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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 include a faster processor and graphics card, solid-state storage, and other luxuries.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i5-4430 3.0GHz $189.99
Motherboard Asus Z87-K $129.99
Memory Crucial Dominator 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600 $66.99
Graphics Sapphire Radeon HD 7870 $184.99
Storage Samsung 840 Series 120GB $99.99
Seagate Barracuda 7,200 RPM 2TB $99.99
Asus DRW-24B1ST $19.99
Audio Asus Xonar DSX $56.99
Enclosure NZXT H2 $99.99
Power supply Corsair CX600M $79.99
Total $1,028.90

As the most affordable member of Intel's Haswell lineup, the Core i5-4430 isn't the most exciting processor in the world. However, with four cores, a 3GHz clock speed (3.2GHz with Turbo), and an 84W power envelope, it's going to deliver solid, power-efficient performance. We don't need much else for the Sweet Spot.

Paying a more for the Core i5-4670K would get us an unlocked upper multiplier for easy overclocking, but it would also set us back another $50, and we've already pushed past the $1000 mark. Haswell doesn't have extensive overclocking headroom, anyway. We think it's wiser to spend less on the processor and more on graphics and solid-state storage.

The Core i5-4430 has another advantage over the i5-4670K: support for Intel's Virtualization Technology for Directed I/O, also known as VT-d. That feature is inexplicably absent from unlocked Haswell CPUs. Not everybody uses virtualization, of course, but those who do may want the 4430 even if they can afford the 4670K.

We've reviewed Z87 boards from all the biggest mobo makers, and we think Asus' offerings are the best overall. The firmware and software are highly polished and very powerful, providing a wealth of tuning options via slick interfaces. Our favorite model so far is the Asus Z87-Pro, which is a little outside the Sweet Spot's budget. Instead, we've selected the pared-down Z87-K.

The Z87-K has the same firmware and software as the Pro. It may not have as many extras, but all the essentials are covered: USB 3.0, 6Gbps Serial ATA, dual PCI Express x16 slots (albeit with only four lanes running through the second one), a couple of legacy PCI slots, and the all-important LGA1150 socket our Haswell processor requires.

We've singled out a Gigabyte motherboard with more USB 3.0 ports, Intel Gigabit Ethernet, and better integrated audio for our alternative recs. That board costs $5 more than the Z87-K, and its firmware and software aren't as mature as what comes with the Asus board. Since the Sweet Spot's discrete sound card removes the need for integrated audio, we're sticking with the Z87-K as our primary choice.

This Corsair Vengeance 2x4GB duo is one of the most affordable DDR3-1600 kits selling at Newegg. The DIMMs runs at the maximum speed officially supported by our processor, and they're covered by a lifetime warranty. We'll take 'em.

When we published our last system guide, the Radeon HD 7870 2GB sold for $215. Two months later, the very same Sapphire card is down to $185. The card's game bundle has changed, as well. You can now redeem two out out of the eight titles from the Never Settle Forever Silver collection. Crysis 3 is no longer included, but we still like the choose-your-own approach. You also have the option of holding your redemption codes for future additions to the Never Settle Forever program.

We were a little torn between the Radeon HD 7870 and GeForce GTX 660 last time, when the GeForce was $15 cheaper than the Radeon. Now that the GeForce costs five bucks more than its rival, the Radeon is the obvious pick.

Option C from the Econobox's storage alternatives doubles as our primary config for the Sweet Spot. We have Samsung's 840 Series 120GB, which should ensure speedy startups and short application load times, and Seagate's 2TB Barracuda 7,200 RPM, which should deliver reasonably quick mass storage at a great price.

There's an optical drive in the mix, too. 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's not a luxury suitable for this budget.

Yeah, yeah, we know some of you think sound cards are relics from the 1990s. However, every time we conduct blind listening tests, even low-end discrete cards wind up sounding noticeably better than motherboard audio. We're not using audiophile-grade speakers, either. 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. The DSX costs less than Creative's latest Sound Blaster cards, too. We liked it so much that we gave the DSX our Editor's Choice award.

Folks with S/PDIF speakers or USB headphones can skip the Xonar. Those solutions 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.

NZXT's H2 has something of a stranglehold on the Sweet Spot. We've considered replacing this case with various other contenders in the sub-$100 arena, but we haven't found one that matches the H2's combination of low noise levels, solid build quality, subdued good looks, and plentiful features. This enclosure is loaded with goodies, 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. If you can find a better $100 case, let us know. Seriously.

Power supply
Corsair's CX600M has all of the same perks as the CX430W we picked for the Econobox: modular cables, 80 Plus Bronze certification, and a big, quiet fan. It also features a higher output capacity and a longer (five-year) warranty. The $80 price tag is competitive, too.