Walmart.com $199 PC

WalMart.com Microtel Sysmar 710

http://www.walmart.com, http://www.microtelpc.com

PRICE: Hardware: $199.86 (includes keyboard, mouse, and speakers, but does not include monitor).

Rating: pr_02

Specifications: Mini-tower case; CPU: 800 MHz Via C3 processor; Memory: 128 MB RAM; Peripherals: 10 GB hard drive, onboard Fast Ethernet, 52X CD-ROM drive, Trident Blade graphics, and sound chip.

Pros: Low price, low price, low price.

Cons: Slow processor; no on-site service; only one PCI slot; no floppy or modem.

At $199.86, it’s well worth the price. What is it? It is the infamous sub-$200 Lindows computer offered by Walmart.com (don’t look for it in stores).

My expectations for the 800MHz “white box” PC manufactured by Microtel Computer Systems (http://www.microtelpc.com) were low, even after I saw the total bill for $232.63, including shipping charges and California state sales tax. But you know, it’s not bad. I’d hate to use it for my everyday PC, but for the price, it’s a solid computer.

Let’s talk about the hardware. (Read the review on the next page to hear Linux Magazine’s impressions of Lindows.) The system, called the Sysmar 710, is manufactured specifically for Wal-Mart. It’s a mini-tower that includes an 800 MHz Via C3 processor, 128 MB RAM, a 10 GB hard drive, and a 52X CD-ROM drive. The Via C3 processor is essentially a clone of Intel’s Celeron chip.

As has been widely reported, there’s no internal modem or floppy drive in the Sysmar 710, but the system does have four USB connectors and onboard Fast Ethernet. (Thanks to some shoddy manufacturing on the RJ-45 jack, I couldn’t remove the Ethernet cable once I plugged it in. Now it’s plugged in forever.)

The computer has a built-in sound chip and both a serial and parallel port. There’s on-board graphics, using a Trident Blade chip with 8 MB RAM (shared with main memory). The motherboard also has analog and SVGA monitor-out connectors, which I didn’t test. Wal-Mart also threw in a generic full-sized keyboard that’s actually not too bad, a really dreadful wheel mouse, and cheap, powered speakers. All you have to add is a monitor.

Figure One: The guts of Walmart.com’s sub-$200 computer.

When you look inside the box, things get interesting (see the photo). Although the cabinet has four removable plugs for expansion cards, the miniature motherboard only has a single 32-bit 33 MHz PCI connector. You could use that for adding a modem. There are two ATA-100 connectors: one is used for the Maxtor hard drive, and the other for the MSI CD-ROM drive. Since there’s one open half-height drive bay, and one 3.5-inch drive bay, you could easily add a Zip drive, second hard drive, DVD player, or even a CD-ROM burner to this computer.

There are two memory slots: one has a 133 MHz 128 MB DIMM pre-installed. Via, the company that makes the motherboard, says the system can support up to 1 GB of RAM.

In running Lindows, and then running Red Hat Linux 7.3 when I got bored with Lindows, I didn’t experience any problems with any of the applications I tried, including Mozilla and StarOffice. One shouldn’t expect speeding tickets, but for Web surfing, email, and a little word processing, 800 MHz is more than sufficient. Even the 128 MB RAM was enough.

So, what’s not to like? While the Microtel has a one year warrenty if it does go pop, you’ll need to ship the PC back to Microtel for service. For me, that’s a deal-breaker.

Bottom Line: Shop Around

For basic productivity tasks, the WalMart. com computer is a fine PC. Don’t expect to watch DVD movies or play high-end games, though. Personally, I prefer to buy from name-brand manufacturers, and I like to buy PCs that have on-site service. But I also like saving money and this computer is pretty inexpensive. But if you’re able to spend more, you’ll get more too.

By comparison, the least expensive Dell I could find was a Dimension 2350, with a 2.0 GHz Celeron, 128 MB RAM, 30 GB hard drive, modem, CD-ROM drive, floppy, Ethernet, Windows XP Home, and one year on-site service, for $679. A comparable Gateway 300S, with a 40 GB hard drive and CD-RW drive was only $499. At press time, Gateway was also offering a $100 rebate and free shipping.

Best value: the other guys. Rock-bottom price: Wal-Mart.

Alan Zeichick is principal analyst at Camden Associates. You can reach him at zeichick@camdenassociates.com.

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