Sub-$1500 PCs hit the mark
Based on the Celeron 366 and K6-2-400, these systems don't skimp on features or performance.
January 5, 1999
by Laurianne McLaughlin
(IDG) -- If you consider $999 desktop PCs too light on features and $2000 PCs too heavy on price, you'll like the new alternatives. Machines based on economical chips from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices provide an excellent balance of speed and features, at a price that's right on the mark -- about $1499 including a monitor.
Fast and cheap
The best Celeron-366 and K6-2-400 systems we tested for this review zipped through business productivity programs, in some cases running applications such as Word and Excel faster than a Pentium II-350 system. Do you work -- or play -- with demanding graphics applications and games? No problem. Several of the new systems are strong graphics performers. (Note that this performance depends heavily on a system's graphics chip.)
Not only are these budget-friendly PCs great performers, they're rich in feature. All three systems we tested came with 64MB of RAM, and only one had a hard drive smaller than 10GB. The most impressively loaded, CyberMax's Enthusiast KII 400, includes a DVD-ROM drive, a graphics board with 16MB of SDRAM, and a 19-inch monitor -- all for an eye-popping $1499.
Budget gets brawny
How did budget PCs turn into such racehorses? For one thing, Intel's rivals, especially AMD, are keeping the CPU business as competitive as ever. Meanwhile, Intel has been trying to build a strong reputation for its budget-oriented Celeron chips.
Moreover, Intel has learned that making Celeron chips too much slower than Pentium IIs is risky business: Reviewers panned the first Celeron, the cacheless 266, because it performed poorly. The Celeron-333, which tacked 128KB of secondary cache onto the chip, ran much faster.
Now Intel is trying to further improve Celeron's image by rapidly cranking up the line's speed. Some vendors will soon be shipping computers based on the 400-MHz Celeron, a product Intel had originally planned to ship much later in the year. (The chip was not available for testing at press time.) As a result of these changes, the once-lowly Celeron now packs enough punch to please even a power user.
Celeron vs. Pentium II
First consider the Celeron's performance. The two shipping Celeron-366 machines we tested, the Hewlett-Packard Vectra VE Series 8 and the Micron Millennia C366, recorded PC WorldBench 98 scores of 188 and 186, respectively, on business apps. In comparison, the Pentium II-350 machines with 64MB of RAM that we've tested earned scores between 178 and 188 -- almost identical to, if not a bit slower than, the numbers posted by Celeron-366 computers. And the average PII-400 machine snagged a score of 198, only about 5 percent faster than the HP Celeron-366 machine.
It's unlikely you'll notice that small a difference in apps like Word or Excel. The fastest PII-400 system with 64MB of RAM we've tested scored 203, an unexciting 8 percent faster than the HP system.
Now compare the prices: While the new budget PCs we reviewed range from $1434 to $1499, you'd have to pay at least $1599 for many Pentium II-350-based PCs and at least $1699 for many PII-400 systems. (Some high-end PII-350s and PII-400s sell for closer to $2000.) You'd pay at least $2200 for most PII-450 systems, but such machines an average of about 13 percent faster than the best Celerons.
For some people, a Pentium II-based computer offers advantages that go beyond clock speed. PII-350, -400, and -450 PCs incorporate a 100-MHz system bus, whereas the Celeron-366 and -400 system bus runs at 66 MHz. The faster bus speeds up some tasks, particularly those that involve large graphics or database files that don't fit inside the secondary cache. So for work like intensive desktop publishing or database mining, a fast Pentium II-powered system is worth the extra cost.
Also, systems with a 100-MHz bus make it easier to upgrade the CPU later. And users with demanding graphics needs, for whom every second counts, will probably want a PII-450 machine. Outfitted with good graphics cards, PII-450 machines run applications like Macromedia Director and games like Redline Racer faster than machines powered by a Celeron-366 or K6-2-400 processor can.
But for many people, the new Pentium II alternatives from Intel and AMD offer plenty of speed. You'll see the Celeron-366 in systems designed for corporations, small businesses, and homes.
At only $1434 with a 17-inch monitor, the HP Vectra VE Series 8 is a smart midrange corporate system for running Microsoft Office-type applications. Like other Vectra VEs, it has a 3Com 10/100 network card; HP's manageability software, which lets IS managers detect hardware problems early; and theft-prevention features like a lockable case. It's not suited for image-editing work, but its integrated Matrox MGA G-100 AGP graphics chip with 4MB of SGRAM works fine for apps like PowerPoint. Our only quibble: HP's 4.3GB hard drive is the smallest of the bunch.
For $1449 with a 15-inch monitor, Micron's Millennia C366 home PC delivers goodies like a V.90 modem and an integrated NVidia RIVA 128 ZX graphics chip (with 8MB of SGRAM) on the motherboard. The extra memory helped this machine play 3D games more smoothly than the other Celeron did, and to run one game, Redline Racer, faster than some PII-400s. But remember, graphics speed often boils down to the graphics chip, not the CPU.
K6-2-400s: Bring 'em on
Now on to that healthy competition from AMD. Based on our first look, AMD's K6-2-400 systems hold their own against Celeron-366 machines and slow Pentium II-400s. Like previous K6-2 chips, the K6-2-400 includes AMD's 3DNow CPU instructions, designed to speed up applications specially enhanced for 3DNow or DirectX 6.0. Today, less than 20 applications have native support for 3DNow, and most of these are games.
The $1499 CyberMax Enthusiast KII 400 earned a WorldBench 98 score of 187, almost identical to the scores of the HP and Micron Celeron-366s. The two slowest PII-400 systems with 64MB of RAM we've tested earned similar scores (191 and 185), whereas the fastest PII-400 system earned a score of 203, or about 9 percent faster than the Enthusiast -- a negligible difference when you're running a word processor or spreadsheet.
The Enthusiast comes with an STB Velocity 4400 graphics card laden with 16MB of SDRAM. That supply of graphics memory, the most generous here, helped the PC outperform the other two systems on two of four graphics tests: It earned the best score when running a PowerPoint presentation with an AVI file operating in the background, and when running a 3D game called Incoming. Considering that the Enthusiast also comes with a 19-inch monitor and a DVD-ROM drive, its price makes it a steal. To top it off, CyberMax earned good marks in our recent Reliability and Service survey (see link below).
Cents and sensibility
Computers based on the Celeron-366 and K6-2-400 chips are right on the money for many PC buyers. They are solid, reasonably priced work and home PCs that don't skimp on features. They run business-productivity apps quickly. And unless you regularly tax your system's CPU with such demanding work as database mining, or you live and breathe graphics apps that cry out for every bit of speed available, these $1499-range PCs have plenty of power.
We can't make sweeping assumptions about K6-2-400 systems yet. But if there are more like the CyberMax Enthusiast out there, all we can say is, "Bring 'em on." Finally, you've got a great choice in between $999 lightweights and $2000 wallet busters.
Rise Technology's MP6: Newest chip on the block
Talk about looking your competition in the eye: Rise Technology, the newest CPU maker, has set up shop in Santa Clara, California, right across the street from Intel. This new company is jumping into a tough game -- building low-cost CPUs for budget desktops and notebooks and selling them at prices below Intel's. The first Rise CPU, the MP6, will appear in desktops by the end of the first quarter, the company says. For this article, Rise gave PC World an early peek at a reference system powered by the MP6.
Rise faces four established players: Advanced Micro Devices, Centaur, Cyrix, and Intel. AMD has made progress recently, thanks to a generation of chips for desktop PCs that run as fast as 400 MHz.
Cyrix and Centaur currently compete with Intel's low-end chips. That's where Rise hopes to fit in -- by beating Cyrix's and Centaur's chips on performance. Rise says it has paid particular design attention to how quickly the MP6 chip executes MMX instructions and how smoothly it handles soft DVD video playback. Those results remain to be seen; the MP6-powered PC we tested wasn't ready for a full round of graphics testing.
The MP6 chip will debut in two flavors: One will have a 266-MHz performance rating and will be designed for a 100-MHz system bus; the other will have a 233-MHz performance rating and will be designed for a 95-MHz system bus. (A performance rating, also known as a "PR rating," represents the performance level of the Intel chip against which the MP6 will compete -- in this case, the competition is the Celeron-266.)
Like the original Celeron-266 processor (and unlike the Celeron-333 and -366) the MP6 chip lacks on-board secondary cache. This design hurts performance.
More speed ahead
The MP6 266-MHz reference machine we tested came with 64MB of system RAM and 1024KB of secondary cache on the motherboard. It earned a PC WorldBench 98 score of 119, on par with scores turned in by Celeron-266 and AMD K6-266 systems on productivity apps.
If Rise Technology achieves its goal of delivering better graphics performance than Cyrix and Centaur, however, MP6-powered machines will be more competitive. But even then, MP6 systems would probably have to be ultracheap (certainly well below $999) to be worth considering. Analyst Nathan Brookwood of Insight 64, a consultancy in Saratoga, California, says we'll likely see the first chip only in systems from small, third-tier PC companies.
Rise's second planned chip, the MP6-II, looks more compelling, since it incorporates secondary cache. The first systems using this chip will ship in the second quarter of this year, Rise says. Though the company wouldn't confirm the speeds of this chip, it is expected to offer 333- and 366-MHz performance ratings. Stay tuned.
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