Want to tweak the Econobox with a more overclockable and power-efficient CPU or a different graphics config? Read on.
|Processor||Intel Core i3-550||$129.99|
|Graphics||Asus Radeon HD 6850||$179.99|
|Gigabyte GeForce GTX 460 1GB||$189.99|
|Storage||Western Digital Caviar Black 1TB||$89.99|
Intel's Core i3-550 is tougher to recommend than AMD's Phenom II X4 840. It costs more, calls for a motherboard from the soon-to-be-extinct LGA1156 generation, and based on what we can infer from benchmarks of slightly slower offerings, should be slower overall when running at stock speeds. However, we expect the Intel CPU to have superior power efficiency and overclocking potential. We got the slower i3-530 model to just over 4.4GHz after swapping the stock cooler for a tower-style heatsink. That CPU subsequently ran our Cinebench test almost as quickly as the $200 Core i5-750, despite having two fewer cores.
We're not kidding about the power efficiency part, either. With a relatively power-hungry H57 motherboard, our overclocked Core i3-530 system only drew about 5W more under load than a similarly equipped Athlon II X4 635 build running at stock speeds. The X4 635 is slower than the Phenom II X4 from the previous page, but for all intents and purposes, we'd expect the two parts to have largely similar power draw—they are, after all, based on the same silicon and rated with identical power envelopes.
If you're planning to overclock the Core i3, make sure to check out this guide's last page for our aftermarket cooler recommendations. You wouldn't want to be held back by a dinky little stock cooler.
We wanted an Intel motherboard that would also serve up integrated graphics, for the few non-gamers out there. The Core i3-550 actually houses this platform's integrated graphics component, but sadly, using that IGP involves paying extra for a board with an H55 or H57 chipset. (Intel's Q-series chipsets also support integrated graphics, but they're for business PCs.)
Studying prices has led us to choose Gigabyte's GA-H55M-USB3, which offers an H55 chipset, USB 3.0, dual physical PCI Express x16 slots, and single external Serial ATA and FireWire ports, all for about the same price as our AMD mobo. However, when compared to the AMD board, this specimen does have a smaller form factor, less expansion capacity, fewer I/O ports, and no 6Gbps Serial ATA connectivity at all. Opting for Intel hardware in this price range usually involves either paying more or sacrificing some bells and whistles; we went with the second option.
Price cuts in the graphics card market haven't just affected the GeForce GTX 460 768MB. For an extra $30 or so, you can step up to one of Asus' Radeon HD 6850s, which packs 1GB of RAM and can thus deliver smoother frame rates at high resolution and with antialiasing or anisotropic filtering enabled. Some folks are partial to AMD graphics cards, too, and the Radeon is certainly a worthy competitor.
To go a rung up the performance ladder, we suggest grabbing Gigabyte's GV-N460OC-1GI—a bona-fide GeForce GTX 460 1GB with 336 stream processors, a higher-than-normal (715MHz) core clock speed, and custom cooling. In Metro 2033, we saw a similar GTX 460 1GB card clocked at 725MHz clearly distance itself from both the 6850 and the GTX 460 768MB at 1920x1080.
You might find slightly cheaper variants of these cards on sale if you look hard enough. However, we think Asus and Gigabyte, just like MSI, are better-positioned to offer satisfactory after-sales support than smaller card vendors without established track records.
Some users may want a terabyte of affordable storage and a five-year warranty. The Samsung drive on the previous page only has three years of coverage, but Western Digital offers five years with the 1TB Caviar Black. Remember, however, that this drive costs $25 more than the Samsung and doesn't have noise levels anywhere near as low.
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