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The Econobox
Because speed doesn't have to cost a fortune

The Econobox may be the baby of the bunch, but it can handle a little bit of everything, including modern games in all their glory. We haven't scraped the bottom of the bargain bin or cut any corners, resulting in a surprisingly potent budget build.

Component Item Price
Processor AMD Phenom II X4 840 3.2GHz $109.99
Motherboard Asus M4A87TD EVO $109.99
Memory Corsair 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $39.99
Graphics Gigabyte Radeon HD 6850 1GB $174.99
Storage Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB $59.99
Asus DRW-24B1ST $20.99
Audio Integrated $0
Enclosure Antec One Hundred $49.99
Power supply
Antec EarthWatts Green 380W $44.99
Total $610.92

AMD cut processor prices after Sandy Bridge arrived, allowing the quad-core Phenom II X4 840 to slip comfortably into the Econobox's tight budget. Really, it's hard to argue with four 3.2GHz Phenom cores for just over $100. The individual cores are fast enough to handle single-threaded apps and games, and there are enough of 'em in reserve for obsessive multitaskers.

So, what about Miss Sandy? She's an expensive date. The cheapest Sandy Bridge CPU on the market right now costs $15 more than the Phenom II X4 840, and that's before factoring in the comparatively high cost of 6-series motherboards. Quite a few cheaper 6-series mobos seem to be out of stock online, further compounding the issue. We do, however, have some suggestions for a Sandy Bridge spin on the Econobox covered in our alternatives section on the next page.

The Phenom II X4 840 was paired with Asus' M4A87TD EVO motherboard in our last guide, and we see no reason to break up the two here. Indeed, the EVO is a perfect example of just how much goodness you can get in an inexpensive Socket AM3 motherboard. It has all the trappings of a contemporary enthusiast board, including USB 3.0, 6Gbps SATA, FireWire, Gigabit Ethernet, and eSATA connectivity. You also get a second physical PCI Express x16 slot (albeit with only four lanes of bandwidth) and a digital audio output. Try finding a comparable feature set with a 6-series motherboard for anything close to the EVO's $110 asking price.

Cheaper Socket AM3 alternatives are available, but then you have to sacrifice features like FireWire, eSATA, and the extra PCIe x16 slot. We've gone with the EVO over a similarly equipped but slightly cheaper model from Gigabyte because Asus tends to do a much better job with BIOS-level fan speed controls. PCs should be as quiet as possible.

Memory is relatively cheap these days, so we don't have to splurge to put 4GB of RAM into the Econobox. We're spending a little more to get name-brand DIMMs equipped with heatspreaders, though. At $45 for 4GB, we can afford the extra couple of bucks. These Corsair modules are good for speeds up to 1333MHz at the standard DDR3 voltage of 1.5V.

As we mentioned in the intro, AMD and Nvidia have released new $150 graphics cards since our last guide was published. We've reviewed both of them—the Radeon HD 6790 and the GeForce GTX 550 Ti—but don't like either for the Econobox. While the cards cost what you might expect given the performance they deliver, you're better off spending a little extra on the much more potent Radeon HD 6850. For just $175, the 6850 delivers much better overall performance than the latest budget offerings from AMD and Nvidia.

This particular Gigabyte model has faster GPU and memory speeds than stock-clocked 6850s, so you get a touch of extra oomph right out of the box. The card also features a dual-fan cooler that, based on our experience with other Gigabyte GPU coolers that share a similar design, should be pretty quiet.

Samsung's SpinPoint F3 1TB hard drive is a favorite of ours. It took home an Editor's Choice award in our round-up of 7,200-RPM terabyte hard drives on the strength of excellent all-around performance and surprisingly low noise levels. Simply put, you won't find a better desktop drive for around $60. We're not the only ones smitten with the drive, either. The SpinPoint has become so popular that Newegg has trouble keeping it in stock.

The Econobox doesn't need a fancy optical drive, so we've selected a basic Asus model with more than a thousand five-star ratings on Newegg. For about $20, the DRW-24B1ST offers DVD burning speeds up to 24X behind a black face plate that will blend in nicely with our system's enclosure.

The Antec One Hundred has dropped in price by $10 since we featured the case in our last system guide. Now just $50, the One Hundred is a phenomenal deal for anyone looking for a stealthy enclosure. In addition to cut-outs that facilitate clean cable routing and provide access to the CPU socket's back plate, Antec throws in a 2.5" drive bay for SSDs and four front-mounted USB ports. The included 120- and 140-mm fans should offer adequate cooling for our Econobox config, and the whole case is nicely finished in black. Good luck finding a better budget mid-tower.

Power supply
Repeat after me: friends don't let friends use crappy PSUs. We don't need a lot of juice to power the Econobox, but that doesn't mean we're gonna skimp on a no-name PSU that weighs less than a bag of chips. Antec's EarthWatts Green 380W PSU is a solid choice that offers enough wattage for the Econobox alongside 80 Plus Bronze certification. Good budget PSUs can be hard to find, but the EarthWatts has proven its mettle solo and when sold inside Antec's own cases.