The TechSpot PC Buying Guide offers an in-depth list of today's best hardware, spanning four unique, yet typical budgets. Whether you are a first time builder seeking guidance or a seasoned enthusiast, we've got you covered.
After working on this guide for many years, we learned the biggest pitfall of our previous work, as well as with many other buying guides online, is that they expire shortly after publishing. Prices change daily, components come and go, and the guides simply degrade in worth until they're eventually rewritten a few months later. Recognizing this, we are taking an alternative approach in our revamped PC Buying Guide.
We will add and update new hardware to the mix as it's released. All four builds will be updated on major product launches and we'll make a biweekly pass over the components and their prices to catch anything in-between. We wholly welcome your support and input to keep this guide as fresh as possible.
With that out of the way, let's take a look at our four system price points:
The Budget Box
• Decent performance • Good for everyday computing • Gaming only with add-on graphics
If you just need to create a few documents and check your email, you can get by on much less than a $500 desktop. Hell, a $300 netbook can tackle that job while remaining highly portable. Buying a netbook is a worthy route for the road warrior, but desktops still reign supreme in terms of value and expandability.
If you follow this build you'll have a system acceptable for any role apart from running graphically intense applications. Throw a budget video card into the mix — which can be had for less than a $100 these days — and you'll have a humble solution to gaming as well.
Motherboard, Processor, Memory
The new dual-core Core i3 2100 ($117 list) is a perfect match for this machine, offering comparable performance to the acclaimed quad-core Core i5 750 ($200 retail) in applications that don't utilize the two extra cores — which includes most games. Additionally, the new Sandy Bridge processors have a very respectable on-die graphics core, making them especially ideal for a budget machine with integrated graphics. Unfortunately, many of the new Intel processors aren't available through etailers, so we can't quite add the i3 2100 to the table yet.
We would recommend waiting until the lower-tier Sandy Bridge chips are released before purchasing a machine in this price bracket. If that's not possible and you can't spend big on a processor, AMD's Phenom II X2 555 remains your best bet. Not only does the stock chip offer an incredible value, but you have a fair chance at enabling two additional processing cores.
DRAM prices are finally dipping to more budget-friendly levels — at least compared to previous months. We think 4GB of RAM is gradually becoming the new standard, but you could save a little cash by purchasing 2GB instead if you're only going to be browsing the Web, emailing, instant messaging, word processing, listening to music and so on.
This build is not intended for gaming, but adding a relatively low-cost GPU like the Radeon HD 4850 will do wonders for your FPS, transforming this into a viable machine for casual PC gaming. We recently published a tech tip with a list of the top budget and mid-range graphics cards available, which should offer some guidance. In addition to a Radeon HD 4250 IGP, the chosen motherboard has a Realtek ALC662 audio chipset and integrated sound is more than sufficient for a basic machine.
The way hard drives are priced these days, a few extra dollars can literally yield a 50% increase in storage space — and the gigabytes disappear faster than you think. But if you are certain that you won't need the additional storage space, you're welcome to save a couple bucks by choosing a less capacious drive. The 500GB Caviar Black currently offers the best bang for your buck.
You wouldn't put diluted gas in your car and you shouldn't feed your PC dirty power. The instability offered by your typical no-name PSU will inexorably lead to an untimely failure, leaving you with an unglamorous paperweight. In short, friends shouldn't let friends buy cheap power supplies. Antec's Neo Eco 400c will not only provide this build with all the power it could ever need, it should also meet the requirements of most entry-level video cards in circulation.
There are plenty of basic chassis priced in the sub-$50 bracket, and the NZXT is our personal pick with plenty of space for expandability and a stock 120mm rear exhaust fan, which should be sufficient for a system with no discrete graphics. It's almost always available with free shipping, which is a major plus if you're buying a 13lb metal box.
Monitor, Speakers, Peripherals
A 20" display doesn't sound like much these days, and there's no denying it's toward the smaller end of desktop monitors. The Asus VH202T-P 20" features a native resolution of 1600x900 and unless you've already been spoiled by larger high-res displays this should prove adequate for general computing tasks. No display in the sub-$150 range is going to boast superb imagery, and most are of comparable enough in quality that you're safe buying anything with decent reviews.
We recommend just finding something that fits your size and resolution needs. Unfortunately, you'll probably have to rely on sales, rebates, open box, or refurbished monitors if you're after one that's larger than 20" and cheaper than $140.
Our chosen display has integrated speakers, but frankly, we wouldn't recommend using them beyond Windows sounds. Dip into your piggy bank and invest in some low-end 2.1 speakers, such as Logitech's S220. You'll be glad you did.
Wired keyboard and mice combinations start at about $10 with choices including several Logitech, Microsoft and Apevia combos under $25. Our pick is currently one of the cheapest solutions available, but if you have an extra few dollars and prefer a wireless setup, have a look at Logitech's EX 100.
The Entry-Level Rig (~$900)
• Good performance • Fast for everyday computing • Casual gaming
Our Entry-Level Rig should prove to be an excellent companion for running general applications and a sufficient solution for even the newest games on the market, albeit with a bit of the eye-candy tuned down.
The Enthusiast's PC (~$1,600)
• Excellent performance • Good Multitasker • Perfect for gaming
Our Enthusiast's PC incorporates the perfect blend of both the Entry-Level Rig and Luxury System, making this the most harmonious of builds. Our intent is to keep this system within the grasp of the average computer enthusiast, essentially offering a fully-loaded PC minus some of the unnecessary bells and whistles that could set you back an additional grand or two.
• Workstation-like performance • Great for heavy multitasking • Extreme gaming
The Luxury System is a screaming-edge machine lacking any virtual price cap. Every component in the Luxury System guide is thoughtfully scrutinized, offering the most horsepower for your greenback. If a component's premium price isn't justified, it simply doesn't make the cut.
Republished with permission from TechSpot.
Matthew DeCarlo is a TechSpot editor. Follow him on Twitter.
TechSpot is a computer technology publication serving PC enthusiasts, gamers and IT pros since 1998.