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-- by James E. Powell
AST's Advantage line of desktop systems has long impressed us with its reliability and competitive pricing. The company's first 200MHz Pentium MMX system, the Advantage 9413, is well made and ships with quality components, but its performance disappoints.
The mini-tower system includes 32MB of RAM (expandable to 128MB) and 256KB of level 2 cache. Integrated on the motherboard is 16-bit Sound Blaster-compatible 3-D sound (using a Yamaha chipset) with wavetable synthesis. AST includes monitor-mountable Samsung SMS-220 speakers. The Western Digital Caviar 3GB hard drive is formatted as a single drive, thanks to the preloaded OEM Service Release 2 of Windows 95 that provides FAT32 disk drive support for drives larger than 2GB.
The system includes a single external half-height drive bay (taken by the 3.5-inch floppy disk drive) and three internal half-height drive bays (two are free). Of the three external bays, one is occupied by the CD-ROM drive. Our preproduction unit had a 12X Torisan CD-ROM drive, but AST says the final shipping product will sport a 16X drive. Inside you'll also find two 32-bit PCI slots and five 16-bit ISA slots, one of which is taken by the 33.6Kbps voice/fax modem that supports full-duplex speakerphone capabilities. Syncro's Multimedia Connect Lite, for communications and telephony functionality, is also part of the package.
AST, which doesn't skimp on the details, provides plenty of support for expansion, including two extra power connectors and a 200-watt power supply. On the back are two USB (Universal Serial Bus) connectors, just waiting for drivers from Microsoft. However, it's virtually impossible to get to the motherboard to add memory or access the IDE connectors without first removing the internal drive cage. That's inconvenient.
The on-board video uses ATI CT Mach64, a 64-bit PCI local-bus graphics chip with 2MB of video memory. The chip is capable of resolutions as high as 1280x1024 at a depth of 16 colors. The system supports MPEG using a Xing Technology Corp. software player. You'll also find a parallel port, two serial ports, a PS/2 mouse port and a PS/2 keyboard port, plus the VGA connector, all clearly labeled. The Advantage 9413 includes an AST-labeled Logitech two-button mouse and a 104-key (Win95-specific keys included) keyboard with wrist rest.
The case measures 8.25 by 15.5 by 16.5 inches. You remove its cover by turning three thumbscrews.
In our Wintune tests, the Advantage 9413 clocked in at 387MIPS, 16.67Mpixels-per-second video throughput and 1.8MB-per-second uncached disk throughput. At a color depth of 8 bits, our Word test macro ran in an average of 11.67 seconds, and Excel crossed the finish line in 8.33 seconds. With a more demanding 16-bit color depth, scores were still very good: 14 seconds for Word, and a remarkable 7.33 seconds for graphics-intensive Excel. MMX chips provide the most benefit in multimedia performance, and in accelerating applications written to exploit its instruction set. The system's performance in the MMX arena was uneven. In Intel's Multimedia Benchmark test, the Advantage 9413 posted an average score of 143.47, within 2.5 percent of the Gateway 2000 P5-200 Family PC with MMX (see Reviews, March) and within 5 percent of the Micron Millennia MXE P200 (see Reviews, February). Unfortunately, in the Technology Application Benchmark, which runs a series of MMX-optimized applications, the AST didn't fare so well, scoring 143.89, about 17 percent slower than the Gateway 2000 and Micron systems. The 9413 suffers in comparison in part due to the smaller level 2 cache (256KB vs. 512KB for the other two systems)
Besides Windows 95, you'll find Lotus SmartSuite 96 and Intuit's Quicken Special Edition preloaded. For reference, there's Grolier's 1996 Multimedia Encyclopedia; for fun, you get two MMX-enabled games, Davidson's Dimension and Helicops from 7th Level. The software bundle also emphasizes communications: You'll find SystemSoft VoiceView Talk Shop from Radish, and SPRY, CompuServe, AOL and Prodigy sign-up kits. To streamline technical support, AST includes access to AST OnLine (its bulletin board), and technicians can use the built-in modem's simultaneous voice and data mode to help you resolve system problems by phone. AST offers a one-year on-site warranty.
The Advantage 9413 ships standard with a 15-inch monitor. We tested a preproduction unit of a 17-inch monitor. The Samsung-made monitor offers crisp, clear resolution in its 15.9-inch viewable area. On the monitor's front is a six-button control panel in the shape of a smiley face. From here you can control standard video settings (contrast, brightness and so on) using the on-screen menu.
AST's first entry into the MMX world shows promise. It's well priced and offers a good mix of leading-edge components. However, its application performance scores must rise before it rates inclusion on our WinList of recommended products.
AST's new MMX system offers great components at a competitive price, but its MMX-specific performance doesn't match that of the competition.