The Zoostorm 2-3305 impressed us when it first appeared, because it was the first machine that proved you could run Vista without spending lavishly on a PC. Subsequent releases have demonstrated more elegant solutions to the problem of Vista on a budget, but this is still a respectable machine for the money.
- Arbico CD6420XL
- Eclipse Max i935N79-VSTA
- Arbico CD9600XL
- Mesh Elite Value PCA
- Zoostorm 2-3305 Versatile PC
The Pentium D processor – deployed in three of this month’s Top Five PCs – lacks basic speed in its 2.8GHz form. Indeed, our new WorldBench 6 benchmarks rate it as the slowest of the PCs in the chart.
But the Zoostorm performs better elsewhere. The AOC LM765 is a competent flat-panel, packing decent image quality. The 1GB of DDR RAM is the standard in this chart and the 7600 GS graphics card is also a popular choice – only the 7900 GS-equipped Eclipse can do better. The onboard sound and two-piece speakers are the best in the Top Five. The DVD writer isn’t particularly impressive, however.
Processor: You're not going to get the fastest processors at this price, but many of today's chips are powerful enough to make light work of everyday applications. Look for an Intel Core 2 Duo - these promise acres of power. The E6300 and E6320 are particularly good, although other incarnations such as the E4300 are capable of strong performance. The older Intel Pentium D chips lack the power of the Core 2 Duos but they still have dual-core facilities. The 3.2GHz version isn't bad at all. Don't discount AMD. The Athlon 64 4800+ still has plenty to offer to the customer on a shoestring budget.
Memory: In this Vista-dominated age, 1GB is a must. You can buy more at a later date, but having at least this much is only going to become more important as applications designed for Vista appear. Check you're getting the full benefit of the memory - some onboard graphics controllers use system memory, which will ultimately slow the system down.
Storage: You can never have too much storage space. Digital media - such as video and music files - will quickly fill a reasonably sized hard drive, so buy the biggest you can: 250GB-320GB drives are a good investment.
It helps to keep large files archived on DVD, so make sure your PC has a DVD burner. Look for a drive that can write to the -R/+R formats at rates of at least 16-speed. Rewrite speeds of eight-speed are good, and if you want to copy up to 8.5GB at once, look for a drive with DVD-R DL or DVD+R DL. Write speeds on these tend to be lower, but you should look for an absolute minimum of six-speed on one of the formats. Realistically, you ought to be aiming for eight-speed.
Display: To keep the price of a PC down, compromises have to be made - and the monitor is often where the sacrifices start. Just remember that this is the part of the PC that you're going to be spending most of your time looking at. All PCs now come with flat-panels. 19in models are the most common, and you shouldn't consider going above this size - price constraints mean the quality simply won't be good enough. We aren't seeing any CRTs, but they're still a pretty good deal if you can find them - provided you can put up with the bulky casing, the colour depth tends to be better than on flat-panels.
Graphics cards: Given that the best graphics cards can retail for £300 or £400, fervent gamers are unlikely to be best served by a sub-£500 PC. Nonetheless, the best machines in this category generally manage to iinclude a decent graphics card. You should be looking for PCs that can produce at least 50fps (frames per second) if you're going to be playing games regularly - 70fps or 80fps is preferable. Today's chips of choice come from the nVidia GeForce 7900 range, although the 7600 (either the GT or GS) will also do reasonably well. If you're primarily looking for a PC for work or for general internet use, you can afford to compromise in this area.
Sound card and speakers: You're unlikely to get a standalone sound card at this price point as it is an area in which vendors are likely to cut costs. Most motherboards have decent built-in audio chips that can handle six-channel sound, but to get the best out of them you'll need a 5.1 speaker system. Unfortunately, there's a good chance you won't get anything better than a 2.1 system in this category - indeed, you won't necessarily get a subwoofer at all.
We once loved the Zoostorm, for it proved that the prospect of Vista was possible on a budget. Today it struggles to keep up with some of the other bargains on the market, but it still has some decent components.