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-- by Jonathan Blackwood
Folks who've been paying attention know the latest round of so-called "consumer PCs"-those designed for home and/or SOHO use-have started to diverge significantly from their corporate counterparts. Compaq's Presario 8712 consumer system is a case in point. (Also see the review of the Packard Bell Platinum Pro 755 in this issue.)
The 8712 is loaded with features and software, and the little touches make it fit easily into a family room or a home office. But don't assume it's a lightweight: The Presario ships with a 200MHz Pentium processor, 32MB of EDO RAM, 512KB of pipeline-burst level 2 cache, an 8X CD-ROM drive and a 3.8GB hard drive. That gives you plenty of power to run not only the included Microsoft Works or Descent II, but even AutoCAD.
Like the ground-breaking Presario 3020 we reviewed in October, the 8712 has a series of controls that let it play audio CDs or answer the telephone. Thanks to a sleep mode and a special sleep button located front and center on top of the unit, not all your family members even need to know how to turn the computer on. For instance, all it takes for your child to play an audio CD is one touch of the sleep button and the use of easily identifiable controls that look like the ones on your CD player. And when you use the system in conjunction with an optional Compaq Presario monitor-my test system arrived with the 17-inch 1725 model, sold separately for $749-you control volume with a large knob right in front. A built-in microphone at the top of the monitor lets you use the Presario 8712 as a speakerphone.
Such speakerphone magic, of course, requires a modem, and the Presario 8712 has a dandy one: a 33.6Kb-per-second fax modem with digital simultaneous voice and data. Sound is provided by a 16-bit stereo sound card with InterWave 32-voice hardware wavetable and Spatializer 3-D Surround Sound. The speakers are JBL Pro Premium standalone models with a matching self-powered JBL subwoofer. The combination can fill a room with distortion-free digital sound.
Aimed at the home and SOHO market, the Presario 8712 comes standard with Windows 95 and a bevy of software titles: the aforementioned Microsoft Works and Descent II, Cakewalk Express (a music composition program), Compaq Phone Center, Yukon Trail, PGA Tour 96, Quicken Special Edition, Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia and the usual communications choices-America Online, GNN, CompuServe and Netscape Navigator. Compaq, like Gateway 2000 and other "family PC" makers, opts to make accessing the Presario 8712's innards more than a little daunting. To begin with, in place of the easy-open cases and toolless entry Compaq offers on its corporate Deskpro models, the Presario has nonstandard-design screws that require a special tool to get them off easily. Moreover, removing the case tears a Compaq seal. Once inside, you'll see the unusual motherboard design puts expansion cards in a rigid case that serves as a riser card, attaching at a perpendicular angle to the system board. This case houses three ISA slots (the sound card and modem occupy two of them), one free shared ISA/PCI slot and two PCI slots. A PowerVR video accelerator with no external connector occupies one of the PCI slots. S3 video is integrated on the motherboard. Together, the two yield a total of 6MB of graphics memory-4MB of which is dedicated to 3-D textures.
The Compaq system board uses Intel's Triton chipset and supports up to 128MB of RAM. The CD-ROM drive occupies one of the three externally accessible 5.25-inch drive bays. The floppy disk drive resides in the single 3.5-inch external bay. Inside the case are two bays for hard disk drives (one occupied); they can hold either 3.5-inch or 5.25-inch drives.
While it does provide 200MHz Pentium performance, this Presario won't set the world on fire. Our Wintune benchmarks showed an average of 355.33MIPS, average uncached-disk throughput of 4MB per second and average video throughput of 13Mpixels per second. Though the disk throughput score is excellent, the video and processor results are mediocre. Average times to execute our application macros were 13 seconds for Word and 12 seconds for Excel. While not outstanding, this performance level exceeds what you'll require for most home/SOHO computing.
The performance, in fact, closely resembles that of the Toshiba Infinia on our Recommended List. However, the Infinia's additional features, such as a television tuner, give it the edge. Still, the Presario is a well-made machine from Compaq, with a one-year warranty. If the price is right at your local retailer, it's well worth your consideration.