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The Econobox
Because speed doesn't have to cost a fortune
Our low-end Econobox isn't designed to be the cheapest possible combination of parts. Instead, it's a solid and affordable foundation for enthusiasts on a budget. We've avoided cutting corners that would have limited future upgrade options, and at the same time, made sure the system doesn't actually need any upgrades to deliver relatively peppy performance as equipped.

Component Item Reference price Best price
Processor AMD Athlon 64 3000+ (Venice) $114.00
Motherboard Asus A8N-VM CSM $78.00
Memory Corsair Value Select 1GB (2 x 512MB) $79.99
Graphics NVIDIA GeForce 6150 (Integrated) $0


Storage Seagate Barracuda 7200.9 250GB $94.99
NEC ND-3550A DVD+/-RW DL $39.99
Audio NVIDIA nForce 430/ADI AD1986A (Integrated) $0


Enclosure Antec SLK2650-BQE w/350W PSU $75.00
Total $481.97

We're going with the Athlon 64 3000+ for this system, as we did in the last revision of the guide. The Athlon 64 3000+ is priced similarly to some Sempron and Celeron processors, but it uses the same 939-pin socket as AMD's dual-core chips. The use of a Socket 939 motherboard leaves a clear path for an upgrade to a dual-core processor in the future, unlike a budget Sempron or Celeron board. Intel does make some Celerons for the same LGA775 socket as its dual-core Pentium Ds, but their performance will generally trail the Athlon 64's.

Speaking of the Pentium D, Intel now sells a dual-core Pentium D 805 in the same price range as the Athlon 64 3000+. This chip runs at just 2.66GHz on a 533MHz bus, though, and the clock-for-clock performance of a single Pentium D processor core isn't too stellar. As a result, the 805's performance in single-threaded tasks (including most games) will be well below that of the A64 3000+. Overall, we don't think having a second CPU onboard will be sufficient to compensate for the 805's poor single-threaded performance. Some enthusiasts have also reported fairly high overclocks with the Pentium D 805 chip, but an overclocked Pentium D isn't likely to offer an attractive blend of performance, heat production, and power consumption. We're also concerned that adequately meeting the needs of an overclocked Pentium D would require costly upgrades to our power supply and cooling.

We're also sticking with the Asus A8N-VM CSM. nForce4-based motherboards have a pretty good track record, and this particular model offers GeForce 6150 integrated graphics, saving light or non-gamers the need to buy a discrete video card. The 6150 graphics chip isn't half bad, either; it offers the same PureVideo features found in GeForce 6 and 7 series cards, which include hardware acceleration for some types of high-definition video content. That's not too shabby for onboard video, although exploiting some of those features requires specific playback software. Of course, the 6150's 3D performance isn't anything special, so gamers on a budget will want to add a separate graphics card. We've included a recommendation in our Econobox alternatives section.

Apart from its integrated graphics, the A8N-VM CSM has a fairly complete array of features, including PCI Express x16 and x1 slots, four 300MB/s Serial ATA ports with RAID support, DVI and VGA outputs, Gigabit Ethernet, and FireWire. For just under $80, you'll be hard pressed to find a more feature-rich solution, especially from a major manufacturer like Asus.

Memory prices have plummeted lately, so our recommended 1GB Corsair dual-channel kit is an even better choice this time around. At less than $80 for two 512MB sticks, it becomes hard to justify cutting down to anything smaller, especially considering how sluggish Windows XP can get with just 512MB of memory. A full gigabyte gives plenty of headroom for more demanding applications and games, and you won't be forced to upgrade again a few months from now.

We're still recommending Corsair, mainly because Value Select modules are usually the cheapest name-brand offerings around. You may find slightly cheaper memory from smaller or generic manufacturers, but those sacrifice reliability and warranty coverage for a few dollars. Corsair has a great reputation among enthusiasts, and we've had good experiences with Value Select memory in the past.

Not much has happened on the optical front in the last few months, but we've upgraded our optical drive choice to NEC's latest 3550A burner. The NEC ND-3550A burns standard DVD±R at 16X as well as + and - dual-layer DVDs at 8X and 6X, respectively. NEC's line of DVD burners has a reputation for high quality burns with low error rates, so at $40 with a free copy of Nero, the ND-3550A looks like an excellent value.

On the hard drive side, the 250GB Seagate Barracuda 7200.9 offers arguably the best combination of capacity, performance, warranty, and noise levels in the sub-$100 price range. Seagate's own 7200.8 model is slightly cheaper, but the 7200.9 has lower power consumption along with support for 300MB/s Serial ATA transfer rates. Seagate also continues to offer a standard five-year warranty on all its desktop drives, while other manufacturers only provide five years of coverage on more expensive enterprise drives.

Enclosure and power
Budget users too often spend all of their money on a fast CPU and a large hard drive, and then throw in a $30 case and power supply bundle as an afterthought. While cheap cases aren't usually too bad, the bundled power supplies are almost always made with cheap, low-quality components. Iffy power supplies often exhibit low power delivery, voltage fluctuations, poor stress tolerance, and short life spans. In fact, a cheap PSU is not only liable to fail, it can also cause system instability and damage to sensitive components over time.

Antec has earned a reputation as a manufacturer of both high-quality, reliable power supplies, and solid, quiet cases. The SLK2650-BQE combines the two in a fairly cheap bundle, with a 350W Solution series power supply capable of delivering more than enough power for our Econobox. The case is also designed for quiet operation, with a low-speed 120 mm exhaust fan and rubber grommets to dampen hard drive vibrations. $75 may seem like a lot for a budget enclosure, but the quiet, peace of mind, and durability are definitely worth it.