PC vendors meet GCN's $2,000 challenge

Not long ago, $2,000 didn't come close to buying a complete desktop PC, not to mention
desirable items such as a CD-ROM drive, network interface card and 17-inch monitor.
Machines on which you could get them all might be second-class or inadequate for a
standard client PC.


That's why the GCN Lab issued a challenge to vendors: Send in a client system that
costs less than $2,000. A baker's dozen of PC makers met the challenge.


Vendors were allowed to configure test systems however they wanted, but they had to
include at least these minimum requirements: 100-MHz Pentium processor, 1G hard drive, 16M
RAM, CD-ROM drive, 15-inch monitor, 1M video memory and Ethernet card.


Reviewer's Choice designations went to two systems: SMAC Data Systems' FM System and
Dell Computer's OptiPlex Gs+. Dell has fared well at the GCN Lab, and here's why.


In part one of this series we compared six servers [GCN, March 3, Page 27]. The
Dell PowerEdge 2100 didn't turn in the highest benchmark scores, but it did have the best
ratio of price to performance.


That also held true for the client system, the Dell OptiPlex Gs+. Its performance was
strong, though the machine was a little bare bones compared with other systems. Its
toolless entry and easily upgraded components made it very administrator-friendly.


SMAC Data Systems may be a new name to you. It was to me. But this small company put
together a good system with an administrator-friendly casing, PC Card adapter and powerful
200-MHz Pentium Pro processor.


Close runners-up were EPS Technologies' Evolution EV-3, Micron's Millennia LXA and
Gateway 2000's P5-166. The Evolution earned extraordinary benchmark scores with its
200-MHz Pentium MMX processor. Millennia hid a nice balance of performance and features
within a hard-to-open case. Gateway offered a basic but well-priced system.


The slowest chip in the bunch was a 133-MHz Pentium. Most vendors sent 166-MHz
Pentiums.


With RAM and hard drive prices continuing to fall, and with plenty of Pentium chips to
choose from, these 13 clients met GCN's price challenge and even surpassed it-at least on
paper. In fact, some of these low-cost configurations were worthy of power users.


Eleven of the systems would fit into almost any enterprise. Of the remaining two, an
Austin Computer Systems PC arrived with a hard drive that would not initialize. It took
four business days for Austin's tech support to respond, so the fix could not be made in
time to complete testing. To be fair, the Austin entry does not appear in this comparison.


The other exception was a MidWest Micro system, which performed fine, but its Fast
Ethernet network interface card would not work. The Infotel Inc. NIC failed its own
diagnostic test, saying it could communicate internally but not outside, where it counts.


Our expectations were high for the remaining 11 systems. As low-cost clients for an
enterprise, each had to meet certain criteria:


Easy installation. Systems should arrive network-ready. The appropriate drivers
for the components should be loaded, especially in the case of NICs. An administrator who
installs several clients-or several hundred-wants quick, painless setup.


Reliability. We tested each client for more than a month on the lab's
high-speed, multiprotocol Microsoft Windows NT 4.0 Server network. We did not want to see
components fail, especially in the first month. Moreover, part of the reliability we
expect is that a system comes exactly as ordered. Two vendors each promised a certain
configuration but delivered another.


Accessibility. Administrators have to get inside cases to install cards and
troubleshoot, and most would prefer to avoid prying things open with screwdrivers. In any
large-scale enterprise, the easier the access, the better. Toolless case entry and cases
with two or fewer thumbscrews are best.


Upgradeability. It's not always a necessity, but today's fast-changing
enterprise landscape calls for a little room to expand. Particularly important are vacant
RAM slots, expansion bays and PCI card slots. Some administrators might argue that thin
clients don't need expansion space. But any $2,000 investment deserves a little upside.
Are two bays, two PCI slots, one ISA slot and a RAM bank too much to ask for?


Most of the test systems met those criteria. A few missed on one or two.


If these PCs were priced at $1,000 or less, the so-called thin client profile would be
appropriate. Thin clients rely almost exclusively on the server and network for processing
power and file storage. That's why we're hearing so much hype about the Network PC (NetPC)
and the Network Computer (NC).


However, all the machines we received were "thick" clients, which empower the
desktop user and let the server provide file service and gateways for e-mail and the
Internet.


Two test systems, from Nexar Technologies and DFI, had Universal Serial Bus support.
They're ahead of their time, considering that few USB peripherals are available yet.


Seven systems had sound, and six of those had speakers. Audio isn't a client
requirement, but it has become an important feedback tool to notify users of e-mail or
appointments.


Seven systems came with 32M of RAM, which turned out to be one of the areas of
differentiation.


Three systems had new-style motherboards supporting both single and dual in-line memory
modules. SIMMs are standard in most PCs these days, but many manufacturers are changing to
DIMMs.


A 32-bit-wide SIMM chip must be paired with an equal chip, because the data path from
processor to RAM is 64 bits wide. To get 32M, you install two 16M chips. Take one out, and
the system doesn't work. Pop in an unequal-say, 8M-chip and it doesn't work, either.


DIMMs are 64 bits wide and can be installed one chip at a time, regardless of size.


Most SIMM/DIMM systems support only two 64-bit banks of memory.


The Nexar PC, for example, had jumpers to set for two DIMM slots, two SIMM slots, or
two SIMMs and one DIMM. All four slots cannot be used at once.


The EPS Technologies system gave a choice of DIMM or SIMM, but not both. Dunn
Computer's PC was not clearly labeled, and no documentation indicated the memory type.


SMAC Data Systems' offering has an appropriate name. Its system
smacked every other client in this comparison by sheer power and features.


Other PCs might have newer goodies, but SMAC's was built with
proven components, including the only top-of-the-line processor in this comparison, a
200-MHz Pentium Pro.


The system arrived with a sound card, speakers, 33.6-kilobit/sec
modem, 3Com Corp. 10/100-megabit/sec NIC, toolless case entry, 32M RAM, 2M Diamond
Multimedia Systems Stealth video card, 12X CD-ROM drive and lots of expansion room, with
four bays and three card slots available.


Moreover, SMAC included a feature that is a necessity for any
Defense Department worker: a PC Card adapter that accepts two Type II cards.


All this for $101 less than GCN's $2,000 price cap.


Its shortcomings were few. The tolerable, 15-inch AOC
International Ltd. Spectrum monitor needed a sharper, brighter image. The Alps Electric
Inc. keyboard seemed a little lightweight.


Overall, the SMAC system lacked that certain polish you find
among more established companies. The stickers were a little lopsided, and the metal and
plastic casing didn't have the refined feel of a Dell or Gateway unit. But that didn't
keep me from awarding this system a well-deserved Reviewer's Choice.


It sounds like a broken record for Dell to win another Reviewer's Choice designation,
but Dell has done it again with this administrator-friendly and client-power system.


The OptiPlex Gs+ had the easiest-opening chassis of all-simply press two buttons on the
sides and the OptiFrame chassis pops open [GCN, Jan. 13, Page 30].


Video and Ethernet were conveniently integrated on the motherboard, leaving all five
card slots vacant. Other OptiPlex motherboards integrate video and sound. You could even
upgrade the networking to Fast Ethernet without a card. The PCI/ISA slots were part of a
removable cage for easy card insertion.


Where the slots excelled in upgradeability, the bays disappointed. Only one external
bay was available. A second internal bay lacked the appropriate screw holes and was
virtually useless.


The Dell was one of three systems that can turn themselves off when told to shut down,
and it was the only system that can be scheduled to start up before you arrive at work.


Removing the single panel from the side of the Micron Millennia LXA minitower was a
frustrating experience.


A single thumbscrew and two latches secured the panel. I had to pry it off with a
flathead screwdriver. Putting it back on was even more aggravating, bordering on hopeless.


Even so, the Micron was elegant. It was the only system to include a Zip drive from
Iomega Corp. It had good upgradeability and top-notch components. The price was nice, too,
leaving $123 to buy options-perhaps speakers for the sound card integrated onto the
motherboard.


The 15-inch monitor could have used an upgrade, though it was pretty good. The Micron
turned itself off when Windows 95 shut down, like the Dell. GCNdex™ benchmark scores
were satisfactory, bordering on above-average for a 166-MHz Pentium.


If your clients need multimedia, EPS Technologies' Evolution EV-3 has a 200-MHz Pentium
MMX processor.


This new Intel chip blew away some benchmark scores, rivaling the Pentium Pro in SMAC's
system.


Though it was competitive, it didn't quite surge to the top across the board.


And processor power wasn't what counted the most.


The PC's case had improved since the GCN Lab last glimpsed the Evolution's innards
[GCN, July 8, 1996, Page 1], but it remained awkward both to remove and replace. Four
standard screws secured the computer's shell.


Inside, EPS Technologies generally bundled wires out of the way. If you need to access
any component, you are forced to snip the ties holding the wires.


The two full-size external bays were hard to reach, and the two available 312-inch
bays-one external, one internal-were even tougher to access.


The Evolution contained an evolutionary throwback. Instead of the standard six-pin
PS/2-type keyboard plug and nine-pin serial plug, the Evolution EV-3 has a thick five-pin
keyboard connector and one 25-pin serial plug.


You could choose either DIMMs or SIMMs for the EV-3, which is nice for buyers that are
trying to maintain consistency in their RAM chips.


Unfortunately, both DIMM slots were occupied, which left no openings for upgrades.


The Evolution EV-3, however, did come with excellent speakers from Labtec Enterprises.
It also came with a vibrant 17-inch CTX monitor.


Then there's always good old Gateway 2000. Good, because the P5-166 was generally
trustworthy. Old, because it still had the same old case.


Commercial customers can buy Gateway's new case that opens by twisting two thumbscrews,
but not government customers-not yet, at least.


Gateway officials wouldn't say whether they will switch to the new, easy-to-open
chassis for government buyers.


Opening the P5-166 required removing seven standard screws.


The system lacked some bells and whistles, but the P5-166 remains a good offering,
especially at $1,818.


Hard-drive scores were low, probably due to the 1G size of the Western Digital Corp.
drive. Larger-capacity disks usually access much faster.


Performance isn't everything in this comparison.


But the performance of Compaq's entry-level Deskpro, a 133-MHz Pentium, was
particularly slow.


There may be a reason for it. Compaq originally shipped a 100-MHz Pentium. Shortly
after it arrived, the company's federal group sent news about price drops. Then Compaq
sent a 133-MHz Pentium chip to replace the installed 100-MHz CPU. I popped one out and put
the other in, but I'm not convinced the motherboard was properly optimized for the new
CPU.


To make things even more interesting, the federal group has dropped prices yet again,
so Compaq's 166-MHz Pentium model could now slip in under the $2,000 price cap for this
comparison.


I've raved before about the Compaq Deskpro's accessibility [GCN, Aug. 26, 1996, Page
1].


The 2000's case was secured by two thumbscrews, and most components were reachable by
loosening one or two screws.


Add Compaq's Intelligent Manageability, which gives an administrator control over the
Deskpro, and you have the ideal client-if performance were a little more robust.


When I first looked at a Nexar Technologies system [GCN, July 29, 1996, Page 1], the
Nexar 9041 was a powerful and inexpensive novelty.


It boasted a hot-swappable hard drive and a removable panel for access to RAM,
processor and cache.


My criticism back then was that the Nexar lacked a second panel to access PCI and ISA
slots-the places most administrators would upgrade or add components.


The Nexar II line has that second panel. Nexar planned on sending such a system, but
what arrived did not have the second access panel.


The new E-9102 was almost a duplicate of the old 9041. Nexar later said it had sent the
innards of the new system, with USB and dual DIMM/SIMM support, but in an older case.


That prototype status may explain why GCNdex performance was slower than with the
earlier Nexar.


The Ethernet card was supposed to be Windows 95 Plug and Play-compatible, but the OS
would not recognize the ISA NIC. It had to be installed manually.


This was a solid system with good design, but my criticisms of the TD-20 focus on
production snafus. Intergraph Corp. until recently was known for its high-end workstations
and servers. Now the company has entered the low-cost PC market.


Intergraph meant to ship a 200-MHz Pentium Pro. An Intel sticker on the case said a
Pentium Pro chip was inside. But the GCNdex32 scores made me wonder. Opening the case, I
found an ordinary 200-MHz Pentium.


Also, the keyboard and mouse port labels were reversed. Had you followed the little
symbols, you'd have put the keyboard connector into the mouse port and vice versa.


Intergraph's first 15-inch monitor was dead on arrival. A second one worked fine and
had a clear image.


The TD-20's GCNdex32 scores were respectable, though not tops among 200-MHz Pentium PCs
the GCN Lab has tested.


Six thumbscrews secured the TD-20's casing. Cables were tucked out of the way. The
minitower case seemed a bit meager with only two full-size external bays. One held the
speedy 8X CD-ROM drive, and the other was obscured by the power unit and its wires.


The DFI Landmarq, like the EPS, combined old and new technology for a dual-personality
system.


To the thick, old five-pin keyboard plug and 25-pin serial port, it added two USB
plugs. However, those plugs blocked an open PCI slot-a poor configuration choice.


DFI occupied a PCI slot with a regular Ethernet card rather than slipping it into an
ISA slot. A 10-megabit/sec card doesn't benefit from PCI's 132-megabyte/sec speed-ISA's
5-megabytes/sec would be adequate.


Getting inside required loosening two screws to remove a side panel. To install any bay
component, you'd have to remove the other panel, also held in place by two screws.


The interior seemed crowded, with lots of wires. Accessing the available full-size bays
might require removal of the power supply.


The DFI had the distinction of being the least expensive of all 13 systems, thanks to
its 133-MHz Pentium processor.


Government Micro Resources sent a good system, but its benchmark performance was a
little below average for a 200-MHz Pentium machine.


The hard-drive scores for the GMR were especially low.


The Micron Millennia, built around a 166-MHz Pentium and exactly the same 1.6G Western
Digital Corp. drive, worked much faster.


This was the third of the three systems that could turn themselves off at the Windows
95 shut-down request.


GMR's system required removal of six screws to access the interior and, like the EPS,
it didn't want to reassemble.


The GMR had good expandability, though access to the external bays was somewhat
restricted.


The monitor fell short-way short. The 15-inch Mag Innovision Co. display was out of
focus and hard to see.


The colors generally looked bland and small text was illegible. I checked for magnetic
interference, but it simply was a poor monitor.


The novelty of the Dunn Computer All-in-One is its compact footprint.


Basically a 17-inch monitor with CPU built into the base, this "moniputer"
lacked room for expansion.


With CD-ROM and 312-inch floppy drives installed, there were no remaining external
bays, so devices such as an Iomega Zip drive or a PC Card adapter would have to be
attached as peripherals. Also, there were no available internal bays. Don't plan on adding
memory later, either.


Any administrator would find access to the RAM slots nightmarish. The entire casing and
components had to be disassembled to access the slots-three cards and 10 screws, minimum.


Two SIMM slots were occupied by the generous 32M of RAM. Two DIMM slots were vacant.


The computer half of the All-in-One, secured by two standard screws, slid out like a
drawer in the back.


Dunn's literature and World Wide Web site claimed five slots available: three ISA and
two PCI.


But the system the GCN Lab reviewed had just four-two ISA, one PCI and one shared. Two
were occupied by the sound card and NIC.


Despite the all-in-one moniker, the Dunn lacked true integration. Short cables
connected the video to the monitor and the sound card to the speakers. Benchmark scores
were slightly above average for a 166-MHz Pentium.


Although the system did have two fans-one on the processor and a second above the hard
drive-the tight space and airflow might cut performance.


The monitor was unremarkable but clear.


Although it is powerful, MidWest Micro's system earned a blank grade due to its failed
NIC.


The Office Pro 180 turned in strong GCNdex scores except in one area: hard-drive
access.


In fact, most other entries performed better on large-file access than the Office Pro.


MidWest Micro split the 2.5G drive into two partitions of 1.9G and 600M because of
Windows 95's 16-bit File Allocation Table.


But there is a version of Windows 95 that supports 32-bit FAT. And Windows NT 4.0
Workstation, an optional operating system, also supports 32-bit FAT.


But NT costs a little more and would have pushed the Office Pro 180 over the $2,000
price cap.


Even with 16-bit FAT, though, hard-drive performance should have been better.


With NT and a working NIC, the MidWest Micro PC might present strong competition to the
other clients.


inside gcn

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