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


View All Comments

  • Z Throckmorton - Saturday, September 1, 2012 - link

    Hi bigjer - The stock fan included with the CPU will work fine in these builds; no need to spend money on an aftermarket cooler. Hope this helps - Zach Reply
  • bill4 - Saturday, September 1, 2012 - link

    Anybody who claims PC gaming isn't expensive as hell hardware wise is lying.

    PC gaming has a very well defined sweet spot. Buying outside of it up or down is just stupid. With this build you just wasted $400 on a piece of junk. Spend 700-800 and build a real machine or dont bother.

    Decent Intel Qaud Core=220
    Decent cheap case=50
    8GB RAM=40
    Decent basic PSU=50
    1T TB HDD= I dunno what these cost with the changing prices after flooding, $70?
    OEM Windows=90

    $620 and you need a GPU. Spend anywhere from $150 on something like a 6870 to $200 on a 7850 (hell I even saw a 7870 for 199 after rebate recently)

    $770-$820, a good rig that should last 3+ years just like my current Q6600 build has. Dont bother throwing money down the drain on anything less.
  • bznotins - Saturday, September 1, 2012 - link

    While $437 isn't going to get you the "sweet spot" gaming rig, it still gets you *a* gaming rig.

    Not everyone has the budget for the sweet spot rig.

    The rig Zach put together will play SC2 at low settings and many other games at low settings. That's enough for some people, especially when it's compared to the alternative -- nothing at all.

    I play SC2 on my laptop that only has HD3000. Is it as good as my primary gaming rig? No. But does it get me my fix when I'm on the road? Yup. Is it playable? Yup. I can also play WoW and SW:TOR on it. The rig Zach put together here is light years ahead of my laptop.

    Just because it's not in the sweet spot, doesn't mean it is useless.

    For someone who has 50% more to spend, then yeah, the best bet is to get something like what you described. But for someone who is reaching just to squeeze $400+ into their budget, this is adequate.
  • estaffer - Sunday, September 2, 2012 - link

    should be 100% more to spend but i agree. the topic says "budget" not "sweet spot". Reply
  • dave1_nyc - Saturday, September 1, 2012 - link

    I bought a G530 last spring to use for a file server machine, and figured what the heck, how good does it have to be for what I was using it for.

    While this is clearly an anecdotal comment, I played around with the system as a general purpose Win 7 machine, even using the built-in graphics (which are just plain old HD) and was really surprised at how capable a chip it is for under $50.
  • zappb - Sunday, September 2, 2012 - link

    Is this fast enough for excel, crm, 10 + chrome tabs and a financial / erp app, payroll app etc..?

    Fantastic value in this build, would replace 4 of our core 2 due / Vista / Windows xp machines this month with this exact build (only change would be 120gb SSD instead of 64gb and no local storage).
  • KAlmquist - Sunday, September 2, 2012 - link

    Even with budget systems like these, a mechanical hard drive will still be a major performance bottleneck, so if 60 GB isn't enough storage space I would think hard about springing for a 120 GB SSD rather than buying a mechanical drive.

    If reliability is critical consider the Samsung 830 ($100) or the Intel 330 ($104). The Samsung is $40 more than the mechanical drive, but either of these drives will be vastly faster, and probably significantly more reliable, than a mechanical drive.

    Another option is the OCZ Vertex Plus, at $80, or $70 after rebate. The performance is significantly less than the Samsung or Intel drives mentioned above, but that don't matter too much. The Vertex Plus is fast enough that it won't be the major bottleneck in a budget system. The only reason I hesitate to recommend it is that OCZ Technology's quality control seems to be rather hit and miss. The Vertex Plus is not cutting edge technology, so if you are willing to buy from OCZ Technology at all, the Vertex Plus would seem to be a relatively safe choice.
  • Onus - Thursday, September 6, 2012 - link

    After reading all the comments about what a mere "TWO DOLLARS", or $5, or $20 could add to this machine, I would suggest that some of these ideas might be mentioned in the article. Especially when going for a rock-bottom budget, another $5-$10 can make a huge difference, and it's worth pointing that out.
    IMHO, someone on a budget probably cannot afford to replace junk that fails. The reduction of hard drive warranty periods to one year is a disgrace; I've been sticking to the more expensive WD Black drives that still have five year warranties. That's tough on a budget, but not as tough as having to buy two or three cheap drives that fail just out of warranty. I would definitely sacrifice a little performance elsewhere to get more solid reliability.
    I disagree 100% with the poster who suggested such a cheap machine for games is a waste of money. It blows the doors off the gaming rigs of only eight or ten years ago, and people sure had lots of fun with the games available back then. And, even modern titles still look pretty good turned down to "medium" settings. Of course that isn't my preference, but I wouldn't call it insufferable, especially compared to the alternatives.
  • shorty lickens - Sunday, September 30, 2012 - link

    for the minor price difference you should get a lot more than 250 gigs. Especially for a gaming rig. Its nice to not have to uninstall games. Also, mods and stuff can take up a lot of space. And its also nice to have all your MP3's on the game rig to play your own music in the background. (Though you could also stream music from another computer or server). Reply

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