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

    I don't see how the X4 2.6Ghz 631 can ever even begin to be a winner against the Intel opposition. It is no more than an A6 3650 with the graphics unit disabled. My local hardware dealer is listing it at around 10% more than the Intel 2.8Ghz G840, which easily out-performs it and has a GPU. The budget end of the market is dominated by cheap Intel H61 motherboards and the 1155 socket Pentium G series, and the X4 631 brings nothing whatsoever to the table that's going to change that.
  • Taft12 - Wednesday, November 9, 2011 - link

    What analysis do you need to see? It is an A6-3650 with the graphics lopped off. If you want to know how it would do in CPU benchmarks, just look at a A6-3650 review.

    Despite the GPU sacrifice, you get no TDP savings. It's a piece of shit through and through not worthy of discussion.
  • mhahnheuser - Friday, November 11, 2011 - link are spot on. But I can tell you why. Because if he ran the right discrete card in the Llano it would crossfire with it and then there would be absolutely no point to the comparison.
  • mhahnheuser - Friday, November 11, 2011 - link the conclusion should have been....don't buy the Celeron over Llano unless you add a fast discrete DX compatible gpu. He only tested the X2 so that he could validate the comparision to Llano by building a higher performing, higher cost Celeron system. The X2 is a old Gen processor whereas the Celeron tested is in Intel's SB is that a basis for fair comparison?
  • mhahnheuser - Friday, November 11, 2011 - link

    Good observation. I second your opinion.
  • Wierdo - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    Maybe I'm missing something, but how come the performance difference between the X2 3.0Ghz and A4 2.5Ghz is so big?

    They're pretty much the same core give or take a few tweaks and an added GPU block, right? I don't understand how a 500mhz drop can lead to 30->19 sec in PPT to PDT conversion for example.

    What am I overlooking here?
  • slayernine - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    The A4 is a different processor, it is not from the same line as the X2 and thus performs quite differently. Also 500mhz can make a huge difference in single threaded applications. For example if you tried to play back a 1080p video without GPU acceleration (relying entirely on the CPU) the A4 would stutter at 2.5GHz but the X2 should be ok at 3GHz. However in reality the A4 is a much more well rounded processor that allows light graphical capabilities for gaming and video performance.

    Also some might point out that a significant portion of the A4 chip is dedicated to Radeon cores thus limiting the ability of the CPU portion through purpose build design.
  • Taft12 - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    Wow, this is really coming out of your ass.

    The CPU part of Llano *IS* derived from good ol' K10 - Llano is/was referred to as K10.5

    It DOESN'T perform "quite differently", Anand found in the A8-3850 review that its performance was quite close to the Athlon II X4:

    <i>Although AMD has tweaked the A8's cores, the 2.9GHz 3850 performs a lot like a 3.1GHz Athlon II X4. You are getting more performance at a lower clock frequency, but not a lot more.</i>
  • slayernine - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    It offers different features thus is quite different type of processor. One of those differences is the amount of CPU die dedicated to actual CPU functionality. I didn't say the CPU is portion is built differently. I am fully aware it is based on the same architecture. Perhaps I confused you in my choice of words.

    FYI Taft12 we are talking about the X2 3.0Ghz VS A4 not Athlon II X4 vs A8. The reason this matters is that the X2 3.0Ghz offers better CPU performance A4.

    Summary: Clock for clock the X2 isn't much different from the A4 but the A4 is a lower clock speed and thus slower at CPU intensive tasks because half the the damn thing is a GPU! APU's at the same price point will generally be slower than the competing CPU. So perhaps the simple answer to Wierdo's question is simply: "Clock speed matters."
  • Wierdo - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    Hmm...I don't see how 500mhz difference causes super-linear scaling in performance, 2.5/3ghz is less than a %20 difference, it shouldn't be more than %20 performance difference one would think - with the cores being from the same family (K10) for both products I'm missing where the balance can affect non-multimedia workloads.

    It's quite interesting from an academic perspective, If it was primarily limited to graphics type workloads I could understand, but I don't see it for stuff like PPT->PDF conversions for example.

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