| While working on this story, it occurred to us that Editors' Choice award-winning budget PCs are few and far between. In fact, we can't remember the last time we gave an Editors' Choice to a value PC, which got us wondering. Are we incorrigible snobs or are budget PCs really that awful?
Judging by the budget PCs we tested from ABS, Dell, eMachines, and Systemax, the answer--to the latter question at least--is no: low-cost computers are not inherently terrible. Given the variety of components and designs we saw in this roundup, it's entirely possible to configure a worthy desktop for around $1,000. At this price, you can expect to see a 15-inch flat-panel LCD, a roomy hard drive, and in most cases, a pair of optical drives consisting of a DVD or CD burner and a standard DVD or CD-ROM drive for media playback. While we were somewhat surprised to see DVD burners in our test systems, perhaps most unexpected was that Systemax included a 64-bit processor. We were generally underwhelmed with the integrated graphics chips and the outdated graphics cards, so you can pretty much forget about high-end 3D performance. But gaming and high-end graphics tasks aside, the five PCs here will ably handle basic tasks such as e-mail, Web browsing and word processing. These PCs could even pass as desktop entertainment centers in a dorm room or a small bedroom.
For the most part, we were impressed with the PCs in this group, so much so that we ended our long drought by awarding an Editors' Choice. The eMachines system took home the prize with its fixed-configuration T3085. It won because its processor and memory combination offers the best bang for the buck while boasting the largest hard drive in the group, along with a multiformat DVD-recordable drive. eMachines also wisely opted for an integrated graphics chip, not bothering to waste money on a half-baked, soon-to-be-obsolete 3D card. Should you suddenly develop an interest in gaming, the T3085--with its relatively recent AMD Athlon 3000+ processor and open AGP slot--provides a viable foundation for adding a high-powered graphics card in the future. And tastes may vary, but we found the eMachines design the most visually appealing.
We also saw some missteps. Dell all but paved over the graphics upgrade path by omitting an AGP slot on the Dimension 2400. The 64-bit AMD Athlon chip that came in the Systemax Ascent 64 served it well on our benchmarks, but its 256MB of system memory falls short of the 512MB sweet spot for Windows XP. And the WinBook PowerSpec 8342 offered the largest LCD of the group but is by far the worst performer. You might find it interesting that our winner is a PC with a fixed configuration, which means that you can't mix and match the core components at the time of purchase. This restriction might be a turnoff for some, but in the budget class, choices are limited anyway. Plus, eMachines is able to give you a good deal on its PCs because it can keep fewer parts in stock. You sacrifice some choice, but the reward is a smart configuration with an attractive price, which you'll find in the T3085, our pick among value PCs.
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Rich Brown is an associate editor at CNET.com who covers desktop computers, graphics cards, and PC audio-related products. He is based in CNET's New York City office and is a proud resident of Brooklyn.