Great Lakes brings basic PC to fed market

Testing by Pat McClung

Great Lakes Electronics Distributing Inc., Buffalo, N.Y., is making its first foray into the government market this year with its recently awarded General Services Administration schedule. Great Lakes builds custom PCs and servers using Microsoft Corp.-certified components and sells them under the brand name Elite Systems.

The FCW Test Center evaluated a 550 MHz Intel Corp. Pentium III desktop PC (see box for configuration information) from Great Lakes to see what this new player offers government buyers. The bottom line is that this is a very good basic system that features high-quality components, but the company needs to either lower the price or offer more bells and whistles if it truly wants to compete with the big boys in the federal market.

The Elite system scored a 212 on the Business Applications Performance Co. SYSmark/98 benchmark, which is just about what we would expect from a 550 MHz system. The score breaks down to 211 for Office Productivity and 214 for Content Creation. The Elite PC is 95 percent as fast as a 600 MHz Pentium III system we recently tested, which scored a 223 on SYSmark/98.

Setup/ease of use is fairly basic. The system ships with a Windows 98 operating system manual and two CDs. One contains drivers for the video card, network card, CD-ROM drive and audio; the other contains TouchStone Software Corp.'s PC-cillin 98 anti-virus software, an INF update utility for Intel chipsets, MSI Computer Corp.'s PC Alert System II and MSI's Desktop Management Interface (DMI) browser. Unfortunately, there is no quick-start guide, recovery CD, application disk maker, tutorial or online help for the BIOS setup.

The Elite PC is not modular, but it features tidy insides with wires tied off and tucked away. All components inside the mid-tower case are easily accessible. Four standard screws hold the case cover on, and four screws each hold in the hard drive, floppy drive and CD-ROM drive. We rated the difficulty of removing these components as average. The system features three 5-inch external drive bays, two 3.5-inch external drive bays and one 3.5-inch internal drive bay. There is no case key lock or Kensington lock.

Expandability is reasonable and in line with what we're seeing on most other desktop PCs in this class. Four PCI slots, two ISA slots, one external 3.5-inch drive bay and two external 5-inch drive bays are free after factory configuration. Maximum system memory is 768M, and maximum video memory is 16M. The system is DMI-compliant and comes with a CD containing PC Alert System Monitor, which includes temperature, voltage and fan monitoring. The Pentium III serial number switch is located in the BIOS setup, which means enabling or disabling the serial number is hardware-based and therefore more secure than using Intel's software utility for this purpose. Unfortunately the PC does not provide Wake on LAN or intrusion detection.

Great Lakes' documentation needs a lot of improvement. Aside from the Windows 98 operating system manual, the system only includes a thin motherboard quick guide and a thin CD-ROM manual. The only online documentation is a motherboard user's manual, and there is no World Wide Web-based documentation. At a minimum, system documentation should include a quick-start guide, user's manual and online documentation - all of which were missing from the Elite PC.

All Great Lakes systems come standard with a two-year depot warranty. Customers can purchase a three-year parts and labor warranty for $13. In addition, Great Lakes offers onsite warranty packages provided by Micro Warranty Services (MWS), a company that provides warranties for original equipment manufacturers. A one-year MWS onsite service package costs $53, a two-year package costs $107, and a three-year package costs $216. The price for the system we tested includes the one-year MWS onsite service package and the three-year parts and labor warranty.

The price for the Elite system we reviewed is $1,749 without a monitor. Great Lakes does sell monitors but not on the GSA schedule. The lowest-priced monitor is a 17-inch Elite monitor with a 0.27-mm dot pitch for $213, which would bring the total price for the system and monitor to $1,962. Other monitors offered are a 17-inch Sylvania with a 0.25-mm dot pitch for $232, a 19-inch Elite with a 0.25-mm dot pitch for $371 and a 19-inch Samsung with a 0.26-mm dot pitch for $404.

Overall this is a good, basic system with quality components, but Great Lakes will have a hard time competing in the federal market unless its price drops. The $1,962 price is virtually the same as the 500 MHz Dell Computer Corp. OptiPlex GX1p system we reviewed in the June 14 FCW and $44 more than the winner of the 500 MHz desktop PC comparison, Micron Electronics Inc.'s Client Pro CS 500. And both of those systems come with a lot more features. For this price, Great Lakes needs to improve documentation, move to a more modular system design, include more management features and ship the system with tools such as a recovery disk and an application disk maker.

We've seen other small companies start out slowly and rise to become serious contenders in the federal market. We're rooting for Great Lakes to follow their lead.

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What We Tested

* Microsoft Windows 98 Second Edition

* 18G Western Digital WD Expert 7,200-rpm EIDE hard drive

* 128M of SDRAM0.

* 512K of Level 2 cache

* Samsung 40X CD-ROM drive

* Integrated Creative Labs 1373 audio chipset

* Diamond Multimedia Systems Viper V770 AGP video card with 16M of video memory and a 128-bit graphics engine

* 3Com Fast Etherlink 3C905B-TX 10/100 network card

* Ports: Two USB, two serial, one parallel, one RJ-45 and one standard VGA port; no RCA or S-Video port

* Microsoft Intellimouse

* 104-key Windows 95 keyboard

* Creative Labs 10W stereo speakers

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Elite PC

Great Lakes Electronics Distributing Inc.

(800) 831-0035

www.gled.com

Price and Availability

Available on the GSA schedule through various resellers for $1,749 without a monitor. In the near future, you will be able to find a list of resellers on the Great Lakes Web site at www.gled.com. In the meantime, call (703) 207-2090 for reseller information. Great Lakes will consider authorizing additional resellers for federal customers who wish to use a reseller that is not on the list.

Remarks

This is a good basic system that turned in decent performance. However, if Great Lakes wants to play with the big boys in the government market, it will need to make some improvements to the overall package and/or lower the price.

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