Since Intel's launch of the Core 2 Duo in 2006, AMD has relied primarily upon two strategies to stay relevant as a CPU producer: competitive pricing and more cores at specific price points. While the recent launch of AMD's Bulldozer CPU architecture has for some purposes narrowed the gap between the two chipmakers, it seems AMD will continue to compete mostly on pricing for the low-end and mid-range segments of desktop CPU markets. But does the recent launch of Sandy Bridge architecture Celerons by Intel threaten AMD's reign as budget king? The possibility of increased competition at the lower end of CPU performance leads to the question, "How low can prices go?"

Fortunately for consumers the answer is arguably lower than ever before—though not necessarily with CPUs. SSDs continue to drop in price, and DDR3 prices remain very low with sales regularly hitting the less than $5/GB threshold—even without rebates. As GPU development has slowed in the past year, graphics cards are exhibiting longer lifespans; older cards are becoming less expensive but not necessarily less capable. Until the recent flooding in Thailand, hard drive prices were holding low, with 500GB drives usually available at $40 and sometimes even less; it is unclear how hard drive prices will change in the short-term.

The kind of computing experience these budget systems are capable of delivering is as important as the absolute cost of components. While enthusiasts are always interested in the latest and greatest technology, many people rely on a smartphone and/or a netbook for most of their computing needs. That is, the average user does not need a particularly powerful computer anymore to perform basic tasks like shopping online, checking email, playing games on Facebook, and producing office documents. The components discussed in this guide are all more than adequate for the average home and office user.

It's important to keep in mind that prices on these parts fluctuate wildly and rapidly. We present in this guide a wide array of products representing all of the desktop component classes—the more price alerts you set on more websites, the more likely you are to be able to score killer deals on computers for friends, relatives, or perhaps yourself. Also keep in mind that with the rise of mobile OSes such as Apple's iOS and Google's Android, more people are increasingly comfortable learning a new operating system—so while all of the builds detailed in this guide include the cost of Windows 7, it's worth considering saving $100 or so by going with a user-friendly free OS like Ubuntu Linux.

All that said, the next page provides a few benchmarks comparing Intel's and AMD's $60 CPUs as well as AMD's $70 APU, which will set the tone for overall system performance. Once we've covered the performance expectations, we'll move on to the actual component recommendations.

Battle of the Budget Processors
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  • Taft12 - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    Not only do you not need a graphics card, you'll have much better thermals and acoustics from your small form factor HTPC case without an additional furnace in the case.
  • Death666Angel - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    This was precisely why I chose an A6-3500 for my HTPC. I came from a Core i3 530 (which could OC to about 4GHz) and an HD4670. I used it for a few games (beat em ups, racing games etc.) and of course movies/tv series of all sorts. But once I decided to get a new, smaller case (I had a desktop HTPC case that fit 7HDDs but they moved to a dedicated file server making the case too big for the living room), I decided against the SNB line up, because of the crappy game performance. My Llano setup saved me money assuming I went for a SNB setup with equal graphics power. And then, the system would not have allowed the case I ended up using (half height, no PCI slot in the back, 60W PSU). I is awesome to just have to worry about cooling one thing, not an extra graphics card and no IGP chip on the motherboard. :-)

    Overall, I think this article is interesting but a bit all over the place. As others have mentioned, you compare Llano sans graphics card to X2/Celeron with graphics card.... you don't show the power consumption of those two with graphics card.... While I agree with the overall theme of it, it is not very thorough or thought through. I think people not familiar with all the different tests will have a harder time figuring out which is the best setup for them.

    I also don't like the dual-core Llanos. The graphics part is too cut down. The triple core for me was a great balance, because I needed to fit the 60W envelope of the PSU (works great with undervoling, I'm at 54W@2400MHz LinX) and I wanted a powerful graphics part. And the difference between the dual core and triple core parts for me was about 15 or 20€. If I wanted, the triple core also looks to be easily overclockable with K10Stat from within windows.

    But enough ranting for now. :D
  • piroroadkill - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    Sure, the GPU may be a bit worse than the Llano system, but you can't underestimate the usefulness of already having a socket 1155 board. You're immediately open to THE best upgrade path with nothing more than a flip, a click, and a pop of 4 pins.
  • piroroadkill - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    Along those lines, I'd spend a teeny bit more to begin with on the PSU. Then you're all set.
  • Lunyone - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    The PSU is just fine, IMHO. I have a e6700, 6850 GPU, 4 gb's DDR2, 2 DVD's, & 1 HD being powered by the Antec 380w PSU. It runs just fine and no issues whatsoever, so these systems have plenty of upgrade path with the PSU's selected. Now if you get a really power consuming GPU than you should upgrade the PSU, but most people the PSU is just fine.
  • Dustin Sklavos - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    Honestly, people grossly overestimate the amount of PSU they need these days. My desktop is running an 80 Plus Gold 1.2kw PSU, but under heavy load only pulls maybe 510 watts? That's with an overclocked i7-990X, overclocked GTX 580, four hard drives, an SSD, a separate USB 3.0 card, AND a GeForce GT 430 driving two other monitors.

    So long as the PSU is quality (and mine is) and the amperage is right, people could be getting by with a LOT less these days than they actually use. On the flipside, if I ever completely lose my mind, at least I know my desktop'll take a second 580. ;)
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    Look who's talking about overestimating power requirements. LOL. 1.2kW PSU, Dustin? I'm running my GTX 580 off a "paltry" 750W model. ;-)
  • ckryan - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    Man, my OCd 2500K P67 system idles at 50w@the wall and pulls about 200w gaming... with a 650w Seasonic X series PSU. That's about the same ballpark of ridiculous, but as soon as someone makes an equally great 350w I'll get one. 1.2KW is pretty silly though... I hope the PSU was comped at least. I got the Seasonic for $100 shipped and the fan never comes on even when gaming so that's one justification.

    Incidentally, I just purchased the G530 to drop in a H67 board for my SSD endurance testing rig. After playing with it for a while, I think it's well worth the premium the CPU is going for over MSRP. I could see just about every one I know using a G530 and thinking it's the greatest thing ever. The problem with SB Celerons and Pentiums is the motherboards. H61 boards are just not that good, and H67 boards are a little too expensive for a $50 processor. I already had a Biostar TH67+ laying around, and the system is now sitting in my entertainment center trying to put a SSD in the dirt at the rate of over 10.5TB a day. If Intel actually cared about what I want, they'd release a i3 K series as that's the SB I'd really like to see. I considered getting an i3, but I couldn't justify spending $130 for a processor that will spend it's entire life at idle putting SSDs to the sword.
  • Dustin Sklavos - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    Yeah, the PSU was comped. That's why I'm using it. 1.2kW is most definitely nuts. ;)
  • jabber - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    Yeah we really need a manufacturer to bring out the ultimate baddass 450W PSU that delivers top quality and most of us can use that instead of these frankly ridiculous mega supplies we feel we need to buy.

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