Desktop clients shift into the gigahertz gear

GCN Photos by Henrik G. DeGyor

From top left: Dell OptiPlex GX240, Sony Vaio PCV-RX670, IBM M41, HP Vectra VL830

Compaq Evo W4000

The best PCs have great specs and also make it easy to get at their guts for fixes

The desktop client is the center of the office universe, the focus of a network and the one tool that most workers truly can't do without.

PC capabilities have grown by leaps and bounds in the last few years. The six systems in this review all boasted clock rates faster than 1.8 GHz, and a few topped out at 2.4 GHz. But raw processing power alone doesn't make a system tops. It needs the right choice of RAM, video card, front-side bus and hard drive.

The GCN Lab's benchmark suite, created by Alterion Corp. of Conshohocken, Pa., takes all those factors into consideration.

Besides performance and price, a systems administrator cares most about the ease of opening the chassis. Being able to add more RAM or tighten a loose video card extends system life. So, for this review, we looked both inside and outside the box.

The Compaq Evo W4000 was the fastest desktop system we have yet tested, and the last before Hewlett-Packard Co. merges Compaq Computer Corp. product lines with its own. The Evo scored an unprecedented 6,077 on the Alterion benchmark. That's almost double the 3,365 score of a baseline 1.1-GHz Celeron system with 256M of RAM.

Although the 2.4-GHz Pentium 4 processor supported by 512M of RAM ran stunningly fast, what put the Evo over the top was the nVidia Quadro4 200 NVS video card. With 64M of RAM and dual video support, the card was at the bottom of the NVS lineup, yet it blazed through 2-D graphics like a hot knife through butter.

Rendering business-class 2-D graphics is a major part of the GCN Alterion benchmark, so no wonder the Evo W4000 had an edge. If Compaq had put in one of the higher-end NVS cards, the Evo probably would have done a lot better on the dedicated 3-D tests. As it was, the Evo edged out its closest competitor by a little more than 2 percent.

Compaq built in DVD-rewritable and floppy drives for multiple functionality in just two drive bays. There were two easily reachable Universal Serial Bus ports at the front and two more in back plus a network interface card, but no modem.

Inside access was a mixed bag. We had to loosen two thumbscrews to slide away the side panel. A long green plastic strip attached to the disk drives, and by pushing a yellow button, we could shift the drives around to change the tower into desktop format.

Unfortunately, we needed tools to reach the PCI card slots, which were distant from the rest of the motherboard. Getting at the RAM through a jumble of wires and drives without risking damage was nearly impossible. Compaq's engineers knew this, because they angled the RAM to make it a bit more accessible.

The Evo, although poorly designed for RAM replacement, nevertheless won our Reviewer's Choice and Bang for the Buck designations for combining top performance with low price.

Going toolless

The HP Vectra VL830 was the best-engineered system in the review'the first we have tested that combined one-touch case access with toolless maintenance.

We pulled up one lever and the entire side came off like a door. We could replace PCI cards, pull and install drives, or access RAM without tools. A screwdriver was necessary only to remove the power supply.

The Vectra also stood out for side-panel vents integrated into the overall cooling scheme. The exhaust measured 10 to 20 degrees cooler than for the other systems, which should keep the processor cooler and longer-lived.

With a 2.4-GHz Pentium 4, 533-MHz front-side bus and 512M of DDR266 RAM, the Vectra was no performance slouch. It scored 5,955 on the GCN Alterion benchmark'just 100 points shy of the top-scoring Evo. The 64M GeForce3 Ti200 video card was especially good at 3-D rendering.

Our test unit came with DVD, CD-RW and floppy drives. An Intel NIC was embedded. The Vectra had the most USB ports in the review'two easily accessible in front and four in back for a virtual hub.

The Vectra VL830 earned our Reviewer's Choice designation for marrying solid performance with the best internal component engineering we have seen. It also earned a Bang for the Buck for affordable yet stellar performance.

The Gateway E-4650 delivered above-average performance with several nice features. Its 2-GHz Pentium 4 with 512M of RAM scored a respectable 5,053 on the GCN Alterion benchmark. That's about what we expect of a processor at that level and more than compatible with advanced applications.

The 64M nVidia GeForce2 MX400 graphics card had both Digital Visual Interface and TV-out ports. Like the Vectra's slightly higher-end card, the GeForce2 was excellent at 3-D graphics.

The E-4650's modem and NIC would suit telecommuters or offices that use dial-up lines for certain functions. There were two USB ports in front and four in the back, plus DVD, CD-RW and floppy drives.

Getting into the case took just one thumbscrew removal. Gateway has some degree of toolless maintenance, for example, in changing out PCI cards, but tools were needed to work with the drives.

The E-4650's performance, management features and reasonable price earned it a Bang for the Buck designation.

When we opened up the 2.2-GHz IBM M41, we found a loose fan inside. The fan unlatched easily, and the desktop format could convert to a tower by reorienting the drive bays.

Lots of interior room meant good airflow and ease of upgrading and maintenance'except for the RAM, which was difficult to reach.

Despite an ATI Radeon graphics card with 64M of video memory, the IBM's 4,442 benchmark score was about average. There were DVD-ROM and floppy drives plus four USB ports. The 40G hard drive could have used a little boost, as could the chassis design.

Our biggest surprise in this review was the unseating of Dell Computer Corp., which has topped the lab's desktop PC reviews for several years. There were several things we didn't like about the Dell OptiPlex GX240, starting with the USB ports at the front of the tower.

Front USB ports are great in general, but the bottom half of the tower opened to reveal two awkwardly angled USB ports and a headphone jack. USB devices such as keychain drives hung down and could easily wiggle free from slight jarring. Luckily there were two more USB ports in back.

Another awkward element was the clamshell case'an innovative design that forced us to unplug all the cables and turn the heavy tower on its side to open it.

The upper half of the clamshell opening housed drives, and the lower half held the motherboard and video cards. A user would have to know which side to set on the desk or risk having to flip the tower again. Although this design made the RAM accessible, it also made the drives harder to take out and put in.

Another big surprise was the Dell's low benchmark score of 4,431. Like some other systems, the Dell had a 400-MHz bus transfer rate, 512M of synchronous dynamic RAM and an ATI Radeon video card. But the card had only 32M of video memory.

Small is not good

Much to our surprise, the lowest-cost PC was the $1,600, 1.8-GHz Sony Vaio PCV-RX670, which had an 80G hard drive and nVidia TNT 2 card with 32M of video memory. Except for a couple of problems, the Vaio would be a great gigahertz PC buy.

It had a poorly designed chassis and the lowest benchmark score, 3,454. That's surprising because Sony's designs are usually so clever.

The Vaio was the smallest system in the review, not necessarily a good thing for a tower. Smallness means less room to upgrade, and it can also choke air circulation.

A hidden metal latch opened the case, much like a hood latch on a car. Inside was a wire jungle without apparent logic. Because proprietary screws locked in the portion of the chassis that housed the DVD-ROM, CD-RW and floppy drives, it appeared impossible to add or subtract drives.

At first glance, the RAM looked to be blocked, although we could reach it by unlatching and pushing the power supply back. Even then, packs of wires were in the way.

On the plus side, Sony's patented Memory Stick, four USB ports, and four- and six-pin iLink ports came standard, suiting the Vaio for use with video and digital cameras.

But 512M of double-data-rate RAM and a 400-MHz bus transfer rate didn't help much on the benchmark tests. The poor ventilation probably was at fault.

Compaq and HP stole the show this year in performance, engineering and price. HP got toolfree access just right. Gateway showed marked improvement. IBM and Dell took a turn for the worse, though in talks with both companies we heard about good things on the horizon.
Dell deserves kudos for its innovative clamshell case.

If Sony wants to compete in the government market, it should change the Vaio design, which comes off like a sealed iMac. Proprietary screws that restrict access to parts of the chassis have no place in a serious desktop client. But Sony deserves praise for keeping the price down.

GCN Lab technician Arthur Moser contributed to this review.

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