Pentium PCs: the first generation. (includes related articles) (personal computers) (Evaluation) (Cover Story)
by William Harrel, Mike Hudnell
Your computer isn't fast enough, you say? Before you buy a 486, check out one of these next-generation speed demons. Intel's promise of lightning-fast Pentium power has finally materialized. These seven workhorses are the fastest computers ever to appear in Test Lab. Granted, you'll pay about twice as much for one of these babies as for an equally equipped 486-66, but if you need to push Windows, OS/2, or another graphical user interface to the limit, you certainly get what you pay for: Pure processing power! Massive storage! Extensive expansion options!
OK, So Just What Is a Pentium?
A Pentium processor is, by all rights, nothing more than a 586. Intel changed the name because words, unlike numbers, can be trademarked. Hence, if and when another company comes up with comparable technology, that technology can't be called Pentium.
And what a next step it is! This is by far the most complex PC microprocessor to date. It has more than twice as many transistors as the 486DX2 and a wide (64-bit, as compared to the 486's 32-bit) data path. What this means to you is about a 75-percent performance boost. However, utilizing all this power requires some unique system board configurations. In other words, the boards and their various components must be manufactured properly. To get the most from the Pentium chip, your computer must have strong hard drive and video subsystems. Pentium systems also perform better with an external processor cache. Think of an external cache as a fast memory chip area where data waits to be processed. This is somewhat technical, but experts agree that Pentiums run significantly better with caches of at least 256K.
As you will see, correctly configured Pentiums are hot machines, and they are not as expensive as the first releases of 486s, which ran well over $5,000. You can find a well-equipped Pentium for under $3,500, and prices are bound to drop with increased competition. By this time next year, you can expect 486s to replace 386s as entry-level computers, as Pentiums move into the mainstream.
As you read this, literally hundreds of Pentium configurations are becoming available. The following configuration is what COMPUTE's editors consider the minimum configuration for a Pentium system.
If you shell out the money for a computer this powerful, it should have enough memory for Windows to spread out in, and it should anticipate future memory-hogging applications (such as Windows 4.0). The first requirement for participation in this roundup is that the system come with 16MB of system RAM. In addition to memory, you'll also need plenty of hard drive space. Hence, vendors were asked to supply systems with at least 350MB hard drives, and they easily complied--each of these machines comes with at least 450MB of hard drive storage.
If you run graphics applications under Windows, you already know how slowly some of them display on your monitor. The sluggishness is due primarily to a bottleneck where the graphics adapter meets the mother-board bus, which until recently had a 16-bit path. Recent local-bus technology widens the path to 64 bits. There are two types of local bus, VESA (Video Electronics Standards Association) and PCI (Peripheral Component Interconnect). PCI is the newer type, and once it's perfected, it's expected to be superior. All of the machines examined here have PCI local bus.
Vendors were also asked to supply a 256K external cache. Remember that a cache is a bank of ultrafast memory chips that catch and hold data in anticipation that the CPU will soon need it. Having this data waiting in the wings significantly enhances performance. Each of the vendors supplied a 256K cache. Most of the systems here allow you to increase the cache size to 512K and beyond. A larger cache should enhance the performance of each of these systems.
Finally, if you spring for a system with lightning-fast graphics, you'll want a good monitor, so this roundup required vendors to equip their systems with high-resolution, 15-inch monitors. All complied. In fact, two companies, Gateway and MidWest Micro, went the extra mile (well, 2 inches anyway) and sent 17-inch displays. The larger monitors make text easier to read at high resolutions, but overall, the quality of the display subsystems that ship with all these systems is impressive--crisp and clear with great colors.
The first thing power users want to know about a group of computers is which one is fastest. However, to most people, a benchmark point here or there is a moot point. As long as the machine has sufficient power and isn't significantly slow for its class, a number of other issues are more important, such as expandability and what you get for your money. To evaluate these issues, I opened the machines and examined the motherboards to find out how easily you can install drives and expansion cards. I found out which graphics card each manufacturer uses and how much RAM is on it, whether you have to purchase more video memory to get the most from the display system, how big the hard drive is, and so forth.
This is not to say that speed isn't important. And I checked it--thoroughly. I ran the industry-standard SYSmark93 for Windows benchmark tests developed by Business Applications Performance Corporation (BAPCo). The BAPCo SYSmarks are real-world tests based on standard Windows applications that many people use, such as Word for Windows, Excel, Lotus 1-2-3, and PageMaker. BAPCo tests systems in six different application categories: word processing, spreadsheet, database, desktop graphics, desktop presentation, and desktop publishing. Results are charted in each category, and an average SYSmark score is calculated. For the results of the BAPCo tests and further explanation of how they work, see the methodology sidebar, "Explaining the Numbers," and the accompanying graphs.
When you're buying a new system, it's important to check out the configuration. In other words, how big is the hard drive? Does it come with a CD-ROM drive? A sound card? You can save a lot of money by not paying retail for these options later. It's also important that the equipment installed fits your application. If you buy a system with a graphics card that does not support the number of colors and resolution you need, you'll have to buy another graphics card.
Should your new Pentium be housed in a desktop case or a tower? The answer depends on where you'll put it and what your expansion needs are. Usually, a tower resides under the desk, and a desktop system sits on top of it. More important, towers provide more expansion options. The Dell desktop system, for example, has only three accessible drive bays and two internal ones. Two of the accessible bays are already taken by the CD-ROM drive and the combo (two in one bay) floppy drives. You can install only one more accessible drive (removable hard, tape backup, and so forth). Of the two internal drive bays, one is already used by the hard drive. You can install only one more hard drive in the Dell system.
Granted, most people need only one hard drive. But you never know where your computing might take you. If you plan to use your new Pentium as a network server or as a graphics-or video-editing station, you can't get enough hard drive space. You need as many drive bays as you can get. You should look at one of the tower configurations, such as the Insight machine, which has five accessible and eight internal bays.
Also important are the types of accessible drives installed in your system. Each of these computers comes with a double-speed CD-ROM drive (twice as fast as the original technology). As programs get larger, CD-ROMs will be used more and more to distribute software. And they are essential to multimedia applications. All but the Dell and MidWest Micro systems come with only one floppy drive, a 3-1/2-inch 1.44MB. Apparently, there's an ongoing trend to phase out the slower, smaller (in storage capacity), and less dependable 5-1/4-inch floppies. If you've been computing for a while, you probably have data on the older 5-1/4-inch 1.2MB disks. The additional drive would cost about $100.
Hard drive access speed also affects how fast your computer runs. All these systems come equipped with built-in IDE hard drive controllers on the motherboards, and most of the systems in the roundup use them. However, two companies, Micron and Insight, included PCI controllers. Similar to processor caches, caching controllers hold data in anticipation that the processor will soon call for it. Depending on the size of the cache, this cuts down considerably on hard drive access. Since the hard drive is the most frequent bottleneck in a computer, the less it's accessed, the better. As you'll see from the following reviews and tests results, hard drive controllers can increase the speed of your computer, depending primarily on what kinds of applications you run. However, in most cases, the motherboard-controlled hard drives perform fine.
If you plan to run games or multimedia applications (such as multimedia encyclopedias) on your system, you'll need a sound card. Two of the vendors, Dell and Gateway, included sound cards for the price listed in the features table, and Gateway even sent along a couple of Labtec CS180 speakers. With the ZEOS system, you might not need to buy a sound card. It comes equipped with on-board business audio, which allows you to record and play sound--as long as you have a microphone and speakers. The sound quality isn't as good as that of the industry-standard 16-bit sound cards, but it's fine for most desktop and business applications.
In addition to peripherals, you should also look at built-in expansion options, such as the number of drive bays, the number of expansion slots, the maximum memory size, and so on. Mostly, these systems are equally equipped: three 64-bit PCI slots and five ISA, or 16-bit, slots (the MidWest Micro has only four ISA slots). The main difference is how the machines use them. Each machine reviewed here uses a PCI slot for the graphics adapter and one ISA slot for the CD-ROM drive controller. The Insight and Micron machines use an additional PCI slot for the hard drive controller, and the Gateway and Dell computers give up an ISA slot for a sound board. Additionally, all of these systems support RAM configurations up to 128MB.
Other than drive bay options, only the ZEOS system has notably different built-in options. In addition to the on-board business audio discussed above, the ZEOS also has an on-board SCSI option. SCSI is a peripheral interface that excels at high-speed data exchanges and works well for large hard drives (1GB and above) and high-capacity tape backup drives. With the SCSI option built in, you don't have to use an expansion slot, leaving the slot for other options. The ZEOS supports SCSI-2, the latest SCSI technology.
Before You Buy
All of the computers in this Test Lab roundup are fine machines. With that in mind, you might have a tendency to select the more glamorous, faster machines. In reality, unless your application taxes a system to its limits (say, desktop publishing or serving a network), you wouldn't notice any performance difference between the fastest and slowest of these Pentiums. Unless you really need the fastest computer, look instead at what you get for your money. How big is the hard drive? Will you have to purchase additional memory for the video card? How big is the monitor? Do you need sound? How good is the warranty?
Barring any unforeseen durability problems, you can't go wrong with any of these computers. The real issue is that you get everything you need for the right price.
AUSTIN POWER SYSTEM 60
Need a fast computer? Austin's Power System 60 is the one to buy. This desktop dynamo performed best overall on the BAPCo tests, doing exceptionally well on the desktop graphics benchmarks. In fact, this machine's speed, small footprint, durable construction, and overall performance leave little to be desired. It even comes with a SCSI card (the Toshiba CD-ROM drive is a SCSI device), which means it has the ability to chain as many as seven high-capacity drives, such as Bernoulli removable, tape backup, and optical drives. However, its compact desktop design means that most of your drive expansions must be external.
The graphics speed probably comes from the Diamond Stealth 32 PCI adapter. The Power System 60 is the only computer here with this adapter. Austin loaded the graphics card with 2MB of DRAM, the maximum configuration. The graphics and text display not only with crystal clarity but with blazing speed as well.
While this is a great computer, it's not perfect. The case's small design squeezes the components together, making access to them difficult. For example, the hard drive bays are located under the power supply, which makes getting to them a chore. Granted, you don't change or install hard drives often, but by the looks of this configuration, you might have to turn to a technician. Another drawback is that the memory banks are beneath the accessible drive bays, meaning that installing memory isn't as easy as it should be, either.
I wish that the Toshiba CD-ROM drive did not require a caddy (case). While this provides a little added protection for the CDs themselves, it's a nuisance having to fool with the caddy each time you change a disc. And finally, the Austin documentation is somewhat sparse. If you like to install options in your computer yourself rather than take it to a professional, you won't find much help in the manuals. But then again, this computer isn't really designed for easy expansion.
These are, of course, small complaints. Most people don't change their system configurations often. Otherwise, the Power System 60 is an exceptional value. It comes with a two-year parts warranty and a one-year onsite warranty. Technical support is free for as long as you have the machine. I called Austin tech support and got right through. The technician was both courteous and knowledgeable.
This is the computer of choice for speed-hungry power users.
DELL DIMENSION XPS P60
Dell's offering is an attractive midsize computer, even though it turned in relatively middling times on the BAPCo tests. A desktop model, the Dimension XPS P60 is compact, light, and very easy to expand. In general, Dell's review system ran just slightly slower than the other systems (except for the MidWest Micro and ZEOS machines, which were slower). On the spreadsheet test, however, it held its own, performing a little better than most of the other systems.
This computer comes with a Creative Labs Sound Blaster multimedia system. The sound card drives the CD-ROM drive, so you don't have to use two slots to get both options. The review system also came with Multimedia Products' Sound Effects library, an extensive collection of sound clips you can use in your presentations or assign to Windows events (such as error message dialogs and application openings).
Perhaps the best things about this computer are its ultralight construction (29 pounds) and easily accessible expansion options. You open the case by removing one thumbscrew on the back of the system. The case flips open to reveal a very well engineered motherboard and case layout. The Dimension's bays and memory banks are easily accessible.
It was considerate of Dell to install a combination 3-1/2-inch and 5-1/4-inch floppy unit, which requires only one bay for both drives. By the way, the Dell system is one of the two computers reviewed here that come standard with a 5-1/4-inch drive. (The MidWest Micro system is the other.) If you have lots of programs and data stored on 5-1/4-inch floppies, this feature could be important to you.
The video card in this system is a Number Nine GXE with 3MB of RAM--a MB more than any of the others. However, the extra MB didn't do much to improve performance. The Dimension's performance on the graphics tests was mediocre. The combination of the GXE and Dell's excellent 15-inch monitor, however, made for crisp, clean graphics.
A minor drawback is the system's 450MB hard drive (each of the other systems has a hard drive with at least 500MB). This computer's hard drive is adequate for most applications, but I wonder why Dell didn't go the extra mile like everybody else--especially since this machine costs a few hundred dollars more than most of the others. Granted, you get Dell's great reputation and a great little computer, but ...
The Dimension is backed by a responsive technical support staff. This is not the machine to buy if you need a graphics work-horse or a network server, but it's great for a workstation and home office use. My only real objection is that it costs too much.
GATEWAY 2000 P5-60
Gateway's P5-60 scored right in the middle of the BAPCo tests, showing good, strong performance on all of them. Surprisingly, the system's performance was relatively even across the board. It didn't excel on any of the tests. In other words, this computer is plenty fast enough, but not especially adept at any particular application. The real story behind the P5-60 is expansion options and value.
Out of the box, this is a formidable-looking machine. The tower construction is sleek and sturdy. Inside the case you'll find plenty of room for adding drives and other expansion options. The memory bank area is so roomy that you can get to it with both hands, if need be. The P5-60 holds as many as five accessible drives and three fixed disks. In the review system, two of the five accessible bays were occupied by a floppy drive and a CD-ROM drive.
Of all the computers reviewed here, Gateway's P5-60 has the most impressive display system. The graphics subsystem is powered by the ATI mach32 with 2MB of memory (the same adapter that's in the Insight machine but with a MB more memory). Gateway also sent its 17-inch, high-resolution CrystalScan monitor. The larger monitor makes text easier to read at higher resolutions, and the CrystalScan displays graphics dazzlingly. In fact, you can't get better graphics and colors without shelling out an additional $1,000 for a monitor with a Sony Trinitron tube.
The review system came with an optional Gateway sound card and Labtec speakers, which add just over $100 to the cost. When you purchase a P5-60, you get your choice of one software application from a list of about ten titles, including Microsoft Word, Access, and Excel. Gateway guarantees the machine with a one-year on-site warranty. Several extended warranty options are available, including a two-year parts warranty, rather than the one-year on-site warranty. Gateway's technical support lines are extremely busy. More than once, I waited several minutes to speak to a technician. But once I got through, the support person knew his machine well. My questions were answered clearly and considerately. However, the manual that comes with the P5-60 is quite thorough--you may not have to call tech support at all.
OK, so this is not the fastest computer in the bunch. It is, however, my pick for best value. If you plan to use this system for a graphics workstation, you should consider spending a few hundred dollars more for the 17-inch monitor.
INSIGHT PCI P60 CD
Like the Gateway machine, the Insight PCI P60 CD comes in a sturdy tower case and is easily expandable. It's also the second-fastest computer in this review, primarily because of the Intel PCI disk controller that Insight supplied in the test system (included in the price quoted in the features table). It performed well in all of the BAPCo categories, coming in slightly behind the first-place Austin computer in all instances. The only other machine that performed as well is the Micron, which also came with a PCI disk controller. The PCI P60 CD is a fast computer.
I came close to choosing this system from Insight as the best value, but there are a few areas where it falls slightly short. For example, even though it has the same graphics card that the system from Gateway has (an ATI mach32), the card comes with only 1MB of memory. To max the card out, you'd have to purchase another MB. Also, the standard monitor is capable of a resolution of only 1024 x 768, rather than the 1280 x 1024 supported by the graphics card and the rest of the monitors in this review. While you probably wouldn't want to run Windows at 1280 x 1024 on a 15-inch monitor (the text would be too small), you'd find the extra dots helpful when working with graphics.
These small drawbacks aside, this computer is no slouch. It has more drive bays--five accessible and eight internal--than the others, making it ideal for a network server. The system's speed also makes it a great desktop publishing system.
One reason for this computer's tremendous speed is the Intel disk controller. While this is not a caching controller (as is the one in the Micron machine), it does boost system performance significantly. The computer was tested with and without the controller, and there was about a 10-percent performance difference, which is significant when working with large spreadsheet, database, and graphics files.
Insight does not offer buyers a choice of software applications, but the company does include four CD-ROM titles. Which titles you receive depends on what's available when you order your computer. I got a multimedia encyclopedia, an almanac, Publish It!, and an interactive animals book. Insight systems have a one-year warranty, but it's not an on-site warranty. You have to send the system in to get it fixed.
With speed, expansion, Insight's reputation for dependability, and a relatively low price tag, you really can't go wrong with this computer. My minor objection--the skimping in the display system configuration--can be corrected for a few hundred dollars more. If you need speed and expandability, check out this Pentium.
MICRON P60PCI POWERSTATION CD
Now here's another blazingly fast computer. The Micron P60PCI PowerStation CD came in fourth on the overall SYSmark tests but performed exceptionally well on the database, desktop graphics, and desktop publishing tests. In fact, it turned in the fastest times in both database and DTP processing. This desktop machine is not only fast but easily expandable.
Like the Dell desktop, the PowerStation offers easily accessible drive bays and memory banks. My only complaint is that the processor chip socket is under the exhaust fan, making it difficult to get to. Most people never change their processor chips, but if you ever need to, it could be a chore in this system.
The feature that makes this computer stand out is the Green Cache hard drive controller installed in one of the PCI slots. This caching, mirroring controller came with 16MB of memory. Remember that a cache holds data in anticipation that it will soon be needed by the processor, increasing speed by cutting down on hard drive access. The BAPCo tests were run with and without the controller. The overall difference in performance was a whopping 15 percent, taking the PowerStation from the slowest ranking to fourth place, and to the fastest for a few applications. The Green Cache controller supports up to four IDE drives, several different memory configurations, and a wealth of options for fine-tuning hard drive access.
The PowerStation's graphics subsystem is powered by the Diamond Viper PCI. The ZEOS and MidWest Micro computers also use this adapter, and I noticed that both of them did relatively well on the graphics tests. The MidWest Micro System turned in a lower score, but it had only 1MB of video RAM, which can somewhat slow the display.
The system I reviewed came with WordPerfect for Windows, but by the time you read this, Micron will bundle Microsoft Office with its Pentiums. In addition, the systems will come with 66-MHz Pentium chips. You should note, however, that most tests to date have not revealed a significant performance difference between 60-MHz and 66-MHz chips. The 66-MHz chips are only slightly faster.
The PowerStation comes with a one-year on-site warranty. The technical support staff is knowledgeable. I really like this computer, but it costs more than $1,000 more than some of the others, primarily because of the caching controller, which is necessary for the PowerStation to maintain its peppy performance.
MIDWEST MICRO ELITE P5-60 PCI
The Elite P5-60 PCI is the least expensive system reviewed here, and it's also the slowest. All of the other Pentium machines in this roundup turned in better scores on the BAPCo tests. Be careful, however, not to purchase a computer based on speed tests alone. This minitower system still delivers Pentium performance and has many features to recommend it, including strong expansion options, a good graphics card, and a 17-inch monitor.
The sturdy, compact tower case has four accessible and four internal drive bays, which is more space than most people will ever need. The motherboard is easy to get to; you'd have no trouble inserting cards, installing memory, or adding new drives. Unlike most of the others, the Elite comes with a 5-1/4-inch floppy drive, which means you wouldn't have to add one.
The Diamond Viper PCI graphics adapter in this machine is the same card that's in some of the systems that turned in impressive speeds in this review. However, this one comes with only 1MB of DRAM. You'd have to purchase another MB to get the most from the high-resolution, 17-inch monitor (with 0.26-mm dot pitch). While it's not as elegant as the Gateway 2000 CrystalScan, the MidWest Micro monitor will serve all but the most critical high-end color graphics applications quite well.
Also impressive is MidWest Micro's three-year REAL warranty, which includes all components, such as the hard drive, monitor, and so on. Computers don't break down often, but it's reassuring to know that yours is covered well past the standard one year. In three years there will be a new processor standard anyway. You might be looking at a new system by then.
The Elite's documentation is a little sparse. If you like to add cards and other options yourself, you won't get much help from the manuals. However, I called technical support a few times, and the reps knew their computers well.
Again, I was disappointed with the Elite's performance on the BAPCo tests, but speed isn't everything--surely not a reason to disqualify this computer as a good value. Many people compute on a budget and are willing to sacrifice a benchmark point or two for a few hundred dollars.
Like the MidWest Micro system, the ZEOS Pantera did not turn in blazing results on the BAPCo benchmarks. However, of all these machines, this one has the most expansion options and impressive features. If you need a strong network server or have an application requiring potentially enormous storage capacity, check out this system.
Out of the box, the Pantera motherboard supports up to four IDE hard drives. There is also a SCSI-2 option, which allows you to run high-capacity SCSI drives and tape backup drives. To activate the SCSI option, all you do is plug in a chip, turn the SCSI option on in the machine's BIOS setup, and take off.
Also impressive is the Pantera's business audio feature. Unlike the system boards in the other computers, this system board comes ready to support sound. Just plug your speakers or headphones into the back. There is also a jack for a microphone. Granted, the sound isn't comparable to the high-fidelity stereo sound you get from some high-end sound cards, but it's adequate for most applications. Most people don't use sound with their computers often. Until now, though, you had to buy a Macintosh to get a system with sound built into the motherboard.
Speaking of the motherboard, the Pantera's is so spacious and accessible that you can drive a truck through it. Everything is easy to get to, including the memory banks, processor socket, and four motherboard plugs for the hard drives. ZEOS's documentation is thorough and easy to follow. The company also has an instant fax-back system, where you can get documentation on any of the components, such as the hard drive or graphics card.
I called the ZEOS 24-hour technical support line several times. Most often, I got through after a five-minute (or so) wait. Once, I was forced to leave a message. The Pantera line was just being released during the review period. The technicians had not been trained on these systems yet, but they did have access to pertinent documentation and the company's engineers. Typically, though, ZEOS provides great technical support.
If you're looking for the fastest computer around, look elsewhere. But if you need a sturdy system you can't outgrow, check out the Pantera. With up to four hard drives, built-in SCSI, and built-in business audio (which frees two ISA slots), this computer will serve you well now and into the future.