The Power of 2

Dual-core processors put PCs into a new category

There was a time when desktop PCs could not match the performance of workstation systems. Desktops, especially in government, were pretty much low-end data-processing machines supplied by any number of so-called white-box manufacturers. To get real performance, you needed a workstation. And most workstations cost $5,000 or more.

Things have changed. These days, it takes a good amount of horsepower to run even basic data-processing applications. With operating systems such as Microsoft Windows Vista taking up space on the front end, and applications performing tasks such as collaborative editing or sending queries to back-end databases, the needs of a typical desktop user have ballooned. Thankfully, so has the power of desktop PCs.

Almost any new PC is going to have either a very fast single-core processor or one of the new, dual-core processors. Dual-core looks like the wave of the future - but that's a good thing, because the new Intel Core 2 Duo chips don't have to rely on raw speed the way the older Pentium 4 chips did. Among other advantages, dual-core reduces the power pulled in by desktop systems. Where a typical Pentium 4 chip might need as much as 130 watts, a Core 2 Duo needs only about 65 watts.

The lower power requirement has a ripple effect across the entire desktop layout. For one thing, the power supply for the entire computer can be smaller, which is cheaper and generates less heat. The largest power supply in this review was in the Hewlett-Packard Compaq dc7700p, and that was only 365 watts, anemic by old standards but more than enough today. The smallest was 300 watts on the Gateway E-4610D, and the Dell OptiPlex 745 desktop had a 305-watt power supply.

Even though the chips are pulling in less power and generally running at a lower raw-gigahertz rating than their single-core counterparts, they are far more efficient. The operating system can assign tasks to the second chip anytime the first is too stressed.

When you are working on a Word document and your virus scanner triggers a scan, for instance, most of the extra effort can be offloaded to the second chip, resulting in such a small performance drop that it might not even be noticeable.

So even though a dual-core chip might have a 1.8 GHz or a 2.4 GHz speed, it's going to perform better in most cases than even a 4 GHz single-core chip. The new chips also generally have large Level 2 caches and architecture to eliminate the usual frontside-bus bottleneck.

So in theory, almost any desktop these days would have qualified as a workstation just a few years ago ' only today's desktops are smaller, cheaper and better-performing.

Beyond the chipset configuration, almost anything goes. Given the great platform to work with, computer manufacturers have built lots of configurations. The systems in the review were quite varied. Some had media bays. One had two 80G drives configured in RAID 1 so even if one fails, all data is completely backed up. One had almost 500G of storage capacity. And the number of expansion ports and slots varied considerably.

The desktops in this review were graded on performance, features, ease of use and setup, and value. Performance was based on the GCN/Alterion benchmarks, and most systems scored near the top of the scale ' or blasted it clear out of the water.
Other features included things like expansion slots, included RAM, drive space and configuration, graphics cards and extra controllers.

Our ease-of-use rating included how easy it is to open up the system and work with the internal components. How well the internal wiring is laid out is important, because even a nice, roomy chassis is of little benefit if critical wires are hanging over parts that might need to be replaced.

Finally, value was assessed based on all the other grades relative to the price.

Dell OptiPlex 745 Mini-Tower

Pros: Fastest desktop ever tested, good value

Cons: None significant

Performance: A+

Features: A-

Value: A

Ease of use: A

The Dell OptiPlex 745 puts the works into one minitower case. This little system has just about every component you could want, and its performance is beyond what we would have thought possible just a few years ago.

The heart of the system is an Intel Core 2 Duo E6600 with 2G of RAM to back it up. The RAM takes up two of four slots, so there is room to expand.

[IMGCAP(1)]The 745's performance on our GCN/Alterion benchmarks was incredible. The benchmarks use typical office programs such as PKZip, Adobe Photoshop and Microsoft Excel, so if a system scores well on the benchmark, it will also handle your business applications quite well.

And did the Dell ever do well. It got a score of 14,455, the highest we've ever recorded. When dual-core chips came out, we started to see scores nearing or just over 10,000, but this is the first time we have seen anything in the teens.

We really didn't need the benchmarks to tell us the 745 was fast. Opening files, even huge ones, took almost no time at all. And even software installation seemed to go a lot faster than expected.

For graphics, the 745 we tested came with a Radeon X1300 Pro card nestled into the PCIe slot on the motherboard.

Unlike previous Dells we tested, this one actually had PS2 ports for the mouse and keyboard. We had dinged a Dell in a previous review for not having them: Four USB ports in the back of a system and two in the front is not as great as it sounds if you lose two for the mouse and keyboard right from the start. This model had the PS2 ports as an add-in card, which contributed a tiny bit to the price but a lot to the convenience of the system. And for those who really need it, the 745 has a floppy-drive controller in the motherboard layout even though almost nobody uses one anymore.

The hard drive is a single, 80G Serial Advanced Technology Attachment drive ' one of the new ones that spin at 10,000 rpm, which really increases performance. Still, 80G is a bit small for a PC these days. The HP entry in our roundup also offered only 80G of space, but that was in a redundant RAID 1 configuration; the Dell's is just a normal drive.

As a plus in terms of features, the 745 has a smart-card reader that also acts as a media bay for digital cameras or whatever you might need to stick in there.

With a government price tag of $1,408 ' about $200 less than retail ' you have a very-high-performance system at a midrange price. That's a deal the accountants in your office will likely approve ' and they probably will want to order one for themselves, too.

ROOMY: Even though the Dell OptiPlex 745 is a minitower, there is a reasonable amount of space inside to work on upgrades. Also notice that the PS2 ports are part of an add-in card.

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

Gateway E-4610D

Pros: Good graphics card, media ports

Cons: Sloppy cable management

Performance: A-

Features: A

Value: B

Ease of use: B-

The E-4610D from Gateway has pretty much all the features you might expect in a high-end desktop. Inside its slightly-smaller-than-minitower configuration is a lot of room for expansion, although the internals are a bit disorganized.

Gateway put in a Core 2 Duo Processor E6600 with a speed of 2.4 GHz and 2G of memory. Unfortunately, to get this amount of RAM they occupied all four memory slots with 512M DIMMs. So if you want to upgrade later, you will have no choice but to replace existing modules.

We were pleased to find an Nvidia GeForce 7600GS Dual DVI/Dual Link video card with 256M of video memory. This is not the top-of-the-line card, but it is certainly sufficient for any office-related task. A video card with its own memory generally allows things to run a bit faster.

The E-4610D has a 9-in-1 memory card reader, which can come in handy for such external devices as digital cameras. The CD-RW/DVD +/-RW combo drive would also help keep media files organized.

Gateway did not fool around when it came to hard-drive space. Inside, we found two 250G Serial ATA drives hooked up in a RAID 0 (striped) configuration. This yields nearly 500G of useable storage. While we won't climb on a soapbox and say you will never need more hard-drive space on your personal computer, we will say that 500G should hold you for quite some time.

Unfortunately, we were a bit disappointed when we opened the case. Cable management is not fantastic: The Serial ATA cables are forced to jump over the graphics card, and there are other untidy issues. We understand that ports might not be near the devices when the motherboard is configured a certain way, but that doesn't excuse things like the case-open sensor wire being precariously close to one of the cooling fans. That wire was actually rubbing the fan slightly, which is a big hardware faux pas.

But even through the clutter we could see features that other computers in the review simply did not have. The six Serial ATA ports were a bounty compared to the four on most motherboards. It even had two Enhanced IDE bus controllers, in case you have some older hard drives or optical drives you would like to install.

Overall, the E-4610D had quite a flexible array of installation options. But we felt that ' even with the lower power requirements of today's processors and other devices ' the Gateway's 300-watt power supply might be stretched to its limit if all six Serial ATA ports were actually used.

In our performance benchmarks, the E-4610D reached 10,254. Although not the highest in the roundup, this is a good score.

The retail price of $1,884 is a bit high, even considering the incredible hard-drive space and media capabilities.

The Gateway E-4610D has a lot to offer, but at a slightly higher price than expected. It would do well in an office that deals with digital media and needs both graphics performance and hard-drive space.

CLUTTERED with features. The inside of the Gateway E-4610D is a mess. The case-open sensor wire even rubs against the main exhaust fan, which will cause trouble in the long run.

Gateway, Irvine, Calif., (800) 846-2000,

HP Compaq dc7700p

Pros: Good price, clean configuration

Cons: Slowest performance, no video card

Performance: B+

Features: B+

Value: A-

Ease of use: A-

The Compaq dc7700p from Hewlett-Packard has all the basics you need at a decent price. It doesn't have a lot of bells and whistles, but its expandability will let you add most of the ones you want. And this way, the price is kept to a reasonable level.

The dc7700p comes with an Intel Core 2 Duo Processor E6300 that runs at 1.86 GHz. Its 2G of RAM only takes up two of the motherboard's four memory slots, allowing for a fair amount of upgrading before replacing the initial two DIMMs.

HP didn't install a graphics card in the model we tested, instead relying on integrated graphics. The Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 3000 with the Q965/Q963 Express chipset family performs adequately but not as well as a third-party graphics card would, especially burdened by the graphically needy Windows Vista.

We would definitely recommend installing a third-party graphics card in the Compaq's PCIe expansion slot, especially if you'll be doing anything graphically intensive. Time and again, Vista dragged down the system's performance. If it had been running XP, we would have expected to see marked improvements.

The dc7700p has two 80G Serial ATA hard drives in a RAID 1 (mirrored) configuration, yielding only 80G of usable disk space. But this configuration is quite secure; if one of the drives fails, your information is available on the other one.

Of course, you could always change the configuration to RAID 0 (striped) if you would rather have the drive space than the fail-safe. But since this is the equivalent of repartitioning a single drive, you'd likely have to reinstall everything afterward. We consider the RAID 1 configuration a plus in any environment where data integrity is a must, but you can make that choice for yourself.

We found the interior of the system case very well-organized. Cables were tied back neatly, and everything was quite easy to access. We were especially pleased with the number of components that could be removed without tools. This should be quite a boon come upgrade time.

The dc7700p's CD-RW/DVD +/-RW combo drive should be able to handle and produce virtually any optical media.

Unfortunately, the lack of a graphics card reared its ugly head in the performance benchmark tests. It came out with a score of 9,080, the lowest in the roundup. This is an acceptable performance level for the most basic tasks, but if you have many programs with high overhead, you'll need a little more punch in the way of processing power.

The dc7700p has a retail price of $1,149, which we found quite reasonable for what you get. You can always put the money you save into the video card you want. The government price of $1,123 makes this an even better bargain.

With the dc7700p, HP has put forth a good, basic computing package that leaves room for a great deal of upgrading. It would do well for users who just need the basics and would like to save a little cash on their desktop purchase.

TOOLS not needed. The dc7700p is a model of internal efficiency, with cables neatly tied back and everything out of the way.

Hewlett-Packard, Palo Alto, Calif., (800) 888-0262,


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