PC Magazine’s sub-$200 PC

PC Magazine has reprised its sub-$200 PC. I think it’s a good guide, and a savvy shopper can potentially do a little bit better with some care and some luck. At that price, it’s running Linux, but it also serves as a good guide for upgraders looking to upgrade an existing PC inexpensively. If you have a case and hard drive you can reuse, you can either buy better parts, or just pocket the savings.

Here’s my take on their selections.

Motherboard and CPU

It’s downright difficult to play in this space without going AMD. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; I’ve been buying AMD CPUs since 1994 and I’ve never had any problems with them. I’ve owned Intel CPUs too, but from a user perspective, there’s little difference. If you need top performance, you may have to go Intel; if you need the lowest possible price, you’ll probably have to go AMD.

I can’t comment from personal experience on the $35 Zotac motherboard they used. I will say I prefer Asus, as I’ve been using their boards since the mid 1990s with phenomenal success. Stores like Micro Center and Fry’s often offer bundles with Asus boards and AMD CPUs inexpensively (I recently bought an Asus Nforce-based board with an AMD Phenom II 2-core CPU for $94) so you can do better than PC Magazine did.

Regarding the CPU, AMD Sempron CPUs are less than $50, but it’s worth it to pay a little extra to get a second CPU core. More and more software takes advantage of that capability, and you’ll miss not having it. An Athlon II x2 250 runs $15-$20 more.

All that said, one instance where I would skimp on the CPU would be to buy a better quality power supply, because you can re-use the case and power supply during the next upgrade cycle.

Memory

Remember one thing: Kingston or Crucial. I’ve had far, far fewer failures with this brands than with other brands. I’ve used literally thousands of units, and I’ve only seen one or two bad modules from each maker. If you want to play it safe–and you should–buy these brands because they’re reliable, and their price is always competitive.

OK, make it two things. Buy as much memory as you can afford, and buy the biggest modules you can. Most budget motherboards take 8 GB of RAM, and 8 GB of RAM can cost as little as $43 right now. If you can afford to buy it now, you save money long-term by not having to buy it later.

Hard drive

I can’t say much here. In a matter of months, Seagate and Western Digital will be the only two brands you can buy anyway. Try to buy a current-generation drive if you can, for best performance. Recycling your drive is an option if you’re upgrading, which will save you $39. You can pocket the savings, or use it to buy more memory.

Case and power supply

One reason I hesitate to buy a $29 case and power supply is because you can reuse it during subsequent upgrade cycles, provided the power supply doesn’t die on you prematurely. Cheap power supplies are more likely to do that, more likely to give you stability problems in the meantime, and when a power supply dies, it can take out other components, forcing you to make other upgrades sooner than you may have planned.

Plus it’s much easier to injure yourself when working inside a cheap case than a better quality unit.

If you can get a used case and power supply, this is one place you can either save some money or get more quality for your money. ATX cases are very common–they’ve been the standard for 15 or so years now–so if you don’t have extra cases laying around, hunt around on Craigslist. Of course, if you’re doing an upgrade, you can recycle your case.

I don’t know if used computer stores still bother to deal in cases or not, but this is how I used to save money. In the 1990s, I would buy used cases for $10 or $15, usually including a decent quality power supply. So a call to your local used computer store wouldn’t be a bad idea. Make sure any used power supply you get has a 24-pin ATX connector and the supplemental 4-pin CPU connector.

I’m always concerned about inexpensive power supplies, but a system like this will use less than 200 watts of power. Sometimes much less. I’m never wild about trusting a new computer to the capabilities of a $14 power supply, but admittedly the biggest problem with cheap 500 watt power supplies is people trying to get 500 watts of power out of them. A system like this does stand a chance of being OK. But if you can afford a brand-name power supply in the range of 300-400 watts (here’s a $30 Coolermaster unit that will be good), you’re much more likely to actually get the power you paid for, and to have a more stable system.

Video

Onboard video is much better than it used to be, particularly with AMD-based systems. For a basic system like this, it’s adequate, and you can always upgrade to a discrete video card later if you need to.

Operating system

Windows is familiar, but for basic needs, Ubuntu Linux is more than adequate, and it’s more secure. Firefox works the same in Linux as in Windows, and Open Office works very similarly to MS Office 2003 and offers good-enough file compatibility with Office in most instances. You can’t buy Windows and Office for $200; Linux gives you tons of capability for free.

If you’re upgrading and your computer has a retail copy of Windows, you can reuse your Windows license. OEM Windows licenses aren’t transferable to a new motherboard unless the original motherboard failed and you replace it with an identical or very similar model, or you get a sympathetic agent when you call Microsoft to activate it. So keep that in mind.

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