The majority of my part-time, independent computer building work is spent assembling budget and midrange systems. Budget systems represent an interesting challenge in wringing as much performance as possible out of a limited amount of money. Midrange systems are, to me, more fun because of the flexibility that a larger budget offers—it's easier to tailor a rig to each buyer's particular needs. It's also great building midrange rigs because the prices on hardware are generally lower than ever, the hardware itself is absolutely more capable than ever, and software development has, at least for generalized daily use, not kept pace with hardware development. These factors all culminate in an opinion I find particularly exciting: I think it is reasonable to expect today's midrange, $1000 or so desktop PC to be more than adequate for the average user for the next five years.

Five years ago we witnessed the arrival of Intel's Conroe CPU architecture, which wrested the performance crown from AMD's Athlon 64 X2 CPUs. While the Conroe chips (and to a lesser extent, the original AMD dual-cores) are still serviceable, using them for more than basic tasks on a modern OS (read: Windows 7) with the common at the time 2GB DDR2 configuration is not an entirely painless computing experience--though a simple and inexpensive upgrade to 4GB RAM will do wonders. Even more so than the midrange PCs of 2006, I am confident that the systems outlined in this guide will remain capable of delivering an enjoyable computing experience to the average computer user until the end of 2016.

Windows 7 is clearly another "decade OS" like Windows XP was. Mainstream monitor resolutions have likely topped out at 1080p for the foreseeable future, and I simply don't see 3D monitors ever catching on at the mainstream level. Microsoft Office 2010 is no more demanding hardware-wise than Office 2007 was, and it's unlikely Office 2013 will be substantially different in this regard. As for the web, the explosion of mobile devices means content owners will either need to increase the separation of their mobile sites, or slow down the advance of what they're currently giving visitors. While increasingly powerful mobile processors mean the web's more demanding content (like Flash) will inevitably proliferate, right now, and for the near-term future, the limitations of mobile hardware will likely inhibit the web from becoming much more demanding of hardware than it is now. Further, development of graphics card technology has slowed down over the last few years and shows no signs of speeding up again anytime soon—though this may very well change with the launch of next-generation video game consoles.

Thus, right now is a good time to be in the market for a midrange DIY PC. On the Intel side of the chip, Sandy Bridge's immediate successor, Sandy Bridge E, is priced well above the midrange market segment. Ivy Bridge will likely be available for midrange buyers, though its performance increases over current Sandy Bridge CPUs represent a 'tick' in Intel's development scheme—better power consumption and higher frequencies, but likely not dramatic performance improvement. Graphics will be a healthier upgrade on IVB, but even a moderate discrete GPU will be much faster, not to mention Ivy Bridge is still almost half a year away. On the AMD side of the chip, to be candid, unless Bulldozer improves substantially with upcoming revisions and/or more capable Llano APUs are released, we don't expect AMD to bring anything particularly exciting to the midrange desktop processor segment for a while, either. Trinity is currently scheduled for Q2'2012, putting it in the same time frame as Ivy Bridge.

Over the next three pages we'll cover an $800 AMD Llano APU system aimed at casual gamers and general computer users, a $1000 Intel Core i5-2500K rig designed for enthusiast gamers who also use their PCs more intensively, and a $1200 Intel Core i7-2600K box geared towards folks who use their systems for computationally demanding tasks.

$800 AMD Llano A8-3850 System
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  • shivoa - Tuesday, December 6, 2011 - link

    My Lian Li PC-60 is a great ATX case from 11 and a half years ago. Thank God we never migrated to BTX or I might have had to worry about buying a new box to put my PC in.

    It has no concerns with the current length of PCI-E cards, has a fully removable back and motherboard tray design that makes working with it a pleasure, and the dual 80mm front, single read + PSU exhaust isn't the most cutting edge design but it can still do the job (and over the years I've done some refinement of the air flows to help the case keep cool and quiet). Yes, the PSU it top mounted so the design is a bit more top heavy but the general design is just fine and shows what a long term purchase a good case can me.

    Will we still be using ATX in 11-12 more years? I doubt it, but you can't look at the past and say it invalidates purchasing a case with a long term view.
  • Ananke - Wednesday, December 7, 2011 - link

    Get a Lian Li. Very few, if any, can compare.
    For a workstation, I would recommend PC-90. For a budget choice PC-9F or K9.
    intel 2500k is good for Adobe and video processing, if you have the money get the 2600k and Z68 Asus board. Get 16GB RAM, it is cheap anyway. More RAM is better for RAW files postprocessing.
  • kmmatney - Tuesday, December 6, 2011 - link

    It would be real useful if the Anandtech GPU Benchmark app included on-board graphics, as well as older cards. It's a pain to try and see if the Llano GPU will be better than an old Radeon X850, or how it compares to an HD4830.
  • mrjoltcola - Tuesday, December 6, 2011 - link

    Agree; for that matter it would help if GPU bench would allow comparison across all cards, old and new. I frequently think in terms of "8800GTX" performance when comparing something new, and frustingly I cannot do that in GPU Bench.
  • Burticus - Tuesday, December 6, 2011 - link

    Interesting read... but I could put together that A8 system for under $500 compared to your $800 just by glancing at the online sales today. But I understand this is a guideline and you can't reflect sale prices in realtime.

    I would not go the $140 case/power supply route with that one though. A8 is screaming "bargain power" and as such I'd be looking at a smaller/cheaper case. Microcenter has the Thermaltake V3 for $28 after MIR.. this is a very nice small case. Add a 500 watt Thermaltake TR2 power supply for $35 after MIR. That is a nice small case with a decent power supply for $63. Just one example of many....

    One more thing... why not include a Phenom II x4 / x6 "going out of business" option? Retailers are practically giving them away now. Microcenter has Phenom II X4 850 for $59 and X6 1055T for $119 (with a free mobo).

    It's a bad time to be buying mechanical hard drives, but for the budget systems I don't feel SSD is the answer. You can still score a 500gb 7200rpm sata drive for $75ish or cheaper if you get refurb/reconditioned. That price is over double what it should be, but still compared to a $80 64gb SSD offers better value.

    Just my opinion.
  • Dug - Tuesday, December 6, 2011 - link

    The Intel system could of used the same power supply and case that you used in the AMD build, bringing the price even closer.
    You don't mention any overclocking, so you could save another $30 on the cpu.

    And I can't imagine recommending the OCZ. Just get a Crucial M4.
    The power supply you recommend is also on the shit list on Newegg for doa and failures.
  • frozentundra123456 - Tuesday, December 6, 2011 - link

    Just cant see spending 800.00 for a Llano system when 200.00 more can get a much superior CPU and GPU. If using Llano I would want the system to be much cheaper. I still think that the graphics, while good for an integrated unit are just too mediocre for an 800.00 system. I mean, my 2 year old 9800GT that I got on sale for 70.00 is probably faster. But I am looking at the system from a gaming standpoint. If you dont game, I suppose the APU is good enough, but if you dont game, even the HD Sandy Bridge graphics and an i3 2120 might be good enough.
  • bhima - Tuesday, December 6, 2011 - link

    Sure, you'll boot up faster and programs will load faster but for those that actually want to game on their system, an SSD does literally NOTHING for their gaming experience. I'd rather have an extra $100 to spend on a better video card, like a 6950 or 560 ti. SSDs are nice, but if you are on a budget, and you like to game, the SSD is much less important than a strong video card.
  • antef - Wednesday, December 7, 2011 - link

    You said...

    "AMD's HD 7000 series should come out in the not-too-distant future, but we can't share any details on where those will rank right now."

    Does this mean you have details but can't share them due to NDA, or are you just saying you don't yet know where those will rank just like the rest of us. The timing of the release of those cards really makes the difference about whether I build over the holiday or not.
  • cjmurph - Wednesday, December 7, 2011 - link

    You state the $1000 build as suitable for CAD work. Not happening. Two 1080p monitors running microstation and intelligence graphics turn to water, flickering and arrifacting like mad.Any chappy dedicated card will fix it, but it won't work as it is.

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