Screamer PCs

Screamer PCs<@VM>Mix, match options for a high-performance system<@VM>Mix, match options for a high-performance system (cont.)

Performance is up, prices are down, and many vendor Web sites let you build a speedy PC to fit your own specifications

By J.B. Miles

Special to GCN



Go configure. A year ago, only a handful of leading computer manufacturers provided online stores that allowed buyers to design their own PCs, complete with a price update at the end of the process.

At the time, I raved about them and wondered when other manufacturers would catch up.

They have. For this Buyers Guide on powerful PCs, I checked about 75 manufacturers' Web sites and discovered more than 50 online stores that provide lists of base models, along with drop-down menus of CPUs, RAM, storage options and other niceties that let me customize the unit I wanted at a price within my range.

This is good business for everybody, particularly savvy buyers willing to spend a few hours on the Internet before spending a dime.

After a few months of relatively static growth, the PC market is taking off again. Per-unit PC prices aren't dropping much, but performance is soaring. PC shoppers now get more for their money than ever before, particularly for a midrange system priced between $1,500 and $2,500.

To qualify as a screamer PC for this guide, I decided, each base unit had to come in desktop PC or minitower configurations with a 500-MHz or faster CPU and at least 128M of installed RAM. I set $2,500 as the most I'd pay for a unit with the options I wanted. The two exceptions came bundled with expensive 15-inch flat-panel LCD monitors.

Where possible, I looked for 10G or larger hard drives and the fastest CD-ROM or DVD-ROM drives available. If options for video cards were offered, I chose those with the largest memories possible, typically 32M or 16M. Many of the base units came with 56-Kbps modems, sound cards and speakers. A few even had 10/100-Mbps Ethernet cards.

Pretty pictures

If a decent 17-inch or 19-inch monitor could be bundled in for $2,500, I included it. In cases where choices among operating systems were given, I selected either Microsoft Windows NT Workstation or the new Windows 2000.

Regardless of the label on the outside of the PC box, it's what's under the hood that counts. Just about every component of a PC, from its CPU to its hard drive, is made by a third-party manufacturer. So chances are that one manufacturer's PC isn't significantly different from another's, provided both include quality components.

What should you look for in each component?

CPU. A computer's central processing unit can be considered its engine or its brains, depending on how you look at it. A CPU is the most significant component of any PC, and many people judge a system's worth mainly by the speed of its CPU, measured in millions of cycles per second, or MHz.

This approach is understandable, but not entirely accurate. Other factors, such as chip-set speed, type of memory and cache memory, hard-drive size and rotational speed, and bus speed also play a big role in the performance of any PC.

With one exception'the Apple PowerPC G4, with a PowerPC processor'the revved-up PCs featured here all include either Intel Pentium III or Athlon processors. Virtually all the systems with Pentium III CPUs operate at 600-MHz or higher speeds; those with Athlon processors from Advanced Micro Devices Inc. of Sunnyvale Calif., operate at 650 MHz to 800 MHz.

Although processor speed undeniably counts a lot, it is important to take into account the speed of the system bus and other factors. Pentium III processors running slower than 600 MHz come with 100-MHz buses; those running at 600 MHz and up feature 133-MHz buses. Because bus speed determines how quickly the system can transmit data between the CPU and RAM, a 133-MHz bus clearly provides a faster and more efficient system than a 100-MHz bus.

All Pentium IIIs include a hefty 512K of Level 2 cache. L2 cache is where frequently used data is stored so that a PC seeking access to it doesn't have to search its entire system. Its presence increases overall system performance.

The new 700-MHz and 733-MHz Pentium IIIs store an additional 256K of L2 cache directly on the chip for even faster access to data. The Athlon? Even better. The new AMD speedsters not only run fast, they offer a 200-MHz system bus, 128K of integrated Level 1 cache'as opposed to the Pentium III's 32K'and 512K of L2 cache that can be expanded to 8M.

Systems running either 600-MHz or faster Pentium III CPUs or 650-MHz or faster Athlons are ideal for multitasking environments with lots of 3-D, computer-aided design, modeling and other high-end graphics applications, but benchmark tests of the 800-MHz Athlon show it is the CPU to beat.

Intel Corp., meanwhile, is set to raise the ante again later this year when it plans to release a 1-GHz Pentium III, which will have a 400-MHz system bus, and the company's 32-bit processor, currently code-named Willamette, which will operate in excess of 1 GHz.

Chip set. Much was made of Intel's delay last year in releasing its heralded 820 chip set. But the new chip set, which augments the 2-D and 3-D graphics handling capability of its predecessor, the 810E, has arrived.

Its main benefit is that it supports Rambus dynamic RAM, which purportedly will boost system performance over the synchronous dynamic RAM that comes with most PCs. But many new systems don't yet include the 820.

There's another problem for unwary buyers: Many manufacturers' specification sheets don't mention a word about the chip set used. Many so-called fast PCs pair a Pentium III CPU with one of Intel's older, slower BX chip sets.

So if you want to know more about the chip set bundled into your new PC, you'll probably have to ask.


Tips for buyers
'Remember that processor speed isn't everything; other factors enter into the PC performance equation.

'Ask what kind of chip set is bundled with your device.

'Look for at least 128M of base RAM and the capacity to add up to 1G.

'Get a big, 7,200-rpm hard drive.

'Add a CD-RW drive to your CD-ROM or DVD-ROM if you can afford it.

'Check out manufacturers' warranty and return policies.

'Fasten your seat belt.


Base memory. Today's complex applications require loads of memory, so 64M of RAM should be considered minimum in any system you buy. At today's prices, I would not buy one with less than 128M.

Systems with available 64M dual inline memory modules, rather than a string of 16M DIMMs, are best when it comes to adding even more RAM. Today's screamers can add up to 1G of RAM, which makes a very powerful PC indeed.

Hard drive. Most of the PCs listed in this Buyers Guide come with IDE drives that, because they plug directly into a system's motherboard and don't require a controller, are cheaper and easier to install than SCSI drives.

They are perfectly satisfactory for most users unless additional expansion requirements dictate the use of a 10,000 rpm SCSI drive and controller.

IDE drives run at two speeds, 5,400 rpm and 7,200 rpm. The latter generally is preferable for high-speed data storage and retrieval.

As for size, the bigger the better. The price difference between an 8G and 10G drive is minimal, so for an extra $30 or $40, why not gain 20 percent more storage capability? Many of the PCs listed in the accompanying chart can be configured with 20G or bigger drives for only $100 or so more than the asking price of the base unit.

Other storage. CD-ROM drives are still the mainstay of most PCs in this price range, although newer DVD-ROM drives that will read virtually any type of CD are making a strong showing in new systems.

In some cases, a CD-R or CD-RW drive is bundled with a unit for an extra $100 or $150. Many systems also offer an Iomega Zip drive from Iomega Corp of Roy, Utah, as an extra storage option; a few of those listed provide them as standard equipment.

If you can afford it, consider a CD-ROM or DVD-ROM drive for your basic storage needs, along with a CD-RW for copying and storing extra data.

Operating system. Microsoft Windows 98 still reigns supreme among the OSes bundled with the units listed, but most vendors will readily switch it out for Windows NT Workstation or even the new Windows 2000 OS for an extra charge.

Why Windows 2000? At the date of this writing, I haven't tried it, but it purportedly is as stable as NT and therefore more reliable than Windows 95 or 98. For legacy applications, I would select NT Workstation over Windows 98 if it is an option.

Monitor. I generally don't expect much from a monitor bundled with a sub-$2,500 system, but sometimes I have been pleasantly surprised. Many of the products listed here come standard with 17-inch displays boasting 0.26 mm or 0.27 mm dot pitch, and a few come with 19-inch monitors with the same or even better ratings.

Two of the systems listed, DTK Computer's APRI-80M/PIII and Toshiba America Information Systems' Equium 7350D, can be bundled with a 15-inch flat-panel LCD monitor, although this boosts the price of the systems over my targeted $2,500.

Expansion. Most of the PCs in this category come in desktop PC or minitower configurations that allow you to expand their capabilities by adding a new graphics card, modem, scanner card or other device. In today's systems, faster PCI and Universal Serial Bus connections are displacing the older 16-bit ISA buses. Look for a system that has three to five PCI slots and perhaps one PCI/ISA slot for an older card. You'll also want one or two USB ports for plug-and-play and hot-swapping capabilities, one or two PC Card ports and at least one Accelerated Graphics Port for high-speed 3-D data handling.

Video cards. There are lots of video cards out there with titillating names such as ATI Rage Pro, Voodoo Banshee and S3 Savage. For basic computing requirements, including 2-D graphics, almost any video card will do, as long as it has at least 8M of synchronous graphics RAM. For high-end multimedia, including Internet work, look for a video card with 16M or even 32M of SGRAM.

Sound. Virtually all PCs in this roundup come with sound cards, and many of them are bundled with speakers. Discerning listeners might want to upgrade both the cards and speakers, but for most purposes the components coming with your new screamer will be adequate.

Connectivity. Most new PC systems come with 56-Kbps V.90 modem cards. A few come standard with 10/100-Mbps Ethernet cards, which saves time and labor if you are going to install your PC on a departmental network.

J.B. Miles of Pahoa, Hawaii, writes about communications and computers.














































































































































































































































































VendorProductProcessorHard drive size in gigabytesMonitorPreinstalled OS and softwareBundled featuresPrice as configured
ABS Computer Technologies Inc.
Whittier, Calif.
562-695-8823
www.buyabs.com
Supreme DVD 3800-MHz Pentium III13.619-inch, 0.26 mm dot pitchWin98, Corel WordPerfect Office 200010X DVD-ROM, 32M AGP video card, 56-Kbps modem, sound card and speakers$2,107
ABS Computers
Bonifay, Fla.
850-547-0004
www.abspc.com
AMD K7-700700-MHz Athlon10.117-inch, 0.27 mm dot pitchWin98, Corel WordPerfect Office 2000, antivirus40X CD-ROM, 4M AVP video card, 56-Kbps modem, sound card and speakers$2,255
Acer America Corp.
San Jose, Calif.
408-432-6200
www.acer.com
AcerPower 8400- T733A733-MHz Pentium III20Not includedWin98, antivirus 6X DVD-ROM, nVidia TNT2 video card, 56-Kbps modem, sound card and speakers$1,529
American Computer Innovators Inc.
Amherst, Mass.
413-256-6003
www.acipc.com
ACI Pentium III Multimedia600-MHz Pentium III20.419-inch Princeton Ultra 95Win986X DVD-ROM, 32M ATI video card with DVD, sound card and speakers$2,435
Apple Computer Inc.
Cupertino, Calif.
408-966-1010
www.apple.com
PowerPC G4500-MHz PowerPC10Not includedMacOS6X DVD-ROM, 16M video card, 56-Kbps modem$2,439
AST Research Inc.
Irvine, Calif.
310-407-2600
www.ast.com
Premmia PS700-MHz Pentium III13.615-inch, 0.28 mm dot pitchNT Workstation, Microsoft Office Small Business Edition 200040X CD-ROM, 16M AGP video card, 56-Kbps modem, 10/100-Mbps Ethernet card, sound card and speakers$2,038
Aventec Direct
Mentor, Ohio
440-918-7210
www.aventec.com
illusion NL3/600600-MHz Pentium III20.517-inch, 0.26 mm dot pitchWin98, Corel WordPerfect Office 20008X DVD-ROM, 32M ATI video card, 56-Kbps modem, sound card and speakers$1,599
Axis Systems
Anaheim, Calif.
800-378-9014
www.axissys.com
Orion CXTV Pro733-MHz Pentium III20.5Not includedWin988X DVD-ROM, 16M AGP video card, 56-Kbps modem, sound card and speakers$2,099
BananaPC.com
Fremont, Calif.
800-379-0010
www.bananapc.com
Wintec UltimateEdge650-MHz Pentium III13.619-inch, 0.26 mm dot pitchWin98, PC Essentials Software Bundle48X CD-ROM, 16M AGP video card, sound card and speakers$1,699
Boldata Technologies Inc.
Fremont, Calif.
800-923-2653
www.boldata.com
Xtreme ZX600600-MHz Pentium III3419-inch, 0.26 mm dot pitchWin988X DVD-ROM, 32M AGP video card, 56-Kbps modem, sound card and speakers$2,329
Compaq Computer Corp.
Houston
281-370-0670
www.compaq.com
Deskpro EN Pentium III 650-MHz650-MHz Pentium III10Not includedNT Workstation40X CD-ROM, 32M AGP video card, sound card$1,805
CompUSA
Dallas
972-982-4000
www.compusa.com
Pro Series750-MHz Pentium III1017-inch, 0.28 mm dot pitchWin98, Microsoft Works, antivirus50X CD-ROM, 16M AGP video card, 56-Kbps modem, sound card $1,766
CSS Laboratories Inc.
Irvine, Calif.
949-852-8161
www.csslabs.com
Select Pentium III Workstation600-MHz Pentium III13Not includedNT Workstation40X CD-ROM, 8M video card, sound card$1,452
CyberMax Computer Inc.
Allentown, Pa.
800-345-8939
www.cybermaxpc.com
Enthusiast K7-800800-MHz Athlon2719-inch, 0.26 mm dot pitchWin98, Corel Word- Perfect Office 2000, Max's Enthusiast Pack12X DVD-ROM, nVidia 32M video card, 56-Kbps modem, sound card and speakers$2,199
CyberPower Inc.
Baldwin Park, Calif.
800-707-0393
www.cyberpowerinc.com
AMD Athlon Custom Built System800-MHz Athlon10.2Not includedWin9848X CD-ROM, S3 Trio 128 video card, 56-Kbps modem, sound card and speakers$1,618
Dell Computer Corp.
Austin, Texas
512-338-4400
www.dell.com
Precision Workstation 210 MiniTower600-MHz Pentium III917-inch Dell M780NT Workstation48X CD-ROM, Diamond Viper 32M video card$2,314
DTK Computer
City of Industry, Calif.
626-810-0098
www.dtkcomputer.com
APRI-80M/PIII600600-MHz Pentium III17.215-inch flat-panel LCDWin986X DVD-ROM, CD-RW, Matrox Millennium 32M video card $2,950
Explorer Micro Inc.
Worthington, Ohio
614-436-6300
www.explorermicro.com
MT-700800-MHz Athlon10.1Not includedWin 2000 44X CD-ROM, S3 4M AGP video card$1,756
Gateway Inc.
North Sioux City, S.D.
800-846-4208
www.gateway.com
Select 700700-MHz Athlon2017-inch EV700Win98, antivirus, Microsoft Works 20008X DVD-ROM, AGP 16M video card, sound card$1,798
Hewlett-Packard Co.
Palo Alto, Calif.
650-857-1501
www.hp.com
Vectra VL600 Model D8669T733-MHz Pentium III30Not includedNT Workstation8X DVD-ROM, Matrox 32M video card, 10/100-Mbps Ethernet card$2,349
IBM Corp.
Armonk, N.Y.
914-499-1900
www.ibm.com
PC 300PL Model 6565E1U733-MHz Pentium III20.4Not includedNot includedn48X CD-ROM, 32M video card, sound card$2,199
Ion Computer Systems Inc.
Hauppauge, N.Y.
631-630-0600
www.ioncomputers.com
MiniTower ATX CC820G733-MHz Pentium III10.2Not includedNT Workstation40X CD-ROM, Diamond 32M AGP video card, 56-Kbps modem, sound card$1,635
Kaypro Technologies Inc.
City of Industry, Calif.
888-352-9776
www.kayprosystems.com
Kaypro 6100600-MHz Pentium III2017-inch KayproWin98, Microsoft Works 2000 5X DVD-ROM, nVidia 16M video card, 56-Kbps modem, Iomega 100M Zip drive, sound card and speakers$1,599
Kingdom Computers
Mansfield, Pa.
570-662-7515
www.kingdomcomputers.com
Customized Kingdom600-MHz Pentium III1719-inch, 0.26 mm dot pitchWin98, Home Office Bundle48X CD-ROM drive, ATI 8M AGP video card, 56-Kbps modem, sound card and speakers$1,964
Maximus Computers Inc.
Irwindale, Calif.
626-815-7777
www.maximuspc.com
PowerMax DVD P600XP600-MHz Pentium III1319-inch, 0.26 mm dot pitchWin98, Corel WordPerfect Office 20006X DVD-ROM, ATI 16M AGP video card, 56-Kbps modem, sound card and speakers$2,120
Mega Computer Systems
San Diego
619-487-8888
www.megacs.com
Mega Impact PIII 600-MHz Pentium III19.117-inch, 0.27 mm dot pitchWin986X DVD-ROM, Matrox 32M AGP video card, Iomega 100M Zip drive, sound card$1,950





































































































































































































































































VendorProductProcessorHard drive size in gigabytesMonitorPreinstalled OS and softwareBundled featuresPrice as configured
Micro Express
Irvine, Calif.
949-852-1400
www.microexpress.net
MicroFlex 72B700-MHz Athlon2017-inch, 0.27 mm dot pitchNT Workstation6X DVD-ROM, ATI 32M AGP video card, 56-Kbps modem, sound card and speakers$1,849
Micro-King
Brookpark, Ohio
216-267-1762
www.micro-king.com
Pentium III VIA Apollo System733-MHz Pentium III13.5Not includedWin 200048X CD-ROM, 56-Kbps modem, sound card$1,497
Micro Pro Inc.
Cleveland
216-661-7218
www.mpipc.com
PowerMate 8100600-MHz Pentium III13Not includedNT Workstation40X CD-ROM, ATI 8M video card, 10/100-Mbps Ethernet card, sound card$1,859
Micron PC Inc.
Meridian, Idaho
888-208-1937
www.micronpc.com
Millennia MAX733-MHz Pentium III2719-inch Micron 900LX, 0.26 mm dot pitchWin98, Microsoft Office Small Business Edition 20008X DVD-ROM, nVidia 32M AGP video card, 56-Kbps modem, sound card and speakers$2,399
Midwest Micro
Fletcher, Ohio
937-368-2650
www.mwmicro.com
PVW-700a Ascent PC700-MHz Athlon17.317-inch, 0.26 mm dot pitchWin9848X CD-ROM, nVidia 16M AGP video card$1,874
NEC Computers Inc.
Sacramento, Calif.
888-446-8632
www.nec-computers.com
PowerMate 8100600-MHz Pentium III13Not includedNT Workstation40X CD-ROM, 16M AGP video card, sound card$1,858
PC Club
City of Industry, Calif.
626-913-2582
www.pcclub.com
EN500-GD1750-MHz Athlon13Not includedWin9848X CD-ROM, Voodoo 16M video card, 56-Kbps modem, sound card and speakers$1,679
PC Connection
Marlow, N.H.
603-446-3333
www.pcconnection.com
Epiq BPS 8000550-MHz Pentium III1917-inch, 0.27 mm dot pitchWin986X DVD-ROM, Voodoo 3 16M video card, sound card$1,700
Polywell Computers Inc.
San Francisco
650-583-7222
www.polywell.com
Poly 800K7700-MHz Athlon2019-inch, 0.26 mm dot pitchWin98, Lotus SmartSuite8X CD-RW, nVidia 32M video card, 56-Kbps modem, sound card and speakers$2,499
Premio Computer Inc.
City of Industry, Calif.
626-839-3100
www.premiopc.com
Apollo BX 600600-MHz Pentium III17.119-inch, 0.26 mm dot pitchWin985X DVD-ROM, Diamond 32M video card$2,300
Quantex Microsystems Inc.
Somerset, N.J.
732-563-4166
www.quantex.com
SM733x733-MHz Pentium III2019-inch Diamondtron, 0.25 mm dot pitchNT Workstation, Corel WordPerfect Office 20008X DVD-ROM, Matrox 32M video card, 56-Kbps modem, sound card and speakers$1,999
Reason Computer
Circle Pines, Minn.
615-717-3600
www.reasoncomputer.com
Business PC System650-MHz Pentium III13Not includedWin 2000, Microsoft Office Small Business Edition 200048X CD-ROM, nvidia 16M video card, 56-Kbps modem, sound card and speakers$2,346
Royal Computer Inc.
City of Industry, Calif.
800-486-0008
www.goroyalpc.com
Millennium PC 600-MHz Pentium III2019-inch, 0.27 mm dot pitchWin98, Lotus SmartSuite10X DVD-ROM, ATI 32M video card, 56-Kbps modem, sound card and speakers$2,149
SAG Electronics
North Andover, Mass.
978-683-0339
www.sagelec.com
STB-SD 133 fsb Desktop733-MHz Pentium III13.6Not includedWin 200048X CD-ROM, Matrox 32M video card, sound card$1,833
Sony Electronics Inc.
San Jose, Calif.
408-432-1600
www.ita.sel.sony.com
VAIO PCV-R547DS Digital Studio Computer600-MHz Pentium III27Not includedNot included 8X DVD-ROM, 4X CD-RW, nVidia 16M video card, 56-Kbps modem, sound card and speakers $2,000
Sys Technology Inc.
Cypress, Calif.
800-613-9963
www.sys.com
Performance Desktop750-MHz Athlon13.617-inch Sys, 0.26 mm dot pitchWin9840X CD-ROM, Diamond 32M AGP video card, 56-Kbps modem, sound card and speakers$2,018
Systemax Port
Washington, N.Y.
800-326-3917
www.systemax.com
Corporate 600+733-MHz Pentium III2019-inch, 0.26 mm dot pitchWin98, Microsoft Office Small Business Edition 200048X CD-ROM, TNT2 32M video card, 10/100-Mbps Ethernet card, 250M Iomega Zip drive, sound card and speakers$2,349
Tangent Computer Inc.
Burlingame, Calif.
888-826-4368
www.tangent.com
Medallion600-MHz Pentium III2219-inch, 0.26 mm dot pitchWin984X DVD-ROM, 4X CD-RW, Diamond 32M video card, 250M Iomega Zip drive, sound card $2,195
Tempest Micro Electronics
Walnut, Calif.
909-595-0550
www.tempestmicro.com
DecAthlon700-MHz Athlon1219-inch, 0.26 mm dot pitchWin98, Corel WordPerfect Office 200048X CD-ROM, ATI AGP 32M video card, 56-Kbps modem, color scanner, sound card$2,178
TigerDirect
Miami
800-879-1597
www.tigerdirect.com
Custom Pentium III System733-MHz Pentium III30Not includedWin9844X CD-ROM, Creative Labs 32M video card, sound card and speakers$1,595
Toshiba America Information Systems Inc.
Irvine, Calif.
949-583-3000
www.csd.toshiba.com
Equium 7350D733-MHz Pentium III1515-inch flat-panel LCDNT Workstation40X CD-ROM, 128M video memory on Intel 810E chip set$2,561 GSA
Umax Computer Corp.
Fremont, Calif.
510-360-8310
www.umax.com
605Z DEw P3 600-MHz Pentium III13Not includedWin98, Lotus SmartSuite, antivirus8X DVD-ROM, 16M AGP video card, 56-Kbps modem, 10/100-Mbps Ethernet card, sound card$1,599
U-Tron
Fremont, Calif.
510-656-3600
www.utron.com
Cyberexpress Pro500-MHz Pentium III13Not includedWin986X DVD-ROM, Diamond 16M AGP video card, 56-Kbps modem, sound card and speakers$2,225
Xi Computer Corp.
San Clemente, Calif.
949-498-0858
www.xicomputer.com
Xi Mtower 750-MHz Workstation750-MHz Athlon8.417-inch OptiquestWin986X DVD-ROM, Diamond 32M video card, sound card and speakers$1,634
XTechnology Inc.
Warrensville Heights, Ohio
888-983-2448
www.xtechnology.com
CAD Station XC2-650K7650-MHz Athlon20.4Not includedNT Workstation8X DVD-ROM, Diamond 32M video card, 56-Kbps modem, sound card and speakers$1,499

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