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.
|Processor||Intel Core i3-2100 3.1GHz||$124.99|
|Memory||Kingston 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333||$26.99|
|Graphics||Sapphire Radeon HD 6850 1GB||$149.99|
|Storage||Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB||$69.99|
|Enclosure||Antec One Hundred||$49.99|
||Antec EarthWatts Green 380W||$39.99|
These are dark times for CPU shoppers on a budget. The arrival of AMD's Llano APUs has led to the disappearance of the $100 Phenom II X4 840, our long-time favorite choice for the Econobox, as well as its more appealing siblings in the Athlon II X4 family. In their absence, avoiding a downgrade forces us to climb another rung up the price ladder, where the options are AMD's A6-3650 at $120 and Intel's Core i3-2100 at $125.
Considering the i3-2100 has higher overall CPU performance than the $140 A8-3850, which is clocked 300MHz faster than the A6-3650, we think it's really no contest. The tables might turn if we were concerned about integrated graphics performance, but we've expressly configured the Econobox with a proper graphics card that has genuine gaming chops. Choosing an inferior processor in order to secure less mediocre integrated graphics doesn't appeal to us at all.
Besides, slow CPU performance isn't the A6-3650's only flaw. The chip also has a 100W thermal envelope, which is quite a bit larger than the Core i3-2100's 65W TDP. Even if you don't care about saving polar bears or trimming your power bill, there's always the issue of noise, since power-hungrier CPUs typically run hotter and are harder to cool quietly. AMD would have given Llano a fighting chance had it opted for more aggressive pricing, but alas, that hasn't happened yet.
The Core i3-2100 doesn't have an unlocked upper multiplier, so we can dispense with motherboards based on Intel's P67 and Z68 chipsets, since we won't be overclocking much. At the same time, we don't want to cheap out too much by selecting an H61-powered offering, since the H61 Express chipset allows only one DIMM per memory channel, lacks 6Gbps Serial ATA support, and sacrifices PCI Express lanes and USB 2.0 ports.
A nice, H67-based, full-ATX motherboard like Asus' P8H67-V is more up our alley. This particular model features two 6Gbps SATA ports, two USB 3.0 ports, a pair of physical PCIe x16 slots (albeit with a 16/4-lane configuration), two PCIe x1 slots, and three old-school PCI slots. It can also tap into the Core i3-2100's integrated graphics with HDMI, VGA, and HDMI outputs, so you can use Lucid's Virtu GPU virtualization scheme to enable QuickSync video transcoding technology alongside a discrete graphics card.
Based on our experience, Asus has the best and most mature UEFI implementation of the top three motherboard makers. The UEFI's fan controls are excellent, making us more eager to go with Asus than one of its competitors.
Memory is relatively cheap these days, so we don't have to splurge to put 4GB of RAM into the Econobox. At less than $30 for 4GB, we can afford the extra couple of bucks. These Kingston modules are good for speeds up to 1333MHz at the standard DDR3 voltage of 1.5V, and they're covered by a lifetime warranty.
This spring, AMD and Nvidia both introduced graphics cards that would appear to be ripe for the Econobox: the GeForce GTX 550 Ti and the Radeon HD 6790. Those cards are plenty fast, and they've come down in price since their release. However, our budget leaves room for the Radeon HD 6850, which lies higher up the food chain and packs a much stronger punch.
This particular Sapphire model comes with stock clock speeds and a custom cooler with a large fan, which bodes well for low noise levels. The card is bundled with a coupon for a free copy of DiRT 3, as well, further sweetening the pot.
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. We're not the only ones smitten with the drive, either. The Spinpoint has become so popular that Newegg has had 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. 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 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 back of the CPU socket, 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.
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.