Because speed doesn't have to cost a fortune
Our low-end Econobox isn't designed to be the cheapest possible combination of parts. Instead, it's a solid and affordable foundation for enthusiasts on a budget. We've avoided cutting corners that would have limited future upgrade options, and at the same time, we've tried to ensure that the system doesn't actually need any upgrades to deliver relatively peppy performance
|Processor||AMD Athlon 64 X2 3800+ (Socket AM2)||$151.00|
|Memory||OCZ Gold 1GB DDR2-800 (2 x 512MB)||$99.99|
|Graphics||NVIDIA GeForce 6150 (Integrated)||$0|
|Storage||Seagate Barracuda 7200.10 320GB||$94.99|
|NEC ND-3550A DVD+/-RW DL||$34.99|
|Audio||NVIDIA nForce 430 (Integrated)||$0|
|Enclosure||Antec NSK 4400 w/380W PSU||$76.99|
AMD's recent price cuts have allowed us to upgrade the single-core Athlon 64 3000+ from our last guide to a dual-core Athlon 64 X2 3800+. At $151, the Athlon 64 X2 3800+ provides some very serious budget firepower without breaking the bank. While we recommended the Socket 939 version in our last guide, we've stepped it up to Socket AM2 for this latest update. Socket AM2 provides a nicer upgrade path, since Socket 939 is more or less a dead-end at this point. Socket AM2 systems support DDR2 memory, as well, which could be re-used down the road. Recent rumors even suggest that Socket AM2 motherboards could be compatible with chips based on AMD's next-gen, quad-core microarchitecture, sometimes known as "K8L".
The Athlon 64 X2 3800+ has no really direct competition from the Core 2 Duo at this price point. Rather, it sits in the same class as Intel's older Pentium D chips, situated between the Pentium D 920 and the Pentium D 930. The X2 3800+ outclasses both of those chips in performance and power consumption, though.
We've chosen the direct descendent of our previous recommendation for this build, the Asus M2NPV-VM. Like its Socket 939 predecessor, the M2NPV-VM is outfitted with an NVIDIA GeForce 6150 integrated graphics chipset and its associated nForce 430 south bridge. This new board's feature set is virtually identical, too, including PCI Express x16 and x1 slots, a couple of 32-bit PCI slots, four 300MB/s Serial ATA ports, and FireWire. The integrated GeForce 6150 graphics sports both VGA and DVI outputs, making it rather handy for budget users who may need to drive a high-resolution LCD monitor.
If you like to watch movies on your PC, the GeForce 6150 also has PureVideo hardware acceleration support for some high-definition video content. You may need third-party software to take advantage of PureVideo, but it's a nice addition nonetheless. Don't expect to do much gaming on the GeForce 6150, though. The 6150 is rather anemic when it comes to gaming performance, and you're much better off with our alternatives section's discrete graphics card recommendation.
Our memory choice is slightly fancier than usual. OCZ's Gold line of memory is aimed chiefly at enthusiasts, as its gold-mirrored copper heat spreader attests. This OCZ Gold 1GB DDR2-800 kit is the cheapest DDR2-800 dual-channel bundle we can find from a big name brand, and it's reasonably priced. Cheaper DDR2-667 "value" memory may sell for $10 to 20 less, but AMD supports up to DDR2-800 for the new Socket AM2 platform. We don't think the savings is worth it in this machine, because our motherboard's integrated GeForce 6150 graphics could use the extra bandwidth created by faster memory.
We're quite happy with Seagate's new Barracuda 7200.10 line, and considering the 320GB model's low price, it'd be a shame not to include it here. With the drive's $94.99 price tag, you're paying a scant $0.30 for each gigabyte. Cheaper models from other companies may save you one or two cents per gigabyte, but we feel the 320GB Barracuda 7200.10 is the sweet spot for a budget machine given its 16MB cache, support for 300MB/s Serial ATA transfer speeds and Native Command Queuing, and five-year warranty. What's more, this drive's implementation of perpendicular recording technology allows it to squeeze all 320GB onto just two platters. Fewer platters generally means lower power consumption and noise levels, and Seagate is currently the only manufacturer we know of shipping a 320GB drive with two platters instead of three.
The NEC ND-3550A is still our DVD burner of choice, because to our knowledge, nothing significantly better has come along yet. That's a little disappointing, because despite Intel's decision to ditch IDE support in its latest chipsets, there are still almost no DVD burners that use Serial ATA. Plextor has a couple of models that are exceptions to this rule, including the PX-755SA, but they both cost more than $100a little too rich for our tastes.
That said, the NEC ND-3550A is still a fine drive. It burns DVDs from the plus and dash standards at 16X, as well as + and - dual-layer DVDs at 8X and 6X, respectively. NEC's line of DVD burners has a reputation for high quality burns with low error rates, and with its bundled copy of Nero, the ND-3550A offers excellent value.
Enclosure and power
Budget users too often spend all of their money on a fast CPU and a large hard drive, and then throw in a $30 case and power supply bundle as an afterthought. While cheap cases aren't usually too bad, their bundled power supplies are almost always made with cheap, low-quality components. Iffy power supplies often exhibit low power delivery, voltage fluctuations, poor stress tolerance, and short life spans. In fact, a cheap PSU is not only liable to fail, it can also cause system instability and damage sensitive components over time.
We're going with Antec once again due to the company's solid reputation as a builder of reliable power supplies and quiet, high-quality cases. However, we've moved from our trusty SLK2650-BQE to Antec's new NSK 4400 enclosure for this iteration of the system guide. The NSK 4400 is also built for quiet and costs roughly the same as the SLK2650-BQE, but it trades one 5.25" drive bay for a 3.5" hard drive bay and features a slightly beefier 380W power supply with a pair of +12V rails. Our recommended dual-core processor sips slightly more juice than our previous single-core Athlon 64, so the extra power should come in handy.