With smaller vendors such as iBuyPower, model names usually don't mean much because the company's online configuration options are so abundant that one model can be customized to look just like another. Still, the company's budget-minded Value Ultra model is a logical place to start for students looking for a back-to-school system, and our review unit came bundled with a decent middle-of-the-road set of specs. The $1,140 price includes a 17-inch LCD monitor and low-end 2.1 speakers, as well as the new Socket AM2 version of AMD's Athlon 64 X2 4200+ CPU and a reasonably good mainstream video card. Students seeking a mainstream name at a rock-bottom price or those who aren't comfortable choosing their PC component by component should look at the latest from eMachines, the fixed-configuration T6536. The absolute best budget bang-to-buck ratio, however, still rests with the $599 Cyberpower Back to School 2006; the added performance the Value Ultra serves up isn't worth the added price.
You can pick from among several cases when configuring the iBuyPower Value Ultra; the default Nzxt Apollo Gaming Tower Case isn't particularly attractive, but it's perfectly adequate for mainstream use, with a large, illuminated side window and a steel chassis (except for the plastic front panel door). The case offers plenty of room for expansion, with five optical drive bays, one front-accessible 3.5-inch bay, and space for four hard drives.
Inside the case, our review unit served up a roomy 250GB hard drive, a DVD burner, and two 512MB DDR2 RAM modules, with two additional RAM slots open. Expansion should be easy with not one but two x16 PCI Express slots (one occupied), making this motherboard SLI-ready, plus there were two empty x1 PCI Express slots and three empty standard PCI slots. The system features seven USB 2.0 ports split between front and back. Our review unit doesn't feature any FireWire jacks, but a FireWire PCI card is a $19 add-on.
The included Athlon 64 X2 4200+ CPU sits in AMD's new Socket AM2 and is an excellent choice for general academic work, as well as gaming and multimedia uses. The Cyberpower Back to School 2006 also has an AM2 CPU, but it's the slowest model in the line, the X2 3800+. The iBuyPower used this advantage to come in 23 percent faster in CNET Labs' new multitasking test and 9 perent faster in the Photoshop CS2 test. Another similar system, the Polywell Poly 430AM2, has the same X2 4200+ CPU as the iBuyPower, but it scored marginally better on our tests. The system you'll get at Polywell's higher price includes a larger hard drive, plus a bigger monitor and better speakers. The trade-offs are a slower video card and a lack of that second x16 PCI Express slot for adding a second video card later. This makes the Polywell a better bet for general use, but casual-to-hard-core gamers should stick with the iBuyPower.
With its midrange Nvidia graphics card, the Nvidia GeForce 7600 GT, the iBuyPower Value Ultra pumped out a very playable 95.3 frames per second on our Half-Life 2 test at a 1,024x768 resolution. That shows off the difference between the iBuyPower's GeForce 7600 GT card and the Nvidia GeForce 7300 GS in the Cyberpower system, which could muster only 20.2fps on the same test. The system should still able to play most current games even with high-end features such as antialiasing turned on. Upgrading to a better card later on is easy. You can order the system with a more advanced 3D card when you configure it on the iBuyPower Web site--there's a long list from which to choose--or you can later add a second card to the SLI-ready motherboard's second x16 PCI Express slot.
Despite straddling the line between budget and midrange systems, there weren't a lot of extras bundled with the iBuyPower Value Ultra. A basic-black Logitech wired keyboard and optical set is included, as well as a set of no-name 2.1 speakers. The default operating system is Windows XP Home. Upgrading to Windows XP Media Center Edition will cost an extra $15 and is a good investment. The included ViewSonic 17-inch LCD has a native resolution of 1,280x1,024. Upgrading to a 19-inch monitor is an extra $71, but if you already have a monitor, skipping it altogether saves you $174. ViewSonic is a good monitor brand, but the speakers were cheap--use them only if you don't plan to play any music, videos, or games on your PC.
The standard warranty offers three years of labor coverage and one year of parts protection, and it included lifetime toll-free technical support. That's more than most vendors offer as a standard warranty, but iBuyPower doesn't allow you to upgrade the warranty to match the all-inclusive four-year optional warranties that some of the big guys offer. Phone support is available only during weekday business hours PT, and Web support is practically nonexistent. If you search for FAQs or drivers, you'll find this garbled message, "Looking for driver download? Please visit manufacturer Web for information."