The only desktop PC here to provide a multiplier-unlocked Sandy Bridge processor, Palicomp’s Phoenix i5 Sonar takes a 3.3GHz Intel Core i5-2500K chip that’s designed for overclocking. Unfortunately, you’ll need a P67-chipset-based motherboard to take advantage: Palicomp supplies an H67 board.

The Palicomp Phoenix i5 Sonar's Gigabyte motherboard comes with SATA 6Gbps support, a full set of digital audio connections, HDMI and a large selection of software. The latter is often as bizarre as it is innovative – there’s a utility that forces your PC into sleep mode whenever your mobile phone goes out of Bluetooth range, for example. Its H67 chipset doesn’t support USB 3.0 as standard; the other vendors here have added their own cards, but Palicomp has not. Instead, you get 12 USB 2.0 ports.

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Despite this PC’s lack of overclocking abilities, there is still some benefit in having a ‘K’ chip over the standard version: its integrated graphics processor has double the number of execution units, giving the Palicomp Phoenix i5 Sonar PC an advantage in gaming. In our Fear test, this amounted to only an extra 2fps at ‘Maximum’ detail settings, but other titles may fare better – particularly those optimised for Intel graphics solutions.

Unfortunately, the Palicomp Phoenix i5 Sonar PC's overall system performance wasn’t as good as we expected. It scored 156 WorldBench 6 points, which is only four more than the Core i5-2400-based Chillblast Fusion Summit.

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As with the other PCs, you also get 4GB of RAM, a 1TB hard drive and a 21.5in AOC monitor. Pleasingly, the Palicomp Phoenix i5 Sonar pairs its external speaker set with a subwoofer.

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Budget PCs buying advice

Processor: Until recently, Intel’s Core i3 processor had the sub-£500 PC category sewn up. While you’ll still find good value in systems based on this architecture, second-generation Core i5 ‘Sandy Bridge’ chips blow them away in performance terms. Identify these chips by their four-digit model number.

‘K’ versions of Intel’s Sandy Bridge processors support overclocking, but you’ll need a pricey P67-chipset-based motherboard, which itself requires a discrete graphics card. If you use a ‘K’ chip without a P67 motherboard, you won’t be able to overclock it but will be able to take advantage of its improved graphics processor over standard chips (which are themselves improved over first-gen Core processors).

Neither option should be considered fast enough for a true gaming PC, but some titles are playable. Intel lists games optimised to run on its integrated technology at tinyurl.com/b4vppc.

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Memory: Expect 4GB at this price and don’t settle for less than 2GB. Most CPUs require DDR3 RAM, while older ones can also use DDR2. Check your motherboard has free slots if you plan to upgrade later.

Storage: Falling prices mean that 1TB is well within the budget of even a budget PC. You can never have too much storage space, and digital media 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.

Get a drive that can write to the DVD+/-R formats at 16-speed or better.
If you want to get 8.5GB on to one disc, get a drive that can write to dual-layer discs at 12- and eight-speed respectively.

Group test: What's the best £1,000 PC?
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Flat-panel: It’s the component you’ll be spending all your time looking at, but PC makers often compromise on the monitor.

Good-quality full-HD monitors are available even in sub-£500 systems. Expect to find a 21.5in model, although these are often marketed as 22in screens. It’s best to get one with dual inputs and a digital connection, letting you get the best image quality available and hook up additional devices.

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.

Intel’s Core i3 and i5 CPUs come with integrated graphics processors that deliver around double the performance of older Intel integrated solutions. The new Sandy Bridge chips are even faster and offer features such as dual monitor outputs. These machines support HD video and Windows Aero effects without the need for a separate graphics card.

AMD’s ATI Radeon HD 5450 is a popular choice for a budget PC. It doesn’t offer a great speed advantage over Intel GMA integrated graphics, but it offers support for DirectX 11.0. Many cards can also drive multiple monitors.

If you really want to play games, nVidia’s GeForce GT 240 will provide some extra speed. Be prepared to lower your graphics settings, however.

Power supply: Expect only a basic PSU at this price point. A 450W or 500W model is a good starting point.

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

Palicomp Phoenix i5 Sonar: Specs

  • 3.3GHz Intel Core i5-2500K
  • Windows 7 Home Premium 64bit (choose Windows 7 32bit at no extra cost)
  • 4GB DDR3 RAM
  • 1TB SATA
  • 12 x USB 2.0
  • Gigabyte H67M-UD2H-B3 motherboard
  • 450W WinPower PSU
  • 21.5in AOC F22+ monitor (0.25mm pixel pitch, 1920x1080)
  • Intel GMA HD 3000 (Fear: 18fps)
  • onboard sound
  • 2 x Logitech S220 speakers and subwoofer
  • 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: 156
  • 3.3GHz Intel Core i5-2500K
  • Windows 7 Home Premium 64bit (choose Windows 7 32bit at no extra cost)
  • 4GB DDR3 RAM
  • 1TB SATA
  • 12 x USB 2.0
  • Gigabyte H67M-UD2H-B3 motherboard
  • 450W WinPower PSU
  • 21.5in AOC F22+ monitor (0.25mm pixel pitch, 1920x1080)
  • Intel GMA HD 3000 (Fear: 18fps)
  • onboard sound
  • 2 x Logitech S220 speakers and subwoofer
  • 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: 156

OUR VERDICT

The Palicomp Phoenix i5 Sonar PC lacks USB 3.0 support and its general performance is no match for our fastest systems, but it’s the best on test for multimedia and low-level gaming.

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