Single page Print

Econobox alternatives
Want to tweak the Econobox with a more overclockable and power-efficient CPU, more RAM, or a different graphics config? Read on.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i3-530 $119.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-H55M-USB3 $109.99
Memory Crucial 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $99.99
Graphics XFX Radeon HD 5770 $159.99
Enclosure Antec Three Hundred w/ 430W PSU $99.95

As we noted on the previous page, the Core i3-530 falls a little behind the Athlon II X4 630 in our benchmark suite overall. However, the Intel CPU also happens to have much better power efficiency and incredible overclocking potential. We got ours to just over 4.4GHz after swapping the stock cooler for a tower-style heatsink; the chip subsequently ran our Cinebench test almost as quickly as the $200 Core i5-750 at that speed, despite having two fewer cores.

The icing on the cake? Even with a relatively power-hungry H57 motherboard, our Core i3-530 system overclocked to 4.4GHz only drew about 5W more under load than the Athlon II X4 630 build running at stock speeds. Just make sure to check out this guide's last page for our aftermarket cooler recommendations.

We usually feature a motherboard with integrated graphics in our Econobox alternatives. Today, Gigabyte's GA-H55M-USB3 fills in as both our Intel motherboard and our IGP option, since it can pipe the Core i3-530's integrated graphics through VGA, DVI, DisplayPort, and HDMI outputs. (Clarkdale processors all have integrated graphics cores on the actual CPU package.) In spite of its microATX form factor, this puppy also features dual physical PCI Express x16 slots, USB 3.0, external SATA, and FireWire connectivity. Slightly cheaper H55 mobos do exist, but none have those kinds of perks.

We aimed to keep our primary build near the $500 mark, but you don't have to. Anyone with a little more spare cash ought to consider jumping up to 4GB of RAM, which should smooth out multitasking and long gaming sessions. Windows 7 isn't quite as resource-intensive as Vista, but it will still put spare memory to good use thanks to technologies like SuperFetch.

Now, you'll need a 64-bit operating system to take full advantage of all this memory. 32-bit OSes have enough address space for 4GB of RAM (here in the form of an affordable Crucial kit), but that figure is an upper limit for all memory in a system, including video RAM. In practice, 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 exist for 32-bit Windows, but Microsoft says they can hurt compatibility; it advises that folks run a 64-bit version of Windows instead. Considering how many pre-built PCs ship with Win7 x64 these days, we're inclined to echo that recommendation. Check out our OS section on the second-to-last page of the guide for more details.

Similarly, folks who play state-of-the-art 3D games may want to step up to the new Radeon HD 5770. We saw first-hand that this card pretty much shadows the old Radeon HD 4870 1GB, generally reaching playable frame rates at 1920x1200 with 4X antialiasing. The 5770 also consumes quite a bit less power, generates less noise with the stock cooler, has a shorter circuit board, and has better texture filtering than its predecessor. Last, but not least, the 5770's DirectX 11 support may bring image quality or performance bonuses in DX11 games like Battlefield: Bad Company 2, DiRT 2, and Metro 2033.

We chose XFX's variant of the 5770 because it has double-lifetime warranty coverage, a relatively quiet dual-slot cooler, and a price tag barely above that of other models.

Enclosure and power
We've always stuck with an affordable, quiet case and PSU bundle for the Econobox. Considering some of the hardware we're now throwing into this build, though, a more enthusiast-focused alternative seems to be in order. The Antec Three Hundred should fit that role quite well. Compared to the NSK 4482 from our primary picks, this case has a more powerful, bottom-mounted 430W power supply, several additional fan mounts (including one 140-mm fan at the top and room for two 120-mm front fans), extra storage bays, and a more attractive mesh front panel.

The Three Hundred admittedly lacks some of the NSK 4482's noise-reduction features, like hard drive mounting grommets, an 80 Plus-certified PSU, and a limited number of vents for noise to escape through. Still, we find this a more appropriate choice for, say, someone who might want to grab one of those Core i3-530s and see how far they can overclock it.