Budget PCs group test review

low-cost systems for the office or home
Photo of Budget PCs group test

NEC has been selling PCs direct for a couple of years now and its buying power has a big effect on the value it can build into its systems. The most obvious sign of this on the outside is the 100MB Iomega Zip drive, sitting between the CD and the floppy. It’s useful to have the larger capacity removable format of the Zip for back-up and file transfer.

Inside, the hard drive is a very healthy 19GB, too, and there’s also a Celeron 533Mhz chip with 64MB of main memory. The system board is again a MicroATX design, but it has an extra expansion slot, in the shape of a single ISA format socket, as well as three PCI ones. Modem and sound features come from the main board, which again uses the Intel 810 chipset for just about everything.

Graphics performance is weak because of this, but the monitor, one of NEC’s own, compensates. It gives an excellent picture and is clear, with high contrast. NEC bundles a full version of Works Suite 2000 with the machine, too, which includes Word 2000.

This must be one of the favourites in this group. Although not quite the fastest, it has an excellent specification and represents very good value for money.

Carrera has spent the budget on this machine in the places where it counts. So, for instance, there’s a 17-inch Hansol monitor attached to it, which gives a sharp, well-defined picture on its near-flat face. The keyboard and mouse are from KeyTronics and Microsoft respectively, and are the same models provided by Carrera on much more expensive systems.

The company fits a 10-speed DVD-ROM drive, too, with a 12.6GB hard drive for permanent storage. The processor is a 533MHz Celeron, which doesn’t have quite the raw speed of the Big Red system, but still gives a good account of itself. It’s backed by 64MB of memory, which is adequate, and sits in an MicroATX system board.

While this means the case on the machine can be neat and small, it does restrict expansion, as there are no ISA expansion slots and only three PCI ones, though they’re all unoccupied. Sound comes from the Intel 810 chipset and feeds to a better than average pair of Altec Lansing speakers.

Graphics are also provided by the Intel 810 and are fine for general business applications but not up to much in the 3D games department. Overall, this is a well balanced machine with good performance and uses a sensible combination of components.

Hi-Grade has put together a PC with a bit more performance potential than some others here. It has a Celeron processor running at a comparatively quick 600MHz as its power source and backs it up with 64MB or memory, like all the other systems in the review.

The other main element in the equation, storage, is provided in the shape of a 12.7GB hard drive and a 10-speed DVD-ROM drive. There’s room in the midi tower case for extra drives, but because of the MicroATX system board, much less scope for expansion cards.

Like the Carrera Lynx, this machine has no ISA slots and three unoccupied PCI ones. There’s a Motorola 56Kbps modem on a riser card and sound is again provided by an Intel 810 chipset, through a pair of TEAC speakers. The 810 graphics output is nothing special.

The monitor, though, is a 17-inch Hi-Grade-badged device, built by ADi. This is particularly easy to adjust and gives a good picture, with little noticeable distortion. It’s suitable for DVD playback but, even at 17-inches, is hardly a replacement for a typical family TV – definitely a second screen.

This is a good system, though again hampered by the lack of any way of upgrading its graphics system.

This machine is an odd mix of good and not quite so good. It starts well, with a midi tower case which has plenty of room for expansion and contains a Pentium III 550, which gives it a good turn of speed. There’s 64MB of memory, which is adequate for Windows 98, and the 9.5GB hard drive and 52-speed CDROM drive (take that speed with a pinch of salt) complement each other well.

Sound comes from a chip on the system board and runs to a mediocre pair of Taiwanese speakers, but there’s a separate 56Kbps modem card and, more importantly, a separate video adapter. The curse of lower-cost PCs is integrated graphics, which are nearly always outdated and often can’t be upgraded. If you are forced to buy a PC with integrated graphics, make sure it has an AGP slot so you can plug in a separate adapter later on.

The S3 Savage 4-based graphics card gives reasonable results, though the 15-inch Smile monitor supplied with the machine does it few favours. It’s best to restrict the display on this to a resolution of no more than 800 by 600 pixels.

With an above-average keyboard and mouse and a good software bundle, the Explorer 550 is a good machine for the money.

Simply has made some moves to distinguish its machine from the mainstream of PCs in this price bracket. It starts with a 10-speed DVD-ROM drive, rather than a CD, and includes an LS120 Superdisk in place of a floppy drive. This 120MB removable media drive provides similar facilities to a Zip drive, but is backward compatible with regular floppy disks, too. Permanent storage has that bit extra, with a capacity of 14.2GB in the hard drive.

Another Celeron-based machine, the Systemax has a 600MHz device at its core, giving a notional speed edge over the 533MHz devices in some of the other machines. 64MB of main memory is adequate for this sort of machine.

With another MicroATX-based system board, this system has the same problems with expansion as some of the others, with no ISA or AGP slots. Graphics again come from an Intel 810 chipset and run into a 17-inch CTX monitor, which gives a good picture, but isn’t quite as sharp as the ADi or NEC devices.

Sound plays back through a pair of Genie speakers which are only average, but Simply provides a good software bundle, including WorksSuite 2000 and four reasonable games. Overall a machine with a good core specification and above average software.

So, six PCs with very similar pedigrees. All but the Big Red use some form of Celeron processor and sit them in MicroATX format system boards which make them quick and cheap to build. All have 64MB of memory and all but the NEC and Simply have hard drives around the 10-12GB mark.

These two stand out from the crowd in other ways, too. Simply has used an LS-120 drive instead of a floppy, which increases its usefulness considerably, and has included a 14.2GB hard drive and a very good software bundle. Its 600MHz processor is a touch above the norm as well, so it’s certainly worth a second look.

The NEC Direction SP-533V stands out in even further. It has a Zip drive, in addition to its CD and floppy, its hard drive is over twice the capacity of those in the Big Red and Viglen machines, at 19GB, and it has a very good monitor. The software bundle is useful and even its speakers are a cut above all but the Altec Lansings supplied by Viglen. If you want a general-purpose PC which won’t break the bank, you’ll have to go a long way to better the NEC.

One thing you notice about machines in this price band is the common design in so many of them. Viglen’s is another machine based around a MicroATX system board using an Intel 810 chipset. This means it has no AGP graphics slot, nor any ISA expansion slots. What it does have is a 600MHz Celeron processor with 64MB of memory, backed up by a 9.5GB hard drive and a 10-speed post-box style DVD-ROM drive.

While this gives a fair specification, it’s nothing outstanding. Sound comes from an Intel 810 chipset as with many others, but runs to a trio of Altec Lansing speakers, which are better than many and the best in this group.

Graphics also come from the 810 and are no better or worse than any others from this chipset. The picture is reproduced on another ADi monitor, this time re-badged to Viglen. This is a good 17-inch unit with easy to use controls and a high-contrast picture, enabling a jet-black background to its display.

A Microsoft keyboard is partnered by a Logitech mouse and, like NEC, Viglen bundles WorksSuite 2000 with this HomePro. Overall, it’s a good, well-designed machine, but without anything extra to give it an edge over its rivals.

PC prices continue to fall and at each price point you can see better and better technology for your money. You can now get very worthwhile PCs for around £600 plus VAT. Although you have to watch for some corner-cutting, in particular heavily integrated system boards, you can still pick up a bargain if you know where to look.

The trend to building everything, particularly graphics and sound, into the main board within a PC makes them much quicker and cheaper to build and keeps the asking price down, but it has a down side, too. This type of board is aimed very much at the budget market and the specifications, especially those of the graphics chip, are often way behind those of even modest plug-in expansion cards. Worse, the Intel 810 chipset, the most common basis for today’s integrated system boards, doesn’t support a separate AGP expansion slot, so you can’t plug in a better graphics card to upgrade the machine at a later date. So this is something to watch out for.

That said, PCs in this price range are well capable of most things you might throw at them, apart from the latest 3D games. For general-purpose home and small business use, they can be excellent value for money. Click the ‘NEXT’ link below to find out more.

Company: NEC

Contact: 0870 333 6329