Buying on a budget: your guide to saving money on your next PC

PC prices have been falling steadily over the last year or so, with many vendors dipping below the $2000 mark, but what can you expect to get for your money? Is $2000 really enough money to outlay on a computer system that will be entrusted with business, educational and entertainment tasks? A quick glance at our Sub-$2000 category in the Best Buys reviews reveals that some vendors go above and beyond the call of duty when configuring machines for this price range.

The budget sector has long been the domain of AMD, which offered an alternative to the higher-priced Pentium chips with its K6-2 line of processors and, more recently, its Duron. Intel has been playing the budget market with the Celeron, a cut-down version of the more powerful Pentium III.

The heat is on

As more and more CPUs are introduced by AMD and Intel - each trying to outdo the other in the speed race (AMD's Athlon brought a competitiveness to the CPU market that was long overdue) - the results are faster systems at lower prices. Don't be surprised if you find a system under $2000 that sports an Athlon or Pentium III processor rather than the more conservative Duron or Celeron counterparts - as our Sub-$2000 Best Buys chart shows, this is slowly becoming the norm.

Where the market is headed

As well as Athlon and Pentium III chips, some vendors, such as Gateway and Dell, will now be shipping Pentium 4 machines that will retail at around the $2000 mark, hovering a little above or below this point. Although these machines may lack a strong supporting cast in the graphics, sound and even connectivity departments, the beefy CPU power means you should have a very fast machine for productivity purposes, which at a later date can be upgraded to reflect your changing needs and budget.

Memory prices have also been quite low of late, so don't be surprised if you suddenly start seeing sub-$2000 systems sporting 256MB of SDRAM. Victorian retailer e@Pc was among the first vendors to configure such a system when it submitted its Rocket PC for our Best Buys in June.

Basically, as long as prices for components such as memory keep dropping, and more advances in CPU and graphic card technology are made, you can expect to get a whole lot more performance for your dollar.

Who's selling what?

Dell, Gateway, HP, Compaq and Peripherals Plus are among the leaders in the budget sector because they can afford to provide the most complete packages, including good levels of support and useful software bundling. Dell and Peripherals Plus are worthy of special mention as they provide three years of on-site service for most of their systems. Compaq ships its systems with generous software bundles that can get you productive right from the word go. All produce systems that are suitable for either the home or the office.

Other companies, such as e@Pc, Altech and Australia IT, to name a few, offer configurations that are geared more towards enthusiasts - powerfully configured and expandable, but possibly lacking features such as software bundles and Internet or network connectivity.

What we looked at

A cross-section of companies, including Compaq, HP, Peripherals Plus and Altech, submitted computer systems for this review, which we then benchmarked with SYSMark 2000, PC WorldBench 2000 and MadOnion's 3DMark 2000, to determine the speed of the configurations. We then looked at the overall package and what it offers - bundled software, generous warranty periods and freedom for expandability are just some of the things we have tried to cram into our report cards.

Three of these machines made it into this month's Sub-$2000 Best Buys chart; to see how they fared against other previously reviewed PCs, refer to page 112.

For the office

HP Brio BA300

Aimed at the office environment, this PC performed relatively well for what it is - an 800MHz Celeron-based system with 64MB of SDRAM running Windows 98SE. It contains no special features or user aides other than a product recovery CD and the standard colour-coded peripheral plugs and ports.

Housed in a small bland mini-tower case, this unit's expandability is limited to one more CD-ROM-sized device. The motherboard is based on an Intel i810 chipset and, as a result, contains integrated audio and graphics components. There is no AGP slot, but two PCI slots and one DIMM slot are free. A 10/100 network adapter is installed and an external USB modem ships with the system. A 15in monitor as well as speakers and scroll-wheel mouse complete the package. It's supported by a three-year, one-year on-site warranty.

Quick specs: Intel Celeron 800 CPU, 64MB SDRAM, 20GB hard drive, CD-ROM drive, integrated 4MB graphics and audio, external modem, 10/100 Ethernet adapter, speakers, 15in monitor.Speed rating: PC WorldBench 2000=117; SYSMark2000=101; 3DMark 2000=995
Supplier: Metropolitan Business Machines
Price: $1741
Phone: (02) 9267 1611
URL: www.mbn.com.au
For the homePeripherals Plus "Duron 950Well supported and well performing, this PC is perfectly suited for the home environment due to its versatility. It can handle productivity, gaming and entertainment tasks - as shown by its performance scores - and comes with Lotus SmartSuite Millennium to get you started.It's a fairly complete package for this price range, containing a powerful graphics department, integrated audio, plenty of memory, a modem, DVD-ROM drive and speakers. Its 17in monitor provides generous viewing area.

Expandability is possible via four free drive bays, five free PCI slots and two free DIMM slots. It comes with a good set of peripherals - one of which is a Microsoft Intellipoint USB mouse - and the three-year warranty is on-site.

Quick specs: AMD Duron 950 CPU, 128MB SDRAM, 20GB hard drive, DVD-ROM drive, 32MB GeForce2 MX 200 graphics adapter, integrated audio, internal modem, speakers, 17in monitor.

Speed rating: PC WorldBench 2000=149; SYSMark2000=149; 3DMark 2000=2947
Vendor: Peripherals Plus
Price: $1999
Phone: 1800 007 587
URL: www.perplus.com.au
For the enthusiast and gamerAltech DioneAs a budget machine for the power user, this system is ideal. Its 1GHz processor and 128MB of memory propelled the machine to admirable scores in our benchmarks. The enthusiast will enjoy fiddling with the machine's speed settings, for the motherboard contains a built-in overclocking utility. Its interior space allows for three more drive additions, while the motherboard has five PCI slots, one ISA slot and two DIMM slots free.It ships with a great set of PC Works speakers by Cambridge, and its monitor size of 17in is generous. The package is supported by a two-year return-to-base warranty and does not come with a software bundle or a modem.

Quick specs: AMD Athlon 1GHz CPU, 128MB SDRAM, 20GB hard drive, CD-ROM drive, 32MB GeForce2 MX graphics adapter, integrated audio, speakers, 17in monitor.

Speed rating: PC WorldBench 2000= 174; SYSMark2000=193; 3DMark 2000=4770
Vendor: Altech Computers
Price: $1995
Phone: (07) 3846 5155, (02) 9748 2233
URL: www.altech.com.au
For the home or officeCompaq Presario 3200 (3BWM21)The Compaq Presario 3200 is perfect for the home or office - or even the first-time computer buyer - as it comes with everything essential to an enjoyable computing experience, as well as a good software bundle that can get you productive within minutes. Getting it up and running shouldn't be too difficult, as it ships with fold-out and colour-coded plugs that clearly state where each connection should go.Its recovery CD should make restoration easy if you ever encounter problems, and support is offered via a one-year on-site warranty.

The machine is a compact size and ships with comfortable-to-use mouse and keyboard, a 15in monitor and speakers (not illustrated).

Quick specs: Intel Celeron 800 CPU, 64MB SDRAM, 20GB hard drive, CD-ROM drive, integrated 4MB graphics, integrated audio, speakers, 15in monitorSpeed rating: PC WorldBench 2000=111; SYSMark 2000=88; 3DMark 2000=881
Vendor: Compaq
Price: $1899
Phone: 1300 360 737
URL: www.compaq.com.au
Out of the boxApple iMacThe budget benefits that IBM PC-based users are reaping also seem to have crossed boundaries to Apple, with iMac computers to be found sporting price tags under $1800. This is good news for aspiring multimedia professionals who want to get an entry-level system to help run their chosen audio or video applications.What you will get for your money is a system equipped with a 400MHz PowerPC G3 processor, 64MB SDRAM, a 10GB hard drive, a slot-loading CD-ROM drive and integrated 8MB Rage 128 Pro graphics.

Connectivity is vast, with built-in USB, FireWire and network ports, and a 56Kbps modem. Audio is also built-in - speakers as well as a microphone are incorporated into the front bezel of the unit. Its display is a standard 15in screen offering 13.8in of viewable area.

In terms of aesthetics, you should already know that iMacs are available in all sorts of different colours and patterns - ours was a particularly striking blue colour that was unanimously liked by all who saw it. The pulsating power light also rated high on the coolness meter. Its monitor-sized footprint takes up little space on your desk, and, thanks to its all-in-one nature, the only cables that you have to meddle with are the power lead and the keyboard and mouse connections. Basically, the iMac is ready to use straight from the box.

In this price range, this machine's particular configuration prohibits it from running Mac OS X, as that OS requires 128MB of memory, but OS 9.1 should hold you in good stead. A long list of goodies will help you play with music tracks and video files.Vendor: Apple
Price: $1795
Phone: 13 3622
URL: www.apple.com.au
From the gamer to the business user to the student, for around $2000 a machine can be configured easily from the ground up that will provide you with more than adequate performance and expansion room for the future.You will have to do a bit of shopping around, however, to find what you're looking for at low prices. To get you started, the descriptions below detail what to look for, using the example of what we would have chosen to build our own system. We gave ourselves an imaginary budget of $2000 to build a computer that would have been used primarily in the home.

Intel vs AMD

There are different types of motherboards and different kinds of CPUs that cater to the budget market. We have already discussed what the CPU choices are, but motherboards, the building block of a computer system, are just as important in the overall scheme of things - and, of course, an Intel-based motherboard will not work with an AMD processor and vice versa.

To get the most value for your money, you should consider basing your system on an AMD CPU. The Duron is directly marketed at the budget user and is significantly cheaper and higher performing than Intel's Celeron; alternatively, you can opt for a relatively low-speed Athlon, which is aimed more at the power user and business customer and is an equivalent, if not better, performer (at a lower price) than Intel's Pentium III. For our system we decided to base our system on a 1GHz Athlon CPU, which at the time of writing we were able to find for $325.

So, we've selected our platform - AMD - and now we need a suitable motherboard. The price you pay will often determine what sort of performance and expansion you can get from the motherboard; for example, a cheaper model may only support processors up to 1GHz and may sport a bus speed of just 200MHz as opposed to 266MHz, in an AMD setup.

Also, if you look for a model that incorporates a sound chip, you will save yourself from forking out for a sound card. You may sacrifice a few features, but for listening to music and playing the odd game, an on-board chip will suffice. We chose to go for a motherboard featuring on-board sound - the MSI K7T Pro 2A - as well as six PCI slots and three memory slots, for $215. We whacked 128MB of 133MHz SDRAM into one of those memory slots for $65.

A heavily integrated motherboard, such as the one based on the Intel i810 platform, that features sound, graphics and network or Internet connectivity options, may turn out to be cheaper in the overall scheme of things and may be better suited if you're looking at building machines for the office.

TIP: some computer shops sell motherboards, CPUs and memory together - known as "upgrade packs" - that could be the answer to your budget prayers.

Don't pick a basket case

Many systems from name vendors that are under $2000 ship in small cases that can't accommodate much future expansion.

Machines that come in small cases generally incorporate a lot of integration on the motherboard, such as graphics and audio, which can limit their ability to be upgraded as more powerful components are released.

This means the actual case in which the components sit will determine, to an extent, the amount of expansion you can undertake in the future (along with the motherboard), so it is important to look for a case that has at least a 250W power supply and at least a total of five drive bays. Of course, rigidity is also something to look for, but as we are on a budget we don't need to be too particular in this area. For our system, we chose an AOpen midi-tower case with a 250W power supply and six total drive bays. We were able to find one for $75.

Graphics and storage

If you're a gamer, the most important part of your system will be graphics. NVIDIA has a range of video cards that are used in budget systems and are also a part of the powerful GeForce product family - the GeForce2 MX series of products, which run at a slower speed than the more expensive GeForce2 cards.

You can save a few dollars by opting for a TNT2 M64-based card for your AGP slot. These come in either 16 or 32MB configurations, the latter costing around $105. For our system, we chose a 32MB GeForce2 MX card for $159. You can also save money by choosing a generic branded card. This shouldn't be a problem, as NVIDIA does a great job of providing reference drivers for all its products.

For storage, we equipped our system with a 20GB Quantum Fireball (LCT20) hard drive, which has a spin speed of 4500rpm, a 128KB buffer and an ATA100 IDE interface. This is a budget model and will suit most people's needs. More expensive hard drives feature larger memory buffers and faster spin speeds to produce greater performance.

We equipped our system with a 17in Mitsubishi DiamondView 1770G monitor for $385. Try out the monitor before you buy, and make sure that you get something your eyes don't object to.

Monitors that feature Aperture Grill technology will be more expensive than those that feature a regular Invar Mask CRT tube, and you can also save money by buying a monitor that supports a resolution that you will be using and not much higher. Ours supports up to 1280x1024, but more expensive models may go up to 1600x1200.

Odds and ends

If you're not fussy, you can pick up a standard Windows keyboard and a scroll-wheel mouse for $30 each - as we did.

Keyboard and mouse designs become more expensive as they start to incorporate shortcut and multimedia function keys, as well as cordless connectivity. Speaking of connectivity, an internal 56Kbps modem can be had for less than $50 (we found one for $45).

For reading CDs, you can opt to go for a standard CD-ROM drive, which will cost around $70, or you can follow our lead and turn your machine into a movie watching station with a $150 16x Pioneer DVD-ROM drive. Going for a CD-RW drive may put you well over budget, as the cheapest model we found was a $255 Acer 32x10x8 drive. Don't forget you will also need a floppy drive. These cost around $30.

Operating system

For the business (SOHO) user, gamer or student, we recommend you try to find a copy of Windows98SE, rather than going for Windows Me, as this will provide you with a little more oomph. Unfortunately, the full version will cost around $365, whereas Windows Me can be had for $329 (more than our CPU!).

If you've already got Windows 95, then you can update to either Windows 98 or Me for around $190 and $170, respectively. You can forego this expense completely and get a version of Linux. We chose to purchase the Windows 98SE upgrade for $190.

Verdict

When you tally it all up you will find that we spent $1899 - coming in $101 under budget, while building a machine that will let us play games, watch movies, surf the Internet and handle any business tasks. There are advantages to building your own budget system, and it can be an educational experience.

We lose out in the software bundling and peace of mind that PC manufacturers can offer. Buying utility software such as Norton's AntiVirus and productivity software, and Microsoft Office, will set you back a considerable sum (especially for Office). Vendors such as Compaq do a great job of providing comprehensive software bundles as well as time-saving product recovery CDs. There are alternatives, though, in the form of freeware (the Free Software Minibook is a great place to start; for more details see www.pcworld.idg.com.au/freeminibook).

Keeping track of the different warranty periods of all the individual components may also be tricky. If you have a problem, you can't solve it as simply as you can with a complete system that a reputable vendor has built for you. Most shops have very short return policies for components such as CPUs and memory, so make sure you test your system thoroughly as soon as it's built.

For more on building your own PC, see PC World's February, March and April 2001 issues for a step-by-step guide to the process.

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