Since Intel's launch of the Core 2 Duo in 2006, AMD has relied primarily upon two strategies to stay relevant as a CPU producer: competitive pricing and more cores at specific price points. While the recent launch of AMD's Bulldozer CPU architecture has for some purposes narrowed the gap between the two chipmakers, it seems AMD will continue to compete mostly on pricing for the low-end and mid-range segments of desktop CPU markets. But does the recent launch of Sandy Bridge architecture Celerons by Intel threaten AMD's reign as budget king? The possibility of increased competition at the lower end of CPU performance leads to the question, "How low can prices go?"

Fortunately for consumers the answer is arguably lower than ever before—though not necessarily with CPUs. SSDs continue to drop in price, and DDR3 prices remain very low with sales regularly hitting the less than $5/GB threshold—even without rebates. As GPU development has slowed in the past year, graphics cards are exhibiting longer lifespans; older cards are becoming less expensive but not necessarily less capable. Until the recent flooding in Thailand, hard drive prices were holding low, with 500GB drives usually available at $40 and sometimes even less; it is unclear how hard drive prices will change in the short-term.

The kind of computing experience these budget systems are capable of delivering is as important as the absolute cost of components. While enthusiasts are always interested in the latest and greatest technology, many people rely on a smartphone and/or a netbook for most of their computing needs. That is, the average user does not need a particularly powerful computer anymore to perform basic tasks like shopping online, checking email, playing games on Facebook, and producing office documents. The components discussed in this guide are all more than adequate for the average home and office user.

It's important to keep in mind that prices on these parts fluctuate wildly and rapidly. We present in this guide a wide array of products representing all of the desktop component classes—the more price alerts you set on more websites, the more likely you are to be able to score killer deals on computers for friends, relatives, or perhaps yourself. Also keep in mind that with the rise of mobile OSes such as Apple's iOS and Google's Android, more people are increasingly comfortable learning a new operating system—so while all of the builds detailed in this guide include the cost of Windows 7, it's worth considering saving $100 or so by going with a user-friendly free OS like Ubuntu Linux.

All that said, the next page provides a few benchmarks comparing Intel's and AMD's $60 CPUs as well as AMD's $70 APU, which will set the tone for overall system performance. Once we've covered the performance expectations, we'll move on to the actual component recommendations.

Battle of the Budget Processors
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  • vitaminwater - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    1st time poster, long time lurker

    a AMD x2 in this day an age?? you can get a Athlonx4 955 black editon for $120 shipped

    for a couple of bucks more you get MONSTER performance for a budget build

    just my 2cents

    keep up the good work!
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    $120 is twice the cost of the Athlon X2, and at that price you could also get the Llano A8 processors or an i3-2100. You could also add a discrete GPU for the same $60 increase, or some other upgrades like a better display. Given the higher power requirements of the 955BE relative to other choices, I'm not sure it's any more sensible than an inexpensive Athlon II X2.
  • jefeweiss - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    It seems like part of the problem with the comparison of the low end A4 part is that it should be compared to a system that is comparable in cost of both CPU and graphics, because you get both with the Llano parts. The cost of the Celeron plus the 5670 discrete graphics or the Athlon II plus 5670 discrete card would give you enough money to buy a much nicer Llano processor. Otherwise, it doesn't make sense to compare the Llano to the other two with discrete graphics, you would have to use integrated graphics. Part of the value proposition of the Llano is that you can game on a system and not have to buy a discrete card, or at least that was my understanding.
  • Wierdo - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    Yeah that was strange, are we comparing products we can buy for X price, or not? Makes no sense.
  • mczak - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    The gpu of the a4 is not anywhere close to a HD 5670 however - there's a reason its gpu is called HD 6410 (not even the a8-3850 is really close to that fwiw more like HD 5570)... I guess it should be quite comparable in performance to a HD 6450, it has significantly less shader power (thanks to much lower clock) but it possibly can make up this loss with its higher memory throughput (of course not against the HD 6450 gddr5 but these aren't available anyway).
    Granted the price difference between a HD 6450 and HD 5670 is not really all that large - but the 3d performance of the A4 is going to be low enough that you can't really say it comes with both cpu and graphics but the celeron does not (yes the HD 2000 will be slower, a HD 3000 such as in the i3-2105 could however possibly challenge it).
  • mino - Wednesday, November 9, 2011 - link

    Well, the Celeron, or any Intel for that matter, has no proper 3D drivers.

    So no it does not come with a GPU. Even a Radeon 9700 from 2002 has more "GPU" in itself.
  • Paul Tarnowski - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    Haven't yet read anything beyond the first page, but I'd say the problem in your thinking is that budget builders are going to want to spend the extra dosh. In fact, most budget builds are extremely tight. When I'm wearing my system builder hat I have to be very careful when building these things. For the price of your 955 I can get both CPU and motherboard.

    It's just not going to be much of a gaming build. Budget PCs aren't meant for gaming.
  • MonkeyPaw - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    I think Microcenter is probably the best kept secret in CPU pricing, as they actually regularly check and try to beat Newegg pricing. For example, they are selling the G530 for $39.99 as I type this. They are also selling OEM Phenom II X4 830s for $49.99. If you need a retail model, the 840 is $10 more. That would probably be my first choice for a "budget CPU" right now unless absolute efficiency was the goal. At least you can overclock them still.
  • Roland00Address - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    Phenom 830 is a true phenom II x4 with 2.8 ghz, 2mb l2 cache, and 6mb l3 cache
    Phenom 840 is a rebrand athlon II x4 with 3.2 ghz, 2mb l2 cache and 0mb l3 cache.

    Agreed that microcenter is awesome.
  • TrackSmart - Tuesday, November 8, 2011 - link

    Agreed x 2. $50 for a 2.8 - 3.0 GHz quad core is the way to go (assuming you have access to a MicroCenter store. I think they advertise that deal every week. It makes me want to build a system, even though I have no need for another one, just because it's such a goo deal. And I guess that's the point.

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