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The Mini-Econobox
Computing on a shoestring budget

Intel's release of a budget Mini-ITX motherboard with a built-in Atom processor gives us the opportunity to fashion an incredibly cheap desktop. For nearly half the price of our Econobox, you can build a small-form-factor system fast enough to handle typical desktop tasks.

Component Item Price
Motherboard Intel BOXD945GCLF (with 1.6GHz Atom processor) $79.99
Memory 2GB Kingston DDR2-667 $35.99
Graphics Intel GMA 950 (Integrated) $0
Storage Western Digital Caviar GP 500GB $69.99
Lite-On DH-20A4P-04 $24.99
Audio Integrated $0
Enclosure Apex MI-100 w/250W PSU $55.99
Operating system Ubuntu Linux 8.04 $0
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg. $266.95

Motherboard and processor
We don't have much of a choice here; Intel's BOXD945GCLF motherboard currently looks like the only way to get an Atom CPU on a Mini-ITX board without buying a pre-built PC. There's little to complain about, though. With an incredibly low price, a decent mix of onboard features, and a 1.6GHz Atom, the BOXD945GCLF has pretty much all we need for this build. That said, we do wish Intel had included a DVI display output.

2GB of RAM strikes us as the bare minimum even for a sub-$300 PC. Besides, Kingston's 2GB DDR2-667 module is so cheap we wouldn't save much by going with 1GB.

We could pair this system with a solid-state drive, but SSDs either cost a lot or have lackluster storage capacities. For just $70, the Western Digital Caviar GP hard drive delivers 500GB of storage capacity, competitive performance, and a low spindle speed that guarantees both low noise levels and low power consumption.

On the optical front, Lite-On's DH-204P-04 DVD burner relies on the old "parallel" ATA interface. Our motherboard only has two Serial ATA ports, however, and we wouldn't want to compromise expansion capacity just to rid this system of ribbon cables.

Enclosure and power
We're not entirely familiar with Apex as a case manufacturer, but the spec sheet and user reviews for this Mini-ITX enclosure and 250W PSU combo look good enough to us. The cramped internals and lack of exhaust fans might cause problems with faster hardware, but all of our components have small power footprints—especially the Atom CPU.

Operating system
With Windows XP going the way of the dodo, Ubuntu looks to us like a good fit. We wouldn't recommend Ubuntu as a primary OS for our other builds, since it won't let you play most games or run Photoshop out of the box, but this is a sub-$300 small-form-factor PC for basic desktop tasks. Ubuntu offers all you need for web browsing, instant messaging, word processing, and MP3 and DVD playback (assuming you install a couple of extra packages). Also, Ubuntu has a better track record than XP from a security standpoint, and it won't fall prey to the same viruses and spyware.

You can download an Ubuntu 8.04 ISO for free from the official website. If you don't have a burner handy, Ubuntu discs are also available for purchase at a relatively low cost.