Dell Inspiron 531s

The slim Dell Inspiron 531s is a small-form-factor desktop that doesn't exact a price penalty for its size. It comes with a fairly powerful processor, 2GB of system memory (important in these Vista-oriented days) and discrete graphics. Oh, yeah, and it does all this for $499 (direct, with e-value code DDPMGX1). This is the system I would steer people toward if they are looking for a well-equipped, stylish budget desktop.

The "s" in 531s stands for small or slim. This means that the system is a lot thinner than the average mini tower desktop, at about 14 by 4 by 17 inches (HWD). Does this mean there is less expansion room in the system? Whereas that may have been true for older systems, the motherboard in the 531s has all the usual internal connectors, including two PCI card slots, a PCIe x1 and a PCIe x16 graphics card slot (occupied by an ATI Radeon HD 2400 card). The card slots are only half-height because of the slim desktop form factor, which limits some choices—but if you're buying a $500 PC, you're not likely to be looking to equip it with a $700 full-size graphics card, anyway. There's space for two additional system memory DIMMs, though most people will find the 2GB the system comes with to be plenty. (Many systems in the sub-$500 price range have only 1GB). The 531s includes a 160GB hard drive, which is average for systems at this price. But it comes with eight USB ports, which is exemplary for any system and exceptional in the category of small-form-factor PCs.

Dell took a couple of shortcuts, however, to get the 531s down to the low price it lists for. The most notable example is its choice to go with a Windows Vista Home Basic OS, which shaved off $30. (It did this $30 shave so that it could qualify as a sub-$500 PC for the purposes of this story.) If you can spare the cash, I recommend the upgrade to Home Premium later on, especially since Premium includes the MCE interface. As much as I hate to say it, I'd rather have the 2GB of RAM and the discrete graphics card over Vista Home Premium as a trade-off at the start.

The other $30 in cost savings was achieved by omitting a DVD burner in favor of a cheaper DVD/CD-RW combo drive. These days, with a lot of homebrew video and music going directly to the Web (for example, MySpace and YouTube), burned DVDs are becoming a relic of sorts. Using DVDs for backup is becoming as outdated as using floppy disks. Though DVDs are cheap, they are now unwieldy (40 DVD-Rs to back up this system if it's full), and hand-printed DVDs can easily get lost. I'm now recommending using external hard drives for backup. Searching and retrieving files is easier on external hard drives than hunting down "DVD 10/02/04-Disc 15." Still, these two omissions together do take some points away from the system, although I do think that this is a very good system in its class—it gets the Editors' Choice.

The 531s comes across as more powerful and sleeker than similar systems such as the eMachines T5234 and Compaq Presario SR5130NX. The 531s lacks the others' DVD burner, but it has discrete graphics and more system memory, hence better performance. It's less likely to seem slow a year or two down the road.

A very good choice for the budget-conscious PC buyer, the Dell Inspiron 531s proves that you don't need a big, honking tower to get a decent computer. It will even do 3D, which is a stumbling block for systems in this price range. Budget an extra $60 if DVD burning and Vista Premium are must-haves, but as is, the Inspiron 531s I tested is worthy of our Editors' Choice.