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.
|Processor||Intel Core i3-3220 3.3GHz||$129.99|
|Memory||Corsair 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1600||$37.99|
|Graphics||Gigabyte GeForce GTX 650 Ti||$129.99|
|Storage||Seagate Barracuda 7,200 RPM 1TB||$74.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Carbide 200R||$59.99|
|Power supply||Corsair CX430M||$49.99|
Little has changed in the world of budget processors 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 dwarf 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 with a discrete graphics card.
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 GeForce GTX 650 Ti. That renders the A10's superior IGP superfluous.
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 little under $100, Gigabyte's GA-H77-DS3H delivers everything we should need for the Econobox: 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.
PC memory prices are on the rise. They've climbed substantially since we published our last guide, and there's no reversal in sight—quite the opposite, actually. As a result, we think it makes sense to downgrade the Econobox from an 8GB DDR3 kit to a 4GB one like this Corsair DDR3-1600 bundle. (DDR-1600 is the maximum speed supported out of the box by our processor.) The downgrade saves us about $23, and it should have a fairly minimal impact on performance, unless you're planning to use the Econobox for seriously memory-intensive tasks like HD video editing, extreme Photoshopping, or digging into the huge spreadsheets from our GPU reviews.
AMD and Nvidia both unleashed new GPUs in the $150-200 price range last month. We tested them and reviewed them, and they're great products—but they're a little pricey for the Econobox.
Now, that doesn't mean we can't do better than the Radeon HD 7770 we included last time. Variants of Nvidia's GeForce GTX 650 Ti like this Gigabyte model are quicker than the 7770, and they've come come down to just $130. Radeon fans will point out that the 7770 ships with Far Cry 3 Blood Dragon, which is true. However, we don't think a free copy of a cheesy 80s-inspired shooter is worth settling for lower performance, especially given all the new, eye-candy-filled PC games that have rolled out lately. The GTX 650 Ti is just a better card for the money at this point.
Solid-state drives still aren't cheap enough to fit into the Econobox. (Not in our primary recommendations, anyhow, since we also need a mechanical drive for mass storage.) Even sadder, our old mechanical workhorse, Samsung's Spinpoint F3 1TB, appears to have been discontinued.
Don't reach for the Prozac just yet, though, because we've managed to upgrade our storage by selecting a 1TB Seagate Barracuda drive with a 7,200-RPM spindle speed, a 64MB cache, and 6Gbps Serial ATA connectivity available for just $75. Western Digital offers a similar drive, the 1TB Blue, in this price range, but we prefer the Seagate. The 'cuda has fewer, denser platters (just one of 'em, actually), higher performance, and comparable user ratings on Newegg. Our only beef is the two-year warranty, which is unfortunately standard fare in the hard-drive space nowadays.
We're rounding out our storage recs with a DVD burner. Optical drives are almost unnecessary in modern PCs, but this is a full-sized desktop, and we have three 5.25" drive bays just waiting to be filled. A DVD burner like Asus' DRW-24B1ST only costs an extra $20 or so, and it can always come in handy.
We used to recommend Antec's Three Hundred case for this build, but Corsair has bested Antec pretty much across the board with its Carbide Series 200R case. The 200R sells for $60 and packs a wealth of enthusiast-friendly goodness. Thumbscrews abound, the cable-routing holes are nice and wide, the 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.
This system doesn't draw 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 a little more on a branded, high-efficiency unit with good reviews.
The 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.