Palicomp’s Phoenix i5 Solar Flare desktop PC outclasses the competition, with a far superior specification and significantly better performance.

Budget desktop PCs: buying advice

Processor: Intel’s Sandy Bridge CPUs are revolutionising all our PC categories. The 3.3GHz Core i5-2500 seen here delivers formidable performance, but the Core i5-2400 is also very fast and costs less. The processors demand a new type of motherboard, so buying into this technology now will future-proof your PC.

If you want to eke out the best possible performance from your system, go for a Core i5-2500K CPU. The ‘K’ denotes that it’s designed for overclocking. You’ll also need a P67-chipset-based motherboard, which won’t support the CPU’s integrated graphics.

Previous-generation chips such as the Core i5-760 can still offer good value at the right price.

Every chip in Intel’s Sandy Bridge Core i5 family is quad-core, excluding some rare low-voltage versions. Non-gamers should note that their integrated graphics chips will allow them to play full-HD video without a discrete graphics card.

Some AMD quad-core processors are also available in this price range, including the Phenom II X 975 BE. None can currently keep up with Intel’s latest offerings, however.

Memory: If a fast CPU speeds up your PC, a large bank of memory stops it from slowing down. Don’t buy a PC with less than 4GB of RAM, and get a 64bit operating system to make the most of it. Core i5- and i7-800-series CPUs use DDR3 memory rather than DDR2, but there’s no need to buy the chips in threes (as you do with i7-900-series CPUs).

Storage: Photos, video and other digital media content will quickly fill a reasonably sized hard drive; choose a PC with the most capacious drive you can. Expect 1TB at this price.

Consider using a pair of smaller hard drives rather than one large drive - 1TB is a huge amount of data to lose in one go.

With prices falling all the time, you may find a solid-state disk (SSD) affordable. An SSD’s faster file transfers can transform your computing experience, but make sure you get one at least 60GB in capacity and install your programs on a second drive if you want to avoid running into drive-space problems.

Your DVD drive should write to the +/-R formats at 18-speed or above. Eight-speed rewriting is good; if you want to copy up to 8.5GB at once, look for fast DVD+/-R dual-layer drives. Blu-ray readers are becoming more affordable, but they’re still quite rare at this price.

Display: Note that 19in screens offer a lower resolution than 20in/22in monitors; 22in models display larger icons. You’ll find many budget 23.6in displays at this price.

A DVI or HDMI connector will provide a better image than a VGA port; if you want to connect additional devices, you’ll need at least two.

Finally, look for a good response rate: 8ms or below is fast enough for games.

Graphics cards: We test graphics framerates with Crysis and Stalker: Call of Pripyat. The latter can benchmark DirectX 11.0-capable graphics cards. 25fps is enough to make a game playable, but set your sights at 50fps.

ATI’s Radeon HD 6850 offers excellent performance for the money. Cut back on other components and step up to a Radeon HD 6870 if gaming is very important to you.

nVidia’s GeForce GTX 460 also offers good performance. nVidia cards offer support for realistic object interactions in games supporting PhysX and are able to display 3D content.

If you don’t play games at all, you’ll be fine with the integrated graphics of Intel’s Core i5 processors.

Power supply: A 450W-plus power supply unit (PSU) is less vital at this price point, but look for a model with a full set of SATA and PCI Express connectors to make later upgrades easier.

Sound card and speakers: To get surround sound, look for a 5.1-channel system (five speakers and a subwoofer).

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NEXT PAGE: Specifications and our expert verdict


Palicomp Phoenix i5 Solar Flare: Specs

  • 3.3GHz Intel Core i5-2500K
  • Windows 7 Home Premium 64bit (choose Windows 7 32bit at no extra cost)
  • 4GB DDR3 RAM
  • 1TB SATA
  • 8 x USB 2.0
  • 4 x USB 3.0
  • Asus P8P67 Pro motherboard
  • 750W Thermaltake PSU
  • 24in AOC 2436VWA (0.27mm pixel pitch
  • 1920x1080)
  • 1GB Sapphire ATI Radeon HD 6870 (games scores: Crysis [High/Very High] =92/42fps
  • Stalker: Call of Pripyat [Medium/Ultra] = 168/84fps)
  • onboard sound
  • 2 x Logitech S220 speakers and subwoofer
  • 24x/24x/12x/16x/6x/8x/12x/16x (DVD-R/+R/-R DL/+R DL/-RW/+RW/-RAM/-ROM)
  • one-year return-to-base warranty
  • WorldBench 6 score: 166