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The Econobox
Because speed doesn't have to cost a fortune

Instead of being the cheapest possible combination of parts, the Econobox fills in as our affordable gaming and general-use system. You won't find too many fancy extras here, but we've tried to select a balanced mix of peppy, reliable components with headroom for future upgrades.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Pentium E5200 $69.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-EP45-UD3LR $102.99
Memory Kingston 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR2-800 $43.99
Graphics PowerColor Radeon HD 4850 512MB $114.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB $74.99
Samsung SH-S223Q $25.99
Audio Integrated $0
Enclosure Antec NSK 4480B w/380W PSU $69.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $502.93

Intel's 45nm Pentium E5200 is enjoying its fourth term in our Econobox configuration. Yes, AMD has become competitive again thanks to the Phenom II line, but it doesn't offer any new or exciting processors for less than $100. For the most part, AMD's just selling the same old 65nm Athlon X2s from its glory days. There's the Phenom-derived Athlon X2 7750, too, but that chip's 95W power envelope is needlessly high for a dual-core offering—and it probably doesn't help with overclocking.

All things considered, we don't think AMD delivers a budget processor with as good a mix of price, power efficiency, performance, and overclocking potential as the Pentium E5200. If really want to give AMD your money (or you're just after something a little faster), then we suggest looking into our triple-core Phenom II alternative on the next page.

Finally, you might wonder why we're not going with a faster 45nm Pentium like the E5300 or E5400. That's certainly a possibility, but those CPUs cost more and have little to offer over the E5200 aside from relatively small clock speed increases. The E5200 still has a pair of speedy 45nm Wolfdale cores, and any minor differences ought to vanish once you start overclocking.

P45 motherboards are pretty cheap nowadays, so there's no sense in not outfitting the Econobox with something like Gigabyte's GA-EP45-UD3LR. This board has much in common with the Asus P5Q SE Plus we recommended last time, but it has a few little extra perks: more USB ports at the back, more (and better-positioned) PCI Express x1 slots, a coaxial S/PDIF port, and full chipset RAID capabilities. Considering the Gigabyte is only $6 more, we think it's a better all-around choice.

RAM prices have gotten to a point where we really have no qualms about outfitting even a budget setup with 4GB of memory. Stepping down to 2GB would save about 20 bucks, and unless you were to throw this system out after a few months, chances are you'd need to upgrade eventually anyway. We're going with this Kingston kit again because it's one of the cheapest big-name-brand offerings available from Newegg with a lifetime warranty and decent latency ratings.

By the way, you'll need a 64-bit operating system to take full advantage of all this memory. 32-bit OS's do have enough address space for 4GB of RAM, but that figure is an upper limit for all memory in a system, including video RAM. In practice, that means 32-bit versions of Windows will only let you use 3 to 3.5GB of actual system memory—and they'll normally restrict each application's RAM budget to 2GB.

Workarounds do exist for 32-bit Windows, but Microsoft says they can hurt compatibility; it advises that folks run a 64-bit version of Windows instead. Since Vista x64 is more than mature enough these days, you might as well run that. Check out our OS section on the second-to-last page of the guide for more details.

If you're wondering why the Econobox costs a tad more than last time, this is the reason. A Radeon HD 4850 used to set you back around $150 until a few weeks ago, but at $115, it's now a perfect fit for the Econobox. Our latest round of mainstream GPU benchmarks shows that the 4850 has enough brawn to run games like Far Cry 2 at 1680x1050 with antialiasing enabled. Some titles, like Left 4 Dead, are even playable at 2560x1600 with 4X AA.

The PowerColor Radeon HD 4850 we chose doesn't have any noteworthy attributes (aside, perhaps, from the presence of DisplayPort, HDMI, and DVI ports on its I/O plate), but it's the cheapest at Newegg—by far. Customer reviews look positive overall, as well.

Western Digital's 640GB hard drives are all priced in the $70-80 range. While the Caviar Black sits in the upper part of that spectrum, we think it's the best choice for a system drive. Not only does it have a 32MB cache, a full 7,200-RPM spindle speed, and the same noise level ratings as the slower SE16 model, but WD also covers it with a five-year warranty. As far as we know, no competing 640GB hard drive has specifications quite as good or warranty coverage quite as long. (Seagate no longer covers bare drives for five years.)

For our optical storage option, Samsung's SH-S223Q still fits in just fine here. The Serial ATA interface should make it reasonably future-proof, and we like the combination of positive user reviews and low pricing.

Enclosure and power
Antec's NSK 4480B case and power supply bundle remains our enclosure of choice for the Econobox. This bundle has everything the Econobox needs: a quality, high-efficiency power supply that provides a little upgrade headroom; a roomy case with good cooling; and a reasonable price tag.

You might find cheaper cases out there, but we don't think you'll be able to save a whole lot by going with lower-quality components. Besides, bargain-bin power supplies generally have inflated specifications. A cheap PSU can also jeopardize system stability, damage sensitive components over time, and potentially even flame out in spectacular fashion—taking system components with it in the process.