An entry-level desktop PC is difficult to define, but in today's market a reasonably powered machine with integrated video can be had for under $500. In fact, when ordering from Tier 1 companies like Dell, HP or Gateway, this price often includes an LCD monitor as well.

The shortcomings of Tier 1 PCs are several, but often exaggerated and blown out of proportion in online communities quick to scorn the status quo. It is true that parts quality can be an issue, so warranty coverage is important. It is also true that BIOS options are extremely limited, and overclocking is usually out of the question. Expansion limitations, such as slot availability and power supply capacity, are also a factor and must be considered when buying.

However, Tier 1 PCs are not all bad. Quite the contrary, creating product on such a large scale allows them enormous power to drive prices down and sell complete systems at a price significantly lower than that possible for consumers to replicate with parts bought off the shelf at retail. Further, in the "old days" many entry-level machines lacked AGP slots, making upgrades very difficult for gamers. Now, most if not all of these machines provide at least one PCI Express slot, allowing for aftermarket upgrades, though upgrades through the supplier are typically not available to avoid eating into their profits from the higher priced gaming product lines.

Entry-Level Supplier Choice: Dell

Dell is one of those companies some people love to hate, but they consistently offer very low priced system configurations and reasonably priced warranty coverage that in many cases is onsite next business day service, which is amazing for the price paid. Their configurations change frequently, but the system offered below is representative of a solid entry-level system.

Dell Vostro 220 Mini Tower

PROCESSOR: Intel Core 2 Duo E7300 (2.66GHz, 3M, L2Cache, 1066FSB)
OPERATING SYSTEM: Genuine Windows Vista Home Basic, Service Pack 1
WARRANTY and SERVICE: 2 Year Basic Limited Warranty and 2 Year NBD On-Site Service
MONITOR: Dell 20 inch Widescreen 2009WFP UltraSharp Digital Flat Panel
MEMORY: 2GB Dual Channel DDR2 SDRAM 800MHz - 2DIMMs
OPTICAL DRIVE: Single Drive: 16X (DVD+/-RW) Burner Drive
HARD DRIVE: 250GB Serial ATA Hard Drive (7200RPM) w/DataBurst Cache
VIDEO CARD: Integrated Video, Intel GMA X4500HD
FLASH READER: Dell 19-in-1 Media Card Reader
SOUND: Integrated 5.1 Channel Audio
KEYBOARD: Dell USB Keyboard
MOUSE: Dell Optical USB Mouse
PRODUCTIVITY SOFTWARE: No Pre-installed Productivity Software
PRICE: $488 plus $35 shipping; $523 total plus tax

System Rationale

Maximizing a deal from Dell often depends on not choosing some upgrade options that are very overpriced. For the configuration above, we opted not to upgrade the memory and hard drive for this reason, and both are sufficient for an entry-level machine as it is. The E7300 is a good CPU at this price, and we opted to upgrade the warranty from 1 year to 2 years at a cost of $39. This is a fantastic value for onsite service, even if you have to muddle through an Indian call center conversation first. We also opted to add a media card reader for $30, as this is a frequently used item for many people. Though the addition of the monitor raises the price, this specific deal offers the UltraSharp 2009WFP for only a $90 increase, which is a great deal on a fantastic well-reviewed monitor, so we couldn't justify excluding it. Normally, the 2009WFP costs upwards of $200, so this is definitely a steal.

Expansion Options

In terms of expansion, a PCIe x16 slot is included in this model, which is hurdle one. Hurdle two is providing power if necessary, such as with any midrange video card that requires a 6-pin power connector and the capacity to supply it. Obviously one can choose to simply use an entry-level card, such as the ATI HD 4670, that doesn't require any power beyond what the PCIe slot can provide. If a higher level card is desired, this model comes with a 300W power supply. Given the other system components, most midrange cards should work fine. Adapters are readily available that can convert the S-ATA power connectors in the Vostro 220 into a 6-pin for use with higher end cards. If even more power is desired, say to add an HD 4870 to the system in the future, the power supply can be replaced with any standard ATX power supply (which will also avoid the hassle of adapters).

We realize the above is a mouthful. To recap the video upgrade options:

  1. Install a low midrange card that does not require a 6-pin connection, such as the HD 4670. This is the easiest path to entry-level gaming.
  2. Upgrade the power supply to a standard ATX supply of sufficient capacity to support the new card.
  3. Keep the existing power supply, adapt the connectors, and stay within your power budget.

For reference, we've had an 8800 GT running in an Inspiron 530 for months without issue on the Dell-provided power supply.

Index Midrange
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  • strikeback03 - Monday, December 22, 2008 - link

    That you would bring up that systems are for sale at Newegg that state the recommended usage is Gaming, and have only GMA3100 for graphics.
  • Dadofamunky - Saturday, December 20, 2008 - link

    I have! I think their config is overpriced, though.
  • crimson117 - Friday, December 19, 2008 - link

    Why spend extra for a core i7 on a midrange machine? The CPU itself may be well priced at around $300, but there's no motherboard under $200 and the ram is pricier as well.

    For expandability in the future, it's one thing, but for price/performance today the core i7 platform is not worth the premium.
  • 7Enigma - Tuesday, December 23, 2008 - link

    I think expandability in the future is key for this particular price segment. You're not at the point where someone drops $8k without thinking, and you're also not at the disposable PC price range either. So figuring that someone buying this is not comfortable building their own system (or they wouldn't be shopping for this in the first place) probably does not have the technical ability to replace a CPU in the future. Much more likely then would be the buyer to simply replace the GPU in a year or two and still have a fantastic gaming system.

    I mean does anyone honestly think the core i7 will be hampered (in games) in the next 2-3 years? GPU definitely, but the cpu I highly doubt it.

    Putting yourself in the mindset of what a typical buyer of this system wants (a prebuilt system with longevity of the main core componenets (mobo, cpu, etc.), while offering an easy upgrade path for the GPU when additional power is needed), it is a very wise decision.

    And actually for the system builder that doesn't want to rebuild every 12 months (I typically go 3-4 years between builds and am still on my Athlon64 3200+ and GeForce6800GT) I take the same methodology. I normally will splurge a bit on the cpu/mobo combo that is slightly above the $/performance sweet spot to hopefully have an extra year or two while doing 1-2 gpu upgrades during the life of the system.

    My biggest regret was my last system build. It was right as PCIe came out and the current mobo's were similar in price to those for the i7 cpu's. It was also the very early beginning of DDR2 ram. Actually it was almost a mirror image of right now (where the core2 and DDR2 are very inexpensive but the future looks dim). Instead of having a nice upgrade path to get one of the last 2 generations of GPU (which would have been an inexpensive upgrade path that would have kept me happy the last year or two), I've been stuck with the 6800GT because it's AGP (few newer cards had AGP, and they were overpriced for the performance increase). Along the same page 2-4gigs of DDR2 ram can now be had for $10-20 with some of the great sales/rebates out now. Guess how much an extra gig of DDR ram costs? More than the extra "performance" would justify for me.

    So I'm stuck wanting to build a new system but the writing is on the wall that I should go with the i7 and DDR3, but will have to shell out quite a bit more money up front, in the hopes that the decision was the smart one to make.
  • aeternitas - Thursday, December 25, 2008 - link

    Some bizzar logic here.

    What did you expect to happen waiting until the beginning of a new architecture launch? Generally the MB will follow the CPU. You will get new MB designs incorporating new tech like PCIe about the time a major new CPU comes out. Common business. You will always see legacy but that is not the norm and is a grace period for people unwilling to upgrade old-ass hardware.

    News of i7 has been out for well over half a year. Where were you then? Still lugging away with your 6800GT? Come on. You only have you to blame here.

    You complain about how much $$ it all costs, when you're talking about skipping two whole generations of CPU die shrinks! Its like you're upgrading TWICE.

    The smart people that dont want to spend alot, buy the previous CPU gen right before a new gen. Thats where the biggest jump in price per dollar comes from when upgrading. Im on a Venice 3000+. If money matters to me and am low on it, im not going to jump to i7, im going to jump to a 45nm DuelCore2 and OC it like a bitch because they are cheap as hell on the lowend.

    C2D does not have a bleak future. It will last even longer than the AMD 64s in terms of before-next-upgrade. They are some of the best CPUs the industy has ever mad. Its a perfect time to build a system around them. Let the teh same people that tossed 1,500 at a CPU 2 years ago do the same again. I'll be at 90% of their performance for 110$
  • JohnMD1022 - Friday, December 19, 2008 - link

    One has to realize that the On-site service is viewed by Dell as a VERY last resort.

    A friend's Dell had a bad hard drive. "Well", he said "Ive got a 2-year on-site service policy. They'll send someone out to fix it."

    My reply was a bit cynical. "Lotsa luck on that one." But I was wrong, for...

    Sure enough, they did... After seven months and several traumatic (for him) re-formats performed at Dell's urging via phone support.
  • takumsawsherman - Friday, December 19, 2008 - link

    There are two aspects to Dell's support. If you bought the system as a "home user", they will think nothing of wasting hours of your time diagnosing with them. Even if you have already diagnosed the HD with a much more respected tool than their own, and have found not only lots of bad sectors, but lost files as a result. I have had customers with obviously bad hard drives told to reinstall from the Dell image, often without being told that this will destroy all data on the drive. Then, 2 weeks later, they are calling me because the problem is back.

    In contrast, even if you tell them you have a small business that you are buying the machine for, they will have you do about 5 minutes of grunt work before sending someone out or sending a part.

    They have acknowledged to me that their standards are different when dealing with consumers vs. business. But it is bad business to abuse customers with 4 hour phone calls, especially when I am calling in for a warranty part and they try to waste my time.

    Dell's problems cannot all be blamed on Vista. Most of their wounds are self-inflicted, after years of customer abuse have finally caught up with them. It is wrong to support them with further purchases.
  • Matt Campbell - Friday, December 19, 2008 - link

    Everyone's experience is of course different, but I happen to have had one very recently that I was pleasantly surprised with. Just 3 weeks ago my father's V200 Slim had a BSOD and then failed to boot. I was cynical as well, the on-site guys usually take care of everything, but getting to that point means going through the customer service rep. and their massive "try this" spreadsheet. I decided to try Live Chat online, and it took 11 minutes from start to finish with an open ticket for a site visit. This was a Friday, and sure enough they called next Monday and showed up Tuesday with parts in-hand. I liked the Live Chat as well since it was pretty low-key and they can retain a record, in my own words, of the problem so there's nothing lost in translation.

    This can get lodged in the "for what its worth" pile, but I was surprised how easy it was.
  • tacoburrito - Friday, December 19, 2008 - link

    You might want to double-check the ease of replacing Dell's weak PSU with a more powerful one. Dell uses a propietary motherboard with a propietary power connector that connects only to Dell's own PSU. Not sure about the Vostro model but that is the case for their XPS models. There are companies that manufacture Dell's motherboards-compatible PSUs, but the max. supply is about 450W.
  • eyeguy - Saturday, May 2, 2009 - link

    they do use a standard ATX power supply - on proprietary BTX motherboards. So you can replace the PS, but when the MB goes, so does the case. They have a ribbon cable for the reset button and front connectors, which is unique to dell. The PS 24 connector is as short as it can be to only work on a dell MB.

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