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Budget shopping tips: Desktop computers

Budget shopping tips warn you off of Nettops.

Like other posts you'll be seeing here over the next week or so, we could offer you lots of tips for buying an affordable desktop. Refurbished PCs from reputable dealers can offer a bargain. Wait until Best Buy's free Windows 7 upgrades kicks in on June 26. You can find a reasonably fast gaming PC for less than $1,000.

All of that is true, but there's a larger issue going on in budget PCs right now: Nettops. This new category has received lots of attention the last few months. We've also reviewed our share of them. For all but the most price-conscious shoppers, we have yet to see evidence that Nettops make sense.

Asus' Eee Box qualifies as a Nettop. Sarah Tew/CNET

Beware the Nettop

We've seen various definitions for "Nettop." Our own Erica Ogg defined them as all-in-ones with Intel's Atom CPU, the chip family common to many Netbooks. We've also seen small, screenless systems like Asus' Eee Box, and the Acer Revo called Nettops. The common thread seems to be that, like Netbooks, Nettops use a low-cost, low-power CPU; among them the Intel Atom, the Via Nano (which we have yet to see outside of a Netbook), or AMD's Athlon 2650e.

What we're certain of is that every system we'd call a Nettop has turned in abysmal performance in the CNET Lab. We're not talking about 3D gaming performance, which we don't even bother testing at this level. We mean everyday slow. "About 15 minutes to convert a single CD into iTunes" slow.

We prefer "Nyet-top"

The common excuse for this performance is that Nettops are only supposed to work as a dedicated Internet PCs. You might expect such a system would offer a huge price break from a real desktop then. Not true. The Asus Eee Box, for example, cost $350 when it came out last year. For just $50 more, you could have purchased an eMachines T5274 midtower, which was four to five times faster than the Eee Box.

For a more recent example, we just finished testing eMachines' new EL1300G-01w (review up soon), which goes for $299. This system also uses the AMD Athlon 2650e chip, which gets you the same snail's-pace performance as the Eee Box. And also as with the Eee Box, for $50 or $100 more than the EL1300g-01w, you can find much faster desktops using Intel Dual Core or AMD Athlon X2 chips, such as eMachines' own $350 ET1161-07.

Dell's Studio One 19: not a Nettop. Sarah Tew/CNET

All-in-one Nettops need hate, too

Standalone Nettops aren't alone in offering poor performance with little cost benefit. Averatec's and MSI's 18.4-inch all-in-one Nettops offer the same slow Atom CPUs for $549 and $599, respectively. Those prices might seem pretty good for all-in-ones with such large screens, but take a look at the Dell Studio One 19. Our review of that Dell system covered a $1,000-plus configuration with a 18.5-inch screen and a 2.5GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E5200 chip, but the Studio One 19 starts at $699. At that price you get the same fast CPU and the same display as our review unit, for just $100 to $150 more than the dog-slow all-in-one Nettops.

We'll agree that for many people, $150 or $100 is not insignificant. And if all you want is a working computer for the lowest price, a Nettop will do the job. But please free yourself from any illusion that a Nettop offers a good deal. We'd also urge those who can to spend just a little bit extra on a real desktop, which offers the performance, and therefore time savings, to quickly offset the added cost.