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The Sweet Spot
Stunning value short on compromise

The Econobox makes a pretty solid gaming machine, but it's still somewhat limited. The Sweet Spot's more generous budget gives us the wiggle room to add a faster processor, a quicker graphics card, solid-state storage, and other luxuries.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i5-3470 3.3GHz $199.99
Motherboard Asus P8Z77-V LK $139.99
Memory Corsair 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600 $47.99
Graphics MSI GeForce GTX 660 Ti $279.99
Storage Samsung 840 Pro 128GB $149.99
Seagate Barracuda 7,200 RPM 1TB $79.99
Asus DRW-24B1ST $17.99
Audio Asus Xonar DSX $59.99
Enclosure NZXT H2 $99.99
Power supply Corsair CX600M $79.99
Total   $1,155.90

Processor
We face a similar competitive scenario at this price point. Intel's Core i5-3470 offers better gaming performance and lower power utilization than the competition from AMD. However, AMD's FX-8350 has an edge in non-gaming apps.

Here, too, we think the Intel chip is the better pick for our primary recommendations. Its 77W TDP is quite a bit lower than the AMD chip's 125W thermal envelope, and as you can see in our scatter plots, the Core i5 has a clear edge in gaming performance. The difference in general-purpose tasks is much smaller. In our view, it doesn't make up for the FX-8350's other downsides.

Note that we're also skipping Intel's Core i5-3570K, despite its fully unlocked upper multiplier. Having free rein to overclock is nice, no question about it. However, the i5-3470 is already very fast, and its lower price gives us extra cash to spend on other components, like a faster graphics card.

Motherboard
We've been recommending this Z77 Express-based Asus P8Z77-V LK for a few editions of the guide now, and we see no reason to stop. This mobo doesn't break the bank and has just about everything we might want for the Sweet Spot. There's SLI and CrossFire support via two PCIe x16 slots, which are configurable in a x8/x8 lane setup. There are sideways-mounted SATA 6Gbps ports, which shouldn't interfere with long graphics cards. There's USB 3.0, of course, and Asus's excellent UEFI firmware and fan speed controls. Lucid's Virtu MVP software is included, as well.

Memory
If we had room in the Econobox's budget for an 8GB DDR3-1600 kit, we certainly have room for one here. Let's re-use the same Corsair kit, since its 1600MHz maximum speed is, coincidentally, the fastest supported by our processor out of the box.

Graphics
Well, this is a tough one.

On one hand, AMD is in the process of fixing those pesky frame latency spikes we (and other reviewers) have detected. Also, the firm's latest game bundle offer seriously sweetens the pot. All Radeon HD 7900-series GPUs comes with free copies of both BioShock Infinite and Crysis 3, which would be worth a combined $120 or so at retail. Definitely nothing to sneeze at.

On the other hand, AMD still hasn't addressed the root cause of the latency problem: the Catalyst driver's memory manager. Until AMD's driver team finishes rewriting it, any fixes introduced through driver updates will be case-specific. The fixes may help in some titles and not others. Right now, to our knowledge, AMD has only alleviated latency issues in Borderlands 2, Guild Wars, and Skyrim. Any DX10/11 games that are affected, like Hitman: Absolution, still await fixes. Those games don't play as smoothly or fluidly on Radeons as on the competition's GPUs.

So, what do we choose? Do we pick the card with the shiny game bundle and the promise of future improvements, or do we forgo the freebies and choose something that's already tried and true?

Both options involve compromises, but we think the latter is preferable. MSI's GeForce GTX 660 Ti PE delivers the better gaming experience right now, and that's what really matters. You shouldn't be buying a card in the hopes that some day, perhaps a few weeks or months from now, it will perform as well as the competition. You ought to be buying whatever performs best today. It's just too bad Nvidia hasn't matched AMD's bundle offer. The GeForce does come with $150 worth of credit for free-to-play games, but that's a consolation prize at best. The hardware is undoubtedly solid, though, and it doesn't hurt that this particular MSI card is a TR Editor's Choice award winner.

Storage
We're taking a page from the Econbox alternatives here and featuring the 128GB variant of Samsung's 840 Pro solid-state drive. Now that prices have settled a bit, this drive isn't much more expensive than competing SandForce-based solutions. Yet it's faster, and it has a 8GB higher capacity.

128GB should be sufficient to contain your operating system and many of your games and applications, but it won't be enough for everything. That's why we recommend pairing the SSD with a terabyte of speedy mechanical storage, in the form of Seagate's Barracuda 7,200 RPM. You can run the SSD and mechanical drive separately, or if you're in an experimental mood, you can try using Intel's Smart Response Technology to turn part of SSD into a high-speed cache for the hard drive. Just keep in mind that Smart Response will only use up to 64GB of the SSD's available capacity.

Finally, we're rounding out our storage setup with an optical drive. After all, you never know when you might need to use an old DVD—or burn a new one. The Econobox's Asus DVD burner is just as good a fit for the Sweet Spot. We considered upgrading to a Blu-ray burner, but that'd be a tad out of our price range. We did include one in the alternatives on the next page, though.

Audio
We've caught a lot of flak for recommending sound cards still. However, every time we conduct blind listening tests, even low-end discrete cards wind up sounding noticeably better than motherboard audio. We're not even using audiophile-grade speakers. Our tests are done with a pair of lowly Sennheiser HD 555 headphones.

If you're using analog headphones or speakers that weren't scavenged from a circa-1995 Compaq, a discrete sound card like Asus' Xonar DSX is a worthwhile purchase. This card doesn't just beat onboard audio; it also has a more balanced sound profile than cheaper offerings like Asus' Xonar DG and DGX. We liked this card so much that we gave it our Editor's Choice award earlier this year.

Folks with S/PDIF- or USB-based speakers or headphones can skip the Xonar. Those digital alternatives take care of the digital-to-analog conversion internally, which makes a discrete sound card somewhat redundant. Any halfway-decent analog audio device will benefit from the Xonar, though.

Enclosure
We got pretty close to selecting the same Corsair Carbide Series 200R for the Sweet Spot and Econobox. However, after further reflection, we decided the NZXT H2 is still a better fit for our slightly enlarged budget. This case has more premium features, like hot-swappable front fans, a three-setting fan control switch, a built-in drive dock, rubber-grommeted cable routing holes, and a top ventilation cover that prevents dust and debris from falling straight down into the case. The H2 is built for quiet, too, and it fared remarkably well in our noise testing.

Power supply
Corsair's CX600M has everything we like about the Econobox's CX430W—modular cables, 80 Plus Bronze certification, and a big, quiet fan—and it also features both higher output capacity and a longer (five-year) warranty. It's priced quite competitively, too.