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||$124.99|
|Memory||Corsair 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1333||$38.99|
|Graphics||MSI Radeon HD 7770||$124.99|
|Storage||Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB||$89.99|
|Enclosure||Antec Three Hundred||$54.99|
||Antec EarthWatts Green 380W||$36.99|
AMD's desktop Trinity APUs are still missing in action, which leaves us with only Intel's Core i3-2120, AMD's A8-series APUs, and AMD's FX-4100 to choose between. Frankly, it's a pretty easy choice.
The A8-3870 may have an unlocked multiplier and better integrated graphics than the Core i3-2120, but it also has lower CPU performance, and its power envelope is quite a bit higher—100W, up from the i3-2120's 65W TDP. Higher power envelopes mean more heat and more noise. Losing Llano's Radeon GPU is regrettable, but since we're equipping this system with a discrete graphics card, the processor's integrated GPU is largely irrelevant.
The FX-4100 lacks integrated graphics and has a rather large 95W power envelope. It doesn't appear to perform any better than the Core i3-2100, either. The Core i3 makes more sense to us as a primary pick, but since the FX-4100 is AMD's best alternative, we've included that chip in our secondary recommendations on the next page.
The H77-based Gigabyte GA-H77-DS3H returns as our Econobox pick. This mobo has a full ATX layout and can tap into the Core i3's integrated graphics, if need be. Connectivity includes 6Gbps SATA, USB 3.0, and headers for a pair of USB 3.0 ports beyond the two in the port cluster. Gigabyte saw fit to include dual physical PCI Express x16 slots, as well, although the lower one has only four lanes of connectivity running to it. The GA-H77-DS3H also comes with Gigabyte's new-and-improved UEFI interface. Other boards may have better fan speed controls, but not at this price and with all these other features.
Taking advantage of rock-bottom memory prices, we've slapped an eight-gig DDR3 kit in the Econobox this time. The price difference between 4GB and 8GB bundles amounts to about $16 right now, so we thought we'd save you the trouble of upgrading down the line. Windows 7's caching scheme can make use of the extra memory to store commonly used programs. We aren't skimping on quality, either; this is a Corsair DDR3-1333 kit rated for operation at 1.5V, and it has a lifetime warranty.
We had some reservations about the Radeon HD 7770 GHz Edition when we reviewed it in February. While the card performed well, consumed little power, and produced little noise with the stock cooler, its $159 asking price made for an unappealing value proposition compared to cheaper, slightly faster models from the previous generation.
Things have changed since then. MSI's Radeon HD 7770 sells for a penny under $125, and it comes with a chunky dual-slot cooler, whose large fan should be able to move plenty of air quietly. Being part of AMD's latest GPU series, the 7770 also gives you two features that older Radeons do not: AMD's VCE block, which can speed up video transcoding in supported apps, and ZeroCore Power, which saves energy by shutting off power to most of the GPU when the display goes to sleep.
Recent evidence suggests hard drive prices aren't going to return to normal for a while—maybe not for a couple of years. Even though the impact of last year's Thailand floods has abated, hard drive makers seem content to charge higher prices for their products. That's not good for budget shoppers, and it's not good for the Econobox.
Nevertheless, we've decided to bite the bullet and outfit our budget system with Samsung's Spinpoint F3 1TB hard drive once again. It's not as cheap as it used to be, but at $90, it's a reasonable option given our budget. We could save a few bucks by going with a lower-capacity drive, but the 500GB version of the Spinpoint retails for about $70. Losing a half-terabyte of storage to save $20 isn't our idea of a good compromise.
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.
The Antec Three Hundred is a hit, with literally thousands of Newegg reviews and a five-star average rating. Despite its low price tag, the enclosure accommodate enthusiasts with a bottom-mounted PSU compartment, a cut-out in the back of the motherboard tray (which should aid CPU heatsink installation), and adjustable 120-mm and 140-mm fans at the rear and top, respectively. There's room for six hard drives and three optical drives, and from what we understand, the case is very well built for the price. We wish it let you route cables behind the motherboard and came with removable caddies for the hard drives, but in this price range, you can't have it all.
Power supplies are one area where cheaping out is especially unwise. Bargain-basement PSUs can have all sorts of potentially dangerous flaws, from anemic 12V rails to low-quality components that can cause premature failure—and zap some of your other components in the process. Antec's EarthWatts Green 380W is a solid choice that offers 80 Plus Bronze certification with enough wattage for the Econobox, and it doesn't break the bank. 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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