How Much PC Does $1,000 Get You?

By Eric Grevstad | Posted November 18, 2003

In August, HP Chairman Carly Fiorina hosted a press event in New York City to launch a load of digital imaging and home entertainment products. One corner of the room featured a handful of auto-show-style future concepts or technology demonstrations; we noticed, next to the kitchen-counter PC and Star Trek voice translator, a silver tower-cased system akin to the maxed-out PCs of hardcore vendors like Alienware or Falcon Northwest. Last week, we noticed the system at CompUSA: the Compaq X09 Gaming Tower sells for $3,000 with a Cooler Master Wavemaster case, 3.2GHz Pentium 4 and i875 chipset, 1GB of DDR400 memory, two Seagate Serial ATA 120GB hard disks, DVD+RW and DVD-ROM/CD-RW drives, 256MB Nvidia GeForce FX 5950 Ultra graphics, and Gigabit Ethernet.

But HP's jump onto Dell's Dimension XPS bandwagon is three times too much for our quarterly survey: As we have a dozen times before, we once again scour vendors' Web sites for the best desktops and notebooks $1,000 can buy, giving extra points for desktops with monitors and ignoring systems without at least 256MB of memory and both modem and Ethernet ports. The holiday shopping season always delivers lots of fresh deals and lowered prices, which we checked online late last week; any mistakes in transcription are ours, though vendors' hour-to-hour shuffling of costs, configurations, and rebates is beyond our control.

Playing Ho-Ho-Hardball
Some companies are sitting out the Christmas consumer crunch. Fujitsu Computer Systems' lowest-priced laptop is $1,199, and while IBM offers ThinkPad G40 and R40 models for $899 and $999, respectively, they're uncompetitive clunkers with only 128MB of RAM, 20GB hard disks, and CD-ROM instead of DVD or CD-RW drives.

Similarly, though Toshiba had a $999 laptop in our August survey, the Satellite A15's upgrade from a 2.0GHz to 2.4GHz Celeron processor has pushed it to $1,049 on the company's Web site. Although, CompUSA lists the 15.0-inch-screened, DVD-ROM/CD-RW-combo-drive notebook for $1,000 after a mail-in rebate.

And the cheapest ready-to-ship desktop we could find on Sony's site was $1,050 after a $100 mail-in rebate, although the Vaio RS420 is impressively equipped with Intel's Hyper-Threading, 800MHz-bus Pentium 4/2.8 processor, 512MB of DDR333 memory, a 120GB hard disk, DVD+-RW drive, and 64MB ATI Radeon 9200 graphics card. Circuit City offers the Vaio RS410 for $850 after a mail-in rebate, but while we like that model's DVD+-RW drive and could live with its 2.66GHz CPU, we balk at its Intel 845GV integrated graphics with no AGP slot for alternatives.

On the other hand, if you can live without an IEEE 1394 FireWire port (just five USB 2.0 ports), the eMachines T2865 is an alluringly low $720 with an AMD Athlon XP 2800+ processor, 512MB of DDR333 memory, a 160GB hard disk, and a whole slew of storage formats — both a multiformat flash-card reader and a DVD+-RW drive. The eMachines also meets our desktop demand for an AGP slot, in case buyers want something faster than its advertised GeForce4 MX (i.e., nForce2 chipset) graphics.

Alas, eMachines' 15-inch LCD monitor costs $300 after a mail-in rebate, so we'd have to either break our budget by $20 or settle for a 17-inch CRT — or for the $100-cheaper T2825 system with DVD-ROM and CD-RW drives instead of DVD-burning capability. (CompUSA bundles the T2865 with a U.S. Logic 15-inch LCD for $970.)

A Dell To Die For, an HP To Avoid
As an alternative to putting a TiVo under the tree, both HP and Gateway offer Windows XP Media Center Edition desktops for $1,000 with no monitor or speakers. Gateway's 510S Media Center couples its TV tuner with an Nvidia GeForce FX 5200G card, HP's Media Center M300Y with an ATI Radeon 9200.

Both have 2.6GHz Pentium 4 Hyper-Threading CPUs, 512MB of DDR333 memory, and 80GB hard disks. But neither, alas, will let you burn time-shifted TV shows or your home videos to DVD — both have DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drives instead of DVD burners. (And even if they did, Microsoft's Media Center recording format plays only on the recording PC, not on home DVD players unless you spend another $80 for Sonic Solutions' MyDVD Plus.)

To be sure, several of HP's regular desktops in our price range offer DVD recording. The Pavilion A330N is $880 with an Athlon XP 3000+, 120GB hard disk, DVD+RW, and nForce2 graphics plus an AGP slot — but while many shoppers might be seduced into getting the Intel brand and DVD+RW at the same price, we think they'd be suckers to fall for the Pavilion A342N, which has an outdated 400MHz-bus Pentium 4/2.6 processor, 512MB of slower DDR266 instead of DDR333 memory, and no AGP slot for graphics headroom.

HP customers seeking Intel plus DVD+RW will be better served by the $950 Compaq Presario S5400N (Pentium 4/2.6 with Hyper-Threading, 120GB hard disk, Intel integrated graphics with an AGP slot), or have to step up to the Pavilion A350N (Pentium 4/2.8 with Hyper-Threading, GeForce4 MX 440 video card) for $1,080.

Gateway's best non-Media-Center desktop deal for our budget is the $1,000 model 510S with 2.6GHz Hyper-Threading CPU, 80GB hard disk, 512MB of DDR333, DVD-ROM and CD-RW drives, and a 17-inch CRT monitor. Stepping up to the 510X would get us a 2.8GHz Pentium 4, DVD-RW, and a 15-inch LCD monitor, but would cost us $1,200, though dropping the display would trim it to $1,030.

Nifty Notebooks
The 6.1-pound Gateway M305X notebook that was $900 when we reviewed it in early October is $1,000 today with a 15.0-inch XGA display and DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive, but it's crept from a 2.2GHz to 2.4GHz Celeron CPU. HP offers two heavy (7.5 pounds) but well-equipped (mobile Pentium 4/2.3, 15.0-inch XGA, 30GB hard disk, DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo) laptops for $1,000 under two different labels, the HP Pavilion ZE5501US and Compaq Presario 2851US.

Dell delivers its Inspiron 1100 laptop for $849 after a $150 mail-in rebate with Celeron/2.3 power, 15.0-inch screen, 256MB of DDR266, a 40GB hard disk, and a DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive; the Dell Web site says the lighter Inspiron 5100 model starts at $899, but we couldn't get below $1,017 after rebate for a Pentium 4/2.66 configuration with 14.1-inch display (with a 15.0-inch screen and 512MB of memory, it's $1,099 after rebate).

But if its notebook bargains weren't exceptional, Dell outdid its rivals in this quarter's desktop dealing. The skinny slimline Dimension 4600C is $999 after a mail-in rebate with a Pentium 4/2.66 (533MHz bus) CPU, DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive, 512MB of memory, 40GB hard disk, and 15-inch E151FPb flat-panel monitor. The flagship Dimension 8300 desktop raised our eyebrows with a free quadruple-memory upgrade to 1GB of DDR400, but it seemed sort of skewed to pair a gigabyte of memory with a modest 40GB hard disk (along with 2.8GHz processing and DVD-ROM and CD-RW drives) for $969 after rebate ($1,049 with a 17-inch CRT).

And our favorite fourth-quarter desktop package was Dell's preconfigured "Office & Entertainment" Dimension 4600 minitower — $979 with Pentium 4/2.8C power, 512MB of speedy DDR400, a 120GB Serial ATA 7,200-rpm hard disk, 4X DVD+RW and 16X DVD-ROM drives, and a 128MB GeForce FX 5200 graphics card. No monitor at that price, but we like the idea of getting Hyper-Threading, DVD burning, DDR400, and Serial ATA while others make do with DDR333 and IDE.

Finally, Wal-Mart.com caught our eye with one $898 notebook bundle — an HP Pavilion ZE4427 (Athlon XP-M 2200+, DVD-ROM/CD-RW, 15.0-inch XGA) plus HP's compact PSC120 printer/copier/scanner combo. The discounter also throws in a 17-inch LCD monitor with Compaq's Athlon XP 2600+ Presario S5140-WM desktop (DVD-ROM and CD-RW drives, 80GB hard disk, ProSavageDDR graphics plus AGP slot) for the same price, and lists a Northgate Gamer PC with Athlon XP 2800+, 160GB hrd disk, DVD-RW, and 5.1 speaker system for $878 with no monitor.

Costco didn't have any $1,000 deals that sparked our interest, though a Northgate Athlon 64 3200+ desktop with 1GB of memory and DVD-RW briefly made us wish we could jump to $1,400. Will 64-bit computing ever come in unfer $1,000? Check back with us in February.

Adapted from HardwareCentral.com.

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