$1,249 (bundle includes 17-inch LCD), www.gateway.com, 800-369-1409

Specifications: 2.4GHz Intel Pentium 4 processor, 256MB memory, integrated Intel Extreme graphics accelerator (up to 64MB shared memory), 76.3GB hard drive, 32x/10x/40x CD-RW/16x DVD-ROM drive, floppy drive, 10/100-Mbps Ethernet, 56-kbps v.92 modem, two free PCI slots, five free USB 2.0 ports, one free parallel and serial port each, one free PS/2 port.

Support: One-year warranty; one year of 24-hour toll-free phone support; $1.95-per-minute charge afterward.

This is a mixed-bag PC, one that reflects the difficult balancing act major PC manufacturers must accomplish: On the up side, there's a spiffy 17-inch flat-panel display and a Logitech optical USB mouse.

But that image of high-tech artistry is undercut by the inclusion of a keyboard design that hasn't changed in several years and still connects via a PS/2 socket.

Having gotten the computer from a company that has been trying to differentiate itself through promises of customer service, we were surprised with how little setup help we found offered to the novice. We received the now-standard one-sheet setup guide and a thick manual, but there was no on-screen tutorial and a help page that was more Microsoft than Gateway.

Gateway is trying to reduce costs and improve service by offering Web-based tools. We appreciated its Web site's ability to find our PC's serial number and list its configuration, but beyond that, we didn't find much hand-holding. An attempt to use e-mail to solve a configuration problem got us only a canned, irrelevant document.

If you're lucky, you can get some real help via phone from Gateway technical support. Once we found the right person, she was able to answer our configuration and setup questions with almost no waiting. But on another call, the agent couldn't deal with our networking problem and sent us off to another unit that couldn't help us either unless we paid for support.

We also were not impressed with the software bundle supplied with the 500S Plus. For office tools there's Microsoft Works and a copy of Word, plus the cut-down standard version of Microsoft Money 2003, Norton Anti-Virus 2003, Microsoft's Picture-It Photo 7.0, and software to play DVDs and play and record CDs. A limited version of MusicMatch handles MP3 tasks and periodically bugs you to upgrade to the full version.

If you're a gamer, you'll need to upgrade to one of the nVidia or ATI graphics cards Gateway offers at $80 and up. The standard Intel graphics chipset balked at running the demo of Unreal Tournament 2003 at anything but mediocre resolution and color settings.

Opening the PC to upgrade components is a simple one-button operation. There are three open drive bays, but only two unused PCI card slots and one memory slot.

-- Alan S. Kay