The perfect student computer is a lot like the perfect student car: functional, inexpensive, and easy to maintain. Cyberpower offers all manner of both preconfigured and totally customizable systems, usually at prices below more mainstream competitors'. The company's aptly named Back to School Super Value model ushers in a new era of budget PCs by serving up a dual-core processor. You'll have to put up with a somewhat inelegant case, but the easy-to-swallow $599 price makes our design quibble seem minor. The Back to School Super Value is worth a look for students who want a basic system for schoolwork and light gaming, without going for an anonymous big-name gray box. And with plenty of room for future expansion, it's the first budget system in more than a year that we recommend over eMachines' latest budget offering.
Thanks to the seemingly limitless configuration options on Cyberpower's Web site, you can choose from a wide variety of cases. Most will look similar to the default RaidMax case we got with our review unit, with a flimsy plastic hinged door over the front panel and a large window in the side panel, illuminated by blue cold-cathode lights. The side panel itself comes off easily after removing two thumbscrews.
Inside its case, our review unit serves up a roomy 250GB hard drive, an NEC DVD burner, and two 512MB DDR2 RAM modules. There is room for two additional RAM sticks, two extra hard drives, and a whopping four additional optical dives. There are also two 3.5-inch drive slots, one of which is occupied by a media card reader. Expansion should be easy with one (occupied) x16 PCI Express slot, two empty x1 PCI Express slots, and three empty standard PCI slots. The system features seven USB 2.0 ports split between front and back, but nary a FireWire jack at all; a FireWire PCI card is a $19 add-on.
One of the few nonconfigurable parts on the Cyberpower Back to School Super Value is the CPU. The AMD Athlon 64 X2 3800+ is the lone choice; it's the low-end chip in AMD's new AM2 socket dual-core desktop CPU line and an excellent choice for general academic work, as well as gaming and multimedia uses. It easily outperformed the similarly priced eMachines T6536, a $539 (after $50 rebate) system that uses a single-core version of the Athlon 64 3800+. The Back to School Super Value bested the eMachines T6536 on each and every one of CNET Labs' new benchmarks. It enjoyed its largest margin of victory on our updated Multitasking test, finishing the test 32 percent faster than the T6536. Most of this performance difference between the two systems can be attributed to the different processors, but the Cyberpower PC also uses 800MHz DDR2 memory, which is more advanced and faster than the eMachines T6536's plain old 400MHz DDR RAM.
With its budget Nvidia graphics card, the GeForce 7300 GS, the Cyberpower Back to School Super Value chugged along at 20.2 frames per second on our Half-Life 2 test at 1,024x768 resolution. That's not exactly playable but still better than the eMachines T6536's 9.8fps score. The Cyberpower should still able to play most current games if you lower the resolution or turn off the high-end features we used in our test, such as antialiasing. Upgrading to a better card is easy. You can order the system with a more advanced 3D card when you configure it on the Cyberpower Web site or just pick up a 3D card later and replace the GeForce 7300.
Being a budget system, there aren't a lot of extras bundled with the Cyberpower Back to School Super Value. A basic-black Logitech wired keyboard and mouse set is included, as well as a set of Logitech X-230 2.1 speakers. Software is limited to InterVideo's WinDVD player and an OEM version of Nero's CD and DVD burning suite. The default operating system is Windows XP Home. Upgrading to Windows XP Media Center Edition will cost an extra $15. No monitor is included, but you can add a ViewSonic 17-inch LCD for a very reasonable $172.
Cyberpower offers a three-year warranty on all of its systems, which also includes free lifetime labor and phone support. The toll-free number is manned 24 hours a day, but Web site support is limited to a support e-mail and a drivers section, which just links you out to various vendor sites.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)