Top 10 Budget PCs

SAN FRANCISCO (05/26/2000) - Half the systems on this month's chart cost less than $1000, including new entries from Axis Systems Inc. and Gateway 2000 Inc.

And if you want faster computing power in your budget PC, check out the pricier machines on our chart--several, like the new IDot.com SA Series 600, pack CPUs of 600 MHz or higher.

1 MICRO EXPRESSMICROFLEX-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. Also, be careful where you click: At last check, Micro Express had priced this system at more than $1700 on its Web site; you must call the company to get the $1099 price.

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 appear deep and rich, and text remains crisp except at the highest resolution of 1600 by 1200. The ATI Rage Fury graphics card offers S-Video and composite output--boons for presenters.

The 6X DVD-ROM drive is a pleasant surprise at this unit's bargain price.

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

2 AXIS SYSTEMS TERRA MX10

WHAT'S HOT: For $929, the Terra MX10 won't dig too deep a hole in your pocket.

The PC ships with a detailed system manual, which includes helpful troubleshooting and upgrading information, as well as thorough documentation for system components. The fairly neat interior of the midsize tower offers substantial room for expansion: four open slots (three PCI and one ISA) and four open bays (one internal and three at the front of the case); however, access to the internal bay is somewhat impeded by the CPU. The 17-inch Axis 700EX monitor produces rich colors and crisp text, with only slight blurring at its maximum resolution of 1280 by 1024.

WHAT'S NOT: Based on an AMD K6-2-550 CPU, this system earned a score of 124 on our PC WorldBench 2000 tests. Although that's not bad for a budget system, it is the lowest posted by any Windows NT system we've tested (including a Celeron-500 machine with only 64MB of RAM).

WHAT ELSE: To get inside the midsize case, you must remove four screws that are easily lost; reattaching the case takes some wiggling. The generic keyboard includes a detachable wrist rest, but getting the keys to register requires too much pressure. Well-labeled rear ports ease setup.

BEST USE: Most NT users will need more power than this system provides, but with its sub-$1000 price, the Terra MX10 should suit those with cost constraints and no prejudice against slightly slower processors.

3 IDOT.COM SA SERIES 600

WHAT'S HOT: This basic midsize tower makes a smooth transition from box to desk, thanks to color-coordinated rear ports and a detailed setup poster. In addition, IDot.com's spiral-bound manual contains excellent troubleshooting information and documentation for most components. Expandability abounds with four open slots (three PCI and one ISA) and three open drive bays in the neat but cramped interior.

WHAT'S NOT: Text on the 17-inch Leoptics Comfortview monitor looks slightly fuzzy at a standard resolution of 1024 by 768, and colors appear dull. Typing on the somewhat flimsy keyboard feels smooth but causes loud clacking.

WHAT ELSE: With an Athlon-600 CPU and running Windows 98, the SA Series 600 earned a PC WorldBench 2000 score of 125--low compared with those of similarly configured Athlon-600 systems we've tested. For $1169, the PC comes network ready and includes a 13.5GB hard drive. Fastened by one thumbscrew, the side of the case is easy to remove, but reattaching it can be difficult.

BEST USE: This PC would be at home in a networked small office that's keeping an eye on the bottom line.

4 QUANTEX SB500C

WHAT'S HOT: Packing both a modem and a network interface card, the Quantex SB500c is ready for any kind of connectivity--and at $899, it delivers pretty good pop for your penny. 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 lift the flimsy side panel of the midsize tower, you must remove two screws and wiggle it back and forth. The cluttered interior offers limited expandability: It holds four open bays but only one open slot (PCI).

WHAT ELSE: The Quantex SB500c'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; spend an extra $29 to upgrade to the Microsoft Natural Elite keyboard. Documentation includes a slim system manual filled with illustrations, as well as 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.

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 lots of room for expansion--there are 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). Users will also appreciate the system's well-labeled exterior.

WHAT'S NOT: You'll want to get a better display if you buy the Force 2: Colors on the 17-inch Optiquest Q71 monitor appear diluted, and text is 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-650s 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--though we recommend purchasing a better monitor.

6 QUANTEX M650

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

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

WHAT ELSE: Colors on the Quantex DP1727 17-inch monitor look rich, but text is blurry at the standard resolution of 1024 by 768 and almost unreadable at the maximum of 1280 by 1024. The system's two open PCI slots and four open bays provide adequate expansion room.

BEST USE: The M650 would make a capable addition to any small office, though heavy word processing users may want to spring for a sharper monitor.

7 GATEWAY GP6-466C

WHAT'S HOT: The large system manual offers excellent troubleshooting and upgrading information, bolstered by plenty of color illustrations. A network interface card and Microsoft Office 2000 Small Business Edition are nice extras at the unit's low price of $949. A PC WorldBench 2000 score of 99 is above the average for similarly configured Celeron-466 systems running Windows 98.

WHAT'S NOT: It's still a Celeron-466, which is slow even for the budget chart.

Couple that with the small (15-inch) Gateway EV500 monitor, and you've got a not-bad system--from last year.

WHAT ELSE: To access the interior of this standard minitower, you must remove five easy-to-lose screws, then pull the entire case off. The inside is crowded with wires and cables; together with the power supply, they hinder access to the single open drive bay. (However, access is clear around the three open PCI slots.)BEST USE: This Gateway would make an inexpensive networked system for users who don't need a powerhouse.

8 ACERPOWER 4400

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

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 easily lost screw.

WHAT ELSE: The AcerPower 4400 earned a PC WorldBench 2000 score of 118--a tad below average for PIII-600 systems that we've tested (though still pretty fast for a budget unit), due in part to its modest 64MB of RAM. Within its space-saving case, the AcerPower provides two open slots and three open bays.

Advent's AV120 two-speaker set attaches to the sides of the monitor; the speakers are easy to set up but deliver mediocre sound.

BEST USE: With its slim desktop design and useful management features, the $1199 AcerPower 4400 would make a capable corporate computer for users who are trying to save desk space and a few bucks.

9 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 representatives earned a rating of Good in our anonymous calls.

WHAT'S NOT: Colors appear 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 display.

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 free drive bay.

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

10 AMAX MICROPLEX 5000

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

WHAT'S NOT: On our test unit, 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 MicroPlex 5000 has a Celeron-533 processor, but its PC WorldBench 2000 score of 96 ranks below those posted by most other Celeron-500 models 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.

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

Tech Trend

Are Serial Ports on Their Way Out?

Many new PCs shipping from major vendors supply only one serial port for connecting peripheral devices such as modems and digital cameras. Is the serial port being phased out in favor of the faster Universal Serial Bus?

Willy Hsu, a spokesperson for Axis Systems, says that very few of Axis's customers are using new serial devices or require more than one serial port.

(Thus the Axis Terra AXD, number two on the Top 10 Power PCs chart, has only one serial port.) "As far as we're concerned, we could do without [serial ports]," says Hsu.

The Legacy Free version of Compaq's new IPaq desktop PC does away with serial ports altogether, shipping instead with five USB ports. And the standard version of the IPaq includes just one serial port. "We've heard from our customers that there are a number of technologies...including [serial] ports on the back of the PC, that they were not using," explains Michael Takemura, worldwide marketing manager for the IPaq line.

Most vendors still offer two serial ports but say one port may soon be all you need. "Currently we still feel that there is a need for both [serial ports]," says Patrick Kimball, a spokesperson for Micron. "As the popularity of USB increases, we'll certainly reevaluate the need for two serial ports."

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