Introduction, Design Features
Gaming desktops tend to make the headlines when they come in one stereotypical recipe: huge, flashy, powerful, and expensive. Take, for example, the $6,000-plus Digital Storm Velox we reviewed some months back. With dual graphics cards, an eight-core Intel CPU, and a completely custom liquid-cooling solution, it essentially had the best of everything.
But does a mega-PC like that make a budget gaming tower any less of a gaming machine? We’d say not at all. The $799 Acer Aspire GX-281 desktop we’re looking at here is perfectly capable of tackling today’s games. It will let you game head-to-head against competitors who might be using machines several times more expensive. As they say in auto racing, it’s not the car, it’s the driver.
Now, our Aspire GX-281, as our $799 mini-tower came configured, isn’t going to let you max out today’s games at a 1080p resolution, let alone at 4K. It’s also not equipped to power today’s virtual-reality (VR) headsets. (If you decide to upgrade the graphics card at some point, it very well could be, though.) But what you get at this three-figure price point is a system that’s competent enough to let you explore the latest and greatest in the gaming world.
The most intriguing aspect of our Aspire GX-281 (the specific SKU we received for review is the “GX-281-UR11”) is its AMD Ryzen 5 processor. The Ryzen 5 processor family, along with the more powerful Ryzen 7 line, was introduced just a short time back, in April 2017. The Ryzen-series CPUs mark AMD’s comeback against Intel. Take a look at our review of the Ryzen 5 1600, Ryzen 7 1800X, and the bunch of other Ryzen chips linked within those reviews to see what these new chips are all about. (At this writing, we’d reviewed seven of them.) The Ryzen 5 1600 has two more processing cores than the Ryzen 5 1400 quad-core CPU in our Aspire GX-281, but they’re both using the same overall technology. As we’ll show in our benchmarks, the Ryzen 5 1400 sits somewhere between the Intel Core i5 and the Core i7 quad-core in overall performance. That’s very respectable territory, especially when you consider the Ryzen 5 1400 undercuts both in price in the aftermarket. (The chip by itself lists for $169.)
Our specific Aspire GX-281 configuration pairs the AMD Ryzen 5 processor with 8GB of RAM and a 1TB hard drive. We’d like to see a solid-state-drive (SSD) included for better performance; alas, the competition doesn’t seem to offer one at this price point, either. More important than either of those for gaming is the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 GPU. This entry-level card, as we alluded earlier, isn’t up to 4K gaming, but it has enough oomph to power through any modern game at middle-to-upper visual quality settings at 1080p (1,920×1,080). That said, Acer offers a host of other GX-281 configurations to select from if you need more speed or graphics oomph; these models run from the GX-281-UR11 to the UR17, seven in all at this writing for the U.S. market. Depending on the configuration, it might have an upticked Ryzen 5 (Ryzen 5 1600) or a Ryzen 7 CPU, and all but one of the other SKUs had better video cards: GeForce GTX 1050 Ti, GTX 1060, GTX 1070, or Radeon RX 480. The other SKUs ranged from $849 to $1,499.
Acer does well enough when it comes to value with the Aspire GX-281 we got, though. Dell’s XPS 8920 tower, which is all but identical to the Dell XPS 8910 tower we reviewed a short while back, was going for $749 in its base form as we typed this out. You get a similar level of non-gaming performance as our Aspire GX-281 for that money: an Intel Core i5-7400 quad-core processor, 8GB of RAM, and a 1TB hard drive. However, the Dell has only integrated Intel HD Graphics—not a dedicated video card—at that price, at that kind of graphics solution is not up to playing most of today’s AAA games. Configurations of the Dell with a dedicated card were in the four figures.
In contrast, HP’s Envy Desktop 750 (specifically SKU 750-555qe) was on sale for $499 on HP’s Web site as we wrote this, with the same basic specifications as the Dell. It has a PCI Express x16 expansion slot, meaning you could add a dedicated card of your own and still get it for much less than what Acer (or Dell) wants for its systems. (You’d want to be sure the 300-watt power supply in the Envy is ready for any card you’d install, however; you’d likely have to limit yourself to lower-end ones.) The GeForce GTX 1050 card in our Acer goes for about $100 in the aftermarket.
One other competitor is the Lenovo Ideacentre 720 tower. It commanded $899 in its starting configuration as we wrote this, matching the basic specifications of the just-mentioned Dell and HP units. However, it included a GeForce GTX 1050 Ti 4GB graphics card at that price, which is roughly one-third more powerful than the standard GTX 1050 in our Aspire GX-281 and a safer bet for serious 1080p gaming.
With all of those units taken into consideration, one thing’s clear: Among low-end gaming desktops, it’s a jungle out there. It’s safe to surmise that Acer has taken the middle ground with the Aspire GX-281. Let’s see how that approach worked.
The mildly aggressive look of the Aspire GX-281’s exterior does its internal components justice. As equipped, this isn’t a high-end gaming tower, but it’s still a step above the average mid-tower in performance. The tower itself is 15.6 inches tall, 18.2 inches deep, and 6.9 inches wide, the expected size range for a mid-tower. Our tester weighed 18.5 pounds.
The front panel and top covering on the desktop are plastic, but the side panels and internal structure are steel. The plastic on the top of the desktop has an imitation brushed-aluminum look. It’s not convincing, but it does look better than plain plastic. A triangular power button sits close to the forward edge.
The glossy black plastic at the top of the front panel tends to pick up fingerprints. It contrasts nicely with the anti-glare gray plastic at the lower part, though. More contrast comes from the red intake grilles that line either side of the gray piece. On top of the gray piece is another red accent, which is backlit in red when the desktop is powered on.
The Aspire branding at the lower front is inset in a diamond-cut piece of aluminum. It’s a classy look.
The outer sides of the side panels are painted black, though the inside and back panel are left as unfinished gray steel. We could complain about the bare metal, but there’s no case window on this desktop, and it’s not likely to be seen unless you decide to take off the left side panel for maintenance or upgrades.
The left side panel of the desktop comes off courtesy of two Phillips-head screws (not thumbscrews, alas). It slides backward and away. The inside of the desktop is a bird’s nest of unsecured and haphazardly tied-off wires…
A lack of clean cable routing isn’t unexpected in a big-brand pre-built desktop, though it doesn’t make us any happier about it. A bottom-mounted power supply likely would have made cable management easier.
The lack of storage expansion is the most surprising part about the interior of the Aspire GX-281, given that this is not a tiny chassis. The 1TB 3.5-inch hard drive in our review unit was mounted against the side of the front cage, and there was an empty space to mount a 2.5-inch drive below it. And “mount” is the correct term; there are no slide-in drive bays in this desktop, as we’d expect to see in a mid-tower. The motherboard has four total SATA connectors, and no M.2 slot for an M.2 SSD. The power supply has extra drive power connectors, so no need to worry about that, at least.
You can see the double-slot Zotac GeForce GTX 1050 Mini graphics card installed in the lower part of the desktop. It gets all the power it needs from the PCI Express x16 slot. The power supply has a six-pin and an eight-pin connector available. Given the 500-watt rating of the Lite-On power supply in our review unit, it’s a safe bet you could install a considerably more powerful card down the line. (Contrast that with the 300-watter in the HP Envy desktop we mentioned earlier.) Acer does sell variants of the Aspire GX-281 with up to a GeForce GTX 1070, a full-length card.
Note the swing-out black piece next to the graphics card in our review unit. It sits firmly against the graphics card when the side panel is installed, preventing the graphics card from moving and putting too much stress on the PCI Express x16 slot. That’s a nice touch and even more important with a larger card than the Zotac GTX 1050 in our unit.
The AMD Ryzen 5 1400 has a fairly robust CPU air cooler attached to it. It has an 80mm fan, while another 80mm fan sits at the back of the desktop for the exhaust…
There are three total fans in this desktop, including the one in the power supply.
We were pleased to see good connectivity on the front of the Aspire GX-281. At the top is the tray-load optical drive, hidden behind a glossy black plastic cover. (It was a DVD burner in our review unit.) Pressing the eject icon on the right side coaxes it out of hiding. The second 5.25-inch bay under the optical drive is empty.
The remaining front connectivity is clustered under there. There’s a full-size SD card reader, a Type-C USB 3.1 port (just for data, and without Thunderbolt 3 connectivity), separate microphone and headphone jacks, and a Type-A USB 3.0 port. Ports on the front of the desktop are a convenience we always look for, as it precludes you from having to reach around the back of the system to plug in peripherals.
Now here’s a look at the back panel and the ports…
Note that because the power supply is up top in the case, the power cable will dangle from the top of the desktop. We prefer a more modern bottom-mounted power supply for that reason.
The connections on the back of the desktop include six USB Type-A ports; the four with the black inserts are version 2.0, and the two red ones are version 3.1. An Ethernet port sits on top of those, while headphone, line-out, and line-in audio jacks are below…
The GeForce GTX 1050 graphics card has a legacy DVI-D port, a full-size DisplayPort connector, and a full-size HDMI port. With this card, the Aspire GX-281 supports dual monitors.
Acer includes a no-frills keyboard and mouse setup with the Aspire GX-281. They get the job done for basic productivity, though we wouldn’t call them ideal for gaming.
The keyboard is light enough to pick up with two fingers. Its all-plastic design translates into the feel of its island-style keys. The keypress action is light and not exactly confidence-inspiring, but it’s relatively quiet.
The keyboard isn’t quite full-size, as it’s missing the Home, End, Page Up, and Page Down keys. They’ve been demoted to Fn-key combinations with the arrow keys, which we found an odd design choice on a desktop keyboard. These keys should be their own keys. Two feet on the underside of the keyboard can be flipped out to give it an angled surface for typing.
The two-button mouse has an ambidextrous shape. The clicks felt fine to us, as did the notchy scroll-wheel action. The scroll wheel can be pressed down as a center click button. The mouse glided over a variety of mouse pads without trouble. As we said, it’s basic, but it does work. If you mean to get down to gaming, though, you might want to look into at least a budget-minded replacement with a thumb button or two to assign to in-game shortcuts.
The big news with our particular Aspire GX-281 configuration is the AMD Ryzen 5 processor we mentioned earlier on. The Ryzen 5 chips are the middle-of-the-road family in AMD’s lineup, below the Ryzen 7, but a step above the upcoming Ryzen 3 chips. (The Ryzen 3 is expected to launch sometime in the third quarter of 2017.) The Ryzen 5 1400 in our Aspire GX-281 happens to be the lowest current rung on the Ryzen 5 ladder, with four processing cores, and the ability to process up to eight threads at once. The cores run at a base frequency of 3.2GHz, and can boost up to 3.4GHz. The fastest current Ryzen 5 chip, the Ryzen 5 1600X, tops out around 4GHz under boost, and has six cores. Again, you can check out our review of the AMD Ryzen 5 1600 and the four others to get an idea of the technology behind these new chips. You can get a SKU of the GX-281 with the Ryzen 5 1600 and a GeForce GTX 1050 Ti card for $100 more.
According to our CPU-specific benchmarks, the Ryzen 5 1400 is somewhere between an Intel Core i5 quad-core and Core i7 quad-core in overall performance. The Ryzen 5 1400 is considerably less expensive than the Core i5-6600, yet performed better in most of the multi-threaded scenarios we tested. Intel chips still tend to have better single-threaded performance. It’s a safe bet to say, however, that the Ryzen 5 1400 chip in the Aspire GX-281 has more than enough stamina for gaming and demanding usage, including video editing.
The Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 graphics card at the heart of this system is an entry-level card. It goes for around $100 on its own. The Zotac-branded card in our review unit is the same one we reviewed in our Zotac GeForce GTX 1050 MiniGeForce GTX 1060AMD Radeon RX 480Radeon RX 580. As noted earlier, other GX-281 models do come with these better cards for a little more money.
The 8GB of RAM in our Aspire GX-281 is the bare minimum we’d expect to see in a desktop PC at this price point. It was configured in our review unit as one stick of DDR4-2400, running in single-channel mode. We’d have preferred a two-4GB DIMM setup to get the slight speed boost that comes from a dual-channel configuration. On the bright side, this setup leaves you with three open slots for expansion. (The Aspire GX-281 supports up to 64GB of dual-channel memory in a four-16GB DIMM configuration.)
The pokiest component in our Aspire GX-281 was the 1TB hard drive. This traditional spinner had a lot of space, but it felt sluggish in practical use. We’d like to see a small SSD for the OS, in addition to the hard drive for storage. Even a small-capacity 128GB SSD would have done the trick nicely. As noted before, you can add a 2.5-inch SATA-based SSD or hard drive to this desktop without much trouble, but you get no M.2 slots on the motherboard. If this bothers you (and it should) but you otherwise like this PC, you should look at some of the other GX-281 models Acer was offering at this writing, as several of them included a 256GB SSD as the boot drive alongside a hard drive for mass storage. One of note, the GX-281-UR16, had an $849 list price and the same RAM/CPU/video-card configuration as our test model (though 4GB of memory on the video card rather than 2GB), but added a 256GB SSD to the mix as the boot drive, relegating the 1TB one to bulk/game storage. We’d stretch the extra $50 in a heartbeat for that change to this configuration.
Speaking of software, the Windows 10 Home operating system on our Aspire GX-281 wasn’t entirely clean of bloatware, but it was modestly apportioned, as mass-market PCs like these go. A Norton antivirus trial was installed, which we promptly removed.
We tested the thermal performance of the Aspire GX-281 by running the game Rise of the Tomb Raider. The AMD Ryzen 5 CPU reached a peak temperature of 37 degrees C, and the GeForce GTX 1050 topped out at 68 degrees C. (We did our testing in a room with an ambient temperature of 68 degrees F.) The CPU temperature was exceptionally cool, but the temperature may be slightly misleading; the GeForce GTX 1050 was the gaming bottleneck, and the CPU didn’t have to work all that hard to keep up with it. Either way, the CPU temperature seemed well under control. Also, the Aspire GX-281 was very quiet in all scenarios, even at its most stressed. We had to put our ears within a foot of the desktop to hear anything from the fans.