Best Desktop PCs of 2003

First Published: Smart Computing
Date Published: December 2003
By Kevin Savetz

For Gamers & Movie Mavens

Dell Dimension 8300

Here's a sweet machine that will stave off upgrade-itis for a long time to come. Dell's Dimension 8300 packs a wallop of features and blazing-fast speed into a staid-looking black box, and your $3,387 buys you one heck of a machine. If that price is too steep, you can use Dell's custom-configuration system to whittle it down to something more manageable: less than $1,000.

If you go whole-hog, you get a 3.2GHz Pentium 4 processor with 1GB of memory, a fast 200GB hard drive, and two optical drives. In the top bay there's a 16X DVD-ROM drive. In the bottom, a DVD+RW drive--perfect for burning CD-ROMs or making your own DVDs from home videos. The system comes with all the software you'll need to do it, including CyberLink PowerDVD, Sonic MyDVD, and Dell Movie Studio, running on Windows XP Home. The software bundle also includes WordPerfect Office and an image-editing application.

If it's the little things that send a shiver down your spine, you'll be positively shuddering to see that the Dimension has eight USB 2.0 (Universal Serial Bus, Hi-Speed) ports and a full complement of video output jacks: VGA (Video Graphics Array), S-Video (Super-Video), and DVI (Digital Visual Interface). You'll need that DVI slot to connect the super-sharp 18-inch LCD (liquid-crystal display). A top-of-the-line ATI RADEON 9800 Pro graphics card with 128MB DDR RAM (double-data-rate RAM) drives that monster monitor.

That rumbling you hear could be your heart going pitter-patter, but more likely it's coming from this PC's sound system. The Altec Lansing 4.1-channel audio system includes a subwoofer and puts out 95 watts of power. The impressive Sound Blaster Audigy 2 sound card runs the show.

You won't need to upgrade this machine for quite some time, but when you do, there's plenty of room to grow. You can install 2GB of RAM. The spacious case has two empty PCI (Peripheral Component Interconnect) slots and room for three more hard drives. Floppy drives are passe, so the system forgoes the floppy drive for a USB memory key. For a dollar more you can opt for a floppy drive instead, but the memory key holds about 16 times as much information.

For Home & Office Use

Velocity Micro Vector VX

We went a little crazy custom-configuring the Vector VX at Velocity Micro. An AMD Athlon 2.2GHz processor, 512MB DDR memory, a 120MB drive, an ATI RADEON 9800 video card, a CD-RW (CD-rewriteable) drive, a DVD-ROM drive, and a heavyweight power supply. All in all, these are downright impressive specs for a home or office system. After all of our hardware additions, we were stunned to see the price of $1,534. That number is surprisingly low for such a speedy, well-outfitted PC.

The case is available in a veritable rainbow of colors: black, blue, green, yellow, or silver; each with a clear side panel so you can see inside the sexy box. The colorful, full-tower case leaves plenty of room for expansion with space for 3GB of memory, four free PCI slots, and four more hard drives. Plus, there are six USB 2.0 ports, a FireWire port, and a respectable NVIDIA SoundStorm integrated audio system. You can add a 19-inch CRT (cathode-ray tube) monitor, 5.1-channel surround-sound speakers, and the Audigy 2 sound card and still be under two grand. But that might be overkill if you're just using Excel and playing the occasional game of The Sims.

The Vector VX includes WinXP Home, CyberLink PowerDVD, and Nero for burning CD-RWs. The PC comes with a binder that bundles the documentation, driver CDs, and software in one convenient place--a nice touch. Another welcome touch: The tech support line is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

You can certainly find a PC that's better tricked-out than this one, but not for this price. For the home or office user who wants a fast and capable PC on a budget, Velocity Micro's Vector VX is the one.

For The PC Enthusiast

Maingear F131 Maingear is a small manufacturer, but it's passionate about building PCs. Its zeal is evident in the F131. If you invited your geekiest friend to custom-build a dream PC for you, this might be what he comes up with.

The coolness starts with the case: The system is built in the Coolermaster Wave Master TAC-T01, with brushed aluminum curves that make it look more like a stealth fighter than a computer. Inside there's a 3.2GHz Intel Pentium processor and 1GB of RAM, upgradeable to 2GB.

The specs are better than you might guess: There's Gigabit Ethernet, a 420-watt power supply that could power a rural community, and two speedy 120GB hard drives using the latest Serial ATA (Advanced Technology Attachment) technology. The company's fervor is reflected in this system's configuration: The two drives are configured as a striped RAID (redundant array of independent disks) array for maximum speed. You can opt for a mirrored RAID configuration, which means you always have a perfect backup of your data. To help fill those drives with software, the F131 includes WinXP Home, Nero 5 Burning ROM, InterVideo's WinDVD, a few games, and other goodies.

The system's video and sound will turn any game or DVD into an experience to remember with NVIDIA GeForce FX 5900 Ultra video and Creative Labs Sound Blaster Audigy cards. The expansion possibilities include four USB 2.0 ports, a FireWire port, four PCI slots, and a free hard drive bay. The system's internal cables are folded and tucked out of the way; Maingear calls this "custom origami wiring."

All this costs $3,128, but Maingear's custom configuration system will let you scale back or add more goodies until it's the perfect PC for you. In addition to the usual processor and RAM options, you can choose a different motherboard, case, or power supply. Or you can opt for a custom paint job.

For Graphics

Gateway 700CXL

The Gateway 700CXL, $3,540, is a killer PC with features and ultimate speed that make it especially appealing for users who work with graphics and video. If you live in PhotoShop or want to digitally edit your indie film, this is the machine. With a 3.2GHz Pentium 4 processor and 1GB of memory, upgradeable to a mind-boggling 4GB, this system's horsepower can't be beat.

There's 500GB of storage in two fast, 250GB Serial ATA hard drives. You can have the drives preconfigured in a striped or mirrored RAID. Graphics mavens will be positively wowed by the glorious 18.1-inch LCD monitor, driven by an NVIDIA GeForce FX 5900G Ultra graphics card. You can save your creations for posterity using the DVD+/-RW recorder and CD-RW burner.

The peripheral train doesn't stop there. There are eight (count them, eight!) USB 2.0 ports, two FireWire ports, a Gigabit Ethernet port, and three free PCI slots; there are plenty of ways to attach video cameras, scanners, and other tools of the trade. If you need music while you do all that graphics work, you'll be glad to know that the sound system is a SoundBlaster Audigy 2 and Boston Acoustics 5.1-channel speakers, which pump out 345 clear (and loud) watts.

If your printer, digital camera, MP3 player, scanner, and other gadgets use removable media, you'll be smitten with the 700CXL's front-panel media bay. With slots for CompactFlash, SmartMedia, Memory Stick, MultiMediaCard/Secure Digital cards, and Microdrive, you can insert any removable media and access it as you would a hard drive.

To help you get started, the system includes an exceptional users guide, a 244-page book to teach you to create digital movies, movie-editing software, plus a handful of blank CD-R (CD-recordable) and DVD-R media. WinXP Home runs the show.

What's The best Value?

Today, you can buy a new PC for as little as $300, but the cheapest PCs are often lacking in features most users have come to expect, such as a monitor and Microsoft Windows. For a reasonably configured PC at a reasonable price, the Velocity Micro Vector VX is our pick. Less than $2,000 will buy you a well-stocked computer with a huge monitor, plus outstanding speakers and video. Or, you can configure a budget version. For $1,158, the company will build a PC with a 1.67GHz AMD Athlon processor, 512MB RAM, a 120GB hard drive, two optical drives, and your choice of 15-inch LCD or 17-inch CRT monitor.

No matter what specific manufacturer or model you pick, you'll get the best value by using the company's custom-configuration features to your advantage. Simply by removing or scaling back features that you won't use (perhaps you can use a slower processor or don't need a modem, for instance) you can shave hundreds of dollars from the bottom line.

Contact Information

Dimension 8300
(888) 799-3355; (512) 338-4400

(800) 846-4208; (605) 232-2000

(877) 398-3248; (973) 522-0010

Velocity Micro
Vector VX
(800) 303-7866; (804) 897-6166 

Reprinted with permission from Smart Computing magazine.

Articles by Kevin Savetz