"Gentlemen, start your engines!" These famous words and the sound of roaring, revving engines greet you when you start up the Cisnet NASCAR PC. Cisnet, the retail arm of online PC vendor ZT Group, extends the racing theme across every element of the NASCAR PC's design, from the power button on the front that reads Engine Start to a custom Windows design. As a computer, the $890 (before rebate) NASCAR PC is more Honda Civic than finely tuned stock car, but it serves up capable components for the price. It'll run low-impact racing games, but more intensive 3D titles prove too taxing for this budget PC. As a first PC for the racing fan in your life, the Cisnet NASCAR PC makes a good gift.
If you're going to buy a themed PC, chances are you care about the quality of the branding as much as you do the quality of the components. Although there's only one design available (no choosing a NASCAR PC emblazoned with your favorite driver's number and sponsors), the Cisnet NASCAR PC impresses with its automotive paint job. The side panels both feature a racing scene with the #88 car running first, for all you Dale Jarrett fans. The NASCAR logo and the checkered flag are silk-screened onto the front panel and each of the Logitech peripherals: the large USB optical mouse, the keyboard, and the weak two-piece speaker set. If the components aren't outstanding, the branding is first-rate, and it doesn't look like the design will chip or wear with average use.
The custom-designed skins on the Windows launch screen and start menu, as well as throughout the rest of the operating system, are well done and creative, although you might get irritated at the start-up and shut-down sounds, which can't be disabled very easily (short of turning the speakers off). We also question the motivation behind some of the NASCAR extras bundled with the PC, including the free 30-day trials of NASCAR.com's in-race status report TrackPass and the RaceDay Scanner live radio-transmission service. You also get a 10 percent discount at the NASCAR.com SuperStore and a $200 voucher for Web access via EarthLink. That's not a bad deal, unless, like many people, you already have an Internet service provider. But all of the trials feel like they're designed to get you to spend more money. The line between a themed PC and an ad-content delivery system is a thin one, and we think that NASCAR and Cisnet have crossed it here.
In terms of materials and construction, the NASCAR PC is also mixed bag. You have to remove two screws to get at the interior of the system, and therein you'll find a bit of a mess: cables running all over the place and the vertically oriented optical drive blocking access to DIMM slots and other components. Moreover, when the double-layer DVD burner is spinning, it makes a bit of a racket and vibrates considerably. These are, of course, only minor concerns, especially for entry-level users who will likely never open their system's case.
While delivering a viable feature set at a rock-bottom price is about as difficult as running three-wide at the turn, Cisnet has been smart about where to cut corners and where to add value. A fixed-configuration system with a 2.0GHz Athlon 64 3200+ processor, 512MB of 400MHz DDR RAM, and a 160GB hard drive, the NASCAR PC delivers appropriate firepower for the price. Our performance results show that it's not a barn burner, but you can't expect record-setting performance for less than $900.
We found that the NASCAR PC performed as expected. Its overall score of 148 on our SysMark 2004 application benchmark shows that it's faster than lower-cost systems at day-to-day computing but slower than two low-midrange PCs with entry-level dual-core CPUs. You should be able to perform most tasks with the NASCAR PC, but you'll likely trip up with heavy multitasking and digital-media editing.
You might purchase the NASCAR PC under the reasonable assumption that you can play racing games on it. Sadly, we're not too enthusiastic about this system's gaming performance. It ships with a demo version of EA's NASCAR SimRacing, which the system handled well enough, even at high detail settings. We were less happy with the NASCAR PC's overall gaming capability, but we knew not to expect much, given that it uses an integrated graphics chip. On our Half-Life 2 test, which is more demanding than EA's forgiving sports games, the NASCAR PC turned in an unplayable 10.4 frames per second at a moderate 1,024x768 resolution. You might get some gaming enjoyment out of the NASCAR PC if you keep your expectations to a minimum. You can upgrade to a 3D graphics card via the free PCI Express slot, but it has to be a short one, because the internal space is tight.
The system also includes an 8-in-1 flash-card reader and a double-layer DVD burner, both welcome additions at this price range. Most other features, including connectivity options, are entirely entry level. You'll find two USB 2.0 ports up front and an additional four around back, along with a FireWire connector and 2.1 stereo audio outputs.
The motherboard provides a DVI output, but the low-quality 17-inch LCD included in our review unit's price (at $300, it makes up roughly a third of the total system cost) is analog only, so the digital port won't do you much good with this display. Though the NASCAR PC's integrated graphics and 64MB of shared video RAM delivered smooth DVD playback, we were unimpressed with the monitor's overall performance. Even when set at its native 1,280x1,024 resolution, icons and text looked pixelated--in much the same way that compressed text looks when an LCD is set to a nonnative resolution. Text like this, which appears slightly out of focus every few letters, can tire your eyes when viewed for lengthy periods.
Despite all of the NASCAR-themed add-ons, you get no productivity software with the NASCAR PC. As for documentation, the system includes a basic user manual and printed box-topper setup guide but nothing in the way of electronic docs. The system does include a lifetime of toll-free tech support. Each system is also protected by a one-year parts-and-labor warranty, which you can extend through the retailers who carry the system. Online support, in the way of FAQs, a knowledge base, bulletin boards, or e-mail or live chat with specialists is virtually nonexistent.
|BAPCo SysMark 2004 rating||SysMark 2004 Internet-content-creation rating||SysMark 2004 office-productivity rating|
|Half Life 2 1,024x768 4xAA 8xAF||Half-Life 2 1,600x1,200 4xAA 8xAF|
Find out more about how we test desktop systems
Cisnet NASCAR PC
Windows XP Home SP2; 2.0GHz AMD Athlon 64 3200+; ATI X200 Xpress chipset; 512MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; integrated ATI Radeon X300; Seagate ST3160021A 160GB 7,200rpm ATA/100
Cyberpower Gamer Ultra 3800+
Windows XP Home SP2; 2.0GHz AMD Athlon 64 3800+; Nvidia Nforce 4 chipset; 1,024MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 6600 (PCIe); Maxtor 6L200M0 200GB 7,200rpm SATA
Windows XP Home; 2.0GHz AMD Athlon 64 3200+; ATI Radeon Xpress 200 chipset; 512MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; 128MB (shared memory) integrated ATI Radeon X200; Seagate ST3160021A 160GB 7,200rpm ATA/100
HP Pavilion s7220n Slimline PC
Windows XP Home SP2; 1.5GHz Intel Celeron M 370; Intel 915G chipset; 512MB DDR2 SDRAM 400MHz; integrated Intel 915G graphics chip using 128MB shared memory; Samsung SP2004C 200GB 7,200rpm SATA
Sony VAIO RC110G
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 SP2; 3.0GHz Pentium D 830; Intel 945P chipset; 1,024MB DDR2 SDRAM 533MHz; 128MB ATI Radeon X300 (PCIe); Western Digital WDC2500Js-98MHBO 7,200rpm Serial ATA