Sticking to a Budget
All of the PCs we reviewed are configured not to exceed a budget of $1000--not including mail-in rebates, but including any point-of-sale instant savings that were available at the time of our review.
At this price ceiling, you'll usually get a machine equipped with a medium or low-end processor from Intel or AMD. Such CPUs run slower and have smaller caches than their higher-end cousins do. A typical sub-$1000 computer doesn't provide much memory, either: Six of the systems we tested came with just 512MB of memory, an amount that results in a noticeable performance hit when you run more than one program at once.
How much difference can a faster processor and increased memory make in performance? A lot, in our experience.
Take the Shuttle XPC X100: We tested this model in two configurations that were identical except as regards its CPU and memory. The $749, 1.6-GHz Celeron M 420-based system equipped with 512MB of memory earned a WorldBench 5 score of 79; the $1323, 1.6-GHz Core Duo 2050-based model with 1GB of memory posted a 92--over 16 percent higher.
Inexpensive desktops usually offer modest-size hard drives. Most of the units we tested had 80GB or 160GB drives, which can fill up quickly when required to store digital images, video, or music files. But four of our models had 250GB drives: the CyberPower Gamer Ultra 7500SE ($999), the Dell Dimension E520 ($989), the top-ranked Micro Express, and the Shuttle G2 2200 ($999).
The graphics capabilities of cheap PCs tend to be elementary, too: Nine of the systems we reviewed employ integrated graphics. Though such graphics continue to improve, their deficiencies will be exposed by a moderately demanding 3D game or by most installations of the new Windows Vista OS. Only two systems--the Micro Express machine and the CyberPower computer--handily maneuvered through our graphics tests that run the games Doom 3 and Far Cry, scoring well above average for the cheap PCs we tested. A third, Dell's Dimension C521, barely scraped through the tests at a playable level. The other systems produced results we rated as unplayable and unsatisfactory for serious or even casual gaming.
Naturally, there are exceptions to these general rules. The HP Media Center TV m7690y--which just squeaks past our price filter at $1000--is the only system we tested that came equipped with an integrated TV tuner; it was also the only machine in the group to provide a DVD burner with LightScribe disc labeling.
Two systems--the Dell Dimension E520 and the CyberPower Gamer Ultra 7500SE--had dual optical drives (a dual-layer DVD burner and a DVD-ROM drive). The Micro Express model was the only value system to include 2GB of memory.
The rudimentary configurations offered by some of our low-cost PCs clearly compromised their performance. Notably, the Ajump Prive 336 ($499), the Dell Dimension E521 ($489), and the eMachines T5048 ($600) struggled to complete some benchmark tests. Such systems may suffice for surfing the Web, editing uncomplicated documents, sending e-mail, or running educational software. But for demanding tasks like playing challenging 3D games, you'll want to purchase a better-performing (albeit more-expensive) PC.