Top 10 Budget PCs

SAN FRANCISCO (03/03/2000) - Right on, Celeron: Eight out of ten budget systems this month use Celeron power to save money while keeping the data flowing. The majority of systems on the chart use integrated Intel Corp. graphics with a thrifty 4MB of RAM, but here's better news: Nine of the Top 10 offer 17-inch monitors.

1 Nutrend Celeron-500

WHAT'S HOT: Nutrend's $929 Celeron-500 earns a PC WorldBench 98 score of 214--a high number for a Windows 98 system in its CPU class. The 17-inch OptiQuest V71 monitor produces sharp text and vibrant colors. With four open slots (three PCI and one ISA) and four open drive bays, the NuTrend sets aside generous room for expansion.

WHAT'S NOT: Accessing the system's interior requires you to remove first the top, then one of the sides, though once there, we found everything neatly arranged. The flimsy plastic Multimedia EP-280 speakers delivered poor sound that distorted heavily at higher volumes.

WHAT ELSE: The skimpy system manual provides few illustrations, but Nutrend supplies decent documentation for the rest of the hardware. The multimedia keyboard includes various programmable buttons and a comfortable attachable wrist rest. The low price includes Corel's WordPerfect Office 2000 suite and a modem instead of a network card.

BEST USE: A solid, inexpensive, general-computing system for small offices or small businesses on a tight budget.

2 Micro Express Microflex 55C

WHAT'S HOT: With four open slots (three PCI and one ISA) and four open drive bays, the PC's large, well-organized interior allows ample expansion. The interior is easy to access, too: After loosening one large thumbscrew, you remove the top and pop off the side; the shell goes back on just as smoothly.

Microsoft's Natural Keyboard permits comfortable, smooth, quiet typing.

WHAT'S NOT: Our test PC lacked any business suite or software designed for the small or home office.

WHAT ELSE: Among systems powered by a PIII-550 chip, the MicroFlex 55C earns a slightly above average 242 score on PC WorldBench 98. The 17-inch Impression 7VX monitor produces deep colors and sharp text at 1024 by 768 resolution. The MidiLand SW190 Super three-speaker set sports a funky rippled-plastic design; it pumps out adequate audio for most office environments. Documentation includes a quick-setup guide, a system manual, and some component manuals.

BEST USE: This feature-rich system should meet the needs of most home offices or small businesses, but you'll have to get productivity software elsewhere.

3 Racer PC500C

WHAT'S HOT: A $150 price drop gives this already cheap system the lowest price on the budget chart--$799. And with a score of 218 on PC WorldBench 98, this Racer ranks as one of the two fastest Celeron-500 systems we've recorded running Windows 98. A unique minitower design (with side handles for easy portability) simplifies access to the system's innards.

WHAT'S NOT: Colors appeared washed out on the ADI VD-697 17-inch monitor. The DVD-ROM drive, although a welcome feature at this price, did not play our test movie automatically, and playback images on the substandard monitor looked poor.

WHAT ELSE: The unit comes with documentation for all components, but it lacks an overall system manual--a potentially frustrating omission for first-time PC owners. The well-organized system interior offers limited expansion room--three open PCI slots but only one open drive bay.

BEST USE: Providing solid power at a rock-bottom price, this computer would be a suitable purchase for people who don't demand topflight multimedia performance.

4 Quantex SB500C

WHAT'S HOT: With a 215 on our PC WorldBench 98 tests, this Quantex scored several points above the average for a Celeron-500 system. And at only $979, it delivers pretty good bang for your buck. Packing both a modem and a network interface card, this system is ready for any kind of network connectivity. The Quantex MON-XP170DP 17-inch monitor displayed our test images with deep, rich colors, and the text stayed sharp up to the maximum resolution of 1280 by 1024.

WHAT'S NOT: To take off the flimsy side of the minitower, you have to remove two screws and jimmy the side back and forth. The fairly cluttered interior lacks some expandability: There are four open bays but only one open slot.

WHAT ELSE: The large and solidly built keyboard features extra multimedia keys, but it clacks a bit when you type. The SB500c's slim system manual includes lots of screen shots; you also get a setup guide for Windows 98.

BEST USE: A strong performer for the price, this Quantex would fit into almost any business environment trying to tighten its budgetary belt.

5 Dell Optiplex GX100

WHAT'S HOT: Dell's $1152 OptiPlex GX100, one of the few Celeron-based Windows NT systems the PC World Test Center has received, exceeded our expectations.

Equipped with a Celeron-500 processor, the OptiPlex GX100 turned in a respectable PC WorldBench 98 score of 260, surpassing most PIII-450 systems we've tested running NT. The solidly constructed QuietKey keyboard permits smooth, soft typing. With an integrated network interface, a case lock, and built-in Wake-on-LAN management features, this machine ships business-ready.

WHAT'S NOT: The desktop case provides no unoccupied drive bays, only one open RAM slot, and just two free PCI slots. The accompanying system manual covers Windows NT only scantily and includes no information on the OptiPlex's hardware or on any component other than the monitor. (Dell does provide online documentation for all of these parts, however.) There's no way to upgrade the integrated Intel 810 system's AGP graphics and its 4MB of 3D cache unless you resort to a PCI graphics card.

WHAT ELSE: To access the GX100's interior, you simply press two buttons (one on either 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. Fortunately, Dell has replaced the original notebook-style CD-ROM drive with a faster, sturdier model.

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

6 Gateway E-1400

WHAT'S HOT: This pint-size desktop takes up minimal space. And by standing it on its optional base, you can transform the E-1400 into a minitower. At the press of two buttons, the case slides off easily to display a well-organized interior where almost all add-in devices connect directly to the system board (instead of via cables).

WHAT'S NOT: You may have to struggle 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 PCI slots and no available drive 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 it yields fuzzy text and dull colors at the normal 800 by 600 resolution.

WHAT ELSE: Gateway supplies adequate documentation, including quick-setup and technical support guides, but it omits manuals for some of the individual components. The system's PC WorldBench 98 score of 211 is typical for a Celeron-500-based PC running Windows 98.

BEST USE: The space-saving, cable-shunning E-1400 will please corporate buyers.

7 Amax Microplex 5000

WHAT'S HOT: System documentation comes in a great box, with a holder that slides out and dividers that keep all the manuals separated and filed--including the thick overall system manual with its detailed troubleshooting information. The standard minitower case feels a bit flimsy, but it removes and replaces easily. Even at $999, this Amax arrives with several extras, including a DVD-ROM drive and a network card.

WHAT'S NOT: On our test system, the 8X DVD-ROM drive played our movie sporadically (the image went 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 98 score of 206 ranks lower than the scores of most of the Celeron-500 systems we've tested.

WHAT ELSE: Although it features a well-kept interior, the Amax offers only two open bays and no open slots. The Impression 7VX 17-inch monitor shows sharp text, but colors appear a bit washed out. The maximum resolution of 1600 by 1200 could be attained only at 256 colors--not a pretty sight.

BEST USE: With its built-in network card and low price, this Amax could be an excellent cost-cutter for the corporation that doesn't need bleeding-edge speed.

8 Axis Systems Orion 100C DVD

WHAT'S HOT: Though the Orion 100C DVD lacks an MPEG decoder card, its 10X DVD-ROM player works well. The 17-inch ADI CM700 monitor displays crisp images.

The system's documentation includes detailed diagrams and a thorough troubleshooting section.

WHAT'S NOT: With a PC WorldBench 98 score of 210, the Orion 100C DVD is a bit slower than the average Pentium III-450 machine running Windows 98.

Manipulating the case cover requires considerable dexterity--and removal of four screws.

WHAT ELSE: The unit's $1168 price tag might appeal to budget-conscious buyers searching for an expandable multimedia machine with a good monitor.

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

9 Polywell Poly 810CW

WHAT'S HOT: This very affordable $888 system posted a 204 on our PC WorldBench 98 tests, one of the highest scores we've seen for a Celeron-433 machine. It ships with an excellent bound manual full of in-depth computing data, and Polywell provides decent online help.

WHAT'S NOT: Accessing the interior of the tiny minitower case can be a pain:

You have to remove three screws and fiddle with the cover to get it on and off.

The small keyboard seemed flimsy, and the keys felt cramped when we typed.

Polywell uses integrated video and sound to achieve this system's compact size; if you want to upgrade, you will have to buy a PCI graphics board.

WHAT ELSE: The Poly 810CW leaves two slots open for future upgrades, but it has no free internal drive bays and only one available externally accessible bay.

BEST USE: If space and money are constraints, this thrifty system will fit nicely into a budget office environment.

10 PC Connection Epiq BPS4000

WHAT'S HOT: The Epiq BPS4000 ships with a quick-setup guide, a thick technical-support and warranty booklet, and a thorough system manual with detailed diagrams and illustrations. Its interior has six open drive bays and three open slots, but with a sticker price of $987, the Epiq BPS4000 is unlikely to break your budget.

WHAT'S NOT: The flimsy keyboard's keys rest too close together; the speakers produced poor sound; and the 17-inch Epiq Pionex P708 monitor yielded 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 remove three screws. The system earned a score of 206 on PC WorldBench 98--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.

PC Software Bundles

Tech Trend

When you open up the box containing a new PC, it's nice to find a decent software bundle: Microsoft's Office 2000 perhaps, or a good antivirus program.

But what if you've got a corporate account for Office, or you've already purchased utilities? These software bundles could be a waste of money.

Uninstalling software you won't use can also be a pain. We checked out several vendors to see what you could save by eliminating the software extras when you purchase a new PC.

Some budget systems include the bare-bones Microsoft Works suite or omit office software entirely. The default office suite bundled with CyberMax's Entrepreneur series is Corel's WordPerfect Office 2000--a capable suite, but if you already have it or another suite, you won't want to pay for it. Removing it from your system prepurchase saves you only $10, but you'll also save the time needed to uninstall it. Specifying Microsoft Office 2000 Small Business Edition instead would add $119 to the price.

Compaq's Prosignia 330 ships with Microsoft Office 2000 Small Business Edition as the default, but the company offers the same system with only Microsoft Word for $75 less. Similarly, checking out the Dell OptiPlex GX110, we found we could knock $44 off the price by eliminating Symantec Norton Antivirus from the bundle.

You might not save loads of cash, but by examining the software bundle closely, you could avoid throwing money away on software you already have.

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