A PC for Bargain Hunters

Dell's new SmartStep is one of the cheapest PCs around, but is it a deal for you?

At $599, Dell's SmartStep 100D is about the cheapest PC you can buy from a major manufacturer, beating entry-level competitors from Compaq, Gateway, and HP.

Bargains like this don't come without compromises, though. Unlike most built-to-order Dells, the SmartStep comes in only one configuration: A 1-GHz Celeron CPU, with 128MB of SDRAM, a 20GB hard drive, and a basic 48X CD-ROM drive.

The SmartStep's no speed demon, either. Its score of 75 on PC WorldBench 4 makes this PC the slowest Windows XP-based system we've tested. Still, that's only a few points behind some other budget PCs, and the SmartStep should be fast enough for such basic tasks as word processing, using e-mail, and browsing the Web.

Unfortunately, performing text-intensive activities might be difficult on the smallish 15-inch Dell E551 monitor. When viewing Internet Explorer and our standard test screen of a Microsoft Word document containing a 12-point font, I found text a bit blurry at resolutions of 800 by 600 and 1024 by 768. Images fared better, however. Our test screen--while not stunningly rendered--had acceptable colors and detailing.

Most other aspects of the shipping model I looked at were also acceptable or better. The diminutive Kinyo speakers won't impress audiophiles, but they had more power and better sound fidelity than most other low-cost speaker sets I've heard.

Newbies will appreciate Dell's high-quality documentation--but not the skimpy 90 days of warranty and tech support. Upgrading to Dell's standard one-year plan will cost you an extra $50.

Though $599 is a great price, you may be better off spending a few extra dollars. One example: Dell's $799 Dimension 2100, which provides a clearer, 17-inch monitor; an easy-access, upgrade-friendly case; and a one-year warranty. With the SmartStep 100D, you get what you pay for.

By Sean Captain