[ Go to February 1997 Table of Contents ]

Cover Story
Monster MMX Machines!
Everything you need to know about your next PC

-- by Jonathan Blackwood, Jim Forbes, David Gabel, James Alan Miller, Marc Spiwak, Deborah K. Wong, John J. Yacono, Serdar Yegulalp

Like any up-and-coming technology, MMX raises questions. Does it make your "old" Pentium PC obsolete? Probably not. Do you need it? That depends on what you do. Can you avoid it? Not after the end of this year, when Intel expects nearly all Pentium systems to come equipped with the multimedia-enhanced processor.

MMX brings to the Pentium multimedia abilities formerly supplied by additional accelerator chips. An MMX-enabled processor accepts regular Pentium instructions, but adds 57 new instructions specifically geared toward media processing functions such as video, 3-D and sound.

Operations that required several or even hundreds of commands can now be carried out with just one. According to Intel, this streamlining will improve multimedia processing operations from 50 percent to as much as 700 percent-but you'll need MMX software to see more than modest gains. Even without MMX software, you'll see an average performance gain of about 17 percent, mostly due to the doubled-now 32KB-Level 1 cache.

Since Windows 3.x doesn't support MMX, and Windows 95 and Windows NT don't recognize MMX, at least for now, the application itself must be MMX-enabled. Worse, no development environment offers MMX, except as a promised runtime library. That means developers have to hand code MMX sequences in assembly language.

Initially, MMX will shine in the games arena, which relies heavily on fast 3-D graphics, true-color palettes and realistic sounds. Expect to see MMX games appearing by the time you read this. Business applications, such as spreadsheets, databases and word processors, are less multimedia-intensive and will likely be upgraded more slowly. Although they'll benefit from increased cache, they'll show fewer overall performance gains.

Under MMX, a system running 256 colors at a resolution of 800x600 pixels, for example, could display 16.7 million colors without a significant performance loss, assuming the computer has the video memory necessary to display that many colors at that resolution. In fact, any multimedia-intensive application, from speech recognition to videoconferencing to 3-D graphics playback, will likely benefit from the new MMX processor and yet-to-be-developed software.

Speech recognition systems, which require fast processing to match the flow of sound, should gain extra accuracy from MMX instruction shortcuts. That means you'll be able to speak in a more natural, continuous voice instead of the current technology's discontinuous, or discrete, recognition, which forces users to pause ... between ... each ... word.

With MMX videoconferencing, you'll watch your remote colleagues at a realistic 30 frames per second as opposed to the current average of 10fps.

The quality of your presentations could also improve significantly, especially if you use a lot of AVI files. Currently, graphics software developers write for hardware at the lowest common denominator instead of $1,000 graphics accelerators. MMX may increase the capability of this inexpensive hardware.

Should You, or Shouldn't You?

Our tests of this initial batch of MMX machines-six 200MHz systems and a lone 166-were encouraging, but the new chip is not likely to send your standard Pentium PC to the landfill. The 17 percent average boost the cache gets you with old software probably doesn't warrant rushing out to buy a new MMX PC-unless you also plan to buy the forthcoming MMX multimedia software. But if it's time to pick up a new system anyway, MMX's improved performance and promise of even more improvements to come make it definitely worth considering.

You should take a serious look at buying an MMX system if you plan to buy new versions of multimedia applications such as Adobe Photoshop, or if you will make heavy use of Microsoft's Direct 3D. Retuned for MMX's multimedia-specific operations enhancement, new software may speed up dramatically when run on an MMX chip. Our tests so far, though admittedly with Intel's own benchmarks, show performance gains as high as 68 percent over identical systems running non-MMX Pentiums at the same clock rate.

Surprisingly, prices for these bleeding-edge systems remain within a few hundred dollars of their non-MMX counterparts. And you'll get quite a bit for your money; we found everything from internal Iomega Zip Drives to USB ports and 12X CD-ROM drives on these machines. If you mostly stick with office suite applications, check out the machines that performed well on our standard Wintune and macro benchmarks. If you're looking for exceptional multimedia performance, pay close attention to PCs registering above-average scores on Intel's optimized MMX tests. Check our feature chart carefully; with this mix of components, price and software bundles, you'll likely find exactly what you're looking for right off the shelf.

Putting MMX Through Its Paces

We exercised the disk, video, CPU and office applications capabilities of these machines, as well as testing their zest for multimedia. We ran our usual battery of Wintune tests, and executed our Word and Excel macros to determine basic operating speed. In addition, we used Intel's own MMX benchmarks to get some idea of the performance gains we'll see as MMX applications hit the shelves later this year.

Intel's tests first run a short hardware gauge of relative throughput and performance, then move to a battery of tests using Intel-optimized versions of Adobe PhotoDeluxe and Photoshop, Intel Indeo Video Interactive, Mediamatics' MPEG player and Direct 3D. Bear in mind, however, that these are Intel's own, highly customized tests. Under workaday conditions, you'll probably see less than the optimal performance we found with Intel's benchmarks.

But the real question-Just how much performance does MMX add to the old-style Pentium processor?-remains. The quality and sometimes quantity of components inside a PC go a long way toward dictating overall performance, frequently causing wide variations in results for two "similar" computers.

To make sure it was the new Pentium, and not just extra cache or faster components, that actually increased system performance, we substituted a non-MMX processor for the original chip, or obtained an identical-but-non-MMX machine from the manufacturer. Then, we ran our tests again. (We were unable to do this for three machines-the Dell Dimension, the Gateway 2000 P55c-200 and the Quantex.)

As expected, the MMX systems showed only minimal gains for hard-drive performance and CPU speed. Tests with standard, non-MMX-tuned applications, such as our Excel and Word macros, augmented overall system performance an average of 16.7 percent. Combining standard applications with MMX-specific benchmarks yields improvements of 26 percent or more-a noticeable boost.

On average, our Word macro ran about 16 percent faster on MMX than on the non-MMX chips. Few differences were evident among the MMX systems on the Word macro executions, with only a small speed distinction between the average 200MHz machine and Micron's 166MHz model.

Number crunchers take note, however: The Dell OptiPlex GXi and Dimension XPS M200s blew away the competition on our Excel macro runtimes, nearly doubling the speed of the slowest, the Quantex.

MMX machines ran our Wintune CPU test a little more than 7 percent faster than non-MMX Pentiums. Disk operations also changed very little in the non-MMX-to-MMX swap, speeding up by only 10 percent or less in every case. OptiPlex again distanced itself from the competition. The Quantex was the only other machine to offer disk operations in the same speed range.

Video, an important piece of the multimedia puzzle, ran best on the OptiPlex, closely followed by the Quantex and the ARM T200. It was slowest on the Gateway machine. In tests using Intel's MMX benchmarks, the Micron Millennia 200 was fastest, followed closely by an otherwise slow and steady Gateway 2000.

Each machine excelled at a different piece of the suite. The Millennia 200 was an outstanding performer at video playback, pushing easily through Indeo and Direct 3D tests, and scoring highest on the multimedia benchmark as well. It should be a good choice for photo imaging and illustration. On the other hand, Gateway handled MPEG playback most speedily.

The little-known ARM, which made an excellent all-around showing, was particularly fast on the 3-D and audio-processing tests-something the avid gamer should consider.

High-Quality Multimedia

All our MMX test systems came fully equipped for sound and graphics, but here again, the Dell OptiPlex GXi hit the high numbers. This was no doubt due to the system's Number Nine Imagine 128 Series 2 graphics accelerator, with 4MB of VRAM and the fastest Windows graphics accelerator we've ever tested. The OptiPlex did the best job with software MPEG playback-beautiful, fluid, full-screen video and no noticeable frame-dropping. Sibling Dimension XPS, still a high-end offering for Dell, came with a competent Matrox Millennium with 4MB of WRAM. It was a bit slower than the OptiPlex but did a good job with accelerated full-screen MPEG.

The Quantex QP5/200 had a Matrox MGA Millennium card with 4MB of WRAM, which accounts for at least part of that system's very fast graphics-oriented test scores. It skillfully accelerated software MPEG to full-screen, dropping few frames from the video and building a very watchable image.

The Gateway 2000 P55c-200 system included an STB Velocity 3D, a ViRGE/VX-based accelerator with 4MB of VRAM. This fast graphics accelerator moves in the same circles as the Number Nine Imagine 128. It competently accelerated software MPEG playback, producing a reasonably good, if not great, full-screen image.

The two Micron machines, a P200 Millennia MXE and a P166 Millennia MXE, were both equipped with S3 ViRGE-based Diamond Stealth 3D 2000 accelerators with 4MB of EDO DRAM. Both systems mastered full-screen software MPEG acceleration.

The ARM T200 system came with a 4MB Matrox Millennium graphics accelerator. It accelerated software MPEG about as well as the Quantex system, which also included a 4MB Matrox Millennium. Though the full-screen image was good enough to watch and almost matched the Diamond Stealth 3D on the Micron units, it was not nearly as clear as the image the Imagine 128 Series 2 produced on the Dell OptiPlex.

While most of our MMX systems included an add-in sound card, a few built sound directly onto the motherboard. Altec Lansing must have the MMX concession sewn up here; all but the Micron PCs offer Altec Lansing speakers, one of the most popular in the multimedia arena.

Quantex builds its sounds with an Ensoniq Soundscape VIVO 90 sound card and Altec Lansing ACS 400 speakers. The sound card is a wavetable synthesis model, with very good sound quality and the most realistic MIDI reproduction of all the systems we tested. The VIVO 90 also provides Sound Blaster FM synthesizer emulation. The ACS 400 sound system consists of a pair of powerful speakers and a subwoofer, providing more than enough bass for all applications. It also includes Dolby Surround Sound decoding.

The Gateway 2000 system had the same VIVO 90 sound card and an Altec Lansing ACS 410 speaker system, one model up from the ACS 400. The package includes Dolby Pro Logic Surround Sound decoding and a subwoofer. Its speakers' perforated metal grilles make it a bit sharper than the ACS 410, but of similar overall quality.

The Dell OptiPlex fared badly in the sound department, simply integrating FM synthesis and Sound Blaster Pro-compatible sound hardware on the motherboard. The result wasn't nearly as good as the others, especially those with an Ensoniq sound card. The system's MIDI reproduction was far short of the wavetable sound's realism. Its ACS 31 speakers, also from Altec Lansing, offered decent sound but not nearly the output power of the other speaker systems tested. The included subwoofer was barely adequate.

The Dell Dimension system included built-in Creative Labs Vibra 16 sound on the motherboard. An add-in ISA card that connects to the motherboard via a ribbon cable provides Sound Blaster AWE32 wavetable sound from Creative Labs. The Dimension system will ship with Altec Lansing ACS 490 speakers, which were lost in transit on our prerelease test unit.

The Microns also had built-in Vibra 16 sound. An add-on ISA card connects to the motherboard via a ribbon cable. It provided much better sound than the FM synthesis-only systems we reviewed, but again was not quite on par with the Ensoniq cards. Both Micron systems came with a pair of powerful, crisp-sounding Advent AV 270 speakers, which we preferred to the ACS 4xx series. However, Advent doesn't offer a subwoofer, leaving the bass range a bit deficient.

Despite its low price, the ARM system came with the best sound card of the lot, an AWE32 wavetable model with very good wavetable sound. Although the quality matches Ensoniq's VIVO 90, we prefer the AWE32's universal compatibility. The ARM came with Altec Lansing ACS 45 speakers. These speakers have neither Dolby circuitry nor the raw power of the ACS 400s and ACS 410s, but they are very small and inconspicuous on your desktop, and powerful enough for most people. A subwoofer affords the system plenty of bass. While the only control is for volume, the implementation is unusual. The two push-button controls on the right speaker unit raise and lower the volume at the touch of a finger.

Serviceability and Expandability

Though service and support varied widely for this crop of computers, the ARM, the lowest priced system in the roundup, offers the best balance between serviceability and expandability. We liked the OptiPlex's RAM flexibility and ability to expand peripherals. However, the RAM is crammed into a small, specially designed chassis that also limits the number of free expansion slots and available drive bays. On the other hand, the Quantex has the most free drive bays, but offers a ho-hum RAM configuration.

Case access returns to the days of small screws and large curses with the Gateway 2000 and Quantex systems, which could take a few lessons from the other manufacturers. To enter the two Micron mini-towers, you simply loosen a single thumbscrew on the rear-left side of each box and pull off the side panel. This is the most elegant and functional aspect of these cases. The ARM's mini-tower opens in much the same manner, as does the Dimension's.

The Dimension's case is a little more difficult to remove, as you must depress two tabs, one on top and the other on the bottom of the side panel, before sliding the siding off. The Dell OptiPlex's case, which requires no tools to remove, surpasses the thumbscrew method. To remove the cover, push two buttons, one on each side of this desktop's chassis, and pull the cover forward and off.

The Microns' innards were the easiest to navigate, with cables and wires neatly folded and out of the way. The Gateway 2000 and ARM machines followed suit with few impediments to upgrading. Though the Dimension's motherboard is unhampered by messy wiring, you might find accessing the external drive bays a little difficult, as the wires are positioned right behind them.

We found that the Quantex did the sloppiest internal housekeeping, making getting to components more difficult than necessary. At first glance, the OptiPlex appears messier than the Quantex, but looks can be deceiving. The Dell actually makes optimal use of a smaller space: Dell uses a unique recipe for maximizing system real estate: The most important ingredient involves the power supply, which readily tilts up and out of the way when you push on a small release lever.

The Dell's movable power supply gives you a completely unobstructed view of the level 2 cache and four DIMM slots, which contain 32MB (each system in the roundup bundles 32MB) of EDO DIMM memory expandable to a whopping 512MB, by far the best memory situation in the roundup. The Gateway also has two DIMM sockets, but they contain speedy, and more expensive, SDRAM expandable to a still-formidable 128MB. The Dimension also has DIMM slots. It bundles SDRAM, expandable to a mere 64MB, in its two slots. If you need more memory, you can install up to 128MB of EDO RAM. ARM delivers eight SIMM slots, four of which hold the bundled EDO DRAM. Like the OptiPlex, you can expand this system to 512MB. The two Microns and the Quantex use EDO memory and have four slots. (The machines we reviewed were proto-types; memory configurations may differ on the actual systems.)

Hard as it is to service, the Quantex keeps the largest number of drive bays free. And if you've got an eye toward the future, an important expansion option is the bundling of super-fast USB serial ports. The Dell Dimension has two, while the OptiPlex and the Quantex each have one. Each company plans to add USB to these systems, or their successors, in the coming months.

A Plethora of Peripherals

Both Micron computers bundle the same Micron-brand monitor, which features a drop-down button palette for making display adjustments. Unfortunately, the monitor lacks on-screen programming. You can choose which parameter to adjust with one set of buttons, each with a green LED, and you make adjustments with a pair of +/- keys. Brightness and contrast each get their own +/- key pair, and separate buttons degauss and recall factory settings. Functions include the basic adjustments (centering and sizing), and pincushion, tilt and keystone. The Micron monitors delivered a sterling, very readable image, ideally suited to long work periods.

The Hitachi CD-ROMs installed in both Microns were by far the best of the bunch. Billed as 12X units, they actually clocked in closer to 14X, with a sustained 2.13MB-per-second transfer rate and a 0.1-second average access time. Because of their high speed, however, the Hitachi CD-ROMs made quite a bit of clatter when spinning up and going track to track.

The two Dell units used the company's own monitor, which had a slightly dimmer picture than those of the other machines. It did, however, feature on-screen programming. Just choose the adjustment you want to make from a row of buttons on the monitor's faceplate, and then change the setting with an analog thumbwheel. A graph in the on-screen display shows the values for the adjustments as you make them. Separate analog dials govern the brightness and contrast controls.

The OptiPlex GXi 8X NEC CD-ROM cranked out a respectable 1.2MBps, with a 0.18-second average access time. The OptiPlex will offer an optional U.S. Robotics Sportster 28.8 internal modem. With it, we connected to the Net at maximum speed without hassle. Also included with the Dell Dimension XPS was Iomega's Zip Drive, which is fast becoming a standard-issue item on many higher-end PCs as a companion to the 3.5-inch floppy drive.

For its monitor, ARM chose ViewSonic's bright and sharp 17GS model. Low reflectivity and high picture quality made this one comfortable and easy to use. The on-screen display (OSD) controls are as minimal as possible: one button to call up the menu or to go back a step, two buttons to scroll through menu choices or make adjustments and a fourth to confirm changes. The control scheme's biggest drawback is its sluggishness-about a half-second delay comes between pushing the button and the menu's appearance. The OSD menu lists all the monitor functions, including brightness, contrast, the four basic geometries, degaussing and color temperature.

ARM's machine came outfitted with a 12X TEAC EIDE CD-ROM that didn't disappoint-it pulled down a 1.87MBps transfer rate and a 0.17-second average access time. The drawer snaps open and shut very fast on this model, though, so be careful when loading a disc.

The Gateway 2000 CrystalScan was easily the best-looking monitor of the group. The CrystalScan's spectacular picture is only one of its better features. The OSD also has a unique controller. Drop down a panel on the monitor's front bevel, and you get a rotary dial that acts as a selection switch when pressed. Hit the switch once to bring up the on-screen control menu, turn the knob to select the adjustment, and then press the switch again to make the adjustment. The end result is a fast, one-handed way of adjusting the monitor. The OSD dismisses itself after a few seconds if no controls are touched. Also installed in the Gateway is a TelePath 33.6 modem and a 12X Mitsumi CD-ROM. For fun's sake, an InterAct PC Propad 4 game controller, which connects to the sound card's game port, is included. Gateway also threw in its logo mousepad and a 6-foot phone line.

Quantex bundled a fine-looking MAG InnoVision 17-inch monitor with its machine. The picture quality wasn't quite as good as Gateway 2000's CrystalScan, but it was still easy on the eye. Controls are minimal, though: one button to invoke an on-screen menu, two to navigate through the menu, and two more to make changes. The MAG InnoVision also has more possible adjustments-including convergence and moire control-than any other monitor in this grouping.

The Quantex offered an internal CPI ViVa 33.6 modem. Its snappy,12X Toshiba CD-ROM cranked out a 1.8MBps transfer speed and a rock-bottom 0.12 average access time.

Documentation and Software

The tested systems abounded with documentation and software. Micron tucks its owner's manuals in a hardcover binder, accompanied by an attractive 61-page product catalog and a seasonal product guide. Unfortunately, the systems tested included the wrong manuals, yet the manuals sent were comprehensive. Software includes the basic Windows 95 and Microsoft Office Pro and Plus. There are also drivers for the sound card, the CD-ROM drive and the display adapter.

The Dell OptiPlex had meager, but informative documentation: a very helpful, detailed Diagnostics and Troubleshooting Guide, a Reference and Installation Guide and a poster-size start-up map in five languages. Also included were manuals for its mouse and Altec Lansing speakers. The only software outside of the basic Win95 collection was Microsoft Office, however.

The documentation for the Dell Dimension XPS was almost identical to that of the OptiPlex. It also had manuals for its video and audio card and an easy-to-read guide titled, "Getting Results with Microsoft Office." Compared with the OptiPlex, this machine offered a better software variety. Dell included Microsoft Office Pro & Bookshelf, Plus, Global Village's FocalPoint 4.03, a diagnostics diskette and U.S. Robotics Sportster On-Line Documentation 1.0.

Quantex supplied a plethora of software targeted at the home user: Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia 1996 and its Reference Collection; Softkey's Master Maps and Resume Designer; Corel's Internet Mania, WordPerfect Suite 7 and PrintHouse; Quicken; and CompuServe. It also included Quantex Disc Features, Microsoft Phone and Internet Yellow Pages. Documentation consisted of the usual owner's manual and miscellaneous propaganda. A mousepad rounded out the package.

Gateway bundled the basic Microsoft Office Pro, America Online and drivers for the CD-ROM, hard disk drive, video card and "Systems CD" (drivers needed to rebuild your system). It also had Win95 OEM Service Release 2. Manuals included the basic owner's manual, instructions for speakers, subwoofers and the CD-ROM drive. As befits its "Family PC" moniker, the Gateway shipped with a bevy of family-oriented titles, including Microsoft's Encarta 96, Green Eggs and Ham, Monopoly, Myst, TripMaker97, Microsoft Greetings Workshop, Mayo Clinic Family Health, Cash Graf Home Office Plus, Microsoft Works, Money97 and Publisher97.

ARM had the slimmest documentation and software package. Besides Microsoft Office Pro, Bookshelf and Win95, software included drivers for the CD-ROM, sound card and OptiGreen, energy-saving software that works in conjunction with VESA DPMS.

Decisions, Decisions

If your work typically involves a lot of graphics or multimedia graphics applications, the new MMX-enabled Pentium systems can offer significant future performance gains. There's no reason not to buy one; even if you work primarily with more pedestrian applications, you'll still enjoy somewhat better performance. If the difference in price between MMX and non-MMX systems isn't a significant hit on your budget, choose MMX.

If performance and expandability are crucial, opt for Dell's OptiPlex GXi, one of two machines here that win a spot on WinMag's Recommended List. Despite the highest price in this group, this screamer takes top performance honors both for standard and MMX-tuned applications, and its thoughtful design makes it a pleasure for those who like to tinker under the hood. For about $800 less, Micron's P200 Millennia MXE is even easier to service, and stands second only to the OptiPlex for performance. Its exceptional times on Intel's MMX Applications benchmark make it an excellent choice for graphics gurus. It also gets our Recommended List nod.

While the Micron P166 is an exceptional performer for a 166MHz PC, and offers many of the same features that put its 200MHz sibling on our Recommended List, the mere $200 it saves probably isn't worth it. If value's your primary concern, check out the ARM MMX T200. Not only is it the least expensive of our seven test machines, but its excellent sound system is a big plus, considering the Microns' missing subwoofer. Plus, the ARM's excellent video performance and good monitor make it an especially good value for gamesters and habitual multimedia users.

Gateway's good sound subsystem, excellent monitor and quality peripheral array make up, at least in part, for a slow overall performance. And its relatively high price is offset by an impressive software bundle. From included mousepad to its own computer magazine, the Gateway unit is a good choice for first-time users who won't be servicing their own machines.

Quantex's software offerings are almost as impressive; the lower price makes it a good overall value despite just average performance scores. And its makers have invested in the future with a fast hard drive and USB serial port, something more usually found on brand-name PCs right now. It's a good, basic workhorse for almost any application.

The differences between these systems and any quality, late-model PC won't become evident until MMX software ships later this year. But the promise of more performance to come should be enough to put our top-rated MMX machines ahead of their plain-vanilla cousins when you shop for a new PC.

W Info File

Micron P200 Millennia MXE
Price: $2,848
Pros: Best performance with true MMX apps
Cons: No subwoofer; slow disk performance
Micron Electronics
208-893-3434, 800-438-3343
Circle #781 or visit Winfo
WinMag Box Score: 4.0

W Info File

Dell OptiPlex GXi MMX
Price: $3,671
Pros: Best overall performance; well-planned design
Cons: Below-average performance with true MMX apps
Dell Computer Corp.
800-388-8542, 512-338-4400
Circle #780 or visit Winfo
WinMag Box Score: 3.5

W Info File

Micron P166 Millennia MXE
Price: $2,648
Pros: Excellent performance for 166MHz
Cons: MIDI sound; price
Micron Electronics
208-893-3434, 800-438-3343
Circle #838 or visit Winfo
WinMag Box Score: 3.5

W Info File

Price: $2,498
Pros: Quality sound system and monitor; good video, multimedia performance
Cons: Poor documentation; below-average overall performance
ARM Systems
800-ARM-9450, 707-795-0800
Circle #835 or visit Winfo
WinMag Box Score: 3.5

W Info File

Quantex QP5/200 SM-3
Price: $2,699
Pros: Software package; best sound subsystem
Cons: Below-average performance; poor internal design
Quantex Microsystems
908-563-4166, 800-632-5022
Circle #839 or visit Winfo
WinMag Box Score: 3.5

W Info File

Dell Dimension XPS M200s
Price: $3,179
Pros: Iomega Zip Drive included; second fastest performer
Cons: Below-average performance with true MMX apps
Dell Computer Corp.
800-388-8542, 512-338-4400
Circle #836 or visit Winfo
WinMag Box Score: 3.0

W Info File

Gateway 2000 P55c-200 FPC
Price: $2,918
Pros: Software package
Cons: Difficult access; slowest overall performer
Gateway 2000
888-888-0364, 605-232-2023
Circle #837 or visit Winfo
WinMag Box Score: 3.5

Windows Magazine, February 1997, page 96.

[ Go to February 1997 Table of Contents ]