Three fantastic and closely matched systems sit at the top of this month's £501-£750 PCs chart. All pair Intel's 3.33GHz dual-core E8600 CPU with an ATI Radeon HD 4890 graphics card to produce excellent Windows performance and a very good gaming experience.

While the Chillblast Fusion Predator's lead of two points in our WorldBench 6 real-world speed test seems fairly small, Chillblast earns further brownie points by supplying a standalone sound card and stereo speakers, complete with a subwoofer.

The ASRock motherboard performs well, but it doesn't support the necessary technology to add a second graphics card and boost the Chillblast Fusion Predator's gaming performance.

Visit Business Advisor for the latest business news, reviews and blogs

More desktop PC reviews

The system case has a blue-tinted transparent side panel housing a pair of transparent fans, making the Chillblast Fusion Predator look too cheap for gamers and too wacky for business users. And we weren't too impressed by the small door that covers the front-facing USB ports. This is fitted from the bottom of the case and is tricky to access when the PC is placed on the floor.

As is standard in this category, the Chillblast Fusion Predator comes with a 22in display, and the Digimate model featured performs well considering its budget price. It comes with dual inputs and a glossy black finish.

Chart rankings: Budget desktop PCs (October 09 issue)

  1. Chillblast Fusion Predator
  2. Arbico CD8690 XL
  3. Eclipse Spirit i86R489
  4. CyberPower Gamer Infinity Draco
  5. CyberPower Gamer Ultra HD II

>> NEXT PAGE: Budget desktop PCs buying advice

Buying advice: Budget desktop PCs (October 09 issue)

Processor: Intel's Core 2 Duo range offers almost unbeatable performance for the price. The 3.33GHz E8600 now supersedes the E8500 as the CPU of choice, appearing in the majority ?of desktop PCs in this price category.

Alternatively, go for one of Intel's latest quad-core chips, such as the Q9300 or Q9400. These processors perform well with newer applications and games.

AMD's Phenom II X4 920 and 940 also offer excellent value for money and quad-core performance, the latter being designed for easy overclocking.

Memory: If fast processors speed up your PC, a large bank of memory stops it from slowing down. Get the most out of your CPU by including at least 4GB of RAM. You can get by with 2GB, but your PC will run more smoothly with 4GB.

Storage: Digital media will quickly fill a reasonably sized hard drive; buy the biggest you can afford. A 500GB drive is a good investment. Consider using a pair of smaller drives rather than one large drive - a terabyte (1TB) is a huge amount of information to lose in one go.

Your DVD drive should write to the -R/+R formats at 18-speed or better. Eight-speed rewriting is good; if you want to copy up to 8.5GB at once, look for fast DVD-/+R dual-layer drives. Drives that can read Blu-ray are becoming affordable, but they're still quite rare at this price.

Display: Many PC manufacturers make sacrifices here to keep costs down. But a poor monitor can ruin your computing experience - try it out before buying.

Be aware that 19in screens offer a lower resolution than 20in and 22in monitors; 22in models display larger icons. Newer 22in flat-panels in the 16:9 format are capable of displaying full-HD content at a screen resolution of 1,080p.

A DVI or HDMI connector will provide a considerably better image than a VGA port, so look for a display with a digital input; if you want to connect additional devices you'll need at least two. Finally, look for a good response rate: 8ms or below should be fast enough for games.

Graphics cards: Truly hardcore gamers are unlikely to be happy with a sub-£750 PC, but you should be able to find a decent graphics card at this price.

We test PCs on the three-year-old game Fear, and Crysis, a far more demanding title. Although 50fps is enough to make a game playable, you can set your sights higher in this category - look for 80-100fps for decent gameplay.

Current pricing will limit you in this area, but ATI's Radeon HD 4890 graphics cards deliver great performance and value for money, making even cutting-edge games playable if you drop the resolution and settings a notch. If you're not into gaming, cutting back on graphics won't harm general performance.

Power supply: A large PSU is less vital at this price point, but look for a model with a full set of SATA and PCI Express connectors to make later upgrades easier.

Sound card and speakers: You may find a budget sound card at this price, but most motherboards depend on a decent built-in audio chip that can handle six-channel sound. To get surround sound you'll need a 5.1-channel system (five speakers and a subwoofer). A 2.1-channel stereo system will be good enough for most users. A monitor's built-in speakers seldom offer a satisfying audio experience.

>> NEXT PAGE: Specifications and our expert verdict

Chillblast Fusion Predator: Specs

  • 3.33GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E8600
  • Windows Vista Home Premium 32bit (choose XP or Vista 64bit at no extra cost)
  • 4GB DDR2 RAM
  • 500GB SATA
  • ASRock 775 4Core 1600-GLAN
  • 6 x USB 2.0
  • 550W CIC PSU
  • 22in Digimate L2254WD (0.28mm pixel pitch
  • 1,680x1,050)
  • 1,024MB PCI Express XFX ATI Radeon HD 4890 (games scores: Crysis (High/Very High) = 67/26fps
  • Fear = 253fps)
  • Creative Audigy SE 7.1
  • 2 x Genius speakers and subwoofer
  • 22x/22x/12x/16x/6x/8x/12x/16x (DVD-R/+R/-R DL/+R DL/-RAM/-ROM)
  • two-year collect-and-return warranty
  • WorldBench 6 score: 132
  • 3.33GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E8600
  • Windows Vista Home Premium 32bit (choose XP or Vista 64bit at no extra cost)
  • 4GB DDR2 RAM
  • 500GB SATA
  • ASRock 775 4Core 1600-GLAN
  • 6 x USB 2.0
  • 550W CIC PSU
  • 22in Digimate L2254WD (0.28mm pixel pitch
  • 1,680x1,050)
  • 1,024MB PCI Express XFX ATI Radeon HD 4890 (games scores: Crysis (High/Very High) = 67/26fps
  • Fear = 253fps)
  • Creative Audigy SE 7.1
  • 2 x Genius speakers and subwoofer
  • 22x/22x/12x/16x/6x/8x/12x/16x (DVD-R/+R/-R DL/+R DL/-RAM/-ROM)
  • two-year collect-and-return warranty
  • WorldBench 6 score: 132

OUR VERDICT

This may not be the best-looking PC here, but the Chillblast Fusion Predator delivers the best performance and superb value for money. Admirably, it also comes with a two-year collect-and-return warranty.

Find the best price