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Econobox alternatives
We're happy with our primary selections, but not everybody will want a triple-core processor or discrete graphics. Since users' needs will invariably, er, vary, here are some alternatives.

Component Item Price
Processor AMD Athlon II X4 630 $112.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-MA785GMT-UD2H $89.99
Memory Crucial 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $93.99
Graphics XFX Radeon HD 5770 $179.99

Processor
The Athlon II X4 620's $99 price tag may look tempting, but opting instead for the Athlon II X4 630 takes us from 2.6GHz to 2.8GHz for only $13 more. If you're prepared to spring for four cores, it makes little sense to be stingy and constrain yourself with the slower chip.

Motherboard
Don't play demanding games? Then why not skip the $120 Radeon and move down to integrated graphics? Gigabyte's GA-MA785GMT-UD2H can accommodate either of our Athlon IIs, and it features AMD's new 785G chipset with its very capable Radeon HD 4200 integrated graphics processor. That integrated GPU can handle casual games just fine, and it comes with AMD's latest high-definition video decoding logic. For many users, more graphics horsepower simply isn't required in a PC like the Econobox.

This little MicroATX mobo also happens to have a nice set of features, including external Serial ATA, FireWire, HDMI, and Realtek's ALC889A audio codec, which can do on-the-fly Dolby Digital Live and DTS encoding. The GA-MA785GMT-UD2H is almost identical to the GA-MA785GM-US2H we picked last time, in fact, but it takes DDR3 memory and costs $10 more. Now that DDR2 and DDR3 are at price parity, stepping down just to save 10 bucks doesn't make a whole lot of sense—especially since DDR3's faster data rates should help the board's integrated GPU.

Memory
We aimed to keep our primary build near the $500 mark, but you don't have to. Anyone with a little more spare cash ought to consider jumping up to 4GB of RAM, which should smooth out multitasking and long gaming sessions. Windows 7 isn't quite as resource-intensive as Vista, but it will still put spare memory to good use thanks to technologies like SuperFetch.

Now, you'll need a 64-bit operating system to take full advantage of all this memory. 32-bit OSes have enough address space for 4GB of RAM, but that figure is an upper limit for all memory in a system, including video RAM. In practice, 32-bit versions of Windows will only let you use 3 to 3.5GB of actual system memory, and they'll normally restrict each application's RAM budget to 2GB.

Workarounds exist for 32-bit Windows, but Microsoft says they can hurt compatibility; it advises that folks run a 64-bit version of Windows instead. Considering how many pre-built PCs ship with Win7 x64 these days, we're inclined to echo that recommendation. Check out our OS section on the second-to-last page of the guide for more details.

Graphics
Similarly, folks who play state-of-the-art 3D games may want to step up to the new Radeon HD 5770. We saw first-hand that this card pretty much shadows the old Radeon HD 4870 1GB, generally reaching playable frame rates at 1920x1200 with 4X antialiasing. The somewhat inflated cost isn't hard to swallow in this price range, and you'll notice the difference at higher resolutions and detail levels.

Why not just get the 4870 1GB for about the same price? First, the 5770 consumes quite a bit less power, generates less noise with the stock cooler, has a shorter circuit board, and has better texture filtering than its predecessor. Last, but not least, the 5770's DirectX 11 support may bring image quality or performance bonuses in DX11 games (a couple are already out, with more to follow in early 2010).

We chose XFX's variant of the 5770 because it has double-lifetime warranty coverage, a relatively quiet dual-slot cooler that exhausts air outside the case, and a price tag barely above that of other models.