Build It: A $1500 All-Around PC

By Jason Cross  |  Posted 2004-06-30 Email Print this article Print
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Our faithful readers have asked us to piece together a less task-specific machine. So here it is: A sub-$2000 PC that works well for a wide variety of applications.

Usually, when we do a Build It story, we piece together a rig for a very definite purpose. Typically, the idea is to choose an aggressive price and show our readers how a little careful shopping and part selection can come together to make an impressive...something. Perhaps it's a Digital Audio Workstation, an inexpensive gaming PC, or a cheap Web-surfing rig. These have been well-received, but this time we wanted to do something a bit different.

In our forums, the feedback to some of our past Build It features was positive overall, but a common question kept resurfacing: What if I don't want a PC optimized for a single purpose? What if I want to edit digital photos, perform offline 3D rendering, play games, record TV, watch DVDs, rip and listen to music, and maybe do a little home recording?

Well if that's the kind of PC you're looking for, this article is for you. Obviously no inexpensive PC is going to have what it takes to do everything, but we'll take a stab at it anyway.

Here are some of the guidelines we followed in pricing out our $1,500 do-it-all PC:

  • Shipping and sales tax (or VAT if you're outside the US) are not considered. There's too much variation and unpredictability.

  • These are all US dollars, from US sources. In particular, we took prices from major online retailers that we would trust with our own money.

  • We included the cost of the operating system (Windows XP Home Edition). If you want to use a free version of Linux, then you can knock $74 off the price. Given the broad multimedia capabilities of this machine, Linux is probably not the best solution, though.

  • We included the costs of monitor, keyboard, and mouse, and speakers. Many who are upgrading could use these peripherals from their previous PC and save over $100. You may even consider speakers optional for a rig like this.

  • Performance is definitely a secondary concern here – we're looking for basic online functionality more than anything. Still, we tried to build a modern PC, not a three-generations-old eBay special.
These are our choices. If you like a particular component better, by all means, swap in your selection. We did try to find the best cost/performance component we could lay hands on, though.
Giving ourselves $1,500 to work with doesn't make our job as easy as it sounds. In order to ensure this PC can do as many different things as possible as well as possible, we had to spend a bit more money on some components than we would for a purpose-built PC.

Building a PC for $1500 is easy. Choosing components that satisfy our requirement that it cover all the bases, however, was a bit more challenging:

Component Brand / Model Our Price
Processor Pentium 4 3.0GHz $218, check price
Active Cooler (included in P4 retail box) N/A
Motherboard Intel D875PBZ $99, check price
Memory 2X 512MB (1GB) Kingston DDR400 $174, check price
Case Antec SLK-3700 BQE $63, check price
Power Supply Antec 350W (included with case) N/A
Hard Drive Seagate Barracuda 160GB SATA $112, check price
DVD-ROM / CD-RW Asus DRW-0402P/D $94, check price
Graphics ATI Radeon 9600 Pro (256MB) $140, check price
TV Tuner Card Hauppauge WinTV-Radio $70, check price
Monitor 19" Samsung 950b $155, check price
Speakers Logitech Z-5300 5.1 $130, check price
Audio Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS $85, check price
Floppy Mitsumi floppy and card reader $35
Keyboard Microsoft Natural Multimedia $20, check price
Mouse IntelliMouse Optical $15, check price
Operating System Windows XP Home $82, check price
Total $1492

You'll see that there are a few items on the list here that you won't find in most of our Built It articles. The Mitsumi floppy drive and 6-in-1 card reader and Hauppauge TV tuner card stand out, as does the decent set of 5.1 speakers and the DVD burner. The trick here was to find the right balance between performance and extended capabilities, while keeping under budget. We'll examine each of our choices in more detail.



Processor

For the same price, we probably could have a socket-754 Athlon 64 chip, perhaps a 3000+. This may have bought us a little speed on individual benchmarks, but we had a very good reason for choosing a Pentium 4 in this configuration. Our machine is meant to watch and record TV, rip CDs, watch DVDs, do offline 3D rendering, edit photos--you name it. Frankly, the Pentium 4's HyperThreading feature makes it a much better multitasker than the Athlon 64. When you load up the CPU with very intensive tasks, HyperThreading lets you continue to perform other tasks without the system becoming quite so unresponsive. To see what I'm talking about, look at the multitasking performance charts from our most recent Pentium 4 CPU review.




We wanted to build a system where you could record a TV program, transcode video to go onto a DVD, or render a 3D scene—CPU-intensive tasks which can take a lot of time--without making your computer unusable. At the possible cost of some performance in each individual task, we opted for better multitasking performance. For comparison's sake, we'll build a similar system in the near future with an Athlon 64 chip.

Motherboard

Frankly, we splurged a bit here. There are cheaper motherboards out there, but $100 or so for an Intel 875P board is a good deal and the 875 chipset does buy you a couple percentage points of performance. If we absolutely had to shave off another $20-$30, we could have gone with a different brand and chipset.

Memory

This PC is built for all kinds of memory-hungry applications. 3D gaming, video editing, and photo editing can all eat through 512MB in a hurry. We were still on a budget, so instead of going for slightly faster RAM with a CAS latency of 2.5 or better, we opted for more memory and higher latency. A gigabyte of RAM in our system with a CAS latency of 3.0 will do a lot more to improve real-world performance than 512MB with a lower latency.



Case and Power Supply

We've used Antec's SLK-3700 in many of our systems since it's such a well-built and cost-effective case. For this one, we spend a few more bucks for the Black Quiet Edition (BQE). It's essentially the same as the basic SLK-3700, with a few tweaks we thought would be useful here. Obviously, it's jet black instead of dark gray, but it's the quiet features we care about most. Hard drives mount perpendicular to the case on little slide-out trays with rubber grommets to keep drive vibration down. The rear fan is a large slow-turning 120mm unit that moves a good amount of air while making hardly any sound. Even the included 350-watt power supply is quiet. We won't say this system is silent, but it's definitely hard to hear. That's nice when you're doing some home recording or watching quiet scenes in a DVD movie.





Storage

Though you can get an 80GB hard drive for practically nothing these days, we're going to need a bit more storage for all that digital media. A 160GB Serial ATA Seagate drive should do the trick. It performs very well and should hold hours of digital video, dozens of hours of digital audio, and thousands of photos. You can never have enough storage, though, and a second "archival" drive to store finished projects wouldn't be a bad investment if you were to spend a bit more money.

What would a do-it-all PC be without a do-it-all optical drive? ASUS' DRW-0402P/D was one of our favorite multiformat DVD burners in this roundup and, at less than $100, the price is even better now.

One of our favorite gadgets is Mitsumi's combination floppy drive and memory card reader. Unfortunately, some tasks these days (like installing RAID drivers on a clean Windows installation or flashing a BIOS) still require a floppy drive. Why not take up that space with something more useful, like a card reader? This makes getting those photos off your digital camera or loading up that memory-card based MP3 player that much more convenient.

Audio

No integrated audio here, pal! The Sound Blaster Audigy ZS offers some of the best signal-to-noise ratios you can find in a consumer card, but it's also great for gaming, with full EAX4 support and really low CPU utilization when the 3D sound effects are piled on. This card may cost a bit more than we usually spend on our Build It systems (except for the Digital Audio Workstation configuration), but it lets us perform quality home recording and no-compromise gaming. There are slightly cheaper Audigy 2 cards available, like the standard or the LS models, but moving to one of those didn't really save us enough money to step up another component, like moving to a significantly faster video card or using lower-latency memory. We opted for the slightly cleaner sound and 7.1 speaker support of the ZS, since the OEM models we found online weren't that disparate in price.

Of course, it's no good without a decent set of speakers. With a little shopping around you can find some great deals. The Logitech Z-5300 speakers we found are a great buy. A 5.1 speaker set is great for watching DVDs, gaming, or even listening to DVD-Audio discs. These push 280 watts of power and are THX certified. The list price is $199, but you can easily find them much cheaper online.

Graphics & Video

If we just had a bit more money to work with, we could have beefed up the 3D card to a more impressive Radeon 9800. As it is, the 256MB Radeon 9600 Pro will perform pretty well, and has all the DirectX 9.0b support we need to get the most out of the latest games. This also gives us access to ATI's Multimedia Center software suite, which gives us a TV viewer with weekly program guide info, DVD player, and audio/video file playback facilities. Coupled with the company's Remote Wonder, it's a pretty useful tool for browsing, recording, playing, and managing video content on your PC--provided you have a recent ATI video card.

There's a second visual component to this system, though: a TV tuner card. The Hauppauge WinTV-Radio isn't top-of-the-line, but it'll give us full cable TV coverage, PVR capabilities, and FM radio to boot. Combined with a program like Snapstream's Beyond TV3, you could have a quite serviceable PVR. A combo product like ATI's All-in-Wonder 9600, which combines video and TV tuner together, may be a little cheaper than buying separate cards. But this solution lets you upgrade the two components separately as you see fit.

Keyboard and Mouse

Without these two peripherals, your computer is pretty much useless. And yet, consumers skimp on them all the time. We chose Microsoft's Natural Multimedia Keyboard for its handy media function buttons above the function keys. The IntelliMouse Explorer is a quality standby that works well for both gaming and everyday work.

Operating System

Of course, you don't really have a computer without an OS, so we picked Windows XP Home Edition. Linux is often an option, but it's probably not the wisest choice for this PC. Gaming is limited on Linux and it can be very tricky to get video and audio editing and transcoding to work properly when working with a wide variety of formats. The software available for Windows XP just expands the capabilities of our "does-it-all" PC more than Linux would. At least for now, anyway--Linux continues to make strides in all categories of software support.

Our Winstone tests run a variety of common applications – business and productivity apps in Business Winstone and video, audio, and web development apps in Content Creation Winstone--to determine an overall level of system performance. Hard drive activity is frequent, and both CPU power and memory bandwidth play a big role as well. Both Business Winstone and Multimedia Content Creation Winstone 2004 can be ordered from VeriTest and delivered on CD-ROM for a nominal shipping charge. They cannot be downloaded.

We also determine overall PC performance with PCMark 2004, the latest from FutureMark. This version has expanded on the limited repertoire of the original. FutureMark has added several multithreaded tests, as well as expanded to include storage and graphics. We'll look at the overall score as well as the CPU, memory, and hard disk tests.

Just to provide a reference point, we'll compare the numbers of this machine against the $1000 Athlon XP gaming machine we built in an earlier feature. The Pentium 4 CPU, additional RAM, and faster hard drive help push the overall system scores of our $1500 PC well over those of that less-expensive PC. For a machine made to do it all, these performance numbers are especially important.

For our video encoding tests, we ran Windows Media Encoder 9 to recompress a high bitrate AVI file into a 1 megabit CBR WMV9 file, with "CD quality" audio (640x480 video, 16-bit / 44.1 KHz audio). With QuickTime 6.5 we compressed this same video clip using Sorenson 3 video and MPEG4 audio. For DivX compression, we used the popular VirtualDub freeware and DivX 5.1.1. Our Adobe After Effects test involves a batch process that processes multiple data items using various resolutions, encoders, and effects.

For audio compression tests, we took a large 254MB WAV file and compressed it to MP3 Pro using MusicMatch 8.1, and to WMA using Windows Media Encoder 9. In both cases the files were constant bitrate, not variable bitrate.

Video and audio encoding performance is far superior to our less expensive Athlon XP based machine. This machine is made to, among other things, record TV and transcode it for burning to DVD, as well as record and compress audio. These times are also very important, and it shows why we put a premium on choosing the CPU, motherboard, memory, and hard drive.

In Flight Sim 2004, we set all the graphics options to the maximum possible--a machine like ours should be able to handle it.. Likewise, we ran Halo using the pixel shader 2.0 path for the best in image quality. The "Antalus" botmatch in Unreal Tournament 2003 was run with graphics settings set to their highest. All tests were run at 1280x1204, an aggressive resolution for such an inexpensive PC.

At a resolution of 1280x1024, our $1000 game PC beats out our $1500 PC in a couple key benchmarks, like Halo, Flight Sim 2004, and the synthetic 3DMark 2003 test. This is due entirely to the faster graphics card we put in the gaming rig. However, we manage to post competitive scores in many other game benchmarks, and it's safe to say that overall game performance is good. Obviously, a faster video card is a key target area for future upgrades.

While it's difficult to build a PC that is ideally suited to all applications (and nearly impossible to do it for only $1,500), we've put together quite a capable system here. With the right software, this system has all you need to:

  • Watch and record TV
  • Record audio
  • Rip and burn CDs
  • Edit video
  • Burn DVDs
  • Play 3D games
  • Import and edit digital photos
  • Surf the Web
  • Work in productivity apps like Word or Excel
  • Watch DVD movies
  • Work with 3D rendering

What's more, it can do all of these things quite well. There are areas where we had to cut a couple corners to come in under budget. A faster video card could have improved 3D game performance, for example, and lower-latency RAM would have improved overall performance slightly. A second large hard drive would be a nice place to store all the digital media you accumulate, too.


On the other hand, we spent a few dollars on features that don't show up in benchmark scores but make a real difference. A 17-inch monitor would have been much cheaper, but we wouldn't want to edit video or touch-up photos on it, so we went for a quality 19-inch Samsung CRT. A floppy drive is cheaper than the all-in-one card reader we installed but the convenience is worth a few dollars more. All in all, it's quite a capable system for the price. Would an Athlon 64 perform better? We'll find out soon, as we build a comparable system based on that platform.

 
 
 
 
Jason Cross Jason was a certified computer geek at an early age, playing with his family's Apple II when he was still barely able to write. It didn't take long for him to start playing with the hardware, adding in 80-column cards and additional RAM as his family moved up through Apple II+, IIe, IIgs, and eventually the Macintosh. He was sucked into Intel based side of the PC world by his friend's 8088 (at the time, the height of sophisticated technology), and this kicked off a never-ending string of PC purchases and upgrades.

Through college, where he bounced among several different majors before earning a degree in Asian Studies, Jason started to pull down freelance assignments writing about his favorite hobby—,video and computer games. It was shortly after graduation that he found himself, a thin-blooded Floridian, freezing his face off at Computer Games Magazine in Vermont, where he founded the hardware and technology section and built it up over five years before joining the ranks at ExtremeTech and moving out to beautiful northern California. When not scraping up his hands on the inside of a PC case, you can invariably find Jason knee-deep in a PC game, engrossed in the latest console title, or at the movie theater.

 
 
 
 
 
























 
 
 
 
 
 

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