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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 $114.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-H57M-USB3 $119.99
Memory Crucial 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $104.99
Graphics XFX Radeon HD 5770 $159.99
Storage Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB $79.99

The Core i3-530 costs more and calls for a pricier motherboard than our quad-core Athlon II, despite not doing any better 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 635 build running at stock speeds. Just make sure to check out this guide's last page for our aftermarket cooler recommendations.

We wanted an Intel motherboard that would also serve up integrated graphics, for the few non-gamers out there. The Core i3-530 actually houses this platform's integrated graphics component, but sadly, using the IGP involves paying extra for a board with an H55 or H57 chipset. (Intel's Q-series chipsets also support integrated graphics, but they're for business PCs.)

After looking at several H55 and H57 options, we found Gigabyte's GA-H57M-USB3 to be one of the better deals around. This board costs about the same as H55-based alternatives with USB 3.0 and otherwise similar features, but unlike them, it also gives you RAID support. User reviews look reassuringly positive overall, as well. Too bad adding 6Gbps Serial ATA to the mix would push us too far out of our budget.

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.

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.

We've already singled out an alternative for non-gamers. What about folks who long to play state-of-the-art 3D games? The Radeon HD 5770 seems like the natural step up. This $160 card packs enough of a punch to reach playable frame rates at 1920x1200 with 4X antialiasing more often than not, yet it has very spartan power consumption and relatively low noise output with the stock cooler. Thanks to its DirectX 11 support, users should be able to enjoy the best eye candy newer games like Battlefield: Bad Company 2, DiRT 2, and Metro 2033 have to offer.

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

As we write these lines, the 1TB Spinpoint F3 is selling for only $10 more than WD's 640GB Caviar Black. We haven't been able to test the Samsung drive yet, but we know it has a shorter warranty (three years instead of five), and we expect it's slower overall, particularly when it comes to random access times. Those are the reasons we stuck with the Caviar Black as our primary pick. However, the Spinpoint's price per gigabyte and good user reviews make it a tempting alternative.