Gateway's low-end eMachines PCs target families, students, and the similarly budget-conscious with a tried-and-true formula: offering a tiny selection of cheap, ready-to-ship products. Want to configure your own system? Try somewhere else. Need a fancy graphics card or a big monitor? You're in the wrong place. But if you want the basics at a bargain price, you need look no further than the $920 ($650 without monitor) eMachines T6520 Media Center PC.
The T6520 we evaluated is actually the highest-end model in eMachines' current four-model fall lineup--indicating just how deep into budget country we've ventured. Like its brothers, the T6520 is available only through retail chains such as Circuit City and Best Buy, and in only one fixed configuration. All four models share the same silver-and-black external plastics (clearly bearing the stamp of Gateway's in-house designers), differing only in their guts.
Based on AMD's 2.4GHz Athlon 64 3400+ processor, the eMachines T6520 Media Center PC delivers impressive application performance for this class of system. In testing, it ran circles around the more expensive Gateway 5310S we covered in a recent sub-$1,000 PC roundup. The T6520 also held its own against the Editors' Choice-winning iBuyPower Value-Pro, falling only a few points short of the iBuyPower machine on our SysMark 2004 test.
Nonetheless, the T6520 didn't fare well on CNET Labs' 3D-gaming benchmarks, although low-cost PCs rarely do. Its integrated ATI Radeon Xpress 200 graphics chip handled our 1,024x768 resolution Unreal Tournament 2003 test with a passable 42.1 frames per second (fps). On our 1,024x768 Half-Life 2 test, the T6520 managed only 10.2fps--an unplayable clip by any standard. We don't recommend the T6520 for gaming as is; fortunately, its unoccupied x16 PCI Express graphics slot can accommodate an upgrade to a discrete graphics card.
Once you wrestle the deceptively difficult side panel off the case, you'll find a nifty interior that provides ample room to grow. In addition to the aforementioned PCI Express graphics port, you get plenty of spare PCI slots and drive bays, should you need them. There is one expansion drawback: the T6520's motherboard has only two DIMM slots, and both come filled (with, we must mention, a healthy 1GB of RAM). If you ever want to add more memory, you'll first have to discard one of the 512MB sticks that came with the system--a less than ideal solution.
On the outside of the T6520, you'll also find lots to get excited about: a double-layer DVD burner, a 48X CD-ROM drive, and an 8-in-1 flash-card reader on the front panel, along with a full complement of ports around back. Although the eMachines T6520 Media Center PC provides seven USB 2.0 ports (with three up front), you get but one six-pin FireWire port (located on the back panel).