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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 $99.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-870A-UD3 $93.99
Memory Kingston 2GB (2 x 1GB) DDR3-1333 $36.99
Graphics Palit GeForce GTS 450 $129.99
Storage Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB $69.99
Asus DRW-24B1ST $19.99
Audio Integrated $0
Enclosure Antec Three Hundred $59.95
Power supply
Antec EarthWatts Green 380W $44.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $555.88

The Athlon II X4 640 has fallen to just under $100, which is a fantastic deal for a 3GHz quad-core processor with a 95W power envelope. We can credit the arrival of the quicker Athlon II X4 645 for the price drop. If you're wondering why we're shunning the X4 645, it's because the CPU costs an extra 20 bucks and only delivers a meager 100MHz clock speed increase in return. We can find better uses for that $20.

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 i3s. AMD also enjoys a somewhat more compelling platform, with slightly cheaper motherboards that have native support for 6Gbps Serial ATA. Speaking of which...

Those six third-gen Serial ATA ports on Gigabyte's GA-870A-UD3 are only the tip of the iceberg. The board also has dual USB 3.0 ports, dual external Serial ATA ports, dual FireWire ports, and dual physical PCI Express x16 slots (one of which has four lanes of connectivity), all for less than $100. In many ways, the GA-870A-UD3's functionality and connectivity is comparable to that of Intel P55 motherboards priced much closer to $150. Talk about a bargain.

You might notice we're giving the Asus M4A87TD EVO, our previous pick, the cold shoulder in this edition of the guide. The Asus board sells for around $110 despite having less connectivity, and we feel Asus' superior fan control functionality alone isn't worth a $16 premium in this class of system.

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. Kingston'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 heavy multitaskers and hard-core gamers in our alternatives, as well.

Faced with price drops on the CPU, motherboard, and storage fronts, we figured we'd be remiss not to put some of those saved dollars toward a quicker graphics card. The Radeon HD 5670 has served us well, but it's not getting any faster. For about an extra $50, Palit's hopped-up GeForce GTS 450 delivers considerably better performance, especially at high resolutions and with DirectX 11 eye candy enabled. This card should let you enjoy high detail levels with antialiasing at 1440x900 or 1680x1050 in demanding games. Some titles, like DiRT 2, will even let you climb up to 1920x1080 at those same settings.

Why choose the GTS 450 over the incumbent Radeon HD 5750? Both cards sell for about the same price, but this Palit model comes out of the box with higher-than-normal clock speeds (880MHz core and 975MHz/3.9Gbps memory). We saw in our review that a slightly higher-than-stock clock speed gave the GTS 450 a nice lead over the stock 5750, so this GTS 450 variant should also be quicker than the Radeon.

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 $69.99, 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, Asus' DRW-24B1ST makes its first appearance in our system guide. The Samsung unit we've been recommending is no longer in stock, but this Asus model has a similarly low price, the same SATA interface, and better Newegg user reviews than all the other $20 burners.

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 near 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. There'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. 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.