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||$19.99|
|Graphics||Sapphire Radeon HD 6850 1GB||$144.99|
|Storage||Hitachi Deskstar 7K1000.D 750GB||$99.99|
|Enclosure||Fractal Design Core 3000||$64.99|
||Antec EarthWatts Green 380W||$44.99|
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 Intel's Core i3-2100 at $125 and AMD's A6-3650 and FX-4100 at $120.
It's not much of a contest. The i3-2100 has higher overall CPU performance than the A6-3650, and although the benchmark results we saw around the web suggest that the FX-4100 is a little faster, that chip also has a higher thermal envelope—95W, up from the i3-2100's 65W. Higher power envelopes mean more heat and more noise, and we're fans of neither. The A6's only saving grace might be its relatively decent integrated graphics processor, but we're outfitting this build with a discrete Radeon, so we have no need for integrated graphics. Besides, Llano's IGP isn't really fast enough to enjoy the latest games in all their glory.
The Core i3-2100's lack of an unlocked upper multiplier prevents us from overclocking the CPU easily, but that also means we can save a few bucks by skipping motherboards based on Intel's overclocking-friendly P67 and Z68 chipsets. We don't want to cheap out too much by selecting a motherboard with an H61 chipset, though. The H61 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 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 putting 4GB of RAM into the Econobox is a no-brainer. At around $20 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 well-suited 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 card 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, further sweetening the pot.
Our old favorite, Samsung's Spinpoint F3 1TB, has seen its price balloon up to around $150 because of the Thai flooding. To stay true to this build's name, we've downgraded to Hitachi's Deskstar 7K1000.D 750GB, which offers three quarters the capacity for roughly 50 bucks less. This drive might not be as quiet or as fast as the Spinpoint—we haven't had a chance to test it ourselves—but it has a 7,200-RPM spindle speed, a 32MB cache, a 6Gbps Serial ATA interface, and a three-year warranty. Those specifications are typical for a modern 3.5" desktop drive.
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.
When we reviewed Fractal Design's Core 3000 enclosure last month, we wondered out loud whether the case would find its way into a future Econobox build. Here's your answer. Yes, this enclosure is slightly more expensive than our previous pick, the Antec One Hundred. Swapping in a more expensive part may seem indulgent in light of the current hard-drive situation, but we love the Core 3000's rotated hard-drive sleds and its ability to maintain impressively low component temperatures. The Core 3000 isn't the quietest case we've tested, but we think it offers a decent set of positive traits and compromises for the price.
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.