Top 10 Budget PCs

SAN FRANCISCO (04/06/2000) - This month's budget systems aren't quite so budget, with most prices in the $1100 to $1199 range. Racer and Hewlett-Packard Co. make the chart with systems under $900 that also earned respectable PC WorldBench 2000 scores. Best Buys from Micro Express and NuTrend offer great performance, but cost over $1100.

1 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 for ample expansion. And it's 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 easily. The included Microsoft Natural Keyboard permits comfortable, quiet typing.

WHAT'S NOT: Our test PC came without any business suite or other software designed for the small or home office. In our anonymous support calls to Micro Express, we received only Fair service.

WHAT ELSE: Among the Pentium III-550 systems we've tested, the MicroFlex-55C's PC WorldBench 2000 score of 119 is average. The 17-inch Impression 7VX monitor produces deep colors and sharp text at 1024 by 768 resolution. MidiLand's SW190 Super three-speaker set sports a funky rippled-plastic design; the audio itself is adequate for office environments.

BEST USE: This feature-rich system should meet the needs of most home offices or small businesses, but you must buy your productivity software separately.

2 Nutrend Sierra LE

WHAT'S HOT: The Sierra LE costs $1139 and boasts features and performance that put many midrange systems to shame. For example, it comes with an 8X DVD-ROM drive that autoplayed our test movie and maintained smooth playback even while other applications were opening, and the keyboard offers several convenient application-launching buttons. The ATI Rage Fury graphics card provides a TV-out port so you can display your PC desktop 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, making access to components somewhat difficult.

WHAT ELSE: The 17-inch OptiQuest V71 monitor produced bright, crisp colors and sharp text at resolutions up to 1280 by 1024. With four open slots (two PCI, 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 Dell Optiplex GX100

WHAT'S HOT: Dell's $1152 OptiPlex GX100--one of the few Celeron-based Windows NT systems that we've tested--exceeded our expectations. Equipped with a 500-MHz processor, the OptiPlex GX100 turned in a respectable PC WorldBench 2000 score of 127, surpassing most Pentium III-450 systems we've tested with NT. The solid Dell QuietKey keyboard permits smooth, soft-touch typing, but is a little noisy. This machine ships corporate-ready with an integrated network interface, a case lock, and built-in Wake-on-LAN management features.

WHAT'S NOT: The desktop case provides no free drive bays, only one open RAM slot, and just two available PCI slots. The 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 the parts.) There's also no way to upgrade the system's integrated Intel 810 AGP graphics and its 4MB of 3D cache, unless you resort to a PCI graphics card--the motherboard doesn't provide an AGP slot.

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 is destined to grace many a stall in corporate cubicle farms.

4 Quantex SB500C

WHAT'S HOT: Packing both a modem and a network interface card, the SB500c is ready for any kind of connectivity, and at only $979, this system delivers a 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 you need higher resolution, the SB500c lets you upgrade by installing an AGP graphics card, unlike with most systems that have integrated Intel 810 graphics.

WHAT'S NOT: To remove the flimsy side of the midsize tower, 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 PCI slot.

WHAT ELSE: With a 101 on our PC WorldBench 2000 tests, this Quantex scored about average for the Celeron-500 systems that we've tested. The keyboard is large and solid, with extra multimedia keys, but it clacks a bit as you type.

Documentation includes a slim system manual with lots of screen shots, and a Windows 98 setup guide.

BEST USE: A strong performer for the price, the Quantex SB500c would fit into almost any small business that is trying to tighten its budgetary belt.

5 Racer PC500C

WHAT'S HOT: A $150 price drop brings this already cheap system down to $799--the second-lowest price on our budget chart. A unique minitower design (with side handles for portability) makes access to the system's innards easy.

Service from the company's tech support rated Good in our anonymous calls.

WHAT'S NOT: Colors appeared washed out on the 17-inch ADI VD-697 monitor.

Playback on the 4.8X DVD-ROM drive looked poor, mostly due to the substandard monitor.

WHAT ELSE: This Racer's PC WorldBench 2000 score of 102 ranks as average for Celeron-500 systems running Windows 98. It comes with documentation for all components, but not an overall system manual. The neat 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, the Racer makes a nice choice for a second home-office PC.

6 HP Brio BA200

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

Despite its low price, this Celeron-500 system managed a respectable PC WorldBench 2000 score of 99. The system manual features lots of troubleshooting information and many helpful illustrations, and the HP Brio Assist CD-ROM provides even more support. If those don't suffice, try HP's tech support--we've found it helpful and easy to reach.

WHAT'S NOT: The good tech support comes at a price: HP doesn't offer toll-free lines, and after a year, you'll have to pull out a credit card for reps to talk to you. Should you need to get inside for maintenance, you must remove the entire case by loosening three thumbscrews, then carefully jimmy the case free.

WHAT ELSE: The diminutive minitower case has a cluttered interior but only two open expansion (PCI) slots and one open drive bay. Colors on the 17-inch HP 71 monitor appeared deep and rich, with text clear at most resolutions, though it blurred somewhat at the maximum resolution of 1280 by 1024. If you want to go higher, you'll need a PCI graphics card, because you can't upgrade the Brio's integrated Intel 810 AGP graphics.

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

7 PC Connection Epiq BPS 4000

WHAT'S HOT: Its dirt-cheap price of $699--the lowest on our chart. The Epiq BPS 4000 ships with a quick-setup guide, a thick technical-support and warranty booklet, and a thorough system manual with many detailed diagrams and illustrations. Its midsize chassis provides expandability to spare, with four open drive bays and two open PCI slots.

WHAT'S NOT: The flimsy keyboard's keys rest too close together for comfortable typing. Worse, the 17-inch Pionex P708 monitor yielded dull colors of 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: You reach the Epiq's interior by removing three screws. The system earned a score of 95 on PC WorldBench 2000--average for the Celeron-466 systems we've tested under Windows 98.

BEST USE: Spending a little bit more on a better monitor might make the Epiq tolerable for offices on very tight budgets.

8 AcerPower 8400

WHAT'S HOT: Acer's AcerPower 8400 packs many desirable corporate features for a bargain price. The minitower carries chassis intrusion detection, a network interface card, and a case lock. The system manual includes thorough upgrading information and a warranty guide. The CD-ROM drive even comes with a lens cleaner. The drive also boasts extra buttons for fast-forward, play, and other audio CD options.

WHAT'S NOT: Colors on the 17-inch Acer 77C appeared washed out. Text blurred at the standard 1024 by 768 resolution 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 compared with similarly configured PIII-500 systems that we've tested. To get inside, you must remove two screws; the side panel then slides out smoothly.

However, the small motherboard makes accessing the two open slots and three open bays a bit difficult.

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

9 Toshiba V3100

WHAT'S HOT: Toshiba's system documentation includes a handy quick-setup guide and a thick manual with many illustrations covering ergonomics and troubleshooting, though it lacks documentation for individual hardware components. The side of the minitower slides on and off easily after you remove two thumbscrews.

WHAT'S NOT: The V3100 earned a score of 99 on our PC WorldBench 2000 tests--about average for Celeron-500 systems. Typing on the flimsy keyboard was quiet, but the keys seem too close together. At the maximum resolution of 1280 by 1024, the 17-inch Toshiba Tekbright 710V monitor produced somewhat blotchy colors and shadowy text.

WHAT ELSE: Designed for corporate computing, this diminutive system uses integrated video, while speakers and a modem are optional. Standard features include a PCI network interface card and full remote management. The cramped interior is well organized but offers just two open PCI slots and two open bays for expansion.

BEST USE: This solid corporate workhorse should appeal to IT managers looking for moderate power at a bargain price.

10 Polywell Poly LPC 1000

WHAT'S HOT: Talk about space-saving desktop systems--this tiny PC may well get lost under your desk clutter. The LPC's case is about the size of a large book, and it provides some novel features. Besides a built-in network interface and a modem, the Poly supplies S-video and AV-out ports for multimedia presentations.

The excellent documentation includes a quick-setup guide, a thick system manual, and a user guide with general troubleshooting information. Loaded with a generous 128MB of RAM and a monster 27GB hard drive, this Poly still costs only $1199.

WHAT'S NOT: The system's design virtually prohibits upgrading. First off, the interior's tough to reveal: After removing three screws, you slide the internal chassis out of the cover--like opening a box of matches. Second, the minuscule interior makes no room for expansion: You get no open slots or bays, though you could swap the huge hard drive for an even bigger one later. Judging from our anonymous calls, Polywell's tech support rated only Fair.

WHAT ELSE: Diminutive size doesn't hurt the Poly's performance. With a score of 103 on our PC WorldBench 2000 tests, its speed is on par with similarly configured Celeron-500 systems. The 17-inch ADI CM700 monitor delivers deep, rich colors and sharp text, but it blurs a bit at the maximum resolution of 1280 by 1024. Clear sound with thunderous bass emanates from the three-speaker Cambridge PC Works set.

BEST USE: This minuscule Poly would make a great system for a (very) small office with severe space constraints.

ISA Fades Away as PCI Bus Takes Over

Tech Trend

One of the oldest stalwarts of the personal computer world, the 16-bit Industry Standard Architecture bus has been around since 1984. When the 32-bit Peripheral Component Interconnect bus debuted in 1993, ISA still found a home on motherboards--mostly to support modems, network cards, and specialized adapters. But ISA slots (at left in photo) are rare in new PCs, indicating that the technology's days are numbered.

Dell spokesperson Andy Prince says that many companies, including Dell, are moving away from ISA--"It's so much slower a bus than PCI." Of the four Dells placing on our Top 30 charts, only the GX110--number three on our midrange lineup--offers an ISA slot.

Micron's Patrick Kimball agrees with Prince. "While some places in the corporate or government world still need ISA," he says, "going forward, most of our customers [will use PCI]." Neither Micron unit on our charts offers ISA slots. However, systems in Micron's ClientPro line, geared toward computing environments where stability and backward compatibility are important, still include an ISA slot or two.

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