How Much PC Can $1,000 Get You?

By Eric Grevstad | Posted March 06, 2003
Just as publicly held companies issue quarterly reports to their stockholders, we make a quarterly survey of vendors' Web sites to find the best PC buys under $1,000. And this quarter, for the first time, amazing buys are harder to find: Prices have crept up, with systems that fit our budget last time around now costing $100 or $150 more.

To put it another way, in our fourth-quarter 2002 survey, we found ourselves wondering if we should retitle this feature "How Much PC Can $500 Get You" or stop listing desktops without monitors. This month, several screenless systems reappear (though as always, we consider a 17- rather than 15-inch CRT our monitor minimum and shun systems with only 128MB instead of 256MB of memory).

To be fair, the rising tide doesn't seem to be solely about PC makers' impulse to actually make a profit; the baseline for performance and features is rising, too. Except for the lowliest entry level PC, it's gotten hard to find a desktop with less than a 2.0GHz or even 2.4GHz processor. And DVD burners are starting to appear in bays that yesterday held just CD-RW drives.

One thing's for sure: Shopping for a new PC is never dull. Here are our findings, or snapshot of prices and configurations checked online this morning — with the caveat, as always, that vendors change prices, bundles, and rebate deals on a daily if not hourly basis.

Moo-ving Toward Profitability?
Perhaps the company that's most decisively kicked the habit of splashing $999 deals across its home page is Gateway: The 500S minitower that bore that price in December — with a Pentium 4/2.4 CPU, 80GB hard disk, DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive, and 17-inch monitor — now goes for $1,084.

And more recently, Gateway won hearts on Valentine's Day by introducing its 15.0-inch-screened 400L laptop with a limited-time $999 offer including Celeron/1.8 processor, 256MB of DDR, and DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo. It turns out, however, the limited time was just one week. Today, the 400L costs $100 more — and comes with half as much memory and a plain DVD-ROM drive.

Gateway is currently offering an Epson C62 inkjet printer for $1 with a PC purchase, but we're bummed that both its notebook and midrange 500-series desktop products have fallen off our roster. You can buy a 300X desktop for $999 with 2.4GHz Pentium 4, 256MB of DDR, 60GB hard disk, DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive, and 17-inch CRT monitor, but you won't be able to upgrade its sluggish Intel integrated graphics — there's no AGP slot.

By contrast, the machines in HP's new spring lineup offers more than their holiday-season predecessors: The company's $1,000-without-monitor desktop, the Pavilion 754n, has the same 2.53GHz Pentium 4, 512MB of PC2100 DDR, and 80GB hard disk as the 753n it replaces, but swaps out that model's CD-RW for a DVD+RW drive. (It, too, uses Intel's red-flag "Extreme Graphics," but at least there's an AGP slot for aftermarket upgrades.)

As for HP's other brand, if you can live with a CD-RW and DVD-ROM pair instead of DVD recording capability, the same price (technically, $1,050 before a $50 mail-in rebate) will get you a 2.66GHz Pentium 4, 120GB hard disk, and faster graphics — a 64MB ATI Radeon 9000 "gaming graphics card" — in the Compaq Presario 6470NX.

Sony gives desktop shoppers a similar choice of DVD burning or gameworthy graphics (though, come to think of it, doesn't DVD burning imply interest in home movie or digital video editing, which also demands better than the cheap integrated graphics that still plague most low-priced PCs?).

For dabblers in DVD-RW, the Vaio PCV-RS100 has a 2.0GHz Pentium 4 (with 400MHz front-side bus), 256MB of memory, a 60GB hard disk, and — you guessed it — Intel Extreme Graphics with no AGP slot.

We configured a custom-order Vaio RZ desktop for $1,000 with a 2.4GHz Pentium 4, 60GB hard disk, DVD-ROM and CD-RW drives, and 64MB Nvidia GeForce4 MX440 graphics card. AMD fans can opt for a Vaio RXA842 model with Athlon XP 2400+ processor, 512MB of PC2100 DDR, 80GB hard disk, CD-RW and DVD-ROM, and nForce 220 IGP shared video (plus an AGP slot); it's $900 after a $50 mail-in rebate.

Dell Gives You the Big Picture
This week's specials at Dell are easy on the eyes, as long as you don't go above 1,280 by 1,024 resolution — that's the optimum for the 19-inch M992 monitor the company is offering for the same price as a 17-inch CRT.

We found ourselves able to combine the big screen with swift PC1066 RDRAM memory, configuring a Dimension 8250 desktop for $958 (after $150 mail-in rebate) with 2.4GHz Pentium 4, 60GB hard disk, DVD-ROM and CD-RW drives, and a 64MB GeForce4 MX graphics card. The 8250 is the first Dell desktop offered without a 1.44MB floppy drive as standard equipment — your choice of the familiar floppy or a 16MB USB "memory key" flash drive is $20 extra.

Prefer DDR333 memory? Dell's Dimension 4550 is $998 (after $50 mail-in rebate) with a quicker 2.66GHz Pentium 4 and similar specs, including the 19-inch M992 monitor. But while it comes with a floppy drive, its speakers lack the subwoofer supplied with the 8250's above.

Finally, you've probably read about Wal-Mart.com's $199 Linux (LindowsOS 3.0) desktop — actually, it's $199.98 with a 1.1GHz AMD Duron chip, 128MB of PC133 SDRAM, 10GB hard disk, CD-ROM drive, and Ethernet adapter but no modem. While we were checking it out, however, another Microtel desktop caught our eye with the label "Optimized for gaming!" And sure enough, its Athlon XP 2100+ processor, 512MB of DDR333 memory, 80GB hard disk, 16X DVD-ROM and 24/10/40X CD-RW drives, and perky 64MB GeForce4 Ti 4200 card should please any player with $998 (plus monitor) to spend.

A Radical Laptop
Speaking of LindowsOS 3.0, we're not wild about that Linux distribution's annual subscription fee for application downloads that other Linux users can find for free. But we like the idea of the new Lindows Mobile PC: a 2.9-pound subnotebook with 12.1-inch LCD, 256MB of memory, a 20GB hard disk, and a wireless-network-compatible PC Card slot, preloaded with LindowsOS and priced at a PDA-like $799. Just don't expect blazing performance from its 933MHz VIA C3 processor.

Other under-$1,000 portable PCs are more conventional. WinBook's J4, a full-sized desktop replacement usually seen with a desktop Pentium 4 CPU, is back in stock for $999 with Celeron/1.7 power and a 14.1-inch XGA display, though its 20GB hard disk and 24X CD-ROM drive are obvious economy measures.

Toshiba has fallen off our budget list this month, though the Satellite 1415 does tempt us to stretch it to $1,099 — it's got a 15.0-inch display, DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive, 16MB GeForce4 420 Go graphics controller, and Celeron/1.6 chip, and only $50 more gets you a 30GB hard disk and Celeron/1.8.

But HP's laptop shop offers two ways to enjoy a 15.0-inch screen on a four-figure budget: The 7.3-pound Pavilion ze4219 has a 1.6GHz Celeron CPU, 256MB of DDR, 30GB hard disk, DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo, and ATI Mobility Radeon graphics accelerator for $1,000 after a $100 mail-in rebate. Its near twin, the Compaq Presario 2101, is $100 cheaper and 100MHz faster, but compromises with a 20GB hard disk and just DVD-ROM.

And while it settles for a classic 14.1-inch screen, Dell's Inspiron 2650 becomes the first 802.11b wireless networking-equipped laptop to appear in our roundup: It's $948 with a 1.8GHz mobile Pentium 4 processor, 256MB of memory and a 30GB hard disk (free upgrades from 128MB and 20GB respectively), 16MB GeForce2 Go graphics, and a CD-RW drive, and Dell offers a WiFi PC Card for just $49 more. (Alas, a DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive would push the price up another $70.)

Adapted from HardwareCentral.com.

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