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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 Intel Core i3-3220 3.3GHz $129.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-H77-DS3H $99.99
Memory Corsair 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600 $35.99
Graphics MSI Radeon HD 7770 $124.99
Storage Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB $84.99
Asus DRW-24B1ST $19.99
Audio Integrated $0
Enclosure Antec Three Hundred $54.99
Power supply Antec EarthWatts Green 380W $44.99
Total   $595.92

In light of this month's releases, perhaps some of you expected us to put an AMD processor here. We certainly came close—closer than we have to recommending an all-AMD Econobox in quite a while. In the end, however, we had to give this one to Intel's Ivy Brige-infused Core i3-3220. Three factors played into our decision.

First, the Core i3 is substantially more power-efficient than its new rivals. The FX-4300 and A10-5800K have TDPs of 95W and 100W, respectively, while the Intel chip is rated for only 55W. That difference matters; it means the Econobox is going to run cooler and quieter, and we do like our PCs to be cool and quiet. Second, when paired with a discrete graphics processor, the Core i3 performs better in games than the AMD chips. In fact, this little $130 CPU is on even footing with AMD's new flagship, the $220 FX-8350, in our 99th-percentile game benchmarks overall. Don't believe us? Just look at our scatter plot. The plot shows results for the Core i3-3225, but the only difference between the i3-3220 and i3-3225 lies with their integrated graphics. Those don't come into play here, since we tested with a discrete GPU.

Finally, the Core i3 shares a socket and a platform with some much faster processors, like the Core i7-3770K, which is unambiguously quicker than anything AMD has on the market right now. AMD's Socket FM2 platform tops out with the A10-5800K at $130. The FX-4300's Socket AM3+ platform allows for an upgrade to the FX-8350, but that chip still falls short of the i7-3770K—and consumes a fair bit more power, to boot.

That said, the AMD chips do have redeeming qualities. The A10-5800K, in particular, has much better integrated graphics than the i3-3220, and it's also faster overall in non-gaming tasks. Certain users may find the A10-5800K better fits their needs, which is why we've featured it in the Econobox alternatives on the next page.

The H77-based Gigabyte GA-H77-DS3H returns as our Econobox pick. This mobo has a full ATX layout and can tap into the Core i3's integrated graphics, if need be. Connectivity includes 6Gbps SATA, USB 3.0, and headers for a pair of USB 3.0 ports beyond the two in the port cluster. 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.

So, it turns out 8GB DDR3-1600 memory kits are down to around 35 bucks now.

There isn't much point in getting anything less, is there? This Corsair kit's 1600MHz clock speed will keep our Ivy Bridge processor on a full diet of bits and bytes, and the 8GB capacity will, in all likelihood, be all you need throughout the life of this machine. Otherwise, you can always toss in a second 8GB kit for a sweet 16GB of total system RAM.

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 quietly. Being part of the latest Radeon GPU series, the 7770 also features 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. In games, the 7770 should let you play most recent titles at 1920x1080, provided you don't mind occasionally toning down the eye candy a couple of notches.

Nvidia finally has a competing solution in this price range, the GeForce GTX 650, but AMD's 7770 still performs better overall. If you want an Nvidia card, we'd recommend springing for the GeForce GTX 660. That card will set you back an extra $100 or so, but it'll represent a nice step up in performance. Skip ahead to our alternatives section for more details.

Samsung's Spinpoint F3 1TB hard drive still isn't quite as cheap as it used to be, but at $85, it's a reasonable option given our budget. We could save a few bucks by going with a lower-capacity drive, but the 500GB version of the Spinpoint retails for about $70-80. Losing a half-terabyte of storage to save 10 or 20 bucks isn't our idea of a good compromise.

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 is a hit, with literally thousands of Newegg reviews and a five-star average rating. Despite its low price tag, the enclosure accommodate enthusiasts with a bottom-mounted PSU compartment, a cut-out in the back of the motherboard tray (which should aid CPU heatsink installation), and adjustable 120-mm and 140-mm fans at the rear and top, respectively. There's room for six hard drives and three optical drives, and from what we understand, the case is very well built for the price. We wish it let you route cables behind the motherboard and came with removable caddies for the hard drives, but in this price range, you can't have it all.

Power supply
Power supplies are one area where cheaping out is especially unwise. Bargain-basement PSUs can have all sorts of potentially dangerous flaws, from anemic 12V rails to low-quality components that can cause premature failure—and zap some of your other components in the process. Antec's EarthWatts Green 380W is a solid choice that offers 80 Plus Bronze certification with enough wattage for the Econobox, and it doesn't break the bank. Good budget PSUs can be hard to find, but the EarthWatts has proven its mettle solo and when sold inside Antec's own cases.