House brands are fine if you're looking for frozen vegetables in the supermarket, but do they work for personal computers? Systemax is essentially the house brand for TigerDirect, a large online retailer of tech products, and the company offers a wide variety of both fixed-config and configurable PCs. The Systemax Venture C2D is a Core 2 Duo system that manages to keep the price down to $899 while not skimping on the necessities. Unfortunately, besides looking and feeling cheap, the system shipped with some serious driver issues, and those looking for an inexpensive Core 2 Duo system might be better served by the, which has similar specs and includes a 17-inch LCD monitor for just $100 more.
The black-and-silver chassis isn't going to win any awards for industrial design. There are three optical drive bays on the front panel, one of which is occupied by a DVD burner. A multimedia card reader occupies one of two 3.5-inch drive bays and sits right below a connection panel with one FireWire and two USB 2.0 ports, plus headphone and mic jacks. The power button is an awkwardly slim strip of silver plastic--one of the few examples of a power button that actually managed to be noticeably hard to use.
The included 320GB hard drive and 1GB of RAM should be enough for mainstream users, and there's room for four additional hard drives and two more RAM modules. One of the three PCI Express x16 slots is filled with an ATI Radeon X1600 video card, and there are two standard PCI slots, one of which has a modem card. Most users will be able to chuck the modem card and free up the slot for a more useful peripheral, such as a dedicated sound card.
We ran into some trouble when checking out the video drivers for the system. Even though this was a new PC, the installed ATI drivers dated from way back in January. The system had the outdated Catalyst 6.1 drivers rather than the current version, Catalyst 6.8. Up-to-date drivers can greatly improve system performance and are considered a vital part of preventive maintenance for your PC. The Catalyst Control Center software was also not installed, leaving you with just the basic Windows display properties controls.
We asked Systemax about this, and the company had a reasonable explanation, albeit one that we don't entirely support. Systemax manufactures a wide variety of systems, and for the sake of efficiency, it standardizes its set of installed drivers to work across the entire line of products. The best way to do this, the company says, is to use slightly older drivers that have been proven stable and that will support any video card the company offers. For the more advanced, and expensive, performance systems, updated drivers are included.
Updating to the latest Catalyst drivers is easy enough in theory, but when we tried to do that, the system wouldn't boot into Windows, so we had to go into Safe Mode and revert to the 6.1 version.
Like the Velocity Micro Vector GX Campus Edition, the Systemax Venture C2D uses the 1.86GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E6300, and both systems showed nearly identical performance on CNET Labs' Multimedia, Adobe Photoshop, and iTunes encoding tests, with the Velocity Micro having a slight edge in all three, thanks presumably to its faster RAM. Moving up to the more expensive , with a 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E6600, you get a moderate performance bump in each test.
Saddled by outdated drivers, the rapidly aging ATI Radeon X1600 video card didn't do much to impress us. Even at a moderate 1,024x768 resolution (albeit with high-end features such as antialiasing turned on) we couldn't hit that sweet spot of 30 frames per second on either Quake 4 or F.E.A.R. We suggest upgrading to a newer card, such as the wallet-friendly Nvidia GeForce 7600 GS.
Our test system included a basic wired keyboard and mouse and the 2006 version of Microsoft Works, plus a set of cheap desktop speakers, which are probably best used for nothing more taxing that system beeps and the occasional Webcast.
Systemax's warranty covers parts and labor for one year, with extensions available--$139 for one year, $169 for two years--although the extensions come from a third-party warranty vendor, AIG Warranty Services. The third-party warranty includes onsite service, unlike the standard Systemax warranty, although a note on the TigerDirect Web site adds that "Onsite service plans are not available in NY or CA." On the generic support Web site, you'll find a searchable knowledge base and driver database (which included the Catalyst 6.8 drivers), along with a short FAQ list and Web forms for contacting support staff. The toll-free support number was not listed, but we found it on both the TigerDirect product page and a different page of the Systemax Web site.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)