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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 $104.99
Motherboard Asus M4A87TD EVO $104.99
Memory Corsair 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $39.99
Graphics Gigabyte Radeon HD 6850 1GB $169.99
Storage Samsung SpinPoint F3 1TB $64.99
Asus DRW-24B1ST $20.99
Audio Integrated $0
Enclosure Antec One Hundred $54.99
Power supply
Antec EarthWatts Green 380W $44.99
Total   $605.92

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.

Why not give Sandy a chance? Well, early benchmarks around the web suggest that Intel's new Sandy Bridge-based Pentiums are a fair bit slower than this Phenom. The Core i3-2100 outruns its AMD rival, but it also costs $20 more. We're not too thrilled about stretching our budget—and stretching there would be. In addition to being more expensive, Core i3 CPUs require 6-series motherboards that are less affordable than AMD counterparts with equivalent features. We'll save the Intel gear for our alternative selections on the next page.

Asus' M4A87TD 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 asking price.

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, and we like having control over such variables.

Note that this board doesn't have support for AMD's upcoming Bulldozer processors—see our alternatives on the next page for a pricier model with the AM3+ socket required for the next-gen chip. Cheaper AM3+ offerings do exist, but they either have microATX form factors with fewer expansion slots or a dearth of I/O connectors. (One model, whose name we shan't mention, even trades some USB 2.0 connectivity for old-school parallel and serial ports.) We think ampler connectivity will be more immediately useful than the option to upgrade to a faster processor down the line.

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.

AMD and Nvidia both recently introduced graphics cards that would appear to be ripe for the Econobox: the GeForce GTX 550 Ti and Radeon HD 6790. These cards are plenty fast, and they've come down in price since their release. However, our budget allows us to spring for the Radeon HD 6850, which lies higher up the food chain and packs a much stronger punch.

This particular Gigabyte model has faster GPU and memory speeds than reference-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.

Now just $55, the Antec One Hundred is a phenomenal deal for anyone seeking 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 shoddy power supplies. We don't need a lot of juice to power the Econobox, but that doesn't mean we're gonna skimp on the PSU and grab a unit that weighs less than a bag of chips. Antec's EarthWatts Green 380W is a solid choice that offers 80 Plus Bronze certification with enough wattage for the Econobox. Good budget PSUs can be hard to find, but the EarthWatts has proven its mettle solo and when sold inside Antec's own cases.