Forget World of Warcraft: Intel's recently launched Sandy Bridge processor lineup is the true cataclysm for the systems on our mainstream desktop and performance desktop charts. Judging from what we've seen so far, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for machines based on a Nehalem-class chip to stand up against systems based on the latest that Intel has to offer.
That said, we don't give Sandy Bridge systems a free pass in our reviewing process. The Micro Express MicroFlex 25B might be cruising down the mainstream desktop highway with killer speeds and a superlow price, but it still suffers from a backfire or two in its feature set.
Under its hood, the MicroFlex 25B packs a brand-new, 3.3GHz Intel Core i5-2500K CPU overclocked to 4.1GHz. Stuffed with 4GB of DDR3-1600 memory, the MicroFlex 25B breezed through WorldBench 6, achieving a category leading score of 188. Just to put that number into perspective, that mark would have been one of the highest general performance scores on our performance PC chart prior to Sandy Bridge's arrival.
The previous record was 152, earned by the Maingear F131, that system barged its way to the top of the mainstream chart with an overclocked Core i5-655K processor, but carried a price tag of $2000.
Unfortunately, even though you get phenomenal performance for a very low price in the MicroFlex 25B, not all is well here. The total amount of storage available is 300GB in the form of a Western Digital Velociraptor drive. But that's nothing short of a horrible tease for would-be buyers: Here you have a system that's ready to steam through whatever games and apps you toss at it, and you won't be able to install very much of anything.
The MicroFlex 25B is actually well equipped to handle any modern game titles you might want to try, though. Armed with an AMD Radeon HD 6870 graphics card, it was able to dish out 112.5 frames per second on our Unreal Tournament 3 benchmark (highest settings, 2560 by 1200 resolution). For comparison, Maingear's F131, equipped with a pair of Nvidia GTX 460 graphics cards, generated 120.3 fps.
We were underwhelmed by the somewhat lifeless case of the MicroFlex 25B, but that's mostly a judgment based on its plain exterior design. We much preferred the case's interior, especially the handy locking mechanisms the system uses to secure devices in its 5.25-inch bays (as well as the drive rails for its 3.5-inch bays).
You get four free 5.25-inch bays for installing new devices (the system's DVD burner occupies the fifth), and you should be able to cram two extra hard drives into the MicroFlex 25B's three-bay design. The motherboard side of the system is similarly sparse in installed parts: Two PCI slots, one PCI Express x16 slot and two PCI Express x1 slots are ready to accommodate new devices.
You'll find three USB ports and a multiformat card reader on the bottom half of the case's face. The rear of the system is a lot more generous, offering eight USB ports, two USB 3.0 ports, an optical and coaxial S/PDIF port, two eSATA ports, a gigabit ethernet port and 7.1 surround sound built right into the motherboard. The system's graphics card houses two DVI ports, one HDMI port and two mini-DisplayPort connections. FireWire and a kitchen sink are just about the only things missing.
Micro Express bundles a pair of bland but serviceable peripherals. The mouse is a generic three button affair. The keyboard is also ordinary, but it sports dedicated shortcut keys for launching programs and controlling your media, which is always a nice touch.
The Micro Express MicroFlex 25B is fast, well connected, open for upgrading and available at a price that puts even budget desktops to shame. So what could the company have done better? Two key issues come to mind: Blu-ray support (which admittedly is more a luxury item than a must-have) and relatively limited hard drive storage space (a woeful shortcoming that could have been remedied inexpensively).
You can solve both problems with a bit of handiwork inside the chassis, however. As it stands, Micro Express has produced a fine machine, but there's no telling how long this barebones speed demon can hold on to its crown.