A 64-bit processor in a PC that costs less than $1,000? That's what we said the first time we laid eyes on the Systemax Ascent 64. On the strength of AMD's Athlon 64 3000+ processor, the Ascent 64 took top honors on our benchmarks among the four systems we tested in our budget-PC roundup. We were also pleasantly surprised at the Ascent 64's multiformat DVD-recordable drive, rather than the standard budget CD-RW or DVD-ROM drives. Unfortunately, Systemax made sacrifices in other areas to keep the price of our test system at $999.99, foremost among them was the system's paltry 256MB of memory. A powerful processor such as the Athlon 64 3000+ deserves 512MB or more. Similarly, the included graphics card is woefully out-of-date and underpowered. Still, the Systemax Ascent 64 offers home and business users a solid framework for a system that can grow with you.
The Systemax Ascent 64's midnight-black midtower case offers a clean, straightforward appearance. For a sub-$1,000 budget system, there's ample room for expansion inside, too, though the 300-watt power supply may fall a bit short when maxing out the unit's seven drive bays, three PCI slots, or two memory slots. Our test system had three open 5.25-inch bays and one free 3.5-inch bay, plus two unoccupied PCI slots and one free memory slot. There aren't many cables inside this modest budget PC, but Systemax does an admirable job of keeping the cabling tied up and routed out of the way. And with only three fans, the system is relatively quiet.
Our Ascent 64 test system's lone PCI card was a three-port FireWire card, a perk we wouldn't normally expect on a budget system. In addition, the system's back panel serves up two serial ports, one parallel port, and four USB 2.0 ports. A standard set of three audio jacks is also available in the rear. Conveniently located at the bottom of the front panel are two more USB 2.0 ports, microphone and headphone jacks, and a floppy drive.
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|With its 64-bit processor and ample free drive bays and PCI slots, the Systemax Ascent 64 gives you a solid foundation on which to grow.|
In another boon for a budget system, the Systemax Ascent 64 includes a dedicated graphics card, which provides a VGA port for analog monitors while also providing a TV-out jack, should you want to watch videos or play games on a larger display than the system's included 15-inch flat panel. The system provides an integrated Ethernet port, but dial-up users will have to add an $8 PCI modem card listed on the online configurator for the Systemax Ascent 64 line, which you can find at Globalcomputer.com (oddly, it's not at Systemax.com).
The $999.99 Systemax Ascent 64 is a surprising mix of power and mediocrity. We were surprised to see AMD's 64-bit Athlon 64 3000+ processor in a sub-$1,000 system, but Systemax matches this with a mere 256MB of DDR333 (PC2700) Non-ECC SDRAM. The type of multimedia/scientific applications that might benefit from a 64-bit processor, such as CAD and image editing, would also benefit from 512MB to 1GB of fast (DDR400 or faster) RAM. Oddly, the Ascent 64's online configurator gives you a choice of 128MB, 256MB, or 1GB of memory, but not 512MB.
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|Odd couple: Systemax paired a powerful 64-bit processor with a piddling amount of memory.|
Unlike other budget systems, Systemax eschews a weak integrated graphics solution in favor of a dedicated graphics card; our test system arrived with the ATI Radeon 7000, though it offered only 64MB of graphics memory. More-powerful cards are available as upgrade options, but gamers will find neither ATI's nor Nvidia's latest high-end cards on the menu. An older, less powerful card such as the Radeon 7000 isn't up a gamer's alley, but it will play older titles, and more importantly, it will help improve overall system performance. We recommend spending an additional $30 for Nvidia's GeForce FX 5200--still a budget card, but it's a more recent release with double the graphics memory.
You shouldn't, however, need to upgrade the hard drive or the optical drive that came with our Ascent 64 test system. For those who are shopping at or near the $1,000 price point, this machine's spacious 120GB hard drive and its multiformat DVD-/+RW will be welcome additions. The only complaint you might have about the DVD burner is that it's the system's sole optical drive. For the ability to burn quick disc-to-disc copies, be sure to select the DVD-ROM drive that Systemax offers as your second drive.
The system's sound is acceptable for basic MP3 and CD playback, but audiophiles will quickly find the sound weak and tinny--handled, as it is, by the motherboard's onboard sound system and squeezed out through a garden-variety Cyber Acoustics 3001 three-piece, 14-watt amplified speaker system.
The Ascent 64 ships with Windows XP Home, along with a well-rounded software bundle that includes Microsoft Works 7.0 (and a trial version of Microsoft Office Small Business Edition 2003); NTI CD+DVD Maker 6.5 Gold for CD and DVD media creation; the CyberLink PowerDVD movie player; Ulead VideoStudio 6.0 SE for video editing; and Ulead DVD MovieFactory 2.0 SE for DVD, VCD, and SVCD creation. The system also includes system-recovery CDs and instructions on how to use them.
Using the fastest processor among the four systems we tested for this roundup, the Systemax Ascent 64 turned in the top SysMark 2004 scores. With the recently released AMD Athlon 64 3000+, the Ascent 64 earned a 141 on SysMark 2004, nearly 7 percent faster than the next-best system, the eMachines T3085. To add a bit of perspective here, the Ascent 64's score of 141 is far from the highest SysMark 2004 score we've seen. But, among its budget brethren, the Systemax Ascent 64 offers very respectable application performance and should handle basic office apps, e-mailing, and Web surfing with aplomb.
|BAPCo SysMark 2004 rating||SysMark 2004 Internet-content-creation rating||SysMark 2004 office-productivity rating|
To measure application performance, CNET Labs uses BAPCo's SysMark 2004, an industry-standard benchmark. Using off-the-shelf applications, SysMark measures a desktop's performance using office-productivity applications (such as Microsoft Office and McAfee VirusScan) and Internet-content-creation applications (such as Adobe Photoshop and Macromedia Dreamweaver).
3D graphics and gaming performance
The Systemax Ascent 64's success on our application tests unfortunately did not carry over to 3D gaming. With a very old ATI Radeon 7000 graphics card, the Ascent 64 could muster only 12.4 frames per second on our low-end Unreal Tournament 2003 test. This frame rate underscores the point that the Ascent 64 is not meant for gamers or any other users with demanding graphics needs.
|Unreal Tournament 2003 Flyby-Antalus 1,024x768|
To measure 3D gaming performance, CNET Labs uses Epic Games' Unreal Tournament 2003, widely used as an industry-standard benchmark. We use Unreal to measure a desktop's performance with the DirectX 8.0 (DX8) interface at a 32-bit color depth and at a resolution of 1,024x768 and 1,600x1,200. Antialiasing and anisotropic filtering are disabled during our 1,024x768 tests and are set to 4X and 8X respectively during our 1,600x1,200 tests. At this color depth and these resolutions, Unreal provides an excellent means of comparing the performance of low-end to high-end graphics subsystems. We report the results of Unreal's Flyby-Antalus test in frames per second (fps).
Performance analysis written by CNET Labs technician David Gussman.
Find out more about how we test desktop systems.
Windows XP Home; 1.92GHz AMD Athlon XP 2600+; Via KT600 chipset; 512MB DDR SDRAM 333MHz; Nvidia GeForce4 MX 440 64MB; Maxtor 6Y080P0 80GB 7,200rpm
Windows XP Home; 2.66GHz Intel P4; Intel 8645G chipset; 512MB DDR SDRAM 333MHz; integrated Intel 845G 64MB (shared memory); Seagate ST3120026A 120GB 7,200rpm
Windows XP Home; 2.17GHz AMD Athlon XP 3000+; Nvidia Nforce-2; 512MB DDR SDRAM 333MHz; integrated GeForce4 MX 64MB; WDC WD1600BB-00FTA0 160GB 7,200rpm
Windows XP Home; 2GHz AMD Athlon 64 3000+; Via K8T800 chipset; 256MB DDR SDRAM 333MHz; ATI Radeon 7000 64MB; Samsung SP1203N 120GB 7,200rpm
Systemax supports the Ascent 64 with a one-year limited warranty and onsite service, with toll-free hardware telephone support included 24/7 for the length of the warranty period--both are welcome benefits for such a low-cost PC. Extended-warranty options are available for the safety-minded at an additional cost. In the event of a depot repair, you pay shipping and handling when you send the unit to the factory, and Systemax will pay to return it to you.
The impressive online support options at the Systemax &siteid=7&edid=&lop=txt&destcat=ex_1&destUrl=http%3A%2F%2Fwww%2Esystemaxpc%2Ecom%2F">Web site include access to a knowledge base, FAQs, driver and manual downloads, e-mail access to technical support, and a Tech-In-A-Box service utility intended to help with system troubleshooting and corrective action.