Finding a good PC or notebook for the family is not as hard as you might think. PC Authority puts the latest models to the test.
These days even the lowest, most basic system you can find in any computer store is capable of performing just about every task you could ever want it to do for you and your family. Furthermore, the progressive nature of the IT industry means that the speediest system that you were eyeing off in the store eighteen months ago is now the slow one this year with the 'Reduced to Clear' sticker on it. Performance Analysis
PCs or notebooks for the home are peculiar beasts as they have to wear many hats. They have to be capable of playing games, handling home accounting or small business spreadsheeting or serving as the jukebox for archiving the family CD collection in MP3 format, not to mention being able to edit your home movies and digital photos, then burn them to CD or DVD if you wish. They're also about DVD playback.
Many think that home PCs mean a compromise of performance and components over price - and to some extent this is true. But have a look at the sixteen machines over the following pages and you'll see that this is not necessarily so. We've got some powerhouse machines here, with some surprisingly low prices.
Last month we looked at some excellent PCs and notebooks that fit right in amongst your stereo and TV in the lounge room and help augment your current equipment. This month however, we're looking at all-round capable machines for the home that bring that multimedia experience to any room, but are also capable of handling any family's needs.
We've also got our first look at Windows XP Media Centre Edition 2005 (MCE), which is the shipping version in Australia. Four of the PCs and one of the notebooks features this innovative multimedia application, but how do MCE machines stack up against others? Read on, and find out...
While home PCs are still used for menial business tasks such as home budgeting and accounting, letter drafting and faxing, they’re also used for their multimedia prowess. A system for the home has to be all things to all members of the family, and this means it must be in turns a business machine, an editing machine (for still images and home video), a disc replication system (for burning projects to CDs and DVDs), a home stereo for music playback, a home theatre for DVD playback, and a gaming machine. You can even add radio, VCR and TV functionality to the list if you want stretch things farther.
All of this means that you have to look beyond the processor and RAM and focus as well on the video card, sound processing chip, optical disc burner and hard drive capacity. It also means that when we benchmarked the systems we had to use a variety of tests to see how they went.Benchmarking
Our objective in benchmarking these PCs and notebooks was to truly put them though their paces to see which ones can handle the most arduous tasks. This means that as well as some PC Authority benchmarking standards such as PCMark04 and 3Dmark2001 SE, we’ve also introduced a new 3D game test that truly puts the strain on most aspects of a PC: Doom 3.
PCMark04: This benchmark takes advantage of open source media encoders and decoders such as the Zlib, OGG Vorbis and DivX compression codecs, to comprise its test suite. On the non-multimedia side it also features physics and polygon throughput calculations, and includes some day-to-day operations such as scanning for viruses and correction and editing text documents and spreadsheet mathematical calculations. It’s a good all-round test of a system’s ability to handle processor and sub-system intensive multi-tasking, much as you might encounter in your PC usage.
3Dmark2001 SE: An old staple of PC Authority benchmarking, 3Dmark2001 SE is used for testing a system’s 3D graphics capabilities under a variety of settings. This test gives a great indication of a system’s capabilities at running complex DirectX 8 games, and makes a good all-round 3D litmus test.
Doom 3: This is the grand-daddy of the 3D tests, and as it’s an extremely resource hungry game that even gives top systems a good work-out. Doom 3 is a Direct X9 game, and we made sure that all graphics drivers were loaded before benchmarking. Please note that we asked each notebook manufacturer to supply updated drivers for the Radeon Mobility graphics chips in their notebooks, but none were supplied at the time of testing. We used a patch to the latest ATI Catalyst 4.9 desktop drivers so that Doom 3 would accept these instead and benchmark. Further testing showed that there was negligible difference between the two driver sets, but this was a necessary, if unprecedented, step in getting the Doom 3 benchmark to run happily. When looking at the Doom 3 benchmark results please keep this step in mind.
Again we were unable to benchmark the Apple systems as our stable of benchmarks are not available for Mac OS X, we've still calculated features and value for money but rated its quality independently of the PCs.Systems
Anyone walking past the PC authority Labs would be forgiven for thinking that the magazine is all about benchmarking, but it’s not all we do when we evaluate systems. Benchmarks give us good, solid numbers on performance, but they tell us nothing about the look, feel, design or operation of a PC or notebook. This is where the Labs team’s combined experience comes into play. We also evaluate systems on their design, what extras are included, the components, functionality, offered warranty and much more.
Once we’ve evaluated how well a system performs and weighed its quality, we apply these to how much the machine actually costs. This gives us a value for money score, which is derived directly by calculating performance and quality by price. The overall score is different again, and is a combination of the preceding three but weighted for importance.
With a home system, features and value for money slightly outweigh performance.
What’s interesting to note in the graphs below is just how well the notebooks performed compared to the PCs. The Pioneer D47K notebook is right up there near the top of the performance graphs -- not bad for a truly portable PC, albeit a desknote.