It's tough to fight against four PCs armed with Intel's mighty Core i7 920 when you've got a mere dual-core processor, but the Palicomp Phoenix Ballistix E86-24 makes a valiant effort. And the E8600 is still a very fast CPU, with the bonus that you'll pay less for your motherboard and the memory that populates it.

The money saved has left room in the Palicomp Phoenix Ballistix E86-24's budget for a pair of external stereo speakers and a subwoofer, 1TB of storage and an excellent 24in full-HD monitor from Acer.

A WorldBench 6 score of 129 is enough to prove that the Palicomp Phoenix Ballistix E86-24 can hold its own against the i7 in the bulk of current applications, although it suffers in CPU-intensive tasks that take advantage of multiple cores.

The GTX 260 graphics card comes with a whopping 1,792MB of memory, enabling high-resolution gaming with high-quality textures enabled. However, in our toughest tests the Palicomp Phoenix Ballistix E86-24 couldn't keep up with the ATI Radeon HD 4890 chosen by Arbico and Eclipse.

The Palicomp Phoenix Ballistix E86-24's case features a pair of saloon-style doors which don't meet in the middle. Behind this, a number of mesh panels conceal the front-facing fan and 5.25in drive bays - one of which is occupied by a Blu-ray-compatible DVD drive. Unfortunately, these panels come loose and fall away easily.

The Asus motherboard is capable of scaleable link interface (SLI), so you could add a second card to the Palicomp Phoenix Ballistix E86-24 for improved graphics performance.

Chart ranking: Power desktop PCs (Sep 09 issue)

  1. Eclipse Titan X58-Crossfire i792R489
  2. Arbico Elite i750 Pro
  3. CyberPower Mega Sales IV
  4. Palicomp Phoenix Ballistix E86-24
  5. Dell Studio XPS

>> NEXT PAGE: Buying advice

Buying advice: Power desktop PCs

Processor: Intel's Core i7 chip is taking this price bracket by storm. It's a match for the best dual-core systems and will outpace any previous-generation quad-core machine. However, Core i7 chips require more expensive DDR3 memory and a new motherboard design, so expect to make sacrifices elsewhere.

Dual-core CPUs are still popular at this price point, offering good performance and considerably lower system costs. Intel's E8600 offers the best performance.

Quad-core processors, such as the Q9400, are another option. These chips use the same memory and motherboard as dual-core machines and can offer huge speed advantages if you run multithreaded applications such as video encoding.

Memory: Consider 4GB as a minimum, particularly if you're running Windows Vista. If you're buying a Core i7-based system, however, expect 3GB or 6GB of RAM (such machines install memory chips in threes). A 64bit operating system will take full advantage of your RAM - but check that your software and drivers will be supported.

If you opt for more than 4GB, a 64bit operating system is essential.

Storage: Anything less than 500GB is now considered a small amount of storage space. Many users will get by with 320GB but, with prices falling, it isn't impossible to find a terabyte at this price point.

Get a multiformat DVD writer that can write to a dual-layer format if you want to store 8.5GB rather than 4.7GB on a disc. Look for a minimum of eight-speed DVD+R DL; DVD-R DL is nice but not essential. Try to get eight-speed DVD+RW.

At this price you should be able to find a drive that reads Blu-ray discs - note that it won't burn to Blu-ray, and DVD burning speeds will be slower.

Display: 22in flat-panels are the standard here. Many vendors supply budget screens in order to leave more cash in the pot for other components, but it's worth spending a little more if you intend to work with digital photos or video.

A screen with a response time of 8ms or less will minimise blur on fast-moving images. For image editing, contrast ratio and colour fidelity are more important.

A digital input can preserve picture quality, so think twice about displays that provide analogue inputs only.

If you're a movie fan, look for one of the new 16:9 format 22in-plus displays that offer full-HD playback. You may even be able to find a 24in example.

Graphics card: At this price point, the ATI Radeon HD 4890 is an excellent choice for gamers. You'll also find good deals on nVidia's GeForce GTX 260 (or even 280). Look for souped-up versions with faster clock speeds or additional memory. Two of our Top 5 machines go for the HD 4890.

The GTX 260 and HD 4890 can be used in dual-card setups later but, to take advantage of this, your motherboard and PSU will need to be compatible. Ready-made dual-card solutions are available but can work out more expensive.

Power supply: The level of power you require will depend largely on the type of graphics card you expect to use. Look for at least a 500W PSU at this price point, but consider 750W upwards if you have any thoughts of moving up to a dual card solution later. Overclocking will also demand a powerful, high-quality PSU.

Sound card and speakers: Onboard sound is no match for a sound card. Consider Creative's Audigy 4 or X-Fi range.

>> NEXT PAGE: Our expert verdict

Palicomp Phoenix Ballistix E86-24: Specs

  • 3.33GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E8600
  • Windows Vista Home Premium 32bit (choose Vista 64bit at no extra cost)
  • 4GB DDR2 RAM
  • 1TB SATA
  • Asus Striker Extreme motherboard
  • 10 x USB 2.0
  • 850W AlphaPower PSU
  • 24in Acer X243HQ (0.27mm pixel pitch
  • 1,920x1,080)
  • 1,792MB PCI Express Palit nVidia GeForce GTX 260 216SP (games scores: Crysis (High/Very High) = 72/24fps
  • Fear = 232fps)
  • onboard Analog Devices AD1988B
  • 2 x Logitech S220 and subwoofer
  • 6x BD-ROM
  • 3x HD DVD
  • 16x/16x/4x/4x/6x/8x (DVD-R/+R/-R DL/+R DL/-RW/+RW)
  • one-year return-to-base warranty
  • WorldBench 6 score: 129
  • 3.33GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E8600
  • Windows Vista Home Premium 32bit (choose Vista 64bit at no extra cost)
  • 4GB DDR2 RAM
  • 1TB SATA
  • Asus Striker Extreme motherboard
  • 10 x USB 2.0
  • 850W AlphaPower PSU
  • 24in Acer X243HQ (0.27mm pixel pitch
  • 1,920x1,080)
  • 1,792MB PCI Express Palit nVidia GeForce GTX 260 216SP (games scores: Crysis (High/Very High) = 72/24fps
  • Fear = 232fps)
  • onboard Analog Devices AD1988B
  • 2 x Logitech S220 and subwoofer
  • 6x BD-ROM
  • 3x HD DVD
  • 16x/16x/4x/4x/6x/8x (DVD-R/+R/-R DL/+R DL/-RW/+RW)
  • one-year return-to-base warranty
  • WorldBench 6 score: 129

OUR VERDICT

Opting to use a still-fast dual-core E8600 processor rather than the brand-new Core i7 chip seen in the other PCs here has left cash in the pot for some excellent extras. Buy the Palicomp Phoenix Ballistix E86-24 for its gorgeous 24in full-HD monitor, its Blu-ray drive and its terabyte of storage.

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