TechSpot's Low-end PC Buying Guide


Build your budget box right. Creating a cost-effective PC is more than just assembling from the cheapest parts you can find. It is an important balance of quality, features and cost. For this reason, you will quickly discover that getting the most for your money becomes a major headache. Fortunately, this guide serves as a cheat sheet for choosing the most appropriate equipment and a reference for real-world street prices.

The goals for this article were based on four major criteria: budget-friendliness, adequate performance, upgradeability and useful features. The intended use for such a system is primarily office work, web surfing, common multimedia and modest creative content creation. If you are looking for an affordable gaming or content creation PC, you may want to consider our Mid-level PC buyers guide as a more suitable choice. Now, on to the good stuff…



AMD Athlon 64 3200+ Socket 939 - $170

The Athlon 64 (Socket 939) still represents the best value in terms of maintaining performance, features and upgradeability at a good price point. This is the same, versatile processor that slipped its way into our latest mid-level and high-end buying guides as well... just at a more conservative clock speed. Although difficult to find, the A64 (Socket 939) 2800+ and 3000+ are also still available in some stores for an even lower price and perform very well.



MSI K8NGM2-FID Motherboard -  $90

The cornerstone of any well put-together system, the motherboard you choose plays an ever-important role in terms of features, upgradeability and reliability. The MSI K8NGM2 is a micro-ATX board packed with an incredible amount of features, including Firewire, Gigabit LAN, GeForce 6150 onboard graphics, TV-out, SATA 3.0 and (amazingly) even RAID 5.

In more detail, this MSI board is armed with a GF 6150 Northbridge and an nForce 430 Southbridge. The GF 6150 provides with onboard graphics (dual monitor [DVI + VGA] w/ hardware HDTV decoding support), four memory slots (4GB max, 2000MT/s FSB with AMD’s coveted HyperTransport technology), one PCI-e x16 slot, one PCI-e x1 slot, and a 939 pin socket capable of supporting the highest speed, dual-core CPUs currently available.

On the Southbridge, you will discover 7.1 integrated audio (ALC880), 8x USB ports (4 external), 1Gbps LAN (VITESSE vsc8201RX), 2x Firewire ports (1 external), 2x IDE ports, 4x SATA-2 ports (RAID 0/1/1+0/5) and two 32-bit PCI slots, just to name a few. While the features are numerous - the overclocking options are basic. All in all, with a feature set like this, $90 is a terrific bargain and a great foundation to build upon. For you MSI haters, ASUS has a very similar board for about the same price. Given the amount of issues I’ve encountered with it and helped others with, I cannot possibly recommend it though. Go with this MSI board instead – You will be impressed.

If building a very basic computer is your goal, the ‘budgetiest’ of budgeters may want to consider the inexpensive 754 boards and CPUs (ideally AMD Sempron for additional savings). Despite promises of an upcoming, buffed-up CPU line for the 754, this platform will always be behind in terms of choice, upgradeability and technology; thus, not discussed here. But, if you do decide to go 754, check out the ASRock K8NF4G and the Biostar TForce6100.

Depending on your choices of CPUs and boards, you can snip off about $100 from the price tag. The penalty will be performance, however this will be an acceptable trade-off for many system builders.

Graphics Card

Onboard video - $0
OR NVIDIA GeForce 6200TC $55 (Casual 3D gaming) - $55
OR NVIDIA GeForce 6600GT - $120

Most users will feel right at home with the integrated NVIDIA GeForce 6150 graphics engine. You will get dual display, HDTV acceleration and TV out. You will also get the ability to play most games before 2005 reasonably at modest or higher settings. Many 3D titles newer than 2005 will be playable at very low detail settings; however, don’t count on a buttery smooth experience and expect to leave a lot of the eye candy off.

Gaming has its place even on a budget system. So, if you like to play the occasional game, the GeForce 6200TC is a great budget card. It coughs up enough performance to frag your friends in Unreal Tournament 2004 or develop your Sims 2 family, but at a very low price. You might want to leave the anti-aliasing and extravagant eye-candy at 1600x1200 off for duration of your gaming excitement, however.

The NVIDIA GeForce 6600GT represents one of the best values for your dollar. This GPU ponies up enough power to play the latest games, but only at modest detail levels. The 6600GT will fly through those previous favorites you might have tucked away in drawer as well.

I would also have no problems recommending the ATI Radeon X1300 Pro, it costs about $20 less, but doesn’t pack quite as much bang for your buck. If you are looking for more gaming power, I’d like to point you over to our Mid-level Buyer’s Guide.

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