The Art of the Deal
You'll see plenty of ads touting all sorts of PC deals. But as we discovered, a deal isn't a bargain if the resulting ultracheap system doesn't deliver the goods. A superlow price, such as the $359 listed for Dell's Dimension C521, usually reflects a bare-bones configuration. Such a PC may lack a monitor, use a very slow processor, or pack as little as 256MB of memory (below our minimum for inclusion in this story). For example, when we added a monitor and a few basic upgrades to the Dell Dimension C521, its price climbed to $729.
Sometimes the advertised price reflects a mail-in rebate or two. eMachines and HP, for instance, offer mail-in rebates of $50 to $100 on the systems we reviewed here. Because we declined to deduct mail-in rebates from the bottom-line price, we often encountered price creep from the computer's lowest advertised price.
Savvy shoppers should keep an eye on deals, as bundles and special promotions change daily. One trend we've noticed: When one rebate or instant-savings program ends, another invariably pops up to take its place. To stay on top of the latest deals, visit sites like DealCatcher.com and TechBargains.com, which aggregate sales and coupon codes for PCs (and more).
Some manufacturers offer preconfigured PCs online with few options--or retail configurations with no options--for less money than the customized versions command. Whether you take this route or you buy a custom-configured system, we advise against skimping on core components such as memory, the hard drive, graphics, or even the DVD burner, with the intention of upgrading those components later. Instead, buy the components you want from the get-go, since they usually cost no more as part of a configuration than if purchased independently. Another benefit: The PC manufacturer will install them for you--and cover them under the system's warranty.
Our tests show that you don't have to spend a fortune to get a pretty good PC. Less than $1000 will fetch a system that can comfortably handle a wide range of tasks. Gamers and video enthusiasts may still prefer to lay out the extra cash for a higher-end machine; but for most purposes, a system like our Best Buy, the Micro Express MicroFlex 66B, or even our number two model, the Dell Dimension C521, is all the PC you need.