We spent the latter half of 2009 raving about Gateway’s SX2800-01, a fast, Windows Vista-based slim tower whose Intel Core 2 Quad CPU performance put to shame PCs that cost up to $200 more. Gateway has since updated the various models in the SX28000 series to Windows 7, and with this new $559 SX2840-01, it’s added Intel’s new mainstream Core i3 quad-core chip. Through some clever chip design, this CPU provides the speed benefits of a dual-core CPU, but can also emulate two extra cores as the workload demands, making it a virtual quad-core CPU. We wish the SX2840-01 came with Wi-Fi, but in terms of offering the most capability for your dollar, Gateway’s SX2840-01 has few peers. As with the older model, we recommend this system to anyone shopping for a low-cost PC for productivity or home entertainment.
Take a look around at Gateway’s various mainstream slim tower competitors and you’ll see no one comes close to the value you get in the SX2840-01. Dell’s Inspiron 580s has limited configuration options; HP’s Pavilion Slimline s5370t series will cost you more than $800 for a configuration similar to the Gateway; and Lenovo’s IdeaCentre Q700 starts at $649 and gets you only an outdated Intel Pentium Dual Core chip. We also checked in with vendors like Shuttle, Maingear, and ZT Systems, and found nothing that challenged the Gateway in size, capabilities, or price. If this absence of competition is what Stan Shih, founder of Gateway-parent Acer, meant when he said, “U.S. computer brands may disappear over the next 20 years,” he might have a point.
Indeed, the system most competitive with the Gateway might be from the one U.S.-based vendor best positioned to compete with commodity Windows PCs, and that’s Apple’s Mac Mini. It lacks an HDMI output, but it does offer wireless networking. We’d rather have HDMI if we had to choose, so the Gateway gets the nod in terms of living room suitability, but the Mac Mini is not without its charms. Its brushed aluminum and white plastic exterior is better looking than the Gateway’s all-black enclosure. Further inspection reveals a few more shortcomings on the Apple side, though. The 160GB hard drive in the $599 baseline Mac Mini in particular looks like a joke next to the 1TB drive in the Gateway.
The HDMI output is a key component for the Gateway, because it allows you to connect it easily to any HDTV and serve up video content from the Web or via the Gateway’s DVD drive. With the Mac Mini you need to buy a separate mini-DVI-to-HDMI adapter. We were happy to find that the Gateway scaled properly to a TV set to 1080p output, and also that it transmitted sound over its HDMI cable with no trouble. It’s also robust enough to handle video from YouTube, Hulu, and NetFlix smoothly, and it also successfully played back an HD movie trailer from Apple’s online trailer repository. The Mac Mini was equally capable, but Dell’s Inspiron Zino HD and its lower-end hardware faltered on Hulu and the HD trailer tests.
We’re actually happy to see that the Gateway isn’t quite so far ahead of its Windows-based budget competition this time around in terms of performance. We’re not surprised that it blew past the Dell Zino, given that system’s low-power dual-core AMD CPU, but the full-power quad-core AMD Athlon II X4 630 in the HP Pavilion p6310y gives the Gateway and its Core i3 CPU some real competition throughout our benchmarks. Yes, that HP is a $599 midtower, so you’d expect it to outperform the tiny Gateway. But the last time we reviewed an SX2800-series slim tower it regularly outperformed budget PCs that cost up to $200 more. That the HP remains competitive suggests that the budget PC market perhaps won’t be as dismal this year as it was in 2009. It also argues that for multicore and multitasking workloads, true quad-core CPUs may still provide some advantages over the Core i3’s virtual quad-core design, but any gap, especially among systems in this price range, will likely remain a small one. We expect you’ll find the SX2840-01 well suited to any typical consumer-level task.
In addition to the HDMI video output, the Gateway also offers a fairly flexible set of connectivity options inside and out. As pictured above, you get five USB 2.0 ports on the front, along with a media card reader, audio jacks, and a mini FireWire input. Around back you’ll find four more USB 2.0 ports, an Ethernet jack, an eSATA port, a set of 7.1 audio inputs, an optical S/PDIF audio input, and a VGA video out. Short of a full-size FireWire jack, there’s little else we’d ask from a budget desktop’s external connection options.
The SX2840-01 also has a leg up on its closed box competition, such as the Mac Mini or the Dell Zino, because you can open it up to make upgrades yourself. The slim tower case means you’ll need to stick to half-height expansion cards, but the 1x PCI Express slot stands ready to accept a wireless networking card, and you can even add some basic 3D gaming capability thanks to the 16x PCI Express graphics card slot. All four RAM slots are occupied, but at least you can get to them and swap in larger memory sticks if you’re so inclined. The only hard-drive bay is occupied, however, so you’ll need to stick with external or networked storage expansion.
The Gateway uses a reasonable amount of power for a budget Windows desktop, and it will cost you roughly less than $2 a month to use on average. Considering their similar performances, the Gateway looks relatively efficient next to the HP Pavilion p6310y. In either case, both systems might as well run on coal compared with the Mac Mini, which offers similar performance and only consumes around a quarter of the energy to do it. Perhaps the hardware requirements and utilization of Windows 7 itself is the stumbling block for the non-Apple side of the aisle, but someday we’d like to see a Windows vendor give Apple some competition in power efficiency, if not for the environmental benefits than at least so that we can write something new.
We also rate Gateway’s service and support policies the same as we do its mainstream Windows-based competition, which in this case fares better than Apple’s support offerings. Gateway gives you one year of parts and labor coverage for the SX2840-01, along with 24-7 toll-free phone service and a variety of help resources available online. The system itself also comes with a few diagnostic apps to help you monitor the status of various components yourself.