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11/96 Reviews SYS: Dell Dimension XPS Pro200n

Breaking the Barrier -- Dell's latest Pentium Pro clocks in at below $3,000, setting a new standard for mainstream desktop systems.

By Jonathan Blackwood, Texas Bureau Editor

Click Here to see a 54.1 KB bitmap image of artwork which goes with this article, entitled:
Dell Delivers

It's time to add a new hardware/software team to your list of mainstream platforms-none other than the 200MHz Pentium Pro running NT 4.0. Surprised? Don't be. Today a workstation-class PC running full-bore 32-bit applications can sit on your desktop for less than $3,000, the magical sweet spot that moves a system from your wish list to your company's purchase order. Initial indications of this shift appeared in the market this fall, as prices for Pentium Pro systems from first-tier manufacturers fell into the affordable range.

The 200MHz Pentium Pro offers roughly twice the performance of a standard 133MHz Pentium, as shown in the chart, "Dell Delivers." Yet the transition from Pentium to Pentium Pro is taking even longer than the move reluctant consumers made from the 486 to Pentium a few years ago. But it's happening, and for the same reason: software. It took the promise of resource-hungry Windows 95 to persuade users to abandon the 486. Now the promise of even hungrier 32-bit operating systems such as Windows NT 4.0 is making the Pentium Pro even more appealing, especially as prices fall.

Microsoft's NT 4.0 and the forthcoming Office 97 offer total 32-bit stability, performance, security and power. (For an in-depth look at the new Office 97, see the preview in this issue.) The applications that run on NT 4.0-videoconferencing, 3-D animation, real-time rendering and superfast graphics display-come close to taxing the Pentium beyond its limits.

Processors from competing manufacturers are probably a major factor in the price drop. Spunky Cyrix and mighty Digital have been whittling away at Intel from the low and high ends, but both now offer high-performance, NT-compatible chips that go in boxes without the Intel Inside logo. And less visible competitors, such as Motorola with its PowerPC chip, are likely to raise the performance bar on Intel by early next year.

Combine this with the usual drop in component prices that comes every fall, and the economies of scale as Intel ramps up production of the P6, and you wind up in a world where fully equipped, sub-$3,000 200MHz Pentium Pros and sub-$2,000 200MHz Pentium systems are possible. It's a great time to buy a new system.

When does the Pentium go the way of the 486? Not for a long time. Intel and Hewlett-Packard have planned a long, slow transition to the next-generation chip, the P7. Code-named Merced, this chip will move the flagship x86 into true 64-bit computing. It also won't be available until very late in 1998, and will require a 64-bit operating system for optimal performance. NT's present 32-bit strength won't be enough.

The Pentium still has room for increased clock speeds and multiple editions, from the special graphics of MMX to the power management capabilities of notebook chips. And there are still plenty of 16-bit Windows programs out there that actually perform better on the Pentium than the Pentium Pro. For users of those programs, the Pentium will be a viable part of the motherboard for many years.

On the other hand, if you're using purely 32-bit software, it's time to seriously consider the Pentium Pro. If I can't convince you to check out the Pentium Pro, perhaps Dell Computer can.

The Future Is Here

I don't like to gush-it's unseemly and just not my style. But when I unpacked the Dell Dimension XPS Pro-200n, a fully configured 200MHz Pentium Pro with a 15-inch Trinitron monitor, and realized the whole shebang is only $2,979, I have to admit I got excited. Five years ago I spent that much on a 33MHz 486 offering 1/20th the processing power and no local-bus graphics. Moore's Law calls for a doubling of processing power every 18 months, but with this machine, the future has arrived early.

If you've been wishing for an affordable, loaded Pentium Pro machine from a major manufacturer you can stop wishing and start ordering.

This system comes with a 200MHz Pentium Pro, Intel's 440FX chipset, a flash-upgradable AMI BIOS, 32MB of EDO RAM (expandable to 128MB), a Sony CDU-311 8X CD-ROM drive, a 3.2GB IBM EIDE hard drive, Number Nine's Imagine Series 2 graphics card with 4MB VRAM, a Sound Blaster 16 PnP sound card, Microsoft Office Professional with Bookshelf and Windows NT Workstation 4.0. Throw in a Microsoft mouse and Windows 95 keyboard, and you've got the most powerful $3,000 system ever offered.

Does it smoke? It does. Our WINDOWS Magazine Wintune benchmarks registered an average score of 416.67MIPS, and an average video throughput of 21Mpixels per second. Both these scores are right on the money for a 200MHz Pentium Pro. The average disk throughput of 1.9MB per second is disappointing-less than some Pentium notebooks, including the Dell Latitude LM P-133ST notebook (2.4MB per second) we reviewed in October.

Our Excel macro, which bangs on both the CPU and the graphics adapter, executed in a speedy average of four seconds. The average time to complete our Word macro, which depends more heavily on the speed of the hard disk, was a bit slow for this class of machine, at 6.67 seconds. Anecdotal evidence suggests NT Workstation 4.0 is partly responsible for these application scores, typically shaving about a second off the scores of the same machine running NT Workstation 3.51.

There are three PCI slots, three ISA slots and one shared PCI/ISA slot. On my test system, one ISA slot was occupied by the sound card, and one by a 33.6Kbps U.S. Robotics fax modem, a $149 option. One PCI slot held the video card. There are two serial, one parallel and two PS/2 ports. The front of the mini-tower case has two externally accessible 5.25-inch drive bays, one filled by the CD-ROM drive; and three externally accessible 3.5-inch drive bays, one occupied by the floppy drive. The hard drive fills one of two internal 3.5-inch drive bays.

The internal layout is open and airy-all slots can accept full-length cards-and the CPU and its large heat sink are positioned next to a large fan for sure cooling. The Intel Venus system board uses the new ATX form factor, which provides the improved layout. Cabling is kept to a minimum, and everything, including the SIMM slots, is easily accessible.

The documentation is excellent, in the Dell tradition, with a large poster inside the top of the box to guide you through initial system setup. This makes for a good out-of-box experience. The standard 15-inch (13.7-inch diagonal viewable area) Trinitron monitor (model D1526TX-HS) has a stripe pitch of 0.26 millimeters, and a maximum resolution of 1280x1024 at 60Hz, though the optimal resolution of 800x600 at 72Hz is a more usable setting.

Dell's direct business model means all systems are custom built, so you have many options. If the standard monitor is too small, two 17-inch models are available: an Invar shadow mask dot-trio unit built by Samsung (model D1728d-LS), and a Sony-built Trinitron (model D1726t-HS).

The Samsung unit, as you might expect from the model designation, has a 0.28mm dot pitch, a 15.75-inch diagonal viewable area and a maximum resolution of 1280x1024 at 60Hz. As a dot-trio monitor, it's better suited for CAD applications than the Trinitron model. The Sony-built model has a 0.26mm stripe pitch, a 15.9-inch diagonal viewable area and a maximum resolution of 1600x1200 at 65Hz, and is well suited for desktop publishing and image processing applications. Optimal resolution for both 17-inch monitors is 1024x768 at 75Hz. A 21-inch (19.6-inch diagonal viewable area) Mitsubishi-built model, the D2130T-HS, is also offered, with a 0.30mm dot pitch, a maximum resolution of 1600x1200 at 70Hz and an optimal resolution of 1280x1024 at 72Hz. A 20-inch Sony-built Trinitron is also optional.

Hard drive options include a 2GB, 7200rpm Seagate SCSI model, and EIDE Western Digital units in 2.5GB and 3.2GB capacities. In addition to the Imagine 2 video adapter, buyers also have a choice of Imagine 128 or FX Motion771 cards, also from Number Nine. Upgraded sound options include Creative Labs' AWE32 sound card and a choice of Altec Lansing speakers. You can also order the XPS Pro200n in a slimline desktop case, but with this design you'll give up a drive bay.

What's the catch? There is none. Intel's processor prices just keep dropping, and component prices decline every fall. And without meaning to, Cyrix also pushed Intel toward more aggressive pricing. Its latest 6x86 P200-powered system brought near-Pentium Pro performance to well-equipped systems priced at under $5,000, at a time when Pentium Pros typically cost $2,000 more than that. Intel has corrected that price/performance inequity in spades.

If you've never used NT Workstation 4.0 before, you can stop worrying. If you know how to use Windows 95, you know 95 percent of the new NT already. The only possible downside to NT Workstation 4.0 is the lack of drivers (compared to Windows 95), a problem more or less made moot by the purchase of a whole new system. Keep in mind, though, that older DOS apps that directly access hardware, or some 16-bit Windows applications using virtual drivers, won't run under NT.

The Dimension XPS Pro200n makes workstation power for CAD, graphics, animation, video and other power-user applications affordable for the masses. And Dell's reputation, three-year warranty and toll-free tech support bring piece of mind as well. With the XPS Pro200n, Dell's got a sure winner.

-- Info File --
Dell Dimension XPS Pro200n
: $2,979
Pros: Price; performance; fully configured
Cons: Not fully compatible with DOS applications
Platforms:95, NT
Dell Computer Corp.
800-388-8542, 512-338-4400
WinMag Box Score 4.5

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