Budget Office/Productivity Builds

I covered the Intel Celeron G530's capabilities last year in a previous budget buyer's guide. Succinctly, it remains the best choice for those on a very tight budget, and apparently Intel is in no hurry to release an Ivy Bridge microarchitecture-based Celeron CPU (the cheapest retail 22nm Intel CPU right now is the quad-core i5-3470 at $195, which is obviously in a different market). I also reviewed the various LGA 1155 socket chipsets last year, and H61 remains the budget chipset choice. The G530 is more than capable of smoothly and quickly performing basic office tasks like word processing, emailing, and Facebooking. It also handles more strenuous tasks like 1080p content streaming with ease. Perhaps the best thing about a budget Sandy Bridge Celeron build is that in a few years, you'll be able to drop in a much more powerful CPU like an i5 or even i7-grade chip for not much money (assuming those depreciate in value like most other processors).

One consideration worth noting for an office build is physical space consumed by the case. Gone are the days of unwieldy, 20+ pound behemoths. Most businesses, whether they're in an office building or the spare bedroom of a residence, can use all the desk space they can get, or will at least appreciate not having legroom constricted by a big box under the desk. Therefore, we're recommending a long-time favorite that is a relatively small mATX tower as well as a newer iteration of an ITX solution.

As mentioned on the first page, SSDs have dramatically decreased in price in the last year. While mechanical HDD prices have also decreased from their flooding-induced highs, they remain more expensive than they were pre-flood. This has created a situation where lower capacity SSDs are less expensive than smaller HDDs. That is, you can find SSDs for less than $50, especially if you're willing to fill out rebates, but it's difficult to find new HDDs for less than $50. Sadly many of the now cheap SSDs are not well-known for their reliability, and productivity machines need to be reliable. It's up to you whether you want to spend more on a drive with a stellar reputation for reliability, but those are what we're recommending here.

Anand recently reviewed the Intel 330 series SSDs, which carries on the tradition of Intel SSDs: not necessarily the fastest, but among the most reliable. The new 60GB model, however, is unlike most previous Intel SSDs in that it is among the cheapest of comparable models. Crucial's M4 64GB SSD also has a reputation for solid reliability. You can see in Anand's review of the 330 Series how these two different SSD models compare, performance-wise. The important thing to keep in mind is that Windows 7, Microsoft Office 2010, and a handful of other (smaller) applications can fit on an SSD as small as 40GB. A 60GB/64GB SSD is more than enough space for a lot of productivity applications and office documents. Of course, once you start adding media files, that space will disappear in a hurry, so make sure you have an idea of how much local storage you'll need before omitting a higher-capacity HDD.

For the cases, we're recommending an old favorite (Fractal Design's Core 1000) and a new small form factor that Dustin recently reviewed: the Cooler Master Elite 140. The Core 1000 is relatively small for a tower, has great thermals and acoustics, is well-built for such an inexpensive case (no finger-slicing sharp edges!), and is light—which makes moving it around in an office environment easier. The Elite 140 has an even smaller footprint, but is limited to ITX motherboards which is an issue if you need to install expansion cards. You can use regular, full-size optical drives, hard drives, and power supplies, though.

As you likely know, Windows 7 comes in a few different flavors which are compared on Microsoft's page and more thoroughly on Wikipedia. You'll need to decide whether you want or need more than Home Premium offers, but for the sake of this guide, we're including the less expensive Home Premium because it is typically sufficient for small/home offices.

Rounding out the builds we have the venerable Antec Earthwatts 380W, a budget-friendly, well-built, quiet, 80 Plus Bronze certified power supply. I've had excellent experiences with the Biostar H61MGC and Intel BOXDH61DLB3 motherboards; both are inexpensive and reliable boards. The Intel board offers USB 3.0, a nicety not always found on H61 chipset-based boards.

Mainstream (i.e. non-overclocking) RAM is mostly interchangeable these days, with companies competing mostly on price and customer service. The Corsair and Kingston modules here should serve you well, but look for good prices on other reputable manufacturers like G.Skill, Crucial, Mushkin, ADATA, Samsung, and others—and don't forget to pay attention to the specified voltage level and CAS latency; all other aspects being equal, lower is better. We've listed 1x4GB for all of the budget builds today, since all of the motherboards are limited to two DIMMs. Personally, I'd spend the $20 or so to go straight to 2x4GB, but then I'd also be more likely to spend up on most system components. If you do find you need more RAM (or you really feel the need for a dual-channel configuration), switching to two DIMMs is a simple change to make.

As for hard drives, as mentioned previously in this article, though the floodwaters in Thailand have receded, their prices remain high. Even worse, with Seagate's acquisition of Samsung's hard drive business and Western Digital's acquisition of Hitachi's hard drive arm, we're left with only two mainstream drive manufacturers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, both Seagate and Western Digital have lowered the length of warranties on their mainstream drives: down to two years for Western Digital and one year for Seagate. Because of this, I see no reason to recommend Seagate's mainstream hard drives at all over comparable Western Digitals unless the Seagate model is substantially cheaper. We're recommending a small 250GB drive here simply because it is cheap. Keep an eye out for sales on larger drives: $60 500GB drives are popping up on sale here and there occasionally, and $70 will often nab a 1TB drive.

Intel Celeron G530 minitower system

Component Product Price
Case Fractal Design Core 1000 $47
Power supply Antec Earthwatts 380W $39
CPU Intel Celeron G530 $45
Motherboard Biostar H61MGC $50
RAM 1 x 4GB Corsair XMS3 DDR3-1333 $20
Solid state drive Intel 330 Series 60GB $67
Hard disk drive Western Digital 250GB WD2500AAKX $60
Optical drive Samsung SH-222BB/RSBS $19
Operating system Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit $91
  Cost with SSD: $378
  Cost with HDD: $371

Intel Celeron G530 ITX system

Component Product Price
Case Cooler Master Elite 120 $60
Power supply Antec Earthwatts 380W $39
CPU Intel Celeron G530 $45
Motherboard Intel BOXDH61DLB3 ITX $75
RAM 1 x 4GB Kingston ValueRAM DDR3-1333 $20
Solid state drive Crucial M4 64GB $68
Hard disk drive Western Digital 250GB WD2500AAKX $60
Optical drive Lite-On IHAS124-04 $18
Operating system Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit $91
  Cost with SSD: $416
  Cost with HDD: $408


It's worth noting that for a basic productivity machine, the Windows 7 license by itself accounts for a large percentage of the build's total cost. This is a nearly unavoidable cost for system builders (the only way to legally avoid it is to use a free OS like Ubuntu Linux that can work in certain productivity scenarios but is not mainstream). However, larger system manufacturers like Dell and Lenovo get Windows 7 licenses for far less than end users can, and sometimes their returned, refurbished, and scratch & dent systems in their outlets can be purchased for less than the two systems above, and modified accordingly—especially if you're willing to sell the parts you replace on the used market like our own For Sale subforum. You can also always ask for advice on our General Hardware subforum. Dell's outlet for home systems is here and their outlet for businesses is here; Lenovo has their outlet here.

If you're looking to do more than just type papers and create Powerpoint presentations—like kick back with some friends and shoot some zombies—check the next page for budget gaming systems.

Developments in the Budget Marketplace Budget Gaming Builds
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  • mevans336 - Saturday, September 1, 2012 - link

    I bet you couldn't tell the difference unless you used a benchmark util.
  • popej - Saturday, September 1, 2012 - link

    Probably not, but even Windows Experience Index will drop significantly because of lack of bandwidth for integrated GPU.

    Even if I couldn't show more advantages of dual channel memory for office PC, I would feel uncomfortable building such an handicapped system ;)
  • mosu - Saturday, September 1, 2012 - link

    I've noticed that too.Also I would recommend a faster memory pack
  • goinginstyle - Saturday, September 1, 2012 - link

    For $5 more you can get the Asus F1A55-M LE board. What does that $5 buy you? Another x4 PCIe slot, 2 additional SATA ports, 4 more USB ports, additional fan header, and a true UEFI and not the Hybrid EFI crap on the Gigabyte board. Oh yes, also much better audio and network controllers and the software suite (options, fan controls, etc) is greatly improved on the Asus board. I understand this is budget but another $5 for that trade-off seems like an easy choice.
  • SunLord - Sunday, September 2, 2012 - link

    I'd get the ASRock A55M-HVS personally as it at least has an HDMI connector and it's only $60 with shipping but really if I'm gonna lock myself into a dead socket I'm gonna just save a little more and get a board with USB 3.0 and SATA 6 Gbit/s so I have some future proofing in other areas
  • Joe Miller - Saturday, September 1, 2012 - link

    Very good read. It is very well balanced. I liked it a lot - all the issues with selections and compromises to do are laid out well.

    I feel like now it is more difficult than ever to make a budget build - AMD is weaker, Trinity is expected soon, but the socket is changed, Core i3s are relatively expensive, hard drive prices are higher, while SSDs are still more expensive than I am willing to pay, and I am still afraid of reliability and need larger capacity for dual boots, and so on :)

    There is also a problem with availability of mini-ITX cases where I live. Delivery from US is like 70$, so not an option.
  • Torrijos - Saturday, September 1, 2012 - link

    The thing with AMD CPU on gaming machine is they might have more influence than previously sought on gaming performance...

    This article shows that there are more slowdown with AMD CPU than with Intel
  • Z Throckmorton - Saturday, September 1, 2012 - link

    Hi Joe - Thanks for the kind words. I agree that AMD's retreat (though not total withdrawal) from the budget market is a bummer for consumers. That said, the fact that the G530 is as powerful as it is and so dirt cheap helps to mitigate the drawback of less competition. ...For now. I worry that this situation will not persist much longer. Anyway, I hope that Trinity will bring better CPU-centric performance to the low-end APU line, which would bring AMD closer to parity in the cheap CPU segment. As for your concerns about SSD reliability - there are many SSD models that I personally trust as much as any mechanical HDD. So do your research, take a deep breath, and jump in. (Of course, the lower capacities are an issue for multi-OS booting and such, but that will become less of an issue with time.) Where do you live? AnandTech's General Hardware forum is filled with non-US users who might be able to point you to ITX case resellers in your country if you post there. Hope this helps - Zach
  • bill4 - Saturday, September 1, 2012 - link

    I'd argue the number one reason costs are higher is cause Intel has no competition. $220 for the sweet spot quad core Intel's sticks out like a sore thumb. Used to be able to pick up some perfectly fine AMD chip or other for like 100, and maybe 60 on the mobo. No more.

    It's sad all the AMD haters online who so desperately want them to go out of business vs Nvidia, this is what you're going to get...
  • JarredWalton - Sunday, September 2, 2012 - link

    You can still find plenty of AMD CPUs/APUs for $100, but they're not compelling compared to Intel's offerings. The quad-core Llano stuff is a case of win some, lose some against even a low-end Core i3-2100, never mind newer Intel CPUs like the i3-3220. Heck, even the Pentium G2120 would likely give it a run for the money. Still, if all you want is an inexpensive PC, there's nothing wrong with Llano's performance for general use -- or Athlon X2 or Core 2 Duo for that matter. You can find some pretty inexpensive motherboard as well if you shop around.

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