Six sensational systems

Testing by Andreas Uiterwijk

For this comparison of the latest desktop PCs, it's a good thing the numbers singled out a winner— although just barely— because we would have had a hard time choosing. All six systems we tested scored above a 7.0 on our scale of 1 to 10. In fact, we'd recommend any one of these machines as a smart buy for federal agencies.

But the best of the lot was Compaq Computer Corp.'s EN-6450X with a score of 7.84— only .08 points ahead of the second-place system, Micron Electronics Inc.'s ClientPro CP, which scored a 7.76. In fact, the difference between the highest and lowest scores in this comparison is only .32 points.

Why the similarity in scores? These machines are all top-of-the line, high-end systems. Along with the fastest chipset currently available, vendors have packed these systems with excellent management features, large hard drives, fancy graphics cards and room for lots of expansion. Every system in this review complies with the Desktop Management Interface (DMI) 2.0 standard, which allows for remote maintenance and management.

Louis Columbus, senior manager of workstation marketing at Gateway Inc., said many government buyers like the increased horsepower and graphics capabilities of 450 MHz machines. These features are useful for agencies that do a lot of geographic mapping and proprietary software development, particularly those that use Win32-based applications, he said.

We also noticed that PC manufacturers are showing marked improvement in areas such as case design and documentation. More vendors are abandoning the use of screws for cases and internal components, using easy-release tabs or push buttons instead. Also, the insides of the machines are taking on a cleaner appearance. As for documentation, vendors are making up for failings in printed manuals by offering thorough, comprehensive online documentation, sometimes on the Internet. Overall, these systems show that the vendors care about pleasing their customers; they certainly pleased us.

In this roundup, we tested systems from Compaq, Gateway, Hewlett-Packard Co., Intergraph Federal Systems, Micron and SMAC Data Systems. We used a new benchmark test: Business Applications Performance Corp.'s SYSmark/98, which replaces SYSmark/32. SYSmark/98 consists of two scored categories— Content Creation and Office Productivity— and is a more thorough benchmark than its predecessor (see Web Alert at www.fcw.com). The SYSmark/98 scores for these systems were close, with only a 16-point range between the highest and lowest scores. And all these systems are fast. The top SYSmark/98 score of 200, earned by Compaq's EN-6450X, is 33 percent faster than a similarly configured 350 MHz Pentium II system we tested recently.

Another change in this round of PC tests was that we loaded the systems with Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT 4.0 Service

Pack 3 operating system instead of Windows 95 or Windows 98. We've found that Windows NT gives users a 15 to 25 percent performance increase over Windows 98 as long as they have at least 64M of memory.

If you're in the market for a high-end desktop PC, you're going to have a hard time deciding which system to buy. All the 450 MHz Pentium II PCs we tested were fast and featured excellent management tools. The biggest variation was in price, which ranges from $1,562 for the Micron ClientPro PC to $2,934 for Gateway's E-5200. Micron's system is a good bargain if you plan to use the system as is. Alternately, Gateway's higher price comes with loads of expandability, room for upgrades, and support for two processors and a SCSI hard drive.

***

Compaq EN-6450X

Edging the competition out of first place was Compaq's EN-6450X, with a final score of 7.84. Even though it was the second-most expensive system, at $2,516 on the General Services Administration schedule, its excellent case design, setup/ease of use and management features pushed it to the top.

The EN-6450X comes in a desktop-style chassis that cannot be converted to a minitower like some of Compaq's other models. Its design and interior are the ultimate in modularity and easy access. The drives and power supply are on one side of the system, while the motherboard is sectioned off on the other side. The drive bay housing flips forward on hinges for easy access to the internal hard drive for maintenance or upgrades. Inside the case, the wires are all bundled neatly, all drives are screwless, memory upgrades are a snap, and the case cover glides off. It took no debate to award Compaq's case design an excellent score.

This system also earned an excellent setup/ease of use score. It comes pre-configured, and unlike the last EN-series unit we reviewed, the EN-6450X arrives network-ready.

Compaq's very good features include 64M of synchronous dynamic RAM (SDRAM), a 10G hard drive, a 32X CD-ROM drive, a Compaq 10/100 Ethernet adapter and Matrox Graphics Inc.'s Millennium AGP 2-D/3-D graphics card with 8M of video RAM.

The system lags a bit in expandability, earning only a satisfactory score. While it does have two shared PCI/ISA slots open, the EN-6450X has only a single 5.25-inch external drive bay open and ready for expansion.

This offering from Compaq proves that performance does not have to be sacrificed for manageability. It comes with a remotely managed mechanical case-lock system— the only one in this comparison— as well as Compaq's Insight Manager software, a Wake on LAN card, intrusion detection and temperature monitoring. We gave this system an excellent management score.

The EN-6450X was the top performer on the SYSmark/98 benchmark, scoring a 200, although it was just two points ahead of the Gateway E-5200.

Although this system is a bit pricey, you're getting your money's worth. If you're looking for a machine that's a snap to upgrade, a top performer and easy to manage, this one is for you.

***

Micron ClientPro CP

Finishing in second place with a final score of 7.76, Micron's ClientPro CP is the least-expensive system in our comparison, listing at $1,562 on the GSA schedule. It lags a bit in performance and expandability, but unlike the other systems in this comparison, it was designed to be set up and left alone rather than upgraded during its lifetime.

Although the ClientPro CP received a satisfactory score for case design because of its use of screws for the case cover and for all the drives, it does feature some innovation. The entire minitower chassis is tilted upward, allowing easier access to the front panel and increased air circulation. The air intake is on the bottom of the machine instead of the front, which also makes it a bit quieter.

As usual, Micron has put together a nice overall package, earning it a very good setup/ease of use score. All applications are pre-installed, and the system ships with a fully configured rescue CD-ROM and tutorial. The cables are well-marked, and the machine is network-ready out of the box.

Micron's features include 64M of SDRAM, a 10.1G hard drive, a 32X CD-ROM drive and an integrated Nvidia Corp. AGP chip with 8M of video memory. (Our test unit came with only 4M of video memory, but the system will ship with 8M of video memory standard). We gave it a very good score for features.

The ClientPro CP's limited expandability earned it a satisfactory score in this category. After factory configuration, only one PCI slot and one ISA slot are free. It also has only one free external and one free internal drive bay. In addition, this system has only two DIMM slots, limiting the maximum memory to 256M. (All the other systems in this roundup could hold at least 384M). If you like Micron's products but you want more expandability than this model offers, take a look at the ClientPro CP, which is available with 400 MHz and 450 MHz processors and comes with a built-in Iomega Corp. Zip drive and more expansion slots.

The Micron ClientPro CP comes bundled with Intel Corp.'s LANDesk Version 3.3 and features intrusion detection and Wake on LAN. The management score of good would have been higher if the system featured temperature monitoring and a remote case lock.

The Micron's performance was on the low end, scoring a 186 on SYSmark/98. But considering the low price of this machine, it's still an excellent buy.

If you need a lot of expandability and a screaming performer, this may not be the machine for you.

But if you simply need a fast, quality system to set up and use as is, this bargain is well worth considering.

***

Intergraph TD-260

Following closely behind the Micron, Intergraph's TD-260 finished in third place with a final score of 7.70. At a GSA price of $2,149, it's in the middle of the pack for pricing.

Intergraph features a good case design that includes a Kensington Microware Ltd. lock and, for those of you who are tired of that bland putty color, a snazzy purple front panel.

While Intergraph has made the transition to screwless CD-ROM and floppy drives, we wish the company would eliminate screws from the hard drive and case cover as well.

We especially liked the TD-260's setup. It comes with everything you could possibly need, including rescue disks, disk makers and good quick-start guide.

Best of all, it features a welcome software package loaded with handy functions. This package contains instructions on how to create a repair disk and includes a launch version manager that shows you software and driver versions on your system to make upgrading easier.

The system also includes third-party software called Diskeeper Lite that defragments Windows NT drives. Inclusion of this software is a nice bonus because Windows NT drives tend to fragment easily, and you'd probably end up having to buy similar software eventually. The TD-260 easily earned an excellent score for setup/ease of use.

The Intergraph system comes with 64M of RAM, a 6G hard drive, a 24X CD-ROM drive, Sound Blaster Pro-compatible sound card and a Matrox Millennium II AGP card with 8M of video memory. We gave it a very good score for features.

The TD-260's very good expandability score was the result of having two PCI slots, one ISA/PCI slot and one ISA slot available after factory configuration as well as one external and two internal drive bays.

This system ships with a Wake on LAN card and comes with some great DMI software, but a few more DMI features need to be implemented, such as temperature monitoring, intrusion detection and a remote case lock. We gave the TD-260 a satisfactory score for management.

Intergraph scored a 195 on SYSmark/98, putting it in fourth place for performance.

The TD-260 is a good system overall. Its scores fall in the middle on price and performance. Overall, it's a solid choice with lots of software extras.

***

Gateway E-5200

Gateway's E-5200 finished in fourth place with a final score of 7.59. At $2,934, it's the most expensive system in our review, but it's also one of the most high-end, rivaled only by the Hewlett-Packard Vectra VL 8 HE.

The E-5200 and the Vectra VL 8 HE are the only two systems to feature SCSI hard drives.

The E-5200 earned an excellent score for setup/ease of use. It comes with all applications pre-loaded, a quick-start guide, a fully configured rescue CD-ROM, an online tutorial and a utilities CD-ROM. It's network-ready out of the box, and cables are clearly marked.

The system's very good features include 64M of SDRAM, a 6G SCSI hard drive, a Digital Video Disc player (the only one in this review) and a high-end AccelGraphics Inc. Permidia2 3-D graphics accelerator with 8M of video memory. The E-5200 did not include a sound card; if it did, the features score would have been excellent.

Gateway blew away the competition in expandability. The E-5200 has one PCI slot, one ISA/PCI slot and one ISA slot free as well as three external and two internal drive bays. It's the only system we reviewed that can support dual processors, and its four DIMM slots allow for a maximum of 512M of RAM. This system was the only one to score an excellent in this category.

The E-5200 earned a good management score. It comes with Intel's LANDesk 3.3, supports Wake on LAN and features intrusion detection. It does not include temperature monitoring or a remote case lock.

Gateway's unit is a top performer, placing second in performance with a SYSmark/98 score of 198.

If expandability is what you need, look no further than this system. Its higher price will buy you excellent investment protection because this system offers so much room for additional cards, drives and a second processor.

***

Hewlett-Packard Vectra VL 8 HE

Hewlett-Packard's Vectra VL 8 HE is the other high-end contender in our comparison, finishing fifth with a final score of 7.56. This corporate box was the only system besides the Gateway E-5200 to feature a SCSI hard drive. It comes with a fancy multimedia keyboard that sports programmable buttons and ports for speakers, headphones and a microphone.

The Vectra VL 8 HE's very good case design includes good CPU ventilation and a cover that easily slides off after simply flipping up two levers. Unfortunately, the internal drives and bays are still secured by screws. The motherboard, however, pops out very easily with a flip of a lever.

One concern we had was that this system comes with a 145-watt power supply, which is low for a unit that features this level of expandability. The Vectra VL 8 HE should really have a 200-watt power supply like all the others in this review, except the Micron, which doesn't need one because it doesn't have much room for expansion.

This system comes with all ordered applications pre-installed, a nice quick-start guide, a rescue CD-ROM and a tutorial that can be found on HP's World Wide Web site. The cables and ports are clearly marked. We gave the Vectra VL 8 HE an excellent score for setup/ease of use.

The HP's very good features include 64M of RAM, a 10G SCSI hard drive, a 32X CD-ROM drive, an integrated Matrox G200 chipset with 8M of video memory and a 32-bit Sound Blaster-compatible Aztech sound card from Aztech Labs Inc. Its mouse is still the two-button variety; it would be nice to see a newer model featuring a wheel.

Adequate expandability earned the Vectra VL 8 HE a good score in this category. The unit offers two PCI slots, one ISA/PCI slot and one ISA slot free after factory configuration, in addition to two external and one internal drive bays. Just be careful about the power supply if you load up these slots and bays.

The Vectra VL 8 HE features intrusion detection, HP's TopTools software and a Wake on LAN network card, earning it a very good management score. It does not feature a remote case lock or temperature monitoring.

HP placed third in performance, scoring 197 on SYSmark/98. This is just one point below the second-place performer and three points below the top performer.

HP has built an extremely high-end enterprisewide box in the form of the Vectra VL 8 HE. Its SCSI hard drive sets the HP machine apart from most others. It places third in our review for price and performance. If you're a high-end user looking for a good system, consider the Vectra VL 8 HE.

***

SMAC Data Systems BusinessPro PII450

In sixth place is SMAC Data Systems' BusinessPro PII450, earning a final score of 7.52. It's the second-lowest-priced unit in our review, at $1,829 on the GSA schedule. A few shortcomings in management and documentation and somewhat slower performance kept this score a tad lower than the others, but it is still a strong showing. In general, SMAC has come a long way. Our review unit came with ample quality software and was extremely clean inside. The neat clipping and wrapping of internal wires indicated a system put together with a lot of care.

We awarded the BusinessPro PII450 a good score for case design. While we loved the clean insides of the unit, we wished the case and internal drives were not fastened by screws. However, the front bezel features easy removal with tabs.

The BusinessPro PII450 comes with a good quick-start guide and lots of application CD-ROMs. Cables are clearly marked. Inclusion of a rescue CD-ROM would have raised the setup/ease of use score, but it still earned a score of good.

The large 11.5G hard drive and plethora of included software earned the BusinessPro PII450 a very good features score. It came with 64M of SDRAM, a 32X CD-ROM drive, a Glyder II AGP video card with 8M of video memory from Symmetric and an ESS Maestro integrated 32-bit integrated audio chip. This system also included speakers.

We gave the system a very good expandability score. It has two PCI slots, one ISA/PCI slot and two ISA slots free after factory configuration. Three external drive bays are free, but no internal drive bays are free.

The BusinessPro PII450 comes with Intel's LANDesk 3.3 and a Wake on LAN adapter. Addition of a remote lock or intrusion detection along with temperature sensing would have raised the score. We gave the system a satisfactory score for management.

This unit finished in sixth place for performance, scoring a 184 on SYSmark/98— still a very solid score.

Although the BusinessPro PII450 could use some improvement in management and documentation (which is mostly a collection of OEM manuals), we were impressed by how far SMAC has come in serving its customers. This system is a good bargain for government buyers.

- Joshua Dean contributed to this article.

*****

Y2K compliance tests

By Andreas Uiterwijk

If you're buying new PCs this fall or winter, you need to make sure they'll work in the new millennium. That's why we conducted Year 2000 compliance tests on the 450 MHz Pentium II PCs in this comparison.

The issue of PC Year 2000 compliance is a sticky one for federal buyers, and little guidance is available from policy-making bodies. The President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion offers generic Year 2000 contracting language that doesn't specify whether a PC needs to have a compliant BIOS or Complementary Metal-Oxide Semiconductor/Real Time Clock (CMOS/RTC). All the language says is that the PC must "accurately process date/time data...from, into and between the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and the years 1999 and 2000 and leap year calculations.''

We found that all six systems tested featured the most common Year 2000 fix for PCs, which involves updating the system BIOS. However, only two systems had a compliant RTC in the CMOS chip. The systems from Intergraph Federal Systems and SMAC Data Systems Inc. passed all five tests. The systems from Compaq Computer Corp., Micron Electronics Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Gateway Inc. failed the CMOS/RTC test.

CMOS is a type of chip in a PC that is connected to the battery and runs the RTC, which gives time and date information to the BIOS. The BIOS is a set of routines stored on a chip that handles all input and output functions. Most motherboard CMOS chips are based on a 1984 IBM Corp. AT specification, which allowed for a 99-year calendar clock. This two-digit calendar is the culprit causing PCs to fail more demanding Year 2000 compliance tests. When the CMOS/RTC reaches Year 99, it rolls over to 00. This makes the computer believe it's 1900 and not 2000.

However, in most newer PCs the BIOS has been programmed to automatically convert a 1900 date to a 2000 date where appropriate. Because most software programs make calls to the system BIOS to get time and date information, this fix will solve the Year 2000 problem for most users. However, some vertical and even a few consumer applications get their time and date information directly from the computer's CMOS/RTC. These programs will fail unless the CMOS/RTC has been updated for Year 2000 compliance.

To test Year 2000 compliance, we used a diagnostic software program called Fix 2000 from a United Kingdom company called eurosoft. Fix 2000 consists of two parts: a suite of tests that checks a system for Year 2000 compliance and a software fix that can be applied if a system doesn't pass the tests. A hardware fix also is available from the company.

The suite of tests first sets the CMOS/RTC date of the system after Jan. 1, 2000, and then reboots the computer to see if the date is properly held in the system's CMOS/RTC. The next test determines if the system clock is functioning properly after the date change. The third test checks the status of the battery, and the fourth test checks whether the system will keep proper dates during leap years. The last test— and the one that many systems made by U.S. computer companies will fail— is the CMOS/RTC clock test.

Should this matter to government PC buyers? Not if your applications make calls to the computer BIOS for time and date information. However, if you're running applications that make time and date calls to the CMOS/RTC, you need a system with a four-digit CMOS/RTC. Your software vendors or your internal programmers ought to be able to tell you whether CMOS/RTC compliance is an issue for you.

If it is, and your computer doesn't pass this test, you have two options. You can use the Fix 2000 software to install a program that will catch any date or time calls to the CMOS/RTC and correct the date. However, this fix works only with DOS-based operating systems such as DOSxx, Windows 3.11, Windows 95 or Windows 98. An option for Windows NT users is to place an ISA card, also from eurosoft, into the system to intercept all date and time calls made to the CMOS/RTC and return the proper date to the programs. We found the software and card solutions successful and easy to implement. The downside to the software solution is that it lasts for only three years. The Fix 2000 software and board can be purchased from Pulsar Data Systems at $30 for the software version and $85 for the board. Pulsar can be reached at (800) 775-7374 or www.pulsardata.com.

Buyers concerned about Year 2000 compliance should give extra consideration to the systems that passed the more stringent CMOS/RTC tests. Also, be sure to ask PC vendors whether they support a four-digit clock in the CMOS/RTC, rather than a two-digit clock, before you buy.

*****

PRODUCTS TESTED

* Compaq Computer Corp.EN-6450XAvailable on the GSA scheduleScore: 7.84

* Gateway Inc.E-5200Available on the GSA schedule.Score: 7.59

* Hewlett-Packard Co.Vectra VL 8 HEAvailable on the GSA schedule.Score: 7.56

* Intergraph Federal SystemsTD-260Available on the Navsea CAD-2 contract, IM/FCAD-2 contract, Navair/Spawar CAD-2 contract and the GSA schedule.Score: 7.70

* Micron Electronics Inc.ClientPro CPAvailable on the GSA schedule.Score: 7.76

* SMAC Data SystemsBusinessPro PII450Available on the Navy IT-21 BPA contract, SEWP II contract, ECS II contract, NIH BPA contract and the GSA schedule.Score: 7.52

*****

AT A GLANCE

450 MHZ Pentium II Pcs

Pricing: Prices range from $1,562 to $2,934 on the GSA schedule.

What's Selling: High-end systems with excellent management features and a lot of expandability.

Where to Find Bargains: On the GSA schedule and IDIQ contracts.

What to Specify: Look for overall manageability and features rather than performance because performance is so good across the board that it's becoming a non-issue.

*****

How We Tested 450 MHz Pentium II PCs

We evaluated six 450 MHz Pentium II desktop computers using tests designed to show their usability, performance and feature differences. The benchmark we used to evaluate performance is SYSmark/98 from Business Applications Performance Corp., a consortium of hardware and software manufacturers as well as magazine testing facilities, including the FCW Test Center. All tests were designed to emulate tasks that users run in real-world business environments.

**

Performance

We scored speed mathematically; the fastest system received the maximum number of points possible (200). All other units received a percentage of the maximum points based on their slower performance.

We used the SYSmark/98 benchmark, which is a robust set of 14 application benchmarks divided into two sections: Office Productivity and Content Creation.

The applications that comprise the Office Productivity category are: Corel Corp.'s CorelDRAW 8 and Paradox 8; Microsoft Corp.'s Excel 97, PowerPoint 97 and Word 97; Dragon Systems Inc.'s Naturally Speaking 2.02; Netscape Communications Corp.'s Communicator 4.05 Standard Edition; and Caere Corp.'s OmniPage Pro 8.0.

For Content Creation, the applications are: MetaCreations Corp.'s Bryce 2; Avid Technology Inc.'s ElasticReality 3.1; Macromedia Inc.'s Extreme 3D 2; Adobe's Photoshop 4.0.1; Adobe Systems Inc.'s Premiere 4.2; and Xing Technology Corp.'s XingMPEG Encoder 2.1.

SYSmark/98 runs on Windows 98, Windows 95 and Windows NT 4.0. Because these scores are a rate (work divided by time), higher numbers indicate better performance. More information on SYSmark 98 can be found at www.bapco.com.

**

Case Design

Our case design criteria included how easy it was to remove case covers, disk drives, hard drives, CD-ROMs and motherboards. We also looked at how well a system was labeled or color-coded. For layout, we considered how easy it was for a user to access RAM and video memory as well as whether screws held in components such as drives. We looked for other useful features, such as LEDs, case locks and keyboard locks. We also considered how many internal and external drive bays a system provided and how quietly a system ran. We used word scores that were translated into percentages of the 75 points assigned to this category.

**

Management

The management score was based on whether a system was Desktop Management Interface 2.0-compliant. We also considered whether a system had DMI management software and DMI such features as intrusion detection, temperature monitoring and Wake on LAN adapters. We used word scores that were translated into percentages of the 50 points assigned to this category.

**

Setup/Ease of Use

Issues that determined this score included whether a product had bundled or pre-installed applications, clearly labeled computer ports, an online system tutorial, online system documentation and disks included with the system. We also looked for a quick-start guide, helpful setup utilities and whether a system came network-ready. We used word scores that were translated into percentages of the 50 points assigned to this category.

**

Features

Key areas examined in the features section included multimedia, video, networking and special peripherals. Systems with the largest installed hard disk, RAM, cache and video memory scored higher in our review. We also gave extra points for faster CD-ROM drives, the latest mouse technology, speakers and microphones. We scored video graphics engine specifications, fast local-area network adapters (100 megabits/sec) and high-speed modems. Bundled peripherals such as Iomega Corp. Zip drives and PC Card sockets were awarded additional points. We used word scores that were translated into percentages of the 100 points assigned to this category.

**

Expandability

In the expandability category, we scored a system's maximum capacity based on the number of free internal and external drive bays, available expansion slots after factory configuration, maximum RAM and cache, and the highest upgrade possible for video memory. We also considered the number of CPUs that can be installed in each computer. We used word scores that were translated into percentages of the 50 points assigned to this category.

**

Compatibility

We scored compatibility on two fronts. First, we ran our benchmark suite, and if we had problems with drivers, we lowered the score one point. Then we counted the number of operating systems certified by each company on each computer. Again, we used word scores that were translated into percentages of the 50 points assigned to this category.

**

Documentation

At a minimum, documentation had to tell us how to set up and use the system and had to include accurate diagrams to illustrate the text. Comprehensive, well-organized and well-written manuals—- either in print or online—- received higher scores. We lowered the score if the manual was poorly organized, lacked a table of contents and index, did not include information on installing options or contained factual errors in the text. Certain criteria automatically triggered lower scores. For example, a missing system manual was unacceptable, and a system missing a software manual earned a poor score. Again, we used word scores that were translated into percentages of the 50 points assigned to this category.

**

Technical Support

We based technical support scores on the quality of service we received during several anonymous support calls. Busy signals, voice-mail-only service and excessive resolution times resulted in lower scores. We assigned word scores that were translated into percentages of the 75 points assigned to this category.

**

Support Policies

A one-year warranty covering parts, labor and unlimited technical support from the vendor earned a satisfactory score. We awarded bonus points for unconditional money-back guarantees, on-site service included in the purchase price, extended support hours, bulletin board support (such as CompuServe) and a toll-free number. We subtracted points for no technical support, a limited support period and dealer-only support. We then assigned word scores that were translated into percentages of the 100 points assigned to this category.

**

Price

Price was scored mathematically. The lowest-priced unit received the total possible points (200). All other systems received a percentage of the total points.

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