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 have you covered.
After working on this guide for many years, we learned the biggest pitfall of our previous work along with many other buying guides online: 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're 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:
• Decent performance • Good for everyday computing • Gaming with add-on GPU
Granted, if you just need to create a few documents and check your email, you can get by on much less than a $500 desktop. However, if you follow our Budget build to the T, you'll have a system acceptable for any role apart from running graphically intense applications — which could also be attainable by investing in a dedicated video card.
• Good performance • Fast for everyday computing • Casual gaming
Our Entry-Level Rig should be an excellent companion for running general applications and a sufficient solution for even the newest games on the market, albeit with some of the eye-candy dialed down.
• 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, 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 this 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.
The Budget Box
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.
|Memory||2x2GB G.Skill DDR3 1333MHz||$23|
|Storage||Western Digital Caviar Blue 500GB||$85**|
|Power||Antec Neo Eco 400C||$45|
|Case||NZXT Source 210 Elite||$50|
|Monitor||Acer S200HlAbd 20"||$110|
|Speakers||Logitech S220 2.1||$25|
|Peripherals||Logitech Wireless Combo MK260||$25|
|Core System Total||$416|
|Core System + Monitor and Peripherals||$576|
Motherboard, Processor, Memory
AMD has reclaimed a seat in our Budget Box with its Llano-based desktop APUs. In our recent review of the A8-3850, we found the chip's general execution to be slower than Sandy Bridge, but its integrated graphics core was significantly faster, exceeding entry-level discrete graphics cards such as the GeForce GT 520 and Radeon HD 6450. At ~$140, we believe the A8-3850 is a great solution for budget system builders, especially if you intend to run some lightweight games without a discrete graphics card.
However, if you do plan to employ a discrete GPU, or if CPU performance is crucial to your needs, we'd opt for Intel's $125 Core i3-2100 as it's a little quicker and cheaper. The chip offers comparable performance to the acclaimed quad-core Core i5-750 in applications that don't utilize the two extra cores — which includes most games. Although it's mostly useless for gaming, the integrated HD 2000 IGP is more than suitable for basic tasks. We'd pair it with MSI's H61M-E33 if you don't need SATA 6Gb/s or ASRock's H1M/U3S3 if you do.
Although you could save a little cash by purchasing 2GB of RAM for basic productivity and browsing, the chosen ASRock FM1 board only has two RAM slots. That being the case, it seems like a better idea to fill them with 4GB instead of potentially shorting yourself. Better safe than sorry as they say, and DDR3 RAM is incredibly cheap at the moment with a 2x2GB kit running as little as $20.
This build is not intended for graphically demanding tasks, but adding a relatively low-cost GPU like the Radeon HD 7750 will do wonders for your framerate, transforming this into a practical solution 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. Along with the A8-3850's integrated graphics, the chosen motherboard has a Realtek ALC662 audio chipset and integrated sound is more than sufficient for a basic machine.
**Recent flooding has dented hard drive production. Prices have skyrocketed and unless you're in desperate need of new storage, we recommend delaying your HDD purchase. Perhaps you can reuse an old device or treat yourself to a new SSD.
The way hard drives are priced these days, a few extra dollars can literally yield a 50% increase in storage space — and gigabytes disappear faster than you think. But if you're certain you won't need the additional storage, you're welcome to save a couple bucks by choosing a less capacious drive. The 500GB Caviar Blue 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 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 donning a sub-$50 price tag, and the NZXT Source 210 Elite is our personal pick with a front USB 3.0 port, plenty of space for expandability and stock 120mm/140mm fans, which should be more than sufficient for a system with no discrete graphics and perfectly fine if you decide to add one later. It's almost always available with free shipping, which is a major plus if you're buying a 14lb 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 Acer S200HLAbd features a native resolution of 1600x900 and unless you've already been spoiled by high-res displays this should prove adequate for general computing tasks. No sub-$150 screen is going to boast superb imagery and most are comparable enough in quality that you're safe buying anything with decent reviews. We recommend just finding something that fits your required size and resolution.
It should be noted that the chosen display doesn't have built-in speakers and such a "luxury" will cost a few bucks more. Frankly, you might as well buy a pair of budget external speakers. Logitech's S-220 2.1 speakers are only $20 and will sound infinitely better than an integrated solution.
Unless you intend to use this machine for prolonged productivity or heavy gaming sessions, you can probably get by with a basic wired or wireless keyboard and mouse set. We recommend Logitech's budget MK260 wireless combo, which features 128-bit AES encryption, a handful of multimedia and web keys, as well as a spill-resistant design. The keyboard gets up to two years of battery life and the mouse can last about five months.
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Matthew DeCarlo is a writer at TechSpot. TechSpot is a computer technology publication serving PC enthusiasts, gamers and IT pros since 1998.