How Much Computer Can You Buy for $1,000?

By Eric Grevstad | Posted September 28, 2004
As much as we pine for decked-out, high-end PCs and laptops, the practical side of running a small business takes control and we refocus our search for computers that fit within the budget. But today's bargain computer isn't a stripped-down version of last year's model. Lots of stores and Web sites often feature PCs with DVD burners, lots of memory and large hard drives. Let's take a look at what $1,000 can buy for your SMB.

Without a doubt Dell has the shortest-lived specials and most frequent configuration changes in this survey of vendors' Web sites (some of the deals we noted last night and this morning are billed as ending tomorrow). But if you hurry and visit the Dimension 4600 desktop page right away, Dell will apparently pay you $11 to take a 48X CD-ROM drive off its hands.

The quirk caught our eye while fiddling with Dell's online-ordering options to bring a 4600 system in at $968 ($1,068 before a $100 mail-in rebate) with 3.0GHz Pentium 4 processor, 512MB of DDR400 memory, a 160GB Serial ATA hard disk, 128MB Nvidia GeForce FX 5200 graphics card, and 15-inch LCD monitor: The listed cost of a two-optical-drives setup with the CD-ROM and a double-layer DVD+RW drive was $11 less than ordering the DVD burner alone.

We didn't find any other negative prices in this year's third installment of our quarterly quest for the best desktop and notebook deals under $1,000. (As always -- though we revisited the Dell site twice -- any mistakes in transcription are our fault, though any price or bundle changes since our scan are the vendors.) But we did find a number of double-layer (8.5GB- as well as 4.7GB-compatible) DVD+RW drives and other new technologies, and found they're helping push PC prices slightly higher.

Paying the DDR-2 Tax
One noticeable example is DDR-2 memory, which Intel has anointed the new desktop standard but which carries a premium over classic DDR. Even with half a gigabyte of relatively humble DDR-2/400 instead of faster DDR-2/533, we had to downshift to bring Dell's 915G-Express-chipset Dimension 4700 in at $999 after rebate -- its 160GB hard disk, double-layer DVD+RW, and 15-inch LCD monitor are comparable to the previously mentioned, previous-generation Dimension 4600 system (albeit with a PCI Express instead of AGP graphics card, ATI's 128MB Radeon X300 SE). But it has a Pentium 4/2.8 instead of /3.0 processor.

When we stepped up to Intel's flagship 925X Express chipset with Dell's Dimension 8400, we were able to fit a 3.0GHz Pentium 4 530 into the box for $998 after rebate only by settling for a scanty 80GB hard disk and DVD-ROM and CD-RW drives instead of a DVD burner, although the free upgrade to a 17-inch flat-panel monitor was impressive. Trading its 512MB of DDR-2/400 for DDR-2/533 would have added $20.

By contrast, HP goes straight to DDR-2/533 for its custom-configurable Compaq Presario SA4000T desktop (and also boasts that the new model comes with Windows XP SP2). But even with a free upgrade from an 80GB to 160GB Serial ATA drive, the 915P Express unit narrowly missed our cut at $1,024 after mail-in rebate with Pentium 4 520 (2.8GHz) CPU, double-layer DVD+RW, and no monitor or speakers. Graphics are courtesy of the 128MB Radeon X300 SE card, nearly ubiquitous among retail PCI Express desktops, though an extra $100 would have bought us ATI's 256MB Radeon X600 Pro.

Speaking of PCI Express, we're sorry to say you won't find it on the Gateway site: Apparently focused on its grim finances and rebirth as a retail brand, the direct mainstay's online store has yet to freshen the desktop inventory it had months ago, before Pentium 4's had model numbers or Intel's 915-series chipset replaced the 865.

You can find a Gateway 510S mini-tower for $1,000 with 3.0GHz Pentium 4, 512MB of DDR400, 160GB hard disk (or 120GB with Win XP Pro instead of Home), DVD1RW burner, and 17-inch CRT, but its lame Intel Extreme Graphics 865GV integrated chipset doesn't even support an AGP slot. And desktops without upgradeable graphics don't make our list at any price.

It's not like Gateway's never heard of Intel's current components, however -- just that the company apparently had to promise superstores like CompUSA exclusive rights in exchange for shelf space. The electronics outlet sells Gateway's new 550GR desktop for $1,000 with tempting specifications including a Pentium 4 540 (3.2GHz) chip, 512MB of DDR400, 200GB of Serial ATA storage, double-layer DVD+RW, and a Radeon X300 SE card. So up-to-date is the 550GR that it doesn't have an old-fashioned floppy drive.

Gateway does offer an up-to-date notebook on its own site for $1,000 (say it with us: "after $100 mail-in rebate"); the M320CS sports Celeron M 320 (1.3GHz) power, a 14.1-inch XGA display, 256MB of memory, a 30GB hard disk, DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive, and 802.11g wireless networking and is a relatively trim 5.5 pounds.

Most laptops in our price range are in a different weight range, in the student-desktop-replacement instead of business-traveler segment. Gateway's 7.5-pound, 15.0-inch-screened M520S ($1,000) is an example with 2.8GHz Pentium 4 power, 40GB hard disk, and DVD-ROM/CD-RW, though it earns extra credit for coming with 512MB of DDR.

Dell's Inspiron 1150 tips the scale at 7.7 pounds and your wallet at $997 after rebate. It, too, has a 15.0-inch XGA screen, 40GB hard disk, DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo, and built-in WiFi, though we're torn between keeping the Celeron/2.6 notebook's 512MB of memory and settling for 384MB with a larger, longer-life battery.

Lots of retailers this month are stocking Toshiba's Satellite A65-S126, a $999 notebook with 2.8GHz Celeron CPU, 15.0-inch display, 256MB of DDR333, 60GB hard disk, DVD-ROM/CD-RW, 802.11b/g wireless, ATI's Mobility Radeon 7000 IGP integrated graphics. It's also 7.7 pounds.

We'd hoped to configure HP's new Pavilion DV1000 notebook, whose QuickPlay feature fires up a DVD movie, audio CD, or MP3 music in about 20 seconds without waiting to load Windows, but couldn't get it below $1,049 with a DVD-ROM instead of combo drive. We could, by contrast, fit a combo drive into the slim 5.2-pound Compaq Presario V2000 series, with Celeron M 330 (1.4GHz) processor and 14.0-inch wide-aspect-ratio screen, but to hit the $1,000-after-rebate mark we had to sacrifice wireless networking, which we don't think any laptop shopper should do nowadays.

That took our HP-brand portable hunt to the ponderous (8.0-pound) Presario R3000T or Pavilion ZV5000T, each $999 with Pentium 4/2.8A processor, 256MB of memory, and 60GB hard disk. The Presario has a 15.4-inch widescreen (1,280 by 800) display instead of a 15.0-inch XGA panel, but the Pavilion has a DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive instead of just DVD-ROM.

Multimedia for the Masses
Two brands sometimes seen in our roundup, eMachines and WinBook, missed our portable price ceiling this time. For desktop bargain hunters, eMachines' aging T3092 has been knocked down to $600 after rebate with Athlon XP 3000+ processor, 512MB of DDR333, 160GB hard disk, CD-ROM and DVD1RW drives, and Nvidia nForce2 integrated graphics plus an AGP slot.

In similar AMD news, WinBook's PowerSpec division is selling a model 8985 desktop for $999 with plenty of horsepower -- an Athlon 64 3400+, half-gigabyte of DDR400, 200GB hard disk, and DVD1RW burner -- but with woefully slow SiS 760 integrated graphics, although there's an AGP slot for upgraders.

We think HP's Pavilion A640N is a better deal at $950; it pairs the Athlon 64 3400+ with 512MB of DDR333 and a smaller 160GB hard disk, but comes with a 128MB GeForce FX 5200XT card as well as CD-ROM and DVD+RW. Even better is Circuit City's Pavilion A643N, the same machine with a slightly slower Athlon 64 3200+ chip: The "add to shopping cart to see our low price" teaser yielded a mere $830 after rebate.

Speaking of shopping carts, Wal-Mart has a choice of HP Pavilion-based desktop bundles with LCD monitors for $998: Both the SR1053WM-B and A635W-B models have 512MB of DDR, 80GB hard disks, and integrated graphics with an available AGP slot, but the former has an Athlon XP 3200+ processor to the latter's Athlon XP 3000+. Settle for the slower CPU and you'll get a 17- instead of 15-inch flat panel, but you'll also have to give up the DVD burner.

Last time, we remarked that Best Buy's bundle of a Compaq-branded, Athlon XP-powered desktop with 17-inch CRT monitor, HP Deskjet 3650 printer, and other accessories took no fewer than four mail-in rebates to get down to $1,030. The number of forms to fill out is the same, but the bottom line has dropped to $860; the Presario SR1130NX desktop offers an Athlon XP 3000+ CPU, 512MB of DDR333, 160GB hard disk, DVD+RW and CD-ROM drives, and integrated graphics with an AGP slot. Best Buy also throws in 25 DVD+R discs, with 50 jewel cases to keep them in and 100 labels to put on them. We don't understand it either.

Finally, Sony's house brand Giga Pocket and Microsoft-brand Win XP Media Center Edition desktops with TV tuners are both out of our reach, though we configured a Vaio RS600C minitower for $989 with Pentium 4/2.8E processor, 512MB of DDR400, 120GB hard disk, DVD1RW, and ATI Radeon 9200 graphics. But HP owns the Media Center PC category in this price range, lowering its new Pavilion M1070N Photosmart PC to $1,000 after mail-in rebate. The system combines a Pentium 4 520 (2.8GHz) chip, ATI Radeon X300 SE PCI Express graphics, CD-ROM and DVD+RW drives, and 512MB of DDR400 memory. It comes with one 160GB Serial ATA hard drive plus a swappable bay for another one -- what HP calls the Personal Media Drive, though the $220 option blows our budget.

Adapted from hardwarecentral.com.

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