Top 10 home PCs
August 10, 1999
by Kirk Steers
(IDG) -- A new wave of budget PCs hit the shore this month. In all, four new systems made the list -- three offering Intel's latest low-cost CPU, the Celeron-466. For you, that means plenty of processing power, lots of extra features, and some great online support and tutorials -- for less than $1500. The new Celeron-466 systems -- Gateway's Essential 466c, Hewlett-Packard's Pavilion 6475Z, and Micron's Millennia C466 (our new top-ranked budget system) -- posted PC WorldBench 98 scores within five points of 213 -- the average score for a power system with a Pentium II-450 CPU just six months ago. Not surprisingly, the Celeron-400 Packard Bell Multimedia 7950 lagged with a score of 168. But at a mere $978 it's a good deal for modest computing tasks such as exploring the Web or running personal finance software. (However, the 7950 will soon be replaced by the 7951.)
Although not technically a new PC, Compaq's Presario 5240 hops onto the budget list for the first time. It offers good speed and comes with a high-capacity LS-120 drive (which uses special 120MB SuperDisks -- about $10 a pop) that's compatible with standard, 1.44MB floppies. Perks aside, the Presario 5240 struggled in our graphics tests.
All this movement on the budget chart comes courtesy of good, cheap systems, as well as the phasing out of the Quantex Celeron-333 system that previously dominated the budget list.
On the power chart it's business as usual, with the Dell Dimension XPS T550 leading the pack. Four of the systems have lower prices this month, but their features remain unchanged.
Deal of the Millennia
The fastest budget system we've seen to date, the Micron Millennia C466 rang up a WorldBench 98 score of 211, rivaling the performance of many Pentium II-400 and even some slow Pentium II-450 systems.
Its graphics scores were about average for a fast budget system on the Top 10 list. Both AVI video playback and 3D animations were smooth enough to deliver satisfactory performance when playing games and movies. In addition, both DVD movies and still photos looked crisp on Micron's 700VX 17-inch monitor.
Finally, bass sounds came through clearly on the C466's bundled Advent speakers and subwoofer, though in higher ranges the small satellite speakers produced muddier tones. We would also have preferred a sturdier keyboard; it felt a little too light for our tastes.
The C466's bundled software includes Microsoft's WorksSuite 99; if you want Office 97 instead, you'll have to add $83 to the bill.
Experienced users looking for a speedy, low-cost PC will also appreciate the Millennia C466's expandability: You have unobstructed access to one open PCI slot, a free ISA slot, and one open externally accessible drive bay. Connecting cables to the drives, however, can be tough because there's very little space between the bays and the power supply.
You also won't find elaborate documentation with the C466. But buying any new Micron system entitles you to a year of free classes at Micron University -- an online educational service that allows you to take courses (ranging from refining your Web search technique to building your own site) that are held in a virtual classroom, with communications via online message boards.
Alternatively, if you want a fast system that comes with a color printer, check out Gateway's Essential 466c. Except for its smaller, 8GB hard drive, the Essential 466c is almost identical to Micron's Millennia C466 in basic hardware configuration and overall performance. Other differences? The Gateway costs a mere $20 more (because of its bundled printer), offers Corel WordPerfect Suite 8, and comes with a pair of speakers that produces good range but lacks the strong bass of the Micron's speakers.
Less for more
Also sporting a Celeron-466 CPU is HP's new Pavilion 6475Z, which delivers better performance than several other budget Pavilions we've looked at recently. In fact, it earned a PC WorldBench 98 score of 210, just a point below Micron's record-breaking score. The 6475Z also excelled in our AVI video playback test, but it isn't a great choice for running fast-paced animations or 3D shoot-'em-up games due to its sluggish graphics performance in our tests.
At $1498, the 6475Z costs $125 more than the Millennia C466 and comes with a smaller, 15-inch monitor and a CD-ROM drive instead of a DVD-ROM drive.
Nonetheless, HP's undersized screen displayed crisp text in our tests. And the Polk Audio speakers, which conveniently hang over the sides of the monitor, delivered excellent sound -- especially considering that they're cheap and lack a subwoofer. The 6475Z also has a great keyboard -- complete with a CD-ROM control and a handy volume knob.
This HP system is designed for first-time and technology-shy buyers. Setup is easy, thanks to clearly written directions and well-marked cables. The other side of the coin: Upgrading can be a pain. The PC's interior is cluttered with cables, and the two free slots -- one PCI and one ISA -- are hard to reach. Even experienced users will find it a challenge to add memory or change the Zip or CD-ROM drive.
Oakland, California, writer Kirk Steers is a contributing editor for PC World.
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