We first thought the $539 (after $50 mail-in rebate) eMachines T6536, the top of the budget vendor's Q3 2006 lineup, would easily score an 8.0 rating. Its predecessor, the T6532, earned a 7.6, and this new model has a faster processor and a larger hard drive, and it costs $10 less. But then we saw what the competition had to offer. For just $60 more, the $599 Cyberpower Back to School Super Value PC gives you vastly better performance and more upgradability, and it better prepares you for Windows Vista. The T6536 is smaller and more dorm-room friendly than the Cyberpower system, but if size is a concern, you might as well go with Apple's Mac Mini, which gives you even more space savings and features at a similar price.
The problem with the eMachines T6536 is its AMD Athlon 64 3800+ processor is trapped in the single-core past. Thanks in large part to its dual-core Athlon 64 X2 3800+, the Cyberpower Back to School Super Value gave the T6536 a thorough beating on CNET Labs' new benchmarks. The eMachines finished behind the Cyberpower PC in every category, most notably on our multitasking test. Multitasking is one area in particular where you'll see the advantage of a dual-core processor, as evidenced by the T6536 taking nearly 50 percent longer to complete the test. Running a single application, such as iTunes, doesn't result in much of a performance difference, but take a multithreaded app such as Photoshop, and you'll see the advantage of a dual-core CPU. The eMachines T6536 took 6 minutes, 22 seconds to complete the test, more than a full minute longer than the dual-core Cyberpower PC.
In addition to strong performance today, a dual-core CPU also provides a solid foundation for Windows Vista, whose multithreaded code is specifically targeted at dual-core chips. The T6536's core specs are technically powerful enough to run Windows Vista, but it simply won't be as fast as it would with a dual-core chip.
What's also frustrating about the eMachines T6536 is that it's not as expandable as its competition. You get one free x16 PCI Express graphics card slot, one free x1 PCI Express slot, and a pair of standard PCI slots, one of which comes occupied by a 56Kbps modem card. The Cyberpower comes with three standard PCI slots, and two x1 PCI Express slots (in addition to the x16 PCI Express slot that came with a budget 3D card in it). Further, Cyberpower uses a more up-to-date Socket AM2 motherboard (on the Nforce 550 chipset) and has a 480-watt power supply. If you're looking for a good price on a solid upgrade foundation, the eMachines T6536 and its Socket 939 board and 300-watt power supply don't give you anywhere near the same flexibility for adding a faster CPU or other parts down the road.
The price for all of that expandability is that the Cyberpower's case is larger than the eMachines', which understandably might be an issue if you're shopping for a PC for a dorm room or a small office. You could also make the argument that if you're looking for a budget PC, you're not so interested in upgrading. In either case, we direct you to Apple's $599 Mac Mini Core Solo (or the dual-core $799 Core Duo model). The Mac Mini can do just about anything that the eMachines can do for roughly the same price, its economy-size enclosure wastes no space providing for future expansion, and even the lowest-end model comes with built-in Bluetooth and wireless networking capabilities. Between Cyberpower and Apple, the eMachines T6356 sits on an uncomfortable middle ground. Even though it retains eMachines' excellent build quality and the appearance of a good bargain, its configuration is sadly dated.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)