In a previous article, we compared the value of pre-assembled, performance-grade desktops from popular vendors to the DIY Enthusiast's PC recommended in our buying guide. That research left us with the same conclusion hardware buffs have harped on for years: getting your hands dirty results in cash savings as well as some higher quality components.
We are taking another look at the market, but this time focusing on sub-$500 desktops. The table below compares our Budget Box with two similarly outfitted machines from Dell and HP.
Before getting started, we have to admit that going into this we thought our Budget Box would have a hard time competing with the subsidized bloatware-infested desktops peddled by massive system builders. As it turns out, that's not the case at all.
|Component||TechSpot Budget Box||Dell Inspiron 570||HP Pavilion p6550z|
|Motherboard||Asus M4A78LT-M LE||N/A||N/A|
|Processor||AMD Phenom II X2 550
|AMD Athlon II X2 240
|AMD Athlon II X2 250
|Memory||4GB DDR3 1333MHz||4GB DDR3 1066MHz||4GB DDR3 1333MHz|
|Graphics||ATI Radeon 3000 IGP||ATI Radeon HD 4200 IGP||ATI Radeon HD 4200 IGP|
|Sound||7.1 integrated audio||7.1 integrated audio||7.1 integrated audio|
|Storage||WD Caviar Blue 500GB||500GB 7200RPM||500GB 7200RPM|
|Optical||LG DVD burner||DVD burner||DVD burner with LightScribe|
|Power||Corsair CMPSU400CX 400W||N/A||N/A|
|OS||Not Included||Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit||Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit|
|Warranty||3 years on most core parts||1 year in-home service||1 year in-home service|
|Other||Basic keyboard and mouse.||Basic keyboard and mouse.|
It was a bit difficult to find customizable OEM desktops with the same components as our Budget Box, but the three machines above are close enough in most regards that we feel they're a fair comparison. In fact, they're almost identical. The largest difference between the systems is the processor. We've chosen AMD's Phenom II X2 550 3.1GHz for our Budget Box, while the Inspiron 570 uses an Athlon II X2 240 2.8GHz and the Pavilion p6550z has an Athlon II X2 250 3.0GHz.
At retail, these chips run about $90, $57 and $62, so our Budget Box would cost even less with one of the latter two processors. That said, we've opted for the more expensive part since it's essentially a Phenom II X4 with two cores disabled. With the right motherboard (such as the one we've recommended) you have a pretty good chance at enabling these cores to get far more processing power than you initially pay for, and that's worth $30 to us.
Despite the higher model, the Radeon 3000 and Radeon HD 4200 IGP are equally worthless for anything beyond the basics, so the OEM systems don't have much, if any, upper hand there. However, we can credit the OEM systems with throwing in a basic keyboard and mouse and the Windows 7 Home Premium license. If you add those to our Budget Box, its price would be just over $500 -- and yet, it's still a better value in our opinion.
With input devices and Windows 7 included, if we swap out the Budget Box's better processor for one of the ~$60 chips, it's about the same cost as the OEM systems. All the while, it has a superior power supply, motherboard, warranty, and it ships bloatware-free. It's also more expandable in that you can plan for future upgrades at the time of building (a PSU with proper wattage for a GPU you're planning to buy, a case with ample space and cooling, and so on).
While we're talking about upgrades, it's worth noting if a part is crap today, it'll be crap tomorrow. If you buy an OEM system and decide to build your own a year down the road, you probably won't want to recycle most of your existing components, such as the power supply and chassis. All of my quality PSUs have stood up to years of 24/7 abuse and I've been using the same full tower chassis since 2005. In other words, you often forfeit some long-term savings with OEM systems.
Having said all of that, we understand the appeal of pre-assembled budget desktops. If you're just looking for a quick and easy setup to put in your 10-year-old's bedroom, we won't wag our finger at you for picking up a $299 Walmart special. Just realize that you're buying a "disposable PC" and by spending a little time shopping for parts and assembling your system, you'll make out better in the long run.