ITProPortal's £500 System Guide (Christmas 2010)

You’ll be surprised to learn how much computing power you can get for £500 nowadays. With the help of Dabs.com, we’ve carefully selected the components you’ll need to build what we reckon is the most balanced system for that budget. As always, there are plenty of different ways to spend your budget.

We’ve chosen to go for a base unit, and exclude the peripherals such as a keyboard, mouse and monitor, as there’s a good chance that you may have these things left over from a previous system. Buying all the parts from one online retailer means you’ll almost certainly have them delivered at the same time - handy if you want to build your computer in one go. It's always easiest to pick the parts that will stick around for longest. That’s why we’re starting with the power supply unit and the case.

At just £28.64, the Xigmatek Asgard is the most affordable branded chassis at Dabs. Although cheaper alternatives are available, we'd suggest you don't skimp on quality here: unlike other components, a good-quality case can be kept for many years. The Asgard is black. Completely black - even inside, unlike others.

It comes with a 120mm black fan pre-installed. Three more fans can be mounted elsewhere to improve airflow, and Xigmatek has even supplied hi-flow filters which help reduce dust levels. There's space aplenty inside this mid-tower casing. It can house up to four 5.25-inch bays - though we doubt you’d ever need to install four optical drives.

But with five trays for 3.5-inch hard disk drives, there's enough capacity here too for all but the most ambitious server projects. Other noteworthy features of the Xigmantek - which is made of sturdy steel - include tool-free design, up to seven expansion slots, two front audio ports and two USB ports.

Pair it with the Anteq Basiq 350W PSU at £28.02 and you have an affordable combination that will constitute a basic but reliable foundation for any decent computer. The Basiq comes with eight power connectors and a two year warranty.

Next on our shopping list are two hard disk drives. One of these will be used for storing the computer’s operating system and most-used applications, while the other will house the user's data. For the system drive, we’ve opted for a super-fast solid state disk, the 32GB OCZ Technology Onyx SATA II hard disk drive, which costs £49.98.

Solid state drives have no moving parts, so they can offer much high performance than conventional disks. With an average seek time of less than 0.1ms, the Onyx should be more than a match for any traditional hard disk drives on the market - and give your system a significant performance boost.

The OCZ Onyx comes with a SATA300 interface, 64MB cache and three-year warranty. Don't worry about its smallish size, either: Windows 7 won't take more than a third of the space, and most of your applications will still comfortably fit on it.

Even if you run short of space for apps on the Onyx, you’ll still be able to install less frequently used software on the computer’s main storage drive, a 1TB Western Digital Caviar Green hard disk, priced at £39.98.

Not only does this two-disk arrangement allow your computer as a whole to perform more snappily, having two separate drives also means you can quickly refresh your system as and when you need to.

The Western Digital 1TB Caviar Green hard disk drive is positively cavernous, with one of the lowest costs per GB around. It also comes with a number of features that allow it to reduce power consumption by up to 40 per cent.

The Caviar has two 500GB disk platters inside, a SATA300 interface, a rotational speed of 5,400RPM, 64MB cache and comes with a three-year warranty. We expect it to be pretty fast - even compared to smaller drives that have a higher 7,200RPM spin speed.

When it comes to memory, unless you’re planning to overclock your computer, we'd suggest that you buy the cheapest brand name memory module around. We opted for the 2GB Kingston ValueRAM memory module, which Dabs sells for £20.73. It’s a no-frills, value DDR3 memory stick with a memory clock speed of 1333MHz, CL9 latency timing and lifetime warranty. Two of these should be more than enough for an entry-level computer. Just make sure that you install a 64-bit version of Windows so that your system can access the whole of your 4GB memory.

This leaves us with just over £300 to spend on the video card, the motherboard and the CPU. We're opting for a bundle comprising of the AMD Phenom II X6 1055T and the Asus M4A88T-M/USB3 microATX motherboard.

The processor is the cheapest six-core model around, and packs 9MB L2 and L3 cache. It also comes with a three-year warranty and a proper heatsink fan. At £135, this 125W processor is one of the fastest AMD processors around and should be fast enough for most tasks. Our Asus motherboard is the cheapest model that can support a 125W AMD hex-core processor, and costs just £67.10.

It features AMD's new 880G/RS710 chipset, which supports dual-channel memory modules, Hybrid CrossFire X (which allows you to use the onboard GPU and a separate graphics card), and boasts a number of Asus overclocking tools like TurboV, Turbo Key, Core Unlocker, GPU NOS, Auto Tuning and Precision Tweaker 2.

The rest of the specifications read like a checklist for a high-end microATX motherboard: support for four memory channels, one PCIe x16 slot, two PCIe x1 slots, PCI, integrated ATI Radeon HD4250 graphics chipset, HDMI output for hooking up a big-screen TV, DVI, D-Sub, support for radio, six SATA ports, gigabit Ethernet, 8-channel HD audio with optical SP-DIF, 12 USB ports and even Asus' own operating system, Express Gate.

As for the video card, the last piece of the puzzle - we chose the Sapphire Technology ATI Radeon HD5450 video card, which is a low-profile model that comes with DVI, D-Sub and HDMI connectors. It has a passive heatsink, which means that it won't add to the noise and heat emanating from the CPU.

Whilst it’s not the fastest video card around, it should be powerful enough for all but the most demanding games, assuming you are not playing at super-high resolutions.

Priced at £29.98, the card is well suited for media-centric applications like Blu-ray playback. It sports Dolby TrueHD and DTSHD master audio support as well a 512MB RAM and support for DirectX 11, and you should be able to run it concurrently with ATI Radeon HD4250 GPU built into the motherboard for even more firepower.

For the operating system, we're going down the Microsoft route, although plenty of other options exist. The Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit operating system is pretty much the only choice available to us at this price point, to stick as close as possible to the budget. Priced at £78.07, it’s a great all-rounder for most users.

So there you have it: ITProPortal’s first £500 Christmas PC System Guide. Our recommended system includes some great components like a USB 3.0 motherboard, a SSD system disk and a six-core processor. Keen gamers may want to upgrade our chosen video card for something with more oomph, but for everyday purposes it’s more than enough.

You can always play around with the configuration a little - opting for an Intel-based motherboard and processor, or a cheaper AMD chip. There's also the option of recycling your "old" operating system or saving a few pounds with a no-name generic chassis and power supply.

The bottom line is that building a system yourself is an entertaining process that can help you learn more about your PC, as well as saving you money. And there’s never been a better time to do it!

All prices correct at time of going to print.