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Acer's new back-to-school desktops eating Gateway's lunch?

New Acer back-to-school desktops confuse the marketplace for its sister brand, Gateway.

Comparing Acer's new desktops with those of its sub-brand, Gateway, announced Thursday, gives you the distinct sense Acer needs to put some more thought into distinguishing the two product lines. Is Acer the value brand and Gateway the performance model, or vice versa? Based on the new systems from each line announced this week, we're still not sure.

Acer's Aspire X3800 series slim-tower desktop. Acer

Acer Aspire X3810-B3801A

We'll take Acer's $529 slim-tower desktop first. We've come to like these little systems for their strong value and forward-looking array of ports, including HDMI and eSATA. The up-to-date connections combine with the Aspire X-Series' small size to work well on either a desk or in the living room as a value-oriented, standard-definition media center.

This newest X-Series, the X3810-B3801A, throws in a 20-inch Acer LCD to make a complete, relatively affordable desktop package. The 2.5GHz Intel Pentium dual-core CPU and 320GB hard drive suggest that Acer has sacrificed some specs and performance to include the monitor, especially next to the $499 Gateway SX2800-01, a small-form-factor desktop that has no LCD, but comes with a quad-core CPU and a 640GB hard drive. Based on these configurations, it seems to us that more casual users looking for an affordable, baseline functional system should look to Acer, and the performance-minded, yet perhaps budget-limited shopper should turn to quad core-equipped Gateway. Easy enough so far.

The Acer Aspire M5 Series desktop Acer

Acer Aspire M5800-U5802A

The situation becomes murkier when we compare Acer's new mainstream midtower desktop, the $799 Aspire M5800-U5802A, with Gateway's $749 DX4300-03. The Gateway system has a 2.4GHz AMD Phenom II X4 chip, a 1GB AMD Radeon HD 4650 graphics card, and a 1TB hard drive. But the Aspire M5800 has a faster 2.6GHz Intel Q9400, a 1.5GB Nvidia GeForce GT 230 graphics card, and a slightly smaller 750GB hard drive. For just $50 more than the Gateway system, the Acer provides you with a faster processor and 50 percent more video memory. Hard drive shrinkage notwithstanding, in this comparison Acer and Gateway seem to switch roles. The Acer system seems like it's aiming for the performance crown in the $700 to $800 price range, leaving the Gateway to entice more maintream customers.

Acer's eMachines family occupies a clearly defined budget niche, but if you look elsewhere in the Gateway and Acer lineup you'll find other signs of confusion. The $899 Gateway DX4820-02, for example, comes with a 2.66GHz Intel Core 2 Quad chip and a bundled 23-inch LCD, but with only a 512MB GeForce GT 210 3D card, the latter a noticeable downgrade from either the $749 Gateway or the $799 Acer described above. We're not arguing that these systems are uncompetitive, since we can't really say without checking them out in person. But we do suggest that with more clearly defined brand identities, Acer's entire product family could become more competitive. Such a move might even simplify your buying decision along the way.