Back in the day, we ran a regular feature dubbed Grand Openings in which we toured vendors' Web sites to see how much PC you could buy on a $1,000 budget. These days, of course, spending a grand gets you a fairly formidable desktop or not-half-bad notebook: With the merest glance at BestBuy.com, we found Core 2 Quad Q6600 desktops with 3GB of RAM and 500GB hard drives from both Dell and Gateway, plus 17-inch HP and 15.4-inch Toshiba laptops with Turion 64 X2 processors and a 14.1-inch, Core 2 Duo-based Dell in our choice of seven colors.
Clearly, our price ceiling had to fall to make the search at all interesting. Last spring we took a crack at comparison shopping with $750 to spend, but it wasn't as much fun as Grand Openings used to be. We missed the challenge of making decisions, the shopping experience of having a gunman leap out of an alley and shout, "All right, punk -- faster CPU or more memory? Answer in five, four, three, two ..."
The answer was obvious: $500 is the new $1,000.
Of course a $500 price tag isn't unprecedented. For a couple of years or more, retail superstores have offered consumers $500 desktops suitable for use as a family's second or third PC. These days, several vendors stock $199 Linux systems ready to be the family's fifth or sixth.
But can half a grand buy a PC you'll feed good about buying? The first item on our checklist and/or wish list was a dual-core processor -- and believe us, if you weren't familiar with the 65-nanometer-process, entry-level Pentium Dual-Core chip that Intel quietly slipped into its lineup below the Core 2 Duo last year, you will be after five minutes shopping for $500 PCs.
We also kept an eye out for PCI Express x16 slots to allow upgrading from low-priced desktops' integrated graphics, and -- hardest to find in this price range -- 2GB instead of 1GB of memory, to shift Windows Vista from Park to Drive. Unless otherwise mentioned, every system we eyed came with a DVD±RW burner, with WiFi standard equipment on laptops.
Then we took a $500 bill from our wallet -- a neat trick; William McKinley's picture hasn't been printed on U.S. currency since 1945 -- and set off on our virtual shopping spree. As in previous Web-site surveys, any errors in transcription are our fault; any price or configuration changes since Monday and Tuesday, February 25 and 26, are the vendors'.
When we opened Sunday's (February 24) newspaper at home, a Circuit City flyer fell into our lap. The first page featured a $480 Acer Aspire notebook with a Pentium Dual-Core T2330 (a 1.6GHz processor with a 533MHz front-side bus and 1MB of Level 2 cache); a 14.1-inch CrystalBrite widescreen display; 1GB of memory; a 160GB hard disk; and a Webcam for video chat. We were tempted by 15.4-inch Sony, Toshiba, and Gateway notebooks with a roomier 2GB of memory, but they were $650 apiece.
Similarly, the circular's thriftiest desktop deal -- another Acer with an 800MHz-bus Pentium Dual-Core E2140, 1GB of RAM, a 250GB hard drive, and SiS Mirage 3 graphics -- came in over budget at $550, though we gave extra points for its bundled 19-inch widescreen LCD monitor and Lexmark all-in-one printer.
Turning from the flyer to the Circuit City Web site, we found ZT Affinity (no, we hadn't heard of the brand either) and HP Compaq Presario desktops with the same E2140 processor, 250GB hard disk, and gigabyte of memory for $350 and $380, respectively. Better yet, an Acer Aspire AM3100 desktop with the devoutly-to-be-wished 2GB of DDR-2 -- along with a 320GB hard drive and AMD Athlon 64 X2 5000+ power -- rang our bell at $460.
The Circuit City site also revealed a 15.4-inch Toshiba notebook for $490: The Satellite A215 configuration included AMD's Athlon 64 X2 TK-55, 1GB of memory, and a 120GB hard disk. The retailer's most affordable mobiles with 2GB of DDR-2 were 15.4-inch Toshiba Satellite A205 and Compaq Presario F755US models at $600 and $610, respectively.
Another Sunday circular touted a Best Buy exclusive -- a 15.4-inch Gateway M-6309 notebook with Pentium Dual-Core power, 1GB of RAM, and a 160GB hard drive for $500. In the desktop department, an eMachines T6342 with an Athlon 64 4000+ processor, 1GB of memory, a 250GB hard disk, and Nvidia GeForce 6100 graphics was $480 bundled with a 17-inch flat panel and a Canon color printer.
Best Buy's Web site made our hearts leap with a Gateway GT5648E desktop with a full 3GB of DDR-2, not to mention a 3.0GHz Athlon 64 X2 6000+ chip and 320GB hard drive, for $500. But our hopes were dashed to discover it was an outlet or closeout item -- sold out online, and available for pickup at only two of the five brick-and-mortar stores within reasonable driving distance.
As for portables, in addition to the $400-and-under Asus Eee mini-notebook we raved about last November, the Best Buy site offered both the aforementioned Gateway M-6309 and an HP Compaq Presario laptop -- a 15.4-inch Pentium Dual-Core T2330 model with 1GB of RAM -- for $500.