012 - link

    What are you using for the Sandy Bridge

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