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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 i3-4130 3.4GHz $129.99
Motherboard ASRock H87M Pro4 $82.99
Memory Crucial Ballistix 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600 $63.99
Graphics MSI Radeon HD 7850 2GB $149.99
Storage Seagate Barracuda 7,200 RPM 1TB $69.99
Asus DRW-24B1ST $19.99
Enclosure Corsair Carbide 200R $59.99
Power supply Corsair CX430M $49.99
Total   $626.92

Dual-core Haswell desktop chips are finally out, which means we can freshen the Econobox's CPU recommendation. Hooray!

Things are a bit more complicated this time, though. Next-gen games are coming out soon, and they seem poised to take advantage of more CPU threads than current titles. The system requirements for Watch Dogs, for instance, call for an old quad-core processor as a minimum, and they recommend top-of-the-line chips with eight threads. That kinda makes sense, superficially speaking. The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One both have eight x86 cores. Someone building a PC with next-gen games in mind therefore ought to get as many cores as he can. Right?

Well, not necessarily. The cores in the PS4 and Xbone are based on AMD's lightweight Jaguar architecture, so they're far slower than those inside modern desktop CPUs. Also, what we know about how games are coded tells us that single-threaded performance will continue to matter for the foreseeable future. Even in next-gen titles, we're unlikely to see workloads spread evenly across eight cores. Rather, we'll probably see one heavy workload and several light ones, which will make single-threaded performance the bottleneck.

For those reasons, we're comfortable recommending two fast Haswell cores with Hyper-Threading (giving us four threads total) for the Econobox. There are like-priced alternatives with more threads among AMD's FX-series processors, but those have lower per-thread performance. An FX-series chip with six threads, for example, could do better in the heavily multithreaded workloads that might appear in next-gen games—but it will also do worse when a single thread is the bottleneck, which is a common situation today and will remain so in the future.

So, yeah. The Core i3-4130 it is.

However unlikely, it's possible that multithreaded performance could matter more than we expect in next-gen games. That's why we've singled out an FX-6300 for our alternatives section below. Just keep in mind that the FX-6300 has other disadvantages beside its poor single-threaded performance: much higher power consumption, an older platform with fewer features, and no upgrade path that we know of. If you're worried about multithreaded performance, then your best bet is probably to spend the extra $60 or so on a quad-core Haswell processor. We've selected one of those, too, in the alts below.

Phew. Now that our overly long CPU recommendation is over with, let's speed through the less contentious stuff, like our motherboard recommendation.

ASRock's H87M Pro4 is based on Intel's H87 chipset, which has all the bells and whistles of the Z87 minus multiplier overclocking support (which we don't need, since we're not recommending an unlocked chip) and proper multi-GPU support (also not needed, since we're not recommending multiple graphics cards). The H87M Pro4 sports quad USB 3.0 ports, six 6Gbps SATA ports, Intel Ethernet, an affordable price tag, and pretty good reviews at Newegg. Since this is a microATX mobo, there are only four expansion slots—but that's more than we need for one discrete GPU and no other expansion cards.

Memory prices are up again, but strangely enough, the gap in pricing between 4GB and 8GB DDR3-1600 dual-channel kits has shrunk. Since going for the smaller memory size would only save us about $10-20, we figure we might as well go with a nice 8GB kit.

Recent price cuts have brought both AMD's Radeon HD 7850 2GB and Nvidia's GeForce GTX 650 Ti Boost 2GB down to around $150. These cards have roughly equivalent performance, and they're both much faster than alternatives like the R7 260X and the standard GTX 650 Ti. The question, then, is which one do we pick?

The 7850 2GB is a little more power-efficient than the 650 Ti Boost 2GB, and it has a better game bundle right now. You can take your pick out of two free games as part of AMD's Never Settle Forever Silver bundle. The competing GeForce comes with $75 of free-to-play credit, which is nice, but nowhere near as generous. We're picking MSI's variant of the 7850 2GB here, since it has a beefy dual-fan cooler that should be nice and quiet.

We don't have the budget to include an SSD by default, so Seagate's 1TB Barracuda returns as the Econobox's system drive. This 7,200-RPM mechanical drive has a single platter, 64MB of cache, and a 6Gbps Serial ATA interface. It also boasts higher performance ratings than WD's comparable Blue 1TB drive, which uses two platters and is likely to be noisier as a result. Too bad neither drive offers more than two years of warranty coverage.

We're rounding out our storage rec 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 could come in handy.

Despite selling for just $60, Corsair's Carbide Series 200R is loaded with enthusiast-friendly features. 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 for SSDs and mini mechanical drives.

We've tested the 200R alongside the Antec Three Hundred Two, an improved version of the classic 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 its Antec rival. The difference was relatively small, however, and we were stress-testing with high-end components that consume a lot more power than our Econobox config. Thermals shouldn't be an issue for this build.

Power supply
Since this system doesn't draw a lot of power, we don't need a beefy PSU. We do, however, want a modicum of quality. We'll spend a little more on a branded, high-efficiency unit with good reviews.

One such unit is Corsair's CX430M, which ticks all the right boxes for the Econobox: 80 Plus Bronze certification, a jumbo intake fan that should be reasonably quiet, a three-year warranty, and a low price. Not only that, but the CX430M also has modular cabling, which will help keep our internals as tidy as possible.

Econobox alternatives
Want more processor cores, an Nvidia graphics card, or a different storage setup? Read on.

Component Item Price
Processor AMD FX-6300 $119.99
Core i5-4430 3.0GHz $189.99
Motherboard Asus M5A97 LE R2.0 $74.99
Graphics Gigabyte GeForce GTX 650 Ti Boost 2GB $149.99
Storage Kingston HyperX 120GB $89.99
Seagate Barracuda 7,200 RPM 2TB $99.99

AMD's FX-6300 has six hardware cores. If next-gen games can tap into all those cores without suffering significant drawbacks from the chip's relatively sluggish single-threaded performance, the FX-6300 may run next-gen games better than the Core i3 in our primary build. We don't think that's a likely scenario, though. The FX-6300 is also hamstrung by a large power envelope (95W, versus 54W for the Core i3) and its need to be paired with a Socket AM3+ motherboard like Asus' M5A97 LE R2.0. The AM3+ platform gives us fewer USB 3.0 ports, slower USB and Serial ATA performance, and a limited upgrade path. It also lacks the SSD caching capabilities built into modern Intel chipsets.

If you want extra cores, the best option, we think, is to spend a little more and buy the Core i5-4430, which is the most affordable quad-core member of the Haswell desktop family. The i5-4430 has more cores and great single-threaded performance, so it should handle next-gen games well no matter their requirements. Shoppers future-proofing for next-gen games may want to splurge on a little extra memory, too.

On the graphics front, the GeForce GTX 650 Ti Boost 2GB probably won't be any faster than the Radeon HD 7850 2GB in next-gen games, but it shouldn't be any slower, either. Don't care about the Radeon's game bundle or its slightly lower power draw? Then the GeForce will serve you just as well. Its ability to configure game settings automatically via GeForce Experience and to record games via ShadowPlay is nice, too.

Finally, we have a couple of storage alternatives to recommend.

For those who can afford one, a solid-state drive is an indispensable addition to any PC. The drastically decreased application load times alone are enough to make you a lifelong convert. We didn't have room in the Econobox's $600 budget for an SSD, but we do in the alts. Kingston's HyperX 120GB is fast, capacious, and cheap. Other options exist in this price range, but the most familiar alternative, Samsung's 840 EVO 120GB, uses three-bit TLC memory with more limited write endurance than the HyperX's two-bit MLC flash.

Just because we're recommending an SSD doesn't mean mechanical storage is good for the scrapyard. Going with the 2TB version of Seagate's Barracuda instead of the 1TB model is a good idea even for folks who put their operating system on a solid-state drive. It's always nice to have room for more high-definition videos and pirate loot Linux ISOs. The 'cuda is fast enough to fill in as a boot drive, too, for those who can't afford the SSD on top of it.