And the trickle-down continues. At the end of last year, we saw quad-core desktops coming in under $1,000. Fast-forward three months and quad-core has become even less expensive. The $700 Acer Aspire M5100 is an excellent representative of this new breed of affordable quad-core desktops. The question is, considering that you can get a $430 dual-core desktop with very similar features, is it worth it to pay more for two extra cores? If performance is important to you, the answer is yes. But for anyone looking for basic desktop functionality, you're safe sticking with a less expensive PC.
Aside from its quad-core AMD Phenom 9500 CPU and 3GB of RAM, the Aspire M5100 is similar to most other standard $400-to-$700 PCs. You typically won't find graphics cards, dual hard drives, TV tuners, Blu-ray drives, or wireless networking in this price range, but what you get is a solid workaday computer that, short of gaming or intense multimedia editing, is capable of performing most tasks you'd expect it to. What's interesting is there's not a lot separating this $700 Acer from the $430 eMachines T5246.
|Acer Aspire M5100||eMachines T5246|
|CPU||2.19GHZ AMD Phenom 9500||2.21GHZ AMD Athlon 64 X2 4200+|
|Memory||3GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM||2GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM|
|Graphics||256MB (shared) ATI Radeon HD 1250||128MB (shared) Nvidia GeForce 6150SE|
|Hard drive||500GB 7,200 rpm||400GB 7,200 rpm|
|Optical drives||16x dual-layer DVD burner||16x dual-layer DVD burner|
|Operating system||Windows Vista Home Premium||Windows Vista Home Premium|
Aside from the CPU and the memory, the only features the Acer has over the more affordable eMachines are an extra 100GB of hard drive storage and 128MB more RAM available to the Acer's onboard graphics chip. Neither of those advantages justifies an extra $250 in our minds. Taken together with the quad-core CPU and the extra RAM and the Aspire M5100 starts to look a bit rosier, provided its overall performance comes out ahead. We should add that the Acer has an HDMI port, making it possible for you to haul this desktop into your living room to play standard-definition video on your HDTV. The eMachines has only a standard analog video output, but since neither of these systems is what we'd call "living room friendly." We don't find the eMachines' lack of an HDMI port a significant disadvantage. What is clear, as you can see from our benchmark results, is that the Acer has a definite speed advantage.
|Rendering multiple CPUs||Rendering single CPU|
|1,280 x 1,024|
The quad-core Aspire M5100's achieved almost total victory over the dual-core eMachines T5246. The only test on which the eMachines won was our single-core Cinebench test, which is almost purely tied to the clock speed of an individual CPU core. That result makes sense, given the eMachines Athlon chip is just barely faster at 2.21GHz to the Acer's 2.19GHz Phenom. But on tests that take advantage of multiple processing cores, such as Photoshop, or where memory comes into play, like iTunes, the Acer's advantage is clear. The extra memory, in fact, probably gives the Acer a bigger advantage than the quad-core chip itself. Neither four CPU cores nor the added RAM are enough to make the Acer even a passable gaming system, as you can see from its unplayable frame rate, but we suspected as much from the beginning.
If the Acer has an advantage in performance, its design offers only a bit more than that of the eMachines system. The cases are more or less equally bland, although we prefer the eMachines because it has no irritating gimmicks such as the hard-to-open, sliding plastic door that covers the Aspire M5100's media card reader. Each system also offers a reasonable degree of upgrading, with a handful of free expansion slots, including a 16x PCI-Express slot. They're also both equally limited to only mainstream 3D card upgrades, because each uses a 300-watt power supply that would likely choke if you matched it to a more substantial 3D card.
We've gotten into the habit of tracking the amount of trialware and desktop clutter the various PC vendors preinstall on their systems, and we found Acer only a mild offender in this regard. The Aspire M5100 came with a total of six extra desktop icons. Three are for applications that are at least semi-useful, including a disc-burning program, a system monitoring tool, and a Media Center-lookalike (which is where the "semi-useful" part comes in, since with Vista Home Premium this system has full-fledged Media Center already). Three other icons want to sell you stuff. Fortunately, the Recycle Bin icon is located conveniently nearby.
For service and support, the aforementioned system monitoring tool actually puts memory usage and other information in an easily accessible floating task bar. You can shut it off for the sake of a clean desktop, but it does surface some handy system information. The default warranty grants one year of parts-and-labor coverage, and Acer also provides toll-free phone support from Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. ET, and on the weekends from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Find out more about how we test desktop systems.
Acer Aspire M5100 Windows Vista Home Premium; 2.19GHz AMD Phenom 9500; 3GB DDR2 667MHz SDRAM; 256MB (shared) ATI Radeon HD 1250 graphics chip; 500GB 7,200 rpm hard drive
Windows Vista Home Premium; 2.21GHz AMD Athlon 64 X2 4200+; 2GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 128MB (shared) Nvidia GeForce 6100 graphics chip; 400GB 7,200 rpm Western Digital hard drive
Windows Vista Home Premium; 2.3GHz AMD Phenom 9600; 3GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM, 512MB Nvidia GeForce 8800 GT graphics card; 500GB 7,200 rpm Seagate hard drive
HP Pavilion SlimLine s3330f
Windows Vista Home Premium; 2.8GHz AMD Athlon 64 X2 5400+; 2GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 256MB (shared) Nvidia GeForce 6150SE integrated graphics chip; 500GB 7,200 rpm Samsung hard drive
Velocity Micro ProMagix E2055
Windows Vista Home Premium; 3.13GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E8500; 3GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM, 256MB ATI Radeon HD 3850 graphics card; 500GB 7,200 rpm Seagate hard drive