What does "general use" mean, anyway?

In the past, I've often differentiated between home and office computers. Home computers were more geared towards media usage, from consuming web pages to editing photos. They could often cost less because of less emphasis on highest-quality, most reliable components. Office computers were more aimed at office suite productivity. They'd usually cost more because they included higher-quality, more reliable components.

Now, I consider this distinction all but extinct. In my experience, more people are doing productivity work at home (such as in the case of telecommuters), and more office productivity work necessitates working with media. For example, when I was an undergraduate, I produced papers. Now that I'm an instructor, I have my students produce videos to post on YouTube and Facebook. In other words, as the web matures, we're communicating with our friends, family, and business associates/colleagues in many more ways than traditional text. Furthermore, PC hardware is always becoming cheaper (aside from anomalies like the Southeast Asia floods that affected hard drive prices). This means that unless your PC is mission critical and you need enterprise-grade hardware, you can buy high-quality, reliable components for not much more (absolute) cost than bottom-barrel bare adequacy parts.

Make no mistake—the AMD A4-5300 APU is not an enthusiast's chip. However, it is a capable and cheap processor for basic usage desktop computers. Currently priced around $53, the A4-5300 is in competition with Intel's Sandy Bridge-based Celeron CPUs. I've had an Intel G550 system sitting next to an AMD A4-5300 system for the last week in my lab, and it's impossible to tell the difference between them in day-to-day usage. Both offer "good enough" computing for watching YouTube videos, checking Facebook, and making a PowerPoint presentation. Both choke on more advanced tasks like 3D anatomical model rendering. But most people aren't rendering models of skeletons—they're watching YouTube.

Compared to an Intel Sany Bridge Celeron system, an AMD A4-5300 desktop also pulls about the same amount of power under general use. The AMD APU's main advantage is its on-die graphics. You can play less demanding titles like Left 4 Dead at 720p at acceptable frame rates on an AMD APU, whereas you can't on the Intel Celeron. Any software that supports OpenCL acceleration like WinZIP is also noticeably faster on the AMD APU. Adobe's CS 6 now has many features that support OpenCL acceleration, such as certain filters in Photoshop. Whether these advantages are relevant is something you should consider, because the Intel platform has a clear advantage in upgradeability and potential longevity. Intel's LGA 1155 can be upgraded all the way up to Ivy Bridge quad-cores. Though AMD states FM2 will support the next (third) generation APUs, it is highly unlikely that those next-gen chips will approach the CPU prowess of Intel's current mainstream high-end processors.

Budget Trinity desktop computer

If you've read my previous guides you'll know that I am a big fan of both Fractal Design's Core 1000 and NZXT's Source 210 cases in the budget market segment. Both cases are relatively well-built (they lack sharp edges for one plus!), and I think both look nice. The primary difference is that the Source 210 is larger and heavier, with more room for active cooling (you can install more fans). I like it more for budget gaming builds that will produce more heat and are used in settings where noise is usually more tolerable. For office builds, I like the Core 1000 because it is smaller and lighter, so it gets the nod here.

As for the power supply, I strongly recommend using higher-quality units like the SeaSonic SS-300ET listed here. The power supply is arguably the most important component in a computer, if for no other reason than a spectacularly defective unit can destroy the other components! The Antec Earthwatts 380W and NeoEco 400W, as well as Corsair's Builder Series 430W, are also better than average lower-wattage models that frequently go on sale.

We're pairing the the A4-5300 APU with ASRock's FM2A55M-DGS motherboard. It's a no-frills, solid performing, inexpensive microATX board. It lacks niceties like HDMI but has a low price tag. I've used a handful of these in builds now and have been very pleased with the board's layout and that all have been rock solid stable. Trinity APUs benefit from higher-speed DDR3 RAM in certain usage scenarios (namely gaming), so we suggest spending a few dollars more on DDR3-1600 RAM over DDR3-1333 RAM. The specific G.Skill kit listed is a reliable overclocker, too. Of the eight kits I've installed in systems, all reached DDR3-1866 speeds (though two kits required the voltage to be upped to 1.6V to be stable, and as always with overclocking, your mileage may vary).

For storage, making specific recommendations for budget builders is currently quite difficult because of how frequently both HDD and SSD prices are changing. But whether you want an HDD or SSD depends on your usage, not prices. Simply put, if you need more than 64-128GB of local storage, you will need to buy a higher-capacity but much slower-performing HDD. If you will not need much local storage, you can go with a very fast SSD. As for HDDs, keep in mind that any HDD can fail, and brand choice is mostly a matter of personal preference. Watch prices, and pay attention to warranty lengths. For SSDs, Samsung's 830 Series, Crucial's M4 Series, Plextor's M5S Series, and Intel's 330 Series have excellent reputations for reliability in the budget SSD market. I've seen all of these drives in the 60/64GB capacity for $50 recently, so again, keep your eyes on prices and watch for sales.

Regarding the operating system, Windows 7 remains the industry standard. A comparison of Windows 7 with the very recently released Windows 8 is outside the scope of this article, but note that Windows 8 costs a bit less, so if you're looking to shave a few dollars off the cost of your build, you can do so by going with W8 instead of W7. Incidentally, our full Windows 8 writeup is forthcoming, but to say that opinions are split on the OS would be an understatement.

Component Product Price Rebate
Case Fractal Design Core 1000 $40  
PSU SeaSonic SS-300ET 300W $40  
CPU AMD A4-5300 APU $56  
Motherboard ASRock FM2A55M-DGS $50 -$5
RAM G.Skill 4GB DDR3-1600 $25  
HDD Seagate 1TB ST31000524AS $50  
SSD alternate Samsung 830 Series 64GB $50  
Optical drive ASUS 24x DVD burner $17  
Operating system Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit $92  
  Total cost: $420 $415

Check the next page for our HTPC build.

AMD's Trinity APUs HTPC
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  • jwcalla - Thursday, November 29, 2012 - link

    From a pure HTPC perspective, I always feel uneasy recommending AMD because it pretty much requires you to drop $100 on an OS license, which is a huge chunk for such a small function.

    I think this market is best served with the smaller Zotac solutions, or if you want to build your own box, just use one of those $10 fanless NVIDIA cards. Then you're free to install XBMC Live or whatever and still get flawless video playback... since NVIDIA actually steps up to the plate and supports their products with drivers that don't suck.
    Reply
  • Medallish - Thursday, November 29, 2012 - link

    How is AMD related to having to buy an OS? I have an AMD based HTPC, it works perfect, and I don't have any issues with drivers or anything else. Reply
  • MadMan007 - Sunday, December 2, 2012 - link

    I think he's talking about drivers: AMD's non-Windows drivers aren't as good as Nvidia's, so with an AMD system you 'have to' get a Windows license but with Nvidia you can use XMBC/linux for free. Reply
  • silverblue - Thursday, November 29, 2012 - link

    "If you're hesitant about using the unlocked 100W Black Edition A10 APU, but don't want to drop all the way down to a meager dual-core, the A10-5700 is a lower-clocked 65W TDP quad-core with less capable graphics than the A10-5800K. Again, however, for most HTPC duties like SD and HD media content playback, you won't really save much electricity (and thus heat and noise) compared to the A10-5800K."

    Hexus seems to think that the 5700 should use less power than the 5600K and perform generally between that and the 5800K in games as its GPU is merely 5% slower and has the same number of shaders.

    http://hexus.net/tech/reviews/cpu/47257-amd-a10-57...

    There are very few 5700 reviews about so if AT ran one, it'd be very much appreciated, more so to see if it really does use much less power than the 5800K. I would find it very strange if boosting CPU clocks by about 10% really does eat all that power.
    Reply
  • lmcd - Friday, November 30, 2012 - link

    A10-5800K is the better bin I'm pretty sure. As in, you should be able to underclock and hit same or lower thermals versus the 5700 Reply
  • djsvetljo - Thursday, November 29, 2012 - link

    How do you stream HD videos from Amazon on a PC??? I tried so hard a few months ago and I could not get. Amazon does not allow that - they are scared of Streaming 1080p HD video from Amazon piracy.

    So if anyone knows a away to stream HD movies on a PC (windows or linux) I will be very thankful !
    Reply
  • iamben - Friday, November 30, 2012 - link

    Do you guys think that the first would be a good webs server build? The website it would be hosting is techclimax.com. A website that me and a couple friends made. Reply
  • Mugur - Saturday, December 1, 2012 - link

    What about put to use those 8 SATA 3 ports and build a home sever? Besides HTPC, this the best scenario for Trinity, in my opinion... Reply
  • bigbrave - Saturday, December 1, 2012 - link

    The FX 8350 is much faster than the Core i3s and actually complete very well against the Core i7s in both the desktop and notebook platforms. Only the deaf, blind and stupid (aka fanbois) think benchmarks are actually true. I can understand you have to believe all your hard work means something, but it doesn’t.

    Bench marks are equivalent to looking at sports teams on paper and determining how they will do in their respective leagues. That’s why they play the game, because judging the teams on paper don’t mean a damn thing and won’t tell you anything.

    When you benchmark the Core i7s vs. the 8150 or 8350 (desktop) or A10 (notebook), the bench marks are not even close. Intel’s are way ahead, however, when you put the two systems next to each other, you won’t be able to tell which is which. Especially in a blind test http://www.legitreviews.com/article/1838/1/. If bench marks were actually true, then those results would be very visible when using the computer the way it is when you add 2 GB of RAM to a computer running Vista with only 1 GB of RAM.

    When it comes to notebooks, AMD destroys Intel. Why, because of the graphics that Intel lacks. AMD hit a home run with the APUs which is why Ivy Bridge is the start of Intel’s own APUs. Haswell will be a version of an APU though Intel won’t categorize it that way.

    When surfing the internet, computers use more graphics and less CPU these days. Web Browsers use the graphics card to render data faster like with Firefox’s Direct 2D hardware acceleration. Internet Explorer 9 and Chrome also do the same thing. The better the graphics, the better the video playback (watching videos) and video conferencing (Skype) is. This is where Intel falls short and AMD exceeds in the notebooks. With desktops, Intel is better because you get the better CPU and just have to plug in a nice graphics card. However, with the notebooks, you need good graphics and AMD’s “Trinty” A-Series APUs provides a terrific CPU (Piledriver cores) with it. I’m not so big on the A4 or the A6, but the A8 and A10 are terrific and very fast.

    My girlfriend purchased an ASUS notebook with the Core i5 (Sandy Bridge) in March of this year from BJs. I connected it to the internet and went to a site which allows me to check off many programs I want and it will download and install them for me. That was in one window, and in the other, I started the many Windows updates. That took close to two hours to finish before I was rebooting the computer. I thought the Core i5 was supposed to be fast?! Wait it’s the hard drive right? Well, that’s what I’ve heard many Intel fanbois say when using a notebook with an Intel Core processor and it’s extremely slow.

    Anyways, over the next two days, my girlfriend struggled to receive any joy from the system. The videos she tried watching on different websites were slow and blurry, and Skype didn’t work very well. Three days later, she was feed up and took the computer back to BJ’s were they have a 14 day return policy on all electronics. BJ’s gave her a full refund and we left. The following Thursday evening when stopped by Office Depot. We picked out an HP notebook with the A8 “Llano” in it. The A8 had the 3520 quad-core CPU with the 6620 GPU (with 400 Stream processors). I did explain to her at the store that the ASUS quality would be much better than all the OEMs like HP, Dell, Toshiba and Sony for example. She didn’t care she just was happy to rid herself from the ASUS. I told her that it wasn’t the ASUS brand she hated, but the Intel crap (Core i5 - Sandy Bridge) which was powering it. Still don’t think she understands that however.

    When we arrived home, I did the exact with the HP as I had done with the ASUS. Went to the website and checked off many programs I wanted downloaded and installed for me in one window. Then using the Windows 7 snap command, I opened another window and began the Windows updates.

    It only took 35 minutes to do what the Intel Core i5 2410 took almost 2 hours to do. I was so shocked that I actually thought HP had put a 7,200 RPM hard drive in the system instead of the common 5,400 RPM drive. Instead of rebooting, I shut the system off and ripped open the hard drive cover thinking I was about to see a faster drive. NOPE, it was the same 5,400 RPM crap that all the OEMs sell in their sub $1,000 notebook junk.

    Despite one manufacture being a non-OEM (ASUS), and the other is simply just an OEM (HP), both systems came with crappy slow hard drives which won’t last two years. My point though, is that the AMD A8 (Llano) completely destroyed the Core i5 Sandy Bridge in performance, speed and graphics!!! AND it was cheaper!!!!!

    As a computer technician, I have worked on many notebooks with the crappy Intel processors inside, and I’m not impressed. I worked with a terrific tech who is an Intel fanboi through and through, and he would always just blame the slow performance on the hard drive. I would just laugh and tell him it’s more the crappy Intel design.

    I’m not an AMD fanboi as your suspecting, I’m actually NOT a fanboi of any product or company. All fanbois are deaf, blind and stupid. When you’re a fanboi, you only accept information that supports your opinions and quickly reject everything else. So it could be facts you’re rejecting, but won’t even realize it.

    I’m very objective and open-minded which allows me to learn more about what AMD, Intel and Nvidia have to offer. All three companies have strengths and weaknesses which I point out to my many customers. Of course, since 70-75% of consumers look at price FIRST, AMD tends to be the best choice for them. A better overall solution at an outstanding price! Sure I try to get my customers and others to look beyond the crappy $300 - $400 systems, but many times they only want the cheapest crap they can get due to total ignorance. Their excuse, “all I need is” or “all I’ll use it for is…”. This is what almost every customer of mine as told me and I just have to laugh. So I then point them in AMD’s direction and tell them to buy either the A8 or A10 and stay away from the C & E class APUs and the A4s. The A6s are ok, but I recommend the A8 the most. They respond by purchasing the C or E class cheap garbage! Maybe they spring for the A4. lol

    In both my girlfriend’s account and AMD’s FX experience, listed in the above link, provide examples of how benchmarks are just not true and don’t provide proper or genuine guidance of the comparison between AMD and Intel products. If I had you play a game on a system with the FX 8350, could you really tell the difference from it and a system with the Core i7 3770 Ivy Bridge? In actuality, probably not.

    These benchmarks have totally given the general public a false sense of reality when determining which system to purchase. So this is where computer review websites, like the one you work for, come in. You need to be impartial and unbiased. You should understand that instead of looking at stupid software results, you should place two systems next to each other and see which one is faster. Don’t tell me you do, because if that was true, you would have a totally different opinion in regards to AMD.

    I have worked on many notebooks with Intel processors and they all seem very slow compared to the AMD APU counter parts. Must just be the graphics as the difference maker. However, when it comes to the all mighty desktop, Intel isn’t a bad way to go, it just cost more for the motherboards and CPUs. I have built customers Intel systems this year, I just prefer the way AMD sticks with one socket for later upgrades. Just another strength AMD has going for them!
    Reply
  • Burticus - Tuesday, December 4, 2012 - link

    OK I understand that prices fluctuate daily on the net. But that proposed A10 build for $507 seemed high to me.

    Pricing from my local Microcenter store, and ditching that A10 for a FX 6300... I come up $157 (not figuring tax) cheaper without a discreet video card. You will need one, surely, but a $150 discreet video card will kick that APU up and down the street for gaming.

    Just sayin'.
    Reply

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