We're going to get hate mail from New Mexico again. Last December, inspired by a surprisingly positive experience with a $599 review system, we included a line in our year-end roundup complimenting the new management of budget vendor eMachines for continuing "to whittle away at its previous owners' toxic reputation with bargain-priced, well-equipped desktops." That brought a barrage of outraged e-mails from a Santa Fe computer consultant who called us criminally incompetent for even suggesting that consumers might consider eMachines.
We tried to reason with the fellow. We pointed out that yes, we were aware of indeed, the review and the compliment both noted the cheap, chintzy construction of eMachines' offerings circa 1998-2000 and necessity for a "leap of faith to forget eMachines' former eLemons." We remarked that sometimes companies make comebacks just as carmaker Hyundai, while not exactly stealing sales from Mercedes, has shed the stigma of its early, awful Excel. But our arguments were in vain; the angry expert insisted that we were ignorant and that eMachines was, now and forever, irreparable garbage.
The rest of you may be interested in reading about the eMachines T2865, the top of the company's 2003 holiday-shopping-season lineup. This desktop has an AMD Athlon XP 2800+ (2.08GHz) processor and half a gigabyte of memory. It comes with a hefty 160GB hard disk and 4.7GB DVD burner not just any DVD burner, but a DVD±RW drive that bridges the rival recordable formats plus front-panel slots for digital cameras' or PDA's flash-memory cards. It competes with HP and Sony home PCs priced in the $900 to $1,100 (without monitor) range. It costs $720.
What's the catch? There are several, mostly defining the T2865 as a workhorse rather than workstation: While its CPU boasts AMD's "Barton" core with 512MB of Level 2 cache, it also has a 333MHz front-side bus rather than the 400MHz bus of the latest Athlon XP 3200+ chip (the 512MB of standard memory is PC2700 or DDR333, not DDR400). The cooling fan could be quieter. The Western Digital Protege hard disk spins at 5,400 instead of deluxe models' 7,200 rpm.
The Nvidia nForce2 chipset provides merely adequate GeForce 4 MX integrated graphics though there's an AGP slot for more game-worthy upgrades, something missing from many economy-model PCs (including eMachines' second-quarter lineup earlier this year). And digital video buffs will note there's no IEEE 1394 (FireWire) port to connect a camcorder, though there are five USB 2.0 ports for external storage or other devices.
But let's recheck that bottom line: $720, for a system that would've been a dream machine a year ago and is still a highly respectable, high-performance home PC with a DVD±RW drive, big hard disk, attractive multimedia keyboard, and solid software bundle. The T2865 won't impress hardware buffs who can afford an Athlon FX rig with dual Serial ATA hard drives, but it'll satisfy consumers' needs while leaving them enough money to afford a nice LCD monitor.
Keep the Keyboard, Lose the Mouse
To be honest, consumers will want to set aside money for more than a monitor: The eMachines comes with a lowball mechanical mouse instead of a modern, maintenance-free optical unit, and with a pair of small, generic stereo speakers that are okay for system beeps but too weak for music, DVD movies, or games.
But while our May 2002 eMachines review gave a thumbs-down to a cheap, frill-free keyboard, the T2865's keyboard is a comfortable unit with handy volume and CD-track/DVD-chapter control buttons; launch buttons for Internet Explorer, Outlook Express, and Calculator; and browser Forward, Back, Favorite, and Windows search and sleep keys.
In addition to these commonplace conveniences, we were happy to find Cut, Copy, and Paste shortcut keys at the left edge. On the minus side, eMachines' automatically loaded software driver doesn't let you reassign or customize the special keys.
Newly festooned with a blue LED light around the power button, eMachines' minitower case offers microphone and headphone jacks plus serial and phone-support numbers conveniently located behind a front-mounted panel. Below the optical and floppy drives are one USB 2.0 port plus slots for CompactFlash/Microdrive, Secure Digital, MultiMedia Card, SmartMedia, and Memory Stick flash modules.
Around back, you'll find four more USB ports; parallel, serial, and PS/2 mouse and keyboard ports; a VGA connector for the onboard Nvidia graphics; microphone, speaker, and line-in audio jacks; and a 10/100Mbps Ethernet port. One PCI slot holds a 56Kbps modem, leaving two PCI slots and one AGP 8X slot at your disposal.
Two thumbscrews give easy access to said slots and the rest of the FIC AU31 motherboard, although the AGP slot is partly obscured by a cable connecting the front and rear audio jacks and the two DIMM sockets one occupied by a 512MB PC333 module are under a bunch of power cables. There's an empty internal bay for a second hard disk if the 160GB Western Digital isn't enough for you; the Bestec 250-watt power supply falls short of expansion addicts' 300-watt target, but tops the 200-watt supplies we're increasingly seeing in retail desktops.
Unfortunately, between the power supply and the Cooler Master fan atop the CPU, the T2865 adds a loud background whir to your workplace though not unbearable, it's audible from the next room, maybe even from two rooms away when the BTC 48X CD-ROM drive kicks in.
By contrast, the NEC ND-1300A DVD±RW performs smoothly and quietly; it offers 4X DVD+R and DVD-R, 2.4X DVD+RW, and 2X DVD-RW writing as well as serving as a 16/10/40X CD-RW drive and 8X DVD-ROM. We had no problems saving 4.7GB of data with both the 4X DVD+R and older 2X DVD-R discs on our shelf (taking roughly 15 and 30 minutes respectively); eMachines preinstalls the basic version of Roxio's Easy CD and DVD Creator 6, which offers plenty of recording options.
Also on the hard disk, along with Windows XP Home Edition, are Microsoft Works 7.0 and Money 2004; CyberLink's PowerDVD 4 player; the Real and Winamp multimedia players; AOL, CompuServe, and both the AOL and ICQ instant messengers; and the 90-day starter edition of Norton AntiVirus 2003.
There's no image- or video-editing software, but the above list neatly answers our gripe about that May 2002 eMachines' lack of any antivirus or CD-burning tools. The company also provides a house-brand alternative to Windows Update called BigFix, which (without transmitting any personal info about your system) offers to download and install updated OS components and drivers as soon as connected to the Internet, our system urged us to add Microsoft's KB824146 patch for the Blaster worm.
$720 won't buy you Hyper-Threading or 64-bit processing, but the T2865 is more than powerful enough for everyday tasks, performing on par with Pentium 4/2.8 (and within sight of Pentium 4/3.06) desktops we've tested: It posted a BAPco SysMark 2002 score of 208, with a 257 in Internet Content Creation and 169 in Office Productivity, and FutureMark PCMark 2002 numbers of 6,364 (CPU), 4,489 (memory), and 1,039 (hard disk).
The nForce2 steals 64MB of system memory to deliver better-than-many-integrated-chipsets-but-not-too-great graphics, completing only the simplest DirectX 7-generation module of 3DMark03's four game simulations en route to a modest score of 159, with a somewhat blurry 36 frames per second in an Unreal Tournament 2003 flyby. Its 73 fps in Quake III Arena (High Quality 1,024 by 768 mode) should satisfy occasional, casual gamers, but others will want to pop a card into the AGP slot.
Overall, we're impressed with the T2865: So long as you're not expecting a FireWire- and surround-sound-equipped video-editing and home-theater powerhouse, it delivers first-class value, led by DVD burning for the price of the big brands' CD-RW systems. No, it's not a power user's first choice, but if you still think eMachines is a joke, the joke's on you.
Adapted from HardwareCentral.com.