Because speed doesn't have to cost a fortune
The Econobox may be the baby of the bunch, but it can handle a little bit of everything, including modern games in all their glory. We haven't scraped the bottom of the bargain bin or cut any corners, resulting in a surprisingly potent budget build.
|Processor||Intel Core i3-2120 3.3GHz||$127.99|
|Memory||Crucial 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333||$21.99|
|Graphics||HIS Radeon HD 6850 1GB||$139.99|
|Storage||Hitachi Deskstar 7K1000.D 750GB||$99.99|
|Enclosure||Fractal Design Core 3000||$69.99|
||Antec EarthWatts Green 380W||$44.99|
These are dark times for CPU shoppers on a budget. The arrival of AMD's Llano APUs has led to the disappearance of the $100 Phenom II X4 840, our long-time favorite choice for the Econobox, as well as its more appealing siblings in the Athlon II X4 family. In their absence, avoiding a downgrade forces us to climb another rung up the price ladder, where the options include Intel's Core i3-2120, AMD's A6-series APUs, and AMD's FX-4100.
It's not much of a contest. The Core i3-2120 has higher overall CPU performance than the A6-3650 (and probably the A6-3670K, as well). Although the benchmark results we saw around the web suggest the FX-4100 is a little faster, that chip also has a higher thermal envelope—95W, up from the i3-2120's 65W TDP. Higher power envelopes mean more heat and more noise, and we're fans of neither. The A6's only saving grace might be its relatively decent integrated graphics processor, but we're outfitting this build with a discrete Radeon, so we have no need for integrated graphics. Besides, Llano's IGP isn't really fast enough to enjoy the latest games in full.
The Core i3-2120's lack of a fully unlocked upper multiplier prevents us from really pushing the CPU, but that also means we can save a few bucks by skipping motherboards based on Intel's overclocking-friendly P67 and Z68 chipsets. We don't want to cheap out too much by selecting a motherboard with an H61 chipset, though. The H61 allows only one DIMM per memory channel, lacks 6Gbps Serial ATA support, and sacrifices PCI Express lanes and USB 2.0 ports.
A nice H67-based ATX motherboard like Asus' P8H67-V is more up our alley. This particular model features two 6Gbps SATA ports, two USB 3.0 ports, a pair of physical PCIe x16 slots (albeit with a 16/4-lane configuration), two PCIe x1 slots, and three old-school PCI slots. It can also tap into the Core i3-2120's integrated graphics with HDMI, VGA, and HDMI outputs, so you can use Lucid's Virtu GPU virtualization scheme to enable QuickSync video transcoding alongside a discrete graphics card.
Based on our experience, Asus has the best and most mature UEFI implementation of the top three motherboard makers. The UEFI's fan controls are particularly good, making us more inclined to recommend Asus boards over their competitors.
Memory prices seem to have hit rock-bottom, so putting 4GB of RAM into the Econobox is a no-brainer. The cheapest 4GB kit we feel comfortable recommending this time around hails from Crucial. It's rated for operation at 1333MHz on just 1.35V, and Crucial covers the kit with a lifetime warranty.
If you've read our review of the new Radeon HD 7770, this pick shouldn't come as much of a surprise. Yes, the 7770 has certain unique bells and whistles, like a hardware video encoding block and very low power consumption, but the Radeon HD 6850 remains the a better deal. The older card offers better all-around performance thanks to its larger GPU and 256-bit memory interface, and it costs $20 less than the 7770 right now. The 7770 is a shaky proposition even as an alternative.
This particular HIS variant of the Radeon HD 6850 comes with stock clock speeds and a custom cooler with a large fan, which bodes well for low noise levels. The card is bundled with a coupon for a free copy of DiRT 3, further sweetening the pot.
Our old favorite, Samsung's Spinpoint F3 1TB, has seen its price balloon up to around $150 because of last year's flooding in Thailand. To stay true to this build's name, we've downgraded to Hitachi's Deskstar 7K1000.D 750GB, which offers three quarters the capacity for roughly 50 bucks less. This drive might not be as quiet or as fast as the Spinpoint—we haven't had a chance to test it ourselves—but it has a 7,200-RPM spindle speed, a 32MB cache, a 6Gbps Serial ATA interface, and a three-year warranty. Those specifications are typical for a modern 3.5" desktop drive.
The Econobox doesn't need a fancy optical drive, so we've selected a basic Asus model with more than a thousand five-star ratings on Newegg. The DRW-24B1ST offers DVD burning speeds up to 24X behind a black face plate that will blend in nicely with our system's enclosure.
When we looked at Fractal Design's Core 3000 enclosure last November, we wondered out loud whether the case would find its way into a future Econobox build. Well, it has. This enclosure admittedly costs a little more than our previous pick, the Antec One Hundred. Swapping in a more expensive case may seem indulgent in light of the current hard-drive situation, but we love the Core 3000's rotated hard-drive sleds and its ability to maintain impressively low component temperatures. Although the Core 3000 isn't the quietest case we've tested, we think it offers a decent set of positive traits and compromises for the price.
Repeat after me: friends don't let friends use shoddy power supplies. We don't need a lot of juice to power the Econobox, but that doesn't mean we're gonna skimp on the PSU and grab a unit that weighs less than a bag of chips. Antec's EarthWatts Green 380W is a solid choice that offers 80 Plus Bronze certification with enough wattage for the Econobox. Good budget PSUs can be hard to find, but the EarthWatts has proven its mettle solo and when sold inside Antec's own cases.
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