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In many respects, it’s more difficult to build a great cheap PC than it is to build a more expensive one. In fact, the less money you have to spend, the more vital it is that every dollar delivers measurable value. With that in mind, we sat down with one simple goal: to build the best inexpensive, multipurpose PC that we would want to use ourselves. We didn’t start with any particular budget, but at every turn we shaved as much from the cost as we could—trimming the fancy case, ditching an unnecessary 800W PSU, and scuttling the spendy Core i5 CPU.
The result is an incredibly lean, but still powerful machine featuring a quad-core CPU, a GPU capable of playing anything on a 22-inch panel, and… well, you’ll have to read on to see the rest. Rest assured, though, this is a machine that would be welcome in any of our homes, whether we’re playing games, editing video, touching up photos, ripping movies, or simply surfing the Internet. Oh yeah, we’ll also show you how to assemble the components like a pro, one easy-to-follow step at a time.
And just to keep the whole thing good and honest, we stopped by our local Best Buy and bought the best comparably priced system they had, which we pitted against our ultra-budget machine in a steel-cage match to the death. Want to see who wins? Read on to find out.
The key to building a killer budget PC is knowing where you can and can't cut costs
An all-aluminum, toolless masterpiece of design the Rosewill R220 is not. It is an eminently serviceable budget mid-tower that will hold all the hardware you’ll ever need in your cheap PC. You should definitely beware of sharp edges when working in this humble enclosure, but you needn’t worry about your rig overheating, thanks to the case’s many fan mounts. And you won’t find a better looking case for $20.
While there are definitely better coolers out there, when you’re operating on a tight budget you can’t beat the low, low price of $0. The stock cooler that comes with the boxed retail version of a CPU is more than sufficient—at least until you’re ready to start overclocking. Stock coolers even come with a pre-applied thin layer of thermal paste, so you need not spend an extra penny.
Oh, times are good when you can get technology so current it still has that new PC smell on it. In this case, it’s the scent of our ATI Radeon HD 5770 and its DirectX 11 capability. As we wrote this, DX11 titles were just starting to trickle out. Even without DirectX 11, this card is a capable performer in DX9 and DX10 games, too.
The one place you shouldn’t scrimp is the power supply. Sure, there are cheaper generic supplies, but do you really want to trust your precious PC to a power supply that’s leftover Cold War surplus? We don’t think so. The RS-460 provides ample power for our budget PC, and includes all the necessary connectors, including a 6-pin PCI Express power connector.
OK, OK, we know 500GB is a little thin, especially in the days of $75 terabyte drives. But a bigger hard drive is a relatively simple upgrade down the road, and the single-platter Barracuda 7200.12 performs well, despite its low price and modest capacity. It’s not as speedy as some of the 2TB drives out there, but for $55, can you really complain that much?
MicroATX is normally anathema to folks who consider themselves power users, but when you’re trying to build a budget badass, it’s one compromise you should consider making. After all, besides the GPU, what other add-in boards do you use anymore?
If technology were a theme park, RAM would be the old-fashioned wooden roller coaster. First, it was so damned cheap that consumers would cry tears of joy whenever picking up 2GB sticks. Now, the roller coaster is headed back up that rickety track and consumers are wondering how high it will go. Fortunately, we got ours at a somewhat decent price—but who knows what it’ll cost in a month?
Intel may have introduced the first quad-core for the PC, but AMD’s the one who brought it down to a price the average Joe could afford. For $99, the Athlon II X4 620 offers the best bang for the buck available today.
While there are higher-rated 24x DVD-RW drives out there, in the real world, where there’s no 24x media, Samsung’s SH-S223C is still a top dog. With great burning and reading performance, and the best DVD ripping speeds we’ve tested yet, this is the DVD-RW drive to beat. You say you wanted Blu-ray in your uber-cheap machine? It just ain’t worth the money, honey.
Since the release in October, Windows 7 has received nearly universal acclaim, and for good reason. This is the best version of Windows Microsoft has ever shipped. With kick-ass security and the speed and reliability of Windows XP, there’s no reason to buy another operating system—especially when you can buy the OEM edition of the OS for just $105.
|The Parts List||PART||PRICE||URL
|CPU||AMD Athlon II X4 620||$99||amd.com
||Patriot 4GB DDR2/800||$85||patriotmem.com|
|Videocard||Sapphire Radeon HD 5770||$166||sapphiretech.com
||Seagate 500GB Barracuda 7200.12||$55||seagate.com
||Cooler Master RS-460||$35||coolermaster.com
||Windows 7 Home Premium OEM||$105||microsoft.com