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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 640 $104.99
Motherboard Asus M4A87TD EVO $109.99
Memory Crucial 2GB (2 x 1GB) DDR3-1333 $44.99
Graphics Sapphire Radeon HD 5670 $79.99
Storage Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB $74.99
Samsung SH-S223L $24.99
Audio Integrated $0
Enclosure Antec Three Hundred $59.95
Power supply
Antec EarthWatts Green 380W $39.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $539.88

Luckily for the Econobox, AMD keeps cutting prices among its quad-core Athlon II X4 processors. Those cuts usually follow the introduction of a new flagship in the lineup, but AMD slashed the price of the quickest model pretty much out of the blue last month. We can't complain. The Athlon II X4 640 is an almost irresistible choice at just over $100, thanks to its four 3GHz cores and still-reasonable 95W power envelope.

Users seeking overclocking bliss—or lower power consumption—may want to contemplate the Core i3 alternative on the next page. That said, our value numbers from earlier this year clearly showed that the Athlon II X4 series has an overall performance-per-dollar edge over the Core i3. AMD also enjoys a somewhat more compelling platform, with slightly cheaper motherboards that have native support for 6Gbps Serial ATA. Speaking of which...

Thanks to AMD's new SB850 south bridge, our Asus M4A87TD EVO motherboard offers six third-gen SATA ports, a number unequaled even by top-of-the-line Intel motherboards. The rest of the M4A87TD EVO's features are also remarkable considering the price tag: dual USB 3.0 ports, external Serial ATA connectivity, FireWire, and two physical PCI Express 2.0 x16 slots, although one of those only has four lanes of connectivity. Gigabyte offers a similar motherboard with additional eSATA and FireWire ports for about the same price, but Asus offers much better fan-control functionality—and we would find that more useful on a budget system than a couple of extra I/O ports.

Memory prices are trending downward lately, but four-gig kits still aren't affordable enough for our Econobox. We're already over-budget as it is. 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 at some time in the future, our recommended motherboard has room for two more DIMMs. We've set aside a 4GB kit for inveterate multitaskers and hard-core gamers in our alternatives, as well.

We'd love to turn the Econobox into a gaming hot rod, but unless we want to scale back to an underpowered CPU or a motherboard made from bits of string glued together, staying within reach of our $500 budget involves some compromises. Sapphire's Radeon HD 5670 is one such compromise. As we saw in our review, the 5670 is powerful enough to run recent games at 1680x1050 with antialiasing enabled. Most budget monitors we see out there have resolutions of 1680x1050 or lower, so this card seems like a decent fit for a system in the Econobox's price range. Again, though, we've singled out an alternative for more performance-hungry users on the next page.

Based on the findings of our latest 7,200-RPM hard drive roundup, the 1TB Samsung Spinpoint F3 combines excellent desktop performance and low noise levels in a surprisingly affordable package. We were so impressed, in fact, that we gave this drive our Editor's Choice award. You'd be hard-pressed to find a better deal in this price range—at $74.99, this thing is actually no more expensive than the 640GB Western Digital Caviar Black we recommended in our summer system guide. The Samsung does have a shorter three-year warranty (the Caviar Black gets five years of coverage), but three-year warranties are pretty much the standard for desktop drives.

For our optical storage option, Samsung's SH-S223L makes yet 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.

Power supply
As we noted last time, we've gotten a bit weary of our previous favorite, Antec's NSK 4482. Despite its undeniably ugly design and fairly run-of-the-mill expansion capabilities, that Antec bundle continues to hover around the $100 mark. For roughly the same amount of dough, we can outfit the Econobox with the same power supply and a much better case. So we did.

Antec's EarthWatts Green 380W power supply is available both inside the NSK 4482 and as a stand-alone unit. We looked around for a better option, but this one has a very low price tag, 80 Plus Bronze certification, and more than enough juice for the Econobox. Also, because the model name includes the words "earth" and "green," we assume this PSU is much better at saving polar bears than other, comparatively priced units.

With more than a thousand five-star reviews on Newegg, the Antec Three Hundred looks like a popular choice indeed. It's no secret why. Few enclosures provide a roomy interior, bottom-mounted PSU area, generous cooling options, oodles of storage bays, and fairly tasteful design for just $60. We had a surprisingly good experience putting together a build in a Three Hundred a while back, too. The case's 120- and 140-mm speed-controlled fans and generous venting also keep airflow noise to a minimum, making it relatively quiet for a budget enclosure.