The cost of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is driven by magnetic field strength. Misperceptions as to the impact of field strength on performance have led to systems that are more expensive than they need to be. Careful analysis of all the factors that affect diagnostic quality lead to the conclusion that field strength per se is not a strong determinant of system performance. Freed from the constraints imposed by high-field operation, it is possible to exploit a varied set of opportunities afforded by low-field operation. In addition to lower costs and easier siting, we can take advantage of shortened T1 times, higher contrast, reduced sensitivity to motion, and reduced radiofrequency power deposition. These conceptual advantages can be made to coalesce onto practical imaging systems. We describe a low-cost MRI system that utilizes a permanent magnet of open design. Careful optimization of receiving antennas and acquisition sequences permit performance levels consistent with those needed for an effective diagnostic unit. Ancillary advantages include easy access to the patient, reduced claustrophobia, quiet and comfortable operation, and absence of a missile effect. The system can be sited in 350 sq ft and consumes a modest amount of electricity. MRI equipment of this kind can widen the population base than can access this powerful and beneficial diagnostic modality.