Polywell, a company whose high-end gaming and Media Center systems we're accustomed to seeing, has put together a basic box suitable for back-to-school shoppers, with the Polywell Poly 430AM2. This PC won't win any awards for design or performance, and at $1,350 (including a 19-inch LCD monitor and 5.1 speakers), it's more then twice as expensive as some of the more budget-minded back-to-school system's we've looked at recently, including the inexpensive but excellent Cyberpower Back to School Super Value. For the additional investment, however, you do get a decent set of specs, including a newly issued dual-core AMD processor, a decent midrange Nvidia graphics card, and 320GB of hard drive space. It's sure to last from orientation to graduation, even for those students prone to taking the occasional semester away from school.
The Poly 430AM2 uses a MicroATX motherboard inside a silver-and-black case that's a bit smaller than a standard desktop. You can configure the system at Polywell's Web site, in fact, with a small-form-factor Aspire X-Qpack case without swapping out any components. The unassuming front panel has a multiformat media card reader and three USB 2.0 ports hidden behind a sliding plastic panel. The panel is at least twice the size of most other sliding panels we've seen--big enough to cover two 3.5-inch drive bays--and we had trouble getting it to slide smoothly back into position.
On the side panel is a large black button, about the size of a silver dollar, that says simply, Push. Sadly, pushing this button doesn't automatically pop off the side-panel door, but it does release a small internal latch, allowing you to pull the door off by the indented handle at the end.
Inside the neatly wired case there are two hard drive bays, each filled with a 160GB hard drive. A Sony DVD burner occupies one of the two optical drive bays, and two 512MB DDR2 memory modules fill half of the system's four RAM slots. The single x16 PCI Express slot holds a GeForce 7600 GS video card. Below that are two standard PCI slots, but one is inaccessible; the GeForce 7600 GS includes a small daughtercard, with component video outputs, that blocks the back-panel opening of one PCI slot. Compared to the similarly priced Gateway DX310X, the Poly 430AM2 provides more hard drive space, a more-recent midrange GeForce graphics card, and two more DIMM slots, the latter being especially important with Windows Vista on the horizon.
The Polywell Poly 430AM2 is based on AMD's dual-core Athlon 62 X2 4200+ processor and the company's new AM2 chipset. This chip is a step up from the CPUs we've seen in our other back-to-school systems, and it's on a par with the Gateway DX310S's dual-core Intel Pentium D 930. Compared with the Cyberpower Back to School Super Value, with its AMD Athlon 64 X2 3800+, the Poly 430AM2 was 19 percent faster in CNET Labs' new multitasking benchmark and 11 percent faster in the Labs' iTunes encoding test. For the price premium, it's probably not worth the bump you get over the Cyberpower, unless you're a student who moonlights as a video game beta tester.
Thanks to the system's GeForce 7600 GS video card, gaming is a breeze. In our 1,024x768 Half-Life 2 tests, the Poly 430AM2 scored a very playable 87.5 frames per second, even with high-end options such as antialiasing turned on. The GeForce 7600 GS has a small daughtercard that gives you composite, S-Video, and component output--useful if you plan to connect the system to a TV. It's not a particularly media-centric system, but we always appreciate the flexibility component outputs provide.
Bundled with our test system was a 19-inch AvidAV LCD panel and a set of Logitech X-530 5.1 speakers. Knocking off these two options brings the system price down to $1,140. The Logitech speakers are excellent; the monitor is acceptable, and it includes small built-in speakers if you don't need dedicated ones.