Top 10 Budget PCs

SAN FRANCISCO (08/28/2000) - Our top Best Buy system, the Micro Express MicroFlex 600A, retains its spot, while NuTrend Computer Products Inc.'s Athlon Special 2, a newcomer in September, moves up a notch to claim second place. The Sys TaskMaster 600D, powered by AMD's new Duron processor, makes a strong debut in the fourth position.

1 Micro Express Microflex 600a

What's hot: An Athlon-600 processor propelled the MicroFlex 600A to a noteworthy score of 134 on our PC WorldBench 2000 tests, not far behind the 140 posted by NuTrend's second-place Athlon Special 2. The Microsoft Natural Keyboard may return overstressed wrists to comfortable, quiet typing. The midsize tower's uncluttered interior has three open PCI slots and four open bays for lots of expansion options.

What's not: This well-rounded system is hard to knock, though business users might wish it came with a network card instead of a modem for connectivity.

What else: A well-organized system manual provides lots of information, including a detailed glossary, but the blurred images and screen shots in the manual look like photocopies. Colors on the 17-inch Impression 7VX monitor appeared deep and rich, and text remained crisp except at the highest resolution of 1600 by 1200, when it began to blur slightly. The ATI Rage Fury graphics card offers both S-Video and composite output--boons for presenters, who can connect it to a TV or a video recorder. The included 6X DVD-ROM drive is a pleasant surprise at this unit's bargain price--many other budget systems feature a plain CD-ROM drive.

Best use: This is an excellent general-use system for a small office seeking performance on a shoestring.

2 Nutrend Athlon Special 2

What's hot: A 10X DVD-ROM drive and an Altec Lansing ACS33 three-speaker set are nice finds at this system's budget US$1199 price. Although you have to remove two screws to take off the side of this basic midsize tower, the panel itself slides on and off quite smoothly, providing easy access for installing new memory or expansion cards. The moderately neat interior boasts four open PCI slots and four open bays, so there's an abundance of room for adding new PCI cards, extra hard drives, or even a CD-RW drive.

What's not: While text looked sharp at 1024 by 768 resolution on the 17-inch Lite-On B1770 NSL monitor, colors at all resolutions in our test images appeared pale and somewhat washed out.

What else: The Athlon-750 processor inside this NuTrend machine earned the system a score of 140 on our PC WorldBench 2000 tests--around the average for similarly configured Windows 98 computers. A large binder houses all the documentation and software--including Corel's WordPerfect Office 2000. The system manual itself contains mostly generic information. A sturdily constructed multimedia keyboard allows smooth (though somewhat noisy) typing and has lots of buttons that can be programmed to do things like start an e-mail program, go to a home page, and so forth.

Best use: The NuTrend Athlon Special 2 delivers adequate performance for budget-minded users with multimedia needs.

New on the Chart

4 Sys Taskmaster 600D

What's hot: Powered by AMD's new budget Duron processor, this 600-MHz TaskMaster earned a score of 159 on our PC WorldBench 2000 tests--higher than the score recorded by a similarly configured Pentium III-600 PC and close to the average for PIII-733 systems. With a case lock, a network interface card, and Windows 2000 Pro, the TaskMaster 600D ships corporate-ready.

What's not: The computer comes bundled with thorough documentation for individual components, but no overall system manual is included. The system also lacks a reset button. You can order a 10X DVD-ROM instead of the generic 17X-40X CD-ROM drive, but a CD-RW drive, useful for archiving data or backing up the system, isn't available. The price is also at the high end of the budget range, although it is still very competitive.

What else: Opening this basic minitower requires the removal of two screws. The side panel flexed when twisted, but it slid on and off smoothly. The small but tidy interior has two free PCI slots and two open bays for expansion. Colors appeared rich on the 17-inch Optiquest Q71 monitor; text displayed clearly at the standard resolution, but letters blurred at the maximum resolution of 1280 by 1024. The keyboard offers smooth and quiet typing and has buttons for sleep, wake-up, and power, but the key is annoyingly undersized.

Best use: For corporate users looking to hop on the AMD budget bandwagon, this Sys machine offers a chance to check out the Duron for a terrific price.

Also of Note

The one new system we reviewed this month made the chart, though price reductions and discontinued models continue to shake up the rankings. Many computer manufacturers are waiting for the Duron processor to become available in larger quantities before releasing their new budget models, so we're expecting a slew of new Duron-based systems to appear in our lab over the next couple of months as a result.

Dell's OptiPlex GX100 pins down the fifth spot this month with tons of corporate features. The eighth-place Racer PC500c, a Celeron-500 PC first tested in February, retains a chart position by virtue of a low price and good performance for its processor class. Premio has cut the price of its Aries T440Z budget system, which we discussed in this space last month, from $1159 to $1040, but that reduction wasn't quite enough to move it onto the chart. And the Toshiba V3100 dropped from the bottom of the chart, bumped off by newer systems and falling prices elsewhere. Also of note for Top 10 watchers: Both Quantex PCs that appeared on last month's chart have been discontinued--the second-place Quantex SB500sx, and the number four M650sx.

As noted last month, AMD's Athlon CPU continues to make a good showing on the chart; it will be interesting to see over the next few months how many vendors switch to the cheaper Duron chip. Intel also has recently introduced Celerons that run at 700 MHz to try to keep the Celeron competitive with the Duron.

It is also interesting to note that many of the vendors are now switching to DVD-ROM drives from plain CD-ROM drives, mainly because prices of DVD-ROM drives have fallen significantly--they now cost only a few dollars more than CD-ROM drives. This means that adding a DVD-ROM drive doesn't add significantly to a PC's overall price, which is of course critical for budget systems.

AMD's Duron Gives the Celeron Some Serious CompetitionThis month we got a first look at AMD's new budget CPU, the Duron, and were impressed. Installed in the Sys TaskMaster 600D, the Duron processor produced excellent numbers on our PC WorldBench 2000 tests. Running Windows 2000 Professional, the Duron scored higher than a PIII-600-based system we've tested. What makes this processor tick?

Unlike AMD's previous value processor line, the K6-2, the Duron uses an integrated Level 2 cache, meaning it's on the same piece of silicon as the processor. This design speeds up performance, since data doesn't have to move off the CPU into the cache on a separate chip, as it does in some other processors. The Duron contains only 64KB of L2 cache but uses a large 128KB of L1 cache, which doesn't have to mirror (that is, to contain exactly the same data as) the L2 cache; the mirroring process slows down some processors. The Celeron has 128KB of L2 cache and 32KB of L1 cache, for a total of 160KB--substantially less than the Duron's 192KB. The Duron's large integrated cache permits faster performance, but the real boost compared to the Celeron comes from the 200-MHz front-side system bus, which enables the Duron to deftly manage communication with system memory. The TaskMaster 600D uses 133-MHz memory, with which the Duron can communicate at the full 133-MHz speed. The Celeron's front-side bus runs at 66 MHz; that slower speed can create a serious bottleneck in system performance.

AMD currently quotes an OEM price (the price it charges manufacturers who build systems using the processor) of $112 for the 600-MHz model, the same price Intel charges for the 600-MHz Celeron (after a price cut). But while the prices are the same, our early tests indicate the Duron has an edge in performance.

That said, we'll have to see how the new chip performs in a wider range of systems before drawing any firm conclusions. We'll also see how the faster Durons compare with the new, faster Celeron processors that Intel has recently launched.

AMD hopes the Duron, currently available in 600-, 650-, and 700-MHz flavors, will be able to compete more successfully against Intel's processors than its K6-2 line did. "It's our first next-generation processor to compete in the value space," says Drew Prairie, a spokesperson for AMD. "It will be similar to what we did with the Athlon in the performance space."

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