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Don't be fooled by so-called bargain PCs

June 5, 1998 - Web posted at 1:00 pm EDT

by Dean Andrews

(IDG) -- Some "bargain" desktops powered by low-end processors aren't bargains at all.

We expected to see Intel's Celeron-266 chip (which gives PC vendors a low-cost way to put "Intel inside") in cheap systems. But some Celeron-266 PCs cost $1500 or more with a monitor, which is too expensive for what you get. So we tested preproduction versions of Unicent's Avanta L266 and Packard Bell's Multimedia 710 instead. Both the systems ran like Pentium MMX-233 machines on business applications. With 15-inch monitors and 64MB of RAM, the Unicent and Packard Bell cost $1149 and $1548, respectively.

Then, just before we went to press in May, Intel reacted to the negative reception that the Celeron-266 chip was getting by moving up the release date for 300-MHz Celeron chips. Celeron-300 systems will now ship in late June or July, instead of in the fall. Like the Celeron-266, the Celeron-300 processor lacks a secondary cache, which hurts its speed. Sony had planned to introduce two Celeron-266 machines in late June, but decided to add a Celeron-300 system.

We tested a preproduction version of Sony's Vaio PCV-E203. With 48MB of RAM, it costs $1399, plus $529 for a fancy monitor. This Celeron-300 machine ran about 11 percent faster than the two Celeron-266 systems and 5 percent faster than a typical Pentium MMX-233 PC. IBM's Aptiva E84, the first PC we've seen with Advanced Micro Devices' K6-300 chip, performs better--much like a Pentium II-266--on business applications. But at $1698 with a 15-inch monitor, it's no bargain considering its meager graphics performance.

IBM's home-oriented Aptiva E84, which earned a PC WorldBench 98 score of 147, does well with productivity apps. It ranks just below the average score of 151 for Pentium II-266 systems. But the Aptiva, like the Celeron-based systems we tested, has weak graphics capabilities compared with a Pentium II-266 PC with a good graphics card and 4MB of graphics memory.

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Slow Graphics Boards

Don't blame AMD or Intel: All four PC vendors integrated slow ATI graphics accelerators into the motherboards. Also, the IBM system has only 2MB of video memory. Applications like video-filled CD-ROM titles will crawl. The two games in our graphics test suite, Redline Racer and Turok, didn't run correctly: The system couldn't handle the objects and textures.

With 64MB of RAM, a 4GB hard drive, and a 10X-24X CD-ROM drive, the Aptiva E84 costs too much. In May, Gateway offered the GP6-266--a Pentium II-266 system with 32MB of RAM, a 5GB hard drive, a 13-32X CD-ROM drive, an Accelerated Graphics Port graphics card with 4MB of SGRAM, and a 15-inch monitor--for just $1499. Quantex's $1349 QP6/2266 M-1x, a PII-266 system, came with 32MB of RAM, a 3.2GB hard drive, a 12X-32X CD-ROM drive, a 56-kilobits-per-second modem, an STB Nitro 3D AGP graphics card with 4MB of SGRAM, and a 15-inch monitor. (It was $1499 with a 17-inch monitor, plus $80 to $100 for a 32MB RAM upgrade.)

So you can buy a Pentium II-266 PC that runs business applications about 30 percent faster than a Celeron-266 and 17 percent faster than a Celeron-300, and has superior graphics capabilities, for $1499. Why would you pay more for a Celeron system?

Perhaps bargain PCs will look better this fall, when Intel plans to ship a Celeron-333 with secondary cache to improve performance. Celeron-266 and -300 system prices should drop then.

Edited by Glenn McDonald
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