In the last few weeks we've looked at almost all the components you would need to build your new PC. This includes motherboards, memory, cases and power supplies, video cards, displays, and storage. Now it is time to put all these parts together into a couple of systems buyers' guides.

Since we have already covered component classes and individual items in detail in the recent component guides, you will find those a useful reference to the components chosen in these system guides. This guide will take a closer look at several complete systems you can build for $500 to $1000 these days. Next week, we will look more closely at midrange systems in the price range of $1000 to $2000.

Low-end PCs have a reputation for being substandard, underpowered, and barely better than off-the-shelf PCs. That certainly has been true in the past, but with the continuing drop in component prices, you can get a lot of PC for your $500 to $1000. About a year ago it would cost about $700 to $750 to put together a decent "entry" system. Today you can build a similar but more powerful system, for about $200 less.

The fierce competition between Intel and AMD on the CPU front, and between AMD/ATI and NVIDIA in the GPU market, have made it possible to buy quality components for prices that used to be reserved for outdated hardware. You just have to know what to look for. The closeouts and "gotchas" are still out there, but armed with a little knowledge you can navigate the components offered and end up with a really powerful computer for the money you spend.

In this guide we will be looking at three common categories of systems you can now buy for under $1000. This includes the Entry-level PC, which is the best value for a complete system costing around $500. The bar is then raised to the upper end of our budget price range with Budget PCs that feature the most bang for the buck closer to the $1000 price point. It was a bit of surprise to find you could build very capable AMD and Intel machines, complete with keyboard, mouse, operating system, video card, 4GB of memory, and 19" wide-screen monitor for less than $850, leaving room for a monitor or graphics upgrade while still remaining under $1000.

Finally, we put together basic HTPC computers to deliver video content to your Home Theater. HTPC builders have normally already selected a display/TV for video and have a sound system, so we did not include either the display or speakers in the basic HTPC component selections. That is a subject for another article.

In the "Under $1000" PC market it really does not matter if you select AMD or Intel for your CPU. Performance across both lines is very competitive at the same price points in this category. That is why both AMD and Intel systems are presented at each price point. If we were choosing a high-end system at this moment the only real choice would be Intel, but with Phenom II around the corner that may soon change.

While the Intel i7 is a recent introduction and Phenom II is coming in about two weeks, both new processors will have the greatest impact at the upper middle to the top-end CPU offerings. The impact on the sub-$1000 category should be very small, consisting mostly of minor price cuts on "outdated" hardware and platforms. PCs in the "under $1000" category also frequently utilize onboard graphics, and there is no expectation for a new blockbuster IGP chipset on the horizon. While change is a constant in the computer industry, you can build PCs for less than $1000 today with some confidence that the system will continue to provide competitive performance for a reasonable period of time.

All of our recommendations are also upgradable, so you can add the latest video card and turn the system into a reasonable gaming or graphics processing system if you choose (provided your PSU is up to snuff, of course). GPUs deliver exceptional performance at the lowest price points seen in many years. The storage recommendations may seem overkill to some, but there is little reason to choose a smaller hard drive when you can buy 500GB of hard drive storage for $59 and a 1000GB (1TB) drive for just $110. Now let's get to the recommendations.

AMD Entry-level PC
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  • Wixman666 - Monday, December 29, 2008 - link

    Nonsense, you're forgetting that they are posting builds that are user friendly for the general public. 99% of the people in the US couldn't install Linux if their life depended on it. Even for many supposed "power users" it is not exactly friendly.

    While it is indeed a good alternative, Linux is still just not for the mainstream.

    You guys also neglected to choose Vista 64 for forward thinking. Buying a 32 bit OS today is like throwing away money. If I wanted a 32 bit OS I'd buy XP home, pro, or media center.
  • n0nsense - Tuesday, December 30, 2008 - link

    People in US do install and use Linux like in any other place.
    Anyway you will install some OS and installing Vista is at least longer process at the first time and "find the drivers CD" on next time since even NIC wont work out of the box in most cases (XP much worse with default drivers).
    And usability, if my 60 years old (in average) parents can use it without calling me few times a week (like they did with XP), anyone can :)
  • strikeback03 - Monday, December 29, 2008 - link

    I'd guess that most users considering assembling their own computers (and for that matter most users who can put a CD in the drive) could install Ubuntu. And with reasonably mainstream hardware they might even have it run flawlessly. If you are willing to use the forums and such to find help you probably can get it to run on just about any system. The problem is that lots of people want it to just work, and you never know what you are getting with each new release. I have been using Ubuntu since 6.10 on my desktop and 7.04 on my laptop. Each release I have installed on the desktop has required new kernel flags to work around problems (noapic, nolapic, all_generic_ide, etc), and the 7.04, 7.10, and 8.04 LiveCDs didn't even boot without help. With 8.10 they seem to have fixed all that, I still haven't gotten around to actually installing it but it runs perfectly off a flash drive. My laptop (Thinkpad T43) , OTOH, had zero problems with any of the releases prior to 8.10, everything did just work. So I went ahead and installed 8.10 without any trial period, and it broke Wireless support, so that it would constantly disconnect from the router, then most times ask for the password on reconnecting and sometimes refusing to reconnect at all. Obviously not acceptable, so I went back to 8.04.

    I have installed Ubuntu on several other systems at work without problems (including one which is almost identical to my troubled desktop), but the point is that a lot of users probably don't want the uncertainty of whether their hardware will be happy with the software or not. Not that Vista has a spotless hardware support history, but most users probably feel more comfortable finding support for that than Linux.
  • JarredWalton - Monday, December 29, 2008 - link

    Actually, we didn't specifically state whether you should buy the 64-bit or 32-bit version, though we did mention that 64-bit is the way to go if you run 4GB or more RAM. There's only a couple applications I use regularly that utterly fail under 64-bit Vista: Dragon NaturallySpeaking (still waiting for their 64-bit update!) and Gametap (a bunch of the games fail to install/work under 64-bit Vista). So it's still not 100% the same as 32-bit, but I do run 64-bit for my primary gaming PC. My work PC remains 32-bit until the Dragon issue is fixed.
  • sprockkets - Monday, December 29, 2008 - link

    If you can assemble a computer, you can install Linux.

    By the way, that WD Green drive has NEVER been a variable speed drive; it operates at 5400rpm ALL the time. WD just doesn't want the public to fret over the fact that it is a 5400rpm drive so they obfuscate this fact as much as possible.
  • cbutters - Monday, December 29, 2008 - link

    I was just about to post that the WD wasn't a variable speed drive, but I see you have commented on it already, therefore, I second your post.
  • n0nsense - Monday, December 29, 2008 - link

    Truly, I can't understand why 20% of computer cost should be spent on OS.
    Yes, you can argue that other OS does not really support ALL games.
    But when talking about Internet/Office/Media non professional use (in professional people can choose Mac) for what f... reason should person to spend this 100 USD on something really not needed. Actually it's more then 100$ since they gonna need "good anti everything" soft which will slow down their already not so fast computers.
    On the other hand they can opt for something like Mythbuntu for HTPC, or Ubuntu for normal desktop and spend saved money on something better like tripling disk space, getting decent dedicated graphics and other things.
    And i'm disappointed that you don't even mention this.

    and please, add preview button for posts :)
  • DerwenArtos12 - Monday, December 29, 2008 - link

    Why didn't you all use the Corsair ram you were raving about in your memory guide, it's only a couple bucks more?
  • Wesley Fink - Tuesday, December 30, 2008 - link

    We certainly like the Corsair memory as well. As we said in the Buyers Guide:

    "RAM prices as a whole are certainly in the commodity category as of late. We recommended the Kingston 4GB DDR2-800 kit, but you could just as easily choose OCZ, G.Skill, Corsair, Crucial, GeIL, Patriot, or any other quality DDR2-800 name and shop for the memory based on a combination of price and the company's support reputation."
  • BernardP - Monday, December 29, 2008 - link

    I have had a system based on Asus M3N78-VM GeForce 8200 motheboard for a month. I have all the latest chipset, audio (NVidia + VIA) and video drivers installed. I have tried all possible audio settings and configurations, in WinXP and BIOS. Despite this, I have been unable to get audio through HDMI, although the HDMI video is perfect @ 1280x720.

    Searching on the net, this seems to be a widespread problem. Some users report they have HDMI audio working, but they don't seem to have done anything special to make it work.

    The fundamental problem is that, on my system, there is no visible option to select HDMI audio, either in Hardware Manager or Control Panel/Sounds.

    Anyone knows the sure-fire recipe to enable audio through HDMI on the 8200/8300 chipset?

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