200 MHz Pentium Desktops: Is Faster Better?

With Intel Corp. releasing more processors each year than you can count on one hand, does it make sense to pay for the fastest Pentium around? Probably. These 200 MHz systems offer a noticeable improvement in performance but at a very modest premium—as little as $250. The obvious question is, How fast are systems based on the fastest Pentium?

They vary between 10 to 15 percent faster than a 166 MHz Pentium, but that's only half the story. Thanks in part to bargain-basement RAM prices, we're seeing more systems ship with 32M of RAM instead of 16M. That extra RAM boosts system performance by another 15 percent or so.

All told, our collection of 200 MHz Pentium systems turned in great performance on our benchmark tests but cost only a few hundred dollars more than 166 MHz Pentium desktops with 16M of RAM.

Everything But the Kitchen Sink

You get more than speed with this latest generation of systems. We're seeing more features—some frivolous, some powerful—on these desktops. For example, many of these systems sport soft power switches, which allow software such as Windows 95 to power down the system for you. IBM PC Co., however, has gone one step further: With the right software, you can actually turn on the IBM from another network workstation.

IBM is not the only vendor making network-manageable systems. We were delighted to find Desktop Management Interface software on many of the computers in this review. At its most basic, DMI lets administrators inspect and configure hardware and software on network workstations (and other networked equipment). Some systems, such as Dell Computer Corp.'s, include only the software that enables DMI. Other vendors include a management application so local users can see and manage components that support DMI. You should be able to manage any DMI-compliant device on the network with any DMI-compliant management software: a classic best-of-breed environment.

Even the oft-overlooked hard drive deserves attention these days. Most of these units feature SMART (Self-Monitoring Analysis and Reporting Technology) hard drives that monitor their health—conditions such as reallocated sector count, spin retry count and calibration retry count—and can alert you to an impending disaster.

Vendors are also shipping hard drives with more than 2.1G. While the extra capacity is great, we've run into partitioning limits. If you're using DOS or Windows 95, you'll have to partition the hard drive into two logical drives (drives C and D, for example). In fact, any OS that relies on the ancient File Allocation Table (FAT) partitioning scheme will force you to chop these large hard drives into more manageable pieces.

For those of you on the cutting edge, IBM and NEC Corp. shipped units with a new input/output port called a Universal Serial Bus. The ports themselves are modest little connectors (like large phone jacks), but they're very powerful. Like SCSI, USB can daisy chain many devices—up to 127 peripherals. Unlike traditional serial ports, USB offers high speed—up to 12 megabit/ sec—and real Plug and Play support, including hot-swapping devices. You won't find many USB peripherals on the market today, but you can expect to see USB keyboards, mice, modems, Integrated Services Digital Network terminal adapters and even speakers in the near future.

To evaluate these systems, our test center looked not only at features such as these but also at speed as measured on Business Applications Performance Corp.'s SYSmark/32 benchmark, which runs real-world applications such as word processing, spreadsheets and graphics. We also considered ease of use, expandability, compatibility with various operating systems, technical support policies and staff, documentation and technical support. We also factored in pricing, as gathered from the California Multiple-Award Schedule program when available.

And the Winner Is...

For the most part, these systems ranked very closely—especially for speed and features. For best overall value, however, one PC stands out: the Dell OptiPlex GXM 5200. Dell integrates popular name-brand peripherals on the motherboard, including the S3 Inc. Trio64V+ graphics controller (which provides some hardware support for video), a Creative Labs Vibra 16 sound system and a 3Com Corp. 10Base-T network interface. A 2G hard drive and 8X CD-ROM reader are ample for most desktop use. Its benchmark performance is a little off the mark, but not by much. Dell earns high marks for its superb documentation, although the lack of on-line help or tutorial disappointed us. The three-year warranty and around-the-clock tech support are laudable. We suffered long hold times, but once we reached a technician the support answers were very good. Dell delivered all this with a very competitive price of $2,501, which makes it the best buy of our comparison.

Comark Government & Education Sales Inc. shipped us a Plus Data P200 for the review, which also scored well. Its benchmark score was right in the thick of the competition, but its $1,872 price dramatically undercut the rest. Comark included some nice extras, such as a Yamaha-based integrated sound controller and very nice speakers, but it didn't include a network adapter nor much in the way of software tools. The documentation was adequate but unimpressive. Comark offers a three-year warranty and 24-hour, seven-day technical support, but it doesn't include an on-site service contract in the basic warranty. Of course, you could easily afford to pay for a one-year on-site service plan with the money you saved on the system itself.

While NEC's PowerMate P2200 didn't score as well as several other systems, it's hard not to gush about its features. NEC includes two USB ports, a generous 3G hard drive, an Iomega Corp. Zip drive, an ATI 3-D-capable graphics controller and an integrated Fast Ethernet (100 megabit/sec) network interface. The PowerMate P220 competes well in speed, setup, documentation and just about every other regard except price. At $3,535, you're paying for the extras, but it's tempting.

Gateway 2000 earned a special mention for its SYSmark/32 score of 170—the fastest of the bunch. It also earned best marks in the spreadsheet category. While the system scored well for its ample configuration, it didn't do as well as top-notch systems, such as Dell, in many other categories. None of our complaints are major, so at $2,521 it's still worth a look.

Hewlett-Packard Co. is right on Gateway's heels with a benchmark score of 168. HP's slimline case impressed us with a snap-off cover, a headphone jack on the front panel and a soft power switch. We knocked HP in setup/ease of use for not being network-ready and providing no on-line tools. Otherwise, it scored well at $3,099.

The Micronics Nucleus P200 also scored well. We weren't terribly impressed with its ease of use, and the documentation is dreadful: a scant motherboard manual, the standard Matrox Graphics Inc. graphics manual and a monitor booklet are all you get. Documentation aside, it's a good system at a fair price: $2,449.

Three big-name vendors, however, just didn't cut it. IBM sent us an excellent system, the PC 350, but at $3,591 it should have a feature set similar to that of the NEC, which it doesn't. At this price, the PC 350 is not a good value.

Digital's Venturis FX 5200 is a well-appointed slimline system, but it was terribly slow and packs a hefty price of $3,226. Not a good combination.

Compaq's Deskpro 2000 P200 is simply underconfigured, with a scant 1G hard drive and no sound or network support. To its credit, Compaq offers the nicest DMI tools and scored highest on our database application benchmark, but that's not enough to compensate for the other missing features. A more powerful Deskpro would be a better choice.

Gregory S. Smith is a free-lance writer and network consultant basedin San Francisco.

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