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COMPUTING

Best sub-$1,000 gaming PCs

January 4, 1999
Web posted at: 10:30 AM EST

by Joel Strauch and Danny W. Lam

From...

(IDG) -- We all know you can get a fairly decent computer for less than a thousand bucks, but can you get a decent gaming computer for under a grand? Are we smoking a pipe dream here, or can you really find an inexpensive PC that’ll run anything better than Minesweeper? We put five systems to the test, and the results surprised us.

  • Sub-$1,000 PC features
  • Sub-$1,000 PC performance
  • How we scored

    To evaluate the systems’ CPU processing speeds, we used Ziff-Davis’ WinBench 98 and 3D WinBench 98. In WinBench, we ran the CPUmark 32 and FPU WinMark tests to judge processing speed. To see how well the systems shuffle data to and from the hard drive, we ran the High-End Disk WinMark 98. For an assessment of each PC’s graphics- handling ability, we also ran the High-End Graphics WinMark 98.

    From 3D WinBench, we ran the 3D Processing test, which provides an all-around score for how a PC handles 3D graphics.

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    We ran all tests on an Acer Aspire 200MHz Pentium with 32MB RAM and an ATI Rage card for baseline comparison. These scores appear in parentheses after each test name. (See the performance chart.)

    We also ran frames-per-second tests on both Quake II and Incoming. All tests were run in SVGA mode at both 640-by-480 and 800-by-600 resolutions. Higher scores are better, and anything over 30 frames per second is excellent.

    The sub-$1,000 PC has become all the rage for computer manufacturers. Apart from a few of the big dogs (such as Toshiba) who have stepped aside to wait and see what will become of this craze, every manufacturer has a model or two rotating up on the sales block.

    These computers came about by cutting corners and including less-than-high-end peripherals, and they were mainly intended for less power-intensive activities, such as word processing and maybe a little Web browsing. But thanks to lower chip prices, some of these inexpensive machines make pretty good gaming PCs. Of course, they’re not going to wrench the gaming mantle from the talons of someone like Falcon; but still, you can get a fine starter gaming machine and not have to sell your car and dog to make the payments. A year ago, it would’ve cost you $1,000 for a Pentium II chip— now you can get an entire PII (or K6-2) system for that price. In another year, you’ll be able to get a PII 400 with a Voodoo II for $600: we’ve heard rumors that AMD-based sub-$600 PCs complete with 3D acceleration are on the way.

    We’ve run five of the latest sub-$1,000s through our game-testing wringer to see what showed up on the other side. All of these systems are priced without monitor. You don’t want to know what kind of gaming system you’d get if its sub-$1,000 price tag included a monitor!

    Compaq Presario 2254

    Compaq is known for its consumer PC line—with the emphasis mainly on home-office users and occasional gamers—and the strain its Presario 2254 feels under our rigorous gaming requirements is evident. To be fair to Compaq, its sub-$1,000s weren’t designed for high-end gaming. To be fair to you, this means you most likely wouldn’t want one as your gaming machine.

    The 2254 is a well-designed desktop model (the only non-tower PC we reviewed). It comes with a unique multimedia keyboard, which provides access to CD-player controls, mute, sleep, favorite application, and the Internet from right above your function keys.

    It also has 2MB of video memory and an embedded 3D 64-bit accelerator for graphics enhancement. Unfortunately, this isn’t enough to earn it anything but the lowest scores in our graphics tests. Its 3D processing scores weren’t that much lower than some of the other PCs’, but the frame rates it put up in Quake II were barely playable, and the results of our frame-rate test from Incoming were unusable because the screen text was unreadable.

    Its CPU scores were also lowest, but that’s because the 2254 only has a K6 processor, where the others have either K6-2 or Pentium II processors. The 2254 does have Aureal A3D sound, but it doesn’t come with speakers.

    It’s fairly upgradable, with an open ISA slot and an open combo ISA/PCI slot, but the case is so small that you wouldn’t be able to fit anything as large as a Voodoo II card inside. And although the 2254 includes an adequate 32MB RAM, it’s only upgradable to 64MB total.

    The 2254—like all of the systems except for the IDOT.com (see below)—contains a 56K internal modem.

    The software bundle was the best we looked at. It contained Moto Racer, a slew of Microsoft products from Money 98 to Works 4.5, and Quicken Basic 98. And the price is right at only $899. If you’re looking for a stable PC for mainly text-based use, with maybe a little gaming on the side (we’re talking solitaire here, not Unreal), the Compaq may be worth checking out. Otherwise, spend an extra $100 elsewhere. (Compaq; 800-282-6672; www.compaq.com; street $899)

    CyberMax

    The CyberMax sub-$1,000 is quite impressive. From its high scores on our tests to its expansion options, it’s an excellent PC that could make a good starter gaming system.

    The CyberMax’s 300MHz K6-2 turned in the highest processor scores (except for 3D Processing) of any of the machines tested. The High-End Disk and graphics-performance scores leaned more toward the middle of the road, but the frames-per-second test results were outstanding thanks to its I740 AGP card—it’s no Voodoo II, but it holds its own against most anything else. The CyberMax had the highest frames per second on Incoming (boy, it looked good!) and the second highest on Quake II.

    We did run into a few glitches during our testing. At first, the CD-ROM drive wouldn’t recognize Incoming, but after a few tries opening and closing the tray, it picked it up. The WinBench also sensed some hard-drive errors the first time it ran, but a reboot and Scandisk seemed to clear those up.

    With a Creative Labs/Ensoniq sound card and Altec Lansing ACS90 speakers, the CyberMax not only looks good, it sounds good, too. Plus, you get a cheesy little standup microphone with the sound system. There’s plenty of room for improvement—there are two open ISA slots and two open PCI slots on the easily accessible motherboard. It has 64MB RAM, but you’ll only be able to take it up to 128MB.

    The CyberMax comes with a decent software bundle—included are Corel’s WordPerfect Suite 8 and an assortment of home multimedia titles. In addition, they throw in a Microsoft SideWinder Precision Pro joystick and still keep the cost under a thousand bucks.

    There are many sub-$1,000 systems out there, but for gaming, you don’t have to look far beyond CyberMax. (CyberMax; 800-345-8939; www.cybmax.com; street $980)

    IBM E3N

    IBM is no longer the consumer-PC behemoth it was in the early ’80s, but as far as its computer systems go, it’s stayed at the top of its game. IBM systems are known for their quality, performance, and reliability, but usually not for their low price tags. Now Big Blue has its sights set on the low-end PC arena, but can it bring in the same quality with a sub-$1,000 bill? Its initial efforts seem to ring in a definitive yes.

    The E3N comes with a compact tower that’ll fit snugly either atop or below any desk. But this space-saving tower is a bane when it comes to upgrading, leaving the E3N with only one combo ISA/PCI slot available inside the cramped system (although you can upgrade its 64MB RAM to 256MB).

    It does include a pretty full load, initially. Its 2MB of SGRAM video memory and the 3D acceleration from its ATI Rage Pro Turbo card gave it good marks on our tests. It was second on the High-End Graphics and 3D Processing tests and third on most of the others.

    The E3N also performed well on the fps tests, coming in a strong third on all except the 800-by-600 resolution on Incoming. It didn’t have enough video memory to run Incoming at this resolution, so we weren’t able to obtain any results.

    It has the largest hard drive of any system we looked at (6GB), and it comes with Crystal SRS 3D sound, but no speakers. Its software bundle isn’t extensive, but the E3N does come with the adequate Lotus SmartSuite and Symantec’s Norton AntiVirus. The E3N isn’t a hardcore gaming PC, but it’s a solid all-around system that performs well according to all but the highest of gamers’ expectations. (IBM; 800-426-7235, ext. 4340; www.ibm.com; street $999)

    IDOT.com

    The sub-$1,000 PC we obtained from IDOT.com exemplifies getting the most gaming PC for your money. Since this company can build a PC from the motherboard up to your specifications, it was able to turn in a kickass system at just under our price limit.

    With its Matrox G100 4MB video card and a 12MB Voodoo II 3D accelerator, we expected it to perform well on our gaming tests. And that it did. It took first in the 3D Processing and High-End Graphics tests and, of course, stomped the other systems in the fps tests. With close to 40fps on Quake II and 35fps on Incoming (with only a slight decrease for 800-by-600 resolution), it’s almost unfair to make comparisons. But compare we shall, going to show that if your new (albeit inexpensive) gaming PC doesn’t come with a 3Dfx card, you should make sure there’s room for one.

    The 300MHz K6-2 processor was part of the force behind IDOT’s second-place showing in our CPU test (just after the CyberMax) and in the High-End Disk test (after the Techmedia). The gaming bundle to be included with systems like this has yet to be announced, but IDOT told us it’ll include games optimized for the K6-2. The IDOT also comes with an Aztech Labs Aureal 3D sound card and Altec Lansing’s ACS43 speakers. It only starts out with 32MB RAM, but there’s room for up to 384 megs.

    Even fully stocked, there’s upgrade room aplenty, with one ISA slot, two PCI slots, and one combo slot available. IDOT skirted under our $1,000 umbrella by leaving out a modem, but it’ll throw in a 56K internal for another mere $33. In addition, you’ll have to pay shipping charges, which’ll run you between $65 and $75 for UPS ground (for a system with a 19-inch monitor), about $95 for two-day, and $125 for overnight.

    Other computer manufacturers may complain that this is like comparing apples and oranges, but if you’re looking for a gaming machine, knowing what to put in the core is what can make gaming taste so sweet. (IDOT.com; 888-388-4368; www.idot. com; street $999)

    Techmedia MediaPro II Plus The Techmedia system looks good and tested well, but we had some problems with its design. First, the 1.44 floppy–drive’s eject button was missing. Whether it fell off in shipping or what, we don’t know, but that wasn’t the worst of it—the drive didn’t work anyway.

    Second, the CD-ROM drive hummed like a shaken beehive when we first inserted a disc. After a while (the third or forth install from CD) the thunderous din softened to a low buzz, but it never completely went away. In addition, the CD-ROM drive is a car audio–style front “fingerprints here, please” load. And during our Quake II installation, the software thought the 24x drive was only a two-speed and almost didn’t complete the install.

    After we got past these glitches, we enjoyed the MediaPro II. It performed well on our tests, even garnering two high scores (FPU WinMark and High-End Disk WinMark), thanks to its 266MHz Pentium II CPU. It wasn’t incredibly speedy on the fps tests, but it was able to run all the tests (unlike the Compaq and IBM).

    It has a 4MB video card and 64-bit 3D acceleration from Diamond Multimedia, as well as a 16-bit Sound Blaster–compatible card and 3D Benwin speakers. It only has a 24x CD-ROM drive (the other systems have 32x), but that’s a pretty moot point since transfer rates make the difference rather negligible.

    The MediaPro II is easily upgradable, with three open slots (one ISA, one PCI, and one combo). It comes with 64MB RAM, which can be maximized to 256MB. As a PII, it’s the only system we reviewed with Intel inside. While it scored lower than the 300MHz K6-2s on our processing test, it scored much higher than the other 266MHz, the K6 in the Compaq.

    The MediaPro II includes a Microsoft bundle, complete with Works & Money (on the same CD) and last year’s Encarta encyclopedia. While it wouldn’t be our first pick, the MediaPro II is a solid system that performs adequately at a great price. (Techmedia; 800-379-0077; www.techmedia.net; street $899)

    Draw your conclusions

    While sub-$1,000 PCs aren’t going to include the latest cutting-edge features, you can shop carefully and pick and choose the features that mean the most to you—both performance-wise and financially. Whether you buy off the shelf or have one built to your specs, you can find a gaming solution that fits your budget, and PC prices will continue to drop as they always have—meaning that whatever PC you buy now, there’ll always be a faster, cheaper one coming down the pike!

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