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Cheap PCs rated

Think you have to bust your budget for a peppy new desktop PC? Think again. Sure, you can mortgage the farm for a fancy US$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 US$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.

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 round-up: The Micro Express MicroFlex 66B (US$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 US$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 (US$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 US$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 (US$489), which carries a 1.8-GHz AMD Sempron 3400+ processor; the Shuttle XPC X100 (US$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.)

Sticking to a budget

All of the PCs we reviewed are configured not to exceed a budget of US$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 US$749, 1.6-GHz Celeron M 420-based system equipped with 512MB of memory earned a WorldBench 5 score of 79; the US$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 (US$999), the Dell Dimension E520 (US$989), the top-ranked Micro Express, and the Shuttle G2 2200 (US$999).

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Richard Baguley

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