In past months, we’ve shown you how to build rigs for less than $1,000, and we even built a surprisingly speedy $667 PC Value Meal . But what do you do when your budget is half that? Let’s face it, not everyone has half a grand or more to spend on a new computer, and not every build has to be a tricked-out gaming rig. Sometimes you just need a second computer for the family, or an HTPC that doesn’t break the bank. Heck, sometimes you just need a cheap first computer. That doesn’t mean you have to head to big-boxville and pick a prebuilt off the rack. Indeed, we’re betting that with a little elbow grease we can put together a machine for less than $350 that’ll perform basic tasks, if not with a surplus of power, at least without smoking and dying.
How do you build a PC for less than $350? Combine, combine, combine. AMD’s Brazos Fusion APU is great for that; for $110 we got an Asrock E350M1 Mini-ITX motherboard with a 1.6GHz dual-core Hudson M1 APU and integrated Radeon HD 6310 GPU. Bam! That’s motherboard, CPU, GPU, and onboard cooler taken care of. The E350M1 has two slots for DDR3 DIMMs; we’ll use just one 2GB DDR3/1333 DIMM for now.
We chose the Rosewill RS-MI-01 BK chassis for several reasons. First, although it’s small, it’s roomy enough to accommodate one full-size optical drive and two 3.5-inch hard drives. Other Mini-ITX cases are smaller, but require slimline optical drives and 2.5-inch hard drives—too pricy for our budget. The case also comes with a 250W integrated PSU that’s more than enough to power our rig. The case also has one PCI expansion slot, just in case we want to upgrade to a single-slot discrete GPU sometime in the future—the motherboard features one PCIe x16 slot.
For our drives, we picked a DVD burner with solid performance and a low, low price of $20. We also snagged a 320GB hard drive for $40. We know you can get 1TB for less than twice that, but every penny counts.
The first step is to prep the case. The Rosewill case we’re using is pretty simple; to remove the top and side panels, just remove four screws on the rear panel, then lift the panel up and out. Remove the front bezel (but leave it close by) by detaching the clips at the sides and bottom of the bezel.
Before you install the motherboard, insert the RAM into the slot closest to the APU.
Install the motherboard I/O shield, then slide the mobo onto the four raised standoffs at the back of the case, aligning the I/O ports with the holes in the shield. Secure the mobo (above) with four screws (they’ll look like the ones you just removed from the rear panel), then, while you’re at it, connect the 24-pin ATX power cable, as well as the front-panel HD Audio and USB 2.0 connectors. It’s not going to get any less cramped inside the case later.
You should also attach the front-panel power, reset, and LED connectors (above), as the optical drive will soon make access to that part of the motherboard difficult.
Now it’s time to install the optical drive. Slide it into the 5.25-inch drive tray at the front of the case until the mounting holes on the side of the drive line up with the rearmost sets of holes on the sides of the bay (below). Secure with four to eight optical drive screws.
Tuck the remaining length of the ATX power cable underneath the optical drive, and attach the SATA power and data cables. We suggest using the SATA power connector that’s closest to the PSU for the optical drive, leaving the terminating connector for the hard drive. Replace the front bezel.
There are two 3.5-inch drive mounts in the case we’re using: one at the front, which can be used for an external 3.5-inch drive, and a mounting point at the rear, to the right of the motherboard. We’ll use the latter.
Attach the drive rails to the hard drive as shown (above, left), using the same style of screw that you used for the motherboard. Insert the drive perpendicular to the optical drive at the front of the case (above, right), then slide it back into place, making sure the SATA ports point toward the front of the case and the mounting holes on the case frame line up with the holes in the top drive rail. Secure with the pointed-ended screws.
Connect the remaining SATA power connector to the drive (below), then use the black 6Gb/s SATA data cable to connect the hard drive to the motherboard’s SATA3_0 port. The hard drive doesn’t have a SATA 6Gb/s connector, but both port and cable are backward-compatible; besides, the motherboard only comes with one SATA 3Gb/s cable, which we’ve used for the optical drive.
At this point, you’re ready to go! Check that the 24-pin power cable is connected to the motherboard, double-check your drives’ SATA power and data connections, and make sure the front-panel connectors are all in place, then replace the top cover and secure it. Now all you have to do is install your OS and you’re ready to go!
Don’t expect miracles from a budget this small. Our mini rig is more than capable of basic computing tasks, and it’s a lot more powerful than a netbook of about the same price, but it can’t hold a candle to even our $667 budget rig from last month—but then again, it’s half the price. Thanks to the integrated Radeon HD 6310 graphics chip, the mini rig handily trumps much more expensive mini PCs like the Giada i50 —at least in gaming and other GPU-limited tests. It can’t compete with the Giada’s Core i5-430UM, despite our rig’s higher clock speeds, in our Photoshop benchmark, or in MainConcept Reference, both of which might benefit from the Giada’s 4GB of RAM (our rig has only 2GB) and faster Core i5 microarchitecture.
Though a Blu-ray drive wasn’t in our budget for this build, we were able to play back 1080p video (the Iron Man 2 trailer we usually use for this test) with no issues using Window Media Player. And though this isn’t a gaming powerhouse—averaging around 18fps in Left 4 Dead 2 at 1280x800—it still has oomph enough for older games, which is where a gamer with a $340 hardware budget should be looking anyway. We don’t mean that in a snobby way; there are dozens of gaming classics available on sites like Gog.com for very little money that will run great on our budget build, and keep you happy and gaming for hundreds of hours.
With a $400 budget, we could have added another 2GB DIMM and replaced the hard drive with a 7,200rpm 750GB hard drive. Hell, with $1,000, we could build a truly kick-ass rig. But that wasn’t our goal. Our goal was to create a functional PC at as low a price as we could manage, and in that we succeeded, creating a device that outperforms many mini PCs and set-top rigs that are twice its price. If you need a machine for the kids, or for basic computing tasks, you don’t have to spend more than this to get something serviceable. And if you come into some money later on, you can smack some more RAM in there, add a discrete videocard, and further extend the life of your PC.
$340 Budget Box
|Premiere Pro CS3 (sec)||
Quake III (fps)
Quake 4 (fps)
See our review of the Giada i50 here .