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Econobox alternatives
We're happy with our primary selections, but not everybody will want a dual-core processor or discrete graphics. Since users' needs will invariably, er, vary, we've gathered a list of alternatives and extras below.

Component Item Price
Processor AMD Phenom II X3 720 Black Edition $119.00
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-MA780G-UD3H $89.99
Memory Corsair 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR2-800 $44.99
Graphics XFX Radeon HD 4870 1GB XXX $164.99

Yeah, we've also shut out Intel from the Econobox alternatives. Look at it this way, though: you could replace our dual-core Phenom II with a slightly slower Pentium or a slightly faster Core 2 Duo, but you might not be able to tell the difference, and you'd get a poorer upgrade path out of the deal.

Spend a little extra on a Phenom II X3 720 Black Edition, however, and you get a whole extra core with much better performance in apps that can take advantage of it. (Yes, you can unlock cores on the Phenom II X2, but that's definitely not a guarantee. Besides, you can try to unlock the fourth core in this Phenom II X3, as well.)

If you don't play demanding games, then why not skip the $110 Radeon and move down to integrated graphics? Gigabyte's GA-MA780G-UD3H can accommodate either the Phenom II X3 720 or the Phenom II X2 550, and it features AMD's very capable Radeon HD 3200 integrated graphics processor, which can handle casual games and high-definition video playback. That's about all the graphics horsepower many folks need from a $500 PC.

Incidentally, this board doesn't appear to have BIOS-level core unlocking functionality. Also, it only takes DDR2 memory. Keep reading for our matching RAM recommendation.

Look at us, going on about the benefits of DDR3 before recommending a DDR2 alternative. We have a good reason, though: we just couldn't find an affordable AMD motherboard from a first-tier manufacturer with both good integrated graphics and DDR3 DIMM slots. If you go with our alternative mobo, we recommend this 4GB DDR2-800 kit from Corsair. It's cheap, has good latency ratings, and is backed by a lifetime warranty.

What if you need more graphics power from the Econobox, not less? Then take a look at XFX's Radeon HD 4870 1GB. Don't let the low price fool you; the 4870 1GB is actually the second-fastest single-GPU product in AMD's lineup right now, and it's a big step up from the 4850. We're choosing the 4870 over Nvidia's GeForce GTX 260 because, in the wake of AMD's recent price cuts, the cheapest GTX 260 cards with similar perksĀ—pumped-up clock speeds and lifetime warranty coverageĀ—are more expensive than the Radeon and not really any faster.

Some might question whether our recommended power supply can handle this card. Well, our tests show that the stock 4870 1GB actually draws fewer watts under load than the Radeon HD 4850 512MB. We're inclined to attribute that to the 4870's use of GDDR5 memory, which is supposed to be more power-efficient than GDDR3.