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, ensured that the system doesn't actually need any upgrades to deliver relatively peppy performance as equipped.
|Component||Item||Reference price||Best price|
|Processor||AMD Athlon 64 3000+ (Venice)||$147.00|
|Motherboard||Asus A8N-VM CSM||$88.00|
|Memory||Corsair Value Select 1GB (2 x 512MB)||$82.00|
|Graphics||NVIDIA GeForce 6150 (Integrated)||$0||
|Storage||Seagate Barracuda 7200.8 250GB||$102.50|
|NEC ND-3540A DVD+/-RW DL||$40.99|
|Audio||NVIDIA nForce 430/ADI AD1986A (Integrated)||$0||
|Enclosure||Antec SLK2650-BQE w/350W PSU||$75.00|
AMD is in a good place right now. Its Athlon 64 processors typically offer better performance across a range of applications, especially in intensive tasks like 3D gaming, than the competing desktop Pentium processors from Intel. At the same time, Athlon 64 chips generally consume less power (and thus produce less heat) than the Intel chips. That's why Athlon 64 processors make such a strong showing in our picks, starting with the Econobox.
AMD pushes Sempron processors for budget systems, but we're going with a 939-pin Athlon 64 for this build for a few reasons. First, using a Socket 939 chip ensures that the system has a clear upgrade path. AMD already has a wide selection of Socket 939 chips from which to choose, and despite the fact that the company will introduce a new Socket M2 platform next year, Socket 939 processors should be available for quite some time. The Socket 754-based Sempron's upgrade potential isn't nearly as rosy. AMD's Socket 754 desktop lineup is dominated by budget processors and older Athlon 64s, and there's nary a dual-core chip in sight, leaving Socket 754-based systems with precious few upgrade options. Socket 939 also gives our budget system access to the performance benefits that dual memory channels can provide.
Since we're trying to pinch pennies, we've selected the cheapest 939-pin Athlon 64 available, the Athlon 64 3000+. This CPU is based on AMD's latest 90-nano Venice core, which packs a number of performance tweaks and consumes less power than previous Athlon 64 cores. At about $141, the Athlon 64 3000+ may seem a little indulgent, but the upgrade flexibility and performance it provides are well worth the price of entry. It'll also run circles around the low end of Intel's processor lineup.
Since our low-end system requires some belt-tightening, we're equipping it with a motherboard that features integrated graphics. We've yet to review NVIDIA's new GeForce 6150/nForce 430 chipset, but we have intimate experience with the nForce4 core logic from which it's derived, and we generally like what we've seen of the nForce4 line. (We have run into problems with the nForce4's hardware-accelerated networking and SATA drivers, but those problems are generally remedied by disabling optional extras.) The GeForce 6150/nForce 430 delivers a pretty compelling array of graphics and south bridge features, and the IGP's performance is arguably the best around.
Asus' A8N-VM CSM motherboard is one of the first GeForce 6150/nForce 430 boards to hit the market. With four Serial ATA RAID ports, Gigabit Ethernet, PCI Express x1 and x16 slots, and DVI and VGA outputs for under $90, it's tough to beat. However, as good as the GeForce 6150's gaming performance may be for an integrated graphics solution, it's really only appropriate for casual gaming at lower resolutions and detail levels. Regular gamers would do well to add a discrete graphics card, and we've recommended one in our alternatives section, which we'll get to in a minute.
In the memory department, we've equipped our budget system with a 1GB dual-channel kit from Corsair. The kit consists of two 512MB DIMMs, allowing us to take advantage of the Athlon 64's dual-channel memory controller. A gig of memory might seem luxurious for a budget system, but Windows XP is a little sluggish with only 512MB of memory, even for basic desktop tasks. We don't want to handicap this system right out of the gate.
Memory is a commodity item, particularly at the low end of the spectrum, so picking a module manufacturer comes down to reputation, reliability, and price. Corsair's Value Select line has those qualities in spades. Corsair has a strong reputation for building great memory, and we've used Value Select modules extensively in the past. The 1GB kit we've selected is cheaper than other name-brand kits. The kit is slightly more expensive than some no-name varieties, but we'll gladly pay a little extra for peace of mind.
Speaking of commodity items, we have our budget system's optical drive. There are a staggering number of DVD drives available for around $40, and little real differentiation between drives offered by different manufacturers. The NEC drive we've selected can write DVD and dual-layer DVD media in both plus and dash formats, and for those concerned with aesthetics, it's available in black.
Hard drives aren't quite the commodity items that optical drives have become, and there are several reasons why we've picked a Seagate Barracuda 7200.8 ahead of drives from other manufacturers. Seagate's five-year warranty is our biggest motivation for choosing this drive. Most hard drive manufacturers only offer three years of coverage for desktop drives, and although Seagate's five-year warranty doesn't necessarily mean that the drive will be less failure-prone than others, the extra coverage entitles you to a replacement drive for longer. The 'cuda's appeal extends beyond just the warranty, though. The drive also offers competitive performance with relatively low noise levels, and the 250GB Serial ATA model strikes a good balance between capacity and affordability.
Enclosure and power
Most budget systems skimp when it comes to arguably one of the most important components in a system: the power supply. Good power supplies can last for years, through several upgrades, while bad ones can cause instability and damage a system's components. Naturally, we wanted to equip our low-end system with a solid PSU, and Antec just happens to include one in its SLK2650 enclosure. The 350W unit should easily handle the power requirements of the system as we've specced it and leave users with a little headroom for future upgrades. This mid-tower enclosure also includes a 120mm exhaust fan and has rubber grommets to dampen hard drive vibrations. Its price is tough to beat, considering what you get.