Space savers

Now you can spread out: The MPC ClientPro 414, saves users a ton of desktop space without skimping on features and performance.

Meanwhile all-in-one pioneer Gateway has crammed a lot of extras into its Profile 5.5, right, without adding much to the price.

Dell OptiPlex SX280

No matter how scarce your cubicle real estate, there's a desktop computer that fits it. Sure, notebooks have become powerful enough to be primary systems, but they still don't come with full-size keyboards and displays, and they're usually more expensive than their desktop cousins.

Within the past year or so, space-saving computers, including all-in-one PCs, have grown in popularity, particularly in the government sector. They've started shipping with the Intel 915 chip set, which provides faster performance through higher bus-transfer rates and double-data-rate 2 memory support, all in a smaller chassis footprint. Combined with the new, smaller serial ATA cables connecting the hard drive to the motherboard, and a robust PCI express video card, the 915 chip set gives modern space-saving computers big-time workhorse capability.

For this review, products fell into two categories: all-in-one systems, such as the Gateway Profile 5.5 and MPC ClientPro 414; and space-saving two-piece systems, which either have particularly small CPUs, such as the Mac Mini, or allow you to easily store the CPU out of the way, such as the Dell OptiPlex SX280.

Which you choose will depend on preferences. With an all-in-one, for instance, the display you buy is the display you live with. If you don't like it or something goes wrong, it affects the whole system. Two-piece space-savers offer more flexibility, but may not be as sleek and compact as all-in-ones.

What we found

As with any desktop PC, performance was key to our evaluation. Intel's new subsystem is impressive, but vendors that choose to incorporate the chip giant's integrated graphics controller hinder performance. The Dell OptiPlex SX280, for instance, employs Intel graphics and significantly lagged the Gateway Profile 5.5 in our tests, despite including more and faster memory.

Half the systems we tested came with embedded 802.11 WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity. But less than half used state-of-the-art DDR2 RAM. So space-saving computers still aren't a commodity business where you can avoid comparing specs.

But in the end we wanted to find a system that saved desktop space without cutting corners. The Mac Mini, for example, is certainly mini, but it skimps on certain components. The MPC ClientPro 414'our favorite space-saving system'comes in a sleek all-in-one design and has enough horsepower to drive demanding applications. In short, you can have your cake and eat it too. Get back that valuable office real estate without giving up the comfort of a full-featured, powerful computer.

Apple Mac Mini M9686LL/A

Pros: Tiny, elegant two-piece solution

Cons: Under-powered, poor wireless keyboard

If your work doesn't depend on Microsoft compatibility, and if space and cost savings are important buying criteria, you can't get much better than the $797 Mac Mini. That price doesn't include a monitor, but fortunately the Mini should work with what you already have. Our unit also included optional Bluetooth and WiFi connectivity, plus a wireless keyboard and mouse.

Apple has been hoping this latest edition to its desktop line will bolster its consumer business, but after us- ing the 1.4-GHz Mac Mini for two months we can tell you it handles any office work you throw at it.

That may come as a surprise considering the Mini's specs are, well, mini. The 1.4-GHz processor is supported by a sparse and outdated 256M of DDR RAM, an average ATI Radeon 9200 video card, and a standard 80GB Ultra ATA hard drive. New computers, including the space-savers in this review, come with much more robust components.

But Apple manages to squeeze decent performance from its mini features. Because our benchmark tests don't support the Mac platform, we can't say for certain how the Mini performed, but anecdotally we found it impressive, even if it wasn't as fast as the top machines we've tested.

We wish Apple had gone with DDR2 RAM or a better video card. But that's how you get a Mac for $797. And as with any other Mac, Apple created the Mini with a thoughtful design. At 2.9 pounds, the Mini's lighter than most notebooks. And it's the smallest desktop CPU you can buy, measuring just 6.5 by 6.5 by 2 inches. Matched with an LCD display, it's hard to find a better solution for a tight space than the Mini.

Our biggest problem with the Mini was that the keyboard Apple provided kept locking up. We'd be typing and the computer would not receive the data for several seconds. Needless to say, this led to a lot of typos.

Overall we were more impressed with the Mac Mini than we expected to be. Still, if you wanted a space-saving computer, you'd probably opt for something like the MPC ClientPro 414. And if you wanted a Mac for your agency, you'd likely buy one of Apple's full-featured PowerMacs.

Apple Computer Inc., Cupertino, Calif., 800-692-7753,

Dell OptiPlex SX280

Pros: Good value, reliable

Cons: Sluggish, poor graphics performance

At just $1,432 with monitor, the Dell OptiPlex SX280 has all the makings of a powerful PC. It comes with a 3.4-GHz Pentium 4 processor, 1G of DDR2 RAM and a 75G hard drive. But it's missing a suitable graphics processor. The OptiPlex uses the Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 900, which comes with the Intel 915G chip set. As we've seen with other systems that utilize Intel's video chip, the OptiPlex turned in a lower-than-expected Alterion benchmark score.
We have other issues with the OptiPlex SX280, among them the lack of 802.11 wireless or Bluetooth connectivity. And we don't understand the lack of a built-in analog video port for connecting to the 15-inch analog monitor. Instead the OptiPlex has a digital video port and comes with a digital-to-analog converter that the user must plug in.

On our DisplayMate tests the OptiPlex SX280 disappointed. Colors were dull, particularly when compared to the MPC ClientPro 414 and Sony Vaio VGC-V520G. To its credit, though, the OptiPlex was good at producing crisp, legible text at smaller font sizes.

The OptiPlex SX280 is a simple-to-assemble solution that saves a lot of room. The compact CPU slips into a cradle behind the monitor so it's out of the way. Despite our concerns, for what you get, namely a reliable PC with high-end processor and RAM, the OptiPlex SX280 offers a lot of bang for your buck.

Dell Inc., Round Rock, Texas, 800-999-3355,

Gateway Profile 5.5

Pros: Good performance, great deal

Cons: Bulky design, poor text display

In the company of other systems in this review, the Gateway Profile 5.5 is probably the least aesthetically pleasing space-saver. In fact, it isn't much of a space-saver at all, with its 17-inch monitor and 15.3- by 17.3- by 7.2-inch frame.

That said, the Profile 5.5 is a serious system. Our $1,900 test model came with a 3.4-GHz Pentium 4 processor, 160G hard drive and ATI Radeon X300 graphics card. And despite the fact that it uses older DDR RAM, the Profile managed an above-average Alterion benchmark score of 7,873.
What's more, the Profile 5.5 did well in our DisplayMate tests, particularly when handling graphics. Colors were bright and true, although the system had trouble displaying sharp text at small font sizes. Text was sometimes wobbly and distorted'something to consider if the bulk of your work involves reading on-screen documents.

The Profile 5.5 is highly customizable. Ours came with integrated 802.11g connectivity, Bluetooth and a CD-RW/DVD-ROM drive. The Profile 5.5 is also the only PC in this review to include a floppy drive, which is mounted neatly beside the optical drive.

The fact that Gateway keeps all of this in a package that costs under $2,000 is a considerable feat. We like the all-in-one de- signs of the ClientPro 414 and Sony Vaio better, but at this price, we would certainly consider the Profile 5.5 in a crowded office setting.

Gateway Inc., Poway, Calif., 888-221-9616,

Hewlett-Packard Compaq dc7100U

Pros: Swappable optical drive

Cons: Poor performance, no embedded wireless

The HP Compaq dc7100U ultraslim desktop isn't a space-saving system the way all-in-ones are. And it's not as easy to set up as the OptiPlex SX280, which lets you easily, neatly tuck away the CPU behind the monitor. We just placed our monitor on top of the compact CPU like any other desktop PC.

With everything in position, the dc7100 turned in the lowest performance scores of the bunch. Its 3.2-GHz Pentium 4 chip, 512M of DDR RAM and integrated Intel graphics chip combined for a review-low Alterion benchmark score of 6,145.

We were also disappointed that the dc7100 lacked certain features. The hard drive wasn't particularly large and there were no wireless communications installed. On the bright side, the unit came with eight USB ports and the ability to remove and swap optical drives. Still, considering the sluggish performance and $1,152 price tag'without monitor'this PC offers less for the money than other systems.

Hewlett-Packard Co., Palo Alto, Calif., 800-752-0900,

MPC ClientPro 414

Pros: Fastest processing speeds, great form factor

Cons: No embedded Bluetooth, pricey

MPC has created a near-perfect space-saving computer. Measuring 17.2 by 17.2 by 2.2 inches and weighing only 17 pounds, the ClientPro 414 can fit in almost any location, despite its large 19-inch LCD.

The 3.2-GHz Pentium 4 processor, 512M of DDR2-RAM and state-of-the-art ATI Radeon X600 graphics card with 128M of dedicated video memory all fit snugly behind the LCD. Throw in a 250G hard drive and 802.11g wireless card and it might boggle the mind to think how all that fits in a platform that's only two inches deep.

Our favorite feature? The ClientPro 414's integrated TV tuner, which allows for cable, antenna or satellite TV playback with the help of the bundled WinDVR software.

When it comes to performance, the ClientPro has no equal in this review. The system not only scored highest on the Alterion benchmark test, but it averaged 9,099. That score was 15 percent higher than its closest competitor, the Gateway Profile 5.5.

In the DisplayMate tests the ClientPro was near the top in its ability to render colors and was best at producing crisp, legible text. Colors such as gray and blue appeared a little dark, but the ClientPro could render 7.5-point text sharper than competitors display 9-point text.

MPC sent us a wireless Microsoft keyboard and mouse with the ClientPro 414. The only issue we had was that the Bluetooth radio used to communicate with the peripherals was not embedded in the unit. We had to connect an add-on Bluetooth dongle. Setup was simple, but we hope to see this capability embedded in the unit in the next version.

While we were retesting the ClientPro 414 for this review, MPC agreed to be acquired by Hyperspace Communications. All indications are that MPC systems will continue to roll off the line, which is great news for agencies looking for space-saving PCs.

MPC Computers LLC, Nampa, Idaho, 888-224-4247,

Sony Vaio VGC-V520G

Pros: Top image quality, great design

Cons: Low-grade RAM, expensive

In the Vaio VGC-V520G, Sony has produced a good space-saving solution, but it cut one corner we wish it hadn't.

The all-in-one Sony Vaio is the nicest-looking machine in the roundup and one of the sleekest we've ever seen. Although it's large, measuring 21 by 17 by 11.3 inches and weighing 28.7 pounds, the design is surprisingly real estate-efficient. The Vaio comes with embedded Bluetooth and 802.11g radios. It also has a one-touch 802.11g on/off switch and a DVD-RW combo drive'two perks we consider worth the money.

Our test unit came with a 3.2-GHz Pentium 4 processor and Nvidia GeForce FX Go5700 graphics card to drive a brilliant display that utilizes Sony's own XBrite technology for producing stunning colors and crisp text.

Accessing some of the Vaio's features can be a bit difficult because the optical drive and ports are hidden behind a huge 20-inch LCD screen. But the biggest problem we had with the Vaio was that Sony opted for a gigabyte of regular DDR RAM instead of DDR2 RAM. The slower memory ultimately took away from system performance and resulted in an Alterion benchmark score of 7,291'second lowest in this review.

At $2,620, this model may cost too much for agencies. But wait for Sony to start using faster memory and you may decide the Vaio is a case of get-what-you-pay-for. In other words, you'll pay a premium for a space-saver like this, but you'll get a premium system.

Sony Electronics Inc., San Diego, Calif., 800-571-7669,

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