We’re back again with another episode in the Laptop Buyers guide and today we’re back into the low-end budget segment, trying to find the maximum value for your money where you’re forced to pick and choose which features matter most to you. The budget segment is the hardest hit whenever price increases take effect and this will be the first month that we’ll see evidence of this. Follow me after the jump to see why.


Things have taken a turn for the worse…

As things now stand, we’re seeing two markets where price increases are killing off options for budget buyers – graphics cards and desktop memory. As DDR3 production slows down in order to give manufacturers the chance to sell their stock at a profit, we’re going to be the ones shafted with the large mark-ups. And do take note that if a chipmaker like Hynix decides to raise things up by 10% on the production end when they sell their chips to third-party manufacturers, the final raised price to the consumer could be a 30% increase or more. Its not the fault of the consumer though, this is all on the memory manufacturers oversupplying their retail channels because they figured that Windows 8 would lead to a surge in new machine builds. Nope, sorry guys, that will be Haswell. I expect DDR3 RAM prices to stay high throughout the year and we’ll only see a drop sometime in Q2 2014. So don’t hold off on buying RAM now. If you do, you might end up paying more later.

The other market that I expect to be stifled in the future is SSDs. Their NAND chips aren’t in danger of oversupply yet, but it’s getting increasingly difficult to find a 60GB SSD for anything under R800, or a 128GB SSD for under R1400. If you do find one, it’s often based on outdated hardware. i expect the SSD market to artificially stagnate itself for the next six months or so, at least until Haswell rigs are selling in enough supply to drop prices and ramp up supply again. The companies that can afford to do this are Intel, Samsung and Transcend, since they have the ability to fabricate all of their NAND cells in-house. The other brands, like Corsair and OCZ, might not fare so well and I expect them to drop prices before Haswell gets into full swing in order to increase revenues, since they can’t afford to price themselves out of the market.

Lastly, the local market still strangles the consumer options because finding enough parts for a AMD socket FM2 build on the cheap is ridiculously difficult. Online retailers like Rebeltech and Wootware have the processors in stock, but finding a cheap enough ATX or mATX board below R1100 is a trying task. At the moment only two brands seem to have enough stock flowing into the country locally – MSI and Gigabyte. The others, like ASUS, ECS and ASRock are moving far too slowly.

Anyway, that’s my rant over.

R4000 Budget: (720p and medium-to-high settings with 2x AA, 1080p and low settings with no AA)

Intel Pentium G2020 @ R622

MSI H61M-P31 (G3) @ R498

TEAM Xtreem Red DDR3-1600 8GB @ R556

Sapphire Radeon HD6670 1GB GDDR3 @ R788

Seagate Barracuda 500GB SATA @ R637

LG GH24NS90 DVD-RW @ R171

Gigabyte PoweRock 400W @ R363

Cooler Master Elite 344 @ R313

Total: R3948

With the exception of the HD6670 and the hard drive, everything else here has seen price bumps, adding 5-10% to their previous figures which we explored in the last Builders Guide in February. We’re saved by the new RAM from TEAM because it’s significantly cheaper than other products, chopping off R50 had we been forced to use standard DIMMS without heatsinks. The other newcomer here is the Pentium G2020, a 2.9GHz dual-core chip based on the Ivy Bridge i3, retaining all it’s cache but stripping it of some clock speed and the extra two threads.

In gaming terms this machine won’t be blowing socks off just yet, but it’s superbly capable for what you’re going to pay for it. Nearly all the major AAA titles available today should be playable at 720p with medium settings, or 1080p with low settings. The HD6670 is on its last legs though and I expect that it will be ditched next year for something with equivalent power to the HD7750.

AMD still doesn’t have any options for budget buyers because there are no motherboards easily available in SA. The A55 chipset should be priced against the H61 from Intel, but for some reason we’re seeing boards like the ASUS F2A55-M LE go right up against cheap H77 and even Z77 variants from other brands. Its all well and good to start off the processor range with the A6-5400K, but if the boards to support it aren’t there then what’s the point? Retailers should strong-arm their distributors for better prices because this is just a half-hearted attempt at making AMD happy. Its a bunch of crap and I hope that some day my constant badgering will pay off.

Its just like AMD laptops. There are dozens of models out there from big brands that are cheapoer than their Intel counterparts, but do you think Incredible Connection or GAME will stock them? Nooooo.

R6000 Budget: (720p on Ultra settings and 2x AA, 1080p and Medium settings with no AA)

Intel Core i3-3225 @ R1492

MSI H77MA-G43 @ R923

TEAM Xtreem Red DDR3-1600 8GB @ R556

PowerColor Radeon HD7770 1GB GDDR5 w/ DiRT Showdown @ R1449

Western Digital Caviar Blue 1TB SATA @ R764

LG GH24NS90 DVD-RW @ R171

Gigabyte PoweRock 400W @ R363

Cooler Master Elite 344 @ R313

Total: R6031

Maxing out the R6000 budget this month was easier because a few price drops on the processor and the 1TB hard drive allowed me to shove them in. This is the default gaming machine that anyone should work towards. The extra threads on the Core i3 mean that it will fare well in games like Battlefield 3 that scale well to more cores, while the value proposition of a free game with the PowerColor HD7770 makes it worth considering. However you look at it, this build is balanced in all directions and I expect that this is the route most gamers will opt for. Once again the Cooler Master Elite 344 houses everything in this tiny mATX chassis that’s perfect for lugging to a LAN. It may be a small squeeze for bigger hardware, but for these parts its roomy enough.

There’s some leeway for upgrades as well. One could move to a vanilla Core i5 quad-core chip for better framerates and more muscle for tasks like video encoding and Photoshop. The HD4000 graphics inside the i3-3225 means that Quicksync, if you make use of it, enables hugely fast video transcodes on the same level of speed and quality as Nvidia’s CUDA. The PSU also has enough room for you if you add in a GTX660 or a Radeon HD7850. Its limited to discrete GPUs with a single 6-pin PEG connector so there’s no chance of overextending it.

For the AMD fans, the Red team actually has a lot of good to offer. You can swap in the i3-3225 for the FX-6100 which has three times the amount of cores, more than twice the amount of cache and competes with the Core i5 in most cases. It does consume a bit more power and produce more heat, but ths PoweRock is still within limits there. The motherboard is a bit of a tricky one since socket AM3+ mATX boards are in short supply. The ASUS M5A78L-M/USB3 offers the best compromise, sacrificing a modern chipset for a mATX form factor and front-panel USB 3.0 support. It still has onboard Radeon HD3000-series graphics as well, so you have something to fall back onto if your discrete GPU has a problem for whatever reason. Personally, that would be the route I’d take.

R8000 Budget: (1080p on High details and 4x AA, 2560 x 1440 with low to medium details and no AA)

AMD FX-6300 @ R1773

MSI 970A-G46 @ R892

TEAM Xtreem Red DDR3-1600 8GB @ R556

PowerColor Radeon HD7870 LE w/ game bundle @ R2695

Western Digital Caviar Blue 1TB SATA @ R764

LG GH24NS90 DVD-RW @ R171

Cooler Master Thunder 520W Modular @ R727

Cooler Master K280 @ R436

Total: R8014

Its very difficult to figure out how Intel would win the R8000 segment when the Piledriver chips fill in the gap under R2000 so nicely. Here we have MSI’s 970A-G46 returning for another tour of duty and the same chip as last February’s guide, the FX-6300. Some of the parts were kept the same from the R6000 build, but both the PSU and chassis was switched up to give us more leeway in terms of what parts we can stuff inside.

In particular I like the fact that the Thunder is modular and the K280 has good cable management. It may not be as good as some of the higher-priced stuff but with a budget this tight, I guess we did okay. Once again the Tahiti LE chip squeezes into the picture, commanding a high price but rewarding your purchase with two games woth R350 apiece. Effectively, that means you’re paying around R2000 for the card if you decide to sell the Steam codes off to someone. All you really have to do is clock the card up over 1GHz and you’re already catching up to the HD7950. That’s impressive value in my books and it’s something Nvidia can’t quite match at the same price point.

Is there an Intel alternative? Im not quite sure. You could swap out the board for MSI’s H77MA-G43, the FX processor for the Core i5-3330 and bump the graphics card down to the HD7850 2GB but is that worth it? I’m not so sure, but both rigs would be mostly comparable. I would like to say they’re equal but the FX-6300 will take the lead in multi-threaded applications and games that can scale up to four or more cores. With the PS4 and Xbox running on AMD’s Octo-core Jaguar processors and the industry finally warming up to using technologies like DirectCompute and parallel processing in games, AMD may finally take the lead once more, at least for a short time in the span of a year or two. After that, Intel may leapfrog them once again. Either way, for R8000 right now you can build a really compelling rig that won’t be short of power.

That’s all for this week boys and girls. Next Tuesday we’re back into the R10,000 to R15,000 price range where the Blue team asserts its dominance and becomes a more familiar sight. If you’ve got a budget to burn in that region, don’t miss it!

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