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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  • antef - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    I'm not worried about getting an SSD. I think reliability and such has really improved if you stick with the right brand. Even so, if I have a problem, I won't be keeping any personal data on it, just my OS and apps. If it has a decent warranty I think it's absolutely worth the increased performance and responsiveness that everyone raves about.

    Everyone else agree on 8 GB memory? I have kept my last build for over 3 1/2 years so I could potentially keep this one for a similar amount of time.
  • Paul Tarnowski - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    Right now 8 GB is right around $50-$60, and less if you look for deals (like $35 for 1333 on Newegg's shellshocker today). 16GB 1600 can be gotten for as little as $70 on special. So if you find a deal, and it's in your budget, I'd say go with 16GB. It's probably more than you need, but it'll mean you can get rid of your pagefile. If you have an SSD, that's always a plus.

    Either way, just stick with 4GB sticks as the 8GB sticks are overpriced.
  • Lunyone - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    I generally think that Llano is really good for laptops and not as good for desktop area. This is just my opinion. Llano isn't that more expensive than the 2 other budget builds above, but does better in games (at stock configuration) than either of the budget builds. Another note is the Llano chipset doesn't have much upgrade path, IMHO. The AM3+/1155 chipset mobo's I think are better options for upgrades than the FM1 socket/chipset, IMHO. Isn't Piledriver a different socket/chipset?

    Now don't get me wrong, Llano chips aren't all that bad, but I just don't see them being a good/better long term buy in the desktop arena. If' I'm just building a regular "Desktop" they are fine as well as the other 2 budget builds listed above. But since I usually build more than just a regular Desktop, I usually opt for a system that works better with a dedicated GPU (mainly for better gaming capabilities). Of coarse this is just my preference and is a bit different than what the article was looking at. These builds look pretty good for what the design/budget is looking for.
  • StevoLincolnite - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    Rumors are that AMD may end up making Socket FM2 backwards compatible with socket FM1, just like they did with Socket AM2+ and AM3.
    Nothing Solid yet of course.
  • Lunyone - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    Well if that is the case, than the Llano build might not be too bad. I just see Llano as a good laptop chip and an okay desktop chip. For probably 90% of people, Llano will do just fine, because they probably wouldn't notice too much difference than what they currently own. Most people will notice if you have an SSD as your main boot drive than if you have an i7 quad core instead of a Llano chip. Now if your doing encoding or some heavier CPU related tasks, than the i7 quad core will definitely notice the CPU difference (of coarse you'll be paying for that option too).
  • Taft12 - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    I seem to be in the minority, but I think desktop Llano is a great product that is the best choice for 80% or more of desktop systems. You sacrifice CPU capability (which has been "good enough" for just about everything ever since the Core 2 Duo and Athlon 64 X2 days) and in its place you get much (MUCH!) improved IGP performance which will have no problem whatsoever for Flash games or 1080p Youtube.

    Hardly any of my family or coworkers play 3D games or use Photoshop, video transcoding, etc -- I would think this is a pretty accurate sample of the majority of PC users.
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    Have you tried Flash games and 1080p YouTube on Sandy Bridge? I haven't had any issues with either one, but I'd love to know what specific games/videos you've tried that didn't work properly. AFAIK, even desktop Core 2 Duo systems handle YouTube 1080p pretty well, doing all the decoding on the CPU.

    The other issue I have is that you imply all Llano are roughly equal, and obviously they are not. A quad-core Llano with the full on-die GPU is a far more interesting chip, but then it costs twice as much as the A4-3300. 160 shader cores is barely enough for most games at minimum detail and a reasonable resolution (hint: 1024x768 isn't "reasonable" in my book; 1366x768 for laptops and 1600x900 minimum for desktops is what most users are running).

    Saying Llano is the best choice for 80% of users is like saying 80% of users shouldn't have ever upgraded from a Core 2 Duo E6600. Hey, wait... I'm running one of those in my HTPC!
  • QChronoD - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    Would you guys consider this level of hardware adequate for HTPC duty? I'm guessing that it might need a discreet video card since most of the boards don't have HDMI. What would you recommend as the minimum video card for good quality playback & passing the audio to a real AV receiver?
  • duploxxx - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    any liano build will satisfy that need
  • geniekid - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    I'm using an A3500 in my HTPC connected to my receiver via HDMI.

    In my honest opinion, you don't need a graphics card. 34 of the 42 FM2 motherboards on Newegg as of this moment have built-in HDMI.

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