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 i3-2120 3.3GHz||$124.99|
|Memory||Kingston 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333||$24.99|
|Graphics||PowerColor Radeon HD 7770||$129.99|
|Storage||Samsung Spinpoint F3 500GB||$79.99|
|Enclosure||Antec Three Hundred||$54.99|
||Antec EarthWatts Green 380W||$44.99|
These are dark times for CPU shoppers on a budget. The arrival of AMD's Llano APUs 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 include Intel's Core i3-2120, AMD's A8-series APUs, and AMD's FX-4100.
It's not much of a contest. The A8-3870 may have an unlocked multiplier and better integrated graphics than the Core i3-2120, but it also has lower CPU performance, and its power envelope is quite a bit higher—100W, up from the i3-2120's 65W TDP. Higher power envelopes mean more heat and more noise, and we're fans of neither. Losing Llano's Radeon GPU is regrettable, but since we're outfitting this system with a discrete graphics card, the processor's integrated GPU is largely irrelevant.
The H67 motherboard we used to recommend for this build has vanished, as have most other H67-powered offerings. They've been replaced by mobos featuring the new H77 Express chipset. What's the difference? The H67 and H77 have very similar features, really, but the latter adds native USB 3.0 connectivity.
For this latest iteration of the Econobox, we're going with the H77-based GA-H77-DS3H from Gigabyte. This mobo has a full ATX layout, can tap into the Core i3's integrated graphics (if need be), and has two 6Gbps SATA ports. Two USB 3.0 ports can be found at the rear, and there are internal headers for two more. Gigabyte saw fit to include dual physical PCI Express x16 slots, as well, although the lower one has only four lanes of connectivity running to it. The GA-H77-DS3H also comes with Gigabyte's new-and-improved UEFI interface. Other boards may have better fan speed controls, but not at this price and with all these other features.
Memory prices seem to have hit rock-bottom, so putting 4GB of RAM into the Econobox is a no-brainer. The cheapest 4GB kit we feel comfortable recommending this time around hails from Kingston. It's rated for operation at 1333MHz on 1.5V, and Kingston covers the kit with a lifetime warranty.
We had some complaints about the Radeon HD 7770 GHz Edition when we reviewed it in February. While the card achieved solid performance, low power consumption, and quiet noise levels with the stock cooler, its $159 launch price made it an unappealing proposition compared to cheaper, slightly faster last-gen offerings.
Three months have passed since then, and things have changed. PowerColor's Radeon HD 7770 sells for a penny under $130 and comes with a free copy of DiRT Showdown, which makes it a better deal than any previous-generation offering. It comes fitted with AMD's excellent stock cooling solution, and PowerColor's warranty covers the card for two years, which is perfectly decent, all things considered. Being part of AMD's latest GPU series, the 7770 also gives you two additional features that older Radeons do not: AMD's VCE block, which can speed up video transcoding in supported apps, and ZeroCore Power, which saves energy by shutting off power to most of the GPU when the display goes to sleep.
Mechanical storage prices are slowly inching back to last year's levels, before flooding in Thailand caused shortages and subsequent price hikes, but they're not quite there yet. Until things have fully returned to normal, we're going to trim the Econobox's storage solution ever so slightly in order to keep our total build price reasonable. That means equipping the Econobox with the 500GB version of Samsung's excellent Spinpoint F3 hard drive. Folks with a little spare cash might want to splurge on the 1TB model, but right now, the higher capacity will set you back an extra $40—not a negligible increase for a sub-$600 system.
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.
Our cost-cutting efforts continue on the enclosure front, where we've traded the prior Econobox's Fractal Design Core 3000 case for the Antec Three Hundred. This trade saves us a few bucks, and it's not really much of a downgrade: the Three Hundred is well built and has many of the same amenities as the Core 3000, including a bottom-mounted PSU compartment, a cut-out in the motherboard tray behind the CPU socket, and built-in fans at the top and rear. The Three Hundred doesn't let you route cables behind the motherboard tray, though, and it doesn't have sideways hard-drive bays with removable caddies.
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.