Does this section serve anyone? If so, let me know. As it is, I plan to let Computer Shopper lapse next summer and am considering dropping PC World—at which point the exercise would be meaningless.
Abbreviations for magazine names (in square brackets): P = PC Magazine, W = PC World, C = Computer Shopper.
All-in-one PCs continue to pop up, as this six-unit roundup shows [C24:4]. The units reviewed vary so much in design and functionality that a single Editors’ Choice doesn’t seem plausible, but there is one: the $2,232 MPC ClientPro, a 2"-thick unit that combines a 17" LCD screen, TV tuner, DVD/CD-RW combo drive, 120GB 7200rpm hard disk, and 2.8GHz Pentium 4 with 512MB RAM. It has a fair number of ports but the only bundled software is for PVR use and CD/DVD burning.
Intel’s “Prescott” Pentium 4 shows up in five PCs reviewed here [C24:5]. All units came with 1GB DDRAM and multiformat DVD burners, Three of the five scored high enough for Editors’ Choices. The $2,399 Cyberpower Gamer Infinity 9900 Pro uses a 3.2EGhz Pentium 4, comes with two 120GB hard disks as a RAID 0 combination for maximum speed, an 18" LCD display, ATI Radeon 9800XT Ultra graphics card with 256MB RAM, and a 7.1-channel Creative Labs sound system. It has lots of room for drive expansion (12 drive bays in all!) but six fans make it noisy, “nearly as loud as a small air conditioner.” Tied with Cyberpower is Velocity Micro’s $3,390 ProMagix, with the same CPU but a different 256MB graphics card (GeForce FX 5950), two 10,000rpm 72GB RAID 0 drives (Cyberpower’s drives are typical 7200rpm units) and a 200GB 7200rpm drive for long-term storage, and an 18"-viewable CRT display. The speaker system isn’t quite as nice. This unit gets higher speed by overclocking the CPU and graphics card. Just behind those two is Polywell’s $2,450 MiniQ Qbox 865T, with a 3.4EGhz Pentium 4, a single 10,000rpm 74GB hard disk, and an ATI All-in-Wonder Radeon 9800 Pro graphics card with 128MB memory. Unlike all other tested units, you don’t get a second optical drive—but you do get an unusual small, portable chassis.
This roundup offers 14 “PCs for all reasons”—systems to serve the needs of gamers, students, media junkies, or the rest of us [C24:6]. “Entertainment” units turn up two Editors’ Choice options, very different systems: Gateway’s stereo-shaped $1,799 FMC-901X Family Media Center PC (no display, no speakers, 250GB hard disk, 128MB ATI Radeon 9800 Pro graphics, multiformat DVD burner) and MPC’s $2,292 all-in-one PC (with the works built behind and under a 17" LCD, including 120GB disk DVD/CD-RW drive, and 64MB ATI Mobility Radeon 9000 graphics). All four gaming/performance systems get Editors’ Choice awards; the top two are Falcon Northwest’s $4,839 Mach V 3.4 Extreme Edition (1GB DDR, 256MB nVidia GeForce FX 5950 Ultra graphics driving a 18"-viewable CRT, two 120GB drives in RAID 0, multiformat DVD burner, Klipsch 5.1 speaker system) and Polywell’s $2,450 MiniQ Qbox 865T with its cute little breadbox CPU—and 1GB DDR, 128MB ATI All-in-Wonder 9800 graphics driving a 17" LCD, multiformat DVD burner, underconfigured 74GB (10,000rpm) disk, and Creative Inspire T5400 5.1-speaker system.
The absolute cheapest systems available—the $399-$499 systems—usually aren’t very good values, according to a column in the same issue as this roundup of five “budget” PCs, each costing around $1,000 [C24:7]. Typical tradeoffs at the kilobuck level include last year’s fastest CPU, integrated audio rather than a high-end sound card (and usually mediocre speakers), a minitower or midtower case with limited expansion capabilities, and most likely integrated graphics. Editors’ Choice is the Gateway eMachines T3085: $968 (after rebate) for an Athlon XP-3000+ CPU, 512MB DDR RAM, a 160GB 7,200 RPM hard disk (much larger than typical at this price), multiformat 4x DVD burner and separate CD-ROM drive, Windows XP home edition, and a 15" LCD display.
This Consumer Reports roundup (69:5) covers the whole digital photography chain: Cameras, scanners, software, printers—and off-brand printer cartridges (noted in an earlier Trends & Quick Takes item). There are too many camera recommendations to summarize (only one CR Best Buy, the 3mp $205 Kodak EasyShare CX6330, but it’s the sixth-highest-rated 3MP camera). The same is true for scanners, where the single CR Best Buy is the astonishingly inexpensive 600dpi Canon CanoScan LiDE 20 ($50) and the top-rated unit overall is Canon’s $130 1200dpi CanoScan 3200F. For photo software, they like Microsoft’s program’s best—the $50 Picture It! Photo Premium 9.0 among basic programs, the $130 Digital Image Suite 9 for ambitious photographers. Finally, Canon’s $150 PhotoPrinter i860 scored highest of regular inkjet printers (HP’s $100 PSC 1210 was tops among multifunction units), but shares CR Best Buy honors with the multifunction HP and the lower-rated $80 HP DeskJet 3820 and $100 Epson Stylus C84.
PC Magazine’s biggest camera roundup in a while includes 21 cameras (costing $350 to $1,800) grouped in three ranges [P23:5]. All 21 have autofocus, macro settings, exposure compensation, selectable ISO equivalencies and automatic white balance. All but one (a pro model) have built-in flash; all but one either include or accommodate a zoom lens; and all but two use rechargeable batteries. Among shirt-pocket models, Editors’ Choice goes to the $550 Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T1, a 5 megapixel unit with 3X optical zoom in a 3.6x2.4x0.8" 6.3oz. package; it lacks an optical viewfinder but has an unusually large 2.5" LCD screen. The review calls it the “sexiest, highest-resolution subcompact camera,” although real resolution was closer to a 4mp unit. Moving up to midrange models, which look and feel more like film cameras, Editors’ Choice is the $700 Olympus C-5060 Wide Zoom. At 4.6x2.6x3.4" and 17.9oz, it’s a much bigger camera and likely to be much more familiar to film photographers. It’s also 5MP and has 4x optical zoom; the review calls it a highly satisfactory camera for a serious photographer not quite ready for a digital SLR. Finally there are the professional models, several of them true digital SLRs, some using interchangeable lenses. Editors’ Choice goes to the most expensive, the $1,800 Olympus E-1, even though it has lower resolution (5MP) than some others. It’s built like a tank and is the first of a new group of “Four Thirds” cameras that allow interchange of lenses among cameras from different manufacturers—Fuji, Kodak, and Olympus. You don’t get a lens for $1,800, just a body.
PC Magazine follows its roundup of higher-end digital cameras with a four-part roundup of photo management, sharing, and printing software and services [P23:5]. This roundup does not include photo-editing software. Adobe Photoshop Album 2.0 ($50) earns Editors’ Choice honors for photo management, SmugMug ($30 a year) gets the nod as a photo-sharing service and Shutterfly earns the Editors’ Choice among photo-printing services.
This mini-roundup [P23:9] includes five eight-megapixel cameras, priced from $999 to $1,100. All have metal bodies, extended (but noninterchangeable) zoom lenses, electronic eye-level viewfinders, hot shoes for strobes, pop-up flashes, and the ability to store images in RAW format (that is, without any compression). While the magazine still recommends a true digital SLR (with replaceable lenses) for ultimate image quality, these are about as good as point-and-shoot cameras get. Two of five earn Editors’ Choices: the $1,100 Konica Minolta DiMage A2 with exceptional functions and excellent handling characteristics—including a movable eye-level viewfinder—and the $1,000 Olympus C-8080 Wide Zoom, with great image quality and loads of features. Both have that slightly oddball “half a camera” look of other high-end digitals: They look like SLRs with a bulge on one side of the lens and almost nothing on the other side.
Another specialized PC Magazine roundup covers six “superzooms,” 3MP and 4MP cameras with at least 10x optical zoom and f2.8 lenses. None costs more than $600 or weighs more than 20oz. with batteries; two have image stabilization. Editors’ Choice is the $450 Olympus Camedia C-765 Ultra Zoom, a 4MP camera that’s smaller than the others (2.4x4.1x2.7", 10.9oz.) and produces the sharpest images in the roundup. The lens range is equivalent to 38mm to 380mm in a 35mm camera.
As you’d expect, digicams continue to get better and cheaper—but they’re not converging on a single design. This roundup [W22:6] includes nine moderately-priced models ($300 to $1,000), which include one that records directly to DVD and another that records to MicroMV, as well as seven using the usual MiniDV. Both of the oddballs come from Sony, and although a Sony unit gets one Best Buy mark, it’s a MiniDV unit—the $450 DCR-HC20 MiniDV HandyCam. It’s light, small, simple, comfortable, and easy to use, although the video isn’t top-notch. For better quality, go for the $980 Panasonic PV-DV953, with strong quality and advanced features. Both include 10x optical zoom, both get around 2 hours battery life; the Panasonic can also take 3MP still pictures. The Sony weighs just under a pound, the Panasonic just under two pounds.
Big LCD screens keep getting more affordable, although “cheaper” may not yet be an appropriate term. This roundup [W22:3] covers 19" and 17" displays, as usual offering comparisons only for the five best scoring in each category. Highest-rated among the 19" units (and the single Best Buy) is the $679 Dell UltraSharp 1901FP. Image quality isn’t as good as three of the others (Sharp’s $699 LL-T19D1 and Cornea’s $650 CT1904 both do better on graphics, Princeton Digital’s $699 SENergy 914 shows better text), and the Sharp earns an equal four-star rating—but it’s PC World, so there can only be one Best Buy. The Dell does have better features and scores higher on ease of use. Oddly, the $750 Sony SDM-X93, although achieving precisely the same numerical rating as the Sharp, gets a mere 3.5 stars. Dell also gets honors in the 17" class for its $529 UltraSharp 1703—although Samsung’s $630 SyncMaster 173P offers better images for both graphics and text.
Another roundup covers 15 current LCD displays ranging from a $329 15" Samsung to a $769 19" unit from Planar Systems—and includes three 17" displays with TV tuners included. The story is as hyperbolic as usual (“With LCD monitors priced so reasonably, is there any reason to endure that flickering desk hog a moment longer?”) and there’s the usual unsubstantiated claim of reduced eyestrain. No Editors’ Choice awards because no display reached the magic 8.0 level but it’s worth noting the highest ratings. IBM’s $399 ThinkVision L150p (15") tied with Dell’s $679 UltraSharp 1901FP (19") at 7.8, but neither is flawless. IBM’s budget unit won’t pivot and IBM has a remarkably poor dead-pixel replacement policy (there have to be at least 11 nonadjacent malfunctioning pixels). Dell’s high-end unit doesn’t do well with small text and gray scale shows greenish tint.
This roundup [P23:2] looks at Bluetooth wireless keyboard/mouse combinations, high-end wireless mice, low-priced combinations, ergonomic keyboards, and mice and keyboards specifically designed for travel. Editors’ Choices include the $250 Logitech diNovo Media Desktop Bluetooth combination, the snazziest keyboard around; Microsoft’s $60 Wireless IntelliMouse Explorer (in black leather, yet!); Kinesis’ $149 Maxim Adjustable Ergonomic Keyboard, an extremely adjustable device; and Microsoft’s $100 Wireless Optical Desktop Pro, which includes a Natural-equivalent keyboard.
This roundup [W22:6] includes eight wireless devices and yields three Best Buys: Logitech’s $50 Cordless Click Plus Optical Mouse, Logitech’s $250 diNovo Media Desktop as a Bluetooth combo, and Microsoft’s $65 Basic Wireless Optical Desktop as a wireless combo. Note the agreement on the high style (and high-priced!) DiNovo.
Notebooks will probably always be more expensive than comparably configured desktops, but prices and configurations continue to improve. This roundup covers five budget notebooks, none costing more than $1,100 [P23:10]. Two units earn Editors’ Choices. The $1,099 Compaq Presario R3000Z from HP comes with an Athlon XP-M 3000+, 256MB DDR SDRAM, 40GB hard disk, 15" XGA display driven by nVidia GeForce4 420 graphics (32MB dedicated display RAM), DVD/CD-RW drive, 802.11g wireless, and Windows XP home edition. It’s intended as a desktop replacement, weighing 7.8lb.; battery life was 3 hours 24 minutes. The $999 Averatec AV3225HS is lighter (4.5 pounds) and only an inch thick; it’s smallish (11.2x9.6") but has a 12.1" XGA display (integrated VIA S3G graphics). The Athlon XP-M 2000+ CPU drives 512MB DDR SDRAM; there’s a 40GB hard disk, DVD/CD-RW combo, 802.11g wireless, and XP Home. Battery life was 2 hours 53 minutes.
Intel’s mobile Pentium is better than ever, according to this roundup of six “Dothan” notebooks [P23:11]. The new CPUs draw less power than their predecessors and offer better performance. Editors’ Choice is the $2,499 Acer TravelMate 8000, a 6.6lb. portable with 512MB DDR SDRAM, 60GB 7200rpm hard disk (bigger and faster than most notebook drives), multiplatform DVD burner, ATI Mobility Radeon 9700 graphics and 128MB dedicated graphics RAM driving a 15" “UXGA” (2048x1536) screen, both 811.B and 811.G support. Battery life was 5 hours 12 minutes, impressive for a fully-configured notebook. One oddity: the keyboard is in a slight curve, vaguely similar to a Microsoft Natural keyboard but without the divide.
This roundup [P23:9] includes ten products with a “confusing assortment of features” that do a range of things. Almost all feed MP3 music to your PC (most also handle other audio formats, sometimes including the supposedly lossless FLAC and definitely-lossless WAV), most play videos but not DVDs, some will show slideshows, some handle streaming internet radio. The review is definitely aimed at early adopters, given the confusion in this space—and the likelihood that these features will show up within DVD players and other devices. “But we say, why wait? You’ve got all that wonderful digital media—and now you can enjoy it more fully, in more places, right now.”
Two devices earn Editors’ Choices. Creative Labs Sound Blaster Wireless Music costs $200 and comes with a remote that has a 2.5" display. About all it does is play music, but it seems to do that fairly well. The same price gets the other Editors’ Choice, Voyetra’s Turtle Beach AudioTron AT-100, which serves as a wired-Ethernet music hub and can handle “rights-managed music,” that is, files with digital restriction management…but not AAC. It also handles internet radio. The reviewers didn’t find any video hubs that worked well enough to recommend.
Then there’s Bill Howard’s column in the same issue: “Media hubs: Not ready for prime time.” He offers a range of reasons you might not want to buy a media hub—although he’s one of the authors of the review article. When this technophile is cautious about acquiring a new technology, that’s a serious warning sign.
If you’re in a serious hurry to burn DVD-Rs or DVD+Rs, the wait’s gotten shorter. This “first looks” roundup [P23:3] covers three internal burners costing $200 to $250 (and one $300 external drive), all rated at 8x DVD speed using DVD+R media, 4x for DVD-R. Three of four drives earn four-dot ratings, but for unclear reasons only the $300 Plextor PX-708UF and $250 TDK 8X Indi DVD Multiformat Burner earn Editors’ Choice seals. Sony’s $220 DRU-530A Dual RW drive seems like another good choice; the major differences are bundled software.
This roundup includes both high-speed DVD burners and software suites to support them [W22:4]. Top honors among drives go to the $200 Plextor PX-708A, speediest overall and able to write some brands of 4X DVD+R media at 8X (it comes with Roxio software) and $180 Lite-On LDW-811S, with the same capabilities and just a trifle slower—although the software (from Sonic) is slightly outdated. Both write all forms of DVD except DVD-RAM, both claim 4X for DVD-R and DVD+RW, 2X for DVD-RW, and 40X for CD-R; in practice, each took a little more than 3 minutes to burn a 700MB CD-R and between 8:20 and 9:11 to write 4.35GB of data to either DVD+R or DVD+RW. Best of the software suites, according to this review, is Ahead’s $100 Nero 6 Ultra Edition, which is particularly good for disc copying and CD/DVD mastering.
Two “First Looks” features in the May 23, 2004 PC Magazine review new Ulead releases at two levels. The $100 DVD MovieFactory 3 Disc Creator comes out as a “passable” entry-level program in Jan Ozer’s review and yields fast rendering times, but Sonic MyDVD is a stronger choice. For pro-level authoring, Ulead’s $495 DVD Workshop 2 earns a 4.5-dot rating and Editors’ Choice; Ozer says it’s well-suited to “everything from simple projects to producing commercial DVD titles.”
Does it make sense to use your PC as a PVR/DVR? In some ways, yes: You already have the box, big hard disks are cheap, and it’s all software anyway. Thus, this “first looks” review of three devices to make that possible [P23:7]. Editors’ Choice among the three is the $59 SnapStream Beyond TV 3, a software solution that also requires a TV tuner card; it seems to come closer to the “TiVo experience” than the competing products. As with every other test I’ve seen of such systems done by anyone who cared about quality, the best they can say about video quality is that it’s “still shy of dedicated set-top boxes like TiVo.” TV tuner cards available for PCs just don’t do as well as dedicated tuners or there’s some other problem in the PC environment.
This roundup considers inexpensive laser printers in three categories: monochrome printers costing $200 to $300, color lasers from $500 to $750, and multifunction printers costing $500 (all four units have the same price). Editors’ Choice for monochrome printing is Brother’s $230 HL-5040, with relatively high (2.9 cents per page) toner costs but a very low price and good performance—but it’s worth noting that Panasonic has a duplexing laser for $300. Konica’s $500 Minolta magicolor 2300W offers high quality for the price. Brother’s MFC-8420 earns the award among multifunction units for speed and per-page costs.
This roundup of 17 inkjet printers includes $59 cheapies and a $300 printer using eight ink colors. Three Editors’ Choices appear: Canon’s $130 i560 Desktop Photo Printer, fast and with good print quality, the $99 Epson Stylus C84, a little slower but with very good quality at a good price (and I believe it uses Epson’s DuraBright inks), and the most expensive unit, HP’s $300 Photosmart 7960 Photo Printer with its eight inks (in three tanks) and outstanding photo output. A sidebar reviews portable photo printers and gives an Editors’ Choice to the $250 Canon i80 Color Bubble Jet Printer.
For workhorse business printers, there’s nothing like a network monochrome laser printer; this roundup includes nine of them with rated speeds of 35 to 51 pages per minute, costing $1,377 to $4,060 [P23:7]. The detailed review comes with two Editors’ Choices, one for tabloid printing, one for overall quality. The overall winner is somewhat of a surprise: the $1,800 Xerox Phaser 4500DT, a 1200dpi unit that only claims 36 pages per minute but won the speed tests. If you need tabloid capabilities, your best choice is HP’s $3,800 9000dn, a good performer that’s easy to set up and includes all sorts of paper-handling capabilities.
Color printers aren’t as fast, but this roundup shows reasonably good speeds at good prices [W22:5]. Some units cost as little as $800, but the two Best Buys are $1960 and $3550. The cheaper one (with the highest rating) is the Oki Data Oki C7300n, with outstanding text, good color graphics, and reasonable costs for color graphics pages with 5% coverage for each color—around 11 cents, based on PC World’s tests. It churned out 19 pages per minute text, almost 3 pages per minute for color graphics. The other Best Buy, HP’s Color LaserJet 5500n, costs almost twice as much and prints text a little slower (13.5 ppm), but it’s fast on color (5.2ppm), offers better-quality color graphics output, and is the cheapest wide-format printer around. One shocker: A full set of toner cartridges will set you back $1,174 (but cost per 5%-color page is 13 cents: These are very high-capacity cartridges).
If this mini-roundup is any indication, the tablet field keeps getting more varied [P23:2]. Editors’ Choice is the Toshiba Portégé M205-S809 $2,399 with a 1.5GHz Pentium M, 512MB RAM, 40GB hard disk, DVD/CD-RW combo, 12.1" 1400x1050 resolution screen, and wired and wireless Ethernet, but it’s hefty at 4.6 pounds and the high resolution means tiny icons and letters. This is a notebook computer that can be used as a tablet. Acer’s $2,299 TravelMate C300 weighs 6.2 pounds, which seems high for a tablet unit—but it does have a 14.1" screen. Other specs are comparable to the Toshiba.
“Spy stoppers” [P23:4]ffers detailed discussion of the malware problem (spyware, adware, Trojan Horses, and other programs that aren’t typically caught by antivirus programs) and steps taken to solve them. For a change, Spybot Search & Destroy did not get top honors. It’s an honorable mention, just behind SpySweeper 2.2 from Webroot Software, which costs $30 for a one-year subscription. It’s called “the most effective standalone tool for detecting, removing, and blocking spyware.” One surprising aspect of this review is the sheer proliferation of choices: The review includes 14 programs, three of them portions of Internet security suites.
This “ultimate PC protection guide” [W22:6] covers a relatively small range of programs—only 16 in all. The Best Buy for antivirus scanners is Trend Micro’s PC-cillin Internet Security 2004, which caught 93% of overall malware tested and only 76% of Trojan horses, while Symantec Norton Internet Security 2004 had 98% overall and 98% of Trojan horses. Maybe PC-cillin is easier to use, but it strikes me that, barring major disadvantages, the preferred antivirus tool should always be the one that blocks and catches the most malware (viruses, worms, Trojan horses, etc.). It’s easier to understand the two Best Buys for anti-spyware software—Lavasoft Ad-aware 6 Plus and Spybot Search & Destroy—because they do catch the most spyware, by far. A related article discusses spam filters; Cloudmark SpamNet, a desktop product, did even better than network-based spam filters. (In their tests, it caught 98.2% of spam and only marked 1.6% of legitimate email as spam).
This roundup of internet security suites [C24:7] doesn’t award Editors’ Choices but does offer detailed discussions of seven such suites. Highest rated is Norton Internet Security 2004 ($70); Trend Micro PC-cillin Internet Security 2004 ($50) is a close second although it lacks the strong antispam filter recently added to Norton; eTrust EZ Armor Security Suite 2.0 ($50) comes in third and lacks spam filtering entirely. With any of these suites, you’ll also want to add Spybot Search and Destroy 1.2.
I stopped doing quarterly PC Values updates in July 2003 because the PC industry had entered an unusually boring period (which continues)—and because the point system no longer made much sense. A year later, I thought I’d see how a July 2004 $1900-$2000 system would compare to the $2,000 Top Power system for July 2003.
Here’s the July 2003 computer: Gateway 700X: Pentium 4-2800, 160GB 7200RPM hard disk, 512MB DDR SDRAM, DVD-R/RW/CD-RW burner, 17" LCD display driven by AGP graphics with 128MB graphics RAM (nVidia GeForce4MX or better), V.92 modem and 10/100 Ethernet, brand-name sound card, Boston Acoustics speakers with subwoofer, Microsoft Windows XP Home Edition and Works Suite 2003. At $2,000, it had a value ratio of 3.82.
For July 2004, a preconfigured Gateway 510XL Performance worked out to be a better value than a similarly-configured Dell in the $1,900-$2,000 range. Here’s the July 2004 computer: Pentium 4-3000 (3.0GHz) with hyper-threading technology, 160GB 7200RPM hard disk (Serial ATA), 1024MB 400MHz DDR SDRAM, 8x max multiformat DVD burner (that is, both DVD+R/RW and DVD-R/RW, but not DVD-RAM) and second DVD-ROM drive, 17" LCD display driven by 128MB ATI Radeon 9600G (with TV and DVI out), V.92 modem and 10/100 Ethernet, SoundBlaster Audigy 2 audio, house brand speakers with subwoofer, MS Windows XP and Works Suite 2004. At $1,939, it has a value ratio of 4.38—a gain of 15% over a full year.
You gain less than 10% CPU speed, a more flexible DVD burner, and a second DVD drive; there’s twice as much RAM; the display card is higher-end. But the speakers probably aren’t as good—and overall, it’s not much of a change.
It’s been twenty years since I started doing PC value comparisons, in my very first Library Hi Tech article. Enough is enough.
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