Because speed doesn't have to cost a fortune
Our low-end Econobox isn't designed to be the cheapest possible combination of parts. Instead, it's a solid and affordable foundation for enthusiasts on a budget. We've avoided cutting corners in ways that would have limited future upgrade options, and at the same time, we've tried to ensure that the system doesn't actually need any upgrades to deliver relatively peppy performance as it is.
|Processor||Intel Pentium E2160||$82.99|
|Memory||Corsair 2GB ValueSelect DDR2-667||$40.99|
|Graphics||eVGA GeForce 8600 GT||$99.99|
|Storage||Western Digital Caviar SE16 320GB||$79.99|
|Enclosure||Antec NSK 4480 w/380W PSU||$89.95|
|Total||Buy this complete system at Newegg||$519.89|
Intel's Pentium E2160 retains its spot as the primary recommendation for our Econobox. It's not hard to see why. The chip is essentially a Core 2 Duo clocked down to 1.8GHz with half its 2MB cache chopped off, its front-side bus speed reduced to 800MHz, and its price tag dropped well under the $100 mark. Yes, AMD also makes good sub-$100 chips, but we think our Intel system's overclocking potential, superior processor architecture, and attractive upgrade path make it a more compelling solution. Our motherboard will be able to accommodate Intel's upcoming 45nm Core 2 Quad processors, which AMD has little hope of beating, judging by what we've seen from Phenom so far.
However, AMD still makes the cheapest decent dual-core processors around. As a result, we've selected the Athlon 64 X2 4000+ for our Econobox alternatives on the next page. If your budget is really tight, the Athlon will allow you to save a few bucks while still getting great performance.
Motherboards based on Intel's new P35 chipset are now quite affordable, so we've gone with Gigabyte's GA-P35-DS3L for this build. The board is available for less than $100, but it delivers fine overclocking potential, a great upgrade path, passive cooling, and plenty of connectivity options. You also get four 300MB/s Serial ATA ports, Gigabit Ethernet, S/PDIF audio inputs and outputs, and a full array of PCI Express and 32-bit PCI slots. We'd be happier if the GA-P35-DS3L offered RAID support, but that's an omission we're inclined to forgive considering the price tag.
Corsair's 2GB ValueSelect DDR2-667 kit is still our memory recommendation for this build. Readers have requested that we upgrade the Econobox's memory to DDR2-800, but there's still a sizeable price gap between DDR2-667 and DDR2-800 RAM, and this system is more about saving money than splurging for a small handful of performance points in your favorite benchmark. At just over $40 for 2GB of RAM, this kit offers incredible value and more than adequate performance. It shouldn't impede overclocking, either, provided you make use of the Gigabyte GA-P35-DS3L's memory dividers.
Nvidia launched its GeForce 8600 GT graphics card with a recommended price range of $149-159 earlier this year, but eVGA's 256-P2-N751-TR GeForce 8600 GT is now available for just under $100. This isn't some crippled version with GDDR2 memory and a heatsink made out of tinfoil, either; it's a full-blown 8600 GT card running at Nvidia's specified clock speeds with the customary 256MB of GDDR3 RAM. eVGA hasn't "factory overclocked" this particular model, but considering the price and the fact that it's covered by a lifetime warranty, we gladly forgive them.
Western Digital's 320GB Caviar SE16 is our hard drive of choice for the Econobox. We're passing on Seagate's 320GB Barracuda since the Caviar has a lower price tag, higher performance, and lower noise levels. The only trade-off is in the warranty department, where Seagate delivers five years of coverage and Western Digital offers only three. We don't think a warranty alone is worth going with a more expensive, slower, and louder drive, though, so the Caviar SE16 has become our primary selection. If you favor longer warranties above all else, the 7200.10 is still listed in our alternatives section on the next page.
For our optical drive, we've chosen Samsung's SH-S203B. There are slightly cheaper drives with Serial ATA interfaces and similar features, but this model is faster and only costs a couple of dollars more.
Enclosure and power
Antec's NSK 4480 case and power supply bundle is a fine addition to our Econobox. It includes three 5.25" bays, two 3.5" bays, three hard drive bays with rubber mounting grommets, a speed-adjustable 120mm exhaust fan, and a high-efficiency EarthWatts 380W power supply rated for 17A of power delivery on each of its two +12V rails. The power supply costs $55 on its own, so this bundle actually delivers pretty good value for the price.
Our recommended case and PSU bundle may seem pricey for a budget system, but a good power supply is an invaluable asset to system stability. You could get a $30 case/PSU bundle from a no-name manufacturer, and you might even end up with a halfway decent case out of the deal. PSUs bundled with inexpensive cases tend to be built from cheap, low-quality components, though, and that often translates into low power delivery, voltage fluctuations, poor stress tolerance, and short life spans.
Cheap PSUs can jeopardize system stability, damage sensitive components over time, and potentially even flame out in spectacular fashion, taking several system components with them in the process. For an extra $60, the added peace of mind is definitely worth it.