Multimedia fans will love Palicomp’s Phoenix i5 Lightning Extreme. It has a 23.6in AOC LED-backlit display, Logitech S220 speakers - complete with a subwoofer - and, uniquely in this chart, a Blu-ray/DVD combo drive.
Application performance is also good: the Palicomp Phoenix i5 Lightning Extreme's 167-point WorldBench 6 score equals that of the Core i7-equipped Dino PC, despite it being fitted with the slower Core i5-2500K CPU. This processor is cheaper and overclockable.
An ATI Radeon HD 6870 graphics card performs well. In our tests it easily trumped the nVidia GeForce GTX 550 Ti, but the Palicomp Phoenix i5 Lightning Extreme was outgunned by the Chillblast Fusion Striker’s factory-overclocked GTX 560 Ti.
Palicomp provides a superior version of the Asus Z68-chipset motherboard to the Chillblast, which includes Bluetooth and an extra PCI Express slot for adding a second graphics card. The Palicomp Phoenix i5 Lightning Extreme's board also offers a 16-phase power design for improved overclocking control within Windows.
The Palicomp Phoenix i5 Lightning Extreme's sober-looking Cooler Master Elite 330 system case won’t appeal to gamers with see-through panels and psychedelic lighting, but it’s well built and comes with handy tool-free drive bays.
- 1. Chillblast Fusion Striker
2. Dino PC Elmisaur 2600
3. Arbico eXcel i5-2888 Mx
4. Palicomp Phoenix i5 Lightning Extreme
5. Eclipse Anarchy i525n560
Processor: Intel’s Sandy Bridge CPUs are revolutionising all our PC categories. The 3.3GHz Core i5-2500 seen here delivers formidable performance, but the Core i5-2400 is also very fast and costs less. The processors demand a new type of motherboard, so buying into this technology now will future-proof your PC.
If you want to eke out the best possible performance from your system, go for a Core i5-2500K CPU. The ‘K’ denotes that it’s designed for overclocking. You’ll also need a P67- or Z68-chipset motherboard, which won’t support the CPU’s integrated graphics.
Previous-generation chips such as the Core i5-760 are outclassed, but can still offer good value at the right price.
Every chip in Intel’s Sandy Bridge Core i5 desktop family is quad-core, excluding some rare low-voltage versions.
Non-gamers should note that their integrated graphics chips will allow them to play full-HD video without a discrete graphics card.
Some AMD quad-core processors are also available in this price range, including the Phenom II X4 980 BE. None can currently keep up with Intel’s latest offerings, however.
Memory: A large bank of memory stops your PC from slowing down. Don’t buy a PC with less than 4GB of RAM, and get a 64bit operating system to make the most of it. Consider 8GB if you’ll be multitasking or using intensive programs.
Core i5- and i7-800-series CPUs use DDR3 memory rather than DDR2, but there’s no need to buy the chips in threes (as you did with i7-900-series CPUs).
Storage: Digital media content will quickly fill a reasonably sized hard drive; choose a PC with the most capacious drive you can. Expect 1TB, but prices are low enough to find double this amount.
Consider using a pair of smaller hard drives rather than one large drive – 1TB is a huge amount of data to lose in one go.
With prices falling all the time, you may find a solid-state drive (SSD) affordable. An SSD’s faster file transfers can transform your computing experience, but make sure you get one at least 60GB in capacity and install your programs on a second drive.
If you can’t afford a large-capacity SSD, Z68 motherboards can use Smart Response Technology with a smaller SSD to boost hard-drive performance.
Your DVD drive should write to the +/-R formats at 18-speed or above. If you want to copy up to 8.5GB at once, look for fast DVDKR dual-layer drives. Blu-ray readers are still rare at this price.
Display: Note that 19in screens offer a lower resolution than 20in/22in monitors; 22in models display larger icons. Newer 21.6in (16:9) flat-panels are capable of displaying full-HD content, but onscreen elements will be even smaller. You’ll find many budget 23.6in displays at this price.
DVI or HDMI will provide a better image than a VGA port. If you want to attach additional devices, you’ll need two.
Finally, look for a good response time: 8ms or below is fast enough for games.
Graphics cards: We test graphics framerates with Crysis and Stalker: Call of Pripyat. The latter can benchmark DirectX 11.0-capable graphics cards. 25fps is enough to make a game playable, but set your sights at 50fps.
ATI’s Radeon HD 6850 offers excellent performance for the money. Cut back on other components and step up to a Radeon HD 6870 or the newer 6950 if gaming is very important to you.
nVidia’s GeForce GTX 560 Ti also offers good performance. nVidia cards offer support for realistic object interactions in games supporting PhysX and are able to display 3D content.
If you don’t play games at all, you’ll be fine with the integrated graphics of Intel’s Core i5 processors. The ‘K’ versions offer improved graphics performance over the standard versions.
Power supply: A 450W-plus power supply unit (PSU) is less vital at this price point, but look for a model with a full set of SATA and PCI Express connectors to make later upgrades easier.
Sound card and speakers: To get surround sound, look for a 5.1-channel system (five speakers and a subwoofer).