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Cover Story
New chips from Intel and AMD raise the MIPS ante-and nudge the Pentium Pro out of the performance spotlight

-- by Jonathan Blackwood, Jim Forbes and Cynthia Morgan

The Pentium Pro's 15 minutes in the processor spotlight are over as the next wave of systems-featuring the Pentium II, formerly known as Klamath-make their debut this month. The 233MHz version of the PII is bound to raise a few eyebrows. But the 266MHz PII, with the first mid-500MIPS performance we've seen in an x86 chip, will surely knock some socks off.

Even before it hits the street, the PII must be looking over its figurative shoulder at the AMD-K6 (see WinLab Reviews/What's Hot, May) and the Cyrix M2 6x86 (see Newstrends this issue). Both of these Intel rivals offer attractive price/performance numbers and could divert attention-and market share-from the Pentium II.

For the time being, though, Pentium II is the one to beat. We steered seven Pentium II hot rods-six 266MHz and a 233MHz-into our labs for testing. If prices hold, you won't pay a premium for performance; projected cost for these machines isn't much more than for current 200MHz Pentium Pro systems.

We were somewhat surprised by the operating systems installed on several of these PCs. While we expected most to ship with NT 4.0 Workstation, some offer either Windows 95 as the base-level OS or a dual-boot configuration option. Where available, we tested both operating systems. Our tests, however, clearly give NT the nod as operating system of choice at this power level; we saw performance differences as great as 50 percent on tests run with both operating systems on the same machine.

To put these systems' performance in perspective, we compared their benchmark results to a previously tested 200MHz Pentium Pro machine, the Dell Dimension XPS Pro 200n, a current WinList recommended system. We also added test results for the Compaq Deskpro 6000 Model 5200X/2150/PDS, a new value-priced machine that uses Intel's 200MHz P55C-currently the fastest Pentium processor with MMX technology. In addition, we tested a DirectWave PC sporting a 200MHz AMD-K6 (see sidebar, "AMD-K6 Holds Its Own")

The systems we tested are very early versions, and the configurations of the shipping products could differ. In most cases, it was also too early to determine the final software bundles and, in some cases, solid pricing. Nonetheless, we thought enough of three systems-the Dell Dimension XPS H266, the HP Vectra VL/266 and the DirectWave MVP K6-200-to add them to our WinList of recommended products.

Not Your Father's Pentium Pro

The Pentium II isn't just a souped-up Pentium Pro. Intel's new Slot 1 processor mounting technique is much more complex than the Socket 7 Zero-Insertion-Force CPU mount you'll find in today's Pentium systems (see the sidebar, "Slot Machine"). Intel also boosted the internal cache from 16KB to 32KB. But the key addition is MMX, Intel's multimedia extension to the Pentium-class instruction set. MMX's 57 new instructions provide a shorthand method for common multimedia operations, so the CPU can perform the same work with fewer clock cycles-which translates to speedier performance.

How much you stand to benefit from MMX is still questionable. Some of the first MMX applications, such as Adobe's Photoshop, were written to an earlier set of MMX specifications that didn't quite make it to the finished chip. So these programs don't fully exploit the entire MMX instruction set or yield the maximum performance gains. (Software patches should remedy that problem.) Six months after the first MMX processors appeared, MMX office apps are still fairly rare.

To be on the safe side, we put our test systems through a new set of benchmarks that simulate operations you'd find in many graphics applications-MMX-specific or not. Most breezed through the tests.

Several exhibited "blue screen" crashes common to engineering prototypes; the worst of these were returned to the manufacturer and not reviewed. Remaining problems are likely to be eliminated by the time these systems ship; we'll follow up with testing of production versions. We also kept an eye on the thermometer because the PII consumes 38 watts of power compared to a Pentium Pro's 28 watts. That makes extra cooling fans a necessity.

AST Bravo LC 6233

AST's Bravo LC 6233 was the only 233MHz Pentium II system we tested. It was missing some frills, but as the lowest-priced Pentium II in our test group, the Bravo outperformed some 266MHz systems we tested, making it an excellent value. The LC 6233 is a powerful, compact mini-tower with reasonable functionality, as long as you steer clear of multimedia applications (no sound system is included with the Bravo). It also offers moderate expansion potential-once you figure out that expansion cards hang upside down from their slots (as on AST's Advantage models)

A base configuration, $2,300 without monitor, includes the 233MHz PII CPU, 512KB of level 2 cache, 32MB of EDO DRAM, an S3 ViRGE 3D graphics subsystem with 2MB of video memory integrated on the motherboard, one serial port, one parallel port, and PS/2 connectors for a mouse and keyboard. A 2GB IBM EIDE hard disk and a 16X variable-spin CD-ROM are also standard. Among our group of overachievers, however, the system's 2GB hard disk seems a bit skimpy.

Our test system included two options: a $205 8MB Matrox Millennium video adapter and another 32MB of RAM (for a total of 64MB)

The Bravo LC 6233 comes with a Windows 95 keyboard and Microsoft Mouse. Windows NT Workstation 4.0 is preinstalled. AST also includes Intel's LANDesk, McAfee VirusScan and WebScan, Hot Metal Light and an uninstaller utility.

The LC 6233's 15.25 by 8.25 by 17-inch mini-tower case opens easily by twisting several knurled screws on one side and sliding off that half of the case. The unit we tested had seven expansion slots (three each for PCI and ISA, and one shared) and seven drive bays. This system has the smallest motherboard among our group of PII systems. Mounted against the system case's far side, the motherboard is difficult to access, a situation that's exacerbated by numerous ribbon cables.

AST Bravo LC 6233
Price: $2,300 (without monitor)
Platforms: 95, NT
Pros: Good expandability; low price; suitable workstation for tight budgets
Cons: Difficult-to-service interior; no sound system
Strongest rival: 233MHz AMD-K6 systems
AST Computer
800-876-4278, 714-727-4141
Circle #851 or visit Winfo Online

Compaq Deskpro 6000 Model 6266/4300/CDS

The Deskpro 6000 is likely to satisfy even the most demanding power users. Compaq shoehorned a Pentium II into its Deskpro 6000 case to create a high-performance workhorse ready to hook into your network. The excellent 17-inch Compaq P70 monitor complements this speedy system well.

The Deskpro 6000 has a roomy interior, cramped slightly by the Slot 1 package housing the Pentium II processor. The case takes no effort to open, and the vertical card cage lifts out for easy upgrades, although the vertical arrangement is still not our favorite way to accommodate adapter cards. There's a faint but audible whine from the power supply and fan but, other than that minor annoyance, there's not a lot to criticize about the 6000's well-planned internal setup.

Compaq includes Adaptec's Ultra-Wide SCSI interface and a 4.26GB Ultra SCSI hard drive. The system has 64MB RAM, a Matrox Millennium II video card with 4MB WRAM and a 16-bit ESS audio system that sounds good even without external speakers. It's one of the few machines we tested that comes with an internal 10Mb-per-second Ethernet connection that can be changed to handle 100Mbps Ethernet. The unit also has management software that conforms to Desktop Management Interface standards. Our configuration came with an 8X CD-ROM, the slowest rating of any received for this testing, but Compaq officials tell us that may change by the time units ship.

Unfortunately, Compaq officials have told us they have no plans to include USB ports on the shipping version of this unit, which makes it the only Pentium II tested that won't offer this new high-speed serial-type connector. The port outlets are there, and positions are stenciled on the motherboard, which at least leaves the door open for Compaq to make possible additions in the future.

The desktop-style case holds the 17-inch monitor quite nicely. The Deskpro 6000's keyboard, with a handy split spacebar, was the best in our group. The system offers slightly less expansion than some of the other units, with three PCI, one ISA and one PCI/ISA shared slot and four bays (one internal and three external)

On our performance tests, the Compaq ranked near the top of the pack, with exceptional Excel macro and video performance scores. Its slower-than-average graphics applications scores, however, suggests that a graphics system upgrade may be in order for graphics-intensive chores.

Before shipping, Compaq is liable to lower the machine's steep $4,777 price in response to market pressure. But the Deskpro's quality pedigree and components, such as the P70 monitor, will probably still nudge it toward the high end of the price scale.

Compaq Deskpro 6000 Model 6266/4300/CDS
Price: $4,777 (will likely drop at introduction)
Platforms: 95, NT
Pros: Good serviceability; fast SCSI drive; upgradable NIC; best suited to the networked power user
Cons: Expensive; not in more convenient mini-tower configuration
Strongest rival: Dell Dimension XPS H266
Compaq Computer Corp.
800-345-1518, 281-370-0670
Circle #852 or visit Winfo Online

Dell Dimension XPS H266

Dell has done it again. Its Pentium II machine, the Dimension XPS H266, shines in virtually every category, even when pitted against this group's tough competition. The configuration we tested was somewhat pricey at $3,999, but it did include some classy sundries, such as an Iomega Zip drive, a 33.6Kbps modem, a high-quality Yamaha sound system and a massive 6.4GB EIDE hard disk. It's anticipated that a version without these frills will put about a $3,100 dent in your wallet-but that price still includes a great 17-inch Sony Trinitron monitor.

The XPS chassis uses a tried-and-true design. The system is extremely quiet and attractive-although not as stylish as the Gateway system. It's billed as a mini-tower but is taller than the average system of this kind; a slim desktop edition is available, but with one less drive bay. The easy-off case reveals a well-arranged interior with easy-to-reach components. The XPS has three PCI, two ISA and a combination PCI/ISA slot, and seven bays (two internal and five external). For this group, the XPS' expansion capability was slightly better than average. Dell said the system will ship with a full complement of software, including Office 97.

The XPS H266 was consistently impressive in evaluations of features, expandability and serviceability, and it scored top marks on our performance tests, setting new speed records with our benchmarks. While it operates equally well under NT 4.0 or Windows 95, NT provides a performance advantage (as with the other high-powered machines in this review). The system's hardware is fully Windows NT compatible, so there's little reason not to choose NT.

Dell's PII entry is as close to the ultimate power user's machine we've seen. It joins its sibling Dell systems on our WinList of recommended products.

Dell Dimension XPS H266
Price: $3,999; Windows 95, $3,929
Platforms: 95, NT
Pros: Powerful; feature-packed; expandable; fits any power user's requirements
Cons: An AGP interface would make it perfect
Strongest rival: HP Vectra VL/266
Dell Computer Corp.
800-388-8542, 512-388-4400
Circle #658 or visit Winfo Online

DirectWave MVP P2-266

If you've never heard of DirectWave, expect to. The nine-year-old, Ontario, Calif.-based company packs its MVP tower cases with high-end components, and offers systems using Intel, AMD and Cyrix processors.

The MVP P2-266 is housed in an unadorned full-size tower that-unlike most of the systems we tested-allows easy access to most motherboard components. In addition to its 266MHz processor, the MVP has a 5.1GB Maxtor hard disk and comes with 64MB of EDO RAM, 512KB of level 2 cache and a 33.6Kbps simultaneous voice/data modem.

Other components include a 17-inch MAG InnoVision monitor, Creative Labs Sound Blaster SD32 audio, a Diamond Stealth 3D 3000 video card with 4MB of memory, two stereo speakers, a 104-key keyboard, a mouse and a 16X variable-spin CD-ROM drive.

The motherboard is an Intel design made by BCM. There are eight expansion slots-four PCI, three ISA and one combination-three of which are filled. You need a screwdriver to remove two screws to open the case and slide off an access panel.

The hard disk provided exceptional performance and storage capacity. This system is offered in a Windows NT Workstation 4.0/Windows 95 dual-boot configuration for an additional $200, another plus. Of the other components, the audio system was average and the speakers lacked adequate bass response.

The MVP offers top-notch components and midrange performance under both Windows NT and Windows 95. The price-estimated to come in at $3,299, including monitor and speakers-makes the package an attractive one, although not quite the bargain you'll find in its sibling K-6 machine.

The MVP P2-266's documentation, which consisted of separate documents for the system, operating system and peripherals, wasn't as good as what you'd expect from the better-known vendors participating in this review. But its support package-three year warranty with NWC's on-site service for the first year-stands against the best.

DirectWave MVP P2-266
Price: $3,299
Platforms: 95, NT
Pros: Good performance at a great price; top-notch components
Cons: Middling internal access; limited expandability for this class
Strongest rival: Dell Dimension XPS H266
800-882-8108, 909-390-8058
Circle #853 or visit Winfo Online

Gateway 2000 G6-266

Gateway 2000's bid in the Pentium II sweepstakes is sure to turn some heads. The well-equipped system has a sleek, modern-looking case that allows toolless access to the interior.

Our test machine arrived with NT 4.0 installed, 64MB of RAM, 512KB of level 2 cache, a 6GB Quantum Fireball hard disk and a 16X CD-ROM drive. This system uses Intel's Portland motherboard and its 440FX chipset. The unit has three PCI and two ISA slots, and one shared ISA/PCI slot. Graphics performance comes courtesy of an STB ViRGE/GX 3D graphics adapter with 4MB VRAM and 4MB EDO DRAM. The 145W power supply seems a trifle small for a machine with the kind of expansion room the large tower case offers. There are three internal (two available) and five external (three available) bays. In addition, the roomy case makes it easy to access expansion cards, memory slots and drive bays.

The peripherals are first class: an Ensoniq Vivo 90 16-bit wavetable sound card, Altec Lansing ACS-410 speakers with an ACS-250 subwoofer, a U.S. Robotics Telepath 56K modem, a Microsoft mouse and a 17-inch Vivitron monitor with 0.26mm stripe pitch. The software inventory includes Microsoft Office 97, and a nice selection of utilities, connectivity software and educational titles.

Gateway's PII system was only a middling performer in this fast group-coming in third on our raw Wintune 97 benchmarks and fifth on our application macros. Still, any machine that can run our Excel benchmark in 4 seconds is no slouch.

All in all, the Gateway 2000 is an excellent package with good documentation, good connectivity, a three-year warranty and 24/7 lifetime technical support. It may not be the fastest Pentium II machine you can buy, but it's one of the best equipped.

Gateway 2000 G6-266
Price: $3,349
Platforms: 95, NT
Pros: Top-drawer components; useful software; a good home or small-business machine
Cons: Curvy case interferes with CD-ROM drawer; slower-than-average performance
Strongest rival: Dell Dimension XPS H266
Gateway 2000
800-846-2000, 605-232-2000
Circle #854 or visit Winfo Online

HP Vectra VL/266

You can't accuse Hewlett-Packard of under-engineering its machines. The Vectra VL/266 is a solid, well-designed tower with plenty of expansion room. Its feature set befits a high-performance machine, with a 4GB hard drive, 64MB of RAM, a 16X CD-ROM drive, and good-quality video and sound. The system's hefty case is made of heavy-gauge steel and appears almost hermetically sealed, with thin gasket-like strips where the cover opens.

Externally, we were disappointed only with the Vectra's somewhat inconvenient bottom drive placement and its lack of a reset button. With the machine placed on the floor, it's a bit of a reach to insert a floppy disk or CD. But there are many thoughtful touches, such as large, clear component labeling and the separation of mouse and keyboard DIN ports by the USB interface.

The Vectra wins hands down for best HVAC engineering: It actually has ductwork inside to help cool its components. An airflow guide, a flared black plastic tube with a cooling fan, hovers over the Pentium II's Slot 1 mounting. While the sophisticated ventilation may not be the reason, the Vectra-along with the Dell system-never experienced the mysterious "blue-screen" deaths under Windows NT.

This machine offers good expandability with six expansion slots (two PCI, two ISA and two shared PCI/ISA), and four external and two internal drive bays. Its high-quality engineering was tarnished, however, by accessibility problems. HP cleverly added a removable access plate for adding internal 3.5-inch drives from the front of the unit. But you'll have to remove the power supply to install all but the smallest external drives.

The machine's three sets of paired SIMM sockets are fairly reachable, provided you haven't installed full-sized adapter cards over them. The Vectra's expansion slots are a cross between a vertical riser configuration and the more common horizontal setup, since you can get to cards from above by removing the airflow guide and then detaching its power cable.

The Vectra VL scored near the top of the charts in most of our tests, although its Word macro performance was edged out by Dell's 266. Our test system was a prototype, but production models are expected to include the first 24X CD-ROM we've heard of and a faster graphics card than the one we tested.

When those new components are in place, the Vectra VL/266 could well supplant the Dell as our top performer in this class.

HP Vectra VL/266
Price: $3,500
Platforms: 95, NT
Pros: Top components; good network management; hot performance; sturdy reliability; top contender for power users on or off the network
Cons: Some accessibility difficulties
Strongest rival: Dell Dimension XPS H266
Hewlett-Packard Co.
Circle #657 or visit Winfo Online

Intergraph TD-225

Intergraph, long known for its high-priced workstation configurations, has taken aim at the mainstream PC market with the TD-225. As tested, the TD-225 sells for $3,636, including a 17-inch monitor-a good price for this level of power.

But Intergraph ices the cake by adding a second Slot 1 socket, making this the only PC we've seen so far to offer a potential dual-Pentium II configuration. That feat was enough for the TD-255 to garner top honors for expandability among our test group. The TD-225 came with Windows 95 installed, but adding NT Workstation 4.0 for a dual-boot setup was an easy task.

Admittedly, a few corners have been cut, most noticeably with a chintzy external hard disk cover panel that opens with a creased plastic flap, instead of a hinge. But you can remove it and the TD-225's mini-tower will get along just fine without it.

Intergraph's system has expansion written all over it, with support for up to 512MB of memory (more than any of the other review systems) and a hearty helping of four PCI and two ISA slots. Six bays (three internal, two external, one shared) offer adequate drive expansion. The machine has a G95 video system-Intergraph's lingo for the Matrox Millennium card-giving it the highest video scores in our tests. It also includes a fast 12X EIDE CD-ROM and 3.5GB EIDE hard disk.

The 4MB of WRAM video helps keep the price down, but we expect most buyers will upgrade this memory. You can also pump the TD-255 up to graphics workstation proportions by taking advantage of Intergraph's easy upgrade paths for its full line of Intense 3D video cards, which offer some of the best 3D graphics performance in the under-$10,000 class.

Intergraph TD-225
Price: $3,636
Platforms: 95, NT
Pros: Unbeatable expandability in every area-especially graphics; good performance at a good price
Cons: Snap-off drive door may really snap off; graphics memory needs a boost
Strongest rival: Dell Dimension XPS H266
Intergraph Computer Systems
800-763-0242, 205-730-5441
Circle #855 or visit Winfo Online

NEC PowerMate Professional

Intended for corporate desktops, the PowerMate Professional is a network box with plenty of expansion room.

This system is housed in a mini-tower case and uses Intel's Portland motherboard to accommodate the Slot 1 form factor Pentium II processor, heat sink and cache module. It includes six expansion slots: three PCI and two ISA slots, and one shared.

The NEC ships with Windows NT. The engineering prototype we tested had all the features and components the shipping version will have. In addition to its 266MHz Pentium II processor, it came with 64MB of RAM (expandable to 256MB), 512KB of level 2 cache, an NEC 16X variable speed CD-ROM drive, a 4.35GB Seagate Barracuda SCSI hard disk and an Ultra-Wide SCSI controller, a Sound Blaster audio subsystem, two Universal Serial Bus ports, two serial ports and one parallel port. The system's Number Nine Imagine 128 Series 2 video controller with 4MB of video memory is well suited for Windows NT Workstation, although we would have preferred 8MB of memory on the card.

To open this system, you loosen knurled screws and remove half the case. While you can easily access the memory modules and peripheral connectors, the 200W power supply and large processor/cache module block access to other components. NEC bundles Intel's LANDesk Client Manager, VirusScan, WebScan and other utility programs with the system. For network client management, NEC's MagicEye ASIC, integrated on the motherboard, works with LANDesk software and monitors for motherboard problems such as heat or imminent component failure. If a problem arises, simply notify a network administrator, a useful feature for large networks. Other companies, such as Compaq, offer client management interfaces too, but NEC's is particularly advanced.

Hampered by poor video performance, the NEC turned in only fair-to-middling performance numbers among its speedy peers in our group. But the NEC PowerMate Professional is a good system for delivering high-end computing in a corporate network environment.

NEC PowerMate Professional
Price: $3,999 (without monitor)
Platforms: 95, NT
Pros: Solid NT workhorse with many extras; for the large, networked corporation
Cons: Expensive; monitor not included
Strongest rival: Dell Dimension XPS H266
NEC Computer Systems Division
888-306-4636, 508-264-8000
Circle #856 or visit Winfo Online

MIPS, Chips and Buying Tips

To put the 560MIPS (million instructions per second) performance clocked by these Pentium II systems in perspective, consider this: Four years ago the hottest PCs achieved a tenth of that score, and just two months ago 200MHz Pentium Pros were considered blazing at around 416MIPS. But the 560MIPS mark may fall soon, too, when 300MHz chips show up later this year.

For now, small-business or home users should take a look at the more affordably priced DirectWave and Gateway Pentium II systems, which add solid software bundles to their complete hardware configurations. If a tight budget is a key factor, consider the K6 representative in our group, DirectWave's MVP K6-200-it doesn't match 266MHz PII performance, but it's probably a lot faster than the system that's sitting on your desk now.

For corporate networks, the NEC PowerMate system should fit the bill. Its performance lagged in video, but its easy serviceability and extensive network-management bundle are a network administrator's dream. Compaq's Deskpro Pentium II would fit nicely into a network, too, especially with its 100Mbps network-interface upgrade. And the AST Bravo's good value will surely attract both corporate and home purchasers.

The Intergraph TD-225 offers one hard-to-resist feature: excellent expandability for a reasonable price. Given the company's workstation reputation, the TD-225 should be a good bet for graphics and multimedia apps.

When HP loads its well-built Vectra VL/266 with the 24X CD-ROM and advanced graphics as promised, the system will be an imposing force. Even without those upgrades, it was among our favorites.

The Dell Dimension XPS, however, can serve all these needs and more. A top contender in nearly every category we evaluated, Dell beats the pack in terms of performance and overall value.

Windows Magazine, June 1997, page 110.

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