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 $600 (after $50 mail-in rebate; monitor costs extra) eMachines T6524 Media Center PC.
The T6524 we evaluated is actually the highest-end model in eMachines' current five-model fall lineup--indicating just how deep into budget country we've ventured. Like its brothers, the T6524 is available only through retail chains such as Circuit City and Best Buy, and in only one fixed configuration. All five 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 2.2GHz Athlon 64 3500+ processor, the eMachines T6524 Media Center PC delivers impressive application performance for this class of system. Although the 3500+ is 200MHz slower than the 3400+ chip found on last quarter's eMachines T6520, the 3500+ is based on a newer chipset that allowed the nearly identical T6524 to edge out the T6520 on CNET Labs' SysMark 2004 application benchmark. Compared with its Intel competition, the eMachines T6524 turned in a score similar to that of the HP z555, which uses a low-end Pentium 4 500-series chip, while trailing the Sony VAIO RB44G, with its midrange Pentium 4 600-series chip. Aiding both Intel-based systems was their use of dedicated graphics cards with 128MB of graphics memory.
Like the T6520 that preceded it, the eMachines T6524 relies on integrated ATI Radeon Xpress 200 graphics that shares main system memory for graphics chores. You'll be able to play only older games on the T6524 at moderate resolutions. 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. Two of the four DIMM slots are filled, allowing you to expand the system's already ample 1GB of 400MHz memory to 4GB.
On the outside of the T6524, 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 T6524 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).