With the fastest processor in the chart under the hood, it's little wonder that Palicomp's Ballistix Excalibur E85SLI-1 tops our WorldBench 6 real-world speed tests. Intel's E8500 enables this PC to edge ahead of the competition when it comes to everyday applications.


The Palicomp Ballistix Excalibur E85SLI-1 also comes with by far the most storage, with its 500GB SATA hard drive doubling the capacities of the Arbico and Eclipse machines.

Graphics performance isn't quite so exemplary, however. Despite the Palicomp Ballistix Excalibur E85SLI-1's GeForce 9600 GSO offering a generous 1GB of onboard memory, it's a notably slower card than that used by the competition.

The Palicomp Ballistix Excalibur E85SLI-1 makes a brave attempt at playing games, but hardcore gamers would do better to look elsewhere - sacrificing a little CPU speed in return for faster graphics, perhaps. And although the ASRock motherboard offers scaleable link interface (SLI) for adding a second graphics card, swapping in a single decent card will prove more effective than using two sluggish ones.

The Palicomp Ballistix Excalibur E85SLI-1's Hanton H-350WDB is a basic but tidy-looking 19in display with dual inputs. It offers a bright image with good contrast but, like many a glossy screen, it suffers from light reflections.

Look past the Palicomp Ballistix Excalibur E85SLI-1's untidy cabling and there's plenty of room inside for upgrades, including a spare PCI Express slot and space for two more sticks of RAM.

Another thing the system case is good for concealing is the Palicomp Ballistix Excalibur E85SLI-1's DVD drive, which lies behind a full-height front door. If you burn a lot of discs you may find this inconvenient.

Chart ranking: Budget desktop PCs (September 09 issue)

  1. Arbico CD 8467 XL
  2. Palicomp Ballistix Excalibur E85SLI-19
  3. CyberPower AMD Pre-Build 2 Cores
  4. Eclipse Mirage A995R467
  5. HP Compaq Presario CQ5011uk

>> NEXT PAGE: 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. Lower-cost alternatives, such as the Intel E7000- and E4000-series chips, offer weaker performance at any clock speed.

Memory: In this Vista-shackled age, 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: You can never have too much storage space. Digital media content will quickly fill a reasonably sized hard drive, so buy the biggest you can. Hard-drive space is relatively easy to add later.

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 Radeon HD 4670 cards appearing once again where the cheaper HD 4650 had temporarily taken over.

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 under the bonnet, there's simply no need for a more powerful supply. If you plan to upgrade your system - and in particular the graphics card - then you'll need to ensure that your PSU is 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. Prepare to make sacrifices elsewhere if getting standalone speakers is a requirement for you.


>> NEXT PAGE: Our expert verdict

Palicomp Ballistix Excalibur E85SLI-19: Specs

  • 3.16GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E8500
  • Windows Vista Home Premium 32bit (choose Vista 64bit at no extra cost)
  • 4GB DDR RAM
  • 500GB SATA
  • ASRock N7AD-SLI motherboard
  • 8 x USB 2.0
  • 500W WinPower PSU
  • 19in Hanton H-350WDB flat-panel (0.24mm pixel pitch
  • 1,440x900)
  • 1GB PCI Express Palit nVidia GeForce 9600 GSO graphics card (games scores: Crysis (High/Very High) = 31/9fps
  • Fear = 75fps)
  • onboard Realtek ALC890 sound
  • speakers built into monitor
  • max DVD speeds: 20x/20x/12x/8x/6x/8x/12x/16x (DVD-R/+R/-R DL/+R DL/-RW/+RW/-RAM/-ROM)
  • one-year return-to-base warranty
  • WorldBench 6 score: 123
  • 3.16GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E8500
  • Windows Vista Home Premium 32bit (choose Vista 64bit at no extra cost)
  • 4GB DDR RAM
  • 500GB SATA
  • ASRock N7AD-SLI motherboard
  • 8 x USB 2.0
  • 500W WinPower PSU
  • 19in Hanton H-350WDB flat-panel (0.24mm pixel pitch
  • 1,440x900)
  • 1GB PCI Express Palit nVidia GeForce 9600 GSO graphics card (games scores: Crysis (High/Very High) = 31/9fps
  • Fear = 75fps)
  • onboard Realtek ALC890 sound
  • speakers built into monitor
  • max DVD speeds: 20x/20x/12x/8x/6x/8x/12x/16x (DVD-R/+R/-R DL/+R DL/-RW/+RW/-RAM/-ROM)
  • one-year return-to-base warranty
  • WorldBench 6 score: 123

OUR VERDICT

While graphics performance is mediocre, those who are looking for a decent budget PC for business use will find that the Palicomp Ballistix Excalibur E85SLI-1 offers all the processing power they need.

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