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Latest Pentium IIs speed up desktop PCs
--------------------------------------------------------- But sub-$3K price is what makes Compaq, Gateway systems attractive

By Michael Caton, PC Week Labs

ZDNet Products Special Report: 400MHz Pentium II

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PC Week Labs review: Pentium II boosts laptop speed

PC Week Labs Review The two Pentium II processors and the chip set that Intel Corp. rolled out this week support a faster bus, but it's the low PC prices, rather than the faster chip performance, that will make desktop PCs based on these chips compelling purchases for corporate sites.

PC Week Labs evaluated two of the first desktop systems based on the 350MHz and 400MHz Pentium II processors, Gateway 2000 Inc.'s 350MHz Gateway E-4200 350 and Compaq Computer Corp.'s 400MHz Deskpro EN Model 6400X.

With an estimated street price of $2,800 for the Deskpro and a $2,443 direct-order price for the Gateway E-4200, both systems come in under the $3,000 premium that has been charged in the past for systems based on the fastest Intel processors. Prices are for the configurations we tested with 64MB of RAM.

Of the two systems, it's easier to like the Compaq because, just a few months ago, the company would have priced a PC like this at well over $3,000. Furthermore, the Compaq's case design affords better access to system components than the Gateway system does, allowing almost any upgrade to be performed without a screwdriver. To Gateway's credit, its desktop system performs better and is less expensive than the Compaq model.

Both systems proved substantially faster than systems based on the previous-generation Pentium II chips in PC Week Labs' benchmark tests (download an Excel file of the benchmark results) due in large part to the faster memory supported by the new 440BX chip set.

The introduction of the processors and chip set go hand-in-hand because, as these processors boost their base clock speeds from 66MHz to 100MHz, the memory speeds also increase from 66MHz to 100MHz. (For a look at the impact this change has on server performance, see PC Week Labs' reviews of two servers that use the new chips and chip sets.)

What the numbers show

The switch to the faster processors and memory has resulted in a decent jump in system performance for desktop PCs. The Deskpro EN we tested supports Pentium II processors with 266MHz clock speeds and faster, which allowed us to test the various processors just by swapping them in and changing switch settings on the Compaq's motherboard--without changing the other system components.

In the application-based Business Winstone 98 benchmark test, we saw a 17 percent performance gain over the 300MHz Pentium II processor when we replaced it with a 400MHz chip. The 400MHz Pentium II's gain over the 333MHz Pentium II was a more modest 11 percent.

When we tested the Compaq configured with a 350MHz Pentium II, it was slightly off the pace set by the 350MHz Pentium II-based Gateway E-4200. However, users are unlikely to notice the 7 percent performance difference when using basic applications such as word processors and e-mail packages.

Systems based on the 350MHz Pentium II will be a tough sell, as has been the case with systems based on the second-fastest processor going all the way back to the 486 chip. The price difference between the second- and third-fastest Pentium II processor is substantial, but the performance gains are not. The Gateway system, for instance, is priced about $550, or 29 percent, more than the 333MHz Pentium II-based Compaq system, despite being only about 10 percent faster.

This is good news for buyers, however, because prices for the lower-speed Pentium II systems have dropped considerably. A Deskpro EN configured with a 266MHz Pentium II has an estimated selling price of $1,600.

A case of good design

Both systems are designed to be managed in a corporate setting, with each including an integrated network adapter that can be turned on remotely via the Wake on LAN specification. They also support the DMI (Desktop Management Interface) 2.0 specification and come with management software, with the Gateway system including Intel's LANDesk Client Manager and Compaq including its own Intelligent Manageability software.

The Deskpro EN's design makes it one of the easiest systems to service, rivaling the Equium 7000-series desktop PCs from Toshiba American Information Systems Inc. (see related story). We could replace major components of the Deskpro EN, including mass storage devices that are held in place by plastic mountings, without a screwdriver. Adding or removing expansion cards did require a screwdriver, however.

Some PC manufacturers, including Toshiba, have started using a design where the motherboard can be easily removed because it plugs into a riser card that furnishes a power connection and backplane for expansion cards. Compaq uses a similar design, except that the riser card unplugs from the motherboard, which can then be slid out of the back of the system. We did have one problem with the Compaq system--after opening the system about a dozen times, the switch used to detect whether the case is open broke.

Although removing either the motherboard or the drives from the Gateway E-4200 required using a screwdriver, both the Gateway and Compaq systems have well-thought-out designs. On each system, commonly upgraded components, such as memory, are easy to access because other components, including cables and drive bays, are out of the way.

The Gateway E-4200 has three unoccupied drive bays. We would expect a system like the Compaq Deskpro EN to have at least two empty drive bays.

PC Week Labs Executive Summaries:

Deskpro EN Model 6400X

Performance and price are the most compelling aspects of Compaq’s 400MHz Pentium II-based desktop system. In addition to support for remote management and DMI standards, the Deskpro EN has a chassis that makes it one of the easiest PCs to service.


Pros: Excellent chassis design; low price; good performance.

Cons: Switch for detecting chassis intrusion is easy to break; mass storage expansion capabilities are limited.

Compaq Computer Corp., Houston, Texas; (800) 345-1518; www.compaq.com

Gateway E-4200 350

Gateway 2000’s 350MHz Pentium II-based desktop PC is both a fast performer and aggressively priced. Although the Gateway E-4200 supports remote management and DMI standards, its case design doesn’t provide the easy access to components that is available in some systems from competing vendors.


Pros: Excellent performance; low price; plenty of expansion capabilities.

Cons: Case design requires using screwdriver to add and remove components.

Gateway 2000 Inc., North Sioux City, S.D.; (800) 779-2000; www.gateway.com

PC Week Labs' scoring methodology can be found at www.pcweek.com/reviews/meth.html

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