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This chapter is from the book

Choosing Parts for the Budget PC

Okay, our budget is set in stone, as is our determination to build a solid, reliable PC within the constraints of that budget. The next few sections keep the points from the previous section in mind and discuss the components that we'll use to put together our budget machine.

Selecting a Case for the Budget PC

In some of my early PC-building projects, I figured I could save money by skimping on the case. After all, it's just a case, right? Surely what's inside the case is more important, and the money saved on the case can be better spent on those internal components.

Boy, was I wrong! Building a PC using a cheap case is almost always an exercise in frustration, with much hair-pulling and gnashing of teeth. Nothing fits right; parts are hard to remove; and when you finally do remove them, they don't go back on the same way and you get lacerations all over your body from the sharp edges. Take my hard-won advice: although you can buy cases for $50 or less, don't do it.

Of course, we've got a budget to consider, so we can't go overboard right off the bat. Our budget PC requires a case that puts function over form, but not overly so. We still want our case to look good under our desk but not take up too much room. The ideal case should have good airflow so we don't have to worry about heat problems, front connectors for easy access, and a design that makes the build easier.

For this build, I chose the Antec Sonata III, a terrific mid-tower case that supports both ATX and microATX motherboards (see Figure 14.1). You can find this case online for about $115, which makes it a mid-priced case. However, that's actually a pretty good deal because the case comes with an Antec 500W power supply and a 120mm Antec case fan (the rear exhaust fan). None of these are top-of-the-line components, but they're more than adequate for our budget PC.

Figure 14.1

Figure 14.1 The Antec Sonata III: the case for our budget PC.

Besides these extra goodies that come with the case, the Sonata III also supports the following features:

  • Two USB ports, one eSATA port, one microphone connector, and one Line Out connector in the front of the case.
  • An aluminum front bezel that opens to reveal the external drive bays.
  • Lots of drive bays: two 3.5-inch external (for a memory card reader or floppy drive), three 5.25-inch external (for optical or tape drives), and four 3.5-inch internal (for hard drives).
  • Relatively easy side panel access: You remove two thumb screws and slide the panel off the case.
  • The expansion slots are tool-free: A plastic latch slides out to insert the card and then slides back in to hold the card in place.
  • Each hard drive bay is side-mounted for easy access and has its own bracket that attaches using side rails and slides in and out of the bay. You use special screws to attach the hard drive to the bracket. In a nice touch, the drive rests on silicone grommets, not metal, which reduces noise.
  • A dust filter, which is removable for washing.

One thing our Antec case lacks is a front intake fan. Many people report that the case cools quite well with just the default rear exhaust fan, but you should never be overly thrifty when it comes to keeping your components cool. For a mere $10, I added an Antec Tri-Cool 120mm case fan to this build. Like the rear fan that comes with the case, this fan has a three-way switch that lets you set the fan speed. On the lowest speed, the fan still pushes through a decent 39 CFM, while keeping the noise down to 25 dBA. (The middle speed pushes 56 CFM at 28 dBA, while the high speed pushes 79 CFM at 30 dBA.)

Choosing a Motherboard for the Budget PC

For our budget PC's motherboard, we want a product from a big-name manufacturer, for sure, but we also want decent integrated features so we don't have to spend extra cash on things like expansion cards. That's a tall order, but there are some sub-$100 boards out there that meet these criteria if you look around and do your homework.

For this build, I went with an ASUS board (there's your big name) called the M2A-VM HDMI (see Figure 14.2). It's a microATX board that's available online for just $75.

Figure 14.2

Figure 14.2 The ASUS M2A-VM HDMI: the budget PC's motherboard.

Despite the low price, the ASUS M2A-VM HDMI offers a pretty good set of features:

  • A clean and well-designed layout
  • An AM2 processor socket that supports a wide variety of AMD processors, including the AMD Athlon 64 FX, AMD Athlon 64 X2, AMD Athlon 64, and AMD Sempron
  • Support for dual-channel DDR2 800, 667, or 533 memory modules (up to 8GB)
  • One PCI Express x16 slot, one PCI Express x1 slot, and two PCI slots
  • Four external USB ports and three internal USB headers
  • One external IEEE-1394 (FireWire) port
  • Four internal SATA connectors
  • Integrated Radeon X1250 video card, with DVI-D and VGA ports and support for dual monitors
  • Integrated high-definition 8-channel audio
  • Integrated 10/100/1000 network adapter
  • A PCI Express x16 card that provides HDMI support (including HDMI, S-video, and composite video ports) and S/PDIF digital audio output

Selecting a Power Supply for the Budget PC

Our budget PC will be a relatively simple affair with the major devices being a hard drive, a DVD burner, and the motherboard's HDMI card. Any mid-range 400W power supply could handle this workload without a problem, so the Antec case's 500W PSU will be more than adequate for our needs.

Picking Out a CPU for the Budget PC

In a budget PC, the processor is where we can save big bucks because you don't need to spend $200 or $300 to get decent performance these days. At the lowest end of the processors are the single-core CPUs such as the AMD Sempron. However, single-core chips are on their way out, and with AMD you can move up to dual-core by spending just a few more dollars. In fact, for a mere $60, you can get the Athlon 64 X2 4000+ (see Figure 14.3), a dual-core CPU that runs at 2.1GHz, supports our motherboard's 2000MHz HyperTransport bus, and offers a 1MB L2 cache.

Figure 14.3

Figure 14.3 The Athlon 64 X2 4000+: the budget PC's processor.

As a final thought on the CPU, note that I'm going to use the stock cooler that AMD supplies with the retail version of the Athlon 64 X2 4000+. AMD's coolers do a decent job and are reasonably quiet when not under too much strain (which they won't be given the tasks this budget PC will be performing).

How Much Memory Does the Budget PC Need?

Memory is one of the most important performance factors in any PC, which means, simply, that the more memory you add to any system, the better that system will perform. Happily, we live in a world where the enhanced performance of extra RAM can be had for a relative pittance, with 1GB memory modules selling online for $25–$30.

All this means that it doesn't make any sense to hobble our budget PC with a mere 512MB or even 1GB of RAM. No, we're going to do the right thing and load up our machine with 2GB, so we'll be running with 1GB per core, which should offer great performance.

We need to match our modules to our motherboard's memory speed, and the ASUS M2A-VM HDMI can use PC2 6400 (DDR2 800), PC2 5400 (DDR2 667), or PC2 4200 (DDR2 533). I opted for two 1GB PC2 6400 memory modules from Corsair (see Figure 14.5), which set me back about $60.

Figure 14.4

Figure 14.4 The budget PC will use AMD's stock CPU cooler.

Figure 14.5

Figure 14.5 The budget PC's memory: a couple of 1GB PC2 6400 modules from Corsair.

Storage Options for the Budget PC

The budget PC needs a hard drive, of course, but we don't want one that's too big because we'll break our budget. We need just enough room to install an operating system, a few applications, and our data. With that in mind, I opted for the Western Digital Caviar SE WD1600AAJS, a 160GB drive that ought to be plenty big enough (see Figure 14.6). It's a SATA drive that's available in an OEM version online for just $50. It spins at 7,200 RPM; features an 8MB cache; and offers a very respectable 8.9 average seek time, so it won't slow us down.

Figure 14.6

Figure 14.6 The budget PC's hard drive: the Western Digital Caviar SE WD1600AAJS 160GB SATA drive.

Our budget PC needs an optical drive, of course, and for this machine I chose the Lite-On DH-20A4P, a dual-layer DVD/CD rewritable drive that supports write speeds of 20x DVD±R, 8x DVD+Rw, 6x DVD-RW, 8x DVD±R DL, 48x CD-R, 32x CD-RW, plus read speeds of 16x DVD-ROM and 48x CD-ROM, all for a mere $30 or so.

Determining the Video Needs of the Budget PC

The ASUS M2A-VM HDMI motherboard comes with a Radeon X1250 GPU integrated. This is an excellent GPU that provides very high-quality graphics. It requires 256MB of system memory, but that's not a huge problem because we've supplied our budget PC with a generous 2GB of RAM. The Radeon chip supports DVI-D resolutions up to 2560x1600, RGB resolutions up to 2048x1536, and dual monitors. Combine these impressive stats with the HDMI PCIe card supplied with the motherboard, and we can ask for no more from an integrated video system. Therefore, we won't be adding a separate video card to the budget PC.

Selecting Audio Equipment for the Budget PC

When trying to save money on a PC build, one of the first components to go is the separate audio card because good ones are expensive and cheap ones are often no better than what's integrated into the motherboard. This build is no exception. Our motherboard has integrated 8-channel high-def audio, although the Realtek chip isn't the greatest one around. The HDMI card that comes with the board offers S/PDIF digital audio output, so sticking with the board's audio is a no-brainer for this project.

Choosing Networking Hardware for the Budget PC

Even a budget PC must network, of course, and these days networking is easier than ever because it's a rare motherboard that doesn't come with a networking adapter built in. Even better, almost all motherboard-based NICs support Ethernet (10Mbps), Fast Ethernet (100Mbps), and Gigabit Ethernet (1Gbps or 1,000Mbps), so you're covered no matter what type of network you'll be connecting to. Our budget PC is no exception because our ASUS motherboard has a 10/100/1000 NIC onboard. Therefore, no extra networking equipment is needed.

Pricing the Budget PC

As you've seen, our budget PC doesn't have any big-ticket items. The most expensive component is the case, although as I mentioned before you need a decent case with any build—even one on a budget. We also saved quite a bit of money by going with the stock CPU cooler, the PSU and fan that came with the Antec case, the motherboard's integrated video and audio chips, and the integrated NIC.

Table 14.1 summarizes the budget PC's components and prices. As you can see, our total price of $400 is right on our budget.

Table 14.1. Components and Prices for the Budget PC

Component

Model

Average Price

Case

Antec Sonata III

$115

Case fan

Antec Tri-Cool 120mm

$10

Motherboard

ASUS M2A-VM HDMI

$75

Power supply

Comes with the case

N/A

CPU

AMD Athlon 64 X2 4000+

$60

CPU cooler

AMD stock cooler

N/A

Memory

Corsair XMS2 PC2 6400 1 GB (x2)

$60

Hard drive

Western Digital Caviar SE WD1600AAJS 160GB

$50

Optical drive

Lite-On DH-20A4P DVD/CD Rewritable Drive

$30

Video card

Motherboard integrated

N/A

Audio card

Motherboard integrated

N/A

Network card

Motherboard integrated

N/A

TOTAL

$400

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