Cisnet NASCAR PC
"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 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.