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Mon 11 May 2009 04:00 AM

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Mighty machines

Windows tested six of the best Intel Core i7 processor-based PCs that cost under $1,200. Read on to find out who took home our coveted awards...

Mighty machines
Mighty machines
Mighty machines
Mighty machines
Mighty machines
Mighty machines
Mighty machines
Mighty machines

Intel's Core i7 processor delivers excellent performance and has low power requirements. As a result it's perfect for use in a desktop PC, which is why we asked six vendors to send us their best machines with a price cap of US $1200. So, read on if you're interested in finding out who took home our coveted awards...Aftron 1080Super-sized storage

Price$1200 Contact:+9714 282 3363 Web: www.aftron.com

The Aftron 1080 is the first machine the Windows team has ever tested from Al-Futtaim Electronics and we're happy to say that it left a very good impression.

The machine is packed with quality components starting with an Intel Core i7 920 processor that runs its four cores at 2.67GHz. The CPU is cooled by a standard Intel LGA1366 cooling fan and both processor and cooler are bolted to a board packing Intel's X58 chipset. The 1080 also includes a cool 6Gbytes of memory and for those interested in gaming, you'll also find a Radeon HD 4870.

As impressive as these components are the Aftron stands out mostly thanks to its superlative storage system. Peering inside the chassis we spied three 500Gbyte Seagate Barracuda 7200.12 hard drives and on booting the PC, we noticed that they were running in RAID 0 mode.

Thanks to this, the machine returned a seriously impressive PCMark hard drive score of 7,909; the second highest figure in this test. The only system with a higher score is Sky's Solid State Disk (SSD) powered eXPeditor with 8,464. The Aftron also returned strong numbers on the CPU and memory front and thanks to its GPU, also proved a reasonable gaming machine whether you have a 17-inch LCD or a larger, higher resolution screen. In use we found the machine 100% stable and thanks to its two 120mm cooling fans, it was also whisper quiet.

Performance:4/5 Features:5/5 Value for Money:5/5 Verdict:A quick machine overall and it's the best in this grouptest if you have intensive storage requirements that demand speed and capacity. Racer x3Does its performance match its looks?

Price$1200 Contact+9714 883 8828 Web:www.dtkme.com

After we unpacked DTK's Racer X3 we almost expected it to speed off our desk because its front end borrows styling cues from Ferrari's F430 road car. There's even a ‘Start' button to complete the illusion.

The first time we hit the power button proved to be a hair-raising experience however because the PC literally screamed to life. After the machine booted and after hitting In Win's website, we realised the machine creates the noise of a Ferrari starting and accelerating every time you power up. This might sound cool but we became quite annoyed with it after the third time we heard it.

Thankfully, once the Racer X3 has booted it's reasonably quiet though you can hear a little bit of fan noise. The machine uses a 32-bit variant of Microsoft's Vista operating system (OS) and this is unfortunate because it means the DTK suffers from the same issue that almost all the PCs in this test are plagued with; the 32-bit OS simply can't take advantage of the machine's RAM. While the DTK has a hefty 6Gbytes, the OS is only able to address up to 4Gbytes.

The DTK holds the honour of being the quickest PC in terms of boot time. From power on to being able to use the machine took just 60 seconds. On the gaming front, the DTK performed as well as the Aftron 1080 as they both use the same GPU, CPU and memory. In terms of apps however, the Aftron 1080 proved comprehensively faster.

Performance:3/5 Features:4/5 Value for Money:4/5 Verdict:The Racer is a swift machine but the only question is can you deal with the outrageous case and its audible ‘features'. Spidernet i7BX58

Heavy features but does it have undeniable appeal?

Price:$1195 Contact:+9714 359 7767 Web:www.mussallamtrading.com

Past machines we've tested from Musallam Trading offered potent performance and value and as a result, we expected great things from the Spidernet i7BX58.

Initial impressions were favourable because the machine packed the same CPU and chipset as all the other machines here and also included 6Gbytes of RAM. Video muscle was also in no short supply courtesy of a GeForce 8800 GTX with 768Mbytes of memory. The PC included a PCI-based TV Tuner too, which gave the PC broader entertainment capabilities compared to all the other machines here.

Peering inside the case, the Spidernet was cleanly laid out save for one exception. While most of the cables are neatly tied and out of the way of all the major components, they block access to the hard drive cage. This not only means you'll have to get these cables out of the way if you want to add more capacity but the cables also restrict airflow to the hard drives. Had the machine featured two cooling fans rather than just a single 120mm fan this wouldn't have been an issue. That said, the PC remained completely stable.

Running our benchmarks, the i7BX58 surprised us because despite its quality components, it returned some of the lowest figures in this test. The gaming numbers were the most surprising given its GPU is more powerful than the 8800GT sitting inside the Pulsar TM-2659i.

Performance:3/5 Features:3/5 Value for Money:3/5 Verdict:The Spidernet is hard to recommend because despite its strong components, it just isn't as fast as some of the other PCs here. Sky eXPeditorValue packed and very clever

Price:$1125 Contact:+9714 351 7666 Web: www.skyelectronics.com

Retailing for US $1125 the eXPeditor is the least expensive machine in this grouptest and thanks to some clever component selection work on Sky Electronics' part, it offers superb value for money.

Starting with the machine's core components, you'll find a Core i7 920 CPU and a X58 motherboard but rather than opting for a very high amount of RAM, Sky has fitted 3Gbytes. This makes perfect sense given the machine uses a 32-bit version of Windows Vista, which can only properly address up to 4Gbytes of RAM. The cash saved here has allowed Sky to fit the PC with a super quick 32Gbyte Solid State Drive (SSD) (rightly configured as the boot drive) in addition to a 500Gbyte standard drive for other data. The machine also packs a GeForce GTX 260 graphics card, which immediately suggested the eXPeditor would excel at both apps and games.

The PC also sports the best chassis in the grouptest in the form of a very smart looking SilverStone TJ02. For added flair, the machine boasts a case window which allows you to peek into its very cleanly laid out interior.

When it came to performance, the eXPeditor thoroughly impressed. Its SSD drive helped it produce the highest PCMark drive score and also made the PC feel very responsive. The other app numbers were very healthy too and thanks to the GTX 260, the PC returned the second highest gaming numbers in this test.

Performance:4/5 Features:5/5 Value for Money:5/5 Verdict:No other PC in this grouptest comes close to offering anywhere near the value for money the eXPeditor gives you. A fantastic buy. Pulsar TM-2659iCan its performance get your pulse racing?

Price:$1195 Contact:+9714 393 8111 Web: www.touchmatepc.com

On the flamboyancy charts the Pulsar TM-2659i holds it ground firmly when compared to the DTK and Musallam machines but how does it fair on the performance front?

The Pulsar proved a better apps machine than a gaming one. Whereas its application numbers remained competitive with most of the PCs here, its gaming numbers at both resolutions were the lowest figures in this grouptest. This is purely because the machine uses an older GeForce 8800 GT graphics card.

The ATX case holding the Pulsar's components is quite striking to look at but unfortunately it's a bit of a let down in terms of build quality and convenience features. The front bays are covered by a hinged door and this felt very flimsy every time we opened and shut it. Removing the cases' side panel we also found the metal here very thin and thus it exhibited a tremendous amount of flex. The chassis lacks front mounted USB, Firewire and audio ports too, so you'll have to crawl around to the back of the machine if you want to stick in your headphones or a USB flash drive. Thankfully, on the inside things look up as there's ample room for a clean layout and, should you want loads of storage, you'll find a number of empty drive bays.

In use we found the PC dead silent and this was a pleasant surprise given the machine is cooled by two 80mm cooling fans.

Performance:3/5 Features:3/5 Value for Money:3/5 Verdict:The Pulsar is an average performer although it's a good buy if you plan to add loads of internal storage to your machine. ICC ZAI

A supercharged performer

Price:$1200 Contact:+9662 664 446 Web:www.zai.com.sa

Retailing for US $1200 the ZAI sits right on our cutoff line for systems in this grouptest but after putting it through our benchmark gauntlet, we found it worth every penny.

On the application front the machine returned PCMark CPU, memory and hard drive figures of 9,239, 8,259 and 6,214. The CPU score is the highest in this test whilst the memory and hard drive scores are also very healthy. The drive score in fact was the third highest result here falling behind only two machines; the SSD equipped eXPeditor and the three-disk RAID 0 equipped Aftron 1080.

Moving to gaming performance, the ZAI continued to impress as it produced framerates of 62fps and 55fps at 1280 x 1024 pixels and 1680 x 1050 pixels in our World in Conflict benchmarks. The strong gaming numbers are thanks specifically to the machine's high-end GeForce GTX 280 GPU.

The ZAI boasts decent cooling in the form of two fans; one 80mm and one 120mm. These kept the machine perfectly stable though it's not the quietest machine here as a result of a slight whine coming from the 80mm fan. The inside of this rig is also fairly neat as its cables are tied and tucked out of the way, which will make upgrades a cinch whilst also improving airflow. The only issue we had with this PC is that its chassis is fairly basic in terms of looks and is devoid of front-mounted Firewire ports.

Performance:5/5 Features:5/5 Value for Money:4/5 Verdict:Barring its fairly bland exterior looks, this is a well-equipped machine that excels on the application and gaming fronts. Editor's choice

ICC ZAI

The ZAI had no problems claiming our Best Performance prize because it utterly destroyed the competition in terms of both application and gaming performance. A fitting winner then.

The machine's super-swift performance is easy to understand simply because the machine packs such quality components under its hood. As a result this machine is a monster whether you're tackling intensive Photoshop image editing jobs, video editing or even everyday office application work.

The PC's fluid game framerates on the other hand come courtesy of the GeForce GTX 280 GPU. Although it's no longer the biggest and strongest GPU in nVidia's lineup it is still a very formidable card that'll ensure you get fluid framerates from any game.

We will be giving away this PC in our competition pages in next month's issue. So be sure to get WINDOWS next month to have a chance at winning this superb machine. Sky expeditor

Sky Electronics has proven time after time that it knows how to build a balanced rig and with this new eXPeditor machine, the company has done it once again. Packing quality components, clean build and a great performance for a very attractive price, it was the undisputed Value-for-money king.

Part of the reason the eXPeditor performed so well is because it packs a super-quick SSD drive. Not only did this drive help it boot and shutdown fairly quick but it also made the machine feel ultra-responsive within Windows and when loading our app and game benchmarks. Realising that a single 32Gbyte SSD drive won't be enough to appease most people's storage needs, the company also fitted a 500Gbyte hard disk.

The Sky's chassis was also the best in the test in terms of design and finish and we're absolutely stunned that the eXPeditor ships with this case, a SSD drive and yet manages to pack in a GTX 260 GPU.

How we testedTo test each PC's performance we ran a combination of application and gaming tests to test how fast or slow each machine was with regards to these specific uses. For application testing we relied on PCMark and ran the benchmark's CPU, memory and hard drive tests. Across all three tests, higher scores equate to a better performing machine. To test DirectX 10 gaming performance we employed World in Conflict and ran the test at two different resolutions; 1280 x 1024 and 1680 x 1050 pixels. The former resolution will suit some 15- and 17-inch LCDs whilst the latter targets 17-inch LCDs and above. Higher framerates meant a better performing PC.

Besides the app and gaming tests, we also clocked how long it took each PC to boot and shutdown. To test the boot time, we used a stopwatch to time a machine from the moment we hit the power button to the second it became useable within Windows. For the shutdown test we simply timed how long the machine took to power down after we hit the ‘Shutdown' button within Windows. In these tests, lower times are better.

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