Desktops: Fast, furious, and affordable

SAN FRANCISCO (11/20/2003) - Pundits predicting the demise of the humble PC should return to their Ouija boards and reconsider their predictions. Computers--especially in the home--are capable of doing more than ever before.

Video editing, video conferencing, and home entertainment are now common activities on home-based computers, along with such standbys as e-mailing, printing digital photos, creating MP3 files, connecting to the office, and finishing work at home (a necessary evil these days). PC boxes are also getting more interesting: Styles and shapes vary from the elegant black and silver to candy-apple red, and from small cubes the size of a shoebox to full-size towers that could house a small dog.

For this month's guide to the best hardware products, we've divided desktop PCs into three categories: entertainment, mainstream, and no-frills. Our picks represent the most interesting models that have passed through the PC World Test Center. For the entertainment category, we considered top-of-the-line gaming machines as well as systems that provide a range of multimedia extras, such as a TV tuner and a remote control.

Mainstream PCs are the jacks-of-all-trades. With their balance of performance, features, and price, these models can do double or triple duty, deftly handling everything from intensive database work to gaming to working (or playing) with digital photography and video.

A no-frills PC is usually thought of as underpowered, underequipped, and often just plain ugly. But our picks in this category--both of which cost under US$1000--show that you can get a lot more computer than you may have thought.

Engaging Entertainers

The word extreme best describes a PC targeted at performance-crazed gamers--typically it's a huge, very stylized tower with the latest processor, a graphics card that can drive high frame rates on complex games, and a speaker set that delivers loud, powerful, 5.1-channel surround sound. A multitude of cooling fans, colored interior lights, and clear windows showing off the insides of the case are also de rigueur.

Our pick for top entertainment system, the Alienware Corp. Aurora Extreme, fits that profile nicely. Its $4113 price tag will give anyone pause, but the system is outfitted with a list of features that's sure to create hardware envy: Advanced Micro Devices Inc.'s brand-new 64-bit 2.2-GHz Athlon 64 FX-51, 1GB of dual-channel DDR400 SDRAM, ATI Technologies Inc.'s Radeon 9800 Pro graphics board (with 256MB of memory), two RAID-configured 80GB hard drives, and an audio system that includes terrific-sounding Klipsch ProMedia Ultra 5.1 speakers and Creative Labs Inc.'s Sound Blaster Audigy 2 Platinum sound board and drive (which adds a slew of audio ports accessible via a drive bay). What the Alienware case lacks in colored lights and windows, it makes up for in rad styling: Our test unit came in polished black (blue and lime green are also available), with the company's distinctive, vaguely alien-looking front panel.

We had high expectations for the Aurora Extreme's performance, and we were not disappointed: It generally whipped through our high-end graphics tests, and it churned out some of the fastest frame rates we've seen to date in our tests with the visually demanding Return to Castle Wolfenstein displayed at 1280 by 1024 resolution and 32-bit color.

The Aurora earned a score of 141 on our PC WorldBench 4 tests--the top score that we've recorded so far, though only one point better than our previous speed champ, the ABS Computers Technologies Inc's .Ultimate M5 (read on for more on the latter machine).

A dual-format DVD burner and a flash-media reader are not critical for a gaming system, but they're good to have. Our one knock on the Aurora (aside from having to hock the family jewels to pay for it) is that the USB ports are placed inconveniently at the bottom edge of the case.

If your idea of entertainment skews more toward TV and DVD movies, either of our other two picks in this category--Dell Inc.'s "slimline" Dimension 4600C and Hewlett-Packard Co.'s stylish Pavilion M390n minitower--can serve as an entertainment hub for playing back your digital music, images, and video. Both systems use Microsoft's new Windows XP Media Center 2004 Edition and include a built-in TV tuner and wireless remote control. The new version of Media Center adds improved navigation, one-touch CD-ripping, and a better interface for sorting through recorded TV. The $1949 Dimension 4600C is notable for its small size--it's about as big as a VCR--and flexible orientation (it can stand vertically or horizontally). The $2665 Pavilion M390n earns high marks for its classy-looking, well-designed case (which includes a space on top to accommodate an HP digital camera dock, plus front-accessible analog and S-Video inputs), impressive sound, and easy setup.

Although both systems turned in respectable performance, neither proved a powerhouse. The Dimension 4600C, with a 2.8-GHz Pentium 4 CPU and 512MB of DDR400 SDRAM--scored a decent 114 on PC WorldBench 4. The 3.2-GHz Pentium 4-equipped Pavilion M390n, with the same amount of memory, scored only slightly better, earning a 117 on PC WorldBench 4. Both systems' graphics frame rates were mediocre--suitable only for low-end gaming.

Slim Style

The Dell Dimension 4600C's sleek chassis will fit equally well in a home entertainment center or on a desk. The system can stand vertically and has a flip door to cover its DVD+R/RW drive, PC Card slots, and front-accessible ports.

Mainstream Marvels

This broad-ranging category offers a diverse mix of price, performance, and configurations. The most powerful systems pair the latest AMD or Intel processor with a gigabyte of fast, dual-channel DDR400 memory. Often, they also include flash-media readers, dual-format DVD+R/RW and DVD-R/RW burners, and dual Serial ATA hard drives configured as a striped-RAID volume (the ABS and Gateway models in this category, for example). Prices for these workhorses hover around $3000. With lower-priced systems--those under $2000--you typically get an older, slower processor, a smaller LCD monitor (a 15-incher versus a 17- or 18-inch unit), and less RAM.

Our top pick, the ABS Ultimate M5, strikes a pleasing balance between performance, components, and price. With an AMD 2.2-GHz Athlon XP 3200+ CPU and 1GB of DDR400 SDRAM, the $2299 Ultimate M5 delivered a speedy score of 140 on our PC WorldBench 4 tests, the fastest among the systems we considered for this category. Game play was impressive, too: The 128MB ATI Radeon 9800 Pro graphics card, a common choice for many top-flight PCs, delivered fast frame rates in our Unreal Tournament 2003 tests. Game images looked great on the 19-inch CRT monitor (the CRT helps keep the price of this system relatively low), and the sound from the Logitech Z-680 speakers, a 5.1 set, was first-rate.

The well-equipped Dell Dimension 8300 gets a nod for its deft graphics performance on our gaming tests. This 3.2-GHz Pentium 4 system generated high frame rates using its 128MB ATI Radeon 9800 Pro graphics card. We also liked both the image quality from its 18-inch LCD display and the resplendent sound produced by the Altec Lansing ADA995 speaker set. While this system is no bargain, its $3199 price tag is about average for such a high-end configuration.

The Dimension 8300 looks almost cheap, though, compared with the Gateway 710XL's $3579 price. But the 710XL is packed with top-grade components, including a whopping 500GB of storage. The 710XL is a performer, too: It earned a score of 126 on PC WorldBench 4--well above average for the PCs we tested for this review. Equipped with a 256MB NVidia GeForce FX 5900G Ultra graphics card, the 710XL produced blazing frame rates and terrific images running Unreal Tournament 2003 at 1280 by 1024 resolution and 32-bit color, the optimal setting for its bundled 18-inch FBD1830 LCD.

The most affordable system in this group, the $1329 HP Pavilion A350n, is a fine amalgam of moderate performance, modest pricing, and midrange configuration. The price includes a DVD+R/RW drive, a 120GB hard drive, and a memory card reader. Add to that the terrific-looking images on the HP F1503 15-inch flat-panel LCD monitor, and you have a system well-suited for managing and editing your digital photography.

Office PC no longer equates with boring looking. MPC's stylish ClientPro All-in-One, for example, is both business- and entertainment-focused. This $2969 system's core components are integrated into a trim 17-inch LCD monitor--which means that the whole package takes up very little space but also that any upgrades are limited to what you can plug into its USB 2.0 or FireWire ports. The unit we received had a VGA-out port to attach a second monitor, as well as a TV tuner card. The LCD produced generally acceptable image quality on our test images, though it looked a tad dark in the corners. Equipped with an Intel 2.8-GHz Pentium 4 and 512MB of DDR333 SDRAM, this ClientPro earned a very respectable PC WorldBench 4 score of 122. The 64MB ATI Mobility Radeon 9000 integrated graphics will suffice for most business applications, and it performed well in our graphics tests: We didn't spot any stutters in game play, as is sometimes the case with integrated graphics. The LCD has built-in 2.1-channel speakers, but our test system came with Altec Lansing's fine-sounding 5.1-channel 5100 speaker set.

Slots, Anyone?

Memory card readers are an increasingly common sight on desktop PCs. The slots typically support up to seven formats and are either built into a drive bay or, as in the case of this HP Pavilion, part of the chassis's design.

Viable, No-Frills Values

You'll have to make some sacrifices if you're buying a no-frills PC--say bye-bye to that sleek 18-inch LCD, for instance. But you can pick and choose between performance and features and still keep the price under a grand. Our top pick in this category, the $993 Polywell Computers Inc. Poly 880NF2-2800, tilts toward performance: Configured with a 2.08-GHz Athlon XP 2800+ CPU and 512MB of DDR333 SDRAM, it earned a solid PC WorldBench 4 score of 127--comparing favorably with pricier systems using Intel's 3.2-GHz CPU. The compromise? You have to settle for a rather mundane 17-inch CRT monitor, CD-RW and DVD-ROM drives instead of a DVD burner, and average graphics.

Despite its name, the $828 HP Business Desktop D325 Microtower is also a solid general-use system. This 2.13-GHz Athlon XP 2600+ model is a good performer--it scored a 122 on our PC WorldBench 4 tests--with average graphics. However, the D325 configuration we tested is a bare-bones model, with only a 15-inch CRT monitor (and side-mounted speakers); a CD-ROM drive; a 40GB hard drive; and 256MB of DDR233 SDRAM. You can bump up the specs--but you'll bump the price up a few notches, too.

-- Mick Lockey

Diminutive Systems for Small Spaces

Whether you're trying to save real estate on your desk, or you just want a cool-looking conversation piece, there are several styles of ultracompact desktop systems to choose from. Some are barely bigger than an external, full-size optical drive, while others resemble a short stack of textbooks, with a handle on top. The trade-off in using a small-size PC is what you can't stuff in the box. Say so long to multiple optical drives and hard drives (those extras will have to hang outside your PC on USB cables). But given the proliferation of massive hard drives, multiformat optical writers, and ever-improving integrated sound and graphics, you can still get plenty of function in a small form.

The machines in Stealth Computer's Little PC line are among the smallest we've seen. The LPC-401 is just 10 by 5.8 by 2.9 inches--barely bigger than two external 5.25-inch optical drives on top of one another. We were not greatly impressed with this model when we tested it six months ago: Its performance was hampered by a relatively slow notebook hard drive and integrated 2D graphics. However, a new model, the LPC-401P, adds a faster CPU (a 2.8-GHz Pentium 4), a PC Card slot, a 120GB hard drive, and an 8X/8X/24X CD-RW drive. Those upgrades bumped the price up nearly a grand to $2080, but the aluminum chassis's dimensions remain unchanged.

If you're willing to go a little larger--about the size of two shoe boxes--companies like ABS and Amax sell systems with more powerful motherboards and higher-end components (such as a 3-GHz Pentium 4 CPU; a 200GB, 3.5-inch hard drive; and ATI Radeon 9800 Pro-based graphics). Amax also sells partially assembled units that include the heat sink, the motherboard, and the power supply--you add the hard drive, the optical drive, and the operating system. Like the Stealth PCs, these machines offer little internal expandability, but they're powerful enough for most apps and look very cool sitting on a desktop.

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