Think you have to bust your budget for a peppy new desktop PC? Think again. Sure, you can mortgage the farm for a fancy $4000 gaming rig; but if your needs are modest, you can buy a decent, stylish system for a whole lot less. For this review we started with two basic assumptions: Each system had to cost less than $1000, and the price had to cover both the PC and a monitor.
Now let's be real. You won't get Corvette performance at a subcompact price. Similarly, you won't obtain tip-top computing performance from a low-cost machine. But that doesn't mean that you have to settle for junk or that you can't prepare for the future: All but one of our cheap PCs is rated by its maker as Vista-capable (see "Can Cheap PCs Handle Microsoft's Windows Vista?").
Put to the Test
Our tests show that most of these low-end machines provide acceptable performance--they're fine for business or home, so long as you keep your expectations reasonable. Don't expect to be able to play high-end games on these systems--few did well on our graphics tests. In spite of their poor graphics performance, though, most earned a PCW Rating of Good or better, because in our rating system, performance is just one of four major factors that affect the overall rating (the others are price, features, and design).
That said, a clear winner emerged in our roundup: The Micro Express MicroFlex 66B ($999) delivered performance scores we expect from much costlier systems. Our number two pick, Dell's attractive and uncommonly narrow Dimension C521, turned in relatively modest performance scores and for that reason is far more typical of the systems in this price range than the powerful MicroFlex 66B--but it also costs a whopping $270 less.
The PC World Test Center evaluated each system on our WorldBench 5 test suite, which times how long various common tasks in popular applications take. The results plotted a dramatic arc, ranging from the laggardly score of 66 for the Ajump Prive 336 ($499) to the Micro Express MicroFlex 66B's stunning 148.
We also ran an informal multitasking test to see how these PCs behaved when asked to go beyond single-tasking basics. The multitasking test consisted of playing back a DVD movie while encoding an MP3 file in the background--a two-pronged operation that can stress systems costing far more than $1000. To our surprise and delight, only three machines choked on this test, all of them models that were equipped with slower, single-core processors: the Dell Dimension E521 ($489), which carries a 1.8-GHz AMD Sempron 3400+ processor; the Shuttle XPC X100 ($749), which packs a 1.6-GHz Intel Celeron; and the Ajump, another 1.6-GHz Intel Celeron unit. These three PCs were unable to play the test DVD movie smoothly while encoding the music file. (The Ajump system couldn't perform this test at all because its MP3-encoding software crashed repeatedly.)