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

As our cheapest build, the Econobox presents an affordable formula for gaming and general use. Rather than picking leftover components from the bottom of the bargain bin, we tried to balance low cost with performance and upgrading headroom, which should result in a surprisingly well-rounded system for the price.

Component Item Price
Processor AMD Athlon II X4 630 $108.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-770TA-UD3 $94.99
Memory Crucial 2GB (2 x 1GB) DDR3-1333 $57.99
Graphics XFX Radeon HD 5670 $99.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB $74.99
Samsung SH-S223L $26.99
Audio Integrated $0
Enclosure Antec NSK 4482B w/380W PSU $79.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $543.93

Again, the value section from our latest CPU showdown (and our subsequent blog post) now lets us choose processors with more confidence. In terms of raw overall performance per dollar, we found AMD's Athlon II X4 630 to be the most competitive offering within the Econobox's budget—no wonder, considering that this CPU packs four 2.8GHz cores yet sells for just over $100.

There's more to processors than just performance and pricing, though. We initially wanted to choose Intel's Core i3-530 for that reason. While the i3-530 doesn't perform quite as well as the Athlon II overall, it has a tighter thermal envelope (73W vs. 95W), better power efficiency, and incredible overclocking potential. Unfortunately, going that route would distend our already stretched budget, so we've relegated the Core i3 to the alternatives.

USB 3.0 and 6Gbps Serial ATA ports have flooded the motherboard market since our last guide. Part of the Econobox's appeal comes from its low cost, and it turns out that you can get next-gen I/O on relatively cheap boards like Gigabyte's GA-770TA-UD3. USB 3.0 alone promises substantial performance improvements with all manner of external devices, and 6Gbps SATA could make a big difference with future solid-state drives, so not spending the extra $10-15 now seems a little short-sighted.

The GA-770TA-UD3 has a nicely rounded set of features, too, with a gaggle of ports (including external SATA and FireWire) plus an 8+2 power phase design capable of fueling 140W CPUs.

This board's DDR3 memory slots might seem like a downside because DDR3 has regained its slight price premium over DDR2. Here, too, however, we're prioritizing future expansion over small, short-term savings. DDR3 is taking over the system memory market, and DDR2 will likely become more expensive as DDR3 demand increases and DDR2 production wanes. That means adding more RAM down the line could be cheaper, and you may be able to re-use memory from this system in your next one.

Our Econobox 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, as well.

As much as we want to fashion the Econobox into a lean, mean, gaming machine, we have to make minor sacrifices to keep within reach of our $500 budget. Stepping down to XFX's Radeon HD 5670 is part of that. This graphics card doesn't quite have the muscle of our previous recommendation, the Radeon HD 5750. But as we saw in our review, the 5670 is still powerful enough to run the latest and greatest games at 1680x1050 with antialiasing turned up—and 1680x1050 happens to be the native resolution of most budget 20" and 22" monitors with 16:10 aspect ratios, ideal companions for the Econboox.

Unless you feel the urge to pair the Econobox with a bigger, higher-resolution display, the 5670 will be more than adequate. Otherwise, head on to our alternatives for a meatier GPU recomendation.

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, 32MB of 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 4482B looks to be the latest revision of the Econobox's usual enclosure. This sleek-looking model apparently has the exact same features as our former pick, including a 380W, 80%-efficient power supply (with 80 Plus Bronze certification), 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 once the cost of a PSU is factored into the equation. 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.