Top 10 Budget PCs

SAN FRANCISCO (05/01/2000) - Budget processing power shoots way up this month as two new 650-MHz PCs grace the chart: The NuTrend Athlon Force 2, based on an AMD Athlon CPU, occupies the fifth spot, and the Quantex Corp. M650, based on an Intel Pentium III, takes number six. Another newcomer, Micro Express's MicroFlex-600A, tops the list thanks to great performance from a 600-MHz processor and an excellent all-around package.

1 MICRO EXPRESS MICROFLEX-600A

WHAT'S HOT: Its Athlon-600 processor propelled the MicroFlex-600A to an outstanding score of 134 on our PC WorldBench 2000 tests, higher than any other machine on the budget chart. For users concerned with ergonomics, a Microsoft Natural keyboard permits comfortable, quiet typing. Inside the midsize tower, we found an uncluttered interior with three open PCI slots and four open bays for lots of expansion. The MicroFlex-600A also has the largest hard drive on the chart: a generous 18GB.

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 connectivity.

WHAT ELSE: A well-organized system manual provides lots of information, including a detailed glossary, but the blurred images look like photocopies.

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

A 6X DVD-ROM drive is a pleasant surprise at this unit's bargain price of $1099.

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

2 NUTREND SIERRA LE

WHAT'S HOT: The Sierra LE costs $1139 and boasts features and performance that put many midrange systems to shame. It comes with an 8X DVD-ROM drive that maintained smooth playback even when we opened other applications. The keyboard offers convenient application-launching buttons. The ATI Rage Fury Pro 3D 2X graphics card provides a TV-out port for putting your PC display on a television monitor.

WHAT'S NOT: Though you get a quick-setup guide, the skimpy manual provides little troubleshooting information. The interior wiring is messy, hampering access to components.

WHAT ELSE: The 17-inch Optiquest Q71 monitor produced bright, crisp colors and sharp text at resolutions up to 1280 by 1024. With four open slots (two PCI and two ISA) and four open bays, the Sierra LE offers lots of expansion room. This Pentium III-500 system earned a WorldBench 2000 score of 120, about average for systems we've tested in its class.

BEST USE: Frequent presenters can use the fast Sierra LE for day-to-day work.

3 QUANTEX SB500C

WHAT'S HOT: Packing both a modem and a network interface card, the SB500c is ready for any kind of connectivity. At $949, this system delivers pretty good bang for your buck. 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. If that's not good enough, the SB500c--unlike most systems with integrated graphics--offers an AGP slot for upgrading.

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

WHAT ELSE: This Quantex system's performance score of 101 on our PC WorldBench 2000 tests is about average for the Celeron-500 systems we've tested. The keyboard is large and solid and has extra multimedia keys, but it clacks a bit as you type. Documentation includes a slim system manual filled with screen shots, and a Windows 98 setup guide.

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

4 ACERPOWER 4400

WHAT'S HOT: Tons of illustrations and loads of excellent upgrading information fill this PC's system manual. The well-designed desktop includes a case lock and a cover that slides off easily. The system also comes with Wake-on-LAN and chassis intrusion detection, as well as Intel's LANDesk Client Manager on disk.

WHAT'S NOT: The added features collide--literally. We had trouble reattaching the case cover because it didn't quite line up with the lock. Reaching an internal drive bay requires removing a metal panel secured by an easy-to-lose screw.

WHAT ELSE: The AcerPower 4400 earned a score of 118 on our PC WorldBench 2000 tests--a tad below average for PIII-600 systems we've tested (but still pretty darn fast for a budget system), due in part to its modest 64MB of RAM. Within its space-saving desktop case, the AcerPower provides two open slots and three open bays. Advent's AV120 two-speaker set attaches to the sides of the monitor; it's easy to set up but delivers mediocre sound.

BEST USE: With a slim desktop design and useful management features, the AcerPower 4400 would make a capable corporate PC for users trying to save both space and a few bucks.

5 NUTREND ATHLON FORCE 2

WHAT'S HOT: The Athlon Force 2 is an upgrader's dream. To access its orderly interior, you simply remove one screw on the midsize tower's top and slide out the side panel. Inside, you'll find generous room for expansion (four open slots and four open bays). A large, well-organized, and colorful binder contains copious documentation and bundled software (including Corel's WordPerfect Office 2000 suite). Less-technical PC users will appreciate the system's well-labeled exterior.

WHAT'S NOT: You'll want to get another display if you buy the Force 2. Colors on the 17-inch Optiquest Q71 monitor appeared diluted, and text was unreadable at the maximum resolution of 1280 by 1024. At $1199, this system is at the upper end of our budget range.

WHAT ELSE: The Force 2's score of 133 on our PC WorldBench 2000 tests matched the average for similarly configured Athlon-650's we've tested. Reset and sleep buttons are located conveniently on the front of the case, and ports are color-coded and labeled for easy setup.

BEST USE: The Athlon Force 2's handy midrange features and outstanding performance shouldn't disappoint small- and home-office users--although you will want to purchase a better monitor.

6 QUANTEX M650

WHAT'S HOT: With its color-coordinated, icon-labeled rear ports and its helpful quick-setup guide, the Quantex M650 comes together easily. For future CPU upgraders, the system's motherboard accommodates both Slot 1 and Socket 370 processors, supporting a broader range of choices. Programmable buttons, including CD-ROM/DVD-ROM and volume controls, come in handy on the comfortable, solidly constructed keyboard.

WHAT'S NOT: Though quick for a budget system, the M650's score of 121 on our PC WorldBench 2000 tests fell significantly short of marks posted by most other Pentium III-650 units we've tested. This lag is due in part to the integrated graphics, which draw from the system's 64MB of RAM.

WHAT ELSE: Colors on the Quantex DP1727 17-inch monitor looked deep and rich, but text blurred at the standard resolution of 1024 by 768 and was almost unreadable at the maximum of 1280 by 1024. The two open PCI slots and four open bays provide adequate room for expansion.

BEST USE: The M650 would make a capable addition to any small office.

7 HP BRIO BA200

WHAT'S HOT: At $898, the Brio BA200 will leave a lot of change in your pocket.

The system manual contains lots of troubleshooting information and many helpful illustrations, and the HP Brio Assist CD-ROM provides even more advice. If those don't suffice, try HP's tech support line--in our anonymous calls, we've found the reps helpful and easy to reach.

WHAT'S NOT: The good tech support will cost you: HP doesn't offer toll-free lines; and after a year, you'll have to pull out a credit card to get them to talk to you.

WHAT ELSE: This Celeron-500 system managed a PC WorldBench 2000 score of 99--average for Celeron-500 units we've tested. Colors on the 17-inch HP 71 monitor appeared deep and rich, with sharp text at most resolutions, though it blurred somewhat at the maximum resolution of 1280 by 1024. If you want to go higher, you'll have to install a PCI graphics card, because you can't upgrade the Brio's integrated Intel 810 AGP graphics.

BEST USE: Any small or medium-size business with modest computing needs and budgets should consider this Brio.

8 RACER PC500C

WHAT'S HOT: At $949, the Racer PC500c is one of the lowest-priced systems on our budget chart. A unique minitower design (with side handles) makes accessing its innards easy. Service from the company's technical support reps earns a rating of Good in our anonymous calls.

WHAT'S NOT: Colors appeared washed out on the system's 17-inch ADI VD-697 monitor. Playback on the 4.8X DVD-ROM drive was poor, primarily because of the substandard monitor.

WHAT ELSE: This Racer's PC WorldBench 2000 score of 102 ranks slightly above average for Celeron-500 systems running Windows 98. The unit comes with documentation for all components, but no overall system manual. The neat interior supports limited expansion--three open PCI slots but only one open drive bay.

BEST USE: Providing solid power at a low price, the Racer would work well for people who don't demand topflight multi-media performance.

9 ACERPOWER 8400

WHAT'S HOT: The AcerPower 8400 packs a generous number of desirable corporate features at a bargain price. The minitower comes complete with chassis intrusion detection, a network interface card, a case lock, and Wake-on-LAN.

The thick system manual includes thorough upgrading information. The CD-ROM drive even includes a dust cleaner for its lens. The drive also has extra buttons for fast-forward, play, and other audio CD options.

WHAT'S NOT: Colors on the 17-inch Acer 77C monitor appeared washed out, while text blurred at 1024 by 768 and was almost unreadable at the maximum resolution of 1280 by 1024.

WHAT ELSE: This machine earned a PC WorldBench 2000 score of 104, about average for similarly configured Pentium III-500 systems we've tested. To open the case, you must remove two screws; the side panel then slides on and off smoothly. The small motherboard and small case make using the two open slots and three open bays a bit difficult.

BEST USE: The AcerPower 8400 is suitable for any business with moderate computing needs; its anti-intrusion and networking features make it ideal for corporate desks.

10 AMAX MICROPLEX 5000

WHAT'S HOT: System documentation comes in a terrific box, with a holder that slides out and dividers that separate all the manuals--including an overall system manual notable for its detailed troubleshooting information. Even at $999, this Amax carries several extras, including an 8X DVD-ROM drive and a network card.

WHAT'S NOT: On our test system, the DVD-ROM drive played our movie sporadically (the image flickered in and out, and sometimes the player didn't work at all) until tech support instructed us to move the MPEG card to a different PCI slot.

The Amax has a Celeron-533 processor, but its PC WorldBench 2000 score of 96 ranks below the scores posted by most other Celeron-500 systems we've tested.

WHAT ELSE: Although it has a tidy interior, the Amax includes only two open bays and no open slots. The 17-inch Impression 7VX monitor displays sharp text, but colors appear a bit washed out. The maximum resolution of 1600 by 1200 is attainable only at 256 colors--not a pretty sight.

BEST USE: With its built-in network card and low price, this Amax represents an excellent cost-cutter for corporations that don't need extreme speed.

Tech Trend

Slot or Socket? Your CPU Knows for Sure

The motherboard on your PC has a suitable slot or socket to accommodate the CPU it uses. Knowing your sockets and slots may not sound important, but if you ever want to upgrade your CPU, it can spare you a headache.

Most Intel Pentium III processors--mounted on a circuit board and contained inside a cartridge--fit into a 242-pin slot dubbed Slot 1. Most Celerons are encased in plastic packaging and fit into a 370-pin socket dubbed Socket 370.

Some motherboards made for Intel CPUs--such as the one used in the Quantex M650 (number six on the Top 10 Budget PCs chart this month)--include both a Slot 1 and a Socket 370.

AMD processors require still other slots and sockets on the motherboard. Though the Athlon chip sits in a cartridge that physically resembles the Pentium III's Slot 1, it occupies a motherboard space called Slot A.

Slot A "looks identical to the Pentium III's Slot 1," says Drew Prairie, a spokesperson for AMD, "but it's keyed 180 degrees opposite, so you can't drop a PIII in there, and we can't drop an Athlon in a Pentium slot."

So if you are considering inserting a new processor into your motherboard, first consult your PC's manual, open the system case, and look carefully inside--or check the motherboard maker's Web site--to see what slot or socket you've got in your system.

And most important, don't even think about wedging an AMD processor into an Intel slot (or vice versa): You can't fool a motherboard, no matter how hard you try.

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