Cheap Computer and Current Hardware: Prices and Components

So my uncle has asked me to build a computer for his niece. Simple enough, I’ve built computers before. I’ve built my own and my sister’s. Problem is, it was over a year ago since I last put one together (I had the funds then to go super-high end, thus allowing me to have a really up-to-date computer with few upgrades).

Thus, I haven’t been keeping track of the latest hardware outside of video cards. What’s the speed of DDR these days? Has there been any changes in SATA hard drives? How much built-on stuff do most motherboards come with now? Have quick enough DVD-R drives become affordable yet? Do they still sell motherboards that work with Athlon XP instead of the Athlon 64 or 64 FX? Do they still even sell Athlon XP’s for that matter? What combination of DDR RAM and CPU’s work? Is Artic Silver, what was it, 5, still the best thermal compound? Should I even bother with aircooling or is it all watercooling now?

Now I’m just rambling. With the consoles, my music, picking up reading again and the lack of a need to work on my computer over the past year have really hindered my once nearly obsessive hobby. So now what I came here to ask is: what do I need to look for in building a cheap computer? This computer does not need to be an elite gaming machine, nor does it need to be a home theater centerpiece. It simply needs to function nicely. Surf the web, check e-mail, maybe play a few non-demanding games; simple stuff. I know how to build, but I’m out of touch with what to look for and where to look. What would be the best parts for this computer? Is Pricewatch still the best place to search for prices? How can I make this thing ‘lite’ yet fast and reliable?

Any and all help is appreciated.

A techbargains.com or slickdeals.net Dell coupon? You’re probably not going to beat some of their specials if you’re patient. A week or two ago they had a PC w/ WinXP Pro for $179 or something ridiculous like that.

3 weeks ago dell had an emachine for 299 out the door. Monitor included.

Sure it wasnt super high end but it was cheap it works and its cheap. It actually had an AGP slot as well so throwing in a new card would be cheap and easy.

Right now they have a PC + 17" LCD for like $379 deal going on. Or something like that.

http://techbargains.com/u.cfm?id=48610&u=1

Given that the 17" LCD alone is usually around $200, that’s not a bad deal. Okay, it needs more RAM, but that’s a trivial upgrade.

Also, if you just buy an e-Machines PC for whatever sale CompUSA or BestBuy has, you get a whole lotta computer for $400-600. They’re solid machines - I’ve had my family on a couple in the last year or two.

Given that the 17" LCD alone is usually around $200, that’s not a bad deal. Okay, it needs more RAM, but that’s a trivial upgrade.

Yup if I woulda known about it I woulda waited and paid the extra 79 bucks. It was for my dad though so no big loss there. Yeah and ram is cheap and easy to put in.

I found a guy on Criagslist who built me an athlon 2600 with 512, 60 gigs, and a geforce 4 for $250. I replaced the Geforce with another card (something phenomenonally poweful that steve sent me), and I am able to play EVERYTHING I want to.

Very happy man, I am.

Craigslist is good for this type of thing, as long as you are willing to do some leg work.

You can still get XP chips and might find some good deals but unless you really need to lowball it (and if you do, go look up those insane dell deals), just go with a Athlon64 3000+ 939 socket with a cheap nforce4 board. They run DDR400 ram and a stick of 512mb would be fine. Get a retail chip for the warranty and the HSF. The stock cooling is quite good and quiet with the 64 chips. A decent DVDRW drive is 45 bucks tops. SATA drives are the same for the most part. SATA2 is a faster speed drive but not all mobos or drives have it. For video I wouldn’t go with more than a geforce 6600. If you aren’t using it for any real modern games, then something cheaper works fine.

As others have said, if all you want is a cheap PC, check bargain-hunting sites like Slickdeals and GotApex and watch for specials from Dell or the like.

But to answer some of your questions:

PC3200 (i.e., 400Mhz) DDR is still the standard, though obviously there are RAM sticks rated to run faster than that. Intel has abandoned DDR in favor of DDR2 for its motherboards.

Has there been any changes in SATA hard drives?

NCQ support is more prevalant than it used to be, both in HDDs and MBs. Also, the second-gen SATA interface (generally known as SATA II) came out, which has twice the throughput of the first-gen interface.

How much built-on stuff do most motherboards come with now?

It varies, but typically you can expect built-in sound, Ethernet, USB 2.0, and Firewire on all but the lowest-end MBs. Two or four SATA ports is pretty standard, along with the standard 2 PATA ports. Onboard sound quality varies, but overall it’s much better than it was a few years ago (though I don’t think anyone’s toppled nVidia’s SoundStorm for “best onboard sound”).

Have quick enough DVD-R drives become affordable yet?

You can buy a 16x dual-layer DVD+/-R/RW burner for 50 bucks - that cheap enough for you?

Do they still sell motherboards that work with Athlon XP instead of the Athlon 64 or 64 FX? Do they still even sell Athlon XP’s for that matter?

Yes and yes.

What combination of DDR RAM and CPU’s work?

As I say, PC3200 DDR RAM is still the standard; no reason to go above or below that on a budget system.

Is Artic Silver, what was it, 5, still the best thermal compound?

Have to punt on that one. :)

Should I even bother with aircooling or is it all watercooling now?

Aircooling is more than sufficient for all but the most extreme overclocking scenarios, IMHO. Watercooling is overkill for a budget system.

Well, all those questions were just me rambling for an attempt at an interesting post, but thanks anyway for the response!