How to: Build your own killer budget PC

See how far $1500 can take you towards building a high-quality AMD or Intel PC

Cooler Master's CM-690 II desktop PC case. Image credit: Cooler Master.

Cooler Master's CM-690 II desktop PC case. Image credit: Cooler Master.

Selecting components to build a fast PC for everyday office and multimedia tasks is never an easy undertaking, no matter how well you know your stuff. You have to make a large number of decisions about components, and the longer you take to research what you can get within a certain budget, the more likely it is that prices will have changed by the time you finally choose what you want. Sometimes that can work in your favour, but Murphy's Law means that more often than not, prices will go up if you take too long to pounce on a good current deal. (Sure enough, component pricing has gone up slightly in the last month.)

Go for a component bundle

One option that shouldn't be overlooked when you're sourcing components for a new PC is a CPU/motherboard/memory bundle. Why sift through a large number of products to find the right combination when you can pick store-selected bundle designed to offer good value for money? Not only that, you'll save yourself a few dollars at the checkout compared to buying the same products separately, and you're almost guaranteed that the selected components in the combo deal will work well.

Everything but high-end gaming

For this exercise, we wanted to build a fast PC that will be used for common tasks at home: watching videos, ripping DVDs, using office software, editing high-resolution photos, running multiple browser windows simultaneously, storing and playing a large number of music and video files, compressing multimedia files — and performing a number of these tasks simultaneously. The only thing we left out is gaming capabilities, since not everyone is interested in playing the latest first-person shooter.

Buying good quality parts on a budget

To get started, we've compared two PC configurations comprised of combo deals from Aus PC Market. We think the combo deals are fantastic value for money for anyone who's in the process of configuring a new desktop PC. We also selected a supporting cast of components that we think will give you a good quality system for the best price. Often people will skimp on the quality of their PC, opting for a cheap case and power supply, for example, in order to keep the costs down. But we're going to attempt to build a high quality PC with good components for as close to $1500 as possible (without a monitor, keyboard or mouse). As is the case in the real world, budgets blow out, so we're giving ourselves a little wriggle room above this point.

What follows are the configurations we've come up with for equivalent AMD- and Intel-based PCs. They're as closely matched as possible, with only the motherboard and CPU differing in each system.

Intel vs AMD

Herein lies the conundrum of any system builder: do you go for AMD or Intel. At a similar price point, you can buy either a quad-core Intel Core i5-750 CPU, or a six-core AMD Phenom II 1055T CPU. The clock speeds differ by around 140MHz, with the AMD being faster at 2.8GHz, compared to the Intel's 2.66GHz, but it's the AMD's two extra physical CPU cores and more cache memory that clinch it for us. It means you get much better multitasking capabilities, allowing you to do more in the foreground while running processor-intensive tasks in the background.

AMD Phenom II X6 1055T combo: $649

This bundle from Aus PC Market includes the AMD Phenom II X6 1055T CPU, 4GB of Corsair Twin3X, 1333MHz PC-10600 DDR SDRAM (2x 2GB), and a Gigabyte GA-890GPA-UD3H. Bought separately, the total would be $675 (including delivery), so you're saving $26 by opting for the combo deal.

The Gigabyte motherboard runs AMD's 890GX chipset, which includes an integrated ATI Radeon HD 4290 graphics adapter. The board has DVI, HDMI and D-Sub connections and supports two monitors (using either DVI or HDMI, plus D-Sub). This graphics chip can muster a score of around 2200 in 3DMark06, which means it isn't very powerful, but it's perfect for running Windows 7's graphical user interface, as well as displaying Full HD content. You can't play the latest games on it, but it will run older games (such as Grand Theft Auto 3, for example) without any problems. For our purposes it's perfect, and it means we won't have to spend any money on a separate graphics card.

The other great features of this motherboard are USB 3.0 ports and 6Gbps SATA ports.

Intel Core i5-750 combo: $706.20

This bundle from Aus PC Market includes the Intel Core i5-750 CPU, the same 4GB of Corsair Twin3X, 1333MHz PC-10600 DDR SDRAM (2x 2GB), and a Gigabyte GA-P55A-UD4P motherboard. Bought separately, the total would be $729.30 (including delivery), so you're saving $23.10 by buying the bundle.

Like the AMD board, this one has USB 3.0 and 6Gbps SATA, so it's up to date and should last you many years, but it uses Intel's P55 chipset, which doesn't have the ability to use the Core i5's integrated graphics. We're going to pair this motherboard combo with a $66, 512MB Gigabyte Radeon HD 4350 PCI Express x16 graphics card, which is the closest match to the integrated graphics of the AMD motherboard.

Money saved when choosing the AMD option over Intel = $123.20

By going with the AMD platform, we've saved a good chunk of change that can be put towards buying good quality components to surround the CPU, motherboard and RAM.

Tip: if you use the audio drivers that come with the motherboard, you won't get optimal performance. In fact, one thing you may notice is stuttering audio performance in music and videos while you are simultaneously using the Internet. This stuttering can be fixed by updating the Realtek audio driver to version to R2.44 from Gigabyte's Web site.

Storage

There are many different scenarios to consider when it comes to storage, but we're going to keep things simple and purchase two 1TB drives. We've gone with Seagate Barracuda 7200.12 hard drives, which are the latest in Seagate's line-up and have a SATA II interface, a 7200rpm spin speed and a 32MB buffer. These drives cost $115.50 each when purchased separately, but Aus PC Market's combo deal, which includes two drives, costs $209, which is a saving of $22.

With a combined formatted capacity of 1862GB, the cost per formatted gigabyte of our chosen drives is just 11.2 cents.

We've also opted to go for a 22x Samsung SH-S223C SATA DVD burner for $42.90. When it comes to DVD burners, opt for the cheapest drive you can find because the performance difference between most models is negligible.

Power supply

To efficiently deliver electricity to our components, we've opted for a Seasonic 520W M12II modular power supply. The 520W rating is more than enough to drive our PC and it offers plenty of headroom for upgrading (unless you plan on installing two high-end graphics cards in a CrossFire configuration). This power supply is modular, which means you only have to use the cables you need and can remove the excess ones. By removing the excess cables you minimise clutter and improve airflow. Aus PC Market sells it for $154.

You can use the eXtreme Power Supply Calculator online to give you an idea of the type of power supply you'll need to buy.

Using the eXtreme calculator, our systems will consume well under 300W, which leaves us plenty of room to install up to four more 7200rpm hard drives in the future, and even a high-end Radeon HD 5970 graphics card.

Mid-tower ATX case

We've always been fans of Cooler Master cases so we chose the Cooler Master CM-690 II mid-tower ATX case to house our brand new components. It's a heavy steel case with plenty of room for expansion and has a filtered mesh design to keep all your components cool. The only drawback of this design is that it won't muffle noise from the fans, so it could be irksome if you plan to leave the PC on while you sleep. Aus PC Market sells it for $148.50.

The Cooler Master CM-690 II is big, but it offers plenty of room for expansion and will keep your components well ventilated.

The case requires no tools for the most part — although you'll need screwdrivers to attach the motherboard and power supply. Its six internal hard drive bays face outward, which makes hard drive installation a cinch, and it has four 5.25in bays. It ships with three fans, but you can install more, and its I/O panel has two USB, one FireWire, one eSATA, and microphone and headphones ports.

Tip: The Coolermaster CM-690 II has an eSATA dock in which you can slide a 3.5in SATA hard drive. In order to make this hot-swappable, be sure to configure the SATA ports as AHCI, rather than IDE, before you install Windows 7.

Total costs

When we add up all the components we've selected, the AMD system costs $1196.40, while the Intel system costs $1319.60. If we add an OEM version of Windows 7 Professional 64-bit, which costs $213.40, the costs are $1409.80 and $1533 for the AMD and Intel systems respectively.

AMDIntel
CPU$649$706.20
Motherboard
RAM
Graphics$0 (built in)$66
Hard drives$202
Optical drive$42.90
Power supply$154
Case$148.50
Operating system$213.40
Total cost$1409.80$1533

As you can see, the AMD is system is the one that gives us the best value, and if we recommend it for anyone who wants to build a new beast on a budget.

If you feel like splurging even more, you could put in a dedicated mid-range or high-end graphics card, but this will cost you at least another couple of hundred dollars. We'd also recommend that you upgrading to a dedicated Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi sound card, as the integrated Realtek audio chip on the motherboards is not a good one; when you boost the volume you can hear hissing, which becomes annoying during quiet moments in songs and videos.

We chose to source all out parts from Aus PC Market as we've found their service to be excellent and most of their prices have delivery costs built-in (although some large items such as monitors and cases could incur an extra charge depending on your location).

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Tags pc componentsDIYAdvanced Micro Devicesdesktop pcsAMDintel

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Elias Plastiras

Elias Plastiras

PC World

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