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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 is an 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 AMD Athlon II X3 435 $89.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-MA770T-UD3P $79.99
Memory Crucial 2GB (2 x 1GB) DDR3-1333 $55.99
Graphics XFX Radeon HD 5750 1GB $144.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB $74.99
Samsung SH-S223L $31.99
Audio Integrated $0
Enclosure Antec NSK 4480 II w/380W PSU $79.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $557.93

Had it been available in time for our last guide, the Athlon II X3 435 would have been our primary pick then, too. Compared to $99 Athlon II X4 620, this processor trades one core for a 300MHz higher clock speed (2.9GHz, up from 2.6GHz) and a price drop of around $10. Even with the missing core, the higher clock speed will improve performance in everyday apps, games, and just about anything not coded to take advantage of more than three cores, which sounds just fine to us.

The quad-core processor will still pull ahead in heavy multitasking and highly multithreaded tasks, of course, so we've reserved a spot for one in our alternatives on the next page. We think the X3 435 will satisfy a broader range of users. Looking at the competition, the best Intel can do at this price point is the Pentium E5400, which has only two 2.7GHz cores. We'd rather have the triple-core Athlon II.

Gigabyte's MA770T-UD3P returns for another round because of its low price, robust assortment of ports and connectors, and positive user reviews on Newegg.

This board only takes DDR3 memory, by the way. That used to mean paying a small premium, but DDR2 and DDR3 kits have pretty much reached price parity these days. Not only that, but DDR3 is slowly taking over the market. DDR2 will likely become more expensive as DDR3 demand increases and DDR2 production wanes. The MA770T-UD3P's DDR3 support therefore presents an advantage from an upgrading perspective.

Our Econobox build had quite a long run with four gigs of RAM as standard. Sadly, that was only possible because of a wave of oversupply and various other factors that wreaked havoc in the memory industry. The situation has now stabilized, and memory prices are back to their pre-crunch level—good news for memory makers but bad news for us.

Until memory makers resume bankrupting themselves to flood the market with cheap RAM, we'll have to step down to 2GB to stay within our budget. Crucial's 2GB DDR3-1333 memory kit ought to be sufficient for everyday use and even most cross-platform games, and Crucial covers it with a lifetime warranty. Should the upgrade itch strike you some time in the future, our recommended motherboard has room for two more 1GB DIMMs. We've set aside a 4GB kit for inveterate multitaskers and hard-core gamers in our alternatives section, as well.

Prices have also increased on the graphics front. The problem here is two-fold: first, yield problems at Taiwanese foundry TSMC have tightened the supply of 40-nm graphics processors. Second, the rumor mill tells us neither AMD nor Nvidia wanted too many old 55-nm parts kicking around in the channel this holiday season, and both companies failed to anticipate the 40-nm shortages. That means higher prices and short supply pretty much across the board.

AMD's Radeon HD 5750 1GB hasn't been immune to this trend, with prices going up a good $15 since our previous guide. Back then, we would've guffawed at the notion of paying almost $150 for one of these. Today, however, we have few alternatives: good Radeon HD 4850 512MB cards have largely disappeared from Newegg's stocks, 4850 1GB models cost about as much, and the Radeon HD 4870s that previously sold for less than $150 now go for around $175.

In this new pricing and availability landscape, XFX's Radeon HD 5750 1GB actually looks like a decent deal at this price. It ticks all the right boxes: plenty of memory, DirectX 11 support, strong performance for a budget build, excellent power efficiency, and a "double-lifetime" warranty courtesy of XFX. You could save a few bucks by going with an older, slower, and power-hungrier DX10 card, but we don't think that's a good compromise.

Western Digital has three 640GB hard drives in this price range, and we think the Caviar Black is the one best suited for a system drive. Not only does it have a full 7,200-RPM spindle speed, a 32MB cache, and the same noise level ratings as the slower SE16 model, but WD also covers the Black with a five-year warranty. We haven't seen another 640GB hard drive with specifications quite as good or warranty coverage quite as long.

For our optical storage option, Samsung's SH-S223L makes another appearance here. We like the combination of positive user reviews and low pricing, and its Serial ATA interface is reasonably future-proof. Samsung even includes LightScribe support.

Enclosure and power
The Antec NSK 4480 II comes to us in black-and-silver garb, since the all-black model has gone out of stock. This variant has the same features as its more elegant sibling, though, including a 380W, 80%-efficient power supply, some nice noise-reduction features, plenty of room for hard drives and expansion, and a clean, easy-to-work-in layout.

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.