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The Econobox
Because speed doesn't have to cost a fortune

Our low-end Econobox isn't designed to be the cheapest possible combination of parts. Instead, it's a solid and affordable foundation for enthusiasts on a budget. We've avoided cutting corners in ways that would have limited future upgrade options, and at the same time, we've tried to ensure that the system doesn't actually need any upgrades to deliver relatively peppy performance as it is.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Pentium E2180 $69.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-EP35-DS3L $89.99
Memory 2GB Mushkin DDR2-800 $42.99
Graphics XFX GeForce 9600 GT $139.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar SE16 320GB $69.99
Samsung SH-S203N $29.99
Audio Integrated $0
Enclosure Antec NSK 4480 w/380W PSU $99.95
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg. $542.89

Processor
AMD actually makes slightly faster processors in the same price range as our Econobox's Pentium E2180. However, we're sticking with the Pentium because the LGA775 platform looks more compelling than anything on the AMD front. Our recommended motherboard is compatible with the latest 45nm Core 2 processors, laying an effortless upgrade path to faster dual-core chips and more exotic quad-core models. Also, this board should let folks comfortably overclock the E2180 to higher speeds.

Still, we're not discounting AMD's low-end CPUs entirely. You'll fine one in our Econobox alternatives on the next page.

Motherboard
Gigabyte's GA-EP35-DS3L gets our vote for this build because of its price tag, feature set, and great user reviews. Despite costing less than $100, this motherboard delivers fine overclocking potential, compatibility with 45nm Penryn processors, passive cooling, and plenty of connectivity options. You also get four 300MB/s Serial ATA ports, Gigabit Ethernet, S/PDIF audio input and output ports, and a full array of PCI and PCI Express slots. We'd be happier if Gigabyte had included RAID support with an ICH9R south bridge rather than the vanilla ICH9, but that's an omission we're inclined to forgive considering the board's price tag.

Memory
In light of Windows Vista's memory demands and current prices, 2GB of RAM has really become the minimum for a modern PC. Our 2GB Mushkin DDR2-800 kit is one of the cheapest in its class at $43, so it easily fits in the Econobox's $500 budget. Mushkin should have better quality control and customer service than you can expect from no-name module makers.

Graphics
Nvidia partners like XFX now offer GeForce 9600 GT cards for as little as $139.99, making this budget wonder an even better match for the Econobox. The 9600 GT may cost more than other components in this build, but we like the idea of a budget system packing enough brawn to handle games like Crysis and Assassin's Creed with the eye candy turned up. Besides, slower alternatives don't have significantly lower price tags.

This particular XFX model doesn't have higher-than-stock speeds or a fancy custom cooler, but XFX covers it with a "double lifetime" warranty. That's about as good as you can get in this price range.

Storage
Western Digital's 320GB Caviar SE16 continues to trump Seagate's 320GB Barracuda for the choice spot in our Econobox. The two drives cost about the same, but the Caviar has higher performance and lower noise levels. Seagate's offering beats the WD on the warranty front with five years of coverage instead of three, however, so we've included it in our alternatives section.

For our optical drive, we've chosen Samsung's SH-S203N for its low price, relatively quiet operation, and decent feature set.

Enclosure and power
Antec's NSK 4480 case and power supply bundle houses our Econobox. This enclosure includes three external 5.25" bays, two external 3.5" bays, three internal hard drive bays (housed in a removable cage with rubber mounting grommets), and a speed-adjustable 120mm exhaust fan. Antec bundles the case with its high-efficiency EarthWatts 380W power supply, which is rated for 17A of power delivery on each of its two +12V rails.

$100 may sound like a lot for a case and PSU bundle, but you pretty much get what you pay for in that department. PSUs bundled with inexpensive cases tend to include cheap, low-quality components that often inspire low power delivery, voltage fluctuations, poor stress tolerance, and short life spans. Cheap PSUs can jeopardize system stability, damage sensitive components over time, and potentially even flame out in spectacular fashion, taking several system components with them in the process. We prefer spending more for both a good PSU and a case that won't cut up your fingers when you're filling it with new hardware.