Top 10 Budget PCs

The top of this month's budget chart remains unchanged, as the Micro Express MicroFlex-50D and Quantex M466-2c repeat as Best Buys. But two new machines make the chart: Nutrend's Pentium III-500-based Sierra LE and Acer's AcerPower 4300 Celeron 500 debut in sixth and tenth place, respectively.

1 MICRO EXPRESS MICROFLEX-50D

WHAT'S HOT: With a PC WorldBench 98 score of 324, the $1199 MicroFlex 50D is the fastest Windows 98-based PC on the Budget chart. Text and images on the excellent 17-inch Impression 7VX remain crisp even at the maximum 1600 by 1200 resolution. Software-decoded DVD video plays smoothly, even while other applications crank away in the background. The Altec Lansing ACS-44 speaker-and-subwoofer combination produces good sound.

WHAT'S NOT: Although the corrugated side panel may have been intended to make the system easier to open, it has the opposite effect. Poorly labeled connectors on the rear of the machine may frustrate new owners during installation. To compound these problems, the system ships without a printed manual--but it does come with a quick-start setup guide and adequate documentation for the DVD-ROM drive and the monitor.

WHAT ELSE: The large interior provides ample expansion room, including four open drive bays, six free card slots, and three open memory sockets.

BEST USE: Offices that make heavy use of multimedia for presentations, videoconferencing, or training will appreciate the system's great sound and video.

2 QUANTEX M466-2C

WHAT'S HOT: Inside, you get six open slots, six open drive bays, and a tidily arranged interior.

WHAT'S NOT: Quantex's 17-inch AT897C monitor on our test system suffered from badly blurred text at its 1600 by 1200 setting and looked somewhat fuzzy even at a less strenuous 1024 by 768 resolution.

WHAT ELSE: This Celeron-466-based PC earned a 209 on PC WorldBench 98, about average for a budget chartmaker running Win 98. The 6X DVD-ROM drive accompanying the M466-2c offers smooth, uninterrupted video playback, even with other applications running.

BEST USE: A small office with budget constraints could do much worse than this quick, multipurpose system.

3 DELL OPTIPLEX GX100

WHAT'S HOT: Dell's OptiPlex GX100, one of the few Celeron-based Windows NT systems vendors have delivered to the PC World Test Center, exceeded our expectations in lab tests. Equipped with a Celeron-500 processor, the OptiPlex turned in a PC WorldBench 98 score of 260, surpassing most PIII-450 systems that run NT. The solidly constructed QuietKey keyboard permits smooth, soft typing. With an integrated network interface, a case lock, and Wake-on-LAN management features, this machine ships business-ready.

WHAT'S NOT: This system has no available drive bays, only one open RAM slot, and two free PCI slots. Its system manual scantily covers Windows NT and includes no information on the OptiPlex's hardware or on any components other than the monitor (you can find documentation for all of these things online, however). The system uses an unimpressive notebook-style CD-ROM drive; though excusable in a portable, weight-saving environment, it's too rickety for a desktop system.

WHAT ELSE: To gain access to the interior of this smallish desktop, just press a button on each side of the rather flimsy plastic case and lift off the top.

Dell's 17-inch M770 monitor displays crisp text and bright colors at the standard 1024 by 768 resolution, but the integrated video chip forces you to choose either high resolution or good color depth.

BEST USE: With its compact size, integrated network interface, and management features, the speedy OptiPlex GX100 seems destined to fill many a stall in corporate cubicle farms.

4 AXIS SYSTEMS ORION 100C DVD

WHAT'S HOT: Though this Orion lacks an MPEG decoder card, its 6X DVD-ROM player works well, automatically changing the monitor's resolution to the best setting for video or computer signals. The 17-inch ADI CM700 monitor displays crisp images. The excellent documentation includes detailed diagrams and a thorough troubleshooting section.

WHAT'S NOT: With a score of 210 on our PC WorldBench 98 tests, the Orion 100C DVD is marginally slower than the average Pentium III-450 machine. Manipulating the case cover requires dexterity--and the removal of four screws.

WHAT ELSE: The Orion's $1193 price tag might appeal to budget-conscious buyers searching for an expandable multimedia machine. If you want good audio, however, you'll have to spend more--the system doesn't include speakers at this price.

BEST USE: The Orion 100C DVD makes a solid presentation system.

5 GATEWAY E-1400/CELERON 500

WHAT'S HOT: This pint-size desktop takes up minimal space. And by standing it on its optional base, you can transform the E1400 into a minitower. At the press of two buttons, the case slides off easily to display a well-organized interior where almost all devices connect directly to the system board, instead of via cables.

WHAT'S NOT: You must fiddle with the case to make it fit snugly on its chassis.

Despite its neat appearance, the interior offers little expansion room, with just two open slots and no free bays. The 6.8GB hard drive is small even for a budget system. The 15-inch Gateway EV500 monitor matches the rest of the system's compactness, but produces fuzzy text and dull colors at 800 by 600 resolution.

WHAT ELSE: The Cambridge SoundWorks SBS52 two-speaker set produces crisp audio.

Gateway supplies adequate documentation, including quick-setup and technical support guides, but leaves out some manuals for individual hardware components.

The E1400's PC WorldBench 98 score of 211 is typical of Celeron-500 PCs running Windows 98.

BEST USE: Corporate buyers looking for a compact system with management features will like the E-1400.

6 NUTREND SIERRA LE

WHAT'S HOT: For a modest price of just $1199, the Sierra LE assembles a package of features and performance that puts a lot of midrange systems to shame. For example, it comes with a 6X DVD-ROM drive that autoplayed our test movie and maintained crisp playback even while other applications were running.

WHAT'S NOT: Though the system comes with a quick-setup guide, the skimpy system manual goes very light on troubleshooting information. Gaining access to the interior is unduly complicated, too.

WHAT ELSE: The Sierra LE's 17-inch OptiQuest Q71 monitor produced bright and crisp colors and sharp text at resolutions as high as 1280 by 1024. The accompanying PRO-480 three-speaker set distinguished itself by pumping out powerful sound. With four open slots and the same number of open bays, this system offers plenty of expansion room; unfortunately, the interior looks messy and confusing. This Pentium III-500 system earned a score of 230 on our PC WorldBench 98 tests--average for its class.

BEST USE: The Sierra LE would make an excellent small-office addition for budget-conscious users.

7 MICRON MILLENNIA C466

WHAT'S HOT: The Micron Millennia C466 posted a 213 on PC WorldBench 98, a new high for a Celeron 466-based PC. The minitower PC features color-coded rear ports for easy setup and includes a year of training with the company's Micron University Internet service.

WHAT'S NOT: Text and images on the 17-inch 700VX monitor blurred at the highest resolution of 1280 by 1024. Integrated sound and video and few openings (one PCI slot, one ISA slot, and no AGP connection) make multimedia upgrades difficult. The standard case requires a screwdriver to open.

WHAT ELSE: The software bundle offers Microsoft Office 97 Small Business Edition, Micron Easy Internet, Norton AntiVirus, and a Micron Tutorial CD-ROM.

BEST USE: The speed and affordable price ($1158) of this system make it a decent deal for small office/home office users.

8 MICRO EXPRESS MICROFLEX-40C

WHAT'S HOT: With its AMD K6-III-400 CPU, the $999 MicroFlex-40C posted a respectable PC WorldBench 98 score of 215. The spacious midsize tower houses 128MB of RAM (most similar PCs have 64MB). The Impression 5VX monitor displays sharp images at all resolutions.

WHAT'S NOT: You don't need a screwdriver, but the case is puzzling to open.

Documentation consists of a setup poster, an adequate but generic system manual, and a CD-ROM version of the manual. The reset button looks confusingly like the wake-up button.

WHAT ELSE: Only Norton AntiVirus comes bundled with the system; all other applications are sold a la carte. For gaming, the Altec Lansing ACS44 speakers and Diamond Monster Fusion video card offer adequate sound and visuals, though the graphics board seems like overkill when teamed with the 15-inch monitor.

BEST USE: This Micro Express system has lots of power. Consider it if you're looking to replace an older and slower machine--and if you already have all the day-to-day software you need.

9 PC CONNECTION EPIQ BPS4000

WHAT'S HOT: PC Connection's Epiq BPS4000 ships with a quick-setup guide, a thick tech-support and warranty booklet, and a thorough system manual with detailed diagrams and illustrations. The interior boasts ample expansion room and includes six open drive bays and three open slots. PC Connection provides a lifetime warranty on parts and labor; and with a sticker price of $988, the Epiq BPS4000 won't break your budget.

WHAT'S NOT: You get what you pay for. The flimsy keyboard's keys rest too close together, and the Midiland Mli 691 PA speakers produce distorted sound. Most PCs (even others on the budget chart) include more storage space than the Epiq's puny 6.4GB hard drive offers. The 17-inch Epiq Pionex P708 monitor produced dull colors in our test images; headache-inducing, fuzzy text at 1024 by 768 resolution; and almost illegible text at the maximum resolution of 1280 by 1024.

WHAT ELSE: To reach the Epiq's interior, you must first remove three screws.

The system earned a score of 206 on PC WorldBench 98, which is average for a Celeron-466 system running Windows 98.

BEST USE: Spending a little bit more money to obtain a better monitor might make the Epiq tolerable for offices on very tight budgets, but we've seen better alternatives for the money.

10 ACERPOWER 4300 CELERON 500

WHAT'S HOT: At $875, Acer's AcerPower 4300 doesn't put your wallet in intensive care. The system's thick manual contains lots of helpful information and useful illustrations for beginners. The midsize tower case opens and closes easily, aided by three large thumbscrews. The system comes with a network card.

WHAT'S NOT: With a score of 186 on our PC WorldBench 98 tests, this Celeron-500-based PC has less oomph than the average Celeron-400 system. With only two open slots and three open drive bays, it gives you limited expansion options.

WHAT ELSE: Colors appear a bit dark on the Acer 77C 17-inch monitor, and text displays remain crisp to a maximum resolution of only 1024 by 768. Acer cut costs on this budget system by omitting a set of speakers and opting for integrated graphics and audio chips.

BEST USE: With its network card, the AcerPower 4300 makes an inexpensive choice for a corporation more avid to save money than to gain performance.

ALSO NEW THIS MONTH

We evaluated the following systems along with the others, but they didn't score high enough to reach the Top 10 Budget PCs chart. For write-ups, visit PC World Online (www.pcworld.com/t10pcs).

*Nutrend Celeron 500

*PC Connection Webase K6-2/450

*Racer PC500c

TECH TREND

Refurbished PCs: What Are They Worth?

With the advent of so-called free PCs and cheap PCs similar to those on our budget chart, you might think refurbished computers--used PCs that have been repaired--are going the way of disposable pull tabs on soda cans. But if you have the need and the budget for a low-end machine, a refurbished computer may be worth investigating.

Jim Aspinwall, coauthor of Troubleshooting Your PC and author of IRQ, DMA & I/O, says $300 buys a solid second system for Web surfing, sending e-mail, and handling other low-intensity tasks. That price covers a refurbished PC with a 100- to 180-MHz processor, a 2GB hard drive, 16MB to 32MB of RAM, and a 14-inch monitor. It won't run Quake III or fly across the Web at warp speed, but it will serve as an inexpensive and sensible dorm-room system for a PC-savvy student. Most major manufacturers sell refurbished PCs on their Web sites, as do smaller outfits such as www.computerrenaissance.com.

Spokesperson Hedy Baker of Compaq (which deals in refurbished PCs), agrees: "I think there's a market for refurbished PCs," she says. "It's a different customer set that buys them. It's users familiar with PCs, probably not your first-time buyer." Aspinwall concurs, emphasizing that buying a refurbished PC is not to be taken lightly. Such systems often have OS and upgrade issues, and since Microsoft forbids transfer of licensing on Windows, significantly upgrading an older PC isn't cost-effective. Even so, for certain penny-pinchers "refurbies" might be just the ticket.

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