Chillblast's Fusion Spark was unlikely to be a winner based on its performance. Powered by a 2.66GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E7300, this PC simply doesn't have the CPU power to compete with faster systems.

Fitted with the same motherboard and memory as Arbico's super-fast CD8465 EX, we can see immediately the difference made by the slower processor. The Arbico scores nine points above the Chillblast Fusion Spark's 111 in our WorldBench 6 processing-speed test.

The Chillblast Fusion Spark's understated two-tone black and grey case is tasteful. Front USB and audio ports are available, while a pair of LEDs indicate power and hard-drive access.

The Chillblast Fusion Spark's 19in Hanton is a budget display but features a pleasingly thin bezel, dual analogue and digital connectors, and attractive silver control buttons.

The 250GB hard drive will be adequate for most users and is quite common at this price point. Nonetheless, the Palicomp offers double the capacity of the Chillblast Fusion Spark and a faster processor.

Gaming performance lags behind the other systems here. In common with the Best Buy CyberPower, the Chillblast Fusion Spark also features an nVidia GeForce 9500 GT - although this time it's a 512MB model. Its fanless design helps keep the system quiet, particularly when gaming.

There's a single pair of memory slots, making expansions beyond 4GB difficult. But the Chillblast Fusion Spark is the only system in the chart to include a set of stereo speakers and subwoofer, and it provides considerably better audio than the competition.


Chart ranking: Budget desktop PCs (March 09 issue)

  1. CyberPower Gamer Infinity 600
  2. Arbico CD8465 EX
  3. Eclipse Matrix i85a465
  4. Palicomp Excalibur E85-19
  5. Chillblast Fusion Spark

>> NEXT PAGE: Budget desktop PCs buying advice

Budget desktop PCs buying advice (March 09 issue)

Processor: Intel's Core 2 Duo E8500 is a popular choice at this price point, although slower processors such as the E8400 will still be fast enough for most users. Lower-cost alternatives include the Intel E7000- and E4000-series chips, although these offer weaker performance at any given clock speed.

Memory: In this Vista-dominated age, 2GB of RAM is a minimum requirement. You may be able to make do with 1GB, but we wouldn't recommend it. The bulk of sub-£500 PCs are now fitted with 4GB.

Make sure you're getting the full benefit of the memory - some onboard graphics controllers use system memory, which will slow things down. Check your motherboard has free memory slots if you plan to upgrade later.

Storage: You can never have too much storage space. Digital media content such as video and music files will quickly fill a reasonably sized hard drive, so buy the biggest you can. A 320GB drive is a good investment, although hard-drive space is relatively easy to add later. If you're planning to upgrade hard drives internally, make sure you've got enough free drive bays in your system case.

Look for a DVD drive that can write to the -R/+R formats at 16-speed or better. If you want to copy 8.5GB at once, get a drive that can write to DVD-R DL and +R DL at 12- and eight-speed respectively. Keep an eye out for 22-speed models.

Flat-panel: PC manufacturers have to make compromises to keep prices down and often start with the monitor. But you don't want to spend all your computing time looking at a poor-quality display.

All the PCs in our chart come with flat-panels. The most common size is 19in - the quality of larger monitors is unlikely to be high at this price. Look for a monitor with a DVI or HDMI digital connector to ensure the best picture quality. Make sure the PC has one too.

Graphics card: With the best graphics cards retailing for £300 or £400, a sub-£500 PC is unlikely to satisfy a hardcore gamer. Nonetheless, some sub-£500 PCs come with decent cards.

You should be looking for PCs that can produce 50fps if you're going to be playing games - 70fps or 80fps is better still. Current dollar prices have made it harder to build decent systems for under £500 and this month we're seeing slower graphics cards provided in all the chart systems. The usual 9800 GT and 9600 GT have been replaced by the 9500 GT.

Those in the ATI camp have seen the HD 4670 replaced by the HD 4650, which offers correspondingly lower performance. For nVidia and ATI cards, always look for a 1GB model rather than the 512MB version.

Sound card and speakers: You're unlikely to get a standalone sound card at this price. Most motherboards have built-in chips that can handle six-channel sound. To get the best out of them, you'll need a 5.1-channel system (five speakers and a subwoofer), but you're unlikely to get surround speakers at this price point. Even stereo speakers are rare in systems costing less than £500. Prepare to make sacrifices elsewhere if getting standalone speakers is a requirement for you.

>> NEXT PAGE: Specifications and our expert verdict

Chillblast Fusion Spark: Specs

  • 2.66GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E7300
  • Windows Vista Home Premium 32bit (choose XP or 64bit Vista at no extra cost)
  • 4GB DDR2 RAM
  • 250GB SATA
  • ASRock 4Core 1600-D800
  • 6 x USB 2.0
  • 19in Hnaton H-320WDB (0.29mm pixel pitch
  • 1,440x900)
  • 512MB PCI Express Palit nVidia GeForce 9500 GT (games scores: Crysis = 17fps
  • Fear = 40fps)
  • onboard Realtek ALC662
  • 2 x Trust speakers
  • 22x/22x/12x/16x/6x/8x/12x/16x (DVD-R/+R/-R DL/+R DL/-RW/+RW/-RAM/-ROM)
  • OpenOffice
  • Nero
  • AVG
  • two-year collect-and-return warranty
  • WorldBench 6 score: 111
  • 2.66GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E7300
  • Windows Vista Home Premium 32bit (choose XP or 64bit Vista at no extra cost)
  • 4GB DDR2 RAM
  • 250GB SATA
  • ASRock 4Core 1600-D800
  • 6 x USB 2.0
  • 19in Hnaton H-320WDB (0.29mm pixel pitch
  • 1,440x900)
  • 512MB PCI Express Palit nVidia GeForce 9500 GT (games scores: Crysis = 17fps
  • Fear = 40fps)
  • onboard Realtek ALC662
  • 2 x Trust speakers
  • 22x/22x/12x/16x/6x/8x/12x/16x (DVD-R/+R/-R DL/+R DL/-RW/+RW/-RAM/-ROM)
  • OpenOffice
  • Nero
  • AVG
  • two-year collect-and-return warranty
  • WorldBench 6 score: 111

OUR VERDICT

The Chillblast Fusion Spark is a competent PC, with a useful two-year collect-and-return warranty. However, its components can’t match the competition on specification.

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