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Just How Bad Is a $300 Windows PC?

- 2007.01.29 -Tip Jar

The Mac Web is filled with authors and bloggers who like to makefun of ultra-cheap Windows PCs. They're easy targets with vendorslike Walmart, eMachines, and Dell being great fun for Macenthusiasts to pick on.

These articles are filled with analysis and opinion, usuallyending with the reviewer writing that stores and vendors rarelysell that cheap model anyway, talking customers up to moreexpensive models or padding prices with options and extras.

In a recent article I showedhow a $300 PC really is half the price of a $600 Mac mini. In another, I looked atdifferent options for varioususers, with the super-cheap PC recommended (by me) for clericalwork in an office context.

Now I'd like to take a look at just what $300 or less canactually buy. many Mac reviewers have actually takena serious look at a $300 PC?

First a little background. Super-cheap PCs have been around fora while. Many vendors sell them, and while people like to laugh atthe likes of Dell and eMachines (now joined with Gateway), how manyMac reviewers have actually taken a serious look at a $300 PC? Howmany have actually borrowed or bought one and put it through itspaces?

I have. Twice.

In my law firm, computing demands are rather modest, with our"heavyweight" applications being Microsoft Word, Mozilla Firefox,Microsoft Outlook (or Entourage on the Mac), and Adobe AcrobatProfessional. We also work with digital photos and video onoccasion, and we do so exclusively on the 7-year-old Power Mac G4, if for noother reason than that I don't want to repurchase Photoshop foreither Windows or Intel OS X when released - and because wejust don't mess with photos and videos very often.

Whether it's on a Mac or a PC, our main programs are used allday, every day. These applications are all cross-platform, andwhile they look a bit different on a Mac than on a PC, they arelargely organized the same way, so it takes almost no effort tomove between platforms.

As an immigration law firm, we like widgets as well, especiallytranslation and world clocks, which really make our lives easier.Dashboard on OS X (F12) and Yahoo Widgets on Windows (F8)require very little thought to move between platforms.

Upgrade for Dual Monitor Support

Our most demanding user is my associate, who multitasks so muchthat she needs dual monitors. And for a dual-monitor user, a cheapPC won't cut it out of the box, as the onboard graphics just won'tdrive two monitors. However, an upgrade is an easy thing, as bothof my cheap PCs have open PCI Express (PCIe) slots for just thatpurpose.

I bought a 5-year-old IBM (yes, an actual made-in-USA IBM) witha 5-year-old 64 MB ATI Radeon 8500 video card for a total of $100 -and probably got ripped off. $50 more doubled the 512 MB of RAM toan even gig, while a $17 wireless card connected it to the officenetwork. The old Radeon is more than up to the task, driving themain monitor through its DVI output and the secondary monitorthrough its VGA output, with plenty of VRAM to drive both of themsimultaneously at 1280 x 1024 and 32-bit color.

The other two users (I use a tablet and a docking stationmyself) each have super-cheap PCs, and whoever needs it uses theMac (scanning, Photoshop, and video station).

The amazing thing about those super-cheap PCs is that they areevery bit as capable as my very non-cheap tablet in itsdocking station and really don't ask the user to suffer in any wayat all for their low prices.

No, these aren't suitable for the latest and most demandinggames, but for everything else they have more than enough power andspeed. Even for those games, both of these machines aresufficiently (and economically) upgradable to do an admirablejob.

My Cheap PCs

My first cheap PC is a Compaq purchased about a year ago forjust under $300. It came with only 256 MB of RAM (and three openmemory slots), a CD-RW/DVD-ROM combo drive, and a 100 GB SATA harddrive. Its 2.0 GHz AMD Sempron processor is not at the top ofanyone's spec chart, but it feels very fast and is upgradable tosome older (and faster than the Sempron) Athlon 64s. The onlyreally lowbrow item is the ATI X200 graphics, which uses 128 MB ofsystem RAM, but that can be replaced or supplemented by a PCIevideo card. Finally, it has two empty PCI slots, one of which wasfitted with a wireless card. A pair of 512 MB modules bring it upto a little over 1.0 GB of RAM after the video card siphons its 128MB.

The second cheap PC, which I just bought last month for only$250, is an eMachines using the same ATI X200 vampire video card, but thisPC came with a 512 MB RAM module in one of its two slots. I added asecond 512 MB module for $50, bringing the memory total up to 896MB available to the very fast 3.2 GHz Intel Celeron-D processor.Again there is a CD-RW/DVD-ROM combo drive and an SATA hard drive,though this one is smaller at 80 GB.

Again it has an open PCIe slot for a video upgrade, two PCIslots (one of which filled by yet another $17 wireless card), andfinally its Celeron-D is pin-compatible with the some pretty fastPentium 4s, though the Celeron is so fast that I doubt an upgradeis worthwhile. The 3.2 GHz Celeron-D in this budget PC is actuallyconsiderably faster than 1.66 GHz Core Duo in my tablet PC, as farsmoother Doom3 play despite the weaker graphics engine ATI X200 vs.Intel GMA 950 - both weak) proves.

If either of these cheap PCs was poorly made, noisy, or lackedexpansion capabilities, I would understand the criticisms, butother than the Compaq coming with only 256 MB of RAM (Mac miniscame with the same paltry 256 MB last year), there really isnothing to prevent a user from buying one of these cheap PCs,plugging it in, and getting real work done. I bumped up RAM, but weusually have multiple applications running concurrently.

Cheap Mice and Keyboards

Both of these budget computers came with keyboards and mice, butthey were too cheap to actually use and were immediately replaced(see Microsoft's Sturdy, Low-costWireless Keyboard Ideal for Typing for one suggestion). 19" LCDmonitors rounded out the systems, giving both users a large, highresolution display and more than enough speed and memory to runanything we are likely to need, all at the same time and withoutany bottlenecks whatsoever.

More importantly, these two budget PCs are well-built. The casesaren't artistic sculptures like Apple's are, but they aren'teyesores either. They are simply what you would expect them to be:plain, ordinary computers.

Their cheap prices don't mean that these are stripped andworthless even in the home use context. Both cheap PCs havemultifunction card readers and full audio input/output ports on thefront panels, as well as USB 2.0 ports (one on the eMachines, threeon the Compaq), with the Compaq even adding a 6-pin poweredFireWire port (and two more in the rear).

Both machines have room for a second optical drive and thecabling already in place to connect them, with the Compaq alsohaving room and cables for a second hard drive. Not bad for $300.Both have SATA controllers for their fairly generic 7200 RPM harddrives (Maxtor in the eMachines, Seagate in the Compaq), and bothcan be opened without tools and provide easy and spacious access tothe motherboard slots.

Would a gamer or hobbyist be happy with one of these? Probablynot.

Would someone looking for a fast computer on the very cheap? I'dsay so.

Even the wimpy vampire video doesn't really hamper thesecomputers in the office. Here, everything is 2D, from Web browsingto email and document production; video cards just don't gettaxed.

I tried watching a downloaded TV episode from iTunes on the 3.2GHz eMachines, and the video card wasn't up to it, but thecomparatively sluggish 1.8 GHz IBM was smooth as silk - no doubt onaccount of its dedicated Radeon 8500 graphics. DVD movies lookterrific on the integrated video cards, although iTunes Windowsimplementation is known to perform rather poorly withoutaccelerated video.

In answer to my opening question of how bad a $300 PC really is,I have to reply that it's not bad at all - which in the context ofthe price means bloody marvelous. LEM

Andrew J Fishkin, Esq, is a laptop using attorney in Los Angeles, CA.

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