Anyone can toss a buttload of money at a computer and end up with something really nice. It doesn't take any creativity, really--money solves a lot of problems. The real talent comes in making a shoe-string-budget system that is decently fast, efficient, has room to grow, uses quality components (i.e. your case that looks like it was from The Fast and the Furious? Just say no), and provides a delightful user experience.
I place a big emphasis on spending money to get a good case, power supply and peripherals. The reason for this is these are the only components in the computing industry that don't obsolete themselves in mere months. Video cards have an eight-month release cycle. Desktop processors have about a year between releases. Purchasing cutting edge often nets you 15-50% more performance, but often at 2-4 times the cost. Completely not worth it, IMO, unless you're a die-hard enthusiast and demand nothing short of the best.
A few other quirks about my PC preferences:
- I believe my computers should be seen and not heard. I will never recommend a product that does not take your ears into consideration.
- Energy efficiency is important. Not only does an efficient computer save you money on your electric bill, but I believe they are typically more stable (because they run cooler), quieter (because they require less cooling) and less prone to hardware failure (because you are not pushing crucial components like the power supply).
- Riced out computer cases are for boys. Real men want sophisticated, proven industrial design. If SilentPCReview hasn't endorsed it, I generally don't consider it a viable option. If it has a spoiler, flaming decals, ground effects packages, seriously...it's just fugly. Please, no.
- I hate cable clutter. It makes your case look like spaghetti, and reduces airflow/cooling performance. I opt for PSUs with modular cables, thinner SATA cabling, etc.
- Death to the floppy drive!
- SLI: sort of dumb unless you have a gigantic monitor (1920*1200, minimum) and want to play cutting edge games with uncompromising graphics at absurd frame rates. Very few people fit into this category, and the cost is substantial (two bleeding edge video cards + power supply capable of driving them = a whole lot of top ramen).
- Nothing delights like a quality case, keyboard, mouse, speakers and monitor. These are the components that you truly interact with, and they are the biggest difference between a "cheap" system and something that feels refined.
Anyway, without further ado, my latest budget system.
Case: Antec Mini P180
This is an attractive, smallish case with a segregated partition for the power supply and hard drives, and an upper partition with room for a mATX motherboard. Read the SPCR review here.
...normally this case is quite pricey, at ~$150, but occasionally newegg discounts the hell out of it. Right now it can be had for $79.00, which is a ridiculous deal for a very high quality case. See the SPCR review for more details, but it would be difficult to get a better case for the money.
Power Supply: OCZ ModXStream Pro 600W
Ample power (actually, far more than this build would ever need. Far more than almost any build would need, for that matter), modular cables, reputable vendor...not much to dislike here. Even more important is combined with the memory, it's $50!
Motherboard: MSI G31M3-F
You might be wondering what this motherboard has going for it, but consider this: it costs less than $50. It uses an Intel chip set, so stability is a given. It will accept modern, 45 nm quad-core processors, so plenty of room for upgrades in the future...what's not to like? And as was previously noted, motherboards obsolete themselves so quickly that I see no point in splurging. Next year's motherboard is guaranteed to be shinier, more enticing, more attractive, etc. But you spent all your dough on some motherboard that costs three (or four) times as much, and the actual measurable performance differences are often 2-5%. It's simply not worth the money.
So my strategy with motherboards is to spend as little as possible. There are much more meaningful ways money can be spent to improve user experience and/or performance.
Processor: Intel P5200
A nice, overclockable, dual-core, somewhere-between-E2200-and-E7200 processor that is miserly when it comes to pulling watts. Should you want something more meaty, I'd suggest the quad-core Q9550, but that will set you back an additional ~$225. And it's all going to be obsolete in a year (actually, more like two months), so don't even bother buying bleeding edge.
Memory: OCZ 2 GB DDR2 800
2 GB seems to be a goodly amount for a system these days. Go for four if you really think you need it (doubtful), but it's hard to beat simple math: $36 - $25 = $11 for 2 GB of memory. Plus, with the combo deal on the PSU, newegg basically pays you to take this memory off their hands. Suhweeeeet.
Video Card: HIS Radeon 4670
Budget gaming has never looked so good. Across the board, the 4670 is by far the best budget gaming card available, benchmarking somewhere between last year's ~$200+ offerings, the AMD 3850 and AMD 3870. It should be capable of driving even high-resolution monitors on most recent games, decoding 1080P H.264/VC-1 with great image quality enhancements, and is amazingly efficient at idle and load. The HIS card in particular comes with a more effective cooling solution that other video card vendors, so it runs quieter and cooler. And at $70 after rebate, it's impossible to argue with the value. For a beefier solution, consider a 48xx version, but expect to pay at least another $50-100.
Hard Drive: Samsung Spinpoint F1
Cheap, roomy and speedy. I dream of a day when these aren't $600, but that day will have to wait.
Keyboard: Logitech Wired Wave Keyboard
Ergonomic: check. Nice feeling: check. Full featured: check. Reasonable price for quality: check.
Mouse: Logitech G9 Gaming Mouse
Even if you aren't a gamer, having a precise mouse makes working with your computer a pleasure. You don't realize how much effort you take trying to click on things and position a mouse until you go from using a shitty one to a good one. In my opinion, the absolute worst place you could possibly skimp on is the mouse, since it is the once device we use where precision and ergonomics really matter. Think about the difference between using a laptop touchpad and a normal mouse. IMO, the difference between a normal mouse and a quality pointing mouse is the same.
Speakers: Logitech Z-2300
I prefer two-channel audio for my computer setups because running wires for rear channels is always a mess. Sub is a must. Nice sound is a must. The Z-2300 pleases without fail.
Another option is to buy a nice pair of headphones. The sound quality can't be beat, and if you're trying to tune out distractions they can be a life-saver.
DVD Burner: SAMSUNG SH-S203N
SATA, lowest published access times of any drives, numerous customer satisfaction awards, and $26 bucks. Sold!
Cost for core components:
- Antec Mini P180 $119 - $40 rebate = $79
- Combo Deal OCZ ModXStream Pro 600W and OCZ 2 GB DDR2 800 are $95 as a combo deal. After another $45 in rebates, both of them are $50
- Intel P5200 is $84
- MSI G31M3-F is $49
- HIS Radeon 4670 is $80 - $10 mail-in rebate, so $70
- Samsung Spinpoint F1 is $55
- SAMSUNG SH-S203N is $27
- Total after rebates: $405
- Logitech Z-2300 is $106
- Logitech G9 Gaming Mouse is $90
- Logitech Wired Wave Keyboard is $50
- Total is $246
Total investment in what I call "replaceable" parts (CPU, video card, motherboard and RAM) is about $200, so in a year or two, this entire system could be upgraded to the latest, greatest crap and still be completely competitive. It's the advantage of building upon quality peripherals that don't obsolete themselves in mere months!