| We first resisted leading this article with "What a difference a year makes" because it was an obvious cliché. Our resolve hardened when we realized that in this case the phrase also wasn't even true. It's not that budget computers are boring; they just don't evolve that dramatically. Differences between cheap PCs from year to year are more subtle than the technological advances seen at the other end of the PC spectrum, such as dual-core CPUs and dual-graphics-card configurations. Think of a budget PC as a younger sibling who gets hand-me-downs instead of the latest back-to-school fashions. Just as the winter coat your older brother wore last year will keep you warm when the temperature dips this year, yesterday's PC technology offers ample power for most people today. |
Following last year's roundup, we asked for a PC and a flat-panel display and set the price cap at $1,000 for this story. The only major difference this year is that we required a minimum of 512MB of system memory; last year's was 256MB. We saw some across-the-board changes to last year's models beyond what we prescribed--the unprompted move to 17-inch LCD screens from 15-inchers, for one.
|Product name ||Gateway 5310S ||iBuyPower Value-Pro ||Shuttle XPC K6200h ||Sys MediaMax S2600 ||ZT Group Pro A7055
|Processor ||Intel Pentium 4 519 ||AMD Athlon 64 3500+ ||Intel Celeron D 336 ||AMD Sempron 2600+ ||AMD Athlon 64 3400+
|System memory ||512MB ||1,024MB ||512MB ||512MB ||512MB
|Hard drive size ||160GB ||160GB ||80GB ||80GB ||200GB
|Graphics card slot ||n/a ||PCI Express ||n/a ||AGP ||AGP
|DVD burner ||No ||Yes ||No ||Yes ||Yes
|Monitor ||17-inch LCD ||17-inch LCD ||17-inch LCD ||17-inch LCD ||17-inch LCD
|Parts-and-labor warranty ||1 year ||1 year/3 years ||1 year ||1 year ||3 years
With at least 512MB and a 17-inch LCD, you can expect a comfortable computing experience from any of the systems in this group. All will perform basic home and office tasks, from word processing and Web browsing to e-mail and light photo editing. We know that budget PCs aren't going to break performance records, however, so speed has little impact on our budget-PC rating scale. It accounts for only 10 percent of the final score, to be exact. The remaining 90 percent of the overall rating is divided evenly among a system's design, its feature set, and the company's customer support policy.
The most impressive designs we saw came from the internal virtue of the iBuyPower Value-Pro and the external beauty of the Shuttle XPC K6200h. Among other reasons, we like the iBuyPower because of its modern motherboard and its abundance of free expansion slots and drive bays. With plenty of room for more hard drives, added memory, and even a PCI Express graphics card, you can wrap upgrades around its already respectable core components and turn the iBuyPower Value-Pro into any kind of computer you want.
The Shuttle XPC K6200h is the other design winner. As is typical of small-form-factor PCs in general, the XPC K6200h stands out visually and can easily integrate itself into your home decor. Its utility as your primary desktop, however, is limited by its weak Intel Celeron D CPU and 80GB hard drive.
Shuttle wasn't the only vendor to submit a PC with a small hard drive. The Sys MediaMax S2600 arrived in a living room-friendly case with an 80GB hard drive more befitting the back office. Had Sys spent less on the software bundle (not the multimedia software, but given the Wikipedia and the Web in general, why even bother with the 2005 World Book on CD?) and put that $50 toward a larger hard drive, it would have made a more compelling PC for storing digital media.
For features, the iBuyPower Value-Pro again stands out (are you sensing a pattern yet?). Not only does the Value-Pro boast the fastest CPU in the roundup, AMD's Athlon 64 3500+, it also supplies the most memory with 1GB of 400MHz DDR RAM. Other systems impressed, the ZT Group Pro A7055 and its whopping 200GB hard drive, for example. But with a two-generation-old Nvidia GeForce 400MX graphics card, the Pro A7055 had to dial down Half-Life 2's image quality quite a bit to complete the test (another feather in the iBuyPower system's cap, it took top honors on this test). ZT Group's performance could be worse, though: the Sys MediaMax S2600 and the Gateway 5310S didn't even post a score.
A PC's service and support rarely grabs headlines, but it cannot be underestimated, especially on a low-cost PC. First-time buyers often target budget PCs, and they are likely to need more assistance than a gamer or an enthusiast purchasing a high-end system. ZT Group has the most robust plan with its three full years of parts-and-labor coverage. iBuyPower is close behind with a year of parts and three years of labor protection, along with a year of onsite coverage and a live chat feature on its Web site.
In the end, the iBuyPower Value-Pro is the clear winner here. It offers the best design, the most features, and superior performance while providing one of the best warranties. It excels in all areas and wins our Editors' Choice award.
Read the CNET editor's take