Home Companions

Published Date
01 - Jan - 2006
| Last Updated
01 - Jan - 2006
 
Home Companions
However, with so many brands out there, and so many different needs, it can be hard to choose. But we're here to help!

What better way to start off the year than by getting yourself a new PC? We've done all the hard work for you! What follows is a comparison test to help you choose from amongst many of the branded models available.

 As you probably know, the first thing you've got to decide on when getting a new PC is whether it's going to be Intel-based or AMD-based. Last year saw some heady battles between the two, and AMD leads as of right now. This translates into a big change in the PC market: a few years ago, thinking about an AMD system for your home was sort of a weird idea. You had to have "Intel Inside"! Nothing could be further from the truth today, and sporting the AMD 64 sticker on your PC bonnet is the in thing.

The Indian PC market is quite different from those abroad. Here, assembled PCs in the desktop segment still have a stronghold on the consumer's psyche, given the price difference vis-Ã -vis branded PCs. Branded PCs are now trying to break out of the "expensive" mould. While some brands such as HP, HCL and Acer have been around in the country for quite some time, there are several new entrants, such as Krypton.

Here's where our comparison tests come in. We've compared some of the biggest brands in the country head-to-head-this comparison therefore gives us an opportunity to tell you about what best PC brands are available in the Indian market.

We won't say our comparison tests are the be-all and end-all of the matter, but they will definitely give you a fair idea of price to performance ratios and more. As always, we advise you to use this comparison just as a guide when making your purchase decision.

We can hear you saying, "Why not assembled?" While assembled PCs may be cheaper, there are issues such as customer support and pirated software. These are usually not talked about when you make your purchase. With a branded PC, on the other hand, you're assured of legal software with warranties, and generally, of good service. Of course, you've got to read the fine print!

We divided the PCs we received for our tests into three segments-those below Rs 25,000, those above that cut-off, and Media Center PCs. We advise you not to decide right at this point how much you want to spend-first take a look at what's on offer!

The Value PCs
Rs 25,000 is not just a nice, round figure-it's also a good cut-off point to segregate PCs, going by current prices. This segment is primarily targeted at beginning home users, work-at-home individuals, students, etc.

We should emphasise here that based on what we've seen in this test, a sub-25K PC is not to be dismissed as a "cheap PC"-several models that fell in this category offer you very decent features indeed!

In this segment are featured seven PCs: the Compaq Presario SR1502IL, Compaq Presario SR1008IL, Datamini Festiva MG Value, HCL Ezeebee PI 873, HCL Ezeebee 4981, Zenith Premium 7D, and the LG XT1-VH1SHP1.

Features
Of the seven PCs mentioned above, two were AMD-based, and five were Intel-based. It was good to see a branded PC in this segment-the HCL EzeeBee PI 873 -featuring the powerful AMD Athlon64 processor. But this wasn't the only PC in this segment with a powerful processor: the Zenith Premium 7D sported a 3.0 GHz Intel Pentium 4 with HyperThreading Technology, which is something we didn't expect in this, the value category. These are high-end processors, and these two PCs therefore bring powerful number-crunching capabilities at an affordable price.



We also saw some of the best hard drives being featured on some of these PCs. While most sported the older and slower IDE interface, the HCL PCs came equipped with the faster SATA drives. In terms of drive capacities too, HCL lead the pack with 74 GB and 80 GB drives, whereas the others stopped at 40 GB-which these days is considered the bare minimum (read "almost inadequate").

In the memory department, once again, only the HCL PCs came with as much as 512 MB of RAM. The Compaq, LG and Zenith PCs came with just 128 MB of RAM, and since this was shared by the onboard graphics, heavy performance penalties were obvious: we could actually see these PCs crawling compared to others with larger memories.

The HCL and Zenith PCs came with Combo drives, while the rest came with plain CD-ROM drives. We should mention that the Datamini PC came with the sloppiest CD-ROM drive we've ever seen-it had a hard time reading even its own driver CD, and we had to connect our own optical drive to install the OS, drivers and benchmark applications! The Compaq SR1502IL and the Zenith PCs had optical drives more or less similar to that of the Datamini.

As we'd expected, none of the PCs in this segment featured a separate graphics card, going for onboard solutions instead. Of these, the Intel GMA 900 is the most feature-rich, and is DirectX 9 compliant-which means that it is ready, out-of-the-box, for the next version of Windows-Vista. It is also good for moderate gaming, and is markedly faster than the other onboard solutions in this category such as the SiS 330 Mirage and Intel Extreme Graphics. Of the seven PCs in this category, the HCL Ezeebee 4981, Zenith Premium 7D, and the Datamini Festiva MG Value featured Intel GMA 900.

Micro ATX cabinets were the choice of most brands, while the Datamini provided an ATX cabinet-albeit of an inferior build quality. All the brands deserve credit for taking airflow into consideration in the design of the cabinet.

On the upgradeability front, the Compaq Presario SR1502IL and the HCL EzeeBee PI 873 came with AGP 8x graphics slots, while the Datamini and the HCL EzeeBee 4981 came with PCIe x16 slots. The others didn't have graphics slots for upgradeability. The Zenith PC, with just 128 MB of RAM, fortunately had four memory slots (out of which three were free), and hence provides good memory upgrade options. The Zenith also featured four unused SATA ports.

The best OS we saw in this category was RedHat Linux Workstation-with the HCL PCs-whereas the Compaq PCs came with FreeDOS, which is as good as not providing an OS at all. The package contents of the Compaq PCs, too, were minimal - but remember that this is the value category!
 
Performance
What we saw in the features was reflected in our performance tests. The HCL PI 873 and the Zenith Premium 7D, with their considerably more powerful processors, raced ahead with the highest points in the CPU tests of SiSoft Sandra and PCMark04. They also logged better scores in video as well as audio encoding, again because of their processors. It's clear that these two PCs are the best number-crunchers amongst the value-category PCs, and are the best suited of the lot for computation-intensive tasks.

In the SiSoft Sandra memory test, the LG and the Zenith failed, and the (inadequate) 128 MB of shared memory seems to have been the cause. Note here that the Zenith PC came equipped with one of the most powerful processors in this category; it was held down only because of the low amount of memory. The HCL EzeeBee PCs came with memory modules in dual- channel configuration and hence scored good points, exhibiting a healthy memory bandwidth, which is necessary for handling applications such as multimedia and image editors, database applications such as Oracle, and so forth.



The Compaq Presario SR1502IL scored the lowest in the Nero CD-DVD speed test, and this can be blamed on the poor-quality CD-ROM drive. The Zenith and Datamini also logged very slow speeds in this test. You'll have to seriously consider upgrading your optical drive if you decide to get one of these three PCs. The Compaq Presario SG1008IL, with its better optical drive, scored the best in this test.

We could not install some games on the computers with 128 MB of RAM, because that's below the games' minimum system requirements. These PCs, therefore, failed our gaming tests. The HCL PCs, with 512 MB of RAM, performed well in these tests due to better graphics and more RAM. As noted earlier, these make good PCs for moderate gaming.

All the PCs in this segment, of course, came with CRT monitors. When we compared the monitors, there wasn't much variation, except that two PCs-the Compaq Presario SG1008IL and the HCL Ezeebee 4981-came with 17-inch monitors. These larger monitors were, of course, easier on the eyes.

The Zenith and the Compaq Presario SR1502IL did not bundle speakers with their PCs; all the others did. The ones on the HCL PCs sounded better than those on the others-not that the speakers were really good, they were just comparatively better.

The Zenith PC-even with its low 128 MB of RAM-was the top scorer in PCMark04, which is a synthetic benchmark used to evaluate the overall performance of a PC.  The Business Winstone 2004 benchmark is a real-world benchmark; here, the HCL EzeeBee PI 873 scored 24.1, which was the best in its class. This means it can run day-to-day applications such as office software and business applications better than the other PCs in this category.

How We Tested 
As in all our tests, the home PCs reviewed here were rigorously benchmarked and tested. We chose the benchmarks and tests considering they needed to be run on a range of computers, from the least powerful to the most powerful. Windows XP Pro with SP1 was freshly loaded, along with DirectX 9.0c, and the drivers from the driver CDs provided with the PC (or from the manufacturer's Web site, if a driver CD was not provided) were loaded. This was done even on the Media Centre PCs, because the Windows XP Media Center 2005 OS that ships with these PCs is not available off-the-shelf-and the version that came on the CDs provided comes with SP2, on which one of our benchmarks doesn't run.

The tests and benchmarks consisted of the following.
FarCry: This is a Direct3D game that accurately measures the Direct3D gaming subsystem. We chose FarCry because it uses a fairly modern graphics engine and reflects how future games will play on the system.
Call of Duty: This OpenGL game is used to test the strength of the OpenGL graphics subsystem. We chose Call of Duty because it runs easily even on motherboards with onboard graphics.
PC Mark 2004 (PCMark04): This is an industry-standard benchmark that measures the CPU, memory, graphics and
hard disk performance of the system, and hence is a good system-wide benchmark.
SiSoft Sandra 2005 SR3: This consists of benchmark modules that measure CPU, filesystem and memory performance.
Ziff-Davis Business Winstone 2004: This benchmark suite runs various applications such as WinZip, Excel 2002, PowerPoint 2002, etc., to measure the real-world performance of a system. It returns a score that is comparable with any system that runs this test suite.
Dr. DivX 1.06: This is a video encoding application used to encode DivX files. We encoded a 100 MB MPEG2 file to DivX and noted the time taken to encode.
DBPowerAmp: This is an audio conversion tool used to encode audio files. We converted a 200 MB WAV file to a VBR MP3 file at the highest possible quality, and noted the time taken to encode.
DisplayMate: We used DisplayMate Video Edition to evaluate the quality of the monitor by gauging the sharpness and clarity of the display.
Nero CD-DVD Speed: We used this application bundled with Nero Burning ROM to create a 700 MB test data CD, and then used the CD to test the average speed of the optical drive and also its access time.
Speaker Test: Various types of audio files were played on the speakers that came with the PCs (if any did), and we noted the quality of the audio.
In addition to these tests and benchmarks, features such as the number and type of optical and hard drives, monitor type and size, mouse and keyboard type, ports, cabinet type, front connector options such as USB and card readers, airflow considerations, and bundled accessories such as speakers and gamepads were taken into account before we decided on each PC's overall score.
Conclusion
The PCs in this segment were not as lacklustre as we'd expected them to be-for example, like we said, we never expected to see an Athlon64 or a Pentium 4 with HT, or for that matter 512 MB of RAM, in a PC in this category. Essentially, this points to the fact that good PCs have gotten cheap.

The Compaq Presario SR1502IL is priced the lowest at Rs 17,990, and the SG1008IL-also from Compaq-is priced at Rs 19,990; Compaq is trying to make headway into the value-category market in a big way. The LG XT1 retails at Rs 25,000, which is too high for a PC with its specifications.

In the tests, the HCL PCs were always ahead of the rest, with their superior specifications, features and package bundle. In fact, they also bundled a 100-hour internet package as well as games and other software. The Datamini was not far behind, though, when we took overall points into consideration.

The HCL EzeeBee PI 873 merits special mention. It was the second-best PC in this category, featuring the powerful Athlon64 3000 along with 512 MB of RAM. It was amongst the favourites, and was left behind only because of marginally lower scores.

We decided that the HCL EzeeBee 4381 would be the Digit Best Buy Gold winner.
 
PCs Above Rs 25K
The PCs in this, the second category, had considerably more firepower than the Value PCs, and came with better components; we cannot, however, call them "high-end" by any standards. Seven PCs comprised this category: the Acer Aspire SA80, Acer Aspire ASP V4324, Compaq Presario SR1630IL, Datamini Festiva MG, Datamini Festiva MG Premium, LG XD8-L92ARP1, and the Krypton Voyager 9.



Features
Almost all the PCs here featured the Intel Pentium IV processor, but only the Datamini Festiva MG Premium sported the even more powerful Pentium IV with HyperThreading Technology-this puts it in a league of its own. The Acer Aspire ASP V4324 sported the AMD Athlon64 3200 , and the Krypton had a 3500 , both of which are very powerful processors.

The Datamini Festiva MG came with a CD-RW drive, and the Krypton was the lone PC with a DVD-Writer. All the others came with Combo drives. This is unfortunate, because the prices of DVD-Writers have plummeted to a level where you can get one in lieu of a Combo drive for just a few hundred rupees extra.

SATA hard drives were common in this category; the exception was the Acer Aspire SA80, which featured a slower IDE hard drive. Hard drive capacities in this category didn't see much variation; they were all either 74 or 80 GB. All the PCs had 256 MB of RAM-except for the Krypton with 512 MB-which can be considered just about OK for this price range. The funny thing is, the HCL PCs in the value category came with a healthy 512 MB of RAM, and we were left wondering why none of the manufacturers except Krypton could provide the same in this, the more expensive category.

The Acer ASP V4324 was the lone PC with a GeForce4 MX 440 64 MB AGP graphics card. The others were content with onboard graphics solutions, which included the nVidia 6100, Intel GMA 900 and the SiS 330 Mirage.

PCs with the Intel GMA 900 and nVidia 6100 have the advantage of being Vista-ready, because of DirectX 9 compliance. The nVidia 6100 is also the only onboard graphics chipset that supports Shader Model 3.0. With the exception of the Compaq Presario SR1630IL, all the PCs at least provided an option to upgrade the graphics subsystem with the addition of an AGP or a PCIe graphics card.

The displays in this category were either LCDs or 17-inch CRT monitors. The Acer SA80 came with a 15-inch LCD, and the Datamini Festiva MG Premium came with a 15.4-inch widescreen LCD.



Most of the cabinets we saw were Micro ATX, with the exception of the two Datamini PCs, which came with ATX cabinets-thus providing four 5.25 inch bays for upgrades. The build quality of these cabinets, unfortunately, was sub-par. Air ventilation seems to have been taken into account in the design of all the cabinets, with the exception of the Krypton and the LG XD8-whose cabinets were too sleek to allow for good ventilation. The Krypton cabinet featured an eye-catching multi-coloured LED.

With the exception of the Compaq PC, all the cabinets had the USB and audio connectors on the front, enabling easier accessibility. The Acer Aspire SA80 went one step further, integrating a multi-card reader capable of reading SM/XD, SD/MMC, CF and MS/MS Pro cards. This feature is useful for those who own digital cameras or any other device that uses removable Flash cards, such as mobile phones and PDAs.

The Acer Aspire SA80 came with a wonderful package consisting of 11 CDs and DVDs: there were movies, encyclopaedias, utility software, and more. Sadly, there were no speakers bundled; Acer seems to have thought the speakers on the LCD display would do.

Most of the PCs here came with FreeDOS or with no OS at all. The exception was the Acer Aspire SA80 and the LG XD8, which had Linux installed. The Datamini Festiva MG Premium came with 5.1 speakers. The Acer Aspire ASP V4324 came with Creative 2.1 speakers and a force-feedback gamepad.

Jargon Buster 
DDR RAM: Double Data Rate RAM is a type of memory that handles data at twice the speed of the old SDRAM. DDR RAM typically operates at 266 MHz, 333 MHz and 400 MHz effective speeds, while the actual speeds are 133, 166 and 200 MHz respectively.
DDR2 RAM: Double Data Rate 2 RAM is a memory type based on chips designed to run at speeds higher than that of DDR RAM, such as 533 MHz and 667 MHz. Very few motherboards right now support DDR2 RAM.
Dual-channel: When two RAM modules are plugged into two slots marked for two different memory channels, then theoretically, the data flows at twice the normal rate through the RAM. This is known as dual-channel memory configuration.
IDE: IDE stands for Integrated Drive Electronics, and is a standard interface for hard drives, optical drives and other physical storage devices. It is also known as ATA, which stands for Advanced Technology Attachment, or Parallel ATA. The various types are ATA33, ATA66, ATA100 and ATA133, based on the transfer speed. It uses a 40-pin connector cable that may consist of 40 or 80 conductors.
PCI: Peripheral Component Interconnect is a standard used on all current-generation motherboards and expansion cards used to connect two devices. The data transfer rate of a PCI bus can be up to 133 MBps.
PCIe: Peripheral Component Interconnect Express is a new PCI standard that transfers data at speeds equivalent to AGP 16x, which is roughly 4.3 GBps.
SATA: Also abbreviated as S-ATA, short for Serial ATA, is an interface for physical storage devices such as hard drives. It is a serial link and consists of a single cable with a minimum of four wires creating a point-to-point connection between devices. The transfer rates for SATA begin at 150 MBps; for SATA II, this figure is 300 MBps.
Time-shifting: Time-shifting is a feature of PVR software that allows you to pause, replay or skip a portion of a live TV programme. With the time-shift feature, you have total control over how you watch television. 
Performance
The Krypton Voyager 9, with its AMD Athlon64 3500 , was the top scorer, with the highest points in the CPU test module of SiSoft Sandra. In the real world, this means that the V4324's 64-bit processor can rip through complex computations faster than can other processors in this category.

In terms of memory module configuration, the manufacturers have done customers a disservice: for better memory bandwidth, a dual-channel configuration is reco-mmended, with a pair of matching modules in the memory slots. All the manufacturers except Krypton left one of the two memory slots free, and if you want to upgrade to dual-channel, you'll have to procure a matching memory module from the manufacturer.

Since all the memory modules were in single-channel configuration, scores in the memory benchmarks were expectedly low-with the Acer Aspire SA80 scoring the lowest.

The DVD-RW drive on the Krypton was the fastest in this category, but the others weren't too bad.

In the gaming benchmarks- Call of Duty and FarCry-the Krypton Voyager 9, with the nVidia 6100, emerged the fastest, outperforming all the other graphics solutions and giving amazing frame rates. The Acer ASP V4324 with the GeForce4 MX 440 was second-best.

The Acer ASP V4324 and the Krypton were the fastest in our audio encoding test, and the Krypton was the fastest at video encoding. The Datamini Festiva MG Premium also exhibited top-notch performance in PCMark04, proving it had a well oiled sub-system. We therefore expected it to be the PC with the best overall performance. The Krypton scored 26.6 in Business Winstone 2004, which was the highest, and which means it's better suited than the others for office and business applications.

As we expected, the Creative 2.1 speakers, known for their better acoustics, produced great sound. But the 5.1 speakers accompanying the Datamini Festiva MG Premium sounded even better, and seemed to provide a more immersive experience.

Conclusion
The choice of better-quality components is one of the reasons for the markedly better performance (and somewhat higher prices) of the PCs in this segment, as compared to those in the Value segment.

The LG XD8 was the most expensive, being unreasonably priced at Rs 40,000. The Krypton Voyager 9 was the last PC we'd received for the test, and had we received it a few hours later, it might not have made it to the tests at all. Frankly, we'd expected an ordinary PC from Krypton, but we found a surprise package: this PC, powered by the Athlon64 3500 and with 512 MB of RAM and a DVD-RW drive, was the best performing PC in this category. Had it been priced a bit lower, it would surely have won Gold.

The Acer Aspire ASP V4324 at Rs 25,999 was the least expensive of the lot, while also being a good performer! Features, too, were top-notch; we therefore adjudge it, without reservation, the winner of the Digit Best Buy Gold in this category.

Media Center PCs
You can do regular tasks on a Media Center PC (MCPC), but that's not what you'd be buying one for! A MCPC is meant to be the media hub of your living room, enabling you to listen to music, watch movies, pause live TV and replay it-and also get some work done! For all this, you'll need good horsepower, which, unfortunately, some MCPCs lack. But MCPCs have been in the market for quite some time now, and since we're comparing home PCs, we decided we had to include these in our comparison.

This segment was relatively unpopulated, with only four PCs qualifying as MCPCs. Remember that you'll only see branded PCs in the MCPC segment, since the components are chosen carefully to work in tandem with the OS. Assembling a PC to make it qualify as an MCPC would be impossible, because not all components conforming to the Windows XP Media Center Edition standard are available off-the-shelf-nor is the OS itself. This fact-that the hardware is so niche-also makes Media Center PCs much costlier than their home desktop counterparts.

We should mention here that the HCL PC, strictly speaking, didn't conform to the Windows XP Media Center Edition standard. It didn't come with a  TV-Tuner at all. The Acer, too, didn't ship with one, but they did send it in as an "optional component."

Some of the old brands are here, and one new entrant in this segment is Sahara. The PCs featured here are the Acer Aspire E500, HCL Beanstalk 4958, HP Pavilion m7280in, and the Sahara R3.

Features
As we mentioned earlier, the choicest components went into the making of these Media Center PCs. The core component of a Media Center PC is the TV-Tuner card-but there was none in the Acer and HCL PCs! We asked the companies for the TV-Tuners. Acer was quick to respond by sending us the TV-Tuner. Although the Sahara R3 came with a TV-Tuner and a remote, they forgot to send an IR receiver, so the remote turned out to be of no use!



The HP Pavilion m7280in came with a Conexant CX23416 TV-Tuner, as did the Acer Aspire E500. The Sahara R3 featured an even more exotic ATi Rio 550 TV-Tuner. All these feature hardware MPEG encoders that offload the CPU and take it upon themselves to encode video to MPEG during video capture.

The functions of an MCPC call for high CPU power, and all these did come equipped with high-end CPUs. The first three were powered by the Intel Pentium 4 with HyperThreading Technology, while the Sahara R3 was powered by the AMD Athlon64 3500 , the most powerful processor in this test-which was also featured on the Krypton Voyager 9 in the previous category.

We witnessed many firsts in this category. For the first time in this entire shootout, we saw a SATA II drive-with the Acer E500. The HP m7280in had a 160 GB hard drive, which means ample space for capturing content and also for other functions such as time-shift.

Also, for the first, we saw a PC come with a LightScribe DVD-RW drive-this was with the HP m7280in. A LightScribe drive can burn labels onto compatible media: you burn a CD/DVD, then flip it and burn the label! Also, the HP and HCL PCs came with wireless keyboards and mice.

The HP came with an ATi X300 SE with 128 MB of DDR RAM, which allows you to enjoy a fair amount of gaming. The Sahara R3 featured the ATi Radeon Xpress 200 graphics chip, which happens to be DirectX 9 compliant. These two MCPCs also featured TV-Out.

The Acer and HP featured multi-card readers on the front, in addition to the USB and audio connectors. The Acer needs the front USB ports since it has only two USB ports at the back, and these are used up by the mouse and keyboard.

The HP cabinet was unique: it had front connectors for S-Video and Composite In, and a removable drive bay to plug in an external hard drive. On the top was a small compartment for storing optical media.

The Acer E500 decided to do away with the stock heat sink of the Pentium 4, and came with a custom heat sink-fan assembly, in which the fan blows hot air sideways, directed towards the rear exhaust grille of the cabinet.

Being Media Center PCs, all the four came with remotes. The remote that came with the Sahara R3 was the sleekest, though it featured fewer function keys.

The HCL Beanstalk came with a decent speaker set-a 2.1 set from Altec Lansing. It came with a good software bundle, consisting of four Microsoft games and a 1,000-game CD pack.

What's So Special About Windows Media Center Edition 2005? 
Almost every computer shipped these days has Windows XP installed as the default operating system. Windows XP has several different editions-five, to be precise. These are Windows XP Professional, Windows XP Home Edition, Windows XP Tablet Edition, Windows XP x64 and Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005.
Of these, Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 is the one that most people generally do not know much about. Here's a brief explanation of what's in Media Center Edition 2005.
What needs to come across at the outset is that Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 is heavily oriented towards the multimedia or entertainment aspect of using a PC. Media Center PCs aim to be the entertainment hub of a digital home, and Windows XP MCE aims to enable just that. The pretty interface is extremely user-friendly, and lets you do stuff at the touch of a button. And beneath this cool surface runs a robust and well-oiled NT kernel.

Networking support is very good in Windows XP MCE, as with Windows XP Pro. However, there's some stuff available in Windows XP MCE that is not available in the regular Windows XP:

DVD Recording: Windows XP MCE allows you to record DVDs in a format that is compatible with consumer DVD Players.

TV-Functionality: MCE supports dual TV-Tuners, which means you can record programmes using one tuner while watching TV using the other. This includes both cable and satellite transmissions.

Media Center Extenders: These are networking devices that let you connect your Media Center box to other devices, such as a display, over a wired or wireless network. This gives you with the ability to do things like watch HDTV even if your MCPC is in another room.

My Videos: This offers an alternate view of your 'My Videos' folder in Windows XP, organising files and folders by date or by name, and displaying a thumbnail image for each clip. My Videos supports common video types including standard .avi, .mpg, and .wmv files.

The Remote Control: This piece of hardware is standard with Windows XP MCE. You can do just about everything on MCPC using the remote without once having to get up from your couch.
Performance
The Sahara R3, equipped with the most powerful processor in this test (the Athlon64 3500 ), scored very high in SiSoft Sandra's CPU arithmetic test. The other PCs scored better in the multimedia benchmark.

The HCL and HP PCs featured memory in dual-channel configuration, which boosted their memory bandwidth to almost double the regular bandwidth. This reflected in the memory benchmarks. Demanding applications such as video capture and gaming can benefit from this.

Armed with the ATi Radeon X300 SE, the HP scored the highest in the gaming tests, leaving the others behind by a huge margin. The HP m7280in will therefore afford a good level of gaming.

PCMark04 again saw the HP m7280in score the best, proving that it is capable of good overall performance. In the Business Winstone 2004 benchmark, the Sahara R3 and the HP m7280in were neck and neck, posting equally good scores. These PCs are therefore not just for multimedia applications-they handle office and business applications just as well.

In the LCD display tests, the Sahara R3 scored very high in the sharpness and focus departments, but we must mention that the quality of the LCD on the Sahara R3 is not too good: it shows a colour tinge when viewed at a vertical angle, which wasn't the case with the others.

When it came to speaker quality, the Acer with its Altec Lansing speakers won hands down.

Conclusion
There were only four contenders in this category, and this was no major shootout. But these MCPCs did sport better features than the PCs in the earlier categories.

The main contributing factors towards the cost of these PCs are the operating system and components such as TV-Tuners with hardware MPEG encoders. The HP m7280in is priced at Rs 64,990, which makes it the most expensive PC in this entire test; the Acer E500 at Rs 45,999 is the lowest-priced in the MCPC category.

The HCL Beanstalk 4958 emerged the second-best, despite it not having come with a TV-Tuner card. It scored well in the gaming tests, and also exhibited higher memory bandwidth due to its dual-channel configuration.

Taking into account the three-year on-site warranty (unlike the one year provided by the others), and also the better features and performance, we awarded the Digit Best Buy Gold to the HP Pavilion m7280in.

Summing It All Up
We were disappointed at the lack of PCs targeted at gamers: most manufacturers preferred onboard graphics rather than an AGP or a PCIe graphics card, which is an absolute necessity for any decent gaming capability. The exceptions were the HP Media Center n7280in and the Acer Aspire V4324, but even these came only with entry-level graphics cards. Similarly, we felt that in the sub-25K category, the manufacturers could have easily provided CD-Writers rather than CD-ROM drives.

The Media Center market is still at a nascent stage in India, and most PC users in this country are only just waking up to the fact that such PCs exist. They haven't gotten very popular so far because of their high prices, which in turn are largely due to the fact that the XP Media Center Edition OS is tightly integrated with such PCs, and you cannot get the OS off-the-shelf-even if the components are  available from abroad. This picture is sure to have changed when we test PCs the next time round; prices of MCPCs are sure to plummet. And, of course, we expect the PCs that were priced above Rs 25K to move into the sub-25K bracket.



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