A newcomer to our Top 5 PC charts, Palicomp has submitted a strong first entry with the Excalibur E81-19. A full-height mesh-covered door conceals the front of the case, lending the PC a smart look that belies its £499 price tag. Visible through this door is a front-mounted fan, gently illuminated with blue LEDs. This creates a more subtle effect than CyberPower's approach, making the system equally suitable for business and home use.

Inside, the Biostar 7050 motherboard, based on the Micro ATX Form Factor, is one of the smallest we've seen. Only two memory slots are provided and, due to the extended width of the graphics card, there's no room for add-on PCI cards. The Palicomp Excalibur E85-19's 1GB 9500 GT's extra width comes courtesy of the massive heatsink applied to it, which allows it to operate silently without a fan.

The Palicomp Excalibur E85-19's performance was a little wanting, however. Despite housing Intel's E8500 chip, the Excalibur scored nine points lower than Arbico's E8400-based system in our WorldBench 6 real-world speed test. Nonetheless, any system scoring 111 points will be adequate for most tasks, particularly when fitted with 4GB of memory.

Its graphics card is also a little slower than the HD 4650 favoured by Arbico and Eclipse. However, less-demanding 3D games can be played comfortably on the Palicomp Excalibur E85-19.

Largest of all the systems in this month's chart, the Palicomp Excalibur E85-19's 500GB hard drive gives you double the storage capacity of most PCs at this price. The 19in Hanton monitor isn't the greatest we've seen, but it does come with both digital and analogue inputs.


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

Palicomp Excalibur E85-19: Specs

  • 3.16GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E8500
  • Windows Vista Home Premium 64bit (XP or Vista 32bit available at a discounted price)
  • 4GB DDR2 RAM
  • 500GB SATA
  • Biostar 7050
  • 8 x USB 2.0
  • 19in Hanton H-341WB (0.29mm pixel pitch
  • 1,440x900)
  • 1GB PCI Express Sparkle nVidia GeForce 9500 GT (games scores: Crysis = 17fps
  • Fear = 41fps)
  • onboard Realtek ALC662
  • speakers built into flat-panel
  • 20x/20x/12x/16x/6x/8x/12x/16x (DVD-R/+R/-R DL/+R DL/-RW/+RW/-RAM/-ROM)
  • OpenOffice
  • Nero
  • AVG
  • one-year return-to-base warranty
  • WorldBench 6 score: 111
  • 3.16GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E8500
  • Windows Vista Home Premium 64bit (XP or Vista 32bit available at a discounted price)
  • 4GB DDR2 RAM
  • 500GB SATA
  • Biostar 7050
  • 8 x USB 2.0
  • 19in Hanton H-341WB (0.29mm pixel pitch
  • 1,440x900)
  • 1GB PCI Express Sparkle nVidia GeForce 9500 GT (games scores: Crysis = 17fps
  • Fear = 41fps)
  • onboard Realtek ALC662
  • speakers built into flat-panel
  • 20x/20x/12x/16x/6x/8x/12x/16x (DVD-R/+R/-R DL/+R DL/-RW/+RW/-RAM/-ROM)
  • OpenOffice
  • Nero
  • AVG
  • one-year return-to-base warranty
  • WorldBench 6 score: 111

OUR VERDICT

The Palicomp Excalibur E85-19 is an attractive-looking system with a good specification, although we hoped for better performance from it.

Find the best price