The most exciting thing we saw on any Web site was a caption in Dell's "Built for You" configuration menu that said "Inspiron 530s -- $99 PC." Unfortunately, we couldn't find that model anywhere, but were able to assemble one of the slimline desktops for $488 with a 2.0GHz Pentium Dual-Core E2180, 2GB of memory, a 250GB hard disk, a DVD±RW burner, and Vista Home Basic (Home Premium would add $30).
An Inspiron 531 minitower for $499 flaunted a "Go Green" label thanks to its Energy Star 4.0 compatibility and 80-plus-percent-efficient power supply. It also flaunted a 17-inch LCD monitor as well as AMD Athlon 64 X2 4000+ power, 1GB of RAM, and 250GB and DVD±RW drives.
As for Dell's laptops, the 15.4-inch Inspiron 1525 was $499 with a humble Celeron 540 CPU, 80GB hard drive, DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive, and smaller-than-its-siblings battery pack. (Getting the full-size battery, a bigger hard disk, a DVD burner, and a Pentium Dual-Core T2330 under the hood bumped the price to $599, or $649 with Windows XP Home instead of Vista Home Basic.)
Speaking of Vista, we applaud Gateway's decision to equip all of its notebooks and desktops (aside from its Sunday-paper special at Best Buy) with at least 2GB of RAM, but it cut our visit to the site rather short. The cow-spotted company's laptops started at $640 for the line sold in retail stores and $800 for its own online offerings, with direct desktop purchases beginning at $550.
We confess we looked under the couch cushions for spare change when we saw the Gateway GT5660E retail desktop -- for an oh-so-close suggested sticker price of $510, the Vista Home Premium minitower features a capable Intel Core 2 Duo E4500 (2.2GHz, 2MB of Level 2 cache) processor, 2GB of DDR-2/667, a 400GB hard disk, a DVD burner, and even a set of USB speakers. Gateway's lowest-priced monitor, on the other hand, is a 19-inch flat panel that would have added $219.
HP's site showed no fewer than one notebook and three desktop families available for five C-notes, all under the rather diffident headline of "Everyday Computing." The $500 laptop was a Compaq Presario C700T, a 15.4-inch, 6.4-pound portable with a 1.6GHz Pentium Dual-Core T2330, an 80GB hard drive, and a free upgrade from 512MB to 1GB of memory under the hood. (We can't resist mentioning that HP's site, like Dell's, contained the headline "Still looking for Windows XP?", although the notebook in question was a more powerful $760 model.)
Minitower buffs could choose AMD or Intel desktops. The latter -- the Pavilion a6300t -- rang in at $499 with a Pentium Dual-Core E2140, 2GB of RAM, a 320GB hard disk, and Intel's Jurassic GMA 950 integrated graphics.
There was more room to play with the AMD-based Pavilion a6350z configuration. Since the Athlon 64 X2 4200+ base model came with a free upgrade to 2GB for only $400, we could pick two from a choice of three $50 options: a 500GB instead of 250GB hard disk, a 128MB GeForce 8400 graphics upgrade, or an extra 200MHz of CPU speed in the form of an Athlon 64 X2 5000+.
The Pavilion s3000z, the AMD-powered version of HP's small-form-factor slimline desktop, came in at $450 with AMD's recently introduced Athlon 64 X2 BE2300 (1.9GHz) processor, GeForce 6150 SE graphics, a 250GB hard drive, and a free upgrade from 1GB to 2GB of DDR-2. Our pick for the remaining $50 was a step up to a 320GB hard disk -- which included a free step up to a 500GB drive.