PCs for Five C's

Thursday Feb 28th 2008 by Eric Grevstad
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For PC buyers, $500 is the new $1,000. Here's a selection what five crisp C notes will get you in today's computer market.

Back in the day, we ran a regular feature dubbed Grand Openings in which we toured vendors' Web sites to see how much PC you could buy on a $1,000 budget. These days, of course, spending a grand gets you a fairly formidable desktop or not-half-bad notebook: With the merest glance at BestBuy.com, we found Core 2 Quad Q6600 desktops with 3GB of RAM and 500GB hard drives from both Dell and Gateway, plus 17-inch HP and 15.4-inch Toshiba laptops with Turion 64 X2 processors and a 14.1-inch, Core 2 Duo-based Dell in our choice of seven colors.

Clearly, our price ceiling had to fall to make the search at all interesting. Last spring we took a crack at comparison shopping with $750 to spend, but it wasn't as much fun as Grand Openings used to be. We missed the challenge of making decisions, the shopping experience of having a gunman leap out of an alley and shout, "All right, punk -- faster CPU or more memory? Answer in five, four, three, two ..."

The answer was obvious: $500 is the new $1,000.

Of course a $500 price tag isn't unprecedented. For a couple of years or more, retail superstores have offered consumers $500 desktops suitable for use as a family's second or third PC. These days, several vendors stock $199 Linux systems ready to be the family's fifth or sixth.

But can half a grand buy a PC you'll feed good about buying? The first item on our checklist and/or wish list was a dual-core processor -- and believe us, if you weren't familiar with the 65-nanometer-process, entry-level Pentium Dual-Core chip that Intel quietly slipped into its lineup below the Core 2 Duo last year, you will be after five minutes shopping for $500 PCs.

We also kept an eye out for PCI Express x16 slots to allow upgrading from low-priced desktops' integrated graphics, and -- hardest to find in this price range -- 2GB instead of 1GB of memory, to shift Windows Vista from Park to Drive. Unless otherwise mentioned, every system we eyed came with a DVD±RW burner, with WiFi standard equipment on laptops.

Then we took a $500 bill from our wallet -- a neat trick; William McKinley's picture hasn't been printed on U.S. currency since 1945 -- and set off on our virtual shopping spree. As in previous Web-site surveys, any errors in transcription are our fault; any price or configuration changes since Monday and Tuesday, February 25 and 26, are the vendors'.

Online Or Shopping Plaza?

When we opened Sunday's (February 24) newspaper at home, a Circuit City flyer fell into our lap. The first page featured a $480 Acer Aspire notebook with a Pentium Dual-Core T2330 (a 1.6GHz processor with a 533MHz front-side bus and 1MB of Level 2 cache); a 14.1-inch CrystalBrite widescreen display; 1GB of memory; a 160GB hard disk; and a Webcam for video chat. We were tempted by 15.4-inch Sony, Toshiba, and Gateway notebooks with a roomier 2GB of memory, but they were $650 apiece.

Similarly, the circular's thriftiest desktop deal -- another Acer with an 800MHz-bus Pentium Dual-Core E2140, 1GB of RAM, a 250GB hard drive, and SiS Mirage 3 graphics -- came in over budget at $550, though we gave extra points for its bundled 19-inch widescreen LCD monitor and Lexmark all-in-one printer.

Turning from the flyer to the Circuit City Web site, we found ZT Affinity (no, we hadn't heard of the brand either) and HP Compaq Presario desktops with the same E2140 processor, 250GB hard disk, and gigabyte of memory for $350 and $380, respectively. Better yet, an Acer Aspire AM3100 desktop with the devoutly-to-be-wished 2GB of DDR-2 -- along with a 320GB hard drive and AMD Athlon 64 X2 5000+ power -- rang our bell at $460.

The Circuit City site also revealed a 15.4-inch Toshiba notebook for $490: The Satellite A215 configuration included AMD's Athlon 64 X2 TK-55, 1GB of memory, and a 120GB hard disk. The retailer's most affordable mobiles with 2GB of DDR-2 were 15.4-inch Toshiba Satellite A205 and Compaq Presario F755US models at $600 and $610, respectively.

Another Sunday circular touted a Best Buy exclusive -- a 15.4-inch Gateway M-6309 notebook with Pentium Dual-Core power, 1GB of RAM, and a 160GB hard drive for $500. In the desktop department, an eMachines T6342 with an Athlon 64 4000+ processor, 1GB of memory, a 250GB hard disk, and Nvidia GeForce 6100 graphics was $480 bundled with a 17-inch flat panel and a Canon color printer.

Best Buy's Web site made our hearts leap with a Gateway GT5648E desktop with a full 3GB of DDR-2, not to mention a 3.0GHz Athlon 64 X2 6000+ chip and 320GB hard drive, for $500. But our hopes were dashed to discover it was an outlet or closeout item -- sold out online, and available for pickup at only two of the five brick-and-mortar stores within reasonable driving distance.

As for portables, in addition to the $400-and-under Asus Eee mini-notebook we raved about last November, the Best Buy site offered both the aforementioned Gateway M-6309 and an HP Compaq Presario laptop -- a 15.4-inch Pentium Dual-Core T2330 model with 1GB of RAM -- for $500.

Among style- and status-minded vendors, Apple doesn't have anything priced below the Mac Mini ($599 with no keyboard or mouse), and Fujitsu's laptop line doesn't dip below $849. Sony's 15.4-inch Vaio FZ notebook starts at $900, while Sony's most affordable desktop is, er, less than four times our budget amount.

Lenovo is observing February with a "Leap Into Savings" sale through March 10. Even so, the company's R Series notebooks started at $634, while a ThinkCentre A61 desktop was $472 but its specifications were pitiful: a 2.1GHz Athlon 64 X2 4000+ processor, 1GB of RAM, an 80GB hard disk, and a DVD-ROM drive instead of a DVD burner.

Toshiba laptop shoppers will want to hit their local superstores instead of shopping online: The most affordable system at the company's site was a $649 Satellite A210 that matched the specs of Circuit City's $500 Satellite A215, except for a bigger hard drive (160GB).

The ZT Affinity brand made another appearance at Wal-Mart's Sam's Club warehouse outlet, with a Pentium Dual-Core E2140 (1.6GHz) desktop fitted with 1GB of memory, a 250GB hard disk, and Windows Vista Home Premium at the low, low price of $365.

HP's Compaq Presario SR5350F was the only under-$500 desktop Sam stocked, but it was a good deal: For $470, you got a 1.8GHz Pentium Dual-Core E2160 CPU, Intel's vintage 945GC chipset with Graphics Media Accelerator 950 integrated video plus a PCI Express x16 slot, a 320GB hard disk, LightScribe DVD±RW, and 2GB of PC2-5300 memory, so the supplied Vista Home Premium OS might actually manage to multitask. (For real penny-pinchers, we later found the same system for $10 less on HP's own site.)

Evildoers Can't Hide From ... Visionman!

Our new favorite PC brand is Visionman, discovered amid a lot of refurbished rather than new desktops at online megastore Tiger Direct: For $500, the far-seeing vendor delivers Athlon 64 X2 4000+ power, an AMD 690V chipset with ATI Radeon X1200 graphics, a gigabyte of memory, a 250GB hard drive ... and, for you Linux fans and Windows XP diehards, no preinstalled operating system.

By contrast, Tiger also stocked two $500 HP business desktops -- one with Windows Vista Business and Intel's Core 2 Duo E6300 (1.8GHz) processor, the other with Windows XP Professional and AMD's Athlon 64 X2 4000+ (2.6GHz), and both with measly 80GB hard disks. A Systemax Ascent PC from Tiger Direct's in-house brand resembled the latter HP but boasted 2GB of RAM and a 160GB hard drive for the same price.

Antique shoppers might like one of the Famous Brand Off-Lease laptops in TigerDirect's notebook department -- a 1.6GHz Pentium M processor! 512MB of DDR/266! -- but we held out for 1GB of memory for the same $500. That search turned up an HP 530 notebook with a 15.4-inch screen, Celeron M 520 CPU, and a 120GB hard disk.

Costco's "New Items and Limited-Time Offers" aisle had neither a desktop nor notebook other than the Asus Eee below our price ceiling. But the site's configure-it-yourself area offered a likable desktop -- one of HP's pint-size Pavilion s3300t slimlines for $490 with a modest Pentium Dual-Core E2160 processor but free upgrades to a not-so-modest 2GB of DDR-2/667 and 500GB hard disk.

We've Got the Screen Shot To Prove It

The most exciting thing we saw on any Web site was a caption in Dell's "Built for You" configuration menu that said "Inspiron 530s -- $99 PC." Unfortunately, we couldn't find that model anywhere, but were able to assemble one of the slimline desktops for $488 with a 2.0GHz Pentium Dual-Core E2180, 2GB of memory, a 250GB hard disk, a DVD±RW burner, and Vista Home Basic (Home Premium would add $30).

An Inspiron 531 minitower for $499 flaunted a "Go Green" label thanks to its Energy Star 4.0 compatibility and 80-plus-percent-efficient power supply. It also flaunted a 17-inch LCD monitor as well as AMD Athlon 64 X2 4000+ power, 1GB of RAM, and 250GB and DVD±RW drives.

As for Dell's laptops, the 15.4-inch Inspiron 1525 was $499 with a humble Celeron 540 CPU, 80GB hard drive, DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive, and smaller-than-its-siblings battery pack. (Getting the full-size battery, a bigger hard disk, a DVD burner, and a Pentium Dual-Core T2330 under the hood bumped the price to $599, or $649 with Windows XP Home instead of Vista Home Basic.)

Speaking of Vista, we applaud Gateway's decision to equip all of its notebooks and desktops (aside from its Sunday-paper special at Best Buy) with at least 2GB of RAM, but it cut our visit to the site rather short. The cow-spotted company's laptops started at $640 for the line sold in retail stores and $800 for its own online offerings, with direct desktop purchases beginning at $550.

We confess we looked under the couch cushions for spare change when we saw the Gateway GT5660E retail desktop -- for an oh-so-close suggested sticker price of $510, the Vista Home Premium minitower features a capable Intel Core 2 Duo E4500 (2.2GHz, 2MB of Level 2 cache) processor, 2GB of DDR-2/667, a 400GB hard disk, a DVD burner, and even a set of USB speakers. Gateway's lowest-priced monitor, on the other hand, is a 19-inch flat panel that would have added $219.

Brand A or Brand I?

HP's site showed no fewer than one notebook and three desktop families available for five C-notes, all under the rather diffident headline of "Everyday Computing." The $500 laptop was a Compaq Presario C700T, a 15.4-inch, 6.4-pound portable with a 1.6GHz Pentium Dual-Core T2330, an 80GB hard drive, and a free upgrade from 512MB to 1GB of memory under the hood. (We can't resist mentioning that HP's site, like Dell's, contained the headline "Still looking for Windows XP?", although the notebook in question was a more powerful $760 model.)

Minitower buffs could choose AMD or Intel desktops. The latter -- the Pavilion a6300t -- rang in at $499 with a Pentium Dual-Core E2140, 2GB of RAM, a 320GB hard disk, and Intel's Jurassic GMA 950 integrated graphics.

There was more room to play with the AMD-based Pavilion a6350z configuration. Since the Athlon 64 X2 4200+ base model came with a free upgrade to 2GB for only $400, we could pick two from a choice of three $50 options: a 500GB instead of 250GB hard disk, a 128MB GeForce 8400 graphics upgrade, or an extra 200MHz of CPU speed in the form of an Athlon 64 X2 5000+.

The Pavilion s3000z, the AMD-powered version of HP's small-form-factor slimline desktop, came in at $450 with AMD's recently introduced Athlon 64 X2 BE2300 (1.9GHz) processor, GeForce 6150 SE graphics, a 250GB hard drive, and a free upgrade from 1GB to 2GB of DDR-2. Our pick for the remaining $50 was a step up to a 320GB hard disk -- which included a free step up to a 500GB drive.

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