Buy A Decent System For $325 (Part 3) : Shuttle SA76R4 Barebone AMD AM3, Asus V7-P8H67E, Foxconn nT-A3500 Nettop Barbones

1/9/2013 5:58:17 PM

All Barebone systems obscure their true cost to a degree. Once you’ve added all the things needed to make a working computer they never seem like the bargain they first appeared to be. That said, if you pick wisely then you can use one as the basis for a very cheap PC.

Shuttle SA76R4 Barebone AMD AM3 ($200 from Scan)

By definition Barebone systems need extra items, so you shouldn’t see the price of this unit as being the total expenditure.

Shuttle SA76R4 Barebone AMD AM3

Shuttle SA76R4 Barebone AMD AM3

What you will need to get this system running is a CPU, some DDR3 RAM and a hard drive. A 160GB Seagate Pipeline can be had for $47.2, and 2GB of 1333Mhz DDR3 for a tenner, which leaves roughly $62 for the AM3 processor. When I initially researched this I thought that was unrealistic, but actually you can get an AM3 Sempron 145 for just $41, leaving enough for a cheap keyboard and mouse or an optical drive.

Those willing to throw in a couple of extra pounds could get a AMD Athlon II X2 250 3GHz in here, though that’s an OEM price so they might need to find a cooler. However, with that processor installed this could be a rather nice solution.

In terms of expansion you can use any AM3 processor that uses 95Watts or less, and you can also install a discrete PCIe video card, as long as you don’t exceed the 250 watt PSU power budget.

Asus V7-P8H67E ($211 from Overclockers UK)

Most people think about Asus in respect of their laptops, tablets and video cards, but they also make some very affordable barebone systems.

Asus V7-P8H67E

Asus V7-P8H67E

The Asus V7-P8H67E is fantastically specified, as it uses the very recent Intel H67 chipset, supporting the 2nd Generation Core i3, i5 and i7 processors. It also takes four sticks of DDR3 Memory (32GB Max) and can handle five SATA devices, including two of the SATA III spec type.

The caveat to this design is the working budget that is left to provide a CPU, RAM and storage, just $114 from our $325 cap. The cheapest CPU option is the Celeron G440 1.6GHz, which is difficult to find these days. But a Celeron G465 (1.9GHz) can be acquired for $47, and that’s low enough to fit 2GB of RAM and a 160GB hard drive. If you’ve any of these items spare you might want to punt for the Intel Celeron G555 2.70GHz ($68) or the Intel Pentium G860 3.0GHz ($80).

In terms of ultimate expansion possibilities this system could take the Core i7-3770T ($432), and whatever discrete video card you can operate with a 350 watt PSU.

Foxconn nT-A3500 Nettop Barbones ($277 from Overclockers UK)

This item could have been in the Nettop section too, because it’s one of those minimalist computers, but this one comes with no memory or hard drive.

The challenge for you therefore is to get a single DDR3 SODIMM and a hard drive for $48, which might just be possible depending what capacity you are willing to accept.

I didn’t mention a CPU, because you do get one of those, an AMD E350 dual-core 1.6GHz APU which isn’t upgradable. This has an inbuilt AMD Radeon HD 6310, which allows it to play video smoothly and play some modestly detailed games.

The hard drive you’ll need is a 2.5” laptop mechanism, and you’ll also need to source an operating system and some means of getting that on to the computer without an integrated optical drive.

Foxconn nT-A3500 Nettop Barbones

Foxconn nT-A3500 Nettop Barbones

Even with these limitations, and the challenge of getting memory and storage inside the budget, this is still a rather nice choice, and probably a better option than any of the Intel Atom-powered solutions.

Go Green

While I was working on this article the subject of tablet computers came up, what with all the coverage of Microsoft’s Surface. Regrettably Surface and its bedfellows are going to cost substantially more than the $325 budget I’ve got here.

Yet, it is possible to buy a tablet for less than $325, and use it in a manner that’s more like a system.

What you need is a tablet (obviously), a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, and if you want to work in a more PC like way you might want to connect a PC monitor to your device using an MHL cable. That last item enables the USB port of your tablet to become a HDMI out port, and so will present whatever is on the tablet screen to a monitor display. Actually, you don’t need a tablet to do this, you can do it with a Smartphone too.

The catch to MHL is that only certain devices support it, and I was disappointed to discover that the Nexus 7 tablet is not one of them. The Kindle Fire HD has HDMI out, but no official access to the Google Play store - though it can be rooted to add that functionality.

So what other tablets can you use to make a $325 system with HDMI out? A quick check revealed the Yarvik GoTab Zetta $265 Yarvik Zania 10” ($277), Blackberry PlayBook 7” ($177), Sumvision Titan ($244), Motorola Xoom 2 Media Edition 8.2” ($326) and Disgo DISTAB8104R 10.1” Tablet ($161). For whatever reason the Galaxy 2 Tab doesn’t have this feature in the cheaper models, and none of the Acer designs at this price point do either, annoyingly.

If you can do without a big monitor you can use almost any of the sub $325 tablets and all you need to do is add in a decent Bluetooth keyboard, preferably with a touch pad integrated.

I’m happy to accept that typing a report on a system built like this isn’t as quick as it might be on a desktop PC, but it will work in a pinch, and it is very transportable.

An ideal keyboard for this purpose is the Microsoft Wedge Keyboard, which can be bought for around $89. Those working to a really tight budget might want to consider the iGo Bluetooth Wireless Keyboard for Tablets, which can be found for the princely sum of $47.

The added bonus in this option is that you get a tablet, but as a desktop replacement it can be heavily compromised.

Final Thoughts

Whatever route you decide to take, it’s worth taking a few minutes to make sure you’ve made exactly the right choices. If you’re relying on reusing a few parts from your existing equipment then make sure they’re compatible with the one you intend to buy.

That means if your IDE optical drive is a transplant candidate, that the system has an IDE port (because few do these days). And, if your PS/2 keyboard is coming too, check the system has that port and not just USB. Monitor connections, hard drive ports and memory slots might also need to be verified. If you don’t undertake this due diligence you might find that your ring-fenced budget has a hole, where you’re forced to spend more to address an overly optimistic assumption you made.

What really amazed me when I started looking for systems under $325 is just how many are available, what I’ve presented here is just the tip of an inexpensive iceberg. Depending what you go for you will dictate what extra parts you might need to complete your system, and almost uniformly that probably includes a valid operating system. For someone who has an old XP-era system, the cost of an upgrade can be remarkably low, and even the worst system I’ve detailed here isn’t useless by any standards.

One of the items I mentioned here is refurbished, and as such it is impossible to verify the condition of it before taking delivery. I’ve recently bought a refurbished Dell laptop through Tesco, who sell returned or store example systems that Dell has subsequently restored for them. That item was flawless, but the same level quality that you expect in new equipment can’t be guaranteed in anything labeled as Refurbished. You might get a bargain, but equally you might not.

Enjoy bargain hunting, though, it can be a rewarding activity. If you can undercut these systems and I’m sure it is possible then you could well enjoy a few more years of computing that comes accompanied with a smug smile and an altogether wider wallet.

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