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-- by Hailey Lynne McKeefry
If silence is golden, the Acer Aspire Ultimate Solution Pentium 200 just might make you rich. This state-of-the-art desktop PC is one of a new breed of personal computers: the Quiet PC. These silent systems use shielded hard drives and fans that reduce the system's noise level. After sharing desk space every day with a noisy computer, I became unaware of how grating system sounds can be. The sounds I hardly noticed a few days before seemed harsh after a few hours with only the slight whir from the Aspire's CD-ROM drive rippling through the quiet. In truth, these Quiet PCs offer a distinct difference.
The Acer Aspire not only sounds different from the average PC-it looks and feels different with its sleek, stylish design. The mini-tower's charcoal gray color and rounded edges give it a fresh, appealing presence. A telephone is attached to the monitor's side, and the keyboard has a wrist rest that snaps on. The unit I reviewed included the Aspire 77, a 15-inch multimedia monitor; unfortunately, the quoted price of $2,599 doesn't include the monitor. The monitor has a similarly unusual look, with deeply beveled sides.
The Aspire comes in three models: the Personal Solution, the Office Solution and the Ultimate Solution. Each offers slightly different features and software bundles. The Ultimate model I tested was a top-of-the-line system in every respect. Considering its affordable price, the Acer comes packaged with some very impressive vital statistics-a 200MHz Pentium processor, a 10X CD-ROM (with 12X available as an option), 32MB of EDO RAM, 256KB of pipeline-burst cache and 2MB of EDO video memory.
It packs a dazzling 3.5GB hard drive. In fact, you don't have to worry about this model being outmoded next week: It contains the most advanced technology around-sometimes so cutting-edge that I was unable to fully utilize certain features.
Acer goes to great lengths to create a superb out-of-box experience. The setup poster promised I could assemble the system in under five minutes, and I was able to beat the clock without a hitch. The poster clearly illustrated the setup procedure, and the color-coded cables and connectors added to the foolproof process. Once the hardware is arranged and turned on, you're led to the ACE (Acer Computer Explorer) interface. This feature actually slowed me down (so I turned it off), but a novice user might appreciate it.
To enter the Aspire, open a front panel door and turn the case lock. Pull down a handle and slide the whole inside of the unit out. Though this runs counter to what we're used to, it's an effective user-friendly entry method. Once inside the box, you'll see three PCI slots (two free), four ISA slots (three free) and a single shared ISA/PCI slot.
The Acer Aspire's performance was in line with most other 200MHz Pentium systems. Using WINDOWS Magazine's Wintune 95 benchmarks, it earned a great uncached score of 4MB per second throughput for the hard disk and a middling mark of 356MIPS for the CPU. In our application macros, its performance was less stellar. The unit executed our Word macro in an average time of 15.0 seconds, a decent score. But its average time to execute our Excel macro was a very disappointing 31.33 seconds. This machine did not have an MMX processor.
The system's various multimedia features are sure to please. A joystick for gamers was included with my review unit. There was also a 10-watt subwoofer and a 3-D 64-bit ATI Rage video accelerator card. A 16-bit sound card with 3-D sound combined with the 10-watt speakers in the monitor to provide clear, crisp audio that is more than acceptable. Both wavetable sound and MPEG playback are handled in hardware. The Aspire includes a wide variety of software, from Microsoft Works to Mech Warrior 2.
The unit's communications features are comprehensive. The telephone, which hooks to either side of the monitor, provides many standard phone features, such as flash, tone/pulse and ringer on/off controls. Speakerphone features provide full-duplex operation, as well as voice mail, fax and answering machine capabilities. Another plus is the 33.6Kbps modem, which should keep any user satisfied for a long time to come. The QuickStart feature lets you take advantage of all these communications features: When the power is off, the computer will continue to accept incoming phone calls, faxes, e-mail and Internet news. You'll return to the desktop in a matter of seconds when the power button is pushed again.
This is a desirable and usable machine. The Aspire has every feature the average user might want, and more. I have only a few minor complaints. The mouse buttons were a bit stiff, so that clicking on toolbars was annoying; and the floppy disk drive's operation was touch-and-go, once telling me that one of my floppy disks needed formatting although my own PC successfully read the same disk. Compared to the computer's overall power and sophistication, these were minor points indeed.
The Acer Aspire is a good choice if you're on a budget but still want the most sophisticated technology available. It doesn't offer quite enough value to displace the Dell OptiPlex GXPro from the WinMag Recommended List. But this PC will be a true friend to anyone who thinks, like Thomas Carlyle, that "Silence is divine."
Sidebar -- Shhhhh!
Who cares if a personal computer makes a little noise? Believe it or not, just about everyone who uses a PC. Noise is one of the stumbling blocks keeping PCs from achieving the status of household appliances. Also, when several people share an office, the noise generated by their computers can result in stressful noise pollution.
Most home appliances are considerably quieter than the average PC. Go into your own living room and listen for extraneous noise generated by your stereo, TV, telephone and VCR; you'll hear very little since these devices produce far less than 26 decibels while in operation. The average PC, on the other hand, produces 36 to 48 decibels when in use, well within the human ear's 20-to-130-decibel range, and potentially irritating to home and small-business users who run computers continuously to retrieve e-mail, voice mail, fax and phone messages.
And the guilty parties are ...
Cooling fans and hard drives are generally the culprits. A reduction in airflow restrictions-using larger air holes, for example-will quiet fan noises. Better thermal management in systems will also decrease noise by reducing the number of fans needed to cool the system.
Although the fan is usually noisier, the frequency of the hard disk's noise is more offensive to the human ear. Many manufacturers are reducing hard drive noise by putting a sleeve around the hard disk. Dubbed SilentDrive, this sleeve is a patented technology from Silent Systems.
Many manufacturers, including Acer and AST, are incorporating these design changes into their systems without additional cost to you. Other manufacturers are searching for additional noise pollution solutions. Cyrix has created a low-power CPU chip that will need less cooling and consequently reduce overall system noise. And Microsoft includes noise reduction guidelines in its PC97 specifications.