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Building the Perfect Budget PC, Part 1

by Robert Bruce Thompson and Barbara Fritchman Thompson
02/15/2005

Introduction

Inexpensive doesn't have to mean cheap. The myth persists that you can't save money building your own PC, particularly a budget system. In fact, it's easy to match the price of a mass-market commercial system with a homebuilt system that uses higher-quality components. Of course, you could instead match the quality level of a mass-market commercial system by buying the cheapest components available and save a few bucks by doing so, but we don't recommend doing that. We think there are good reasons to build inexpensive systems, but no reason at all to build cheap ones.

So we set out to design two inexpensive systems--one AMD and one Intel--using only high-quality components. Our budget was $500 for a complete system; that is, the system itself with monitor, keyboard, mouse, and speakers. (If you already own a suitable monitor, keyboard, mouse, and speakers, you can build the system for less than $350.) We did not consider shipping or sales tax, since those vary considerably, nor did we budget for an operating system or other software. To keep costs down, it's important to avoid the Microsoft tax, so we installed the free Xandros Desktop Linux Open Circulation Edition, which includes the full-featured OpenOffice.org office suite and numerous other useful applications. Of course, we also installed Windows XP temporarily, to verify compatibility.

On a $500 budget, it's important to make every penny count. Accordingly, we chose carefully, avoiding the temptation to spend $5 more here and $10 more there, unless those extra dollars were really going to pay off in terms of increased reliability, functionality, or performance. Still, we recognize that many readers will want to modify our configurations slightly for better performance, functionality, reliability, or noise level, so we've included alternative recommendations where we think that spending a few extra dollars might be worthwhile for those whose priorities differ from our design goals.

When budget is a top priority, it's important to take advantage of sales, rebates, daily specials, and so on. Big-box stores often run promotions on components. For example, one of our local retailers recently advertised a CD writer for $25, but with a $10 instant rebate and a $10 manufacturer rebate. The net cost for that CD writer is $5 plus the price of the stamp to mail in the rebate form. Newegg.com, from which we frequently buy components, runs very attractive daily specials on popular components.

It's also important to minimize shipping costs and taxes. For that reason, although we link to Newegg.com for price references, we recommend buying heavy items--particularly the case and monitor--locally if possible. Also, it often makes sense to consolidate your component order rather than place multiple orders and pay separate shipping charges.

Design Goals

Our fundamental design goal is to configure and build a reliable, inexpensive system that provides reasonable performance for web browsing, word processing, email, and similar productivity applications under Windows XP or Linux. We would like this system to be usable for 18 to 24 months without an upgrade. With that in mind, here are the design considerations we set and the priority we assigned to each:

Design Consideration Priority
Price 5 stars
Reliability 4 stars
Size 1 star
Noise level 2 stars
Expandability 1 star
Processor performance 2 stars
Video quality/performance 2 stars
Disk capacity/performance 2 stars

Price Price is the primary design consideration, tempered by our insistence that the system be reliable and have reasonable performance. Any time we spend more than absolutely necessary, we demand a high return for those few extra dollars.

Reliability We refuse to design an unreliable system, no matter how tempting the price of cheap components may be. For example, we could save $30 by using a cheap, no-name case and power supply, $40 by using a cheesy motherboard, $10 by substituting generic memory, and so on. Those are exactly the kinds of compromises that the designers of cheap mass-market systems cheerfully make, but we refuse to play that game.

Size Size is unimportant. Although we'll choose a small standard case, we won't go down the small-form-factor road, which would increase costs significantly for no real benefit.

Noise level We'd love to build a quiet system, but quiet costs money. Accordingly, although we won't spend extra money for a quiet power supply, a quiet CPU cooler, and so on, we will keep noise level in mind and choose the quietest inexpensive components we can find.

Expandability Expandability is of no concern, so we won't spend anything extra to improve expandability. Of course, to the extent that we can improve expandability at no cost, we will. For example, we'll choose a motherboard that provides an AGP expansion slot in favor of a similar motherboard that supports only embedded video.

Processor performance Processor performance is a minor consideration. Even inexpensive current processors are more than capable of running Windows XP or Linux and mainstream applications.

Video quality/performance Video quality and performance are minor considerations, except to the extent that we demand high-quality 2-D video. This system is not intended for gaming beyond the most casual level, so we will not devote any extra money to improving 3-D video performance.

Disk capacity/performance Disk capacity and performance are minor considerations. Even the smallest current hard drives are 40GB or larger, which more than suffices for mainstream use. We do insist on a 7,200-rpm hard drive, though, rather than a 5,400-rpm drive like that used in many cheap mass-market systems. The additional cost for a 7,200-rpm model is small, and the performance boost is noticeable.

With those decisions made, we set out to choose specific components for our AMD and Intel systems.

Component Selection

With the exception of the processor, motherboard, and memory, our component selections are identical for the AMD and Intel systems. A good inexpensive optical drive, for example, doesn't care if it's running in an AMD box or an Intel box, nor does a good inexpensive case care whether you install an AMD motherboard or an Intel motherboard.

AMD and Intel are both in the midst of platform changes, AMD from Socket A and Socket 754 to Socket 939, and Intel from Socket 478 to Socket 775. The older platforms lack support for the newest technologies, such as PCI Express video, and may be more difficult to upgrade in the future, but they are less expensive than the newer platforms. For budget systems, there's no question that the older platforms offer acceptable feature sets and performance while delivering much more bang for the buck.

Accordingly, we focused our attention on optimizing performance, features, and reliability at a price point, and disregarded the marketing hype. Here are the components we chose:

Processor (AMD): Sempron 2400+

For a budget system, our rule of thumb is to allocate about 12 to 15 percent of the total budget to a retail-boxed processor, which also includes a bundled CPU cooler. AMD produces processors to fit various sockets, including Sockets 754, 939, and 940 for midrange to high-end processors and Socket A for low-end to midrange processors.

Our budget limits us to using a $60 to $75 processor, which in turn limits our choices to the Socket A Sempron models. Socket A (or K7) Semprons are close cousins of the Athlon XP processor, which is no bad thing. (Socket 754 Semprons are based on the K8 Athlon 64.) K7 Semprons have a smaller L2 cache than Athlon XP processors do, which reduces their performance for large data sets such as multimedia files. But even the slowest K7 Sempron is more than fast enough to provide decent performance on the tasks for which a budget system is generally used.

At the time we configured this system, the least expensive retail-boxed K7 Sempron, the 2200+, sold for $57. The Sempron 2300+ sold for $60, the 2400+ for $63, and the 2500+ for $77. The difference in performance between those models is very small, so ordinarily we would have chosen the Sempron 2200+. However, the 2200+ and 2300+ were not in stock, so we ended up spending a few extra few dollars for the 2400+ model. The Sempron 2500+ costs $14 more than the 2400+, which is significant for a budget system and provides very little additional performance.

The Sempron 2400+ won't win any awards for raw performance, but at $63 it provides incredible bang for the buck.

As it turns out, the two processors are quite similar in overall performance. The Sempron wins a few benchmarks by a small margin, as does the Celeron, but most benchmarks were within a few percentage points either way. The only exceptions are SSE-3 benchmarks, which the Celeron wins by large margins. For typical tasks, though, you won't be able to tell the difference between the Celeron D 320 and the Sempron 2400+. Both have overall performance similar to a 2.0GHz Pentium 4. Not leading edge, certainly, but not too shabby either.

Processor (Intel): Celeron D 320

The Celeron D is Intel's budget processor, a trimmed-down version of its mainstream Prescott-core Pentium 4 processor. Earlier Celeron models were based on the Northwood-core Pentium 4. Their performance was, to be polite, pedestrian. The Celeron D is a whole different kettle of bits. For the Celeron D, Intel increased L2 cache from 128K to 256K and increased the front-side bus speed from 400MHz to 533MHz. Those two changes made the Celeron D, if not a barn burner, at least a respectable choice in terms of performance.

Intel makes many Celeron D models, ranging in speed from 2.26GHz to 3.06GHz. The faster models are out of our price range, but the 2.26GHz Celeron D 315 ($67) and the 2.4GHz Celeron D 320 ($72) fall within the $60 to $75 range we'd budgeted for the processor. Ordinarily we'd choose the Celeron D 315, because the Celeron D 320 costs $5 more for only an imperceptible performance boost. However, the Celeron D 315 was out of stock, so we went with the Celeron D 320. That's probably just as well, because it allowed us to compare the Celeron D 320 head-to-head with the Sempron 2400+.

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