Grand Openings, December 2004

Thursday Dec 16th 2004 by Eric Grevstad
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Finished your holiday shopping yet? Just in time, here's a holly jolly edition of our quarterly quest for the best desktop and notebook deals under $1,000. Whisking through vendor Web sites turns up bargains on everything from widescreen laptops and dual-layer DVD+R burners to Athlon 64-powered Media Center PCs -- along with one or two lumps of coal.

How Much Desktop or Laptop Does $1,000 Get You?

Forty years ago, TV viewers first marveled at the stop-motion puppet animation of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and sighed over the spotted elephant, Charlie- instead of Jack-in-the-box, and other denizens of the Island of Misfit Toys.

Today, of course, stop-motion animation means playing Half-Life 2 on an integrated-graphics chipset, but shoppers at Circuit City will find what some might call a Misfit Processor: the Pentium 4 515, a 2.93GHz rarity among Intel's current 90-nanometer-process CPUs in that, while it sports an LGA775 socket and 1MB of Level 2 cache, it has the old 533MHz instead of 800MHz front-side bus and no Hyper-Threading Technology. But it still pumps out its share of performance, especially in the HP Pavilion A744X-B desktop which the electronics retailer sells for $980 after rebates with 512MB of DDR400 memory, a 120GB Serial ATA hard disk, double-layer DVD±RW drive, and a 15-inch LCD monitor.

Even without the holidays -- and especially without Dell changing its "Dell Delivers" tagline to "Dellf Delivers" -- there's a lot to explore in 2004's final installment of Hardware Central's quarterly tour of vendor Web sites in search of great desktop and laptop buys under $1,000. As always, any mistakes in transcription are our fault, but any volatile price or bundle configuration changes since our December 15 and 16 survey are the sellers'. Let's set off -- or, as Yukon Cornelius would say, mush.

Media Moguls

One of the most eye-catching desktop buys, whether at HP's own site or one of many superstores', is the $1,000-after-rebate tag for the M1160N Media Center Photosmart PC, which backs Microsoft's Win XP Media Center Edition, remote control, TV tuner, and TiVo-style personal video recorder with AMD's Athlon 64 3400+ (2.2GHz) chip, 512MB of PC3200 memory, a 200GB hard disk, double-layer DVD+RW, and Nvidia GeForce FX 5200 XT AGP graphics card.

The M1160N is a conventional minitower, but CompUSA lists a $900 Cisnet 35 Media Center in a small-form-factor shoebox case with Athlon 64 3000+, 120GB hard disk, DVD burner, and ATI Radeon 9200 SE graphics.

If you'd rather put Intel under the tree, HP's non-Media Center Pavilion A730N is $900 with a Pentium 4 530 (3.0GHz) CPU, 512MB of DDR400, 200GB of Serial ATA storage, double-layer DVD±RW, and Intel's 915G Express' chipset's Graphics Media Accelerator 900 graphics plus an upgrade-ready PCI Express x16 slot.

If you want to pair your PC with a handsome 17-inch LCD monitor, Costco has $850 and $950 Dell Dimension 3000 bundles with CD and DVD burners, respectively. Still, we'd suggest you think twice -- the computer has 3.0GHz Pentium 4 power, 512MB of memory, and a 160GB hard disk, but just Intel's old Extreme Graphics 2 (i865GV) chipset with no AGP slot for graphics upgrades.

The Sony site let us configure an RS700CG desktop with Pentium 4 530 (3.0GHz), 512MB of DDR400, 160GB hard disk, GMA 900 graphics, and DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive for $890 including Sony's Giga Pocket personal video recorder. That leaves enough in our budget to upgrade to either 1GB of RAM or a Pentium 4 540 (3.2GHz), but alas, the free upgrade to a double-layer DVD±RW had only a few hours to live as we typed this.

Briefcase, Not Stocking, Stuffers

Speaking of DVD burners, Dell's cutting-edge choice of a 16X double-layer drive jacked up the price of its Dimension 8400 desktop; we configured a Pentium 4 540 (3.2GHz) system complete with 17-inch CRT monitor for $999, but had to skimp with just the one optical drive, no speakers, and a modest 80GB Serial ATA hard disk (a 160GB drive would have added $40). The minitower comes with ATI's 128MB Radeon X300 SE PCI Express graphics card.

Similarly, Gateway reserves its new 7200 series with thermally friendly, quieter-fan BTX chassis for shoppers with at least $1,200 to spend. But $1,000 will buy you a 5200XL desktop with Pentium 4 530 (3.0GHz) processor, 512MB of DDR400, 200GB Serial ATA drive, double-layer DVD±RW, the Radeon X300 SE card, a VX750 17-inch CRT, and 2.1 speaker system. If you can live without the monitor, the same grand gets you a similar Gateway 550GR with faster Pentium 4 540 (3.2GHz) CPU at CompUSA.

Some perennial bargain brands disappointed us this time out. While Gateway offers plenty of new gear, its eMachines division is stuck in Last Year's Technology Land with the T3256 desktop's Athlon XP 3200+, nForce2 integrated-graphics chipset (plus AGP slot), 512MB of DDR333 memory, 160GB hard disk, and DVD±RW, although it's certainly cheap at $600.

WinBook's PowerSpec desktop line jumps from the $699 model 8925 (Pentium 4/3.0, 512MB memory, 160GB hard disk, DVD burner, slow S3 UniChrome chipset video plus AGP slot) to more desirable PCs priced at $1,299 and $1,499. Here's hoping the Hilliard, Ohio, vendor splits the difference with a new system in our price range for Q1 2005.

WinBook did come through with two tempting notebooks. The 8.4-pound V120 is $949 with Celeron D 325 (2.53GHz) power, 512MB of memory, 60GB hard disk, 15-inch XGA display, and DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive. The $799-after-rebate model C220 settles for a 14.1-inch screen, 40GB hard disk, and Celeron M 330 (1.4GHz) processor, but weighs a trim 5.7 pounds.

Economy Class

Lots of retailers are stocking Toshiba's Satellite M35X-S149, a 7-pound, $999 laptop with 15.4-inch widescreen (1,280 by 800) display, Celeron M 340 (1.5GHz) chip, DVD-ROM/CD-RW, 512MB of RAM, 60GB hard disk, and Atheros 802.11b/g wireless networking. A slightly slower Celeron M 330 (1.4GHz) processor and plain 15-inch XGA screen help HP's 6.7-pound Pavilion ZE4910US hit the $800 mark (after rebates) at Circuit City.

Sony's 15-inch XGA-screened Vaio A230 missed our cut at $1,050, but Apple's trim 12-inch-screened, 1.2GHz iBook G4 is $999 with 256MB of DDR266 memory, a 30GB hard disk, and DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo. Apple also hangs a $999 price tag on its eMac all-in-one desktop with 17-inch CRT, 1.25GHz PowerPC G4, and DVD burner, though it too comes with just 256MB of memory.

Prefer a desktop-replacement portable? Gateway's 7.5-pound, 15-inch-XGA model M520S is $900 after rebates with 2.8GHz Pentium 4 power, half a gigabyte of DDR333, a 40GB hard disk, and DVD-ROM/CD-RW; Intel's 852GME chipset provides its graphics. Dell's comparable Inspiron 5160 busts our budget at $1,009 despite skimping with just 256MB of RAM and a DVD-ROM drive, though Dell is attracting crowds of consumers with a $699 deal on the 14.1-inch-screened, 6.5-pound Inspiron 1000 with Celeron/2.2 processor and DVD-ROM/CD-RW.

Gateway also appeals to those who travel light, with the 5.3-pound M210CS offering Celeron M 340 (1.5GHz) power, a 14.1-inch widescreen (1,280 by 768) display, combo drive, and 802.11b/g for $900.

Finally, we're starting to feel bad about that "Misfit Processor" crack. OK, the Pentium 4 515 (2.93GHz) may be Intel's last 533MHz-bus desktop chip, but HP's Compaq Presario SR1250NX at CompUSA teams it with a downright tempting 512MB of DDR400, 160GB Serial ATA hard disk, double-layer DVD±RW, and PCI Express x16 slot (Intel's 915G chipset handles pre-upgrade graphics) for $950 after rebates. And that includes an FP5315 15-inch LCD monitor and Deskjet 5740 inkjet printer.

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