Updated PC Shopping Survey

Over the years, our quarterly quest for sub-$1,000 desktop and notebook computers has gotten easier and easier — we’ve gone from disqualifying systems that lacked modem and Ethernet ports to disqualifying systems without CD burners — but frankly, 2004 looks like the year this feature stops making compromises, or even making sense. For instance, we concluded our November 2003 roundup by wondering when 64-bit processing would make the cut. Guess what?

Roaming the Web last night and this morning, we found Best Buy selling HP’s Compaq Presario S6900NX desktop for $1,000 (after a $50 mail-in rebate) with AMD’s Athlon 64 3200+ CPU, 512MB of DDR400 memory, a 160GB (7,200 rpm) hard disk, 128MB Nvidia GeForce FX 5200 graphics card, and CD-ROM and DVD+RW drives.

On HP’s‘s own site, we configured a Pavilion A450E model for $990 (after mail-in rebate) with the same specs except for a single, 4X DVD+RW drive, 128MB ATI Radeon 9200 SE card, and Altec Lansing 2.1 speakers. The Presario 8000Z minitower just missed our cut at $1,018 after rebate with DVD-ROM and CD-RW drives instead of a DVD burner, but it included a free upgrade to the faster Athlon 64 3400+.

In fact, we almost squeezed a 64-bit notebook under our price ceiling: the 8-pound Compaq Presario R3000Z, $1,049 after rebate with Athlon 64 3000+, 256MB of memory, 40GB hard disk, DVD-ROM drive, and 15.0-inch XGA display. Our only consolation is that it’s going to take some time for the real market for 64-bit computing, PCs with more than 4GB of memory, to fall into our shopping cart.

Traveling Economy Class

Turning to notebooks, we were dismayed that IBM is still selling the truly lame $999 ThinkPad R40 configuration — 128MB of memory, 20GB hard disk, and CD-ROM instead of DVD or recordable drive — we made fun of last time. To be fair, slipping Big Blue just another $100 gets you a much more usable model with 256MB of memory and a DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive as well as 15.0-inch XGA screen, but its 2.0GHz Celeron CPU is still on the slow side.

Toshiba’s official $999 (after $50 mail-in rebate) entry, the Satellite A45-S120, has a Celeron/2.6 chip, 256MB of DDR266, 40GB hard disk, DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive, and 15.0-inch display. If you shop at Circuit City, however, the same money will get you the A45-S130 model with Celeron/2.8 processor, 512MB of memory, and 802.11g wireless networking.

Wal-Mart.com throws in HP’s DeskJet 3620V inkjet printer along with the Pavilion ZE5607 laptop — a 7.5-pounder with 2.6GHz Celeron, 15.0-inch XGA screen, and combo drive — for $998. If you prefer Pentium 4 to Celeron power, Dell’s Inspiron 5100 notebook offers an above-average 2.8GHz processor and 384MB of RAM as well as the usual DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo, 15.0-inch screen, and ATI Mobility Radeon 7500 graphics for $999.

If you prefer mobile Athlon XP 2500+ power, HP’s 7.3-pound Pavilion ZE4610US is $1,000 after rebate. And if you’re longing for a laptop with a DVD burner, Gateway’s M305CS notebook is $1,000 after a limited-time $300 mail-in rebate with 2.2GHz Pentium 4 and 2X DVD-RW drive, though the 6.1-pound portable settles for a 14.1-inch XGA display.

Plain and Fancy

A perennial bargain basement PC maker that receives our frequent attention and new Gateway subsidiary eMachines has raised the price of its mainstream desktop by $50 and replaced the Athlon XP 2800+ with XP 3200+ processor, but the T3265 still easily meets our budget at $770 with 512MB of DDR333 memory, a 160GB hard disk, CD-ROM and DVD±RW drives, and Nvidia nForce2 integrated-graphics chipset plus AGP slot. Competitors can taunt eMachines for the system’s lack of a FireWire port, however.

Speaking of Gateway, Costco sells a 310XL desktop with Pentium 4/2.6 (533MHz bus) chip, DVD-ROM and CD-RW drives, and a 17-inch CRT monitor for $880, but the lack of AGP spells doom as far as we’re concerned. By contrast, the Athlon XP 2600+ desktop in Wal-Mart.com’s $898 Compaq Presario S5140 bundle has an AGP slot for the inevitable day when buyers impatient with its ProSavageDDR integrated graphics; a 17-inch LCD is part of the bargain.

Similarly, the $900-after-rebate Sony Vaio RS510 desktop impresses with CD-ROM and DVD±RW drives, half a gigabyte of DDR333, a 120GB (7,200 rpm) hard disk, and the company’s friendly Click to DVD software, but the Pentium 4/2.8 HT system compromises with Intel’s i865GV chipset graphics plus an AGP slot. The Vaio RS520G has a full-fledged 128MB ATI Radeon 9200 graphics card, 160GB hard drive, and Intel’s snazzy new Pentium 4/3.0E processor, but it’s $1,050 after rebate.

You’ll have to find your own monitor to go with CompUSA’s $850 HP Pavilion A430N desktop; the Athlon XP 3200+ system comes with 512MB of DDR333, a 160GB hard disk, CD-ROM and DVD+RW drives, and a 64MB Nvidia GeForce4 MX 440 graphics card. The Pavilion A450N, as seen on both HP’s own and Circuit City’s sites, combines a 3.0GHz Hyper-Threading P4 processor, half a gigabyte of DDR400, 160GB hard disk, CD-ROM and DVD+RW drives, and a 128MB GeForce FX 5200 card; it’s $1,000 after a $50 mail-in rebate with no speakers or monitor.

Circuit City does offer a Pentium 4/2.6 desktop with 17-inch flat-panel monitor; the Compaq Presario S5322 is $1,000 after a $150 rebate with a somewhat underwhelming 256MB of DDR333 memory, 80GB hard disk, DVD-ROM and CD-RW drives, and Intel integrated graphics with AGP slot.

Finally, though its Inspiron 5100 is perhaps this month’s best laptop bargain, Dell fumbles on the desktop side: We were impressed that the direct giant offers Dimension 8300 shoppers a free choice of either a 17-inch LCD or 19-inch CRT monitor, as well as Pentium 4/3.0 Hyper-Threading power, 512MB of DDR400, and 128MB GeForce FX 5200 graphics. But even with a relatively modest 80GB hard disk, the desktop misses our cutoff at $1,019 ($1,049 with the optical mouse that should be standard). We blame Dell’s decision to flaunt a glitzy new 8X DVD+RW drive when most of us would be perfectly content with a 4X burner.

Adapted from HardwareCentral.com.

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