Build a Vista-compatible office PC for $305 (software not included)

A reader set me an email challenge the other day - put together a cheap yet well spec-ed and relatively powerful office PC that's up to the challenge of running Vista. To make the challenge even harder, the whole package (PC, keyboard, mouse, LCD panel and Vista OS) had to come in at under $600 (the reader wanted to build five of these systems). Can it be done? Read on to find out.

A reader set me an email challenge the other day - put together a cheap yet well spec-ed and relatively powerful office PC that's up to the challenge of running Vista.  To make the challenge even harder, the whole package (PC, keyboard, mouse, LCD panel and Vista OS) had to come in at under $600 (the reader wanted to build five of these systems). 

Can it be done?  Read on to find out.

I like these challenges because it forces me to think about performance per dollar rather than just performance.  When working to a budget you can't go throwing cash away frivolously.

Let's begin!

Note:  All prices quoted are from TigerDirect.  This is not an endorsement of TigerDirect - I'm simply using this as an example.  I've also ignored all rebates and special offers.  Shop around and you might be able to find cheaper prices. 

The OS

Build a Vista-compatible office PC for $305

Since the reader wants Vista, it's best to factor the cost of that into the build right from the start so that we know how much cash we're left with.  Sticking Windows on a cheap PC is a problem because even an OEM version takes up a fair chunk of the budget.

For this build I'm going to assume that that Vista Business Edition OEM is installed on each of the PCs. 

Price: $140

LCD panel

Build a Vista-compatible office PC for $305

Since the reader wanted each system to have an LCD panel, and these are also a high cost item (relative to the overall price of a cheap PC) I'm going to go and factor this in from the start too.

The panel I chose was an I-Inc iW171ABB 17-inch WXGA+ LCD panel.  This is a widescreen panel with a native resolution of 1440 x 900.  It's nothing special but for the price choosing the widescreen format makes sense because you get more screen real estate for your money.

Price: $150

CPU

Build a Vista-compatible office PC for $305

OK, so far we've spent $290 out of the initial budget of $600 per PC.  That leaves us with $310 for the rest of the system.

Since I'm looking for value I'm going to choose a CPU from the AMD range.  I've picked the AMD Athlon 64 X2 4200+.  This dual core processor runs at 2.2GHz and provides more than enough power for an office PC.

The CPU is a retail package which means that it comes with a heatsink and fan assembly so we don't need to worry about that.

Price: $70

Motherboard

Build a Vista-compatible office PC for $305

Since the CPU is an AM2 unit, we need a compatible motherboard.  Also, I want to pick a motherboard that covers all the bases - integrated graphics, gigabit LAN, decent audio, SATA and plenty of USB ports. 

The ASUS M2A-VM fits the bill just nicely.

Price: $70

Next -->

RAM
Build a Vista-compatible office PC for $305

No point going nuts on special high speed, tight timing RAM for an office PC.  All we need is a couple of generic 512MB modules to give the system an ample 1GB.

I've picked the Kingston PC6400 DDR2 - reliable and cheap as chips.

Price: $30

Hard drive

Build a Vista-compatible office PC for $305

Since our board supports SATA we need to be looking for SATA drives.  You can get 80GB drives but for a few extra dollars you can now pick up 160GB drives which make a lot more sense.

Here I've gone for the Western Digital Caviar SE 160GB drive.  A nice, all-rounder that I've found to be very reliable.

Price: $50

Optical drive

Build a Vista-compatible office PC for $305

Don't forget the optical drive. 

Even though they cost a little extra I prefer the flexibility that a DVD burner offers.  I've gone for the cheapest I could find - the Philips SPD2413BM Super-All-Write OEM.  There's no software with this drive but download CDBurnerXP (which is compatible with Vista) and you're ready to go.

Price: $25

Case + PSU

Build a Vista-compatible office PC for $305

OK, we're working to a budget here so no fancy modded cases.  However, that doesn't mean that we can't grab a case that comes with a decent PSU, decent number of bays and front panel USB/audio.

I've picked the Power Up Black Corporate ATX mid-tower.  This is nothing to write home about but it works.  The PSUs can be a bit of a hit and miss but if you get one that works for a day or so, you've got one that'll give you a few years (test the PSUs before building).

Price: $40

Keyboard/Mouse

Build a Vista-compatible office PC for $305

Finally, let's complete the build with a keyboard and mouse.  I've gone for the Logitech Deluxe 250 combo.  You can pick up cheaper keyboards and mice but these are usually of the cheap and nasty variety.  Here I've chosen something I wouldn't mind using myself.

Price: $20

Finished system

Well, we're done.  So, what did we end up with?  Here's a quick summary:

  • AMD Athlon 64 X2 4200+ AM2 2.2GHz system
  • On-board graphics (up to 256MB shared graphics RAM)
  • 1GB of RAM
  • 160GB SATA hard drive
  • DVD burner
  • 17" widescreen LCD panel
  • Vista Business OEM
  • Keyboard/mouse

Price?  Well, remember that we spend $290 on Vista and the widescreen LCD panel so that only left $310 for the hardware.  So what's the total price?

... $595.

Thoughts? 

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