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Build a PC on Any Budget: Three Builds from $500 to $2000

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Note: This article originally ran in the May 2012 issue of Maximum PC–some pricing information may have changed since.

We won’t blow smoke up your PSU: Spending more money on a PC generally gives you a better computing experience. But that doesn’t mean that anything short of an exotic $7,000 PC can’t be fun and fulfilling, and it doesn’t mean that folks on a very lean budget are doomed to a piss-poor computing experience. So for anyone who isn’t flush with cash, we’ve laid out three nicely configured PCs—one for every budget.

The first is a sub-$500 rig that offers more gaming performance than a top-of-the-line gaming GPU… from 2007. The second PC, for just $1,300, is an everyman’s PC that’s sure to make Joe the Nerd a happy camper. The third PC is an honest-to-goodness enthusiast-class PC at the down-to-earth price of $2,100.

If you’re itching to build a rig, the time to do it is now!

Pick Your PC Poison 

The beauty of a PC is scale—in both performance and price

The What Recovery?! PC

We all have friends who will stand in line for hours and lay down top dollar for the latest brushed-aluminum gadget, but the truth is, for a lot of people, the recovery ain’t here—not by a long shot. 

The light at the end of the economic tunnel might just be a train.

For these folks, every dollar is precious and even a $700 PC seems extravagant. But we didn’t want tough times to quash the hopes of an aspiring PC builder. Thus we set out to see what’s possible at the $500 mark. Mind you, this would be the second-cheapest PC we’ve ever spec’d out. The cheapest was the $340 Ultra Budget PC from the September 2011 issue, but that was essentially a calculator on steroids. For this box, we wanted better‑than‑integrated graphics, if possible. We’ll admit right now that hitting our goal was a tall task given today’s hard drive prices and the cost of the OS, but we thought it a worthy effort. What’s interesting is that once you get into the $500 range, every component has to be weighed carefully and justified. Were there corners cut and risks taken? Certainly. You can’t eat Doritos without getting synthetic cheese all over your hands, but the final product ain’t bad.

The Sweet Spot PC

Have you heard of that PC hacker named Goldilocks? She wandered into the Maximum PC Lab one day when no one was around, started using the What Recovery?! box, and immediately proclaimed it was “too damned low-budget for her needs.” She then wandered over to the high-end Tax Refund PC and again turned up her nose in disapproval. “Why the hell would I pay a premium for LGA2011 when I’m never going to need quad-channel memory or buy a $600 hexa-core chip?!?”

As Goldilocks would say, “It’s just right….”

Well G-locks, the Sweet Spot PC is just the right PC for you, and most enthusiasts, for that matter. At roughly $1,300, it’s fast without being overkill, it’s stylish without being ostentatious. It also hits all the modern enthusiast must-haves: must have super-fast SSD, must have upgrade path to next-generation CPUs, and must have support for a future multi-GPU upgrade. Hell, it even overclocks nicely without disturbing the church-mouse‑quiet nature of the box. This is a sweet box for the price and probably enough machine for 80 percent of folks. It’s so nice, in fact, that most of you probably don’t need to look at the Tax Refund PC at all.

The Tax Refund PC

We didn’t know when we started spec’ing out our high-end build that the average tax refund in the United States is $2,100. So when our PC ended up at that price point, we knew the configuration was right on target. Sure, those of you whose heads were turned by the promise of our Sweet Spot PC are scoffing at the frivolity of the extra cubits we dropped on this box. But we actually think of the Tax Refund PC not as the PC you need, but the PC you want.

The PC you want, not the PC you need.

First, it’s faster. From compute-bound chores to gaming, that extra $800 gets you eight threads instead of four, the current reigning champ in single-GPU graphics, and the ability to play and burn Blu-rays. This is also the only machine here that will let you run more than four cores. Granted, not everyone needs six cores, but if you’re the kind of person whose livelihood relies on a speedy PC, having the ability to upgrade to a six-core Sandy Bridge-E processor today or even an eight- or 10-core with Ivy Bridge-E tomorrow, makes this box worth its weight in silicon. If that’s not enough… it’s red!

Keep reading for full parts lists, our decision making process, and the benchmarks!

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