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The Sweet Spot
Stunning value short on compromise

The Econobox makes a pretty solid gaming machine, but it's still somewhat limited. The Sweet Spot's more generous budget gives us the wiggle room to add a faster processor, a quicker graphics card, solid-state storage, and other luxuries.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i5-3470 3.3GHz $199.99
Motherboard Asus P8Z77-V LK $139.99
Memory Corsair 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600 $37.99
Graphics MSI GeForce GTX 660 Ti $299.99
Storage Corsair Force Series GT 120GB $129.99
Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB $84.99
Asus DRW-24B1ST $19.99
Audio Asus Xonar DSX $64.99
Enclosure NZXT H2 $99.99
Power supply Seasonic M12II 520W $79.99
Total   $1,157.90

We face a similar competitive scenario at this price point. Intel's Core i5-3470 offers better gaming performance and lower power utilization than the competition from AMD. However, AMD's FX-8350 has an edge in non-gaming apps.

Here, too, we think the Intel chip is the better pick for our primary recommendations. Its 77W TDP is quite a bit lower than the AMD chip's 125W thermal envelope, and as you can see in our scatter plots, the Core i5 has a clear edge in gaming performance. The difference in general-purpose tasks is much smaller. In our view, it doesn't make up for the FX-8350's other downsides.

Note that we're also skipping Intel's Core i5-3570K, despite its fully unlocked upper multiplier. Having free rein to overclock is nice, no question about it. However, the i5-3470 is already very fast, and its lower price gives us extra cash to spend on other components, like a faster graphics card.

We've been recommending this Z77 Express-based Asus P8Z77-V LK for a few editions of the guide now, and we see no reason to stop. This mobo doesn't break the bank and has just about everything we might want for the Sweet Spot. There's SLI and CrossFire support via two PCIe x16 slots, which are configurable in a x8/x8 lane setup. There are sideways-mounted SATA 6Gbps ports, which shouldn't interfere with long graphics cards. There's USB 3.0, of course, and Asus's excellent UEFI firmware and fan speed controls. Lucid's Virtu MVP software is included, as well.

If we had room in the Econobox's budget for an 8GB DDR3-1600 kit, we certainly have room for one here. Let's re-use the same Corsair kit, since its 1600MHz maximum speed is, coincidentally, the fastest supported by our processor out of the box.

Our latest benchmarks—both in Windows 7 and Windows 8—make it pretty clear that AMD's Radeon HD 7950 doesn't perform as well as the GeForce GTX 660 Ti in the latest crop of games. Although the 7950 pumped out quite a few frames per second in our tests, it didn't deliver those frames as consistently as the GeForce. Those intermittent frame latency spikes sometimes cause perceptible hitches in in-game animation. We documented the phenomenon on video here.

Given the Radeon's struggles, we've switched our recommendation to the GTX 660 Ti. That's kind of a bummer, because the Radeon comes with more free games, but freebies unfortunately can't make up for a genuine performance issue that reduces gameplay fluidity.

Besides, MSI's GeForce GTX 660 Ti Power Edition comes with a freebie of its own: a copy of Assassin's Creed III. This card also costs a little less than the Radeon HD 7950 we picked last time, and it's an Editor's Choice winner. Coupled with the smoother gaming performance, that makes it a pretty nice pick.

Faster drives than Corsair's Force GT 120GB do exist, but they tend to be marked up quite a bit—and we don't think shelling out $150 or more for a 120-128GB SSD is a particularly good use of our budget. The Force Series GT is already blazing-fast as it is. Also, again, this is an Editor's Choice winner.

120GB should be sufficient to contain your operating system and many of your games and applications, but it won't be enough for everything. That's why we recommend pairing the SSD with a terabyte of speedy mechanical storage, in the form of Samsung's 1TB Spinpoint F3. You can run the SSD and mechanical drive separately, or if you're in an experimental mood, you can try using Intel's Smart Response Technology (which is supported by our Z77 chipset) to turn the SSD into a high-speed cache for the hard drive. We've found Smart Response improves performance nicely. It's more straightforward to use, too, because you don't have to pick and choose which files and what software goes on which drive.

Finally, we're rounding out our storage setup with an optical drive. After all, you never know when you might need to use an old DVD—or burn a new one. The Econobox's Asus DVD burner is just as good a fit for the Sweet Spot. We considered upgrading to a Blu-ray burner, but that'd be a tad out of our price range. (We did include one in the alternatives on the next page, though.)

We've caught a lot of flak for recommending sound cards. However, every time we conduct blind listening tests, even low-end discrete cards wind up sounding noticeably better than motherboard audio. We're not even using audiophile-grade speakers. Our tests are done with a pair of lowly Sennheiser HD 555 headphones.

If you're using analog headphones or speakers that weren't scavenged from a circa-1995 Compaq, a discrete sound card like Asus' Xonar DSX is a worthwhile purchase. This card doesn't just beat onboard audio; it also has a more balanced sound profile than cheaper offerings like Asus' Xonar DG and DGX. We liked this card so much that we gave it our Editor's Choice award earlier this year.

Folks with S/PDIF- or USB-based speakers or headphones can skip the Xonar. Those digital alternatives take care of the digital-to-analog conversion internally, which makes a discrete sound card somewhat redundant. Any halfway-decent analog audio device will benefit from the Xonar, though.

We got pretty close to selecting the same Corsair Carbide Series 200R for the Sweet Spot and Econobox. However, after further reflection, we decided the NZXT H2 is still a better fit for our slightly enlarged budget. This case has more premium features, like hot-swappable front fans, a three-setting fan control switch, a built-in drive dock, rubber-grommeted cable routing holes, and a top ventilation cover that prevents dust and debris from falling straight down into the case. The H2 is built for quiet, too, and it fared remarkably well in our noise testing.

Power supply
A 380W PSU may suffice for the Econobox, and it would probably power the Sweet Spot just fine. However, we can afford a nicer unit with a little bit of extra headroom. Seasonic's M12II 520 Bronze can deliver up to 520W of power, and it has another perk that more than justifies the price premium: modular cabling. Instead of having to stow away a big bundle of unused cables somewhere, you only plug in the cords you need. The five-year warranty doesn't hurt, either.