The Best Bargain PCs
What Does $1000 Really Buy?
What exactly do you give up if you buy a budget desktop or notebook system?
Budget price? Expect budget speed: Cheap machines are fast enough for everyday jobs like e-mail, word processing, Web surfing, and light graphics work, but they can be noticeably slow at handling heavier workloads, such as multitasking in several windows at once, especially if one involves some type of multimedia. For example, a recently tested 2.2-GHz Core 2 Duo T7500-equipped Fujitsu LifeBook N6460 laptop finished our multitasking test in 6.8 minutes, whereas the average notebook in this roundup needed 9.5 minutes. Don't waste money on the next-fastest CPU; it generally won't make much difference in speed. A chip several levels higher--say, a 2-GHz Core 2 Duo T7250 instead of a 1.5-GHz Core 2 Duo T5250--will boost speed as much as 20 percent.
Fewer upgrade options: With any laptop, cheap or not, you almost always have only two upgrade options: replace the hard drive or add memory. (In this roundup, only the Toshiba portable offers the rare option of adding a second internal hard drive.) With a budget desktop PC, you'll likely sacrifice some expandability. For example, don't expect to find the seven or so expansion slots you see in power and gaming towers. Most of these value desktops offer only four expansion slots, and some of the compacts have fewer. Also, in most cases, you can add only low-profile (half-height or half-length) expansion cards.
Missed connections: Though you should have more than enough to get by, you'll have fewer slots, ports, and features in general. For instance, many sub-$1000 laptops lack a FireWire port, built-in Bluetooth connectivity, a fingerprint reader, and bundled productivity applications. On desktop PCs, expect to see fewer USB and FireWire ports, and generally none of the new, high-end ports like an eSATA connection for adding a fast external hard drive.
Cheap PCs got no game: Budget PCs rarely have discrete graphics cards, which are necessary for keeping you alive and well in 3D shoot-'em-up games like Doom and Far Cry. The cheaper the system, the more likely it will rely on video memory that is shared with main system RAM, and that's especially true with laptops. For instance, our HP Pavilion dv2660se Best Buy (which uses integrated Intel graphics) managed only 8 frames per second in Doom 3, while the costlier Acer Aspire 5920-6954 (which has a 256MB nVidia GeForce 8600M GS video chip) played the same game at 59 fps and Far Cry at 76 fps.
Of our sub-$750 desktop group, only the Dell Inspiron 530 shipped with a discrete graphics board (a 128MB nVidia GeForce 8300GS), and only the HP Pavilion s3300z could be configured online with one (a 256MB Radeon HD 2400 Pro, which costs $60 more). Even if you can't specify such a board when you buy your budget PC, you may be able to add one later, if your system has a PCIe x16 slot, for not much more money.
Plainer looks. With the exception of HP's imprinted designer laptops, which look good at any price, don't expect any of these budget systems to win a beauty contest. The laptops tend to be made of a lower-grade plastic, and some of the desktops have cheap cases with small, buzzy fans and components that are held in by screws. Though clearly some look a bit more elegant than others, most have designs that trend toward utilitarian. If a chic unit you can point to with pride in your family room is nevertheless a bit out of your reach, you might prefer something whose plain looks won't call attention to itself.
How Do Linux-Based Budget PCs Compare?
Read our review of two low-cost Linux-based desktop PCs (Everex's "green," $199 gPC TC2502 and Mirus's $299 SITLC420) and see how they handle everyday computing tasks. You can also see our review of the $399 Asus Eee PC 4G--a Linux-based sub-laptop with a 7-inch display.
The Best Bargain PCs