Can you build a decent PC on a budget of $500?

Summary:Can you build a decent PC on a budget of $500? Let's find out!

Can you build a decent PC on a budget of $500? Let's find out!

Rules of the game

I'm being realistic here. I don't expect to be able to build a monster PC that'll be able to handle 3D games or render video for $500. If building a PC on a budget of $500 I'd be looking at a PC that can hook up to the Internet, handle email, word processing and spreadsheets and play and burn DVDs. However, even on a budget as low as $500 you don't need to cut corners and skimp - by buying the right components you can still expect reliability.

So, let's see what we can get for $500. All components here are sourced from Newegg.com and prices are as listed today (5/29/07). Price will not include OS (I'll get to that at the end).

Motherboard - ASUS M2NBP-VM

Motherboard
The trick to building a cheap PC is to get the foundations right. You need a motherboard that's got it all integrated - audio, video, network. The ASUS M2NBP-VM has it all, and at a good price.

This board handles our audio, video and network, saving us a bundle on the overall end price of the PC. The audio and network support will be adequate for most needs (the audio support offers 6 channel output and the LAN supports 10, 100 and 1000Mbps) and if you later decide that you want to dabble in a little gaming, you can always fit a separate PCI-E card into the x16 slot instead of the onboard NVIDIA GeForce 6 GPU.

The board also supports 4 sticks of RAM up to 8GB, 2 x PATA channels (ATA100), 4 x SATA channels (RAID 0/1) and for the price you get 2 x USB 2.0 and both D-Sub and DVI video output. Nice.

Price - $74.99

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Processor - AMD Athlon 64 X2 3800+

AMD CPU
I thought long and hard as to whether this PC should have at its heart an AMD or Intel processor. In the end I chose AMD because I feel you get more bang for your buck at the lower end of the spectrum.

The 2.0GHz dual-core AMD Athlon 64 X2 3800+ is a pretty decent CPU, and given the remit of this PC it will handle everything the user is likely to throw at it and have power to spare.

In this retail package you get both the CPU and a heatsink. Not the best heatsink in the world, but since overclocking is likely to be kept to a minimum, it's not an issue.

Price - $79.99

RAM - 2 x 512MB 240-pin DDR2 667 (PC2 5300)

RAM
1GB is the minimum amount of RAM I recommend for a new PC. Putting any less into a system is folly and is just going to result in disappointment.

Newegg sells Kingston ValueRAM at a decent price so I'd pick up 2 x 512MB for $37.98. I'd be tempted to add more, especially if the system was going to be running Windows Vista, but 1GB is a good starting point.

Price - $37.98

Hard drive - Western Digital Caviar SE 160GB 7200 RPM SATA 3.0Gb/s

Hard drive
You have to be canny when buying hard drives, especially on a budget since spending a few dollars extra (and I do mean just a few dollars) can make all the difference. For example, if you set you look around the $49 mark, all you find are 80GB drives, but boost your budget up by a few dollars to $53 ($52.99) and you can pick up a 160GB model.

Here I've chosen the Western Digital Caviar SE WD1600AAJS 160GB 7200 RPM SATA 3.0Gb/s drive. This model has 8MB of cache and boasts an average latency of 4.2ms and average seek time of 8.9ms.

Price - $52.99

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Optical drive - Lite-On 20X LH-20A1S DVD±R SATA Model

Optical drive
Choosing the right optical drive is pretty subjective. I went for the Lite-On LH-20A1S because it offers decent speed (20X DVD+/-R) and a SATA interface (which offers nothing more than a way to keep the cabling tidy).

Price - $32.99

Case - Rosewill R103A 350W PSU

Case
When building a budget PC you don't want to blow too much dough on a case, but on the other hand you don’t want a case that's flimsy or a PSU that's going to go China Syndrome on you.

Rosewill is getting some pretty decent reviews and for the price it seems unlikely you'll go wrong.

Price - $25.99

Monitor - ViewSonic Optiquest Q7B-3 17 inch 8ms

LCD flat-panel
Two criteria - it's gotta be a flat-panel LCD and it's got to be 17 inch or better. For a budget we're looking at whether you can pick up a decent 17 inch flat-panel LCD screen for under $150.

In the end I went for the ViewSonic Optiquest Q7B-3 17 inch, a panel that's ideal for home/small office PC that'll be easy on the eye and able to give good output with digital photos and video playback.

Price - $146.99

Speakers - Logitech S-100

Speakers
Nothing spectacular here. Just a cheap Logitech S-100 set.

Feel free to spend more or less as your budget (and ears) dictates.

Price - $11.99

Keyboard/Mouse - Microsoft Black Basic Keyboard and Mouse

Basic setup, but OK for the price.

Keyboard/mouse

I find the cheap Microsoft keyboards to be pretty responsive and not too bad on the fingers. As for the Microsoft mice, again, no complaints for the price. If you don't like Microsoft stuff, then choose something else.

Price - $16.99

TOTAL PRICE - $480.90 (excluding shipping)

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A word on operating systems

I wouldn't really say that this system is Vista capable. It would run Vista Basic, but not spectacularly. Now I know Microsoft wants us to feel that Windows Vista is the way to go these days and that XP is now obsolete, but it really isn’t. Personally, if I were building a system like this I'd stick XP on it (Pro would be my choice because I like the networking and remote desktop options, but Home would do for most).

If I wanted to build a budget Vista rig I'd increase my budget price from $500 to $600 and add 1GB more RAM and a cheap and cheerful graphics card (probably a Radeon X1650). That would turn a budget system into a Vista capable budget system. As prices fall over the coming year I'm pretty sure that a Vista capable budget system will fall to sub-$500.

Alternatively, go for a free open source OS like Ubuntu.

Thoughts?

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Topics: Hardware, Microsoft, Windows

About

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes is an internationally published technology author who has devoted over a decade to helping users get the most from technology -- whether that be by learning to program, building a PC from a pile of parts, or helping them get the most from their new MP3 player or digital camera.Adrian has authored/co-authored technic... Full Bio

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