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Time was when buying a new PC would leave very little change from a thousand pounds for even the most basic of systems, but with mass production of components and increased competition from retailers PC prices have tumbled to such an extent that an adequate system can be purchased for just a few hundred pounds. This is where the Packard Bell 3051 iMedia comes in; a friend of mine was looking for a new PC and despite my protestations had decided that PC World was the shop to get his custom. A look around the various models on display unearthed what seemed to be a veritable bargain - the above mentioned system for just £310. Some questioning of a shop assistant revealed that this price did not include a monitor but since the friend in question had purchased a TFT monitor not four months ago this was ideal as far as he was concerned. So £310 and half an hour later we were setting about the task of unpacking and installing the new PC to see exactly what £310 bought by way of a new computer system.
◄What’s in the box? ►
Well I’ve already mentioned that a monitor is not included but what you do get is a nice looking silver and black tower with separate DVD and CD-RW drives and the mandatory – but seldom used – floppy drive. The 102 key keyboard is also silver and black as is the two button scroll mouse and the twin speakers. Power leads and cables are of course all present as are instructions for both the PC system and the Windows XP home operating system which is preinstalled. A quick start guide simple tells you to plug in the corresponding coloured cables to the same coloured sockets which makes setup pretty well idiot proof, indeed these two particular idiots had the computer up and running in little more than ten minutes. Finally, some bundled software is supplied on CD as well as a Packard Bell recovery DVD Rom should things go wrong and the factory default setup needs to be returned to.
◄A look at the components in more detail►
The 3051 is powered by an Intel Celeron 2.6 GHz Processor with 128 kb cache memory which is a budget processor from Intel aimed to counteract the success of AMD`s Duron chip. The Intel Celeron is also very much the poor relation to Intels Pentium 4 series and as you would expect does not perform as well as its bigger sibling. For those of a technical bent the 2.6 GHz Celeron has 400MHz "Quad-Pumped" Front Side Bus and L2 cache to 256KB. In benchmark tests I have seen on the internet the 2.6 Celeron performs adequately but not remarkably with a speed for image processing and graphic rendering around two thirds that of a comparable AMD Athlon or Pentium 4 processor. I feel it is fair to say that if you are looking for a lightning fast PC setup then this processor and therefore the 3051 PC is not for you, but with Celeron Processors costing roughly half the price of AMD`s Athlon or Intels Pentium 4 processors the Celeron was really the only realistic option to keep the price of the whole system low.
◄The Hard disk►
The 3051 comes with a 40GB Hard disk running at 7200rpm which is enough for most peoples everyday needs, but only just. Having used a 5400rpm hard disk myself for several months last year due to repair issues with my faster drive I was anxious that the hard disk in the 3051 was no slower than 7200rpm as a 5400rpm hard disk would really be a weak link in the system, luckily Packard Bell have not tried to cut costs in this department. The Hard drive is virtually silent in operation and quick to respond to commands with the processor and the Hard disk combining with the memory to load Windows XP and around 20GB of data in about forty-five seconds.
This is an area were I’m glad to say the 3051 does not let itself down, the 256MB RAM is enough for a budget system and is of the DDR variety rather than the SDR-RAM. DDR RAM (Double Data Rate) is a lot faster than SDR RAM (Single Data Rate) as it transfers data at roughly twice the speed. The 256 MB does the job in the 3051 and there are two empty memory expansion slots should an upgrade be deemed necessary.
◄Sound and Speakers►
There is no separate sound card in the 3051, it being incorporated into the motherboard. This immediately made me suspicious as to how good sound would be but I needn’t have worried. There are three sound connector ports to be found at the back of the 3051 which consist of a line-out jack to connect to speakers, a line in jack to connect a sound source to the computer and a microphone jack to connect a mono microphone with a 3.5 mm plug. Connecting the speakers is another easy feet with power being delivered directly from the 3051 via a power lead which runs from the back of the computer to the speakers and eliminates the need for another plug to be used. A light green lead is connected to the line-out jack and the speakers are up and running. The speakers are round in shape and are black to match the other 3051 constituents, the left speaker contains a volume dial and LED power light and both speakers should be positioned about four feet away from each other. Sound performance is good if not spectacular; turning the volume knob up high while music is playing produces a clear, and very loud, result with little adverse effect to the sound. Bass is low and deep with only slight booming and humming while voices are crisp and clear and are delivered without crackle or interference. Of course a four or five speaker set up would have been nice but again we are back to the price verses specification argument.
The graphics card in the 3051 is also integrated onto the motherboard and is 64 MB SiS 651GX. Display options are good with the screen resolution set to 1280 x 1024 pixels without any noticeable problems. Colour quality is fine at 32 bit with dpi (dots per inch) set at 96. Colours are crisp and even and appear without ghosting while DVD movies are smooth and vividly displayed. The two games I played on the system (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban & The Simpson’s Hit and Run) both ran smoothly with no stutters or stalls, graphics were all smooth with clear edges and colours were displayed beautifully. For those that want to add a more powerful graphics card an AGP slot is supplied.
◄DVD, CDRW and floppy drives►
The disk drives on the 3051 are coloured black to compliment the look of the tower with green LED lights on each that flicker when the drive is in action, the eject buttons are smallish and when pushed produce instant and smooth movement in the disk tray. The DVD drive is sixteen speed and is surprisingly quite when spinning, Power-Cinema software is pre-installed to enable DVD film playback which is smooth and stutter free. The CD-RW drive is amazingly fast with a CD-R able to be written to at up to forty-eight speed. A little test I carried out was to produce a music CD with around seventy-eight minutes of songs on it, using Roxio Easy CD-DVD creator version 7 the whole process was finished in slightly under two minutes, not at all bad in my opinion. Finally the mandatory but seldom used floppy disk drive completes the trio, sadly I am unable to verify the speed or sound of this drive in operation as we could not find any software supplied on a 3.5” floppy disk. There are no spare drive bays on the 3051 which is a bit of a shame but this does keep the towers front clean and compact looking.
◄Modem and Ethernet►
The Modem is a pretty standard 56 kbps model and is connected to the motherboard via a PCI slot. The Internet service provider software that we opted for was AOL narrowband and the setup program detected the modem straight away. Dial up is quick with no disconnects reported. The 3051 also has an Ethernet 10/100 mbps connection which is a fast and common method of networking computers.
◄Keyboard and Mouse►
The keyboard is again coloured silver and black and is of the 102 key variety. Connected to the PC tower via a PS2 plug it has fourteen hot keys, eight of which can be programmed to open applications or files of the users’ choice. The keys have a nice solid feel to them when depressed and the whole layout is ergonomically pleasing. The mouse is black and is made by Logitech; again it connects to the PC tower via a PS2 connection and has two buttons and a scroll wheel between them. Movement is good and the buttons are fast and responsive to the touch.
◄Sockets, Slots and Ports►
The 3051 has a number of necessary sockets and slots as well as extra ones to make future upgrading a painless exercise. Attached to the motherboard is an AGP slot should a better graphic card be required as well as two PCI slots for additions such as a sound or TV card. To the rear of the PC tower there is one serial and one parallel port for older peripherals such as printers and scanners to be connected. The two PS2 sockets are for the mouse and keyboard and the VGA port is for the monitor. The sound connections have been covered in the sound card section which leaves the USB connections, of which there are four. The USB ports are version 2.0 and are much faster than their predecessor. One slight gripe regarding the USB ports is that two of them are at the back of the tower while two are at the front. Call me old fashioned but I like all the plugs, sockets and wires tucked away at the back of the computer out of sight, I do see why Packard Bell have done this though as USB connected hardware can be plugged in and unplugged with the minimum of effort. Also six USB ports would have been handier than the four supplied but a PCI USB card can be purchased and added for little more than £10.
◄The Operating System►
Windows XP Home edition is the operating system pre-installed on the 3051 and to my mind it is a good, solid and steady operating system. Those used to older versions of Microsoft Windows will notice the whole look and feel has been completely overhauled with slick looking graphics and increased security the key. Multiple accounts can be setup with each account able to be customised as required. One particular facet of Windows XP home that has proved invaluable to this PC is the System Restore feature. The person who’s computer this is decided to connect to the internet before installing any virus software or a firewall which resulted in a virus attacking the computer and causing almost constant rebooting of the machine. With a little patience and know how I was able to activate the System Restore feature and return the computer and all of the installed software thereon to a time before the virus was downloaded and thus averting the need for a time consuming re-format of the hard-disk. Other features of Windows XP that are worthy of mention are the automatic error reporting process should there is a problem, the automatic detection of any new hardware that you plug in, and taskbar grouping which places similar types of programs or folders displayed in the taskbar together for neatness.
◄Other Software Included►
Microsoft Works 7.0 is included which is an extremely handy program to have in that it boasts a word processing program, spreadsheet, graphics and database all in one. Although superseded by Microsoft Office, MS Works is still a worthy set of programs to have for the beginner. DVD films can be played using Power Cinema which is easy to use and uncomplicated to master. The top two Internet service providers in the UK – AOL and Freeserve – have their latest software included while basic programs that help improve web browsing – like Acrobat reader, Shockwave player, Realplayer, Quick Time and Flash Player – are also pre-installed.
◄What I like about the Packard Bell 3051►
Well, there is much to like in this PC. Starting with the look of the components - they are all compact and stylish with the modern livery of silver and black replacing the turgid beige of yesteryear. The 3051 is also extremely quiet with the processor fan and hard-disk making virtually no discernable noise. Access to the PC`s innards is a simple matter of undoing two screws so any upgrades needed can be easily installed. Each port or connection is colour coded so even the most incompetent of computer users should have little problem putting the right knob or plug in the correct place. The keyboard is solid to type with and the mouse is smooth and responsive to the touch. Both the DVD and CDRW drives are quick to read disks and fairly quiet when spinning and the presence of an Ethernet port is handy for networking options.
◄What I dislike about the Packard Bell 3051►
Well, four speakers would be a lot better than the two supplied and would improve game and DVD play no end. The four USB sockets are good especially as they are of the version 2 variety but with most printers, scanners, modems and MP3 upload cables being USB a couple more would have been handy and all of them should be positioned to the back of the computer for neatness. A reset button would also be nice as would a spare 5¼ drive bay for a hard-disk caddy or sound controls. The Hard disk is as small as anyone would want to go, doubling the capacity to 80 GB would make all the difference. Finally, the Windows XP operating system is not supplied on CD, and is instead placed in a partition on the hard-disk. I’m not sure how this works if the system becomes corrupt and a reformat and reinstallation of the operating system is required, hopefully I will not find out but I do like to have any operating system on disk for safety’s sake.
Despite the little niggles above the Packard bell 3051 is still an amazing PC system for the price. With a one year return to base warranty and detailed instructions the system is easy to set up and use with obvious thought going into the manufacture and choice of components. The 3051 is probably not for the more experienced user but the relative speed and ability to upgrade means that it is a PC that will last a good few years. Four stars out of five.