It's official: The only reason you can't find PCs as prizes in Cracker Jack boxes is that they're too big.
That may sound extreme, but it's a logical conclusion since this month Gateway began offering brand-new computers for free: If you buy the company's 600XL laptop for $2,399, Gateway will throw in a 300S desktop -- with no monitor, but with 2.0GHz Celeron CPU, 40GB hard disk, and CD-RW drive -- at no extra cost. (You can also get the free 300S if you buy an ultra-loaded 700XL desktop configuration -- 3.06GHz Pentium 4, dual 200GB hard disks, 19-inch LCD monitor -- but it's a poorer deal at $3,499.)
We're not sure if this landmark has ominous implications for Grand Openings, but we've definitely found ourselves having to raise the ante -- as we have for each of this year's quarterly installments -- in Hardware Central's search for the best Windows XP system buys under $1,000.
We've already toughened our anecdotal tour of vendor Web sites by insisting on 256MB rather than 128MB of standard memory and both 56Kbps modem and 10/100Mbps Ethernet connections. But with PC prices continuing their plunge, this time we decided to play hardball by dropping desktop configurations without monitors -- and squinty 15-inch CRTs don't count, thank you; either a 15-inch LCD or 17-inch CRT display had to be part of the deal.
Prices and configurations were checked online Sunday, December 22 (but not confirmed with vendors, so any mistakes in transcription are ours). Are you ready for some bargains?
Dell's Desktop Surprises
Dell, HP, and other vendors are clearly saving a chunk of change with the OEM deals you've read about replacing Microsoft Works or Office with Corel's WordPerfect Productivity Pack bundle: Dell is no stranger to the entry-level economy field, but we didn't expect to find its high-end, RDRAM- rather than DDR-memory-equipped Dimension 8250 there.
Yet when our curiosity led us to a "Featured Systems -- Economical Dimension 8250" link, we were able to configure a system with a 2.4GHz (533MHz bus) Pentium 4, 256MB of PC1066 RDRAM, 30GB hard disk, 16X DVD-ROM and 40/10/40X CD-RW drives, 64MB Nvidia GeForce4 MX graphics card, and 17-inch E772 monitor for $969. (Stepping up to a 60GB hard disk pushed the system $9 over our limit.)
At the other end of Dell's desktop product line, the Dimension 2350 makes do with a 2.0GHz Pentium 4 and Intel integrated graphics, but we were able to squeeze under our limit at $968 despite opting for 256MB of DDR, a 60GB hard disk, and state-of-the-burn DVD+RW drive, as well as the 17-inch E772 monitor. Alas, switching to Dell's 15-inch E151FP flat panel display obliged us to downshift to a 1.8GHz P4 and 30GB hard disk, and the DVD+RW model still bruised our budget at $1,028.
If you're looking for something in between, there's Dell's Dimension 4550, but that mainstream model seems to lack the free CD-RW drive and other promotions of its comrades (although, as we've noted in previous surveys, Dell shuffles deals on a dizzying daily basis). Our $998 configuration made do with a Pentium 4/2.0, 30GB hard disk, DVD-ROM, and CD-RW, though we were able to pencil in Dell's 0.25mm-dot-pitch M782 instead of the lowball E772 17-inch CRT.
Where's the Screen?
A similar step-up at eMachines' site is to choose the 0.25mm eView 17f monitor ($150 after mail-in rebate) rather than 0.27mm eView 17s ($110 ditto). You can mate the sharper CRT with eMachines' T2200 desktop -- an Athlon XP 2200+ minitower with 512MB of PC2100 DDR, a 100GB hard disk, and 16X DVD-ROM and 40/12/48X CD-RW drives -- for a total of $900 after rebate deals.
Alas, if you want the game maniac's T2200SE "Special Edition" eMachines system -- the machine above outfitted with ATI's zoomy Radeon 9700 Pro graphics card and Logitech's boomy Z-340 2.1 speaker system -- that'll be $999.99, with no cash left for a monitor.
Sony, too, flunked our stringent new must-include-monitor requirement, since its site's cheapest 17-inch Trinitron will set you back $250 and the Vaio RXA842 desktop is $900 after a mail-in rebate. It's a tempting enough box, however, with Athlon XP 2400+ power, 512MB of DDR, an 80GB hard disk, 16X DVD-ROM, 32/12/40X CD-RW, and Nvidia's nForce 220 IGP integrated video.
When you think of HP, you think of printers, right? So the company gets extra credit for family-friendly deals that bundle not only a monitor but an inkjet printer: After a $250 mail-in rebate, we found an HP Pavilion 513n with Celeron/1.8 CPU, 256MB of DDR memory, a 60GB hard disk, Intel integrated graphics, and a DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive -- plus an MX70 17-inch monitor, plus Deskjet 3820 printer -- for $829.
That system's Compaq counterpart is the Presario 6330US, offered for $949 (after a $200 mail-in rebate) with 2.0GHz (400MHz bus) Pentium 4 power, 256MB of DDR, a 60GB hard disk, DVD-ROM and CD-RW drives, and 17-inch FS7550 monitor. No printer, unfortunately, and the same Intel Extreme Graphics in lieu of a game-upgrade-worthy AGP slot.
We were able to find Gateway's all-in-one Profile 4 -- a PC built into the back of a 15-inch LCD monitor -- for $999, but the configuration in question makes do with a measly 128MB of memory and 24X CD-ROM. It'd take another $60 to get 256MB of DDR, and another $80 to replace the CD-ROM with a CD burner (or $180 to replace it with a DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive).
But Gateway's more conventional 500S minitower is available in a couple of $999 flavors: a 2.4GHz Pentium 4 version with above-average 80GB, 7,200-rpm hard disk, as well as 17-inch CRT and DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive, or a 2.0GHz model with only 128MB of DDR, 40GB hard disk, and 48/24/48X CD-RW but a relatively luxurious 17-inch LCD flat panel.
Gateway's contribution to the $999 notebook arena is the 7.2-pound model 400SP, which combines a 2.0GHz mobile Pentium 4 with 14.1-inch display, 20GB hard disk, and either an 8X DVD-ROM or 16/10/24X CD-RW drive. A combo drive pushes the 400SP over our budget, as does 256MB rather than 128MB of onboard memory.
Our visit to Dell's site dug up two versions of the Inspiron 2650, both with 256MB of RAM -- as well as 14.1-inch screens, 20GB hard disks, and 16MB Nvidia GeForce2 Go graphics controllers. The $998 model made do with a mobile Celeron/1.5 for the sake of a CD burner, making it our choice over the $1-more model with a slightly swifter Pentium 4/1.7 but only a CD-ROM.
Toshiba tempted us to break the bank -- $1,009 after rebate, big deal -- for the Satellite 1410-S174, a rather hefty 7.8-pound laptop with show-off 15.0-inch screen, GeForce4 420 Go graphics accelerator, and DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive. But we played fair and settled for the Satellite 1110-S153, which pairs the same 1.8GHz Celeron CPU with 14.1-inch XGA display and DVD-ROM -- and at 6.9 pounds is easier to carry -- for $899.
The HP and Compaq brands offer plenty of bargains for laptop shoppers. After a mail-in rebate, you can pick up a Presario 2100 with Athlon XP 1600+ processor, 20GB hard disk, 256MB of DDR, DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive, and a free extra lithium-ion battery pack for $999. Content with Celeron/1.6 power and CD-ROM? You can get a 15.0- instead of 14.1-inch-screened model for the same price.
HP's Pavilion ze4115 ($1,000 after instant and mail-in rebates) comes with a free nylon carrying case instead of a free second battery, but we wouldn't look down our noses at its mobile Athlon XP 1500+, 30GB hard disk, or DVD/CD-RW combo drive. The Pavilion ze4102 has a 1.6GHz Celeron chip and 20GB hard disk, but otherwise similar specs -- right down to the bonus carrying case -- for the same price.
Finally, we celebrated the holiday with a bah-humbug from WinBook, which is no stranger to $999 notebook values but whose J4 looked a little underequipped at that price with 1.7GHz Celeron, only 128MB of memory, and CD-ROM instead of CD-RW or combo drive. And when we clicked on it, the site said, "Oops! Sorry, that unit is unavailable at this time."
This article originally appeared on Hardware Central.