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WinLab Reviews
Systems
Head-to-Head: 233MHz K6 Systems
Performance for a Pittance

-- by Jonathan Blackwood

When we first broke the news about the performance potential of the AMD-K6 processor with Intel's MMX technology, we noted that it promised a new era of price and performance for consumers. Two new K6 systems (one from Digital and one from Way 2 Cheap) that offer scorching performance at yard-sale prices prove this point. And with the introduction of Cyrix's hot new MMX-enabled 6x86MX processor, AMD (and Intel) have cut prices further still-while we were preparing this review, prices were cut twice. Next month, we'll compare the performance of 233MHz processors from the three manufacturers directly. For the present, here's a look at two systems offering good performance at bargain prices.

Digital Venturis FX-2 6233K ST

Digital is the first of the first-tier manufacturers to break ranks with Intel and offer a K6-powered corporate system. Venturis is Digital's value-priced line of corporate desktops; the company also offers Intel Pentium-powered systems, both with and without MMX. This Venturis comes standard with 256KB of pipeline-burst write-back level 2 cache, 32MB of SDRAM (expandable to 256MB), an integrated S3 Trio 64V2/GX PCI 64-bit graphics accelerator with 1MB SGRAM standard (upgradable to 2MB SGRAM), a 3.2GB (nominal) hard disk and a 12X CD-ROM drive. The system we evaluated arrived with a 17-inch (15.7-inch viewable) monitor with on-screen controls, 0.28mm dot pitch and a crisp image. The short tower case we saw measures 16 by 8.5 by 17.5 inches. Toolless access to its interior is provided by means of thumbscrews-the type that remain in place when loosened so they can't be lost. Inside, there is a 200-watt power supply, two ISA slots, two PCI slots and one shared ISA/PCI slot. In our test system, all were free. All the expected ports are there, including dual USB ports.

This system is an MIS administrator's dream. It ships with DMI-compliant software that allows remote administration; it also includes a SMART monitor app that loads each time it's booted to monitor the hard disk's health and alert the administrator and user if a failure is imminent. The motherboard slides out for easy servicing and replacement. The interior has a total of three fans and a chute to channel airflow across the CPU to ensure adequate cooling. The layout of the components has been carefully thought out to allow easy access to expansion cards, drive bays (there are a total of six, with one internal and two external available) and RAM slots (there are three SDRAM slots, two available in our test configuration). There is no sound card, speakers or modem, and no application software. Many corporations have their own standards in these areas, and these features can be ordered as options directly from Digital.

Performance is quite respectable, especially given its integrated video. On our Wintune 97 benchmarks, the Venturis racked up 459MIPS, 42MB-per-second cached-disk throughput and 26Mpixel-per-second video throughput. It executed our Word macro in an average of 55 seconds, our Excel macro in 152 seconds. Our Photoshop/DeBabelizer Pro/MMX script executed in an average of 17.75 minutes. Though these scores are not bad, we believe switching to a top-shelf video card like a Number Nine Imagine 128 Series II or a Matrox Millennium would improve application performance markedly. The Venturis showed signs of insufficient RAM when running our new AutoCAD R14 benchmark, taking an average of 28 seconds to load the sample CHEVY.DWG file and 129 seconds to render it. Should AutoCAD or a similarly RAM-intensive application be needed with this machine, you should consider boosting its RAM to 64MB.

Way 2 Cheap Grand Ultima+ K6-233

If Digital targets its Venturis line squarely at the corporate market, Way 2 Cheap sets its sights on small businesses, consumers and enthusiasts with its Grand Ultima+ system. The company has a knack for assembling solid components and pricing the result at rock-bottom prices. The Grand Ultima+ continues this tradition, along with Way 2 Cheap's habit of supplying a generous amount of RAM.

This system comes with 64MB of SDRAM, Samsung 2.1GB (nominal) hard disk, a Hsingtech system board with a VX Pro chipset, 512KB pipeline-burst level 2 cache, an Aristo S3 ViRGE video card with 4MB of RAM (a 4MB WRAM Matrox Millennium II is available for an additional $209), an Aristo Sound Blaster-compatible 16-bit sound card with 150-watt speakers, a Zoltrix 33.6 fax modem, a 24X CyberDrive CD-ROM drive, and a Mitsumi keyboard and serial mouse. The 15-inch (13.8-inch viewable) Korean-built monitor is an OEM model with no brand name; it was serviceable, but nothing special, with a 0.28mm dot pitch and toggle electronic controls without an on-screen display. The system has all the usual ports, including USB.

The Grand Ultima+'s performance was quite good: Wintune clocked it at 454MIPS, 47MBps cached-disk throughput and 22Mpixel-per-second video throughput. It executed our Word and Excel macros in 58 and 129 seconds, respectively, and ran our MMX script in 15.9 minutes. Its 64MB of RAM enabled it to beat the Venturis by a wide margin on our AutoCAD R14 benchmark, averaging just 11 seconds to open it and 49 seconds to render it. But the astonishing thing about the Grand Ultima+ is its price: $1,599 complete. We'd recommend spending the extra $209 for the Matrox Millennium II if you perform a lot of graphics work, but in any case, this system represents a price/performance breakthrough. Way 2 Cheap backs its system with a standard one-year warranty, and extended warranties are available.

The verdict

These two systems offer similar levels of performance and, in terms of performance, resemble the Gateway 2000 G5-233. That MMX-enabled P55C system sells for $2,299-$171 more than the Digital Venturis and $700 more than the Way 2 Cheap Grand Ultima in this grouping. The performance for the price earns both the Venturis (for the corporate market) and the Grand Ultima+ (for the small business and enthusiast markets) places on our WinList.

QUICK VIEW

Digital Venturis FX-2 6233K ST

Bottom Line: AMD-K6 system that offers corporate clients maximum performance at minimum cost
Price: $2,128
Platforms: 3x, 95, NT
Pros: Price; performance; DMI-compliant software
Cons: Only 32MB of standard RAM; unsuitable for high-end graphics applications
Strongest Rival: Gateway 2000 GP5-233

Digital Equipment Corp., 800-DIGITAL, 508-493-5111. Winfo #615

QUICK VIEW

Way 2 Cheap Grand Ultima+ K6-233

Bottom Line: A system for the budget-minded user who still needs top performance
Price: $1,599
Platforms: 95, NT
Pros: Price; 64MB of RAM; performance; high-quality construction
Cons: 2GB hard disk is relatively small
Strongest Rival: Gateway 2000 GP5-233

Way 2 Cheap, 888-892-9333, 512-292-9333. Winfo #616

Windows Magazine, October 1997, page 132.

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