Top 10 Budget PCs

SAN FRANCISCO (07/26/2000) - Our number one Best Buy, the Micro Express MicroFlex 600A, maintains its grip for the fourth month in a row, while Quantex Corp.'s SB500sx breaks into Best Buy territory for the first time. Stepping in at number six, the Dell Computer Corp. OptiPlex GX100 offers corporate users an affordable system with such business-class features as a network card, chassis intrusion detection, and Wake-on-LAN, along with the company's top-notch reliability rating.

1 MICRO EXPRESS MICROFLEX 600A

WHAT'S HOT: Its Athlon-600 processor propelled the MicroFlex 600A to a score of 134 on our PC WorldBench 2000 tests, just shy of the new Sys Technology TaskMaster 600A's score of 135. If your wrists are complaining, the Microsoft Natural Keyboard may pacify them with its comfortable, quiet typing. The uncluttered interior of the midsize tower holds three open PCI slots and four open bays for lots of expansion.

WHAT'S NOT: This well-rounded system is hard to knock, though business users might wish for a network card instead of a modem for office connectivity.

WHAT ELSE: A sensibly organized system manual provides abundant information, including a detailed glossary, but the blurred images look like photocopies.

Colors on the 17-inch Impression 7VX monitor were deep and rich, and text remained crisp except at the highest resolution of 1600 by 1200. The ATI Rage Fury graphics card offers S-Video and composite output--boons for presenters.

The 6X DVD-ROM drive, with smooth playback, is a surprise at this unit's bargain price.

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

2 QUANTEX SB500SX

WHAT'S HOT: Packing both a modem and a network interface card, the Quantex SB500sx is ready for any kind of connectivity your office can throw at it--and at $829, it delivers pretty good pop for your penny. Quantex's 17-inch MON-XP170DP monitor displayed our test images with deep, rich colors, and text stayed sharp up to the maximum resolution of 1280 by 1024.

WHAT'S NOT: To remove the flimsy side panel of the midsize tower case, you have to remove two screws and wiggle it back and forth. The cluttered interior offers limited expandability: four open bays but only a single open PCI slot.

WHAT ELSE: The SB500sx's performance score of 101 on our PC WorldBench 2000 tests is about average for a Celeron-500 system. The keyboard is large and solid and has extra multimedia keys, but it clacks a bit as you type--spend an extra $29 to upgrade to Microsoft's Natural Elite keyboard. Documentation includes a slim system manual filled with illustrations and a Windows 98 setup guide.

BEST USE: A strong performer for the price, this Quantex would suit almost any small business faced with a tight budget.

New on the Chart

3 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 budget system's price of $1199. The fairly neat interior boasts four open PCI slots and four open bays for expansion.

WHAT'S NOT: Text in spreadsheets and other documents looked sharp at 1024 by 768 resolution on the 17-inch Lite-On B1770 NSL monitor, but colors in our test images appeared pale.

WHAT ELSE: The Athlon-750 inside this NuTrend powered it to a score of 140 on PC WorldBench 2000 tests, near the average for similarly configured systems. A large binder houses all the documentation and software--including Corel's WordPerfect Office 2000--but the system manual contains mostly generic information. The sturdily constructed multimedia keyboard allows smooth (albeit a bit clacky) typing and holds lots of programmable buttons.

BEST USE: For a budget system, this NuTrend delivers adequate performance for users with multimedia needs.

6 DELL OPTIPLEX GX100

WHAT'S HOT: Dell's OptiPlex GX100 wins kudos for its innovative design and corporate features, including a slide-out riser board (for easily adding expansion cards), toolless drive bay installation, and a swing-out power supply. With chassis intrusion detection, a case lock, and an integrated network interface, this system is ready for any office with network management.

WHAT'S NOT: The small system manual contains sparse information, and Dell provides no printed documentation for individual components. You'll find plentiful free documentation online, however.

WHAT ELSE: The Celeron-600 processor led this Dell to a score of 111 on our PC WorldBench 2000 tests--reasonable performance for this CPU. Dell's standard midsize tower opens smoothly when you press a button on the front and pop off the side; inside are four open PCI slots and three unoccupied drive bays.

Colors on the Dell E770p 17-inch monitor appeared rich, and text displayed sharply in our photo test images, but 1024 by 768 is the maximum resolution, so this display is not the best choice for businesses that use graphics-intensive or CAD applications.

BEST USE: For the corporate buyer who's looking for high-end features and a low-end price, this OptiPlex fits the bill.

Also of Note

The Premio Aries T440Z lands beyond the Top 10, despite packing business extras such as a network interface card, a case lock, and Microsoft Office 2000 Small Business Edition. Its lackluster performance on our PC WorldBench 2000 tests didn't help its ranking: Even with a PIII-600 inside, this Premio managed a score of only 121, trailing similarly configured systems we've tested. The system is further marred by a tiny and fairly cluttered interior, so upgrading components could be challenging. Although the 17-inch Premio Elite 701 monitor delivered crisp text at average resolutions, it blurred at the maximum resolution of 1280 by 1024, and colors in our test images appeared washed out and a bit tepid.

Two previous Top 10 PCs, Polywell's Poly LPC 1000 and Toshiba's V3100, ease back onto the chart (in ninth and tenth place, respectively), replacing two that dropped off. Last month's number nine, Acer's Power 4400, was discontinued, while Micron's ClientPro Cf fell from view because of its relatively high price.

We've noticed some subtle changes during the past year in the processors that appear in our budget Top 10 PCs. In September 1999, systems powered by Pentium III and Celeron CPUs dominated the budget chart. But that makeup has gradually changed. These days a budget system is more likely to feature an AMD chip than one made by Intel. Beginning with our June 2000 issue, systems carrying AMD processors have been infiltrating the budget chart, slowly gaining ground on those that use Celeron and Pentium III CPUs.

Last month, half the systems on our budget chart came equipped with AMD processors--most of which were based on the Athlon architecture, as opposed to the older K6-2 architecture, which has gravitated to the budget chart in its lower-megahertz form. This month, an AMD Athlon-based system (NuTrend's Athlon Special 2) delivered the fastest CPU performance on the budget Top 10.

Other important changes are on the horizon. Next month, PCs that feature AMD's new Duron processor, intended for price-conscious buyers, will make their appearance. Instead of seeing yesterday's technology on today's budget chart, we'll see more systems carrying chips that Intel and AMD have introduced specifically for this segment of the market.

Tech Trend

Explaining LANDesk and Wake-on-LAN

Many corporate systems--including the Dell OptiPlex GX100 (number six on this month's budget chart)--come with either LANDesk or Wake-on-LAN. Both of these network-management tools can be valuable, but what do they do?

LANDesk and Wake-on-LAN allow network administrators to access client PCs on a network remotely, without disturbing the user. For example, a system administrator can use LANDesk to check a system's processor type, RAM allotment, hard drive size, and other information from a remote location.

LANDesk also enables the administrator to monitor system health and receive alerts if a system problem such as an imminent hard drive failure arises.

Similarly, Wake-on-LAN combines software and hardware to allow administrators to start up systems remotely for after-hours software upgrades, virus scans, and backups. Both Wake-on-LAN and LANDesk can help you manage large groups of computers, but LANDesk usually exacts a small price in return: Systems running remote management software may take a slight performance hit. Fortunately, our PC WorldBench 2000 tests show that the average performance decline is less than 5 percent, which most users won't notice.

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