Budget Systems Beef Up

SAN FRANCISCO (05/01/2000) - Those who thought that shelling out big bucks for a Pentium III-600 or Athlon-600 machine last November placed them securely at the front of the power-user pack might want to look twice at this month's Top 10 Budget PCs chart. Three new systems with chips that run at 600 MHz or faster (the MicroFlex-600A from Micro-Express, the NuTrend Athlon Force 2, and the Quantex Corp. M650) make the budget list.

Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc.'s struggle to dominate the chip world has changed the makeup of our Top 10 tables, as CPUs that once stood atop the power chart are now speedy newcomers to the budget category.

We first saw 600-MHz systems on our power chart in November 1999, when it was dominated by 500- and 550-MHz CPUs. Back then a budget system carried a 400- to 466-MHz processor--and we were lucky to see more than 64MB of RAM and a low-speed DVD-ROM drive.

These days, power chart systems arrive with 800 and 850-MHz processors (for example, this month's number nine Sys Performance 850A sports an astonishingly fast Athlon-850 chip). And the new one-gigahertz systems are not far off (look for them on next month's chart).

Budgets Burst With Extras

These blockbuster budget PCs also offer high-end features traditionally seen on midrange and power systems. Take one of this month's budget Best Buys, the Micro Express MicroFlex-600A. It sports an Athlon-600 CPU, 128MB of SDRAM, a whopping 18GB hard drive, an aging but still solid ATI Rage Fury graphics card, and a 6X DVD-ROM drive supported by a hardware MPEG video decoder--and it sells for just $1099. The MicroFlex's score of 134 on PC WorldBench 2000 isn't bad either; in fact, for an Athlon-600 system running Windows 98, it's the highest we've seen.

If space matters more than price, this month's power and midrange machines offer tons of it. Hard drives are monstrous: The smallest on this month's power chart is a hefty 20GB; the smallest on the midrange chart is 10GB. And the largest? The Quantex SM800 offers 40GB of disk space and HP's Vectra VL600 has 30GB. The Sys Performance 850A packs 41GB into two 20.5GB hard drives connected by a RAID card.

We're also seeing more of Iomega's latest removable storage drive, the Zip 250.

Both of this month's higher-end Quantex machines--the SM800 and the SM700--offer this removable storage.

Big Views, Photo-Fantastic Ink Jets

Twenty-one-inch displays are getting cheaper, if this month's Top 10 Monitors is any indication. We looked at these big screens (one model is 22 inches), and six of them are below $1000. Cornerstone Technology sells its latest, the C1025, for a mere $639--the cheapest on the chart--and another, the KDS VS-21e, is just $10 more.

Photo devotees have a lot to celebrate as more and more photo-quality printers enter the ink jet market. Of four new ink jets vying for this month's Top 10, three qualify as photo-quality models--but they are also expensive.

Epson gives us the Stylus Photo 1270, a tabloid-size unit that handles edge-to-edge snapshot printing. HP has both the PhotoSmart P1100, which prints directly from a digital camera, and the wide-format DeskJet 1220C. Despite their differing features, all three printers produce impressive prints using photo settings and glossy paper. But they all carry a $499 price--the second-highest this month, enough to keep them off of the chart.

Freelance writer Joel Strauch and PC World editors Grace Aquino, Lisa Cekan, Eric Dahl, Katharine Dvorak, Mick Lockey, Kalai Murugesan, Kalpana Narayanamurthi, Karen Silver, and Alan Stafford contributed to the Top 100 this month. Testing was performed by Ulrike Diehl-mann, Robert James, Elliot Kirschling, Jeff Kuta, Sean Tieu, and John Tjon of the PC World Test Center.

Your Guide To The Top 100

Questions about our charts? The following information should answer them.

How do the charts work? Each month we test a large number of PCs, printers, scanners, monitors, graphics boards, and modems, and compare them with previously reviewed products. Only the best products land on the Top 10 charts, which are refreshed monthly. System configurations are shown as tested. Vendors may have since changed components.

What does the overall rating mean? This 100-point scale reflects results from our hands-on evaluations and performance tests. A score in the 90s is exceptional, while one in the 70s is above average.

What does the PC WorldBench 2000 score mean? It's a measure of how fast a PC can run a mix of common business applications compared with our baseline machine, an HP Pavilion 8380 with a PII-400 CPU, 96MB of RAM, and an 8GB hard drive. For example, a PC that scores 200 is twice as fast as the baseline system.

Where do the scores for reliability, support quality, and support policies come from? Reliability and support quality scores are based on surveys of PC World readers and on anonymous support calls made by PC World staff. The policies score is based on vendor support policies.

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