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Econobox alternatives
Want an AMD processor, more RAM, or an Nvidia graphics card? Read on.

Component Item Price
Processor AMD A10-5800K 3.8GHz $129.99
Motherboard ASRock FM2A85X Extreme6 $109.99
Storage Intel 330 Series 60GB $69.99
Samsung 840 Pro 128GB $149.99
Graphics PowerColor Radeon HD 7850 1GB $169.99
MSI GeForce GTX 660 $229.99

We think the Core i3-3220 is a better fit for the Econobox, but that doesn't mean AMD's A10-5800K lacks redeeming qualities. The A10 performs better than the Core i3 in many non-gaming tasks, and its integrated graphics are superior. That's an appealing combo if you're more of a casual gamer who tends to run demanding productivity applications, since you can save a few bucks by skipping the discrete graphics card.

There's no good way to spin the A10's 100W power envelope and currently ambiguous upgrade path, though. This is a fairly power-hungry chip, and since it's the quickest one available for its socket, a future processor upgrade will likely require a change of motherboard, as well.

If you're happy with that, then the A10 may be the processor for you.

Note that we're picking the A10-5800K over the FX-4300. The FX does have a marginally better upgrade path than the A10, but it lacks integrated graphics, and we dislike it's lower clock speed. In our experience, processors based on AMD's Bulldozer architecture need all the GHz they can get in order to perform well. That holds especially true in applications that don't make use of multiple threads.

Most motherboards designed to accommodate the A10-5800K have a microATX form factor, which means smaller circuit boards and fewer expansion slots. We prefer a full-sized offering. Among the few ATX models available, we like the ASRock's FM2A85X Extreme6 the most.

This mobo actually costs slightly more than our Intel board, but it's clearly worth the dough. It has three PCI Express x16 slots, which are configurable in a x16/x8/x4- or x8/x8/x4-lane setup, and it boasts no fewer than seven 6Gbps SATA ports and four USB 3.0 ports. ASRock even puts a CMOS reset switch in the port cluster, so in the event of a failed overclock or some other snafu, there's no need to pop the side panel to get everything back to normal.

You've got two choices here—two compelling ones, at least.

The first is Intel's 330 Series 60GB, which will cost you about $70. This drive is reasonably quick, and it's capacious enough to host an operating system and a handful of apps. It can't hold a wide swath of games, though, which means some things will have to spill over onto mechanical storage. If you get our Intel mobo, you can also use Intel's Smart Response Technology to configure the 60GB SSD as a cache for the mechanical hard drive. That setup can improve performance and cut access times by a fair bit. Also, since the Smart Response-ified SSD and HDD combo will mount as a single volume, you won't have to worry about choosing which apps go on which drive.

Option B is Samsung's 840 Pro 128GB solid-state drive, which is faster, roomier, and also more expensive. Our benchmarks of the 256GB 840 Pro bode well for this lower-capacity variant. You still might not be able to store all of your software on this thing, but 128GB provides a heck of a lot more breathing room than 60GB.

Nvidia's sub-$200 graphics offerings aren't quite up to par with the AMD solutions, so the best alternative to the Radeon HD 7770 is another AMD card: the Radeon HD 7850 1GB.

The 7850 1GB is noticeably faster than the 7770. In fact, it's quick enough to handle almost all games at 1080p with the detail settings cranked up. You'll only start to see performance suffer in titles like Skyrim, whose ultra-high-resolution textures can butt up against the 1GB memory limit—especially if you turn up the antialiasing, too. The 7850 1GB is a fairly inexpensive upgrade. PowerColor's version is available for around $170. As a bonus, it comes with free copies of BioShock Infinite and Tomb Raider.

Nvidia regains the upper hand above the $200 mark. Our scatter plots demonstrate that the GeForce GTX 660 outpaces the 99th-percentile frame times of AMD's competing Radeon HD 7870. That makes it a sizable upgrade over both the Radeon HD 7770 and the Radeon HD 7850 1GB. Also, the GTX 660 may deliver smoother gameplay than similarly priced Radeons, since there's a fairly good chance that the 7800 series suffers from the same latency spikes as the Radeon HD 7950. (AMD is in the process of fixing those, but it hasn't finished yet.)

Oh, and the GTX 660 comes with a gaming bundle of its own, but it's less exciting than the AMD one—you get $150 of credit for use in several free-to-play games.

Incidentally, a more powerful PSU isn't required for the GTX 660. The card only needs a single PCIe power connector, and in our testing with a much quicker CPU than either the Core i3-3220 or the A10-5800K, full-system power draw with a GTX 660 peaked at only 232W. (That was for everything minus the monitor.) Our 430W Corsair PSU should have no trouble pumping out that kind of power.