Because speed doesn't have to cost a fortune
Our budget build has seen its target price fluctuate over the years, but our aim has always been the same: to spec out a solid budget gaming PC without ugly compromises. Solid graphics performance is a must here, as is a decent upgrade path.
|Processor||Intel Core i3-3220 3.3GHz||$119.99|
|Memory||Corsair 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$37.99|
|Graphics||MSI Radeon HD 7770||$119.99|
|Storage||Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB||$84.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Carbide 200R||$59.99|
|Power supply||Antec EarthWatts Green 380W||$44.99|
An Intel processor in a budget system? Sacrilege!
Well, maybe not. AMD currently offers two alternatives to the Core i3-3220: the FX-4300 and the A10-5800K. Both have power envelopes around 100W, dwarfing the Core i3's surprisingly modest 55W TDP. Lower TDPs mean less power consumption and lower noise levels. Both AMD chips also fail to match the Core i3-3220's gaming performance when discrete graphics cards are used.
To its credit, the A10-5800K has much better integrated graphics performance than the Intel CPU. However, the A10's IGP is still far slower than even a relatively inexpensive discrete card, and we have room in our budget for one of those—the Radeon HD 7770. That renders the A10's IGP advantage essentially moot.
Granted, the AMD processors are a little faster overall in multithreaded applications, but the i3-3220's mix of superior single-threaded performance and lower power consumption is hard to argue against. On top of that, Intel's LGA1155 platform gives us an upgrade path all the way up to the Core i7-3770K—a fully unlocked, quad-core, eight-thread monster that trounces anything AMD has on the market today.
Just because we're picking an Intel CPU doesn't mean we need an expensive motherboard. At a penny under $100, Gigabyte's GA-H77-DS3H delivers everything we might need for the Econboox: a full ATX layout, dual physical PCI Express x16 slots (albeit with four lanes of connectivity running through the second one), 6Gbps Serial ATA, USB 3.0, and Gigabyte's latest UEFI interface, which is much improved over the company's older designs. Gigabyte doesn't have the finest fan speed controls around, but with the GA-H77-DS3H, it delivers a very compelling package for the price.
Rock-bottom memory prices enable us to outfit the Econobox with a whopping 8GB of DDR3-1600 RAM—in the form of a Corsair kit with lifetime warranty coverage—without stretching our budget in the slightest. We could save about $18 by going with a four-gig kit, but we don't really want to. Windows is designed to cache frequently used applications in available system memory, which is particularly helpful in a system with only mechanical storage.
We envision the Econobox as a budget gaming system, and that calls for an affordable graphics card that's still reasonably powerful. MSI's Radeon HD 7770 is very well suited to that task. It should let you play most of today's games at 1920x1080, so long as you dial down the eye candy a bit. Also, thanks to its beefy dual-slot cooler, this card won't deafen you when you're trying to listen for footsteps in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.
Nvidia doesn't offer a terribly compelling alternative to the Radeon HD 7770 right now. The GeForce GTX 650 is slower overall than its AMD rival. The GeForce GTX 650 Ti performs a little better, but it's also priced within spitting distance of the markedly quicker Radeon HD 7850 1GB (which we've included in our alternatives on the next page). We think you're better off getting an AMD card in this price range.
Alas, solid-state drives aren't cheap enough to fit in our Econobox yet. Not the good ones, at least. Don't despair, though, because Samsung's Spinpoint F3 1TB is excellent as far as mechanical hard drives go. It performs well, emits very little noise, and has a nice, low price tag. We even gave the thing an award a couple of years back.
Optical drives are almost unnecessary in modern PCs, but this is a full-sized desktop, and we've got three 5.25" drive bays just waiting to be filled. A DVD burner like Asus' DRW-24B1ST only sets us back an extra 20 bucks, and it can always come in handy.
Since the early days of the TR System Guide, we've favored Antec cases for the Econobox. It was no accident. Antec has a reputation for building sturdy, well-made budget enclosures. Offerings like the Antec Three Hundred are almost legendary among budget-conscious enthusiasts.
With the new Carbide Series 200R, however, Corsair has one-upped Antec almost across the board. Thumbscrews abound, cable-routing holes are nice and wide, tool-less drive bays work effortlessly, and Corsair even offers four dedicated 2.5" bays—handy, should you ever upgrade the Econobox with an SSD. We compared the 200R to the Three Hundred Two, an improved version of the Three Hundred, and the Corsair case was far more comfortable to work in.
The 200R only had one disadvantage. It didn't keep components quite as cool as the Three Hundred Two. The difference was relatively small, though, and we tested with high-end parts. The Econobox has a 55W CPU and a power-sipping low-end GPU, so thermals aren't a big challenge.
This system doesn't suck a lot of power. That means we don't need a very beefy PSU to power it. We do, however, want a modicum of quality. Bargain-basement power supplies might be tantalizingly cheap, but they often fail to deliver where it counts. Also, they're frighteningly prone to failures that can take out other components. No thanks; we'll spend the extra 20 bucks or so on a branded, high-efficiency unit with good reviews.
Antec's EarhtWatts Green 380W has been our pick for quite some time, and we see no reason to switch. This unit has 80 Plus Bronze certification, excellent Newegg reviews, a three-year warranty, and all the right connectors for the Econobox's hardware. 380W might seem a little on the low side, especially in light of GPU vendors' conservative recommendations, but you'd be surprised how little power a fully loaded PC draws. When we tested the Radeon HD 7770 on a system with a more power-hungry processor than the Core i3-3220, power consumption peaked at just 157W in games.