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||Crucial 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333||$24.99|
|Graphics||MSI Radeon HD 7770||$124.99|
|Storage||Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB||$94.99|
|Enclosure||Antec Three Hundred||$54.99|
||Antec EarthWatts Green 380W||$44.99|
AMD's desktop Trinity APUs are due out soon, but they're not here yet. Right now, our options in this price range still consist of Intel's Core i3-2120, AMD's A8-series APUs, and AMD's FX-4100.
And really, 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 equipping this system with a discrete graphics card, the processor's integrated GPU is largely irrelevant.
The FX-4100 has neither integrated graphics nor a tight power envelope, and we're not thrilled with its 95W TDP. The chip's performance doesn't appear to be any better than the Core i3-2100, either. We're happier with the Core i3 as a primary pick, but we've still included the FX-4100 in our alternatives on the next page.
The H67 motherboard we used to recommend for this build has vanished, as have most other motherboards powered by the last-gen platform hub. They've been replaced by mobos featuring the new H77 Express chipset.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 Crucial. It's rated for operation at 1333MHz on 1.5V, and Crucial 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, consumed little power, and produced little noise with the stock cooler, its $159 asking price made the card an unappealing proposition compared to cheaper, slightly faster models from the previous generation.
Things have changed since then. MSI's Radeon HD 7770 sells for a penny under $125, and it comes with a chunky dual-slot cooler, whose large fan should be able to move plenty of air without making much noise. Being part of AMD's latest GPU series, the 7770 also gives you two 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.
Recent evidence suggests hard drive prices aren't going to return to normal for a while—maybe not for a couple of years. Even though the impact of last year's Thailand floods has abated, hard drive makers seem content to charge higher prices for their products. That's not good for budget shoppers, and it's not good for the Econobox.
In light of the disappointing news, we've decided to bite the bullet and outfit our budget system with Samsung's Spinpoint F3 1TB hard drive once again. This drive seems to have slipped just under the $100 mark, though there's no telling if it will stay there. That's not an ideal price, but all things considered, we think it's a better deal than the 500GB version we recommended last time. If we were building the Econobox for ourselves, we'd pay the $30 premium for double the storage capacity.
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 Three Hundred returns as our case recommendation. It's a little cheaper than our former pick, the Fractal Design Core 3000, but 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.