What does "general use" mean, anyway?

In the past, I've often differentiated between home and office computers. Home computers were more geared towards media usage, from consuming web pages to editing photos. They could often cost less because of less emphasis on highest-quality, most reliable components. Office computers were more aimed at office suite productivity. They'd usually cost more because they included higher-quality, more reliable components.

Now, I consider this distinction all but extinct. In my experience, more people are doing productivity work at home (such as in the case of telecommuters), and more office productivity work necessitates working with media. For example, when I was an undergraduate, I produced papers. Now that I'm an instructor, I have my students produce videos to post on YouTube and Facebook. In other words, as the web matures, we're communicating with our friends, family, and business associates/colleagues in many more ways than traditional text. Furthermore, PC hardware is always becoming cheaper (aside from anomalies like the Southeast Asia floods that affected hard drive prices). This means that unless your PC is mission critical and you need enterprise-grade hardware, you can buy high-quality, reliable components for not much more (absolute) cost than bottom-barrel bare adequacy parts.

Make no mistake—the AMD A4-5300 APU is not an enthusiast's chip. However, it is a capable and cheap processor for basic usage desktop computers. Currently priced around $53, the A4-5300 is in competition with Intel's Sandy Bridge-based Celeron CPUs. I've had an Intel G550 system sitting next to an AMD A4-5300 system for the last week in my lab, and it's impossible to tell the difference between them in day-to-day usage. Both offer "good enough" computing for watching YouTube videos, checking Facebook, and making a PowerPoint presentation. Both choke on more advanced tasks like 3D anatomical model rendering. But most people aren't rendering models of skeletons—they're watching YouTube.

Compared to an Intel Sany Bridge Celeron system, an AMD A4-5300 desktop also pulls about the same amount of power under general use. The AMD APU's main advantage is its on-die graphics. You can play less demanding titles like Left 4 Dead at 720p at acceptable frame rates on an AMD APU, whereas you can't on the Intel Celeron. Any software that supports OpenCL acceleration like WinZIP is also noticeably faster on the AMD APU. Adobe's CS 6 now has many features that support OpenCL acceleration, such as certain filters in Photoshop. Whether these advantages are relevant is something you should consider, because the Intel platform has a clear advantage in upgradeability and potential longevity. Intel's LGA 1155 can be upgraded all the way up to Ivy Bridge quad-cores. Though AMD states FM2 will support the next (third) generation APUs, it is highly unlikely that those next-gen chips will approach the CPU prowess of Intel's current mainstream high-end processors.

Budget Trinity desktop computer

If you've read my previous guides you'll know that I am a big fan of both Fractal Design's Core 1000 and NZXT's Source 210 cases in the budget market segment. Both cases are relatively well-built (they lack sharp edges for one plus!), and I think both look nice. The primary difference is that the Source 210 is larger and heavier, with more room for active cooling (you can install more fans). I like it more for budget gaming builds that will produce more heat and are used in settings where noise is usually more tolerable. For office builds, I like the Core 1000 because it is smaller and lighter, so it gets the nod here.

As for the power supply, I strongly recommend using higher-quality units like the SeaSonic SS-300ET listed here. The power supply is arguably the most important component in a computer, if for no other reason than a spectacularly defective unit can destroy the other components! The Antec Earthwatts 380W and NeoEco 400W, as well as Corsair's Builder Series 430W, are also better than average lower-wattage models that frequently go on sale.

We're pairing the the A4-5300 APU with ASRock's FM2A55M-DGS motherboard. It's a no-frills, solid performing, inexpensive microATX board. It lacks niceties like HDMI but has a low price tag. I've used a handful of these in builds now and have been very pleased with the board's layout and that all have been rock solid stable. Trinity APUs benefit from higher-speed DDR3 RAM in certain usage scenarios (namely gaming), so we suggest spending a few dollars more on DDR3-1600 RAM over DDR3-1333 RAM. The specific G.Skill kit listed is a reliable overclocker, too. Of the eight kits I've installed in systems, all reached DDR3-1866 speeds (though two kits required the voltage to be upped to 1.6V to be stable, and as always with overclocking, your mileage may vary).

For storage, making specific recommendations for budget builders is currently quite difficult because of how frequently both HDD and SSD prices are changing. But whether you want an HDD or SSD depends on your usage, not prices. Simply put, if you need more than 64-128GB of local storage, you will need to buy a higher-capacity but much slower-performing HDD. If you will not need much local storage, you can go with a very fast SSD. As for HDDs, keep in mind that any HDD can fail, and brand choice is mostly a matter of personal preference. Watch prices, and pay attention to warranty lengths. For SSDs, Samsung's 830 Series, Crucial's M4 Series, Plextor's M5S Series, and Intel's 330 Series have excellent reputations for reliability in the budget SSD market. I've seen all of these drives in the 60/64GB capacity for $50 recently, so again, keep your eyes on prices and watch for sales.

Regarding the operating system, Windows 7 remains the industry standard. A comparison of Windows 7 with the very recently released Windows 8 is outside the scope of this article, but note that Windows 8 costs a bit less, so if you're looking to shave a few dollars off the cost of your build, you can do so by going with W8 instead of W7. Incidentally, our full Windows 8 writeup is forthcoming, but to say that opinions are split on the OS would be an understatement.

Component Product Price Rebate
Case Fractal Design Core 1000 $40  
PSU SeaSonic SS-300ET 300W $40  
CPU AMD A4-5300 APU $56  
Motherboard ASRock FM2A55M-DGS $50 -$5
RAM G.Skill 4GB DDR3-1600 $25  
HDD Seagate 1TB ST31000524AS $50  
SSD alternate Samsung 830 Series 64GB $50  
Optical drive ASUS 24x DVD burner $17  
Operating system Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit $92  
  Total cost: $420 $415

Check the next page for our HTPC build.

AMD's Trinity APUs HTPC
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  • Jovec - Thursday, November 29, 2012 - link

    I understand prices change regularly, but you should check the linked prices. The general use budget build is currently $70 than the chart price. (-$3 for CPU, +$5 for mobo, +$35 for HDD, +$30 for the SSD, +$3 for the DVD). The HTPC build is $68 higher and the DVD burner chosen is listed as discontinued. The gaming build is $59 higher than the chart.
  • randinspace - Thursday, November 29, 2012 - link

    As the author said, it's important to watch out for price changes during the holidays as 16GB of Ram was available at 8GB prices (outside of 4GB quad kits anyway...), and I personally got a 2TB HDD for less than what 1TB internal drives and 500+ GB external ones are going for "on sale" this week....

    That said, these guidelines might have done people more more good had they come out before some of the year's best sales rather than in the middle of some of its worst ones (I'm looking at you, Newegg "Cyber Week"), but such is life.
  • Parhel - Thursday, November 29, 2012 - link

    I'm glad I'm not the only one to notice what Newegg's been doing. Most of their "deals" were old tech they're trying to clear out of inventory, even on Black Friday.
  • MrRez - Thursday, November 29, 2012 - link

    I just built a system around the A10 5800k circa $600 all up, and I am really enjoying it! I paired it up with a 6670 1gig DDR5 cost me 80bucks and has given me a huge boost in some games.

    The main reason I went with the Trinity was that I had a small budget and needed something that I could do my work on, encode some video and play the odd game. I did alot of research and couldn't get an Intel system for the same money that would even come close to what the trinity could do.

    Anyway I would recommend this type of system to anyone on a budget.
  • StevoLincolnite - Thursday, November 29, 2012 - link

    Conversely, I came from an "old" Phenom 2 x6 1090T @ 4ghz to a Core i7 3930K @ 4.8ghz and in games I noticed zero difference when gaming at 5760x1080 as I'm always going to be GPU limited.

    However, encoding saw *massive* increases, but that's not a task I do very often and I usually do it during the night whilst I am asleep anyway.

    Hardware today is still going to be more than ample for games of tomorrow, heck I know a few gamers still kicking around old Core 2 Quads that are heavily overclocked and game happily without a single issue, which says something about the state of games today not pushing the limits anymore.
  • dishayu - Thursday, November 29, 2012 - link

    Heavily overclocked Core 2 Quad user here and i approve of this message.
  • just4U - Thursday, November 29, 2012 - link

    I know "LOTS" of gamers still on Quad 6600s.. C2D 8400s.. and Amd PIIs all happily playing along with decent video cards..

    The thing "today" is we really haven't hit the new big cpu yet. That was the Core2 and before the the Athlon64. Are cpu's better? Absolutely but they've been going in a sideways arc... with power+features rather then noticable brute power. I can go from my 2700K to a Q6600 to a E8400 to a PII920 to a 5800K all with enjoyable experiences provided the gpu power is there with 4Gigs of ram.

    Overclocking adds more umph on top of that but it's not neccessary.
  • just4U - Thursday, November 29, 2012 - link

    As a aside.. anyone on a C2D E6400 or under... time to move on. Every last cpu on the market today will give very noticable boosts right straight from the $60 cpu on up to the latest and greatest.
  • JonnyDough - Friday, November 30, 2012 - link

    I finally upgraded from an Opteron 185 system (which I'm using to type this) to an i5 Ivy system. I also found an E8400 in the garbage and it works. It just needed a power supply a video card, and a hard drive. I have all of the above "just laying around" here so my girlfriend is getting a new system for Xmas too. :) Windows 7 is on sale at the Egg for $80.
  • AndrewJacksonZA - Thursday, November 29, 2012 - link

    I agree. I'm gaming, programming and encoding on a Core2Duo E6750 and an AMD 6670 on Windows 8.

    I can run *ALL* my games on their maximum resolution and detail settings seeing as my monitor is a 19" and runs at 1280 x 1024... and that I really dig my old games :-) However, my point is that the equipment I am using right now is "good enough" for my particular needs. Would I consider an upgrade? Definitely - but for something that runs much (much!) cooler and quieter. Is that a high priority in my life? Not right now.

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