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Top Computer Makers: Gateway

Sunday, November 21, 2004; Page F06

Gateway's machines -- sold under the Gateway and eMachines labels -- boast only minor design innovations and no notable software. Most of them (aside from Gateway's ungainly Profile all-in-one models) are fairly generic products, so price and good tech support have to carry the load.

The 5200XL system we tested certainly has the pricing part down. It seems to be the company's best buy, at least when compared with other Gateway-brand desktops. For example, to jump from this tricked-out model to the cheapest 7200 model would cost an additional $200 yet sacrifice a bigger monitor and hard drive for a minuscule bump in processor speed.

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As for tech support, the help line is open all the time, our wait times ranged from one to 10 minutes, and the reps were friendly and effective.

In some cases, however, they could offer only a kind apology. The bundled copy of an old version of Microsoft Works Suite refused to recognize a file created in Excel, so a tech could do little more than apologetically suggest a $90 upgrade to Microsoft Office. (This model now ships with the current 2005 edition of Works, which offered better Excel compatibility when we reviewed it.)

None of the pre-loaded music software could save CDs in the standard MP3 format. A copy of the Napster music store's software is also onboard, along with 150 songs you can listen to only if you sign up for Napster service.

This machine had an up-to-date copy of Windows -- aside from missing Windows Media Player 10, which shipped in early September -- but lacked spyware protection.

Music junkies may like the subwoofer and speakers included on this model (complete with a control module for quick volume adjustments), but they hissed like snakes until we reinstalled the audio software.

We were not pleased with Gateway's dubious choice to omit a printed user manual -- or an actual CD-ROM of the operating system and bundled software. Instead, customers receive six blank CDs to create their own backup off the hard drive. -- Bob Massey

Hardware reviewed: 5200XL desktop, $1,290 with 15-inch FPD1513 LCD

3 GHz Intel Pentium 4, 186 GB hard drive, 512 MB memory, 128 MB video memory, 40x/24x/40x CD-RW/8x/4x/16x DVD+/-RW combo drive, 16x DVD-ROM drive, multi-format card reader, 100-Mbps Ethernet, v.92 modem, three PCI slots open; ports available: seven USB 2.0, three FireWire, one parallel, one serial. On tested configuration, three-year warranty and three years of toll-free, 24-hour phone tech support; $2.95 per minute afterward.


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