Top-spec consumer PCs group test review

hi-spec consumer PC
Photo of Top-spec consumer PCs group test
£2,349

If your idea of a top-spec PC is a complete package, rather than just the PC itself, you should look seriously at this Time offering. Starting with a typical tower-cased PC based on a 1.1GHz Athlon processor and featuring 256MB of memory, a hefty 41GB hard drive and DVD and CD-RW drives, it also includes a GeForce2 Pro graphics adapter. While not as pacey as the Ultra card, this is still pretty quick and its lower price makes room for some of the other extras included here.

There’s a 19-inch Samsung monitor, which give a clear, crisp picture, and a three-way speaker set from Labtec. What’s more unusual, though, is the inclusion of an Epson Stylus Color 880 inkjet printer, a Mustek flat-bed scanner and various other bits. The printer is a mid-range device, rather than the rock-bottom models often bundled with PCs, and the scanner is a fair match for it.

On top of this are a force feedback steering wheel and foot pedals, a joystick and a handy Agfa CL18 digital camera, which doubles as a low resolution camera and a Web cam for video conferencing. Completing the package is a software bundle based around both SmartSuite and Works and including over 30 other titles. If you want a complete get up and go system, Time’s 1200-7XL Professional is a very good choice.

The main competitor in price and specification to the Evesham machine is this Matrix 1100T from Mesh. Like the Evesham system, it’s based around an Athlon processor, though this one is a 1.1GHz device, with 256MB of main memory.

The graphics adapter is a departure from the nVidia hardware found in all the other PCs in this group. Instead, this machine uses an ATI Radeon VIVO TV card. This is a 64MB graphics card using the Radeon processor, which ATI has claimed is a match for the GeForce2. While early tests supported this, production cards haven’t proved as strong and the results from this card were 25 percent lower on 3D benchmarks than those from the GeForce2 Ultra cards.

What the Radeon does have to recommend it is a separate TV output, so you can plug this machine directly into your domestic box for big-screen DVD playback. Mind you, the 19-inch Mitsubishi monitor isn’t exactly disappointing, giving an excellent picture in its own right.

Storage is provided by a 29GB hard drive and the almost obligatory DVD and CD-RW drives. Twin drives are a much better option than a single combined DVD/CD-RW drive, as the two can be used together for back up of important data, or to master CDs.

The sound system, comprising a 5.1-channel sound card and Cambridge Soundworks speakers, rounds off an excellent high-end PC system that any discerning home user would be happy with.

Evesham’s 1200 GTS Ultra is a very well specified PC, with nearly all the components you could want in the proper places. The core system is based around a fast 1.2GHz Athlon processor with 256MB of memory. This is tied to a GeForce2 Ultra graphics adapter with 64MB of memory, producing excellent performance results on mainstream and graphics-oriented applications. The graphics signal runs a flat-faced, 19-inch NEC monitor, which gives a clear, detailed picture.

Storage is divided between a 38GB hard drive and DVD and CD-RW drives. This is a good combination, giving scope for back-up and archival, as well as plenty of internal storage. It’s the kind of combination that will see you through the next few years without needing an upgrade.

Sound is taken care of by a Cambridge Soundworks DT2200 speaker set, capable of Dolby Digital reproduction, and run from a Creative SoundBlaster Live 5.1, six-channel sound card. Although these cubic speakers are small, they can produce high-volume, low-distortion sound for both music and film soundtracks. The audio-visual capabilities of the system make it ideal for running DVD movies.

Despite all this state-of-the-art hardware, Evesham has kept the price down, producing a well specified PC at a price that’s considerably below £2,000. With a copy of SmartSuite Millennium thrown in, the 1200 GTS Ultra offers both great value and excellent performance.

It’s nice to dream. If money really were no object and you were going out to buy a new PC, what would you pick? You can now get a really top-spec PC for around £2,000 and some manufacturers will offer something similarly stunning for a lot less.

Any PC is only as good as the components it’s made from and there’s a long list of the bits you should check out before buying. You start with the processor and memory, of course, as this is the heart-blood of the machine. Nearly as important these days, though, is the graphics adapter. This powerful piece of hardware works with the processor to provide the 2D and 3D graphics so important to modern applications, like video editing, DVD playback and, of course, games. Mainly games, in fact, if we’re honest.

A fast hard drive is an important component of any PC, although capacities are now so large that you’re unlikely to fill one, unless you’re editing vast tracts of digital video – and one PC in particular, tested here, could do just that. More important to the versatility of the machine are the CD/DVD drives fitted to it. A CD-RW drive provides high-capacity backup, while a good DVD drive gives you access to an ever-increasing range of high-definition movies. You’ll need a good monitor to view them on, though.

Sound is just as important and PC sound can now rival medium range hi-fi systems. Many computer sound cards include Dolby Digital sound decoders for that little extra experience when playing games or watching films.

Got all that? Right, here are six machines to make you drool – some at prices to make you shiver. Click the ‘NEXT’ link below to find out more.

The first thing you notice about Dell’s Dimension 4100 system is its LCD screen. This is a fully flat screen, like you’d see in a notebook, but considerably bigger than would squeeze into any portable’s lid. This is a 17-inch panel, which means it measures a full 17 inches from corner to corner, unlike similarly rated CRT monitors which usually only manage 16 inches. It gives a clean picture, if a little dim, and is driven digitally from a GeForce2 Ultra graphics card.

The PC itself is built around a 1GHz Pentium III chip, with 256MB of memory, giving it a commendable turn of speed, and the 37GB hard drive is more than you’re ever likely to need. DVD and CD-RW drives are fitted, leaving most of your options open for archival and CD creation.

Sound is as well catered for as video. It starts with an impressive Turtle Beach Santa Cruz card. Turtle Beach is not as well known over here as in the US, where the company is a leading contender in the high-end PC audio market. They co-developed the SonicFury card with the UK’s VideoLogic. The Santa Cruz card is a full six-channel device and drives a set of Altec Lansing speakers, which look as good as they sound.

A copy of Works 2000 Suite is bundled with the system by Dell and overall the Dimension 4100 1GHz is a formidable high-end PC with good quality video and audio technology.

Compaq likes to keep its ideas for a top-spec consumer PC in proportion. The Presario 7EL 7000T is one of the top models in its range, but it’s still not going to cost you several important limbs to buy one.

Based around an 800MHz Pentium III, the machine may not be a giant-killer in performance terms, but the chip is well integrated with 128MB of main memory and a 30GB hard drive. The 19-inch Compaq monitor gives a reasonable picture, but isn’t truly flat like most of the other displays here. It also driven by a Riva TNT2-based graphics card, which looks a little sorry in comparison with any of the GeForce2 cards that litter this round-up.

However, the connectivity of the Presario lifts its value back up. As well as the usual parallel, serial and USB ports at the back of the machine, there’s a 1394 (aka FireWire, for connecting DV cameras and other fast peripherals) port there, too, and two more USB ports and a second 1394 socket at the front, below the drive bays. An Ethernet network port is also provided as standard. This range of sockets provides a lot of potential for connecting all kinds of external peripherals, from printers and scanners to optical drives and video cameras.

The machine performed well under test and comes with copies of Works and Word and up to eight ‘points’ to select your own software from Compaq’s Software Choice programme. The Presario 7EL 7000T is a well-specified machine, top consumer spec for Compaq if, perhaps, not for the rest of the industry.

There are two clear price points at which these systems are supplied – £1,500 and £2,000 plus VAT – and then there’s Armari. The Armari system is very well built and contains the kind of hardware you can really get excited about, but it is pricey. You pay a lot for video editing gear, but even so it looks steep.

At the other end of the spectrum, Compaq manages to differentiate its Presario machine by including a network adapter and plenty of USB and 1394 ports – there’s even a pull-out holder for your favourite CDs behind the front panel.

Time plays its usual trick and includes everything in there bar something to wash up in. If you want a complete system, though, it integrates well and produces a balanced offering. It’ll certainly take you a while to work through the software bundle.

Dell’s system is based around its LCD monitor, which is good looking and gives a well-defined picture. The rest of the graphics system and sound system are strong and the processor and memory configuration is very capable. You have to decide whether you want to spend so much for the LCD, though.

That leaves the Mesh and Evesham machines and both are fine offerings. Mesh loses performance with the Radeon card, but you do get the TV output. For the overall balance of power and facilities, however, and the choice of well-matched components, we’d go for the Evesham 1200 GTS Ultra. If not a dream machine, you could certainly lose some sleep over this one.

When you say ‘money is no object’, you really have to mean it with this Armari system, although it’s not, strictly speaking, a consumer system unless you’re seriously into making and editing home movies. The company has pulled out all the stops and built a real top-of-the-range PC geared for video editing and related tasks.

The R850, housed in a spectacular bright blue, all-aluminium case, has plenty of performance, thanks to a 1.5GHz Pentium 4 processor and its standard 128MB of Rambus memory. Armari supports this with twin UDMA-100 (a fast IDE protocol) hard drives, so you can use one for storing applications and the other for your video data. To deal with video capture from camera or other video sources, there’s a Pinnacle DV500 card. While this isn’t as versatile as, say, an equivalent Matrox kit, it does work happily with third-party graphics cards.

In this case, the graphics card is a 3DBlaster GeForce2 Ultra from Creative, with a full 64MB of video memory. It drives a 19-inch, flat-faced Mitsubishi monitor, which gives an excellent picture; well focused and with enough detail for resolutions up to 1600 by 1200 pixels.

Sound is equally well taken care of, with a six-channel Creative card – fully capable of decoding Dolby Digital 5.1 sound streams – and speakers to match. The machine, which comes with both DVD and CD-RW drives, is just as comfortable playing commercial DVD movies as it is helping you make your own. The only set-back is the price but, in this case, you get what you pay for.

Company: Time

Contact: 01282 777555