The Zoostorm 64-5300 proved a good performer in our Test Centre, but would benefit from a little more elbow room inside its compact case.

Zoostorm's E8600-based 64-5300 comes in a smart, compact case with gentle curves and a brushed-metal finish. It's a little smaller than the other PCs in the chart, and lacks some of their expansion room.

Inside, things are a bit cluttered, with cable wraps keeping the Zoostorm 64-5300's internal wiring tidy but also obstructing the few remaining internal expansion bays. The compact motherboard leaves little expansion room, with no room for additional memory and only one free PCI slot. The 4GB allocation of RAM and 500GB hard drive should be adequate for most users, however.

Zoostorm is unique in its choice of graphics-card manufacturer this month. Its 896MB GTX 260 performed a little slower than the HD 4850 in Fear, but we wouldn't grumble at 164fps. And where the performance counts, in more demanding games such as Crysis, the Zoostorm 64-5300's GTX 260 outperformed the ATI card favoured by the competition.

The Zoostorm 64-5300 didn't fare quite so well on desktop apps, however; its performance was generally high, but there were individual tests in which the system struggled.

The 22in AMW monitor has a thin, silver bezel, which fits in well with the case design. It comes with both digital and analogue inputs, and provides good image quality for a budget display. It also features a pair of concealed speakers; the Zoostorm 64-5300 doesn't have a standalone set, giving it a distinct disadvantage when compared to the audio offerings of the Chillblast, Arbico and Mesh.

Budget PCs chart ranking (April 09 issue)

  1. Chillblast Fusion Anubis
  2. Arbico CD8850 XL
  3. Mesh Matrix II 920
  4. CyberPower Gamer Infinity Silent Edition
  5. Zoostorm 64-5300

>> NEXT PAGE: Budget desktop PCs buying advice

Budget PCs buying advice (April 09 issue)

Processor: Intel's Core 2 Duo range offers almost unbeatable performance for the price. The 3.33GHz E8600 now supersedes the E8500 as the CPU of choice, appearing in the vast majority of desktop PCs in this price category.

Alternatively, go for one of Intel's latest quad-core chips, such as the Q9300. These processors are performing well with newer applications and games. Older Q6600 chips offer good performance with multithreaded apps, but only go for them if the price is right.

AMD's latest Phenom II X4 920 also offers excellent value for money and quad-core performance.

Memory: If fast processors speed up your PC, a large bank of memory stops it from slowing down. Get the most out of your CPU by including at least 4GB of RAM. You can get by with 2GB, but your PC ?will run more smoothly with 4GB.

Storage: Digital media will quickly fill a reasonably sized hard drive, so buy the biggest you can afford. A 400GB-500GB drive is a good investment. If you've got space, consider a pair of smaller drives - a terabyte (1TB) is a huge amount of information to lose in one go.

Your DVD drive should write to the -R/+R formats at 18-speed or better. Eight-speed rewriting is good; if you want to copy up to 8.5GB at once, look for fast DVD-/+R dual-layer drives. Drives that can read Blu-ray are becoming affordable, but they're still quite rare at this price.

Display: Many PC manufacturers make sacrifices here to keep costs down. But a poor monitor can ruin your computing experience - try it out before buying.

At this price you may get a 19in, 20in or 22in model. Be aware that 19in displays offer lower resolution; 20in and 22in displays usually offer the same resolution, with 22in models displaying larger icons.

A DVI or HDMI connector will provide a considerably better image than a VGA port, so look for a display with a digital input; if you want to connect additional devices you'll need at least two. Finally, look for a good response rate: 8ms or below should be fast enough for games.

Graphics cards: Really hardcore gamers are unlikely to be happy with a sub-£750 PC, but you should be able to find a decent graphics card at this price.

We test PCs on the three-year-old game Fear, and Crysis, a far more demanding title. Although 50fps is enough to make a game playable, you can set your sights higher in this category - look for 80-100fps for decent gameplay.

ATI's Radeon HD 4850 and Radeon HD 4870 and nVidia's GeForce GTX 260 graphics cards deliver excellent performance and value for money, making even cutting-edge games playable if you drop the resolution and settings a notch.

Sound card and speakers: You may find a budget sound card at this price, but most motherboards depend on a decent built-in audio chip that can handle six-channel sound. To get surround sound you'll need a 5.1-channel system (five speakers and a subwoofer). You may be offered a 2.1-channel stereo system, which will be good enough for most users. A monitor's built-in speakers seldom offer a satisfying audio experience.

>> NEXT PAGE: Specifications and our expert verdict

Zoostorm 64-5300: Specs

  • 3.33GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E8600
  • Windows Vista Home Premium 32bit
  • 4GB DDR2 RAM
  • 500GB SATA
  • G31MX-K motherboard
  • 6 x USB 2.0
  • 22in AMW X2210WDS (0.28mm pixel pitch
  • 1,440x900)
  • 896MB PCI Express Inno3D nVidia GeForce GTX 260 (games scores: Crysis High = 73fps, Very High = 22fps
  • Fear = 164fps) onboard Realtek ALC662
  • speakers built into flat-panel
  • subwoofer
  • 20x/20x/12x/8x/6x/8x/16x (DVD-R/+R/-R DL/+R DL/-RW/+RW/-ROM)
  • Nero
  • one-year onsite warranty
  • WorldBench 6 score: 122
  • 3.33GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E8600
  • Windows Vista Home Premium 32bit
  • 4GB DDR2 RAM
  • 500GB SATA
  • G31MX-K motherboard
  • 6 x USB 2.0
  • 22in AMW X2210WDS (0.28mm pixel pitch
  • 1,440x900)
  • 896MB PCI Express Inno3D nVidia GeForce GTX 260 (games scores: Crysis High = 73fps, Very High = 22fps
  • Fear = 164fps) onboard Realtek ALC662
  • speakers built into flat-panel
  • subwoofer
  • 20x/20x/12x/8x/6x/8x/16x (DVD-R/+R/-R DL/+R DL/-RW/+RW/-ROM)
  • Nero
  • one-year onsite warranty
  • WorldBench 6 score: 122

OUR VERDICT

Gamers will appreciate the Zoostorm 64-5300's strong 3D performance, although its limited upgrade potential and lack of external speakers make the other four PCs more attractive in terms of value for money.

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