500 MHz Pentium IIIs: Better than ever

The latest 500 MHz Pentium III PCs are fast, well-built and easier to manage than ever. But the most intriguing new feature for government buyers is the unique serial number hard-coded into the processor.

The serial number offers advantages to government agencies in terms of increased security and manageability. This number is permanent and remains so for the life of the processor. However, users can choose to enable or disable the number. When enabled, it adds another level of system identification for Internet transactions. It also can prevent the use of a stolen password at another machine if the password is registered on the network as linked to a particular serial number. IT managers can use the serial number to track systems on a network and the users to which those passwords are assigned. Managers also can perform tasks such as tracking the origination of e-mail messages or finding multiple copies of a virus-infected document.

Unfortunately, these advantages come with a price. For one, the user's anonymity is not protected when connected to the Internet. Worse, there have been hacking incidents in which someone wrote code to enable a serial number that had been disabled. This would allow a user's information to be disseminated on the Internet without the user's knowledge.

There are two ways to disable the serial number: One method is as close to fail-safe as you can get, while the other is more vulnerable to hacking. The secure method is to use the system's BIOS. Because this method is hardware-based, remote hackers have to gain full control of the system to enable the serial number. The other method, which leaves systems more vulnerable, is to use a software utility developed by Intel Corp. that can be downloaded from the Internet. Intel ships all its Pentium III processors with the serial number enabled, and it is up to the vendor whether to leave the serial number that way or disable it. Vendors also decide whether to provide a means with which the user can enable or disable the serial number.

We suggest that government buyers ensure that their Pentium III PCs contain a switch in the BIOS for enabling and disabling the serial number. Unfortunately, that may not be as easy as it sounds. Our testing of 11 Pentium III PCs uncovered a disturbing trend among vendors: They've been slow to grasp the concept of the serial number -- or at least to train their technical support personnel on it. When we made anonymous support calls and asked how to enable or disable the serial number, many technicians were befuddled and unaware of the system's capabilities or of whether the system's serial number could be enabled or disabled. Some support technicians even told us that it was not possible to disable the serial number.

We also discovered that not all vendors provide the BIOS switch for disabling the serial number. If you buy a system that does not have this feature, you can still disable the number by downloading Intel's utility, but again, this method is not as secure and may leave your system vulnerable to hacks.

We looked at Pentium III systems from Compaq Computer Corp., Dell Computer Corp., DTK Computer Inc., Gateway Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM Corp., Intergraph Federal Systems, Micron Electronics Inc., NEC Computer Systems Division, Sys Technology Inc. and Toshiba America Information Systems Inc.

In the end, Gateway's E-4200 500 took top honors with a final score of 8.24. Three other systems scored above 8.0, singling them out as our favorites. These were from Micron, Dell and IBM. However, the remaining systems are nothing to sneeze at: They all scored above 7.0.

All the systems fared well on the SYSmark/98 benchmark test. Differences in performance scores were negligible, with the fastest system (from HP) scoring 228 and the slowest system (from Toshiba) scoring 196 -- a mere 32-point spread.

***

Gateway's E-4200 500

The E-4200 500 led the pack as our Best Buy Award winner with a final score of 8.24.

Our only gripe about the E-4200 500 is its case design. It earned a score of good, but it trails behind its competitors in this area. One side cover features thumbscrews, but tool-free access ends there. To access the hard drives, you must first remove an internal stability bar (held in with screws) and then deal with more screws to remove the hard drive cage and also the drive itself. To access the floppy and CD-ROM drives, you must remove both side covers as well as the front cover. Access to some internal components requires removal of additional panels that are held in by screws. The major redeeming factor of this design is the easy access to memory and the plentiful expansion bays.

The user-friendly Gateway earned a very good score for setup/ease of use. It ships with a system restoration CD-ROM that includes OS restoration, LANDesk Client Manager, Network Associates Inc.'s McAfee VirusScan and online documentation. It also includes drivers for the peripherals, and users can access additional online documentation and the latest driv-ers through Gateway's Web site. A unique feature that comes with this system is a CD creator for use with CD-Recordable discs.

Gateway earned a management score of excellent by pre-installing Client Manager. This system's capabilities include Wake on LAN and the ability to monitor the overall health of the system and set alert thresholds and notifications for temperature, voltage variations and intrusion detection. You also can set an alert to notify you when the hard drive reaches a specified minimum amount of free space.

The E-4200 500 is a high-quality system overall, with a reasonable price of $2,029. This price includes a 19-inch monitor, which comes standard with this system. You can order the system with an EV 700 17-inch monitor or with a VX 700 17-inch monitor for slightly lower prices. We eagerly await Gateway's movement toward tool-free case design and easier internal access.

***

Micron's ClientPro CS 500

The ClientPro CS 500 finished second with a final score of 8.19. A quick look at the individual category scores tells the story: This system scored a very good or an excellent for all categories but two, and those received good scores.

Micron's case design has incorporated some new and interesting features and earns a score of very good. To remove the cover, simply push a button, and it slides off. The power supply swings outward for easy access to internal components. We also liked the mechanism that holds in the peripherals. It's a plastic contraption that locks down all the cards at once, swinging open like a door for easy access. Our only wish is that Micron would convert its hard, floppy and CD-ROM drives to the snap-in variety instead of using screws.

The ClientPro CS 500 arrived network-ready, with Intel's LANDesk Client Manager pre-installed. It comes with a Micron Customer Resource Center CD that contains documentation and drivers for all peripherals. One especially nice feature is the inclusion of a pre-installed wizard that automatically updates the system's video drivers. Called the Diamond Update Wizard, it searches the system to find all installed Diamond Multimedia Systems Inc. products and then accesses the Diamond file transfer protocol World Wide Web site to update drivers, software applications and product information. Unfortunately, Micron does not include an OS rescue disk or application disk-maker icon, so this omission kept the setup/ease of use score at good instead of very good.

Micron received an excellent score for management with its inclusion of LANDesk Client Manager. The package's capabilities include Wake on LAN and the ability to monitor the overall health of the system. You can set alert thresholds and notifications for intrusion detection as well as temperature, voltage and fan-speed variances. You also can set an alert to warn you when the free space on the hard drive reaches a specified minimum.

At $1,918, the ClientPro CS 500 is one of the lower-priced systems in the review. Considering everything you'll get for that price, this system is a great bargain.

***

Dell's OptiPlex GX1p

Our third-place winner, the Dell OptiPlex GX1p, finished with a score of 8.09.

Dell is definitely on the right track with its case design. Although it was not as modular as we would have liked, this system features one of the easiest case-cover removals we saw and a nice snap-out expansion card module. Downfalls include screw removal of the hard drive and an overall tight, cramped feeling inside the machine. You must move the power supply out of the way to access memory, and accessing the processor requires the removal of a fan duct. Nevertheless, Dell's move toward modularity earned the company a score of very good for case design.

The OptiPlex GX1p came network-ready, with Dell OpenManage tools pre-installed. It ships with a full set of diagnostic utilities on a bootable diskette and a pre-installed utility for creating a repair disk. Dell also provides a disk maker for creating diskette copies of drivers and pre-installed utilities -- a nice feature not seen on most of the systems. We gave it a score of very good for setup/ease of use.

Dell's OpenManage tool helped this machine earn a management score of very good. When used in conjunction with the Dell OpenManage Client Administrator, OpenManage allows an IS manager to monitor temperature, set up intrusion detection and provide Wake on LAN capability. Dell is working on management of the processor serial number. At press time, the company offered two versions of the BIOS: one with the serial number disabled and one with it enabled. Our machine shipped with the serial number disabled. To enable it, we could download the other BIOS from the Internet. Dell told us that it is developing a BIOS containing a switch, and it should be ready soon.

For $1,862, you get a very good overall system with the OptiPlex GX1p. Even if you buy before the company completes its new BIOS, you should be able to download it later.

***

IBM's PC 300 PL

IBM finished in fourth place with a score of 8.08. Its excellent setup/ease of use and management are worth a close look.

Although the case design is one of the more solid of the bunch, the cover has the same stubbornness problem we experienced with IBM's IntelliStation Z Pro workstation [FCW, April 19]. Once inside, there is plenty of room to work. While the cover is tool-free, the same cannot be said for the hard, floppy and CD-ROM drives. However, the hard drive cage only requires the removal of a single screw. The power button is located on top of the unit instead of the front, and the system runs very quietly.

IBM has done a great job making this system user- and network-friendly. Upon booting the system, we were greeted with the IBM Welcome Center, which is a utility that walks users through the system setup and contains a host of general information. The Welcome Center also features online help and Web links. IBM also ships the machine with a full set of diagnostic utilities and a bootable rescue disk. A nice additional feature is a utility you can use to copy all system drivers directly from the CD-ROM to a floppy disk.

IBM's management package beats the rest, hands down. Its Netfinity application enables managers to track machines from loading dock to desktop -- a process made even easier with the purchase of a separate handheld scanner that can read system information right through the cardboard box. IBM also includes Intel's LANDesk Client Manager, which provides an excellent set of tools. Finally, the programmable EEPROM lets the company encode user-specified information (such as user name, location or software) before the machine leaves the factory. This makes asset management much simpler.

You can buy the PC 300 PL for $2,249 -- not a bad price for the host of management features included and extremely friendly ease of use.

***

Toshiba's Equium 7100M

Toshiba has come a long way with system design and implementation of system management, helping this machine earn a fifth-place finish of 7.93.

The case cover comes off in two parts at the push of a button. One piece consists of the top portion and half the side, and the other part comprises the rest of the side cover. A lever inside the unit allows easy, tool-free motherboard removal, and internal components are easy to access. This unit earned a score of excellent for case design.

While hardware setup for the Equium 7100M was quite easy, the system did not fare as well with software. There are no network drivers or utilities pre-installed, and we first had to find out the type of network card included in our system before installing the drivers for it. Luckily, Toshiba includes a readme file for this purpose, but compared with the other network-ready machines, these steps seem unwieldy. One especially nice feature that we didn't see elsewhere was a desktop shortcut to a utility that lets you create an NT File System partition from the pre-configured FAT partition.

The Equium 7100M is fully manageable, with Desktop Management Interface 2.1 compliance and the inclusion of Intel's LANDesk Client Manager. Capabilities include Wake on LAN, temperature and voltage monitoring, and intrusion detection. This system easily could be added to any government-managed network site.

With this system, Toshiba proves that it can play in the government market. Despite a more awkward setup than many of the other machines we looked at and a relatively small maximum memory of 512M, this is a solid system that shows off Toshiba's strides in case design and manageability. Government buyers can purchase the Equium 7100M for $2,026.

***

Compaq's Deskpro EN 6500+

Compaq, our sixth-place finalist, with a score of 7.87 and a price of $1,939, has been the leader in case design, and indeed, this system features one of the better case designs in this review. It is modular, and most of the internal components are tool-free. We were surprised, however, that the cover features standard screws because we've looked at this case design from Compaq before, and normally it features thumbscrews. Unfortunately, the use of standard screws caused this system to lose points where many of the other vendors -- who feature simple, tool-free case removal -- gained points.

The system ships network-ready with a full set of Compaq diagnostic utilities pre-installed, and it also includes a rescue disk. Compaq Intelligent Manageability, an excellent management package, is pre-installed on the system. One exceptional feature of this package is the Smart Cover Lock, which is an electronic cover-locking mechanism that is activated through the software. This enables administrators to lock the cover remotely.

The Deskpro EN 6500+ also ships with Compaq's AssetControl, which is a package that provides tracking capability for manufacturer, model, serial number, hard drive, monitor and memory.

The Deskpro EN 6500+ is a great system overall, with the only real shortcomings being the case-cover design and support policies that are not quite as comprehensive as some of the competition. For example, there is no money-back guarantee.

***

HP's Vectra VLi8 MT

The Vectra VLi8 MT finished in seventh place with a final score of 7.78.

We can't say enough about the case design of this unit. It awed even our sage technical analysts, who thought they had seen it all. It's the closest we've seen to a completely tool-free design. Case-cover removal is child's play, with a simple turn of a key and lift of a handle. All drive bays are easily accessible and tool-free. Even the rails on the drive units simply snap off for easy drive replacement. A single snap-on panel holds in all the PC Cards. The bottom of the chassis is actually hinged and outfitted with a handle so that you can open the bottom of the unit, providing easy access to the snap-in motherboard and other components. Needless to say, we gave this system a score of excellent for case design.

The Vectra VLi8 MT comes with a full set of diagnostic utilities and management software, including HP TopTools, HP DiagTools, McAfee VirusScan and McAfee Crash Guard. The system also includes a rescue CD-ROM. You can download the latest drivers and BIOS updates from HP's Web site. HP only includes a basic user's manual with the system; users must access the Web site for full online documentation, including a trouble-shooting guide and service manual. We gave the HP unit a score of good for setup/ease of use.

HP TopTools is a Web-based management tool that integrates the Web-Based Management Standard and the Windows Management Instrumentation. TopTools provides administrators with inventory, configuration, fault and security information. It also monitors the overall health of the system and allows users to set alert thresholds. The overall system status, including Power On Self Test errors and disk reliability, can be monitored remotely. However, temperature, voltage and fan-speed monitoring are not available with the VLi8 MT model.

At $2,464, the HP is the most expensive system in this review. However, if excellent case design and very good manageability are priorities, this system may well be worth your money. Note that the maximum memory is lower than most of these systems, at 512M.

***

DTK's APRI 80 Pentium III System

DTK finished in eighth place with a final score of 7.77. This system is fairly basic, lacking a lot of frills, but it does come with some nice features that make it user-friendly.

The case cover and drive bays are tool-free, and a unique design lets you have either two hard drives and one 3.5-inch removable storage unit or one hard drive and two 3.5-inch removable storage units. There is no Kensington lock or key lock for the case cover.

Setup is basic, but the system did come network-ready and included CD-ROMs containing drivers and documentation. There are no tutorials, however. Intel's LANDesk Client Manager comes pre-installed.

At $1,579, the APRI 80 Pentium III System was the lowest-priced system in our review. Better support policies and documentation would have upped its final score.

***

NEC's PowerMate ES 5200

The PowerMate ES 5200 finished in ninth place with a final score of 7.70. The case design is not modular, but the inside is clean, allowing for easy access to internal components. The case cover is secured by a thumbscrew and a snap.

The system came network-ready, but no management tools were pre-installed. The NEC Help Center supplies good online documentation. This system ships with an excellent set of management tools, including Intel's LANDesk Client Manager and the NEC ToolTelligent Suite. NEC WebTelligent provides for Web-based management.

Finally, the PowerMate ES 5200 was the only system we saw that includes both a switch in the BIOS and Intel's Processor Serial Number Control Utility for enabling/disabling the processor serial number.

One limitation of the NEC PC is a relatively small maximum memory of 512M. Also, improved technical support and performance scores would have raised the NEC's final score.

This system sells for $1,841.

***

Intergraph's TD-260

Finishing in 10th place with a score of 7.26 is Intergraph's TD-260. The case cover is held on by screws, and the system is not very modular, but overall accessibility is fairly good.

One strange design quirk is the attachment of a ribbon cable to the inside of the front panel. This cable powers the system's LEDs, but its placement makes it liable to accidental yanking if not disconnected before the front panel is removed.

The system comes network-ready and includes a rescue disk and a CD-ROM containing management tools, online documentation, drivers and utilities. The InterSite Management Tool comes pre-installed on the TD-260. This tool has powerful, comprehensive capabilities, but for some reason the Hardware Module -- which includes basic features such as temperature monitoring, voltage monitoring and intrusion detection -- is not included with the TD-260. The Watchdog Module, which is included, monitors system parameters such as connection status and sends alerts to the administrator.

Intergraph does not include a BIOS switch for the processor serial number, and a technical support person recommended that we download Intel's utility but told us Intergraph would not support it.

You can buy this system for $2,176.

***

Sys Technology's Performance AX-500P3B

The Performance AX-500P3B finished in 11th place with a score of 7.13 and a price of $1,899. Although screws hold the cover on, the inside of the unit is very clean and provides easy access to all internal components.

The system comes network-ready and includes Intel's LANDesk Client Manager, but that software is not pre-installed. A "Windows NT Workstation Starts Here" CD-ROM is included, along with a motherboard utility disk and a virus-protection package.

Sys Technology was hit the hardest in the technical support area. The company uses a third-party vendor that is terrible. We reached voice mail each time; one call was never returned, while the other was returned, but the technician was not able to help us.

Maximum memory is notably large at 1G.

Improved support policies and documentation would have helped the Performance AX-500P3B's final score.

***

Conclusion

All the systems here are good. Vendors have come a long way since last year, with marked overall improvement in areas such as case design and management. The result is this year's crop of unusually high-scoring machines. They all turned in similar performance scores as well.

When deciding what to buy, look at areas that are most important to your needs, such as case design, management, ease of use and technical support. Also, make sure the vendor provides a satisfactory, secure means to enable and disable the Pentium III processor serial number.

******

How we tested Pentium III 500 MHz Pcs

We evaluated 11 PCs with Pentium III 500 MHz processors and 256M of RAM running Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT Workstation 4.0. Our testing methodology emphasized system performance, especially 3-D graphics, and price.

***

Performance

The benchmark we used to evaluate each system's performance was 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.

SYSmark/98 is a robust set of 14 application benchmarks divided into two sections: Office Productivity and Content Creation. SYSmark/98 runs on Windows 98, Windows 95 and Windows NT 4.0. The applications that comprise the Office Productivity category are Corel Corp.'s CorelDraw 8, Microsoft Corp.'s Excel 97, Dragon Systems Inc.'s NaturallySpeaking V. 2.02, Netscape Communications Corp.'s Communicator 4.05 Standard Edition, Caere Corp.'s OmniPage Pro 8.0, Corel's Paradox Version 8, and Microsoft's PowerPoint 97 and Word 97. The Content Creation categories include MetaCreations Corp.'s Bryce 2, Avid Technology Inc.'s ElasticReality Version 3.1, Macromedia Inc.'s Extreme 3D Version 2, Adobe Systems Inc.'s Photoshop Version 4.0.1, Adobe's Premiere Version 4.2 and Xing Technology Corp.'s XingMPEG Encoder Version 2.1.

The elapsed times of these applications are combined to produce a SYSmark/98 score. Because this score is a rate (work divided by time), higher numbers indicate better performance.

We scored performance 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.

***

Setup/Ease of Use

Issues that determined this score included whether a system featured a quick-start guide, how easy it was to connect external peripherals and whether utilities, CD-ROMs and disks were included. We also looked at whether a system had a ROM-based setup, flash BIOS, an online system tutorial or other online support information. We looked for helpful setup utilities, and we considered whether a system came configured for network use.

If software came pre-loaded on the system, we added points to the setup/ease of use score. Systems were awarded extra points for including a system restore CD-ROM, separate multimedia software, MPEG software or other useful applications. We used word scores that were translated into percentages of the 50 points assigned to this category.

***

Case Design

Our case design criteria included the ease of removal of case covers, disk drives, hard drives, CD-ROMs and motherboards. We also looked at how well a system was labeled or color-coded. Layout also was a factor in determining how well a case was designed. Here we looked at how easy it was for a user to access RAM and video memory areas as well as screws holding in drives and other components. We looked at other useful features that were built into the case design, such as useful LEDs, case locks, keyboard locks and any other unusual features that reduce the total cost of ownership of the unit. We looked at the number of internal and external drive bays a system had and also at how quietly a system ran. We used word scores that were translated into percentages of the 75 points assigned to this category.

***

Features

Features are typically classified as devices and technologies that are not built into the computer's motherboard. Examples of features we score are hard drive size, video memory, processor cache, sound cards, CD-ROM drive speed, mouse, keyboard, LAN adapters and modems.

Extra points were awarded for bundled peripherals such as PC Card slots, Iomega Corp. Zip drives and tape drives. Systems that shipped with non-operating system software received higher scores. We used word scores that were translated into percentages of the 75 points assigned to this category.

***

Expandability

This category evaluates how much a user can expand and upgrade the system. We scored the quantity of free expansion slots after factory configuration, external and internal drive bays free after factory configuration, maximum system memory and total video memory. We used word scores that were translated into percentages of the 50 points assigned to this category.

***

Management

The management score was based on Desktop Management Interface 2.0 compliance and other DMI features that were integrated into the tested computer. We first looked to see if a system was DMI 2.0-compliant. We then looked at whether a system included DMI management software. Next, we looked at implemented DMI features, such as whether a system featured intrusion detection, temperature monitoring and Wake on LAN adapters. We used word scores that were translated into percentages of the 100 points assigned to this category.

***

Compatibility

The compatibility score was based on the number of operating systems supported by the vendor. We used word scores that were translated into percentages of the 25 points assigned to this category.

***

Documentation

At a minimum, documentation had to explain 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 received higher scores. We lowered the score if the manual was poorly organized, lacked a table of contents or an 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 missing software manual earned a poor score. Extra points were awarded for online documentation. 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 multiple anonymous support calls. 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 Compu-Serve) 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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