Top 10 Power PCs

SAN FRANCISCO (04/06/2000) - The price is fright: If your stock options are kicking in and you're about ready to start living like Thurston Howell III, this month's chart offers fancy new systems bristling with 800-MHz Athlon and Pentium III processors, Rambus RAM, and high-end graphics cards. They also carry high-end price tags.

1 Dell Computer Corp. Dimension XPS B800RWHAT'S HOT: Throw a PIII-800 into a Windows NT 4.0 machine, and you've got rip-snorting speed: This Dell's 201 on our PC WorldBench 2000 tests is the highest score of any NT system we've seen. Colors on the 19-inch Dell Ultrascan P991 monitor looked deep and rich; the sharp text started to blur only at the extreme resolution of 1920 by 1200. Top-drawer extras include an 8X/4X/32X CD-RW drive, an Iomega Zip 100 drive (a Zip 250 would have been nicer), a modem, a network card, and Office 2000 Small Business Edition.

WHAT'S NOT: Time to sell some stock--the Dimension XPS B800r costs $3469. For that kind of money, you could pick up a couple of midrange systems. And while Dell provides ample documentation for the standard equipment, it lacked paperwork for some of the extra components.

WHAT ELSE: The system uses high-speed Rambus RAM, which is designed to rev up memory-intensive applications but is expensive. Despite the add-in goodies, this Dell still provides two open PCI slots and three open bays in its neat interior. You also get a quick-setup manual and a thick reference and troubleshooting guide.

BEST USE: For power users who must have everything--regardless of sticker price--this Dell looks like a million bucks.

2 HP Vectra VL600

WHAT'S HOT: Armed with Windows NT 4.0 and a Pentium III-733 processor, the VL600 ripped through our PC WorldBench 2000 tests with an impressive score of 190. Pop off the solid side panel using a pull-out handle at the top (similar to Apple's G4), and you'll discover a fairly neat interior with five open PCI slots and three free drive bays. But you may never need to fill a bay with another hard drive: Our test system came with a 30GB model. And if you do add a drive, toolless quick-release tabs make the job easy.

WHAT'S NOT: The Vectra lacks documentation for individual components. The quick-release drive carriers seem less sturdy than the ones in some other systems.

WHAT ELSE: The VL600 ships business-ready, with a network card and a sturdy case lock (complete with its own keys). The keyboard features microphone and headphone jacks. HP's own 17-inch HP71 monitor provides sharp text up to its maximum resolution of 1280 by 1024, but the colors in our test images appeared a tad dark. Because the PC uses Rambus RAM, it leaves just one memory slot open (systems with this RAM can have only two slots on the motherboard). The case doesn't provide a separate system fan; instead, HP makes the power supply fan do double duty by cooling the interior via a duct mounted over the processor.

BEST USE: The VL600 is a powerful PC aimed at corporate workgroups.

3 Micron Millennia Max 800

WHAT'S HOT: This 800-MHz Millennia Max's unusual motherboard provides both Slot 1 and Socket 370 processor slots, so you can upgrade the system with either type of CPU. A well-designed interior offers four open slots, five open bays, and a power supply that swings out to provide even more work space. Text stayed sharp up to the unbelievably high resolution of 2048 by 1536 on the 19-inch Micron Trinitron CPD-4401 monitor. Colors appeared rich (albeit a tad dark) on test images. The PC comes with a year of free online training.

WHAT'S NOT: The system would better justify its $3099 price tag if it included a removable storage option or a CD-RW drive. And this unit scored a 149 on our PC WorldBench 2000 tests, only six points better than its PIII-677 cousin, the Millennia Max 667.

WHAT ELSE: This Millennia earned a plus for documentation, thanks to its setup poster and thorough system manual, but it lacked some component manuals. The large midsize tower features twin fans (plus one in the power supply), a case lock, and a side that pops off smoothly (though it requires some fiddling to replace). Playback looked sharp but slightly dark on the 8X DVD-ROM drive, and it paused when we opened other applications.

BEST USE: With its excellent monitor, the Millennia Max makes a pretty--but pretty expensive--presentation system.

4 Axis Systems Orion CXV

WHAT'S HOT: The Orion CXV's PC WorldBench 2000 score of 132 marks it as one of the fastest PIII-600 machines we've tested with Windows 98. The system packs an 8X DVD-ROM drive (which played our test movies smoothly and clearly) and a 4X/2X/24X CD-RW drive.

WHAT'S NOT: You must remove four screws and take off the entire case to get inside; cables hinder access to the RAM slots and two open bays. The system lacks a printed system manual (an electronic version comes preloaded).

WHAT ELSE: The electronic manual contains lots of information on troubleshooting and setup. Audiophiles will love the Altec Lansing ACS33 set, which delivers crisp sound in concert with the Creative Labs Sound Blaster Live card.

BEST USE: This Orion fits as a stand-alone PC for general business use.

5 Dell Optiplex GX300

WHAT'S HOT: The first system we've looked at for the Top 100 that runs Windows 2000 Professional, this OptiPlex posted a PC WorldBench 2000 score of 165, which lags the Windows NT models on the chart but smokes all the Windows 98 ones. Martha Stewart would approve of the GX300's tidy interior: It offers chassis intrusion detection, a case lock, a swing-out power supply, five open PCI slots, and three open (and toolless) drive bays. Dell's 19-inch Ultrascan P991 monitor shows vibrant colors and crisp text up to 1600 by 1200.

WHAT'S NOT: At $3467, this model is no bargain-basement special. Dell puts most of its documentation online; the hard copy of the main system manual contains only the bare minimum, and you won't find any paper documentation for individual components (but you can order it for free).

WHAT ELSE: Despite the easy-service chassis, the memory slots are buried, and the interior feels cramped until you swing the power supply out of the way. The 8X/4X/32X CD-RW drive makes small backups fast and easy.

BEST USE: For early adopters who want to get their hands on Windows 2000 as soon as possible, this OptiPlex offers a substantial bang for a lot of bucks.

6 Polywell Poly 800K7

WHAT'S HOT: The 800-MHz Athlon CPU inside this Poly carries it to a 151 on our PC WorldBench 2000 tests--the highest of any Windows 98 machine we've looked at so far. The 19-inch Viewsonic E790 monitor displayed great-looking colors and easily readable text up to 1600 by 1200 resolution. And because the VisionTek NV994 graphics board includes a digital output, you can drive a digital flat-panel monitor.

WHAT'S NOT: The Poly's cramped interior doesn't give you much room to work in, and the rear ports are labeled with stickers that could easily come off.

WHAT ELSE: The PC uses two 13.6GB hard drives connected to an IDE RAID card to speed up disk-intensive functions. The thick system manual contains detailed information and some (but not enough) illustrations.

BEST USE: The Poly 800K7 makes a fast workhorse for any small office.

7 ABS Performance 1

WHAT'S HOT: With a PIII-700 processor and 256MB of RAM inside, the ABS earned a PC WorldBench 2000 score of 151, the highest we've seen for a similarly equipped Windows 98 machine. The 19-inch ADI MicroScan 6P monitor produced crisp text, even at 1600 by 1200 resolution, though colors looked slightly washed out. The Creative Labs Live Drive takes up an external drive bay and provides external ports for audio input and export, but that still leaves two bays and four slots open (three PCI, one ISA). You can access interior parts easily.

WHAT'S NOT: You'll have to trade in quite a few cows to get this magic bean machine: It's got a sticker price of $2699. We also noticed slight pauses during playback on the 8X DVD-ROM drive when we opened other applications.

WHAT ELSE: Color-coordination freaks will like the ABS case design, which lets you snap any of five different colored panels onto the front of the midsize tower. A large binder holds all of the documentation; the system manual features large print and straightforward language.

BEST USE: The ABS is a good deal for a power user with a big budget and an interest in gaming or audio manipulation.

8 Premio Apollo T440B

WHAT'S HOT: The 6X DVD-ROM drive may be a bit slower than others, but it's assisted by a DXR3 MPEG decoder card, so it plays videos flawlessly. Images looked brilliant on the Premio's 19-inch TE988E monitor.

WHAT'S NOT: This PIII-700 system scored a 140 on our PC WorldBench 2000 tests--lower than some PIII-600s that we've tested. Cables clutter the interior.

WHAT ELSE: To open the Apollo T440B, you must remove two screws; but the sturdy side panel slides on and off with ease. Inside, you'll find five open drive bays and two free slots, one of them ISA. The machine has an 18.2GB SCSI hard drive connected to an expansion card that occupies one of the PCI slots. In addition, the system ships with a hefty manual containing loads of troubleshooting and general computing information.

BEST USE: With its good-size SCSI drive, this Apollo would work well for people in multimedia creation, especially video.

9 Systemax Venture PVO-700A

WHAT'S HOT: This small-business-oriented unit provides two connection options: a network card and a modem. The solidly constructed keyboard permits smooth, quiet typing and includes many programmable buttons. Its midsize tower case allows nearly effortless access to the interior through a sliding side panel.

WHAT'S NOT: The system's interior is cluttered, with the RAM slots completely hidden. But you'll find five free bays and two open slots, once you wade in. No software was installed with the 8X DVD-ROM drive on our test system, but playback looked smooth after we installed software ourselves.

WHAT ELSE: Text looks crisp on the 17-inch AOC Spectrum 7Glr monitor even at a resolution of 1600 by 1200. A PC WorldBench 2000 score of 132 lifts the Venture PVO-700A's performance just one point over that of its PVO-600A sibling.

BEST USE: Arrayed with a CD-RW drive, DVD-ROM drive, modem, and network card, this computer is ready for most small-business settings.

10 kingdom pinnacle power 733

WHAT'S HOT: This Pentium III-733-equipped Kingdom earns a score of 142 on our PC WorldBench 2000 tests--making it one of the fastest such systems running Windows 98 that we've tested. The PC's 8X DVD-ROM drive displayed images attractively. Kingdom's thick system manual is loaded with diagrams and a large glossary.

WHAT'S NOT: Opening this minitower involves wielding a screwdriver and then yanking off the entire case. The Microsoft Multimedia Keyboard provides programmable buttons, but it feels much chintzier than Microsoft's Natural Keyboard.

WHAT ELSE: Colors on the 17-inch Optiquest Q71 monitor appeared vibrant. Text looked sharp at standard resolutions but blurred at extreme levels. An interior panel obstructs access to the system's RAM slots and to the back of the three open drive bays. However, the four PCI slots are easy to reach.

BEST USE: Small-office users looking for speed and hardware extras at a modest price should consider the Kingdom.

Transform and Lighting Enhance Graphics

Tech Trend

Two new power systems--Dell's Dimension XPS B800r and OptiPlex GX300--include graphics cards that use NVidia's highly hyped GeForce 256 graphics chip. The chip incorporates new technologies that, according to NVidia, enhance performance.

The GeForce chip offers hardware transform and lighting effects that relieve the CPU's graphics load. Transform alludes to altering 3D objects for display on a 2D screen; lighting refers to how the chips display stationary or moving lighting effects.

In our February graphics board roundup (www.pcworld.com/feb00/graphics), one board that used the GeForce 256 performed inconsistently, trouncing the competition in some games but trailing in others. In our experience, graphics card performance depends greatly on the software drivers used with them. More mature drivers--which should now be available for most cards that use the GeForce chip--should improve performance.

We'll probably also see the impact of the double data rate memory built into higher-echelon GeForce boards (such as the Creative Labs 3D Blaster Annihilator Pro). DDR memory doubles a card's memory bandwidth, allowing faster fill rates in high-resolution and high-color-depth 3D applications. That, in turn, speeds up 3D frame rates.

Also New This Month

We evaluated the following system along with the others, but it didn't score high enough to reach the Top 10 Power PCs chart. For a write-up, visit PCWorld.com (www.pcworld.com/t10pcs).

*Sys Performance 800A.

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