PC shoppers are often advised, "Buy one step down from the top" -- hitting the price/performance sweet spot with Intel or AMD's second fastest CPU, or the second biggest hard disk available. But even those values, even at today's low PC prices, are a stretch for buyers on tight budgets. Granted that no one wants a useless, skinflint system, what can you get by buying one step up from the bottom?
To find out, we picked Compaq's current one-notch-above-entry-level desktop -- the Presario 5410US, with 1.3GHz Intel Celeron power, 256MB of memory, and both DVD-ROM and CD-RW drives. The model below it in Compaq's new-for-2002 lineup, the 5400US, comes with a Celeron/1.2 chip, 128MB, and CD-RW only.
The extra features put our test unit $130 above its starter sibling -- Compaq lists it for $699 with no monitor or speakers, though we've seen prices ranging from list at PC Connection to $750 at CompUSA and a $650 sale the other week at Circuit City.
At first glance, the Presario 5410US looks impressively well equipped: In addition to 256MB of SDRAM, the petite tower case holds a 40GB hard disk and both 56Kbps modem and 10/100Mbps Ethernet ports for narrow- and broadband Internet connections, as well as one AGP and three PCI slots.
Digital video producers won't find an IEEE 1394/FireWire port (or DVD burner, for that matter; digital video buffs don't shop in this price range). But there are four USB ports, with two in back conveniently joined by two behind a door on the front bezel (just above a pop-out panel that offers storage space for five CDs). Our system also came with a slightly unnerving mouse pad (see inset).
Bundled software includes not only Microsoft Windows XP Home Edition and Works 6.0 but Symantec's Norton Internet Security 2002 antivirus and firewall protection, as well as both Microsoft Money and Intuit's Quicken 2002 New User Edition plus a coupon for a free 2001 tax return from the TurboTax Web site. InterVideo's WinDVD and Roxio's Easy CD Creator 5 Basic Edition (with one blank CD-R and one CD-RW disc) handle the two optical drives, while AOL, CompuServe, and Netscape 6 (as well as Microsoft's Internet Explorer 6) get newbies online.
Going online is the 5410's specialty. Indeed, the Compaq's keyboard offers not only multimedia volume-control (up, down, mute) and CD or DVD playback (play/pause, next/previous track, eject) buttons, but buttons to launch the Web browser, Outlook Express e-mail, and search, shopping, "customer community," and MSN entertainment Web sites. Disney and subsidiaries ABC News and ESPN lease three desktop icons, while a fourth leads to the NetSmartz site for teaching kids to stay safe on the Internet. Compaq and RealNetworks add icons to Internet Explorer's toolbar by default.
An Easy Access Keys module in Windows' Control Panel lets you reassign the online access buttons, but takes you to a Web site rather than an onboard utility to do so; there's one customizable program-launch button near the volume control, help, and sleep buttons. Supplied Coloreal software works with a limited number of compatible monitors to offer accurate color matching on a limited number of e-commerce sites.
As for software and driver updates, we remember late-'90s Presarios with BackWeb "push" software that guzzled bandwidth and put a rotating, musical Q on screen every other day; the advent of Win XP has let the company switch to a customer-activated Compaq Advisor client that piggybacks on Windows Update and seems less obnoxious (Compaq swears the Advisor collects no user-identifiable data, but warns that it forwards a randomly generated ID code and info about your applications). If things go wrong, backup utilities and program/driver or factory-disk-image recovery CDs guide you through repair.
The keyboard has a comfy if typically plastic/soft typing feel, as well as the nice feature of cursor arrows arranged in more of a true compass without throwing off typists used to the inverted T. It also has a USB cable, while the supplied, Logitech-made mechanical (rolling ball, not optical) mouse with scroll wheel uses a PS/2 port.
Besides the two PS/2 and two USB ports at the rear of the case, you'll find parallel, 15-pin (VGA) monitor, and two serial ports, as well as microphone, line-in, and line-out jacks -- a sticker on the chassis reminds users that the Presario's integrated AC97 audio (Intel's 82801 controller) instead of a sound card means that powered instead of passive speakers are required.
Even a computer novice can open the Compaq's case (remove one Philips screw, pull down a plastic latch, and slide off the side panel), revealing a happily accessible alternative to many home PCs' unworkably cramped interiors. You don't have to burrow beneath cables or drive cages, or throw away existing RAM, to add memory -- the two DIMM sockets are in plain sight, one holding a 256MB stick of PC133 SDRAM and the other awaiting another.
The expansion slots (and CMOS battery) are equally unobstructed. Two PCI slots hold a PCTel Platinum V.90 modem and SMC 10/100Mbps Ethernet adapter, with one PCI slot and one AGP slot left open for add-ins. Two 3.5-inch drive bays, one front-accessible, are also vacant, though squeezing in another drive will be a more daunting upgrade than adding memory or a PCI card. A 250-watt power supply keeps things humming; the Presario's cooling fans are relatively quiet, though the 16X DVD-ROM drive is a tad noisy.
Compaq advertises the 5410US as having an 8X CD-RW drive, though Windows' Device Manager and diagnostic utilities interestingly pegged ours as an HL-DT-ST GCE-8240B -- the generic/rebranded version of an LG drive rated for faster 24/10/40X operation, but lacking the buffer-overrun protection of today's mid- and high-level burners. Similarly, the Western Digital Protege WD400EB hard disk is fairly roomy at 40GB, but sticks to an economy model's 5,400 rpm instead of a high-performance 7,200.
Limitations and Salutations
To be honest, we can live with 5,400-rpm hard disk speed more readily than with the Presario's restrictions on memory. The first restriction is a system maximum of 512MB, which is adequate for casual consumers but thin for switching among lots of applications or users in Windows XP, especially now that it's not unusual to see desktops outfitted with 1GB.
The second and more serious isn't Compaq's fault, but Intel's -- the horse-and-buggy 100MHz system bus of the Celeron, which leaves the PC133 SDRAM stuck in third gear and partially offsets the Tualatin-core CPU's speedy 0.13-micron design and 256K Level 2 cache (32K Level 1 cache). As often as we found ourselves admiring all that the 5410US offers for $699, we found ourselves musing that $300 more gets you a 1.6GHz Pentium 4 and 512MB of PC2100 DDR memory in Compaq's Presario 5423US.
On the other hand, the Celeron/1.3 isn't exactly chopped liver. Spreadsheets snapped onto the screen, DVD movies played smoothly, and everyday tasks from editing images to viewing thumbnails in Windows Explorer felt far quicker than on, say, our two-year-old Athlon desktop at home.
The 5410US scored an honorable 125 in the Internet Content Creation part of BAPco's SysMark 2001 benchmark. That's more than twice as fast as a Sony Duron/900 home PC we tested just eight months ago (that cost $100 more, despite having only half the memory). It's right on par with current 1.0GHz and 1.06GHz Pentium III notebooks -- or last year's 1.3GHz and 1.4GHz Pentium 4 desktops -- which only a sourpuss would call slow.
Considering their big strides in processing and storage, however, we're sour about consumer PCs' continuing to skimp with graphics suited only for office word processing and e-mail machines. It's great that the 5410US (unlike some bargain models) has an AGP slot to add a real video card, because its Intel 815 integrated graphics chipset singlehandedly brings the rating of this machine. Okay, the i815 supports 16- or 24-bit color and up to 1,600 by 1,200 resolution, but it's simply unfair for parents who buy their kids a new game to find the family PC can't even run it at 640 by 480. Only 19 frames per second in the musty Quake III VGA benchmark, 9 fps in High-Quality 1,024 by 768? Sorry, Intel and Compaq, but that is less than acceptable.
If only it had faster graphics -- no, not a game maniac's 150 or 180 but just, say, 40 frames per second -- we'd be giving the Presario 5410US two thumbs up, and pretty darn surprised to find ourselves doing so.
Yes, you can do better than a Celeron CPU or 512MB max RAM these days, but it's hard to do so for $699, at least without settling for one of those as-seen-on-TV discount deals whose 128MB of memory or 20GB hard disk or missing network adapter will have users hitting the wall almost immediately. The Compaq won't stay future-proof for years or make PC power users jealous, but it won't make them jeer as plenty of consumer desktops do.
Manufacturer: Compaq Computer Corporation; www.compaq.com
Pros: Real value and perky performance; 256MB RAM; Ethernet, antivirus/firewall software; easy-access and -upgrade design; AGP slot.
Cons: Obsolete 100MHz bus; slow-integrated graphics.