Affordable All-Rounder May 2012
Now is a great time to consider buying a PC and for several reasons. Windows 7 is tried and tested (to those that still have XP and were waiting for this day, we know who you are), and we've just had big launches on the hardware front from nearly all sides. This means that in many areas, there are bargains to be had as etailers attempt to shed old stock. Not that we're saying you should jump on eBay - far from it. Hardware such as the Intel Core i3-2100 Sandy Bridge CPU still makes for a fantastic budget-friendly system, and seeing as this isn't an Ivy Bridge CPU, there's even more money to be saved by opting for a Z68 chipset motherboard too.
| ||Affordable All-Rounder|
| ||Product||UK Price (inc VAT)||US Price (ex tax)|
|CPU||Intel i3-2100 3.1GHz||£83||$120|
|Memory||4GB 1,600MHz DDR3||£20||$30|
|Graphics Card||AMD Radeon HD 6870 1GB||£110||$169|
|PSU||Enermax Pro 82+ EPR525AWT II||£75||$110|
|CPU Cooler||Arctic Cooling Freezer 7 Pro||£15||$30|
|Case||Antec One Hundred||£40||$50|
|Optical drive||SATA DVD-RW||£15||$20|
|Storage||1TB SATA 3Gbps||£65||$90|
| ||Overall Price:||£499||$759|
New This Month
We've ditched our old P67 motherboard in favour of Gigabyte's GA-Z68AP-D3.
It costs just £76 but picked up an Approved award thanks to plenty of features such as Intel Smart Response; a feature that lets you use a small SSD as a high speed cache for a larger mechanical hard disk, USB 3 ports and plenty of others besides.
Motherboards sporting Intel's newer Z77 chipset still cost more and don't have much more in the way of features, especially if you're not going to be slapping in a pricey Ivy Bridge CPU any time soon. We'll review this section once we've had a look at some sub £100 Z77 motherboards but for now, this is the board to buy.
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The graphics card in our Affordable All-Rounder is always a key choice because making the wrong decision here could prove disastrous. It's perhaps the most important choice here and the more money you can spend the better. The venerable GeForce GTX 460 1GB is still available for around £120 but with the recent releases of several low and mid-range graphics cards from AMD, namely the HD 7750 1GB
, HD 7770 1GB
and HD 7850 2GB
, previous generation products such as the HD 6870 1GB and HD 6850 1GB are now available for bargain-tastic prices.
More importantly, the HD 6870 1GB in particular is noticeably faster in many benchmarks, not just pacier than the GeForce GTX 460 1GB, but the HD 7750 1GB and HD 7770 1GB too. It costs just £110 which is a steal. If you can stretch a little further, the GeForce GTX 560 Ti is definitely worth a look but in the sub £120 bracket, the HD 6870 1GB offers the best value and can cope with most games at decent settings at 1,920 x 1080.
And The Rest
Our choice of CPU remains the same, given the lack of cheap Ivy Bridge CPUs at the moment. The LGA1155 Intel i3-2100
, punches above its weight when it comes to our media benchmarks and games, is very cool-running and power frugal, and has had a price cut too, now retailing for a fair bit less than £90. It has a pair of hyper-threaded cores at its disposal and while its multiplier is locked, meaning substancial overclocks will be impossible, you can still tweak the baseclock a little to squeeze a little more out of it.
The Core i3-2100 allows you to jump on the bandwagon of a healthy upgrade path too. Ivy Bridge CPUs are here to stay so by having an LGA1155 system, you'll be able to drop in a more powerful CPU in a year or two or even go bargain hunting for Core i5-2500Ks. You'll be missing out on some features offered by combining the Z77 chipset and an Ivy Bridge CPU, namely PCI Express 3.0 and native USB 3, but these are hardly deal-breakers, and you'll be saving yourself some cash in the process.
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Memory is dirt cheap at the moment and has been for a while. If you can stretch to another £10-15 or so, then the upgrade from 4GB to 8GB of 1,600MHz DDR3 makes sense as we regularly see systems using a little more than 4GB these days. Clearly for the sake of future-proofing, 8GB is better than 4GB, but if you’re dead-set on keeping the cost below £500 then 4GB is still ample for most games and applications, as our sweet spot in the memory market
One trap many newcomers to this game fall foul of is the cheap and nasty tat that’s out there in the way of budget cases. Don’t be fooled by racy looks and flashy colours and base your purchase on a tried and trested case that’s been put through its paces.
There’s still only one real choice below £50 when it comes to cases. The Antec One Hundred
provides great cooling and a tidy home for your hardware that’s well-made too . It doesn’t have an abundance of features, but at this price it’s great value and extremely popular.
Little has changed at the budget end of the CPU cooler market. As we mentioned last time, we considered losing a third party cooler altogether, especially as the Core i3-2100 runs so cool. However, the Arctic Freezer 7 Pro costs just £15 and will not only be far quieter, but will handle a more powerful CPU should you wish to drop one into your system in future.
If you’re certain you’ll be investing in a significantly beefier CPU at some point and trying your hand at overclocking it, you may want to consider the Arctic Freezer i30
. For just £10 more than the Freezer 7 Pro, you get a monster cooler that’s extremely quiet and able to tame a heavily overclocked Core i5-2500K. This is definitely worth considering as we found the GA-Z68AP-D3 motherboard to be a capable overclocker too.
If you haven't got a copy already, you might also want to factor in a copy of Windows 7 - if you're confident that you won't be upgrading much, then an OEM copy should be fine, but serial upgraders should pick up the pricier retail version. This will allow for several core hardware changes, whereas the OEM copy may throw a hissy fit. Finally, we’ve added the cheapest DVD-RW drive we could find and a 1TB hard disk, which will be more than adequate for most people's storage needs. Sadly, Hard disks are still retailing for nearly double the asking price a year ago thanks to the flooding in Thailand, and dropping to 300GB or 500GB doesn’t save a great deal of cash.
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If £500 is still too much, don’t worry – there’s still a way to get a new system that can play games. By opting for an AMD A8-3870K
and Socket FM1 motherboard such as Gigabyte's GA-A75M-UD2H
, you’ll be able to play many games at up to 1,680 x 1,050 at medium settings (more in some cases) but won’t have to invest in a discrete graphics card. This can save around £100 on the cost of the PC and the A8-3870K is also a potent overclocker, meaning dropping a discrete graphics card into the system when you can afford it makes a little more sense than it did with older Socket FM1 CPUs.