Following up on last week's Best Budget PC Guide, today we have midrange systems with roughly twice the cost. Of all the systems types to configure, the midrange market can be the most difficult. With budget systems you're often limited in what you can do by price constraints while at the high end the best components are usually pretty clear cut choices; for midrange builds there are many factors to consider. One of the core questions you always need to answer is: what do you want to do with the system? Office PCs will often have a different goal than something for a student, and there are many ways to adapt a particular system to fit the needs of the user. We have two configurations again, one AMD and one Intel, with optional graphics cards for those who want a system capable of handling the latest games. Let's start with AMD:

Midrange AMD System
Component Description Price
CPU AMD A10-7850K (4x3.7-4.0GHz, 4MB, 95W, 28nm) $170
Motherboard MSI A88X-G43 $78
RAM Team Vulcan 2x4GB DDR3-2133 CL10 1.65V $78
Storage Seagate Barracuda ST2000DM001 2TB $84
SSD Crucial MX100 256GB $109
Case Fractal Design Core 3300 $63
Power Supply Rosewill Capstone 450W 80 Plus Gold $60
Subtotal   $642
GPU (Optional) Sapphire Radeon R9 270X 2GB $190
GPU (Alternative) Zotac GeForce GTX 750 Ti 2GB $138
Total with GPU   $832

Right from the first component choice – the APU – we have plenty of things to consider. I've tailored the above build more towards performance than price or power, so the A10-7850K is really the only APU that makes sense. (You can make an argument for an AM3+ CPU like the FX-6300 or FX8320, but considering that platform has been around a while and is basically fading away I'm hesitant to recommend that route.) Besides the quad-core (dual-module) CPU portion of the APU, the 7850K has the full 512 core (eight Compute Unit) GPU. The A10-7800 is an option to consider at its $155 MSRP, but the only place I can find with the part in stock charges $166; for $4 more you might as well just go whole hog and get the 7850K. Dropping down to an A10-7700K will lose two of the GPU CUs and 200MHz off the CPU for $15, so it's also worth a thought, but if you don't need faster GPU performance you might as well go for the A8-7600 for $110 at that point.

For the rest of the system, the MSI motherboard has AMD's latest A88X chipset, we've selected DDR3-2133 RAM to provide increased bandwidth for the APU graphics, and the case is Fractal Design's latest Core 3300 (though you can use the case in the Intel build as an alternative). For storage, we've again included both an SSD for the OS and apps with a rather large 2TB HDD for mass storage; you could easily drop the HDD if you don't need that much storage, but for any modern system I simply refuse to leave out an SSD. The Crucial MX100 isn't the fastest SSD on the planet, but the price makes it incredibly attractive. Finally, the power supply may be overkill for the base build, but having some power to spare means adding a graphics card is always an option.

Speaking of graphics cards, while the APU graphics will do fine for most tasks and even light gaming, if you want to be able to play most games at 1080p with medium or higher detail settings, a dedicated graphics card is required. Here we've listed two options: NVIDIA's GTX 750 Ti (Maxwell) card and AMD's R9 270X card. The AMD card is faster and costs more, and it also uses a lot more power; if you want 1080p with high quality settings in most games, that's the card to get (and it's reflected in the price of the system with the GPU). NVIDIA's GTX 750 Ti on the other hand uses less than 75W and doesn't even require a PCI-E power adapter, and it can still run most games at medium to high settings and 1080p. Either GPU is certainly worth considering, at least if you want to play games – and if you don't, just get the core system and you can always add a GPU at some future date.

Midrange Intel System
Component Description Price
CPU Core i5-4590 (4x3.3-3.7GHz, 6MB, 84W, 22nm) $200
Motherboard ASRock Z97 Anniversary $90
RAM ADATA 2x4GB DDR3-1866 CL10 1.5V $77
Storage Seagate Barracuda ST2000DM001 2TB $84
SSD Crucial MX100 256GB $109
Case Antec Three Hundred Two $64
Power Supply Rosewill Capstone 450W 80 Plus Gold $60
Subtotal   $684
GPU (Optional) Sapphire Radeon R9 270X 2GB $190
GPU (Alternative) Zotac GeForce GTX 750 Ti 2GB $138
Total with GPU   $874

The Intel system this round ends up costing about $50 more than the AMD setup, thanks to a more expensive CPU and motherboard. There are ways to keep the prices closer, but overall the i5-4590 strikes a good balance of price and performance. It's about $25 less than the slightly faster i5-4690 but only around 3-5% slower, and unless you plan on overclocking it should offer everything you need. As we discussed in our recent CPU State of the Part, looking at overall system performance Intel's processors make a lot of sense for those that want a faster system.

The motherboard this time comes from ASRock and features Intel's latest Z97 chipset, and for the RAM we elected to go with a 1.5V kit of DDR3-1866 memory. While faster memory can help with the processor graphics on AMD's APUs, for Intel's CPUs the HD 4600 is usually limited by other factors than bandwidth. The same caveats about the storage components apply here as well, but if you're looking for alternatives the Samsung EVO 840 250GB is generally slightly faster than the Crucial MX100 while costing about $20 more.

The case for our Intel setup is an Antec Three Hundred Two, which is another popular option. Optional graphics choices can add a boost to gaming performance if you need it, but again a faster GPU could easily be added later on. If you're sure you won't want to add a dedicated GPU later, you can also save money on the PSU by going with the 300W Seasonic we used in our budget PC guide.

On either system, it's of course possible to go for a smaller micro-ATX case and motherboard. The prices are typically comparable and these days the only thing you're really sacrificing are expansion options, but considering many people don't run anything more than a hard drive and SSD along with a GPU, you really don't miss much. For mATX cases, you might like the Rosewill Line-M or Silverstone SST-PS07B. As far as mATX motherboards, the ASRock Z97M Pro4 would work well for the Intel platform, or for AMD the Gigabyte GA-F2A88XM-D3H will even save you a few bucks compared to the MSI board we listed above.

As before, we've elected to leave out the OS, keyboard, mouse, and display; these are all commodity items and most people have existing accessories they can carry over from an old PC. You can always use a free OS like Ubuntu or some other flavor of Linux, whereas Windows will generally add $100 to the total. As far as displays go, I'm a sucker for larger displays and I've been using 30" LCDs for most of the past decade – one of the best investments I've ever made in terms of computer hardware! For a good midrange display, I'd give serious consideration to the 27" 2560x1440 panels that start at around $300; if you don't want something that large (or expensive), there are also plenty of 23-24" IPS/VA displays for around $150.

Finally, let's quickly talk about pre-built systems and why I don't generally recommend them. Really, it comes down to one thing: the refusal of the big OEMs and system builders to deliver a competitively priced desktop that includes at least a good quality 250/256GB SSD (or even a 128GB SSD). $500 will get you a Core i5 or AMD A10 processor, 4-8GB RAM, 1TB HDD, and whatever case and power supply the OEM uses. Generally speaking, you get fewer features, lower quality parts, and a less attractive design – but you do get a valid Windows license along with a low-end keyboard and mouse.

We could easily take the above systems and remove the SSD and drop down to a 1TB HDD to save $140. Using lower quality motherboards can shave off another $30-$50. Wrap things up by using a cheaper case and power supply (another $50 saved) and guess what you have: a less desirable system for one, with a base price of $450 or so. Buy a Windows license and you basically have the equivalent of a pre-built system.

It's not that OEM systems are necessarily terrible, but it's the age old story: you get what you pay for. I for one would much rather have a decent SSD, motherboard, case, and power supply. You can pay a system integrator to put something together as well, but even then your choice of parts is often limited and the prices are typically higher than if you DIY.

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  • willis936 - Friday, August 8, 2014 - link

    I guess the question is how far under a grand do you want to be? I realized after making this that this build isn't really comparable to these because they're off by $100 which shows up in the GPU and RAM.
  • wurizen - Saturday, August 9, 2014 - link

    i thought u guy were the experts? i looked at the psu requirement for a 270x (at newegg) and it says 500 watts as the base requirement. does this mean a 450w is ok? did u go 450 watt to save money? u could have easily went up to 500 watts to meet the 270x requirement and still be under a grand? i don't get it. seems too "expert-y" to be using a 450 watt psu. but that's just my nonexpert opinion.

    also, i don't think the am3+ platform is dead. i don't even get the dead thing comments on here. an fx8350 is on the heels of an i7-3770k. with better software/coding optimizations, who knows, an amd fx8350 cpu's can prob close that gap even more.

    by using an amd apu, there is less cpu performance than the fx series and since your build has a dedicated gpu--theigpu is wasted. i don't get it. again, too expert-y and too way above my head.

    anyway, i couldn't sleep so i decided to build my own under a grand pc using a "dead" amd fx cpu:

    (tax not included)

    mobo: asus m5a99fx pro r.20 ($134.99)
    cpu: amd fx8350 ($189.99)
    ram: g-skill ripjaw x (2 x 4GB) 1866 PC314900 ($88.99)
    gpu: sapphire dual-x radeon r9 280 3GB ($219.99)
    ssd: samsung 840 evo ($89.99)
    hdd: seagate barracuda st1000dm003 1TB 7200rpm ($59.99)
    psu: fractal design tesla r2 650watt certified 80 plus gold ($86.99)
    case: fractal design define r4

    total: $990.92
  • wurizen - Saturday, August 9, 2014 - link

    oops, the fractal define r4 case is $119.99. white version.
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, August 9, 2014 - link

    There is no "one size fits all", which is something I tried to get across in the introduction. Basically, you can spend more on a GPU if you're a gamer, less on an SSD, get a better case or a smaller case, etc. I intentionally don't include any rebates on the components, mostly because those change so frequently that in a week the price list would be woefully out of date.

    As to your questions: R9 270X will easily run off an 80 Plus Gold 450W PSU; heck, I've run R9 280X on just such a PSU, and total system power draw under load is still well under 400W. The reason AMD and NVIDIA "require" such high wattage PSUs is that if you buy a cheap case that includes a "500W" PSU for $50, that PSU is likely only going to be able to run reliably with constant loads (i.e. gaming) of 300W or less.

    For the CPU, FX-8350 is certainly getting close to the performance of an i7-3770K (or i7-4790K) in some instances, but it also uses more power by about 50% and there are plenty of cases where it's really not that close. If you happen to run code that really likes having eight integer cores, FX-8350 (or FX-8320) can really scream, but single-threaded performance is a big step down. Long-term, it's also a bit sad that AMD has publicly stated they're not going after the performance crown any longer, so I suspect FX-8350 will be one of the fastest AMD processors for a while.

    Anyway, your total price is about $120 higher than the systems I put together, and for most people the difference in performance will be negligible. The GPU is faster, of course, and anyone could spend a bit more (or a lot more) to improve GPU performance, but outside of gaming or heavy computational workloads it's basically just more money for the same overall experience.
  • wurizen - Saturday, August 9, 2014 - link

    so ur saying that the amd apu u picked will be as snappy as an fx8350 or 8320 in day to day task? if every other component is the same as ur amd apu buid? i dont think an fx8350 plus an am3+ mobo will be that much more if u just switched out those 2 components. ok, so the meager 450w psu might no longer be safe with an fx cpu in there but add 5-10 bucks more to kick up that psu to a 500w unit. And u have an older cpu but a faster cpu. U will also help promote amd fx cpus so amd can finally uodate them, if this publicity thing u do does work. Of course, u didnt. So now, ppl will buy amd apu's, which no one likes except for laptops and amd is not even getting the same desktop apu in mobile firm yet. And intel has iris. So theres ur praise for something u thought was newer and thus mire alive than am3+ but is just nit true. So thanks fir nothing.
  • silverblue - Saturday, August 9, 2014 - link

    On a per-module basis, that 7850 should be close to the 8350 - slightly better per-core IPC, better scaling per module, and there's the oddity that is Kaveri being much better at x87 benches (from what I've seen; correct me if I'm wrong, but it hardly matters unless you really want to bench SuperPi all day long). The 8300 series is viable, especially more so for gaming, and even more so if you undervolt it, but you have to ask yourself what you need a PC to do before jumping towards one socket over the other. How expensive is a good AM3+ board in comparison to FM2+, for example?

    The real issue here - for me - is the non-availability of the Athlon II X4 860K or similar CPU in the west; in other words, an APU with its graphics disabled (I don't know why it doesn't have 4MB L2 cache, though, only 2MB). I'd like to see one of those overclocked; it may even send the overclocked G3258 packing if they get it to 4.5GHz. I'd buy FM2+ for that.

    By the way, Iris comparisons are null and void due to the price difference.
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, August 9, 2014 - link

    You can read Ian's review of what will likely be the last FX-series AM3+ CPU now:

    If we look at the FX-8350, what you'll find is that an i5-4690 is faster in virtually every test. There are a few exceptions (Cinebench R15 multi-threaded, Hybrid x265 4K, and WinRAR) but on the whole we'd be looking at nearly the same price for the two systems with Intel winning the lion's share of benchmarks and using quite a bit less power as well -- 20W+ at idle and 100W+ load. The i5-4690 also wins at nearly every gaming test and at worst is basically tied (Company of Heroes 2 being the lone holdout where AMD has a <3% lead).

    If AMD could make a better, more competitive FX series processor -- which means competitive performance and power and cost -- it would be worth buying. Right now, they unfortunately do not, and trying to support something AMD has chose to abandon -- for arguably good reasons -- isn't going to help anyone.
  • hojnikb - Saturday, August 9, 2014 - link

    I think you need to read up on how PSU power is rated.
    Even though this PSU is only good for 450W, its actually capable of delivering all of its rated power (or 444W to be precise) on the 12V rail. This is very important, since all the power hungry components need 12V and nothing else (gpus, cpus..).
    But there are PSU, that are rated for way more (for example 550W, 600W etc) but can't even deliver 2/3 or sometimes even half the rated power to the 12V rail. And that kind of PSU is really crap, since its effectivly only as powerfull as its 12V rail (for example, corsairs CX 600W is only good for 480W on 12V -- so really you're looking at a 480W PSU).

    And those ratings are also the reason, why GPU manufactures overrate PSU requirement.

    12V power is the thing, you need to look for.
  • Salvor - Saturday, August 9, 2014 - link

    I'd agree an 8350 might be a better idea, but I'd go intel anyways since relying on software to become more multithreaded is a big "if" (especially games). His build is cheaper than yours because he left some money for the OS, and he also has twice the capacity for his SSD and HDD,
  • silverblue - Saturday, August 9, 2014 - link

    Well, software becoming more multithreaded is definitely happening, but it's only true dual core/module CPUs that are going to really suffer here. The i3 is somewhat faster than a G3258 in games like BF4 and I imagine this will ring true for other Frostbite-powered titles.

    That P3258 sounded like a good idea at the time, but it really is handicapped by not having HT and thus puts me off it as regards future proofing. Still, it'd cannibalise i3 sales if it did have HT.

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