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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 decent performance and headroom for upgrades, which should result in a surprisingly well-rounded system for the price.

Component Item Price
Processor AMD Athlon II X4 630 $99.00
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-770TA-UD3 $94.99
Memory Crucial 2GB (2 x 1GB) DDR3-1333 $57.99
Graphics XFX Radeon HD 5670 $94.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB $74.99
Samsung SH-S223L $26.99
Audio Integrated $0
Enclosure Antec NSK 4482 w/380W PSU $79.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $528.94

Little has changed in the Econobox. The value numbers from our latest CPU showdown (and our subsequent blog post) remain quite relevant here, and they still tell us that AMD's Athlon II X4 630 delivers the most bang for your buck within the Econobox's budget—no wonder, considering this CPU packs four 2.8GHz cores yet sells for just under $100.

Just as in our March guide, we debated including Intel's Core i3-530 in our list of primary picks. 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. Folks who really care about overclocking and power efficiency should look there.

USB 3.0 and 6Gbps Serial ATA ports have recently flooded the motherboard market. Part of the Econobox's appeal comes from its low cost, and it turns out 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 now that 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 with DDR3, 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 it's covered by 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 close to our $500 budget. XFX's Radeon HD 5670 is a good compromise. This graphics card doesn't quite have the muscle of 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. Fittingly, 1680x1050 happens to be the native resolution of most budget 20" and 22" monitors with 16:10 aspect ratios—ideal companions for the Econboox. If you feel the urge to pair the Econobox with a bigger, higher-resolution display, 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 works best as 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 its 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
In this edition of the guide, the Antec NSK 4482B is out, and the NSK 4482 is in. These two enclosures are actually identical in virtually all respects except for color and price, but Newegg inexplicably charges more for the all-black 4482B. The plain 4482's silver front panel brings down the price by about 20 bucks, but buyers are still getting 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.