Help me build a PC that meets my needs and my budget, thanks!
November 30, 2006 6:30 PM   Subscribe

Hello PC enthusiasts, help me build a decent machine. I've posted this type of question before, but this time I really, really will buy or build something. Between my five year-old budget box and my five year-old Dell Inspiron 4000, I'm seriously underpowered in the PC arena. My budget is $500, max. My needs probably fit within this category. When I try to do this on my own I end up convinced I need a box that costs $12,000 and will be obsolete in a month. On the plus side, the only game I play is Tetris. Well, Tetris and old infocom games. Details and

My priorities are:

I don't care how noisy or ugly it is and I don't have time for games.

A typical computing scenario for me, the following applications are running:
  • Photoshop CS with one very large PSD open and generally a minimum of 30 layers. Ideally there would be two or three, but crap box I'm on can't handle it.
  • InDesign CS2 with several large documents open.
  • Illustrator CS should be running, but I have to close something else if I want to do anything with Illustrator.
  • Firefox is open with a minimum of 10 tabs and more likely 30 or 40.
  • If I'm doing development, IE6 and IE7 are running
  • TextPad with a good twenty open documents.
  • Winamp is running.
  • Acrobat is open with two or three large documents.
  • Sometimes I have a movie playing in a corner, probably xvid or some mp4 format that eats cycles.
Don't tell me this can't be done for $500. I'm running a five year-old budget box, it was maybe $400 new, it has an old celeron running at 1.somethingLow Ghz, it has an old, cheap, slow videocard (GeForce FX 5200). It has a cd burner and no DVD burner. It has two 40GB hdd, one of which I picked up at a yard sale for $5. It runs hot even with one side of the case off and a desk fan blowing through it.

I can even raytrace an 800x600 image in a couple days if I don't do anything else, and 3ds 5 runs OK on those rare occassions I need it. 800x600 is completely useless to me, however.

Now, I can do all this with my current system but everything is slow, I have to delete movies, music, and work on a regular basis. Crashes are frequent, and I'm fed up. I'm currently paid less than a Wal-Mart employee to do some fairly high-caliber work, this will change soonish, I hope, but in the meantime, I need a new system and now seems like a good time, what with the new Core Duo chips driving down the price of yesterday's cutting edge. So, mefi-mind, can you hope me?
posted by Grod to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (24 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
pick through these for past info.
posted by Frasermoo at 6:43 PM on November 30, 2006

Consider getting a barebones kit, maybe? Something like this at tigerdirect. If you're not into that one, there are tons of ones to choose from in their barebones category. You can always upgrade the RAM, get a decent video card, etc, and still be in budget.
posted by theantikitty at 6:46 PM on November 30, 2006

Dell outlet. Grab a base system that's cheap, and maybe drop another video card in it (especially useful for dual monitors)
posted by chrisamiller at 6:56 PM on November 30, 2006

I would start with the latest suggested specs for the budget box on They shoot for < $800 but if you drop what you don't need, (monitor, speakers) get a non-gaming video card (you don't need much for 2D) you should be able get it to ~$600, then as ondinsdream said, recycle what you can in the way of case, etc. to get to where you need to be. One thing, with all those Adobe products running you'd be wise to have a separate hard drive dedicated for swap.
posted by JulianDay at 7:07 PM on November 30, 2006

I'd say Athlon 64 X2 3800+ @ ~$150, whatever good mobo you can find for ~ $75 (get one with built-in video), 2 gigs ram for ~$200, and then re-use everything else. If you must, scrimp on the cpu, but get all the memory. A 2 Ghz sempron is still pretty darn fast, but there's nothing slower than not having enough ram. Newegg is a good place to get all this stuff.

On preview: Never, ever trust a deal from TigerDirect that involves a rebate. They will use every trick in the book to try to avoid paying it. Unless you're willing to document absolutely everything and threaten to sue them on top of all that, it's not worth the hassle. They even spun off their rebate division with a new name so it would sound like it's not associated with them. They're crooks and liars, and I avoid them entirely on principle.
posted by boaz at 7:08 PM on November 30, 2006

So, in the "not much use" category, you just missed the single biggest day for computer sales in the USA. For $500 you could have got a complete, decent system on Black Friday. For $400 you could have got a fast athalon with a gig of memory and a 250 gig hard drive.

My advice to to wait for another sale at a local chain store - you can get good deals sometimes, even better than DIY.

If you have to DIY, reuse as much as possible, get a decent mobo and a processor that's a generation behind that still runs fast (I got a Pentium D system, which is "old" but still pretty darn good and dual-core) and spend as much as possible on RAM. Your huge list says to me RAM, RAM, RAM.
posted by GuyZero at 7:10 PM on November 30, 2006

I don't have to DIY, I just have to get the absolute best bang for my buck, I won't be doing this again for another two or three years, minimum.
posted by Grod at 7:21 PM on November 30, 2006

None of the applications you've mentioned require a substantial video card, so immediately that makes things a lot easier. For the Creative Suite apps, RAM will be crucial; unfortunately RAM is also expensive. CPU is a concern as well, but not a huge one; you can get away with an old Athlon 64 quite easily, if my experience is any indication (I'm using an A64 3000+ right now and have had no major problems with CS2).

Combo deals will be your big ace in the hole here. Here's a sample build from Newegg:
  • Athlon 64 3400: $59.99
  • Biostar TForce-6100 motherboard w/ onboard video: $67.99
  • Seagate Barracuda 320GB ATA drive: $94.99
  • Corsair 2x512MB DDR SDRAM set (1GB total): $105.99 or Corsair 2x1GB DDR SDRAM set (2GB total): $207.99
  • Coolermaster 430W power supply: $33.99 ($18.99 w/ mail-in rebate)
  • DVD burner of your choice: $27-$31
Total cost: $393.95 for the 1GB version, $495.95 for the 2GB version.

This quote assumes you keep your old case, keyboard/mouse and monitor. If your power supply is decent (say, 300-350W) you can drop the Coolermaster. If you don't mind the size of your hard drives, you can drop the Seagate as well. If you want a new case, you can pick up a cheapie sharp-metal-edges case for $20. A new monitor is the toughest thing, but you can probably still find a decent Samsung 17" CRT for $150, or a good 19" LCD for $220 (assuming you're not worried about colour correction, not that you have the cash for a Spyder anyways).

This is certainly not a high-end rig, but it's probably better now than your $400 Celeron system was at the time you bought it. If you want to improve the system further, the first thing is to replace the CPU with an Athlon 64 X2 3800+, but that's almost $100 more.
posted by chrominance at 7:26 PM on November 30, 2006

Check dealnews.. A Dell Athon X2 (dual core, 1GB RAM, 160GB HDD) goes for $390, and the single-core system goes for $100 less.

Those are pretty tough price targets for any DIY system to beat..
posted by unmake at 7:27 PM on November 30, 2006

(oh, and scratch the "combo deals" thing; that was from a previous build I was trying, but the combo deals with the A64 3400+ involve vaguely sketchy motherboards. The Biostar board seems to have a higher rating. That said, you can save a lot if you go with the combo deals; there's a CPU/mobo/hard drive deal for $155.99!)
posted by chrominance at 7:30 PM on November 30, 2006

Get lots of ram. It's cheap and will make a bigger difference for you than cpu will. You need AT LEAST 2 gig for what you are doing there. Those adobe apps suck up memory. Get something like that Dell Athlon X2 a few above me, and throw in a bunch more memory. The other advantage is that you can upgrade memory to 3gb, but don't have to do it all at once if you don't want to.
posted by cschneid at 7:44 PM on November 30, 2006

On preview: Never, ever trust a deal from TigerDirect that involves a rebate. They will use every trick in the book to try to avoid paying it...etc

For what's it's worth, my understanding is that they're better than they used to be.

Only other thing I'd add is to echo the people calling for a lot of ram.

And jacobian, maybe Grod can only afford a $500 computer specifically because they've bought all those apps......
posted by inigo2 at 8:13 PM on November 30, 2006

AnandTech Budget Buyer's Guide:

"Today, we will tackle the budget sector, with the goal of keeping prices to around $1000 on the upgraded configurations, and getting as close as possible to $500 on the base systems."
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 8:48 PM on November 30, 2006

chrominance seems to have the right idea here. You don't seem to need any better than onboard video, cases are cheap or reusable (if you want to get a new case, I'd recommend finding a local computer store to buy it at -- shipping for cases can be kinda steep)...

Eschewing stuff like video/sound cards can really go quite a ways to lowering the cost of a new system.
posted by neckro23 at 9:51 PM on November 30, 2006

I think the best suggestion so far is to reuse your existing case, and just upgrade components. Even if this means replacing everything but the case and power supply, it's probably cheaper (and you get the warm, fuzzy feeling of not contributing to the waste stream). Feel free to eBay or CL the surplus components.

If gutting the old system and rebuilding it isn't an option, the next best thing is probably to get a system from Retrobox. They refurbish corporate and industrial surplus. I have bought a system from them (a "workstation" HP Pentium 4 for about $300 last year) and they're good, although don't expect to get your stuff in a hurry. They do the refurbishing after you order, not before, I think.

Anyway, if you go through Retrobox, you can get basically anything you want, but leave yourself some room in your budget to upgrade the RAM and HD once it arrives. They seem to charge a premium for RAM and HD that's more than what it ought to cost. At the very least, you'll get a respectable case/PS/mobo/processor; chances are it'll be light on RAM and HD, and won't have all the goodies you'll want (DVD-R, etc.). I'd say stay away from Dell, as they use proprietary power supplies, which will hurt you the next time you want to upgrade.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:29 PM on November 30, 2006

On the one hand, it sounds like you could certainly get by - for now - with any old 2ghz+ P4 or Celeron system with a gig or two of RAM, but if you're prepared to spend ~$500, do yourself a favor and get a (new) dual-core machine, socket AM2 or 775, with PCIe slots and DDR2 RAM - that'll let you do easy piecemeal upgrades in the future.

Older systems (socket 478/754/939, AGP, SDRAM/DDR) will be more expensive and more of a hassle to upgrade - they might be a great bargain for email and web-surfing, but if you're going to be running the CS3 suite in the future..
posted by unmake at 12:45 AM on December 1, 2006

If you are not a gamer you don't need a super-fast CPU, nor do you need a discrete video card. Get a nice socket AM2 motherboard with a Geforce 6100/6150. A good one will have everything you need on-board. Throw in 2GB of DDR2, a CPU, and a case, and that's about it. You can reuse your current drives, but 250GB SATA drives currently go for about $75 new, so don't waste your time with those 40 GB clunkers.

As to finding deals, check dealram, RTPE, etc.

Example system:
GIGABYTE GA-M51GM-S2G Socket AM2 NVIDIA GeForce 6100 Micro ATX AMD Motherboard - $78
AMD Athlon 64 X2 Dual-Core Processor 3800+ - $148
G.SKILL 2GB (2 x 1GB) 240-Pin DDR2 SDRAM DDR2 667 (PC2 5300) Dual Channel Kit Desktop Memory - $195
Western Digital Caviar SE WD2500JS 250GB 7200 RPM SATA 3.0Gb/s Hard Drive - $70
Total: $491

Okay, so this doesn't include a cooler, case, shipping, or tax. But you can finagle the details to get you closer.
posted by Rhomboid at 10:37 AM on December 1, 2006

(and I would defintely substitute out the dual core X2 for a regular Athlon 64 in a hearbeat to get the total down, if necessary. Don't skip on the RAM though.)
posted by Rhomboid at 10:40 AM on December 1, 2006

Just piping in to say I had received several rebates from the tigerdirect folks. My parents have as well. It's through an online automated system.
posted by theantikitty at 2:35 PM on December 1, 2006

Is there any real advantage to dual core at the moment? Is anyone writing software to take advantage of it?
posted by Grod at 8:18 PM on December 1, 2006

Standard single-threaded applications can still benefit greatly from dual core; it's not like they have to be specially designed. To the operating system dual core is the same as SMP, which means the operating system will freely schedule separate processess on the individual cores. So your "movie playing in the corner while using photoshop" scenario will result in those two processes running in parallel on each core. It also eliminates the common scenario where some app wedges, taking 100% of the CPU, and the entire desktop becomes slow or unresponsive because of it. Most users of dual core/SMP report that their desktop/UI is much more responsive when many things are running at once.

About the only scenario where a dual core processor goes to waste is when there is a solitary single-threaded process running, which is pretty much the textbook description of gaming. So it is true that games will need to be redesigned to use multiple threads in order to really take advantage of modern processors, but since you are not a gamer this is irrelevant to you. Your stated usage pattern of many simultaneous active processes almost screams for dual core.
posted by Rhomboid at 12:01 AM on December 2, 2006

Ok, thanks. Unfortunately, I need to run windows to run Adobe apps, but Vista isn't out and doesn't appeal to me, anyway. Can XP take advantage of the AMD Athlon 64 X2 3800+ ?
posted by Grod at 3:33 PM on December 2, 2006

Can XP take advantage of the AMD Athlon 64 X2 3800+ ?

Yes. And if/when you upgrade to 64-bit software you'll likely see a 10%-15% performance increase.

Here is one of the many articles published about the Athlon X2 3800+.
posted by unmake at 7:53 PM on December 2, 2006

Wow, I'm so glad people are still reading this thread. I just ordered the HDD and the MoBo -- after doing my own research I went with Rhomboid's suggestion. I've decided (in a fiscally irresponsible fashion) to break the bank a little on RAM and storage. I realized as I was shopping that I probably can't cannibalize any of the fans from my current box. What is the cheapest I can get away with in the cooling department? Does it matter what brand of thermal paste I use? What kind of power supply do I need? I have access to an old g4 case, could I cram this stuff in there or are the mounts all in the wrong place?

Any good guides on what I might otherwise overlook?

Thanks everyone!
posted by Grod at 10:33 PM on December 2, 2006

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