Walt Mossberg

Personal Computers Break Another Price Barrier

When it comes to desktop Windows computers, people historically have expected to spend at least $1,000 for a really good-quality machine, with generous memory and hard-disk capacity, a fast processor and extra bells and whistles. Sure, there have long been much cheaper options out there. But people have generally assumed that much cheaper desktops will be pretty bare bones.

Well, that isn’t true anymore. For just $600, after a $50 rebate, you can buy a lot of personal computer, with few, if any, compromises. In fact, $600 is the new $1,000 in the Windows desktop PC market. If your budget doesn’t force you down to lower-priced bargain machines, a $600 desktop should set you up quite well for years.

This week, my assistant Katie Boehret and I tested two desktop PCs that are loaded with such goodies as plenty of memory and hard-disk capacity, built-in media-card readers, fast processors and two optical disc drives — including DVD writers. These models cost just $600 after a $50 mail-in rebate.

The T6520 from eMachines has one gigabyte of memory.
The T6520 from eMachines has one gigabyte of memory.

These two contenders hail from rather different companies, one a huge industry leader that serves many markets and price levels, and the other an aggressive retail price-cutter mainly serving consumers. We tested Hewlett-Packard’s H-P Pavilion a1120n and the T6520 from eMachines, a much smaller discount PC maker that merged with Gateway last year.

Of course, other well-equipped computers may go on sale for close to $600 from time to time, but these models are stand-outs at their regular price. You could also spend much less and get an adequate PC for the most basic tasks. But you will forgo a lot of the power and features in the $600 models we tested.

For instance, Dell offers a Dimension 2400 desktop for just $299. But it has a lower-end, slower processor; only a quarter of the memory of the best $600 machine we tried; less than half the hard-disk capacity of our tested models; no slots for memory cards; and no ability to play or record DVDs. The Dell does include a monitor, which our $600 machines lacked, but it is an old-fashioned TV-type monitor worth less than $100.

Between the $600 models, both towers performed fine in our tests, so the difference really comes down to their specs — what you get for your money. While the H-P is nicely equipped, and had an edge in a couple of minor areas, our verdict is that the eMachines T6520 is a much better value.

The T6520 comes with an incredible one gigabyte of memory, twice the 512 megabytes that the H-P includes; a processor capable of running next-generation software, which the H-P lacks; and a pair of speakers, which the H-P omits.

Both computers sport huge 200-gigabyte hard disks; twin DVD/CD drives that can both play and record; memory-card readers that can handle the cards from most cameras; seven USB ports, some of which are on the front; and a one-year warranty.

Also, both machines come with Microsoft’s Windows Media Center operating system, which can be used to play music and videos, and view photos, from across a room. However, unlike pricier Media Center machines, this pair doesn’t include the ability to receive or record TV programs, and neither comes with a remote control.

Normally, I don’t think fancier processors are worth much in choosing a PC, since it is memory, not the processor, that has the greater impact on performance in most situations, and the typical software that average folks use runs fine on slower chips. But, if you can get a better processor for the same price, do so. And that is the case with the AMD Athlon 64 3400+ processor used in the eMachines.

HP Pavilion a1120n Desktop PC sells for $599.99 after a $50 mail-in rebate.
The HP Pavilion a1120n Desktop PC sells for $599.99 after a $50 mail-in rebate.

Unlike the nominally faster Intel Pentium 4 used in the H-P, the AMD in the eMachines will be able to run future, faster “64-bit” software when it arrives over the next few years. Hewlett-Packard offers a similar AMD 64-bit processor, one gigabyte of memory and other added features in a step-up PC model that costs $80 more.

We took each of these computers for a test drive using a monitor we had in our office, as neither PC comes with one. But first, we sized up the two towers based on looks alone. They both measure about the same, though they differ in color — the eMachines is black and the H-P a1120n is silver with a white front, which looked slightly more attractive to us. Both come with a mouse and a keyboard, but the eMachines also comes with a set of two small speakers, while the H-P doesn’t.

Full Frontal

The front panels of each PC show off a host of easy-access plugs, media-card slots and disc drives. Each computer has a DVD +/- RW and a CD-ROM drive, along with slots for the memory cards. Three of the computers’ seven USB ports also are located on the front.

The H-P has a few advantages over the eMachines. It has two FireWire ports, compared with one on the eMachines PC, and one of these FireWire plugs is on the front, while the eMachines FireWire jack is on the rear. The H-P also can read nine different kinds of memory cards, including the obscure xD variety, compared with eight for the eMachines.

Also, the H-P features the company’s LightScribe system for etching labels on the CDs you create. The eMachines unit has nothing similar.

Katie and I tried various aspects of each computer, starting with the typical tasks of most home users — Internet usage and working in Microsoft Office. We surfed the Web, sending email through Web accounts and opening various Web pages, and created Word documents and Excel spreadsheets, saving them onto each PC.

Making Music

One at a time, we attached the eMachines speakers to each computer and listened to a few preloaded sample tunes. Katie also added her own music to each PC by ripping tracks from one of her CDs and inserting a USB flash drive into the front of the computer, copying various music files. I listened to music from my SecureDigital memory card by inserting it into the media-card readers on the front side of each desktop.

By using the disc-writing drive, we burned a homemade audio CD using our newly added tunes. Katie found a DVD of the movie “A Bug’s Life” in my office, and watched a few scenes from it on the H-P and eMachines — both took just seconds to read and play the disc in the DVD drive.

We loaded, viewed and saved about 20 digital photos onto each computer from my SD card and from a USB flash drive. Both PCs worked quickly, with very little lag time between when we inserted each storage device and when photos were displayed on the monitor.

The H-P Pavilion comes preloaded with Apple Computer’s popular iTunes music software, which is a nice extra, though the program is free for anyone who wants to download it. Also, when we booted up the H-P for the first time, it walked us through a brief set-up during which we set the computer’s language and checked the PC’s Internet connection. The eMachines T6520 didn’t walk us through this process, but it worked just as well.

Good Choices

You won’t go wrong with either of these computers. But for the same price, it makes more sense to go for the eMachines T6520. The consumer wins in either case here, since $600 buys a whole lot of computer.

With reporting by Katherine Boehret

Write to Walter S. Mossberg at mossberg@wsj.com

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