Velocity Micro made a name for itself by turning out custom-crafted, finely tuned, high-end desktops, a few of which it has slipped into Best Buy and, more recently, Circuit City. The company found success by occupying the middle ground between ludicrously expensive PCs from gaming boutiques and cookie-cutter systems from the big-name vendors. While its specialty remains higher-end systems for gaming and digital-media creation, it sells a handful of more affordable desktops on the Home & Home Office page of its Web site, including its annual back-to-school configuration, the Vector GX Campus Edition. While last year's Vector GX gave you a complete setup--including a 17-inch LCD and 2.1-channel speakers--for $999, this year's Campus Special trades the peripherals for some serious CPU overclocking. Cranking up the clock on a cheap, low-end processor allowed the Vector GX Campus Edition to turn in benchmark test results unmatched by the mainstream competition. We give it our highest recommendation--an Editors' Choice--for those heading back to class next month or anyone looking for a fast, affordable desktop for the home.
Aside from the peripherals getting cut from the deal, the Vector GX Campus Edition is roughly the same as last year's model. It features a low-end Intel Core 2 Duo CPU, a midrange Nvidia graphics card, a 250GB hard drive, and a DVD burner inside the same aluminum GX chassis. What's changed? For one, Velocity Micro acquired Overdrive PC earlier this year and has applied Overdrive's HyperClocking technology to raise the Core 2 Duo E6320 clockspeed from 1.86GHz to 3.0GHz. For another, this year's model adds a second gigabyte of memory. Our review unit also includes a hard-drive upgrade; the 320GB drive adds $55 to the price for a still reasonable total of $1,054.
Velocity Micro offers the overclocking free of charge but be sure you select it; the default config on the company Web site starts you off with the CPU running at its stock speed. The HyperClocking requires no other tweaks to configuration; the all-aluminum chassis helps keep thermals in check so that a pricey liquid-cooling system isn't required. One aspect of the design we would change is raising up the front-panel audio and USB ports. They're all located behind a small flip-up door along the very bottom of the front panel, which isn't the most convenient spot when the system is placed on the floor under a desk.
Two other minor quibbles: the Vector GX doesn't embrace wireless as other mainstream desktops have started to. The $979 Dell Inspiron 531 and the $1,149 HP Pavilion Media Center m8120n both serve up a built-in Wi-Fi adapter, and the Dell also offers Bluetooth. You can add an 802.11b/g adapter to the Vector GX for $75, but there isn't an option for Bluetooth.
A bonus to this year's Vector GX Campus Edition compared with last year's is the move to an SLI motherboard. Velocity Micro outfits the system with a single 256MB Nvidia GeForce 8600 GT graphics card, leaving the second x16 PCI Express slot free for future graphics upgrades. The system is a respectable gaming system--especially given the price--right out of the box, but it's nice to see that Velocity Micro give you a flexible path for upgrades down the road.
Looking at the performance results, you can see the advantages of an overclocked CPU. The Vector GX trounced the mainstream competition on CNET Labs' Photoshop CS2 image-processing test and even more so on the iTunes encoding test, which heavily taxes the CPU. The only benchmark where the Vector GX failed to top the competing systems was the Cinebench 9.5 that tests multiple processing cores. Not surprisingly, the quad-core HP Pavilion m8120n took top honors on that test, which supports multithreading for as many as 16 cores. The current state of software, however, favors an overclocked dual-core processor to a quad-core chip. This scenario may be changing as quad-core processing becomes more prevalent and developers release more applications to take advantage of four (and more) processing cores, but given the choice today, we'd opt for an overclocked dual-core chip over a stock quad-core part.
The overclocked CPU also aided Vector GX's frame rates. On Quake 4 at 1,024x768, it enjoyed a 35 percent advantage over the Dell Inspiron 531 that uses the same graphics card. Although not charted, the Dell's performance narrowly edges the Vector GX's as the resolution increases because the GPU is doing more of the heavy lifting as the pixel count increases. The same situation occurs when you look at the $1,430 Gateway DX430X. Its frame rate is nearly identical to the Vector GX's on Quake 4 at the relatively modest 1,024x768 resolution even though it uses a higher-end GeForce 8800 GTS card. However, the Gateway remains at 90 frames per second as the resolution climbs to 1,600x1,200, while the Vector GX dips to 39.5 frames per second (fps).
Velocity Micro provides the industry-average one-year parts-and-labor depot warranty for the Vector GX Campus Edition, but backs the overclocked CPU with a three-year warranty. (While we appreciate the added protection on the tweaked part, why not give students a full four years of coverage given that this is billed as a back-to-school PC? You've got enough to worry about senior year without your PC dying on you when your thesis is half-written.) You can extend the warranty to a three-year plan with on-site service. Oddly, the default warranty on the online configuration tool starts you off with a weak 90-day warranty and lists the one-year warranty for no additional charge. Be sure to select the one-year plan. While it's not 24-7, Velocity's phone support is available from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., ET, on weekdays and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturdays.
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(Shorter bars indicate better performance)