The Eclipse Solar a55R487 is a budget Windows 7 PC that's a strong performer with potential for upgrading.

Eclipse's Solar a55R487 is the third system here to make use of AMD's Phenom II X2 550 processor. Once again, this CPU has enabled the vendor to create a well-balanced system that performs solidly in business tasks and can handle 3D gaming too.

The Eclipse Solar a55R487 matches the Chillblast Fusion Tempest's WorldBench 6 score of 115 points and performs almost identically when playing Crysis and Fear. In common with our top two systems, the power behind this gaming performance is an ATI Radeon HD 4870 - this time in its 512MB version.

The Eclipse's MSI motherboard is better specified than the Asus model used by Mesh and Chillblast. In particular, it offers more expandability: there are four memory slots rather than two and twice as many expansion slots. In fact, had it not come with a paltry 320GB hard drive, the Eclipse Solar a55R487 would have found itself higher up the chart.

The Eclipse Solar a55R487's black EZCool N-880D case is a rather basic model. We were less than impressed by the ease with which the drive bay covers can be knocked out of position - our review sample arrived looking rather worse for wear. Below these drive bays, a small, vertically hinged flap hides a pair of front-facing USB ports and audio jacks.

The Eclipse Solar a55R487's monitor, meanwhile is a 19in Hannspree HF207. Its glossy piano-black bezel renders it rather more eye-catching than the sober-looking examples found elsewhere. It, too, lacks a DVI connector, so the screen's image quality isn't as good as it could have been.

Chart ranking (issue 174)

  1. Mesh Matrix II 550BE PCA
  2. Chillblast Fusion Tempest
  3. Eclipse Solar a55R487
  4. Arbico CD8567 Pro
  5. RL Supplies Modula 9010

>>NEXT PAGE: Buying advice

Buying advice

Processor: AMD's Phenom II X2 550BE is a great choice of CPU for a budget PC. It's a little slower than an Intel Core 2 Duo E8500 but is priced low enough to leave you with enough money left over to spend on a decent graphics card.

The Core 2 Duo E8500 is still a good choice if you have no interest in gaming and want to spend your money on fast general-purpose performance. Low-cost alternatives, such as Intel's E7000- and E4000-series chips, offer weaker performance at any clock speed.

Memory: In the era of Vista and Windows 7, 2GB of RAM is essential. The majority 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: Expect up to 500GB at this price; you can never have too much storage space. Digital media content 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.

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 to one disc, 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: It's the component you'll be spending all your time looking at, but PC makers often compromise on the monitor.

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 good 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.

If display size or quality is of critical importance to you - and you're willing to cut costs elsewhere - you may be able to get a 22in 1080p flat-panel.

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.

Thanks to recent price reductions, we're seeing powerful Radeon HD 4870 cards appearing in budget gaming PCs.

For nVidia and ATI cards, always look for a 1GB rather than 512MB version if possible. If you don't play games at all, consider purchasing a machine that relies on integrated graphics.

Power supply: Expect only a basic PSU at this price point. Without power-hungry components installed, there's simply no need for a more powerful supply. If you plan to upgrade your system - and in particular the graphics card - then your PSU must be able to deliver enough juice to power your new components. A 450W or 500W model is a good starting point.

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

>> NEXT PAGE: Specifications and our expert verdict

Eclipse Solar a55R487: Specs

  • 3.1GHz AMD Phenom II X2 550 BE
  • Windows 7 Home Premium 64bit
  • 4GB DDR2 RAM
  • 320GB SATA
  • MSI K9A2 Neo2 motherboard
  • 8 x USB 2.0
  • 500W EZCool PSU
  • 19in Hannspree HF207 (0.28mm pixel pitch
  • 1440x900)
  • 512MB PCI Express Sapphire ATI Radeon HD 4870 (games scores: Crysis [High/Very High] = 56/26fps
  • Fear = 227fps)
  • onboard sound
  • speakers built into monitor
  • max DVD speeds: 24x/24x/12x/16x/6x/8x/12x/16x (DVD-R/+R/-R DL/+R DL/-RW/+RW/-RAM/-ROM)
  • one-year return-to-base warranty
  • WorldBench 6 score: 115
  • 3.1GHz AMD Phenom II X2 550 BE
  • Windows 7 Home Premium 64bit
  • 4GB DDR2 RAM
  • 320GB SATA
  • MSI K9A2 Neo2 motherboard
  • 8 x USB 2.0
  • 500W EZCool PSU
  • 19in Hannspree HF207 (0.28mm pixel pitch
  • 1440x900)
  • 512MB PCI Express Sapphire ATI Radeon HD 4870 (games scores: Crysis [High/Very High] = 56/26fps
  • Fear = 227fps)
  • onboard sound
  • speakers built into monitor
  • max DVD speeds: 24x/24x/12x/16x/6x/8x/12x/16x (DVD-R/+R/-R DL/+R DL/-RW/+RW/-RAM/-ROM)
  • one-year return-to-base warranty
  • WorldBench 6 score: 115

OUR VERDICT

Another strong all-round system, the Eclipse Solar a55R487 offers plenty of room for upgrades but, ultimately, a lesser all-round experience than the Mesh Matrix or Chillblast Fusion Tempest.

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