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March 1996 Reviews

Click here to see a list of all products reviewed this month.


AST Bravo MS-T 6150

NEC PowerMate P166

Robotech Cobra XLT/2 P166

Compaq Deskpro XL 5133 Model 1050/ML

Gateway 2000 P5-150

Compaq ProLinea 5120e

WinLab sneaks a peek at preproduction versions of AST's new 160 MHz Pentium Pro system and NEC's PowerMate P166. We also review 13 state-of-the-art systems from Dell, Gateway, Compaq, ACMA and others.

(Editor's Note: The WinMag Box Score rates products on installation, usability, supporting materials, functionality, performance and utility. We use a 5-point scale:
1 poor, 2 fair, 3 good, 4 very good and 5 outstanding. A list of recommended desktop systems is at the end of the Reviews section; in future months, other hardware and software products will be added to the Recommended list.)

AST Bravo MS-T 6150

Pro Offers Room to Grow

By David W. Methvin

Pentium Pro systems are springing up all over, positioned by Intel as the ultimate in workstation performance. The Bravo MS-T 6150, based on the 150MHz Pentium Pro chip, is AST Research's entry. Windows NT 3.51 was already installed on the preproduction system I tested, so the only setup work I had to do was to plug it in and press the front-panel power button.

Expandability is a strong point of the MS-T 6150. The mini-tower case can fit comfortably on top of your desk, yet it still offers three external 5.25-inch drive bays. There are also two internal 3.5-inch bays and one external 3.5-inch bay. There's plenty of room inside the case, especially since only two of the six slots were filled in this configuration (by the sound board and the ATI Mach64 video board). Altogether there are three PCI, two ISA and one shared slot. With 16MB of RAM installed, there were still two free SIMM slots.

The system uses an unconventional airflow path. Air is pulled into the power supply at the top of the case and blown directly onto the heat sink, then travels down to vents near the bottom of the case. Although this path defies natural bottom-to-top air convection, it should work fine as long as the system isn't stuffed to the gills with power-hungry expansion cards. This arrangement also has an advantage when it comes to cleanliness: It won't pull in dust from the floor or through the CD-ROM or floppy disk drives.

Other features of the MS-T 6150 are useful if you're planning to use the system as a server or secure workstation. At the back of the case is a hasp that you can attach to a lock to prevent prying fingers from opening the case. There's also a jumper on the system board that won't let anyone enter the BIOS setup, plus a BIOS option that prevents booting from a floppy disk. The sum total of these features should certainly discourage the average cyberthief.

As nice as those features may be, most people are in the market for a Pentium Pro for one major reason: performance. Under Windows NT, the MS-T 6150 turned in very respectable Wintune 95 results of 314MIPS for CPU performance and 24Mpixels per second in the video department. Our Excel macro took only 11 seconds to run using Excel 7.0, and the Word macro just 16 seconds with Word 7.0. You can't call this system "slow" and keep a straight face.

At 1.4MB per second, however, the Wintune 95 uncached disk result was disappointing. AST's use of consumer-grade IDE peripherals gives this unit an attractive price, but doesn't provide the kind of mass-storage performance and upgradability that you expect from a Pentium Pro. A Western Digital Caviar 31600 (1.6-gigabyte) hard drive is connected to the system board's primary IDE controller, and a Toshiba quad-speed CD-ROM uses the secondary controller. A high-performance SCSI subsystem would have been more awe-inspiring.

My preproduction unit did not come with paper documentation, but most of the information is contained in Windows help files. AST will be providing paper docs when the system ships, but I didn't get a chance to look at them before press time. No floppy-disk backups are provided for much of the software on the hard drive; instead, you're prompted to supply your own floppies.

AST's 150MHz Pentium Pro system doesn't offer a lot more performance than a well-built 166MHz Pentium for the software you're likely to run during the coming year. There are better values to be had out there in Pentium systems, and true speed freaks should be looking ahead to the 200MHz Pentium Pro machines.

-- Info File --
AST Bravo MS-T 6150
Pros: Expansion room
Cons: PeripheralsAST Research
800-876-4278, 714-727-4141
WinMag Box Score 3.5

NEC PowerMate P166

Max MIPs from Mini-Tower

By Jim Forbes

NEC's PowerMate P166 reminds me of my old '54 Ford F100 pickup. It had great lines, was functional and had enough power to be fast as a thief. But I had to spend hours under the hood of my beloved '54 red rocket--something you won't have to bother with to get peak performance from this new entry in the PowerMate series.

This powerful PC is built around a 166MHz Intel Pentium processor and a PCI-bus architecture. The standard configuration includes 16MB of RAM, 256KB of level 2 cache, a Western Digital Caviar 1.6-gigabyte hard drive and a quad-speed CD-ROM drive. The system's Matrox graphics card has 2MB of VRAM and sits in a PCI slot, and an IRDA-1 infrared port complements the usual array of serial and parallel ports. The keyboard is a new model with special keys for Windows 95.

The P166's audio configuration includes motherboard-mounted Sound Blaster Pro-compatible stereo circuitry, two NEC-labeled speakers that stand nearly a foot tall and a dynamic microphone. The software bundle was not yet finalized, but the apps that came with the preproduction unit I tested included Windows 95, TranXit, and NEC Utilities and online documentation.

The PowerMate was a breeze to set up; it only took about 20 minutes to get it from box to boot-up. Controls and indicators--power on/off, reset, suspend, hard-drive activity and the IR port--are clearly visible on the front panel of the unit.

Inside the system's compact mini-tower case, a riser card provides expansion slots, and expansion itself is straightforward. The unit's sturdy case is held in place with fine-threaded nuts that have thumb knurls. Once you open the case, getting cards in or out of the PCI or ISA slots is easy. Adding memory to this system is not quite as simple, however. There are only four SIMM slots for RAM, and they're tucked away on the lower half of the motherboard, partially blocked by cables and an internal expansion bay.

The P166's performance on WINDOWS Magazine's Wintune benchmarks was a real eye-opener. The 166MHz Pentium processor delivered an average of 302.33MIPS. That's standard fare for this CPU, but the graphics subsystem cranked out an extremely impressive average of 17Mpixels per second. With a data-transfer rate that averaged 3.3MB per second, the performance of the hard drive was average. The system really showed its true colors, however, on the applications tests. It tore through our Word and Excel macro tests, averaging a mere 12 seconds for each of these rigorous real-world trials.

The NEC PowerMate P166 gets the green light. It has MIPS to spare, easy expansion, great graphics performance and a small form factor that will make this power package an unobtrusive addition to your home or office.

-- Info File --
NEC PowerMate P166
$3,399 (not including monitor)
Pros: Expandability; compact size; performance
Cons: Access to SIMM sockets;CD-ROM drive
NEC Technologies
800-NEC-INFO, 508-264-8000
WinMag Box Score: 4

Robotech Cobra XLT/2 P166

Upgrading Swift System Is a Snap

By Jonathan Blackwood

I'd never heard of Robotech until about a year and a half ago, though it's been in business in Utah for 10 years. I first became familiar with the company when I was putting together a roundup review of two dozen 90MHz Pentium PCs, then the fastest desktops on the market, for the November 1994 issue of WINDOWS. The company stuck in my mind because the tech editor who was writing it up called everyone over to look at the unit's unusual case design. Though solid and sturdy, it literally snapped together--and apart--affording easy, tool-less access to its innards. Better still, all the major components--even the motherboard--were attached to the chassis in such a way that they slid or pivoted outward for easy access.

I've since seen that design on other systems, but Robotech was the first, and it still uses that same case--emblematic of a level of attention to detail that I've noticed on each of the Robotech systems I've examined subsequently. Robotech uses quality components like Plextor CD-ROM drives, Creative Labs sound cards, Yamaha speakers, Boca Research telephony boards and Number Nine video cards. The company even throws a surge suppressor into the box, a very nice touch.

The Cobra XLT/2 P166 system I examined for this review is a muscular unit that performs well, has plenty of room for expansion and ships with the usual high-level peripherals. There is a 129-key keyboard from Focus, for example, that includes a built-in calculator with its own LCD panel, an unusual luxury in a desktop computer. Best of all, it offered an excellent, clicky tactile response that reminded me of the Northgate OmniKey keyboards of old.

The 166MHz Pentium system's included monitor is a no-name 17-inch, 0.26mm dot-pitch model that served up quite an acceptable image despite its anonymity. Of course, there is a Microsoft mouse and a Plextor 6PleX CD-ROM drive. That's a SCSI drive, which connects to the built-in SCSI connector on the motherboard. Although this machine came with a 1-gigabyte Quantum Fireball hard drive, it's an EIDE unit. The on-board SCSI means you can add up to six additional internal SCSI devices. If you want those to be hard drives, the case as is will hold four more--three in 5.25-inch externally accessible bays and one in a 3.5-inch internal bay. Purchase another internal bracket, and there's room for still one more.

As you might surmise from these observations, this is a machine that would be hard to outgrow quickly. Its system board, which uses the Intel Triton chipset, has four PCI slots (one is occupied by the Number Nine Motion 771 video adapter with 2MB of VRAM) and four ISA slots (one holds the Creative Labs AWE-32 sound card, another a Boca Research V.34 Office Communicator, a combination modem/telephony card). It shipped with 16MB of RAM, expandable to 128MB, and the 256KB of pipeline-burst, synchronous level 2 cache can be upgraded to 512KB. Those upgrades would make it a great workstation-class machine.

Performance was quite good, as you'd expect. Our 32-bit WINDOWS Magazine Wintune 95 benchmarks clocked the Cobra XLT/2 P166 at 302MIPS, with uncached disk throughput at 3.83MB per second. The Number Nine video card pumped out 16.33Mpixels per second. The system executed our 32-bit Word 7.0 macro in an average of 13 seconds, while the Excel 7.0 macro took an average of 11 seconds. This is performance I can live with.

The documentation is thorough, filling up a trio of three-ring binders and covering just about everything, including the major peripherals. The system board documentation is unusually comprehensive, a refreshing change from the spotty info offered by most garden-variety clones. Robotech ships with a three-year warranty, unusual in this price range.

Windows 95 and Novell's PerfectOffice (including WordPerfect 6.1 and Quattro Pro 6.01) are preinstalled, so you can get started right away. If you use Microsoft Office at work, you'll have to install that yourself on this machine. The Boca telephony board comes with software for America Online and CompuServe, though you probably have 20 disks of each lying around your house.

This is a value-laden, expandable system that's solidly built and provides excellent performance. It's a system that's easy to take apart and is backed by a good warranty. You could do much worse than purchase a Cobra XLT/2 P166, but it would be difficult to do a whole lot better.

-- Info File --
Robotech Cobra XLT/2 P166
Pros: Performance; multimedia; warranty; construction; accessibility; expandability
Cons: Software bundle
800-255-2215, 801-565-0645
WinMag Box Score 4

Compaq Deskpro XL 5133 Model 1050/M

Top-Dollar Desktop Dotes on Details

By James Alan Miller

Sometimes, you get what you pay for. You'll pay a lot for Compaq's new Deskpro XL 5133 Model 1050/ML--which sports a hefty list price of $4,999--but what you get is a performance system that's well built, with innovative engineering and features.

The Compaq Deskpro XL series offers lots of configuration options, so you can get a system that's perfect for your needs. The unit that I reviewed came configured with a 133MHz Pentium processor, a quad-speed SCSI CD-ROM, a 1-gigabyte SCSI IBM hard drive, 256KB of secondary cache and 16MB of RAM (expandable to 144MB).

Compaq uses a unique motherboard design that will let you upgrade the CPU as the system ages. A processor board that holds just the processor and the system RAM sits in a proprietary slot on the main system board. The standard RAM is soldered to the processor board, and SIMM sockets for upgrading are easily accessible. Everything else is packed onto the system board, including Fast SCSI-2, enhanced Sound Blaster-compatible business-audio sound and an IDE controller. If you add an IDE hard drive to the controller, the IDE drive must become the bootable drive. The Deskpro also comes with an integrated network controller and preinstalled network drivers.

If you want to upgrade to a Pentium Pro, for example, all you need to do is pop the old processor board out of the slot and put in a new one. A ZIF socket on the unit's processor board lets you easily upgrade just the chip. To keep the CPU cool, a heat sink sits on top of the processor, while a solidly built fan pulls air into the case from a vent in the front, drawing it over the heat sink and back out through a vent in the back.

The system board has three EISA, one PCI and one shared PCI/EISA slot. The Deskpro requires you to run an EISA configuration utility from the system BIOS when you install a new EISA or ISA card.

I ran the utility without a hitch, but it's a bit inconvenient. Installing additional cards is a breeze with Compaq's EZClip system. You don't need a screwdriver to insert or remove a card: The EZClip holds the cards in place and easily snaps on or off.

The PCI slot holds a Qvision2000 graphics controller with a Matrox MGA accelerator chip and 2MB of VRAM. The graphics board works well with Compaq's 171FS, 0.28mm dot-pitch 17-inch monitor. The screen offers a clear, sharp picture with a good range of controls. One of the monitor's drawbacks is that its advanced function controls are a bit cryptic; putting these functions on screen would be a better choice.

At first glance, the Deskpro's expandability seems limited. Only one 3.5-inch internal bay and one 5.25-inch external bay are free, and a tangle of cables partially blocks access to the latter. When you take into account the integrated SCSI-2, though, expansion options dramatically increase. You can daisy-chain up to seven peripherals on the SCSI-2 port in the rear of the case.

Other ports include a PS/2 keyboard or mouse port, two serial and one parallel as well as Ethernet RJ-45 and Ethernet AUI (also for an AUI-to-BNC transceiver) connectors.

The unique Vocalyst keyboard not only supplies excellent standard keyboard functionality but also provides built-in audio support. You get an integrated speaker and microphone, along with a speaker volume control and headphone and microphone jacks. Considering its size and placement, the speaker's sound is surprisingly full. A second PS/2 mouse port is located on the bottom of the keyboard.

The Deskpro's performance in our Wintune benchmarks was comparable to that of other 133MHz performance systems. The CPU scored 246MIPS, while video and uncached disk scores were 9.37MPixels per second and 3MB per second, respectively. The Word score of 18 seconds and Excel score of 15 seconds were also on par with those clocked by most 133MHz Pentiums.

Superior online and paper documentation clarifies and guides you through the Deskpro's many functions. There's also plenty of information and phone numbers for technical support, as well as a three-year limited warranty.

Though the price of admission is a bit steep, the Deskpro XL 5133 Model 1050/ML's superior engineering and special features are just the ticket. Once you dish out the cash and put this machine on your desk, you can sit back and enjoy the ride.

Info File
Compaq Deskpro XL5133 Model 1050/ML
Pros: On-board SCSI andEthernet; keyboard
Cons: Access to bays
Compaq Computer Corp.
800-345-1518, fax 713-518-1442
WinMag Box Score 4.5

Gateway 2000 P5-150

Peak Performance, Pleasing Price

By Jim Forbes

If you think you can't get high-end performance without a high-end price, you're in for a happy surprise. Gateway 2000's new P5-150 gives you 150MHz Pentium speed with a price tag you're more apt to see dangling from a 133MHz system.

The Gateway 2000 P5-150's basic configuration is impressive. In addition to its 150MHz Pentium processor and 256KB of external cache (upgradable to 512KB), this machine ships standard with 16MB of EDO RAM, Western Digital's 1.6GB Western Caviar hard disk, a high-performance Matrox video card with 2MB of memory, a Wearnes 6X CD-ROM drive, a Creative Labs Sound Blaster Pro 16-bit sound card, Altec Lansing speakers, a Vivitron 15-inch monitor and Gateway's expanded keyboard.

My review unit was bundled with Windows 95, Office 95, Bookshelf 95, Microsoft Money and a bunch of other CD-ROM-based reference and entertainment titles like Encarta and Golf. As I've come to expect from Gateway machines, this computer was a breeze to set up. It took me less than 30 minutes to assemble the P5-150. A tool-less case would make servicing easier.

The tower unit that I received uses Intel's well-laid-out Thor motherboard. There's a total of seven expansion slots: three PCI, three ISA and one shared. Three cards were installed--a 28.8Kbps modem, the audio card and the Matrox video adapter--leaving two PCI and two ISA slots open. The system's high-speed modem, made for Gateway by U.S. Robotics, is a pleasant surprise.

As expected, performance was stellar. The 150MHz Pentium processor cranked out 273MIPS for our Wintune benchmark tests. With 2MB of video memory, it's no wonder the P5-150 blew through the video tests, pumping out 14Mpixels per second. The Western Caviar hard disk did well also, with an average throughput of 3.37MB per second. The average scores for our 32-bit applications benchmarks illustrate the combined advantages of the system's 150MHz Pentium processor, excellent video subsystem and Western Digital IDE drive. It took just 11 seconds to run the Excel 7.0 macro and 12.33 seconds to run the Word 7.0 benchmark.

You won't grow out of the P5-150 any time soon. Gateway 2000 is breaking new ground by offering this power-packed yet flexible system at a price that'll keep you grinning for months.

-- Info File --
Gateway 2000 P5-150
Pros: Expandability; components
Cons: Serviceability
Gateway 2000
800-846-2000, 605-232-2000
WinMag Box Score 4.5

Compaq ProLinea 5120e

Reliable, No-Frills Workmate

By Ian Etra

The Compaq ProLinea 5120e comes with the basics you'd expect from a workhorse machine, but not much more. The model I tested was configured with a 1GB hard drive, 8MB of RAM and a quad-speed IDE CD-ROM drive. Windows 95 was preinstalled, along with Microsoft Internet Explorer, which wasn't much use without a modem or network card. The 120MHz Pentium processor performed as expected at 215MIPS.

Adding common components to the system is a snap. Held by three thumbscrews, the slim case opens smoothly, but the cover was difficult to replace. A system component diagram is located on top of the drive bays for easy reference. Since 8MB of RAM comes standard on the motherboard, all our SIMM banks are free. The onboard video came with 1MB of DRAM, and upgrades easily to 2MB. There is also an easy-to-access slot for adding 256KB of external cache.

It's tough to further upgrade the system. Though expansion slots are open and unobstructed, only one accepts a PCI card. Furthermore, one of the remaining three slots is a "Compaq Option slot," which accepts only proprietary cards. There are only three drive bays and they're all occupied. The bays snap out of the case for servicing, though the tight packaging of cables can make this a difficult task. The detailed BIOS provides a great deal of system control and is accessible from within Windows.

The 15-inch Compaq 150 monitor supplied a fine picture with accessible controls, but I was surprised to find that it was unable to provide 1024x768 resolution. A call to the company confirmed that this was a Win95 driver problem rather than a hardware limitation. If you're getting a Compaq 150 monitor, check with Compaq to see if the driver has been updated.

-- Info File --
Compaq ProLinea 5120e
Pros: Case; support
Cons: Expandability; no external cache
Compaq Computer Corp.
WinMag Box Score 3

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