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400-mHz Pentium IIs: The great leap forward

by Laurianne McLaughlin

Intel is the consummate flirt. With each new chip, the giant chip maker promises us speed, brawn, and sparkle, enticing us to buy yet another PC. The problem is, we're getting bored with the relationship. The small advances in performance of the last year or so haven't set our hearts aflutter.

But the new systems built around the Pentium II-400 will. By speeding up the system bus--a main pipeline for moving data between the CPU, main memory, and other components--from 66 MHz to 100 MHz, Intel delivers dramatic performance gains with its new chips. On average, the 400-MHz Pentium II systems we tested run PC WorldBench 98, our business application benchmark, 21 percent faster than the Pentium II-333s. Got your interest now?

Here's another plus: Prices are lower than you think. PII-400 systems (with 64MB of SDRAM, AGP graphics cards with 4MB of SGRAM, and 17-inch monitors) start at $2750 for a Hewlett-Packard Vectra VL Series 8, a corporate model, and $2769 for Gateway's GP6-400, a small-business or home-office system.

To round out the field, we tested four other new PII-400s: the Compaq Deskpro EP Series Model 6400, Dell Dimension XPS R400, Micron Millennia 400 DVD Edition, and NEC Direction SPB 400. Like all new PII-400s, they sport motherboards with Intel's new 440BX chip set and use 100-MHz SDRAM for main memory.

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Vendors are also shipping PCs that feature Intel's other new processor, the Pentium II-350, along with the snappier bus and new chip set. We tested three: the Dell Dimension XPS R350, Micron Millennia 350 DVD Edition, and NEC Direction SPB 350. How did the PII-350s fare? Well, their average PC WorldBench score was an impressive 192, compared to 170 for the PII-333s. But the PII-400s scored an average of 205 and cost only $150 to $200 more than their PII-350 counterparts. So if you can afford it, a 400-MHz system is the way to go.

Those PII-400 prices seem even more reasonable when you consider chip introductions of the recent past. When we reviewed the first PII-300 systems in October 1997, the three we tested cost $4080, $3799, and $3499. PII-400 and PII-350 system prices are starting out lower than that and should remain steady this summer--prices probably won't drop until the 450-MHz Pentium II chip arrives in the fall. If you can wait until then, you'll pay a bit less.

But if you need the power now and can't afford the top of the line, a Pentium II-333--or even a Pentium II-300--with 64MB of RAM will do an excellent job on day-to-day business applications. By the time you read this, 300-MHz machines will cost less than $2000, and more cuts are expected by the end of the year. The downside? You won't get the same investment protection, because upgrading PII-333 systems means replacing the CPU, motherboard, and main memory.

Laurianne McLaughlin is a senior associate editor for PC World.


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