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WinLab Reviews
What's Hot!
Head to Head: 300MHz Desktop Systems
Chipset Brings Speed, AGP to 300MHz PCs

-- by Jonathan Blackwood and Jim Forbes

Start with the fastest x86 processor there is-Intel's 300MHz Pentium II. Put it in a new motherboard with a 66MHz Accelerated Graphics Port (AGP) bus and Intel's new 440LX chipset, and you've got the new state of the art in x86 systems. The new chipset finally brings support for SDRAM and AGP to the Pentium II. The result of all these new tweaks is startling, making the four systems in this review the fastest x86 PCs we've tested yet.

AST Bravo MS 6300

AST's new Bravo MS 6300 is aimed at corporate desktops. In addition to 300MHz Pentium II/AGP/LX performance, it offers excellent interior access. This system fits into the high end of AST's desktop product line-up, sporting a price of about $3,580.

The configuration we tested included 64MB of SDRAM (expandable to 384MB), 512KB level 2 cache, a 4.3GB (nominal) IDE hard disk drive, a Toshiba 24X CD-ROM drive and an ATI 3D Rage II AGP video card with 4MB of synchronous graphics memory. Sound is provided via an ESS chip on the motherboard. The external ports include two USB, two serial, two PS/2 and one each of parallel, video and audio connectors. There's also a built-in Intel 10/100Mbit-per-second Ethernet. The system comes with an AST-labeled Samsung monitor and a 104-key keyboard.

The Bravo MS 6300's desktop case is removed by pushing down two latches on either side of the front panel. The Bravo MS line also incorporates noise-reduction and vibration-dampening techniques that make this one of the quietest PC powerhouses we've seen in years.

In its basic configuration, all of the Bravo's three ISA, one shared ISA/PCI and two PCI slots are open. The ATI 3D Rage II video card fits in the dedicated AGP slot on the left-hand side of the system case.

The system we tested ran Windows 95, though NT is available as an option. A desktop management interface (DMI) package, IBM VoiceType 3.0 voice recognition and command software, and McAfee virus protection are also supplied-but there's no office productivity suite.

The Bravo MS 6300's Wintune benchmark results were 630MIPS, 79MB-per-second cached-disk throughput and 42Mpixel-per-second video throughput.

It took 41 seconds to execute our Word macro, 95 seconds for Excel and 10.53 minutes for our Photoshop/DeBabelizer Pro/MMX script. It loaded and rendered our new AutoCAD R14 benchmark file in an average of 6 and 24 seconds, respectively.

Though not the fastest system in this group of high achievers, you'd be hard pressed to notice any difference whatsoever in performance. The Bravo MS 6300 should be extremely attractive to corporate MIS officials who want a computer that's as easy to work on as it is to set up.

Dell Dimension XPS D300

Dell's Dimension is the second-lowest priced system in this group, but it was still well-equipped: In addition to the 300MHz Pentium II processor with 512KB level 2 cache, it sported 64MB of SDRAM (expandable to 384MB), an STB Velocity 128 AGP video card with 4MB SGRAM, a giant 8.4GB (nominal) IBM hard drive, a 24X (maximum) NEC CD-ROM drive, a Creative Labs AWE64 sound card, a U.S. Robotics 56K modem and a set of Altec Lansing ACS290 speakers with subwoofer. Dell's standard Quietkey keyboard, a Microsoft mouse and a 17-inch (15.9-inch viewable area) Philips-built, dot-trio monitor with a 0.28mm dot pitch were also included.

The Intel Atlanta motherboard, the STB video card and the IBM hard disk are identical to those used in the Gateway system. Dell packages it all in its familiar mid-sized tower, which allows access to its interior by loosening a single thumbscrew-though the side panel requires some determined pulling and fussing before it finally yields. Inside are three PCI slots, and one each of ISA, AGP and shared ISA/PCI. There are all the usual ports, including USB. Of the five external drive bays, only two were occupied, one by the floppy and one by the CD-ROM drive. Internally, there are two drive bays, one of which holds the hard disk.

This is a Win 95-only system at the moment, since no NT drivers exist for the STB video card. The system ships with Microsoft Office Small Business Edition.

This Dimension's a screamer, scoring 629MIPS, 87MBps cached-disk throughput and 121Mpixel-per-second video throughput on our Wintune benchmarks. It averaged 34 seconds-the best in this group-to run our Word macro, and 81 seconds and 10.04 minutes, respectively, to execute our Excel and MMX tests. It loaded our new AutoCAD R14 test file in 9 seconds-slow in this fast crowd-and had a middling score of 27 seconds to render it.

Gateway 2000 G6-300XL

Gateway has once again put together a superb combination of components. In an almost uncanny coincidence, the G6-300XL, like the Dell Dimension, uses Intel's Atlanta motherboard with AGP and Intel's 440LX chipset, outfitted with a 300MHz Pentium II with 512KB level 2 cache, an STB Velocity 128 AGP video card with 4MB SGRAM and an 8.4GB (nominal) IBM hard drive. The G6-300XL comes standard with 64MB of RAM (expandable to 384MB), a 56K Telepath modem by U.S. Robotics and a Toshiba 24X (maximum) CD-ROM drive. The Ensoniq AudioPCI sound card, paired with the Boston Acoustics speakers and subwoofer, produces awesome sound. The new-size 19-inch EV900 dot-trio monitor is terrific-it occupies about the same space as a 17-inch monitor, but yields a full 18 inches of viewable area, with a fine 0.26mm dot pitch. Of course, the system comes with Gateway's standard keyboard and a Microsoft mouse.

The G6-300XL uses the same large tower used by the G6-266XL on our WinList, measuring 23 by 8 by 17 inches. Eight screws make access to its interior more difficult than it should be, but once inside, you're rewarded with wide open vistas for expansion. There are one AGP, one ISA, one shared ISA/PCI and three PCI slots. The hard drive occupies one of the six internal drive bays. There are five external drive bays, one taken by the floppy drive and one by the CD-ROM drive.

You would expect performance to be similar to the Dell, given the similarities in their configurations, and in fact, it is. Wintune clocked the G6-300XL at 627MIPS, with 82MBps cached-disk throughput and 122Mpixel-per-second video throughput. The video throughput was the highest in this group, beating the Dell by a negligible margin. Times to execute our application macros averaged 37 seconds for Word, 82 seconds for Excel and 10.22 minutes for our MMX script. These scores are in the middle of the pack, but its AutoCAD R14 scores were relatively weak: 7 seconds to load, 39 seconds to render. Keep in mind that this is very fast company, and the AutoCAD scores are actually quite good.

NEC Direction SPL 300

Direction is a new product line for NEC, designed for small-business and at-home users. It will be sold directly to consumers by NEC, a la Dell or Gateway. The version we tested made use of the Intel Atlanta motherboard also used by the Dell and Gateway systems, but used a Revolution 3D AGP video card from Number Nine with 4MB of WRAM in place of the STB card used in the other two systems.

The Direction SPL 300 we tested came with 64MB of SDRAM (expandable to 384MB), 512KB level 2 cache, a 6.4GB (nominal) Maxtor EIDE hard drive and a 24X (maximum) NEC CD-ROM drive.

Other standard features included 16-bit Sound Blaster compatible sound, Altec Lansing ACS45 speakers, a 17-inch monitor with a 16.1-inch diagonal viewing area and 0.26mm dot pitch, two serial ports, two USB connectors and one enhanced parallel port. A U.S. Robotics 56K modem is optional. The keyboard had an extremely soft touch we didn't like. The Small Business Edition of Microsoft Office 97 is preinstalled, and buyers have a choice of Win 95 or NT 4.0.

Our results testing the system under Windows 95 were impressive: 626MIPS, 85MBps cached-disk throughput, and 72Mpixel-per-second video throughput. Average times to execute our application macros were 43 and 77 seconds, respectively, for our Word and Excel macros, 10.03 minutes for our MMX script, and 6 seconds and 26 seconds, respectively, to load and render our new AutoCAD R14 test.

Brave new world

Intel's 440LX chipset and Accelerated Graphics Port open a number of important gates in corporate and personal desktop computing. Machines such as those reviewed here will represent the state-of-the-art through the end of the year and into the first half of 1998, when Intel launches a new-generation 3D controller it's developing in conjunction with Lockheed Martin. If you're expecting barn-burning graphics on standard business applications, you'll see an improvement-though probably not enough for the typical user to notice. The real promise of AGP graphics is in 3D applications, which currently are dominated by games and entertainment packages.

These systems represent a new class of PC, and as such are not direct competitors of any systems on our recommended list. Instead they compete most directly with each other. In that competition, the Dell, with its good performance, excellent features and competitve price, gets the nod, and earns a spot on our WinList of recommended products.

AST Bravo MS 6300

Bottom Line: Its great interior design and built-in networking should make this system attractive to corporate buyers
Price: $3,580
Platforms:95, NT
Pros: Built-in10/100Mbit Ethernet; tremendous access; easy expansion
Cons: Price; only average performance in this fast group
Strongest Rival: Dell Dimension XPS D300

AST Research, 800-876-4278, 714-727-4141. Winfo #854


Dell Dimension XPS D300

Bottom Line: Small businesspeople and enthusiasts who need workstation-like performance at a reasonable price will find this system attractive
Price: $3,299
Pros: Well-equipped; good performance
Cons: Slow load of AutoCAD benchmark
Strongest Rival: Gateway 2000 G6-300XL
Dell Computer Corp., 800-388-8542; 514-338-4400. Winfo #819

Gateway 2000 G6-300XL

Bottom Line: Multimedia buffs will appreciate the Gateway's combination of sound, 24X (maximum) CD-ROM drive and large monitor
Price: $3,799
Platforms:95 Pros: Great monitor; fast CD-ROM drive; sound
Cons: More expensive than the other systems
Strongest Rival: Dell Dimension XPS D300

Gateway 2000, 800-846-2000, 605-232-2000. Winfo #855

NEC Direction SPL 300

Bottom Line: Solid performance and great peripherals make this a good choice for small business and at-home professionals who want the latest technology
Price: $3,255
Platforms:95, NT
Pros: Great video subsystem; good audio
Cons: Case can be difficult to open
Strongest Rival: Dell Dimension XPS D300

NEC Computer Systems Division, 888-8NEC-NOW, 508-264-8000. Winfo #856

Windows Magazine, October 1997, page 104.

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