Price-checking before posting a review is a routine chore at the Labs, Weather, & Sports Desk, but the PowerSpec 9420 gave us a pleasant surprise: The PowerSpec site lists the vendor's top-of-the-line desktop for $2,000 without monitor, but when we clicked the "Buy Now" button, a browser window opened for parent company Micro Electronics Inc.'s Micro Center Online site with a list of models capped by our test system at $1,800.
That's an appealing enough price to overcome a lot of grumbling about "Gee, an Athlon 64 PC sure would be nice if Microsoft showed the slightest sign of actually shipping 64-bit Windows XP someday." Or, "These speakers aren't worth the, um, $1 or $2 they probably add to the cost of the system." Or even, "What's a PowerSpec?"
To answer the last question first, PowerSpec is the desktop part of Micro Electronics' house-brand PC division, best known for WinBook portables. Most PowerSpec machines are under-$800 bargain fare, like the $699 model that earned a mostly positive review last July. But the new 9420 aims high with AMD's Athlon 64 3200+ (2.0GHz) processor, complete with 1MB of Level 2 cache and 1.6GHz HyperTransport link by way of a system bus.
The fire-breathing CPU is teamed with VIA's K8T800 chipset, 1GB of DDR400 memory, and an even more fire-breathing, game-blasting 256MB Nvidia GeForce FX 5950 Ultra graphics card. PowerSpec throws in a fast 160GB hard disk and both DVD±RW and DVD-ROM drives, along with Gigabit Ethernet and a full array of USB 2.0, IEEE 1394 FireWire, and audio and video ports. Windows XP Professional is preinstalled, so you'll be able to run plenty of 32-bit software if you're not ready to make the leap to 64-bit Linux.
And all this is $1,800? Not too shabby, with comparably equipped 3.2GHz Pentium 4 desktops from Dell, Gateway, and the like going for over $2,500. That's not to say the PowerSpec is an unbeatable bargain no PC is nowadays; HP's Pavilion page let us configure a similar system with either Pentium 4/3.2 or Athlon 64 3200+ power for about $2,000, and the eMachines T6000 at Best Buy combines the Athlon 64 3200+ with lesser standard equipment for $1,100. But it's more than value enough to make performance shoppers sit up and take notice.
All the Frills Are on the Inside
Except for the vent over the CPU fan on the left side, the 9420's black tower case is blandly generic-looking, as are its no-name mouse and keyboard. The mouse wins points for having a scroll wheel and smooth optical rather than mechanical design, though it felt a trifle long or bulky under our palm; the keyboard has a good typing feel, but is one of the rare models nowadays with no extra program-launch buttons or multimedia controls whatsoever.
Similarly, the supplied stereo speakers (no subwoofer) are low-rent, slightly buzzy models. Everything matches the black color scheme, though we suspect most buyers will want to invest in more upscale input devices and speakers, just as gamers will want to pair the latter with a sound card instead of the PowerSpec's motherboard audio.
Very Fast CPU, Ridiculously Fast Graphics
Strictly speaking, the PowerSpec can't advertise front-mounted USB 2.0 ports as most desktops today can there are two ports at the bottom front of the right side instead of on the front panel. No fewer than six more USB ports are at the rear, four in the main input/output area and two on a dongle that occupies an expansion-slot-style bracket to the left of the graphics card.
You'll also find parallel, serial, PS/2 mouse and keyboard, and two IEEE 1394 ports in back the FireWire ports, we were pleased to note, consisting of one powered 8-pin as well as one of the usual 4-pin type as well as audio and S/PDIF jacks and a Gigabit Ethernet port.
The eVGA.com GeForce FX 5950 Ultra card, a faithful copy of Nvidia's reference design, provides both analog VGA and digital DVI connectors plus a VIVO (video-in/video-out) port; there's a hydra-headed S-Video and composite in/out cable, along with a DVI-to-VGA adapter, in the box.
PowerSpec also provides cables for the unused Serial ATA ports on the MSI MS-6702 motherboard, accessible by removing two screws and popping a couple of latches to pull off the case's left side panel. There's free and easy access to the three DIMM sockets, two of which are occupied the maximum possible with DDR400/PC3200 memory, configured here in two double-sided 512MB modules.
Of the chassis' seven expansion-slot brackets, one is occupied by the MSI D-Bracket dongle that provides diagnostic LEDs and two of the USB 2.0 ports; one is for the AGP 8X slot, which holds the GeForce FX card; and five are for PCI slots. However, the first of the latter is blocked by the graphics card's colossal cooling fan vent, and the last pretty much blocked by the D-Bracket dongle's motherboard cable; that leaves three usable PCI slots, two empty and one holding a Lucent 56Kbps Winmodem.
The JLMS (LiteOn) 16X DVD-ROM and Sony DW-U14A DVD±RW drive capable of 4X DVD-R, DVD+R, or DVD+RW and 2X DVD-RW recording as well as 24/10/32X CD-RW duty occupy two 5.25-inch drive bays, while the 1.44MB floppy drive and 160GB Samsung SpinPoint SP1614N, an Ultra (Parallel) ATA/133 7,200-rpm hard disk with 8MB buffer, leave a couple of vacant 3.5-inch bays. Between the cooling fans on the CPU, backplate, and Inwin 300-watt power supply, the PowerSpec is moderately noisy, though not the most annoyingly loud desktop we've tested.
Crunching the Numbers
We don't have benchmarks to test the Athlon 64 3200+ processor in 64-bit mode, but, as per AMD's sales pitch, it delivers formidable performance with today's software while promising a smooth migration path to tomorrow's 64-bit code. Strictly speaking, the PowerSpec's BAPco SysMark 2002 rating of 284 (362 in Internet Content Creation, 223 in Office Productivity) isn't overwhelming we've topped that with Pentium 4/3.0 Hyper-Threading systems but its FutureMark PCMark 2002 results are righteous (6,522 CPU, 9,103 memory, 1,457 hard disk), as are its PCMark04 scores (4,059 overall, 3,765 CPU, 3,583 memory, 4,924 hard disk, 5,012 graphics).
And the GeForce FX 5950 Ultra is arguably the fastest 3D graphics accelerator now on the market, turning old benchmarks into invisible blurs (335 frames per second in Quake III Arena's High Quality 1,024 by 768 mode; 267 fps in an Unreal Tournament 2003 flyby at the same resolution) and topping all our previous test machines in newer, more demanding ones.
The system played Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory at 86 fps in High Quality XGA mode; set to 1,280 by 1,024 with 4X antialiasing, it still powered through the Codecreatures benchmark at 33 fps and the graphics-card-killing Gun Metal 2 at 24 fps. Returning to XGA, it nabbed a GFX score of 5,856 (44 fps) in the free version of AquaMark3 and 3DMark 2001 SE and 3DMark03 numbers of 19,010 and 5,482 respectively.
The software bundle is bare-bones but adequate, with Microsoft Works 7.0, CyberLink's PowerDVD 4, and NTI CD and DVD Maker 6.5 Gold, as well as 90-day versions of Norton AntiVirus 2004 and EarthLink Internet access. (Our test unit also came with Adobe Photoshop Elements 2.0 preinstalled, but we lost it when reformatting the system with the provided factory-restore CDs.)
The PowerSpec we reviewed last summer didn't make us jump for joy, but consistently fooled us into thinking we were using, say, a $999 PC instead of a $699 unit. The model 9420 is a different story it doesn't have the elegance of, say, a high-end Sony system, or the racy color scheme, classy multimedia keyboard, or jumbo 560-watt power supply of a Dell Dimension XPS. Instead, it reminds us of a Costco or Sam's Club counterpart to such PCs, a street-racer sedan instead of a ritzy GT.
With today's super-low PC prices, it takes a knowledgeable speed freak to see any $1,800 box with no monitor or Media Center extras as a bargain. But PowerSpec seems poised to reward a lot of smart shoppers. And if you're not an AMD fan, the PowerSpec page on the WinBook site offers a $1,600 desktop with the 3.4GHz Pentium 4 that Intel hasn't officially announced yet.
Adapted from HardwareCentral.com.