Gateway's midrange DX310X covers a lot of ground, combining a TV tuner and Windows Media Center with a half-decent video card and room for expansion down the road. If you're looking for a dedicated living-room PC or a future-proof gaming machine, keep looking, but for an undistinguished jack-of-all-trades, the $1,268 DX310X performs as expected. For about the same price, another choice is the HP Pavilion Media Center TV m7360n, which doubles the RAM to 2GB, but the trade-off is a low-end video card and slightly slower CPU. Casual users who don't need the TV tuner and 3D card out of the box, but might want to add them later, should look at the budget-priced eMachines T6532 (also from Gateway), which is less than half the cost of the DX310X.
The gray plastic Gateway case is not one of the system's strong points. Besides looking exceedingly generic, the sliding door that covers the two front USB 2.0 ports and headphone jacks feels cheap and flimsy. But if you can live with a PC that won't win any beauty contests, you'll appreciate the multiformat card reader on the front panel and the empty optical drive bay below the DVD burner. These are especially nice, considering this is a BTX-style case that has a big chunk of the front-panel real estate eaten up by a fan exhaust. The side panel eschews any of the clever but annoying hinges, latches, or doors that always seem to get in the way and simply pulls away cleanly in a single movement.
This is a large case, so you'll find lots of room for airflow inside. Cables are neatly bundled, but a big mass of them are unfortunately tied off right in front of the RAM slots. There are only two of those, so if you want to add more RAM later (the included 1GB, by way of two 512MB sticks, is considered the bare minimum for Windows Vista), you'll have to swap out the current modules. There's a single 250GB hard drive, with room for one additional drive, plus room for one additional optical drive. A GeForce 6600 video card occupies the 16x PCIe slot, while a standard-definition TV tuner and modem card take up the two PCI slots. The tuner uses ATI's Theater 550 Pro chip, which is about as top-of-the-line as the current generation of TV tuner cards gets. A single 1X PCIe slot sits empty. You could easily add a second hard drive or optical drive and swap in a better video card and keep this system up-to-date for some time to come. We just wish there were room for more RAM without having to sacrifice the two sticks the system comes with.
With a dual-core 3.0 GHz Pentium D 930 CPU, we expected the Gateway DX310X to turn in decent performance scores. Indeed, it easily bested Dell's midrange system, the Dimension E510, which we reviewed with a 3.0GHz Intel Pentium 4 531, by 20 percent in CNET Labs' SysMark 2004 application benchmarks. The much cheaper eMachines has only a 2.2GHz AMD Athlon 64 3500+ but fell only 7 percent behind the Gateway.
The GeForce 6600 that comes with the system is capable of playing most current games at lower resolutions, if you turn off some of the eye candy. Running Half-Life 2 at 1,024x768 with 4X antialiasing, we only got 23.3 frames per second (fps), so you'll want to at least turn the AA off to get a playable frame rate. If you're looking for a midrange system that is geared more toward gaming, the iBuyPower Value Ultra System gives you a 256MB GeForce 7600 GT--an excellent card for a $999 system.
Packed in with the Gateway DX310X, we found a wired keyboard and mouse, a Media Center remote and sensor and several of Gateway's ubiquitous setup posters. The full manual was on the hard drive, which doesn't help much if you're having trouble getting your system turned on.
We ran Microsoft's Vista Advisor beta software on the system, to see if it was up to the task of running the upcoming Windows Vista operating system. The DX310X should be able to run Vista Premium with no problem. The Advisor could not confirm that our TV tuner card was Vista compatible, but that's a known issue (that's what PR people call "bugs") in the beta Advisor software: it can see a TV tuner card installed in a system but can't tell what card it is or if it's Vista compatible.
Gateway backs the DX310X with a range of support options. The default plan provides one year of parts-and-labor coverage and 24/7 toll-free phone support. Optional plans let you extend the basic coverage and add onsite service, with the most expensive addition costing $270. Gateway's Web site offers tools to diagnose and fix problems yourself, with extensive documentation, driver downloads, and online tech-support chat.