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May 1996 WinLab Reviews

See a complete listing of this month's product reviews.

(Editor's Note: The WinMag Box Score: rates products on installation, usability, supporting materials, functionality, performance and utility. Our overall ratings follow this scale: 5,Outstanding or breakthrough product, best of its kind; 4, Exceeds expectations, superior to most competing products; 3, Works well, meets all our expectations, no major problems; 2, Has serious difficulties or limitations; 1, Has critical flaws. A list of recommended products follows the Reviews section.)

What's Hot

Head to Head: 133MHz Pentium Notebooks

Portable Pop: Books Boom at 133MHz

By Jonathan Blackwood, Reviews Editor, Hardware;
Janice J. Chen, Reviews Editor, Systems; and Jim Forbes,
Silicon Valley Bureau Editor

Imagine being able to carry all the power of your desktop machine on the road. And not just an entry-level desktop PC, but a state-of-the-art burner. With the latest crop of 133MHz Pentium notebooks, this idea comes closer to reality than ever before. We took a look at five preproduction 133MHz Pentium notebooks from four major manufacturers: AST Research, Dell, Micron and Texas Instruments. Any one of these five machines will provide eye-popping portable performance and could truly qualify as a desktop replacement.

AST Ascentia J50 and Ascentia P50

Veteran PC maker AST Research is currently the only notebook maker to market two different 133MHz Pentium notebooks. The Ascentia J50 costs $3,699 and is similar to the Ascentia J30, which was reviewed in the March issue of WINDOWS Magazine. The Ascentia P50 is a full-featured machine priced just under $5,000.

The P50 ships with a standard configuration of 8MB of RAM and your choice of 800MB or 1.2GB hard drives. It has a PCI bus and a travel weight-including its AC power equipment-of slightly more than seven pounds. It features an 11.3-inch high-resolution active-matrix display. There's a full complement of external port connectors, including two vertically stacked Type II connectors or one Type II and one Type III connector, plus an external video link that can drive monitors at resolutions up to 1024x768 pixels. The notebook also sports an internal 28.8Kb-per-second modem with a built-in RJ11 connector. You can navigate your applications using the P50's SmartPad touchpad pointing device.

The Ascentia P50 we tested was a top-of-the-line unit equipped with the 1.2GB hard drive. This machine's modular design allows you to slip a 4X CD-ROM into the same socket that the 3.5-inch drive normally occupies. The P50 delivered impressive scores on the WINDOWS Magazine Wintune 95 and 32-bit application benchmarks. Its Pentium processor clocked 245MIPS-tied with the Micron for highest MIPS in this fast group-and its hard disk had an uncached throughput rate of 2.7MB per second. The notebook's video subsystem pumped out 7.5Mpixels per second. Our 32-bit Word 7.0 and Excel 7.0 macros executed in 30.8 seconds and 16 seconds, respectively.

Like the P50, the Ascentia J50 uses a PCI local bus. It ships standard with 8MB of RAM and an 800MB hard drive (a 1.2GB drive is optional), plus a 10.4-inch active-matrix color screen. It uses a SmartPoint pointing device and has either two vertically stacked Type II or one Type III PCMCIA slot.

The J50 delivered an average of 192.66MIPS, 8.5Mpixels per second of video throughput and an uncached throughput rating of 2.26MBps on its hard drive. It took 25 seconds and 18.33 seconds to run the 32-bit versions of our Word and Excel application benchmarks, respectively.

Both 133MHz versions of AST's Ascentia notebook use lithium ion batteries. Estimated battery life for the dual-battery P50, with moderate power conservation, is between four and six hours on the first battery, and three to four hours on the second. Estimated battery life for the Ascentia J50 is three to four hours, although we suspect in actual conditions the battery life may be shorter.

The Ascentia P50 is ideally suited for mobile professionals who use applications requiring horsepower and speed. The less expensive Ascentia J50 may be appealing to cost-conscious notebook shoppers who want to step up to Pentium power but do not need all the bells and whistles of the P50. To an end user, those extra features may not justify shelling out an additional $1,300.

Dell Latitude XPi P133ST

Dell has garnered accolades for its previous Latitude XPi models, primarily because of their ergonomics and battery life. All of the favorable features are intact, and its lithium ion battery has been upgraded to a "smart" model. There wasn't any multimedia capability in previous Latitude versions, but with the XPi P133ST, the newest model, 16-bit sound, a speaker and a microphone are included. But there's still no CD-ROM option-look to a future model for that.

What Dell's engineers have concentrated on in this update is improved performance, convenience and durability, as evidenced by the PCI local-bus architecture, EDO RAM, 256KB of level 2 cache and 128-bit NeoMagic video controller, plus an improved hard disk controller, infrared port and optical trackball. That's quite a list of improvements, but they're not the only ones. The new, 11.3-inch SVGA active-matrix display now uses 20 percent less power than the previous model, while appearing brighter to the eye. The preproduction unit we tested was equipped with a 1.2GB hard drive and 24MB of RAM. Like previous Latitude XPi models, the P133ST is manufactured for Dell by Sony, and has superb fit and finish quality.

The result of all this fine-tuning is a 2.3-by-11-by-8.75 inch, 6.2-pound unit that performs like a thoroughbred. On our Wintune 95 benchmarks, the XPi P133ST scored an average of 239.67MIPS and its video system pumped out 8.07Mpixels per second. Hard disk performance tests were inconclusive on this preproduction test unit. Dell's XPi P133ST executed our 32-bit Word and Excel macros in 20.67 seconds and 18.33 seconds, respectively-an impressive showing.

Though the unit as tested sells for a somewhat pricey $5,199, you can purchase a more modestly equipped model with a 540MB hard drive and 8MB of RAM for only $2,999. The Latitude XPi P133ST remains a unit we'd recommend to friends. But if you need a built-in CD-ROM drive, you'll have to look elsewhere or wait for a later model from Dell.

Micron Millennia TransPort P133

Although the Millennia TransPort P133 is desktop maker Micron Electronics' first foray into the notebook market, don't think it's just another new face in an already crowded field. Micron developed the TransPort in conjunction with experienced portable PC manufacturer Zeos International, a company Micron recently acquired.

As it does with its desktop offerings, Micron uses the latest available technology in the Millennia TransPort P133. Our review unit came with Intel's new PCI mobile Triton chipset, a 133MHz Intel Pentium notebook CPU, 256KB of pipeline burst cache and 16MB of EDO RAM, expandable to 48MB.

Even our preproduction notebook was a screamer, pulling in Wintune 95 benchmark scores that a similarly configured desktop might envy. The CPU cranked out a healthy 245MIPS, while the 1.3GB removable hard drive rated an uncached throughput of 2.63MBps. The PCI-bus 64-bit graphics accelerator with 1MB of VRAM sent images to the screen at the rate of 8.27Mpixels per second-the best video score in this group. On the application tests, the TransPort executed our Word 7.0 macro in an average of 24.67 seconds, while the Excel 7.0 macro took an average of only 16 seconds to complete.

Two modular expansion bays make the notebook as versatile as your desktop. The first bay holds a lithium ion battery, a 3.5-inch floppy drive or a 1.36GB hard drive, while the second can hold the same as well as a 4X CD-ROM drive (the TransPort's standard removable hard drive sits in its own bay). All components will be hot-swappable in suspend mode, although this feature was not yet working in our preproduction unit. Further expansion is provided by a PCMCIA slot that can accommodate two Type II PC Cards or one Type III card.

The details make this notebook a pleasure to use, whether it's the dual pointing devices-a touchpad and a pointing stick-or the dual infrared ports in front and back. The 11.3-inch active-matrix screen displays a crisp 800x600-pixel picture, and the graphics accelerator comes with S-Video and NTSC video outputs. The notebook's Sound Blaster 16 stereo sound is complemented by two integrated stereo speakers conveniently placed on either end of the wrist rest.

Measuring 2.0 by 11.7 by 9.4 inches and tipping the scales at 6.9 pounds with the battery and floppy drive installed, the TransPort is a little easier on your back than some other multimedia notebooks. And the price won't make you keel over, either: At $4,899, it's a much better value than the popular 90MHz IBM ThinkPad 760CD, which was reviewed in the March issue of WINDOWS Magazine.

TI TravelMate 5300

TI's new 133MHz Pentium TravelMate 5300 offers a lot to like in a portable computer: PCI bus, 256KB of level 2 cache, 11.3-inch active-matrix SVGA screen with 65,000 colors and 2MB of video RAM, a 1.2GB hard drive, built-in 16-bit stereo sound and microphone, infrared port and twin lithium ion smart batteries. There's even an external PCI expansion bus for hooking up external peripherals and the notebook's docking system-a unique feature even among this group of feature-laden portables.

The preproduction unit we tested scored an average of 229.67MIPS on our Wintune 95 benchmarks. Video was low for this group at an average of 3.67Mpixels per second, and uncached hard disk throughput was a paltry 1.6MBps. Note that this was an early preproduction unit; you can count on these numbers being substantially higher by the time the 5300 makes it to market. Times to execute our 32-bit application macros were quite slow, averaging 67 seconds for Word and 36.33 seconds for Excel. Note that our Word macro is disk-intensive, while our Excel benchmark is video-intensive; again, given our experience with other TI notebooks, we don't believe these scores are representative of the performance you will receive from production-level TravelMate 5300s. This is a fast, capable machine, eminently worthy of your consideration.

-- Info File --

AST Ascentia J50
Pros: Value; performance
Cons: Lacks modular CD-ROM drive
AST Research
800-876-4278, 714-727-4141
WinMag Box Score: 3.0

AST Ascentia P50
Pros: Performance; display; modular design
Cons: Cost
AST Research
800-876-4278, 714-727-4141
WinMag Box Score: 4.0

Dell Latitude XPi P133ST
$5,199 (direct)
Pros: Performance
Cons: No CD-ROM drive
Dell Computer Corp.
800-613-3355, 512-338-4400
WinMag Box Score: 4.0

Micron Millennia TransPort P133
Pros: Modular expansion bays; Triton chipset
Cons: Relatively heavy
Micron Electronics
800-243-7615, 208-893-3434
WinMag Box Score: 4.0

TI TravelMate 5300
$5,499 (street)
Pros: External PCI port
Cons: No CD-ROM drive
Texas Instruments
800-848-3927, 817-771-5856
WinMag Box Score: 4.0

Windows NT 4.0

NT Revs into Fourth Gear

By John D. Ruley

Microsoft's kickoff of the Windows NT 4.0 beta gives 100,000-plus users an early taste of what's coming for this flagship 32-bit operating system.

The most anticipated change in NT 4.0 is its Windows 95-like interface. Its top-level desktop shell is practically indistinguishable from Windows 95's, much as NT 3.x mimicked Windows 3.x.

You will find differences as you drill down, including the absence of the Win95 Device Manager, and a hybrid of old- and new-style Control Panel applets. And, while NT still can run each 16-bit Windows application in a private memory space, it lacks Win95's complete Plug-and-Play features and power management support for notebook computers.

What is included? Among other things, Win95-style Telephony API (TAPI) and Uni-modem drivers, which work with the now-included HyperTerminal. Developers will see new APIs for working with disk defragmentation and the cryptography needed to create secure applications.

There's a new NetWare 4.x-compatible redirector, NDS-supporting gateway software, Microsoft's new Internet Explorer 2.0 Web browser, the Exchange e-mail client, improved printer spooler and a long overdue enhanced-mode update for RISC users who need software emulation to run 16-bit Windows software.

The RISC camp, however, will have to wait for similar support for 32-bit Windows 95 binaries in NT. And while there is hardware profile support, which lets laptop users boot to different resource settings depending on whether they're at home or on the road, these profiles still don't cover network settings.

Microsoft added its Internet Information Server (IIS) to the new operating system's Server edition. IIS provides scalable Web, gopher and ftp services, integrated with NT's own security and administration interfaces.

The Web server component offers the same secure sockets feature you'll find in Netscape's $5,000 Commerce Server, and also provides an Internet Server API (ISAPI) to be used by IIS's enhanced Perl scripting language. IIS has an impressive 32-bit ODBC database interface that I'll cover in depth in an upcoming issue.

The Multi-Protocol Router (MPR), a feature formerly found in NT 3.51's Service Pack 2, becomes a part of NT Server 4.0. NT Server 4.0 also gets a dynamic Domain Name Service (DNS), built around Microsoft's proprietary Windows Internet Name Service (WINS) protocol. DNS is an Internet standard; wrapping it around WINS gives Microsoft a clear path to most UNIX-based TCP/IP networks.

Another noteworthy feature is the screen saver. In each NT version, the developers have used the screen savers to show off NT's graphics performance: Béziers in NT 3.1, OpenGL in NT 3.5 and more OpenGL in NT 3.51. But it will be hard to top what they've done in NT 4.0. I won't try to describe 3D Maze-even a picture can't do it justice. You simply have to see the new NT 4.0 screen savers in action. Suffice it to say that this time around, these screen savers ought to put an end to any issue of whether it's possible to do top-quality video games for NT. (It definitely is.)

The new version's system requirements remain high: 12MB of RAM for NT workstation, 16MB for NT Server. You'll need more to satisfactorily run nearly any high-end application, such as DBMS, CAD or modeling tools. The new NT will require about 10 percent more disk space than the old NT 3.5x. That's around 108MB for Workstation and a whopping 147MB for NT Server/RISC. NT also loses 80386 support in this edition, leaving an 80486 as the slowest supported processor.

I tested NT 4.0 Workstation on a 75MHz 486 notebook with 16MB of RAM, and NT 4.0 Server on an elderly MIPS Magnum R4000SC/50 with 32MB of RAM. The first thing I discovered is that the setup program has changed; be sure to read the release notes before attempting your installations. Although setup was relatively smooth, both installations gave me problems that weren't covered in the notes.

MOST SERIOUSLY, I had trouble with the Exchange e-mail client on the notebook, probably because I'd been using an earlier NT Exchange client beta. NT setup requires 87MB of free space on a drive that isn't mirrored, duplexed or used as part of a RAID stripe or volume set. I had some trouble with an NTFS volume set when installing the Server edition.

And, if you've been experimenting with the Shell Technology Preview (STP), the Win95-like add-on to Windows NT 3.51, you must remove it before you begin the upgrade. Unfortunately, you won't automatically get your Start menu and Desktop settings back when you upgrade, but they can be recovered manually.

Once things were up and running, applications had no trouble. My RAS setup, inclined to be touchy, works well although my RAS SWITCH.INF scripts don't-NT 4.0 uses a different, albeit Win95-compatible, format.

Significantly, Microsoft decided to move NT 4.0's graphics subsystem from a client/server to kernel mode. Both the graphics device interface (GDI) and User subsystems now are incorporated directly into the NT Executive. Microsoft claims this improves performance and saves up to 64KB of memory per application without compromising reliability.

My tests bore out the performance claims. Wintune 95, WINDOWS Magazine's benchmark test, indicates around a 20 percent performance improvement on the notebook running NT Workstation; the cached disk performance was roughly 3.1 times faster than under NT 3.51. NT 4.0 takes longer starting up an application or document, but is much faster once loading is complete. I'd never had performance problems running previous versions of NT on the server test machine-besides 32MB of RAM it has a fast SCSI disk subsystem-and so far the beta is performing at roughly the same speed as NT 3.51.

But the biggest improvement comes from the new "feel" of NT 4.0's rebuilt interface. The Win95-like operation makes it possible to map a network drive without File Manager, and I particularly appreciate being able to use the new Win95-like hardware profiles and Briefcase file synchronization with my NT notebook.

Microsoft's next beta will address the inevitable bugs found in this version. It will also add a Win95-compatible System Policy editor, network OLE plus Direct Draw and Direct Sound support. There'll be a one-time Win95 upgrade utility that can migrate many of the most popular Windows 95 applications, according to Microsoft. NT 4.0 is scheduled for a mid-1996 release.

By that time you'll also be able to buy Microsoft At-Work Fax and Microsoft Network (MSN) support, as well as an Internet plug-in capability for NT Workstation and Windows 95. On the network side you'll get Network OLE and Administrative Wizards to ease network setup and maintenance.

The list of what you won't get in the next beta, however, is extensive. File and Print Service for NetWare (FPNW) won't be bundled with NT Server as expected; it probably will continue as a separate product. Worse, you won't get the promised Cairo: no object-oriented file system, Kerberos-style security or Plug-and-Play installations. In fact, there's no mention of Cairo in the reviewer's guide or release notes, although some features, such as Plug-and-Play, are listed as "features deferred to a 1997 release"

Overall, I'm impressed with NT 4.0. I would have been more impressed if Microsoft had included network settings in hardware profile support, as I need that rather badly.

Info File
Windows NT 4.0
Not available at press time
Pros: Interface; Win95 compatibility
Cons: Disk requirements
Platforms: Windows NT
Microsoft Corp.
800-426-9400, 206-882-8080
WinMag Box Score:: 4.0

Dell Dimension XPS P166s

Contented Sighs for New Dimension

By Jonathan Blackwood

In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe wrote about the test pilots of military and experimental jets in the 1950s who routinely "pushed the envelope." The engineers at Dell Computer are similarly stretching the horizons of 166MHz Pentium machines with their new Dimension XPS P166s desktop.

Check it out: The preproduction P166s I tested uses Intel's new 430VX chip set, an AMI BIOS, 32MB of SDRAM (synchronous dynamic RAM-which Dell reports to be 22 percent faster than the previous chip set using EDO RAM) and a 2.5-gigabyte EIDE Mode 4 hard disk. The system also includes a Number Nine Imagine II video card with 4MB of VRAM, 512KB of pipeline burst cache and an on-board Vibra 16 chip set for 16-bit stereo FM synthesis sound. The standard configuration has 16MB of RAM, and smaller hard drives are available, in 850MB, 1GB, 1.6GB and 2GB sizes. There is also a choice of video cards, but the Imagine II is certainly the most desirable.

Dell wraps it all in a new case that supports the ATX form factor of the 66MHz Intel Terminator motherboard. The new design provides much better cooling and a better layout for expansion. In all, there are two externally accessible 5.25-inch drive bays, five 3.5-inch drive bays (three externally accessible), three PCI slots, two 16-bit ISA slots and one shared PCI/ISA slot. All slots will support full-length cards, thanks to the ATX layout. Only one slot was occupied, and it held the video card. The power supply is a 200-watt model.

The new motherboard layout also allows easy access to the RAM slots. There are only two of them, both of the 168-pin DIMM variety, allowing total system SDRAM configurations of 8MB, 16MB, 32MB and 64MB. EDO RAM is also supported, with a total capacity of 128MB when using that memory architecture. The motherboard has the capability to provide a Universal Serial Bus port in future system models, once the specification for this standard has been finalized. As in previous Dimension XPS products, you gain access to the innards with the turn of a single thumbscrew.

The keyboard and mouse are the usual Dell models. The keyboard's touch is too spongy for my taste, and the mouse, while perfectly serviceable, is no match for a Microsoft or Logitech model. The mini-tower case measures 17.2 by 8 by 17.8 inches and the system weighs in at 29 pounds. The 6X TEAC CD-56E EIDE CD-ROM drive has a 128KB buffer, an access time of 160 milliseconds and a rated data-transfer rate of 684.4KB per second. You have a choice of optional Altec Lansing speakers, including the ACS31 three-piece model, which will set you back an extra $100. My evaluation unit did not come with speakers. A Creative Labs wavetable sound card is also optional.

The 17-inch Samsung-built, Dell-branded monitor was a pleasure to look at all day. This quality monitor has a 0.28-millimeter dot pitch, on-screen display controls and a bright, tightly focused image with no geometric distortion. Its optimal resolution is 1024x768 at 70Hz. (Don't forget that Samsung has earned the WINDOWS Recommended seal for its 17-inch monitors for the past two years.) With the P166s, Dell offers a choice of one 15-inch, two 17-inch and one 21-inch monitors.

The P166s' scores on our WINDOWS Magazine Wintune 95 benchmarks were impressive-among the top three of all 166MHz Pentiums we've tested. The CPU scored 303MIPS, the Western Digital AC32500 served up an average of 3.1MB per second uncached throughput, and the Number Nine Imagine II video card pumped out 18Mpixels per second. Average times to execute our 32-bit macros for Word 7.0 and Excel 7.0 were 11.33 and 9.33 seconds, respectively. This machine is a speed demon, to be sure. Of the systems we've tested, only the Micron Millennia and Hewlett-Packard Vectra machines performed at this level, and the Dimension's video was significantly faster than the video of the other two PCs.

This system comes with a three-year warranty, with next business day on-site service for one year. The second and third years of the warranty period provide next business day parts delivery.

If it's possible for a machine that costs nearly $4,500 to be a good value, this is it. All the components are top drawer, from the hard disk to the SD-RAM to the monitor. The only thing that's missing is on-board SCSI. Note that this system won't be available in quantity until May. Unless you have a pressing need for a Pentium Pro-such as running Windows NT-the Dimension XPS P166s is among the fastest machines on the market. This is one system that definitely has the right stuff.

Info File
Dell Dimension XPS P166s
$4,499 (direct)
Pros: Performance; value; expandability
Cons: Keyboard; mouse
Dell Computer Corp.
800-289-3355, 512-338-4400
WinMag Box Score: 4.0

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