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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  • zilexa - Thursday, November 29, 2012 - link

    I disagree with the HTPC setup, it's definitely NOT an HTPC.
    HTPC should be small and completely silent (fanless) and use very, very little energy since it will be online all the time (so you can access your media in any room, your tvshows will be downloaded via rss or other system automatically etc).

    The A10 uses little power when idle but way too much for an HTPC under load.

    I understand you NEED to add a HTPC to this guide, and AMD simply doesn't have a Trinity-based HTPC solution for desktop because they lack mITX motherboards and they don't bring the 25watt and 17 watt mobile Trinitys to the desktop (BIG MISSED OPPERTUNITY!). But al least elaborate on that a bit more.
  • Medallish - Thursday, November 29, 2012 - link

    I agree an HTPC should be small, but saying it has to be 25-17W is overdoing it, I have a mATX based HTPC and I'm using a 3870k, which works with the fanless design of my Streacom case, but obviously a 65W APU would be a better choice, and you could even go with mITX case from Streacom. The Trinity is superb as a HTPC processor.

    Another thing you're simply wrong, there is HTPC's that uses Mobile APU's ranging from the 19W APU (Sapphire VS8) to 35W A10-4600.
  • zilexa - Thursday, November 29, 2012 - link

    @Medallish, Streacom case is just 1 solution (only works if you buy an expensive Streacom case). No choice in cases.

    I Just want to buy a cheap ass small case such as this one:

    No need for expensive passive case. Just need a low power APU.

    The HTPC's you mention using Mobile APUs like the ones from Arctic or the miniplayers from Zotac are complete solutions (and Arctic is VERY expensive with €400. You cannot buy these mobo's with FP2 sockets (for mobile) and you cannot buy the Mobile APUs. So these solutions are not for people who want to build their own HTPC! Therefore not even related to this article.
  • Medallish - Thursday, November 29, 2012 - link

    You said you wanted it to be fanless, If you want a fanless design then I'm afraid you've limited your choices, and currently there's basically no one who has the solution you ask for unless you look at Brazos or Atom solutions.

    Buying any Mobile motherboard and mobile processor tends to be hard to find, as a system builder and if I wanted what you're asking for I'd probably get a A10-5700 and downclock and undervolt it like crazy, although I doubt you'd get any cooler big enough to be fanless, and that goes for the 25W APU idea too.

    You're original claim was that Trinity simply wasn't a viable HTPC solution, and I just want to point out that's false, also there is several Mini-ITX boards for FM2, from Asus, Asrock and MSI.
  • zilexa - Thursday, November 29, 2012 - link

    Can't argue that. It's just soo sad AMD doesn't bring mobile Trinity to the desktop, would be the perfect basis for my HTPC. I am waiting for Brazos E2-1800 to arrive but I doubt it will ever arrive as motherboard (Sapphire announced the Pure White Mini E2-1800 6 months ago, I doubt they will ever release it to the market) .
  • Hubb1e - Thursday, November 29, 2012 - link

    You can reach the same wattage limits on a desktop Trinity if you are willing to underclock and undervolt. Drop that multi as low as you are comfortable with the performance, and then find the lowest voltage that makes it stable and bam, you've got your mobile trinity.
  • ThomasS31 - Thursday, November 29, 2012 - link

    If you noticed usually the low TDP part are underclocked and speed cap binned.

    Who told you, that you can't reduce the multiplier to get a low power part with a K series Trinity?
    Also in case you might need processing power (like 10-bit high bitrate videos) you can alwas put it back...

    Especially if your motherboard has a good management software for this. (Or use AMD's own "oc" app.)
  • cjs150 - Thursday, November 29, 2012 - link

    Totally agree.

    Ideally an HTPC should be in a passive case (both Hdplex and wesena are good) that means the CPU needs a low TDP and should be frugal even at load (for example ripping a blu ray disc).

    HTPCs are meant to be on permanently so should be sipping not gulping energy at load.

    I would argue that an HTPC needs only a Mini-ITX board - preferably with MSata (can we have sata3 on the Msata please!) if only to reduce cable clutter in the case.

    I would also strongly recommend Samsung green low profile memory. Not only are they memory sticks potent overclockers but when they said low profile they really meant it, if you must have a CPU cooler the samsung memory will never interfere with it.

    AMD could easily take over the HTPC market, just bring the mobile CPUs to a mini0itx desktop board
  • zilexa - Thursday, November 29, 2012 - link

    Thanks for the HDPlex tip, I love the H3 case, absolutely beautiful, simple and small. But including power its $300!!! damn.. thats just an empty case. Anybody will just buy a Zotac for €230 you have complete system :(

    If the H3 would be €100 or less I would definitely go for this solution..
    Still would want a below-65watt APU.
  • BPB - Thursday, November 29, 2012 - link

    I actually let my HTPC sleep a lot. I realize that when booting into WMC you may lose what was on the last half hour, but that's no biggie to me. WMC will wake the PC up to record shows, so I am good with letting it sleep at night. This helps save on cost when using a setup that isn't as low in wattage as you'd like. I do reboot it now and then because I find that after so many times going to sleep Windows gets messed up. Rebooting cleans that up. So if you're worried about electrical costs, let the PC sleep, it doesn't need to run 24/7. Just my 2 cents.

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