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The Econobox
Because speed doesn't have to cost a fortune

Our budget build's target price has fluctuated over the years, but our aim has always been the same: to spec out a solid budget gaming PC without ugly compromises. Decent graphics performance is a must here, as is a strong upgrade path.

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 $47.99
Graphics MSI Radeon HD 7770 $119.99
Storage Seagate Barracuda 7,200 RPM 1TB $79.99
Asus DRW-24B1ST $17.99
Audio Integrated $0
Enclosure Corsair Carbide 200R $69.99
Power supply Corsair CX430M $49.99
Total   $615.92

Not much has changed on this front since December. AMD still offers two alternatives to the Core i3-3220: the FX-4300 and the A10-5800K. Both have power envelopes around 100W, which dwarfs the Core i3's surprisingly modest 55W TDP. Tighter power envelopes are what we want, since they translate into lower power consumption and quieter cooling. 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.

Our Intel CPU doesn't need a terribly expensive motherboard. At a penny under $100, Gigabyte's GA-H77-DS3H delivers everything we should 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.

Our 8GB, DDR3-1600 Corsair kit with lifetime warranty coverage has gone up about $10 or so since December, but it's still very inexpensive at $48. Downgrading to a 4GB kit wouldn't save us much, and we like the larger capacity. Windows is, after all, designed to cache frequently used applications in available system RAM, which is particularly helpful in a system like the Econboox where we're using 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 drown out the delicious killing noises from whatever shooter you're playing.

Mmm, killing noises.

Nvidia still doesn't have a very compelling alternative to the Radeon HD 7770. The GeForce GTX 650 is slower overall than its AMD rival. The GTX 650 Ti is slightly quicker, but it's also priced within spitting distance of the Radeon HD 7850 1GB, an even faster solution—and one that we've included in the alternatives section on the next page. We think AMD cards offer better value for the money in this price range.

Sadly, solid-state drives still aren't cheap enough to fit into the Econobox. (Not in our primary recommendations, anyhow.) Even sadder, our old mechanical workhorse, Samsung's Spinpoint F3 1TB, appears to have been discontinued. Yeah, it's all a little depressing.

Don't reach for the Prozac just yet, though, because there's a new 1TB Seagate Barracuda drive with a 7,200-RPM spindle speed, a 64MB cache, and 6Gbps Serial ATA connectivity available for just 80 bucks. We haven't gotten it in our labs yet, so we can't vouch for its noise levels or performance, but Newegg user reviews are encouraging. Our only beef is the two-year warranty, but that's unfortunately standard fare in the hard-drive industry nowadays. Three- and five-year warranties have largely been relegated to the history books.

We're tossing in a DVD drive, too. 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.

After many months of featuring the Antec Three Hundred in our Econobox, we've found a worthy successor. Antec is out, and Corsair is in.

You see, Corsair has bested Antec pretty much across the board with its Carbide Series 200R case, which sells for around $70 and packs a wealth of enthusiast-friendly goodness. 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 tested the 200R right alongside the Three Hundred Two, an improved version of the Three Hundred, and working in the Corsair case was far more comfortable (and convenient). The 200R only had one disadvantage: it didn't keep components quite as cool as the Three Hundred Two. The difference was relatively small, however, and we were stress-testing with high-end, power-hungry components. The Econobox has a 55W CPU and a power-sipping GPU, so thermals aren't a big challenge here.

Power supply
This system doesn't suck a lot of power, so we don't need a very beefy PSU. 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 can be 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.

Here, too, we've retired our former Antec champion in favor of a Corsair challenger. The new Corsair CX430M ticks all of the right boxes: 80 Plus Bronze certification, modular cabling, a jumbo intake fan that should be reasonably quiet, a three-year warranty, and a low price. Antec's competing EA-430 is similar, but it lacks modular cables—and we've been spoiled by the ease of use and convenience of modular power supplies in higher-end builds. Since that convenience comes at no extra cost here (the Corsair unit is actually cheaper), we'd be fools to pass it up.