Systems at this price point always involve compromises - a meaty processor or a powerful graphics card will obliterate a £500 budget. But the Mesh Matrix II 550BE PCA not only achieves the highest WorldBench 6 real-world speed score of the group, it also provides staggering gaming performance that leaves the competition stuttering and flickering in its wake.

We were somewhat surprised to find an AMD CPU under the hood of our Best Buy machine, and the Mesh Matrix II 550BE PCA's 3.1GHz Phenom II X2 500 BE marks a turn-around for our previously Intel-dominated PC charts.

All the systems reviewed here feature ATI graphics cards, but the Mesh Matrix II 550BE PCA's HD 4870 outclasses the competition and takes gaming to a new level of performance.

Other components are standard fare, with the Mesh Matrix II 550BE PCA's smart black case concealing 4GB of DDR2 memory and a 500GB hard drive. The 19in display is perfectly acceptable but lacks a digital input. Usefully, Mesh preinstalls the CyberLink DVD suite.

One slight niggle, however, is the Mesh Matrix II 550BE PCA's one-year warranty, which is disappointing in comparison with the two-year guarantees offered elsewhere.

Chart ranking: Budget desktop PCs (Nov 09 issue)

  1. Mesh Matrix II 550BE PCA
  2. Palicomp Excalibur Ballistix E85-4670-19
  3. Arbico CD 8570 XL
  4. Eclipse Pearl i84R483
  5. Chillblast Fusion Horizon

>> NEXT PAGE: Budget desktop PCs buying advice

Buying advice: Budget desktop PCs

Processor: Intel's Core 2 Duo E8500 is a popular choice at this price, although slower processors such as the E8400 will still be fast enough for most users. Low-cost alternatives, such as Intel's E7000- and E4000-series chips, offer weaker performance at any clock speed. AMD's latest offerings, such as the Phenom II X2 550BE, offer excellent performance and good value for money.

Memory: In the age of Windows Vista, 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 500GB at this price, but you can never have too much storage space. Digital media content will quickly fill a reasonably sized hard 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, you may be able to get a 22in 1,080p flat-panel if you're willing to cut costs elsewhere.

Graphics card: With the best graphics cards retailing for more than £300, a sub-£500 PC is unlikely to satisfy a hardcore gamer. You'll want a PC that can produce at least 50fps for gaming.

ATI does well in this price bracket and, thanks to recent price reductions, we're seeing HD 4670 cards appearing once again. The HD 4770 and HD 4870 provide very good budget gaming performance.

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 the integrated graphics of its motherboard - you'll save a packet.

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). Separate stereo speakers are rare in systems costing less than £500, however.


>> NEXT PAGE: Specifications and our expert verdict

Mesh Matrix II 550BE PCA: Specs

  • 3.1GHz AMD Phenom II X2 550 BE
  • Windows Vista Home Premium 64bit (free upgrade to Windows 7)
  • 4GB DDR2 RAM
  • 500GB SATA
  • Asus M2N68-VM motherboard
  • 8 x USB 2.0
  • 550W HEC PSU
  • 19in Hanns-G HG191A (0.28mm pixel pitch
  • 1,440x900)
  • 1GB PCI Express HIS ATI Radeon HD 4870 (games scores: Crysis [High/Very High] = 51/26fps
  • Fear = 211fps)
  • onboard VIA VT1708B sound
  • speakers built into monitor
  • max DVD speeds: 22x/22x/12x/16x/6x/8x/12x/16x (DVD-R/+R/-R DL/+R DL/-RW/+RW/-RAM/-ROM)
  • CyberLink DVD software
  • one-year return-to-base warranty
  • WorldBench 6 score: 128
  • 3.1GHz AMD Phenom II X2 550 BE
  • Windows Vista Home Premium 64bit (free upgrade to Windows 7)
  • 4GB DDR2 RAM
  • 500GB SATA
  • Asus M2N68-VM motherboard
  • 8 x USB 2.0
  • 550W HEC PSU
  • 19in Hanns-G HG191A (0.28mm pixel pitch
  • 1,440x900)
  • 1GB PCI Express HIS ATI Radeon HD 4870 (games scores: Crysis [High/Very High] = 51/26fps
  • Fear = 211fps)
  • onboard VIA VT1708B sound
  • speakers built into monitor
  • max DVD speeds: 22x/22x/12x/16x/6x/8x/12x/16x (DVD-R/+R/-R DL/+R DL/-RW/+RW/-RAM/-ROM)
  • CyberLink DVD software
  • one-year return-to-base warranty
  • WorldBench 6 score: 128

OUR VERDICT

The Mesh Matrix II 550BE PCA offers unbeatable value and class-leading performance. If you want a gaming PC for less than £500, nothing else here comes close.

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