Among style- and status-minded vendors, Apple doesn't have anything priced below the Mac Mini ($599 with no keyboard or mouse), and Fujitsu's laptop line doesn't dip below $849. Sony's 15.4-inch Vaio FZ notebook starts at $900, while Sony's most affordable desktop is, er, less than four times our budget amount.
Lenovo is observing February with a "Leap Into Savings" sale through March 10. Even so, the company's R Series notebooks started at $634, while a ThinkCentre A61 desktop was $472 but its specifications were pitiful: a 2.1GHz Athlon 64 X2 4000+ processor, 1GB of RAM, an 80GB hard disk, and a DVD-ROM drive instead of a DVD burner.
Toshiba laptop shoppers will want to hit their local superstores instead of shopping online: The most affordable system at the company's site was a $649 Satellite A210 that matched the specs of Circuit City's $500 Satellite A215, except for a bigger hard drive (160GB).
The ZT Affinity brand made another appearance at Wal-Mart's Sam's Club warehouse outlet, with a Pentium Dual-Core E2140 (1.6GHz) desktop fitted with 1GB of memory, a 250GB hard disk, and Windows Vista Home Premium at the low, low price of $365.
HP's Compaq Presario SR5350F was the only under-$500 desktop Sam stocked, but it was a good deal: For $470, you got a 1.8GHz Pentium Dual-Core E2160 CPU, Intel's vintage 945GC chipset with Graphics Media Accelerator 950 integrated video plus a PCI Express x16 slot, a 320GB hard disk, LightScribe DVD±RW, and 2GB of PC2-5300 memory, so the supplied Vista Home Premium OS might actually manage to multitask. (For real penny-pinchers, we later found the same system for $10 less on HP's own site.)
Our new favorite PC brand is Visionman, discovered amid a lot of refurbished rather than new desktops at online megastore Tiger Direct: For $500, the far-seeing vendor delivers Athlon 64 X2 4000+ power, an AMD 690V chipset with ATI Radeon X1200 graphics, a gigabyte of memory, a 250GB hard drive ... and, for you Linux fans and Windows XP diehards, no preinstalled operating system.
By contrast, Tiger also stocked two $500 HP business desktops -- one with Windows Vista Business and Intel's Core 2 Duo E6300 (1.8GHz) processor, the other with Windows XP Professional and AMD's Athlon 64 X2 4000+ (2.6GHz), and both with measly 80GB hard disks. A Systemax Ascent PC from Tiger Direct's in-house brand resembled the latter HP but boasted 2GB of RAM and a 160GB hard drive for the same price.
Antique shoppers might like one of the Famous Brand Off-Lease laptops in TigerDirect's notebook department -- a 1.6GHz Pentium M processor! 512MB of DDR/266! -- but we held out for 1GB of memory for the same $500. That search turned up an HP 530 notebook with a 15.4-inch screen, Celeron M 520 CPU, and a 120GB hard disk.
Costco's "New Items and Limited-Time Offers" aisle had neither a desktop nor notebook other than the Asus Eee below our price ceiling. But the site's configure-it-yourself area offered a likable desktop -- one of HP's pint-size Pavilion s3300t slimlines for $490 with a modest Pentium Dual-Core E2160 processor but free upgrades to a not-so-modest 2GB of DDR-2/667 and 500GB hard disk.