With its eXcel i5250 MX, Arbico has made some shrewd component selections and delivered a PC that not only performs well, but looks rather more expensive than its budget should allow.

It’s based on an Intel Core i5-2500 CPU running at 3.3GHz. The overclockable ‘K’ version of this chip selected by Palicomp has the potential to be faster still, but the Arbico eXcel i5250 MX desktop PC nonetheless gave the best showing in our WorldBench 6 test, and scored 159 points.

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The diminutive system case drew some admiring glances from visitors to our Test Centre – no mean feat for a budget PC. The Arbico eXcel i5250 MX's minimalist design includes a tasteful blue LED-illuminated metal power switch and a matching drive-activity indicator.

A 4GB RAM allocation and one-terabyte (1TB) hard drive are standard offerings at this price. You also get a 21.5in full-HD monitor – a good-value model from AOC that’s been selected by every vendor here – and a set of Logitech stereo speakers with the Arbico eXcel i5250 MX PC, but no bass-enhancing subwoofer.

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Group test: What's the best desktop PC?

Arbico has made a saving in its motherboard selection. This Asus board uses Intel’s H61 rather than H67 chipset; it’s cheaper and offers similar performance, but lacks SATA 6 gigabits per second (Gbps) and Intel Rapid Storage Technology support. You get just one PCI Express x16 slot, teamed with a pair of PCI Express x1 slots and a single PCI slot. The Arbico eXcel i5250 MX also offers only two memory slots, so you’ll need to replace your chips if you want to go beyond the supplied 4GB. None of the above should affect the sort of user who is looking to buy a sub-£500 PC, however.

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Budget PCs buying advice

Processor: Until recently, Intel’s Core i3 processor had the sub-£500 PC category sewn up. While you’ll still find good value in systems based on this architecture, second-generation Core i5 ‘Sandy Bridge’ chips blow them away in performance terms. Identify these chips by their four-digit model number.

‘K’ versions of Intel’s Sandy Bridge processors support overclocking, but you’ll need a pricey P67-chipset-based motherboard, which itself requires a discrete graphics card. If you use a ‘K’ chip without a P67 motherboard, you won’t be able to overclock it but will be able to take advantage of its improved graphics processor over standard chips (which are themselves improved over first-gen Core processors).

Neither option should be considered fast enough for a true gaming PC, but some titles are playable. Intel lists games optimised to run on its integrated technology at tinyurl.com/b4vppc.

Group test: What's the best budget PC?
Group test: What's the best £750 PC?

Memory: Expect 4GB at this price and don’t settle for less than 2GB. Most CPUs require DDR3 RAM, while older ones can also use DDR2. Check your motherboard has free slots if you plan to upgrade later.

Storage: Falling prices mean that 1TB is well within the budget of even a budget PC. You can never have too much storage space, and digital media will quickly fill a reasonably sized drive. Hard-drive space is easy to add later, however.

If you’re planning to upgrade hard drives internally, ensure that you’ve got spare drive bays inside your PC’s case.

Get a drive that can write to the DVD+/-R formats at 16-speed or better.

If you want to get 8.5GB on to one disc, get a drive that can write to dual-layer discs at 12- and eight-speed respectively.

Group test: What's the best £1,000 PC?
Group test: What's the best desktop PC?

Flat-panel: It’s the component you’ll be spending all your time looking at, but PC makers often compromise on the monitor.

Good-quality full-HD monitors are available even in sub-£500 systems. Expect to find a 21.5in model, although these are often marketed as 22in screens. It’s best to get one with dual inputs and a digital connection, letting you get the best image quality available and hook up additional devices.

Graphics card: With the best graphics cards retailing for more than £300, a sub-£500 PC is unlikely to satisfy a hardcore gamer. However, decent graphics cards get cheaper all the time, and budget PCs can now handle games that were unthinkable a few months ago.

Intel’s Core i3 and i5 CPUs come with integrated graphics processors that deliver around double the performance of older Intel integrated solutions. The new Sandy Bridge chips are even faster and offer features such as dual monitor outputs. These machines support HD video and Windows Aero effects without the need for a separate graphics card.

AMD’s ATI Radeon HD 5450 is a popular choice for a budget PC. It doesn’t offer a great speed advantage over Intel GMA integrated graphics, but it offers support for DirectX 11.0. Many cards can also drive multiple monitors.

If you really want to play games, nVidia’s GeForce GT 240 will provide some extra speed. Be prepared to lower your graphics settings, however.

Power supply: Expect only a basic PSU at this price point. A 450W or 500W model is a good starting point.

Sound card and speakers: You’re unlikely to get a sound card at this price point.

Arbico eXcel i5250 MX: Specs

  • 3.3GHz Intel Core i5-2500
  • Windows 7 Home Premium 64bit (choose Windows 7 32bit, Vista or XP at no extra cost)
  • 4GB DDR3 RAM
  • 1TB SATA
  • 6 x USB 2.0
  • 2 x USB 3.0
  • Asus P8H61-M LE/USB3 motherboard
  • 500W WinPower PSU
  • 21.5in AOC F22+ monitor (0.25mm pixel pitch, 1920x1080)
  • Intel GMA HD 2000 (Fear: 16fps)
  • onoard sound
  • 2 x Logitech S120 speakers
  • 24x/24x/12x/6x/8x/12x/16x (DVD/R/+R/-R DL/-RW/+RW/-RAM/-ROM)
  • two-year return-to-base warranty
  • WorldBench 6 score: 159
  • 3.3GHz Intel Core i5-2500
  • Windows 7 Home Premium 64bit (choose Windows 7 32bit, Vista or XP at no extra cost)
  • 4GB DDR3 RAM
  • 1TB SATA
  • 6 x USB 2.0
  • 2 x USB 3.0
  • Asus P8H61-M LE/USB3 motherboard
  • 500W WinPower PSU
  • 21.5in AOC F22+ monitor (0.25mm pixel pitch, 1920x1080)
  • Intel GMA HD 2000 (Fear: 16fps)
  • onoard sound
  • 2 x Logitech S120 speakers
  • 24x/24x/12x/6x/8x/12x/16x (DVD/R/+R/-R DL/-RW/+RW/-RAM/-ROM)
  • two-year return-to-base warranty
  • WorldBench 6 score: 159

OUR VERDICT

Arbico’s eXcel i5250 MX desktop PC is good-looking, supremely fast and covered by a two-year warranty.

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