Celeron-powered PCs are on the money

Even if you’re no power user, the latest office suites, database programs and
network applications require good hardware. Until recently that meant paying $2,000 or
more for a Pentium II system. The PCs with Intel Celeron processors, however, are
affordable choices for users who don’t need maximum power, just good performance, for
most office applications.


The GCN Lab tested seven Celeron systems priced at less than $1,200. I discovered that
they pack a lot of power and install easily on an existing network. They have upgrade
options, too. Several come with slimline cases designed to bundle a lot of hardware into a
small space.


If your desktop is ready for urban renewal, take a look at these low-cost workhorses.
They make surprisingly solid performers for all but the most advanced applications.


An average user would appreciate the Compaq’s all-around performance, features and
components. Power users on a budget would respect the Quantex for its high video benchmark
scores. Both models earned Reviewer’s Choice designations.


From case design right down to internal speakers, the Compaq Deskpro EP had a lot of
the features of higher-priced systems. It came in a standard desktop configuration, but
the drive bays could be turned on their sides to convert into a tower for a cramped
cubicle.


There were no external speakers, but Compaq did include a good-quality internal
speaker. Minus stereo effects, the speaker pumped out audio crisp enough for most office
applications.


If you have a set of speakers available, simply plugging them into the integrated sound
card turns off the internal speaker. As for upgrade options, the Deskpro had one free PCI
and one free ISA slot plus a shared slot for extra cards or devices.


There were also the standard two Universal Serial Bus ports plus one parallel and two
serial ports. The drive bays were a bit too close to the power supply. Pulling them out to
change the unit to a tower configuration was a tight squeeze.


The Deskpro’s Microsoft Windows 98 operating system made it easy to hook the PC
into the lab’s network test bed.


Hot on the Deskpro’s heels was the Quantex QP6 tower with plenty of room for
expansion. Its strongest feature was a Number 9 Revolution IV graphics card with 32M of
video RAM. No other system could touch its video scores—in fact, the QP6 earned the
highest score ever on the GCNdex32TM 2-D video benchmark. Even high-end applications such
as Adobe Photoshop worked well on the QP6.


As a dedicated tower model, it had more expandability than the other systems. There
were two free memory slots and three ISA and three PCI slots open for new cards. In
addition, three drive bays were free for adding Iomega Corp. Zip drives or extra hard
drives. Its standard 13G hard drive was the largest in this comparison.


One factor kept the QP6 from capturing the top spot: The silent giant had no sound


card. There were plenty of slots for one, but you would either have to pay more than
$1,200 for the system or cannibalize a card from elsewhere. If you are looking for a
powerful tower with lots of upgrade options, however, you won’t find another in this
price range.


The Gateway E-1200 366 was the best all-around benchmark performer. It did not stand
out in any particular area, though it did have excellent disk access times and performed
better than average in all other areas. Setup was a breeze thanks to a color-coded cable
system and an easy-to-use Desktop Management Interface 2.0 browser. The system came with
Windows NT preloaded, and network attachment took only a few minutes.


The E-1200 ran Apple QuickTime and .avi files with little degradation. The sound card
and speakers also performed well. The unit had Accelerated Graphics Port video integrated
but no upgrade path. One PCI and one shared PCI/ISA slot were free on the motherboard.
There were no free drive bays, but the E-1200 did come with a Zip drive—the only PC
so equipped in the group.


The E-1200’s 366-MHz processor performed almost as well as the other units’
400-MHz processors in most tests.


The Dell OptiPlex G1 had one of the smallest footprints, second only to the slimline
Quantex. Inside, design innovations were clearly visible. You needed only to press two
buttons and lift the case—no screws to lose and no tools to fiddle with. Every port
was color-coded, so setup and changes were no problem.


Unfortunately, there was not a lot to do inside. Only one ISA and one PCI slot were
free, and both drive bays were occupied. Don’t expect to plug a lot of devices into
the OptiPlex G1. It has only one serial port, although the two USB ports are free.


Dell markets this Win98 system as a standalone unit with nice speakers and a Turtle
Beach Systems professional sound card that you would expect in a much more expensive
system. The video was nothing spectacular, though adequate for most applications.


The OptiPlex G1 earned the Bang for the Buck designation for the best performance at a
very low price of $949.


Quantex’s second entry, the Quantex VX-400c, baby brother of the tower model,
would be the way to go when desktop space is really tight. To call the VX-400c small is an
understatement. The unit almost disappears under most monitors. But out of sight does not
mean out of mind.


Unlike the towering Quantex, the little VX-400c had integrated sound, though speakers
were not standard. The case was more difficult to open than the Dell’s, and the
thumbscrews were hard to get at because the back extended out an extra inch, perhaps to
protect plugged-in cables. Inside, internal cables and wires were neatly bundled and out
of the way.


Only one shared PCI/ISA and one ISA slot were open; the lack of expandability is not
surprising in such a tiny PC. Like the Dell, the VX-400c had two USB ports. It came with
NT preloaded and an ergonomic keyboard—both nice pluses.


IBM Corp. paid plenty of attention to detail in designing the IBM PC 300GL. For one
thing, the Celeron processor had a special case to hold it firmly in place.


The clip holders in the systems reviewed were originally built for the larger Pentium
II chip, so a Celeron tends to wobble. The clip even fell out of its holder in one system,
and all the other Celerons were loose except the PC 300GL’s. IBM engineered its case
to withstand a lot of jarring.


The PC 300GL’s inside airflow pattern also was good. To cool the chip, manifolds
let air enter in the front and exit at the back, much like the airflow inside a car.


The minitower case combined space-saving with expandability options. Three PCI and one
ISA slot were free, plus the standard dual USB ports.


IBM did not include a client management browser, though you can download one for free
from IBM’s Web site. But because this would be an onerous chore for multiple clients,
the IBM system lost some points. On the plus side, it came with Lotus SmartSuite
preinstalled.


The Toshiba America Information Systems Equium 7100D is designed for easy access, but
it would almost be simpler to open a can of tuna with your teeth.


The 7100D’s motherboard rolls freely out of its case—after you pull on a
plastic lever that literally pries the board out. It felt as if either the lever or the
board would break before it finally came free. And then the one free PCI slot was all the
way at the back of the case, which would mean pulling the top off to install a card.


Putting the motherboard back into place was next to impossible. It rolled inside fine,
up to a point.


Near the back of the case, it stopped short of its home slot. It required a hard shove
to get it back inside, and, in the absence of any strong points to push against, leverage
could damage the memory chips or the processor.


Furthermore, the inside of the case bristled with tiny sharp edges. I sliced my fingers
open twice and bled on the internal components. Standard thumbscrews would have been
better.


The Toshiba also fell down in usability. It came with Win95, though Toshiba’s Web
site said Win98 is available for the asking. The Equium was the only system I could not
connect to the test network, despite hours of trying.


The Toshiba had 128M of RAM, putting it in line with the top performers in this group,
but the hard drive held only 4G.


As a group, all the Celeron PCs performed beyond the lab’s expectations.


The Celeron proved itself a reliable alternative to the costlier Pentium II for most
users and more than adequate for replacing 486 computers.


Whether you want a tiny hideaway system or an upgradeable tower, a Celeron PC will
spruce up your desktop real estate for a minimum outlay.   n


The GCN Lab invited PC makers to submit systems based on the Intel Celeron processor
and available for $1,200 or less, excluding monitor.


The lab requested that each unit have a minimum of 32M of RAM and a 4G hard drive. Six
companies sent seven systems that met or exceeded the specifications requested.


The lab tested the systems as basic PC clients in a networked environment. After
initial setup, the lab staff installed GCNdex32TM benchmarks and year 2000 readiness
applications on all the systems.


The lab ran the GCNdex32 suite on each unit twice, at 800- by 600-pixel resolution and
true color and again at 1,024-by-768 resolution with 16-bit color or true color, depending
on which mode the system’s video card supported. All systems passed the year 2000
readiness test.


After loading appropriate drivers, the lab attempted to attach each client to a network
running Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0.


Each client’s GCN PowerIndex rating depended on seven factors:


After the initial ratings were compiled, the lab assessed penalties for any missing
components or system problems. The final results were weighted on a curve.


For more information about the GCN Lab’s testing methodologies, visit the Web site
at www.gcn.com/gcnlab and click on More about the
GCN Lab.


GCN Lab personnel Jason Byrne, Donovan Campbell and Michael Cheek contributed to
this report.





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