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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  • buildingblock - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    We now have the curious situation where AMD is selling both the A6 3650 APU and the X4 631 Athlon II socket FM, which is the same unit with the graphics unit disabled. Because of the design constraints of Llano, and I suspect because the die-shrink to 32nm didn't really work out that well, the CPU part of the current Llano range is puny compared to the socket 1155 processors, even the low-end budget Gxxx range. At my local hardware dealer, the X4 631 is priced more than the Intel G-series equivalent, but that seems to be the theme of AMDs current APU/CPU offerings - uncompetitive performance and uncompetitive pricing.
  • Iketh - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    You have the 500mhz difference and also the A4 has half the L2 cache of the X2. 1MB of L2 cache with no L3 cache is anemic.

    Ignore slayernine, he's a babbling idiot.
  • Wierdo - Wednesday, November 9, 2011 - link

    Ah, if the cache structure is different that I could see one possible potential reason for variation in same-core performance, thanks I didn't spot that.
  • slayernine - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    May I suggest an interesting alternative build that costs a bit more but is still within reach of most budgets. This system build is very tiny, good for those with limited space or in want of a portable machine:

    AMD A8-3850 2.9GHz $139
    ASRock A75M-ITX $94
    G.SKILL Ripjaws Series 8GB $34
    XFX HD-667X-ZHF3 6670 $83 (not including $25 MIR)
    SILVERSTONE SG05BB-450 (incl 450w PS) $129
    Crucial M4 CT064M4SSD2 64GB $119

    This system is tiny and takes advantage of AMD's Dual Graphics between the onboard GPU and the 6670. I normally shop but I bought this system from because they actually had AMD Mini ITX Boards. Please note these are Canadian prices as well. I would suggest a Momentus XT 500GB drive for this system if it was not for the insane prices right now. In this build I'm actually not purchasing a new HD I'm reusing a 60GB OCZ that I just got back from RMA. The RMA business being a big reason why I don't recommend OCZ, Intel and other brands are so much more reliable.
  • A5 - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    Your system costs double of those in this article (one you take out the Win7 license). Also the A8 is a waste if you're going to use a dGPU anyway.
  • slayernine - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    1. Canadian prices are higher than american ones. eg. $60 mobo turns into $90 mobo. This is not a currency value issue, more so that once things cross the border they magically cost more.

    2. The A8 processor is not a waste if you know about dual graphics. You technically get a 6690D2 which offers performance similar to the 6770 without paying more for in money and power usage.

    Educate yourself on dual graphics (sorry for the non anandtech link):

    3. I think $400 is not enough to spend on a system even if it is a budget computer. Also I did forget about the OS as I had previously purchased one.
  • silverblue - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    Asymmetric Crossfire is (or was... any change?) hit-and-miss. In some cases, it can actually harm performance to the point that the iGPU isn't much slower. However, in some cases, it does work very well. WoW works better, but Metro 2033 drops performance, if we consider your second link.

    The following AT link provides more data on aCF's performance (admittedly, things may have changed since then):
  • slayernine - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    Thanks for the link, for some reason I couldn't find that article in my quick google search. Check out this article which actually reviews the 6690D2 configuration that I've been talking about (I hate their graphs love the anand ones) Also rage3d doesn't compare enough games unfortunately but the ones it does use show 6690D2 > 6670:

    The other option I was also considering for this build was to go with Intel plus a 6770 which you can also find single slot cards for:

    However you will notice much higher power requirements on the 6770 as well as it needs a 4pin power connector on the end of the card. Something which caused me a lot of hassle when taking my 4850 out of my previous mini pc build.
  • Paul Tarnowski - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    3. That is your choice. This is about building a budget system. When a client asks me to supply an office computer, putting in Hybrid Crossfire is not going to make them magically want to spend double. Likewise for home use for the grandparents or so the little kids have something to write their homework on (they tend to play on iPads if they have them).

    Budget means that you have a low amount allotted to the project. Otherwise you miss the entire point of the article.
  • slayernine - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    I'm looking at this from the perspective of a budget gamer. I realize that the average Joe who just surfs the web doesn't give a crap about crossfire or gaming performance.

    What I'm saying is that without breaking the bank you can get significantly improved performance with AMD's new dual graphics (hybrid crossfire, Asymmetric Crossfire, whatever else people want to call it) Also note that some games see this benefit more than others so it depends what you play.

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