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-- by Jim Forbes, James E. Powell, and Marc Spiwak
If you need good multimedia performance as well as the processing power to make quick work of business productivity applications, you might want to consider systems using the 200MHz P55C MMX-enabled Intel Pentium chip. These units are especially well suited to small office/home office (SOHO) use, balancing good quality and relatively low price.
We looked at four such machines this month: the Hewlett-Packard Pavilion 7370V, the Micron Home MPC P200, the Sony PCV-120 and the Zenith Data Systems Performance CX 200. All systems are extremely well equipped, though some favor features at the expense of performance. For many users, that may be an equitable trade.
HP Pavilion 7370V
The newest entry in Hewlett-Packard's Pavilion line is dressed to kill, with 32MB of EDO RAM (expandable to 128MB), 256KB of pipeline-burst cache (upgradable to 512KB), a 4GB hard drive, a 16X variable-speed CD-ROM drive, two Universal Serial Bus (USB) ports and plenty of preloaded software. The system's on-board 16-bit stereo system employs 3D Spatializer Surround Sound using the Yamaha OPL3-SA chipset (which sounds good played through the set of Altec Lansing speakers and subwoofer). No monitor is included.
One external and two internal drive bays are available, and access is unobstructed. Expandability is good: Of two PCI slots, one is occupied by the Orchid 3Dfx Interactive Voodoo graphics card, based on the S3 ViRGE chip and loaded with 6MB of VRAM. In one ISA slot you'll find a 33.6Kb-per-second fax modem with voice, full-duplex speakerphone and Caller ID capabilities. Four empty ISA slots are also provided, but the layout makes adding expansion cards difficult.
The system comes with a wide variety of software, most of it suitable for home and SOHO use. Included are Windows 95 OSR2, Microsoft Works and Microsoft Word, HP's own appointment and phone book applications, and Intuit's Quicken and Investor Insight. Education and reference titles include Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia 97, TripMaker 1997 SE and several children's titles, including 7th Level's Great Math Adventure and Great Word Adventure, Tuneland and The Universe According to Virgil Reality. For game players, there's MechWarrior II, Logic Quest and SimCity 2000, among others.
The Pavilion 7370V includes a two-button mouse and a Logitech ThunderPad game pad. The unique keyboard includes extra buttons so you can retrieve messages on the answering machine, access the HP@home Internet site or control the CD player. On the back of the system you'll find a parallel port, a serial port, a joystick port and inputs for audio.
On our Wintune 97 tests, the Pavilion 7370V managed only average scores: 379MIPS, video throughput of 26Mpixels per second and uncached disk throughput of 2.2MB per second. It completed our Word macro in 15 seconds and our Excel macro in 10-which is at least 20 percent slower than similar-caliber systems, such as the Toshiba Infinia 7220. Limited access to the motherboard and middle-of-the-road performance keep this unit off our WinList of best-of-breed products.
Micron Home MPC P200
Micron's 200MHz Home MPC P200 has a bounty of features: 32MB of EDO RAM (expandable to 128MB), 512KB of pipeline-burst level 2 cache, a 3.1GB EIDE hard drive and a self-contained Iomega Zip drive-a nice touch. Other equipment includes an NEC 16X variable-speed CD-ROM drive, Creative Labs SB32 audio, a Diamond Multimedia Stealth 2000 3D card with a total of 4MB of video memory and two Advent AV270 speakers with independent controls for volume, balance and tone.
A 17-inch 0.28mm dot-pitch Micron monitor and Supra 33.6Kbps voice/fax modem round out the package.
Software supplied with this computer includes Microsoft Windows 95 and Microsoft Plus; Microsoft Office and Microsoft Bookshelf; entertainment titles, including Blockbuster Video's Guide to Movies and Videos and Microsoft's Monster Truck Madness; and personal productivity applications, such as Intuit's Quicken, Microsoft Phone and Microsoft Encarta.
The design of the mini-tower's interior makes it very easy to add RAM or service other components, such as the backup battery. A knurled screw gives you toolless access to the inside of the case.
While there are no USB ports, the system does come with two serial ports, one parallel port, one game port, one external audio input, and speaker and line-in connectors. The unit has three ISA slots (two available), three PCI slots (one available) and one shared PCI/ISA slot (not available). The Win95 keyboard has a sculpted design, and its keys offer great tactile feedback. However, if you have large hands, you could find it cramped.
The Micron delivered a respectable 382MIPS on our Wintune 97 benchmarks, but only 1.87MBps uncached disk throughput. The Diamond video controller screams; it cranked out an average of 41Mpixels per second. Average times to execute our Word and Excel macros were 19 and 12 seconds, respectively.
The Micron Home MPC P200 has a better set of features than some systems we've tested, including the Zenith Performance CX 200 reviewed here. However, the Micron's benchmark numbers are slightly lower than those of comparable systems, such as the Zenith.
The PCV-120 is one of the flashiest-looking systems we've ever tested, with every component molded in attractive purple and gray plastic-including the keyboard and somewhat small mouse. The PCV-120's performance isn't as dazzling as its looks would suggest, but the system is well suited to multimedia use.
The motherboard's four SIMM sockets support a maximum of 128MB of memory; 32MB is standard. Unfortunately, you can't upgrade the 256KB level 2 cache. Serial and parallel ports, IDE controllers, USB ports and Yamaha 16-bit wavetable sound are built in, as are composite and S-Video outputs.
An ATI 3D Rage II graphics accelerator chip built onto the motherboard is the perfect accelerator for multimedia, even though it's not blazingly fast. Unlike other systems in this price range, which typically offer 4MB of video memory, the Sony comes with only 2MB of nonupgradable memory. As a result, 800x600 pixels is the highest resolution the system can run in true color.
A 3.8GB Quantum Fireball hard drive provides plenty of storage space, while a Hitachi 16X variable-speed IDE CD-ROM drive makes the most of multimedia. The system has a total of three PCI slots and two ISA slots, with one slot shared. One PCI slot is taken by a 33.6Kbps DSVD modem, while all of the ISA slots are empty. Two external drive bays are free.
The Sony CPD-220VS monitor included with this system is one of its nicest features. It's a 17-inch Trinitron (16-inch viewable) with a 0.25mm aperture-grille pitch. The monitor's built-in speakers are among the best we've heard.
Sony loads the system with Windows 95, but you don't get any business productivity software, except for Quicken. You do, however, get an assortment of multimedia software. There's an MPEG video sampler, Microsoft Encarta 96, 3D Movie Maker, Microsoft Bookshelf, Billboard Music Guide, Blockbuster Video's Guide to Movies and Videos, The Family Doctor and other entertainment titles.
The PCV-120 turned out 380MIPS and uncached disk throughput of 2MBps. Video throughput averaged 20Mpixels per second; Word and Excel macros were executed in average times of 18 and 11 seconds, respectively.
While these performances aren't breathtaking, the PCV-120's ability to run multimedia software is. It offers a good CD-ROM drive, excellent stereo sound and full-screen MPEG that's among the best in the business. If you're more interested in multimedia than business productivity, the PCV-120 is the perfect system. However, the Toshiba Infinia 7220 offers faster application performance.
Zenith Performance CX 200
Zenith Data Systems' new Performance CX 200 is a no-nonsense system that's very well suited to SOHO users. As is the case with other comparably equipped SOHO systems, it can also handle the latest in multimedia software.
The desktop case opens with a single thumbscrew. The ATX-style motherboard comes loaded with 32MB of RAM (expandable to 256MB) in one of three DIMM slots and has 512KB level 2 cache. Serial and parallel ports, IDE controllers, USB and Vibra 16 sound are also built in. The Western Digital Caviar 3.2GB hard drive provides you with plenty of storage space, and the Toshiba 12X IDE CD-ROM drive is sufficient for multimedia software.
As for expansion room, one internal and two external bays are free. There are three PCI slots and three ISA slots, as well as a single shared slot. A 33.6Kbps modem occupies one ISA slot, and a Number Nine 9FX Reality 772 graphics accelerator with 4MB of VRAM fills one of the PCI slots. This leaves two of each slot type free, in addition to the shared slot.
The Zenith CX 200 system includes Microsoft Windows 95, the Corel Application Suite (with WordPerfect and Quattro Pro), Microsoft Publisher 97, Maximizer 3.0 and an MMX software package.
The 17-inch Sampo AlphaScan KM-760 monitor has a 16.1-inch viewable area with a great picture. The monitor has a DiamondTron 0.25mm aperture-grille tube and supports resolutions up to 1600x1200 with a 65Hz refresh rate. The screen image is sharp, with rich colors.
Rounding out the impressive hardware list is a 50-watt Cambridge Soundworks speaker system. It has about 8W per satellite and a 33W subwoofer.
While it is not blazingly fast, the Performance CX 200 can definitely hold its own. Its CPU turned out 384MIPS, and uncached disk throughput topped 5.7MBps. At 800x600 resolution in 65,000 colors, video throughput was clocked at 33Mpixels per second; the Zenith system completed our Word and Excel macros in average times of 11.33 and 6.33 seconds, respectively.
The Zenith Performance CX 200 replaces the Gateway 2000 P5-FPC w/MMX on our WinList. Although the Performance CX 200 costs a bit more than the Gateway, it's worth it-you get a bigger hard drive, better video, compact yet powerful speakers and an excellent monitor.
Making the Grade
Only the Zenith Performance CX 200-with its good performance, large hard disk, fast video and powerful speakers-earns a position on our WinList. Though all of these 200MHz P556 machines offer respectable performance and a good range of multimedia features, the units from Hewlett-Packard, Micron and Sony are slow when compared to the powerful Zenith.