Ask Dan: A PC for the parents

Publication date: 31 March 2009.
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


I've been charged with buying a PC for my parents (ugh!) but I'm pretty much completely out of touch with current PC hardware and I only have just enough care-factor to ensure they get a decent, quality machine that will allow them to store their photos, send and receive email and browse the Internet without BSODs or any weirdness due to cheap and nasty parts.

We're talking about a vanilla, home PC here.

I don't care if their graphics card is 5% slower than most, nor if their CPU is a prime candidate for overclocking. I certainly don't want to be stuck fixing it 6 months from now.

I like Aus PC Market and I have bought a bunch of stuff from there in the past. So, what basic, desktop system would you recommend for a 55-year-old couple whose ungrateful son would like to spend as little time as possible working on their PC?

Their budget is around $AU800 and they already have a keyboard, mouse and screen that they will be keeping from their last box. All other things being equal a SFF box would be good because they have one of those evil little "computer desks" with absolutely no space. I'm considering AusPC's "Elite Black AM2 PC System".


Yes, that sub-$AU650 computer will indeed probably do the job. (If you're not in the Sydney metropolitan area, delivery will push the price a bit above $AU650. And Aus PC Market don't deliver outside Australia and New Zealand.)

I think it's worth breaking down the compromises and alternatives involved in building a computer like this, though, so you don't find yourself paying for stuff you don't need or buying a computer that can't even be upgraded to do what you actually wanted it to do. (And this stuff is, of course, perfectly relevant to people who live far, far from us here in Australia.)

For a computer like this, you definitely want a motherboard with a built-in or "integrated" graphics adapter, unless there's any chance your parents would actually want to play 3D games, especially at decent resolution. It's occasionally the case that someone's grandma just decides she wants to play Crysis, dammit (OGHC fo' life, yo), but it's more often the case that someone's dad develops an enthusiasm for Microsoft Flight Simulator or some oddball train or boat or whatever simulator.

If there's any chance of that, you'll be wanting to get at least a midrange-by-current-standards graphics card - something in the GeForce 9800GT/Radeon HD 4870 range - and a mobo with no integrated graphics, because there's no point paying for a built-in graphics adapter that you're not going to use.

(If you buy an integrated-graphics system but then find you need to upgrade the video, it's unlikely to be difficult with modern hardware, unless you get some super-cut-rate mobo that lacks a PCIe x16 or even x8 - x16-sized, but half as fast - slot.)

OK; CPU time.

The standard CPU in the AusPC Elite Black Etcetera is a 2.6GHz Socket AM2 Athlon 64 X2 5200+, which is a perfectly good option. (Note that you can change this, or anything else about the system; AusPC's "systems" are just menus of components, which you can change however you like. They build whatever you ask for, unless you've accidentally asked for an Intel CPU on an AMD motherboard or something.)

The 5200+ is essentially the same as the chips that came before the first AMD Phenom (and now there's also the not-greatly-faster Phenom II). So you get two 64-bit cores (yes, you can run 64-bit Vista on this system, if you want), and more than enough performance - again, provided the users don't develop a sudden enthusiasm for recent 3D games, video editing or industrial-scale database administration.

As I write this, the X2 5200+'s by-itself delivered list price from AusPC is only $AU140.80, and you can't get much cheaper than that without getting some seriously cut-down chip like the single-core Sempron, which starts from little more than $AU80 delivered but gives rather less bang per buck than the X2.

(You could pay less than seven dollars more and get an Athlon 64 X2 6000+, which is only $AU147.40. It runs at 3GHz versus the 2.6GHz of the 5200+, but has less cache memory - so is probably only about 10% faster for CPU-intensive tasks - and consumes more power. I reckon I'd stick with the 5200+.)

On the Intel side of the low-end-CPU fence, there's the LGA 775 Pentium Dual-Core, the very cheapest models of which are badged as "Celeron Dual-Cores". Prices for these chips bracket the price of the X2 5200+, but they give a bit more bang per buck. You can, for instance, currently get a 2.6GHz Pentium Dual-Core E5300 for $AU159.50 delivered, 13% more than the price of the X2 5200+, but the Intel chip will beat the Athlon by a readily measurable, and maybe even noticeable-by-humans, margin for a lot of tasks.

The Intel chips are also more overclockable than the AMD ones, although this obviously isn't important for your purposes. There's actually a "Black Edition" Athlon 64 X2 7750+ that Aus PC Market sell for exactly the same price as the humble 5200+, though; it's got a 2.7GHz stock speed but, like all of the Black Edition chips, has an unlocked clock multiplier to make overclocking easier. You'll still probably be able to wring a bigger overclock out of a Pentium Dual-Core than any current AMD product, but if you're going for AMD, keep an eye out for the various, surprisingly inexpensive, Black Edition CPUs.

If you go for an Intel CPU you will, of course, need a motherboard to suit it. There are plenty of options, though, even if you're after a board with integrated video. AusPC have a bunch of options in their microATX LGA 775 motherboard department - but note that they don't currently stock any full-ATX-sized LGA 775 motherboards with integrated video, if you don't count a few expensive server boards.

One reason why you might want to go for a Pentium or Celeron Dual-Core, even if overclocking is unimportant, is that they use the same LGA 775 socket as the Core 2 Duo and Quad chips. This means you can easily upgrade to a faster CPU down the track. Some kind of "Extreme" Core 2 chip is the fastest you'll ever be able to put on an LGA775 board - but those may be cheap on eBay in a couple of years. (Intel's new super-fast Core i7 ("Nehalem") CPUs use a whole new socket, so you can't upgrade to any of those without a whole new motherboard.)

The Socket AM2 board in the standard Elite Black Wossname system can take a faster CPU than its standard one too, but this is a less exciting prospect than the Intel version. You should be able to run anything up to AMD's current "Phenom II" CPUs on this motherboard, but the "AM2+" (original Phenom) and "AM3" (Phenom II) CPUs won't be as fast on any AM2 board as they would be on an AM2+ or AM3 board, because the CPU-to-mobo "HyperTransport" interconnect speed is slower on AM2.

This won't have a huge impact in practice, but it does make upgrading the CPU on a board like this a less interesting prospect than upgrading a Pentium Dual-Core to a Core 2 Whatever. Only if the AM2 system originally came with one of those not-so-fast Semprons, and a motherboard that can handle the faster chips (older AM2 boards can't), would a CPU upgrade be really good idea. Well, unless you manage to find a new-old-stock retail-boxed Phenom or something for $25 a few years down the track.

The standard motherboard for the little Elite Black system is a Gigabyte GA-MA74GM-S2H, which has a separate list price of only $AU138.60 delivered. It's a great little board for the money, based on the AMD 740G chipset, which is an upgraded version of the previous 690G.

The new label for the chipset makes the graphics component a "Radeon 2100". Like all integrated graphics, it isn't the world's most exciting 3D adapter, but it's not total rubbish, and also gives you proper dual-monitor support. The GA-MA74GM-S2H has an analogue "VGA" output, plus separate DVI-D and HDMI sockets, and you can hook up two monitors at once, though not to DVI and HDMI simultaneously.

A microATX motherboard will fit in a full-sized computer case, but you only have to use a microATX (or even smaller) motherboard if the PC case you've chosen isn't big enough to accept a larger "full ATX" board. The standard case for the Elite Black is a Cooler Master Centurion 541 (yours for $AU126.50 separately), which is indeed a microATX-or-smaller box. It's not quite a proper small-form-factor enclosure, but it should still fit your parents' furniture nicely.

The Centurion 541 is another excellent product for the money. It's good-looking, and it comes with a presumably-honestly-specified Cooler Master 420-watt PSU, more than powerful enough to run almost anything you could cram into the enclosure (though not necessarily a big steaming graphics card).

Smaller cases, like microATX motherboards, limit your expansion possibilities, but even if your parents become gaming fiends that shouldn't be a problem here. There's room in the case for two 5.25-inch drives and two 3.5-inch hard drives, and there are even a couple of floppy bays on top of that, into each of which you could probably shoehorn another hard drive. (The little Gigabyte motherboard has a mildly ridiculous six SATA sockets, in addition to one parallel-ATA, and one floppy.)

And, importantly, the Centurion 541 isn't one of those super-slim "pizza box" enclosures that can only accept "half-height" expansion cards. And the motherboard also has Ethernet and audio sockets built in - and even an S/PDIF RCA digital audio output. So the only reason to get a bigger enclosure would be if you decided to go for a full-sized motherboard.

Like other current microATX boards, the little GA-MA74GM-S2H has only one proper PCIe x16 video card slot, plus two PCI slots, and that's it. But you probably won't need more slots than this.

It's not impossible that you could end up with something in both of the PCI slots, though. It's easy, for instance, to find USB devices that don't work with a given motherboard's USB controller; the normal way to fix this is to add an inexpensive PCI USB card. The Gigabyte motherboard also doesn't have a FireWire (IEEE-1394) controller at all; if you find you need one, there's another PCI slot filled.

Note also that this mobo, like many other microATX boards, only has two memory slots. The standard AusPC config for the system comes with only one of the slots filled, with a nice Corsair 2GB module, so you could add another two or even four gigabytes with no trouble. But keep an eye out for systems like this that come with both slots full, because then you won't be able to upgrade without swapping out some of the existing RAM.

All-RAM-slots-full has always been the default configuration for cheap computers from big companies like Dell. The current version of it is a two-memory-slot box with 512Mb in each slot; when you discover that Vista's horrible to use with that little RAM, you get to buy two new 1Gb or 2Gb modules and discard the old ones.

Even this situation can be surprisingly inexpensive for computers that use DDR2 RAM, though, because DDR2 is incredibly cheap. That 2Gb Corsair module, for instance, lists for less than sixty bucks, including delivery. But by the time you need to upgrade a both-slots-full computer, DDR2 may be harder to find (like old pre-DDR RAM is today). And even if the RAM is still easy to find, big-brand companies like Dell and Apple will be very pleased to soak you quite thoroughly if you buy the new RAM from them. It can actually often be a good deal to buy Dell or Apple systems with the minimum RAM and then immediately upgrade them yourself, unloading the original RAM on eBay.

Australian shoppers can purchase the Elite Black AM2 PC System from Aus PC Market.
Click here to order!