Top 10 Midrange PCs

SAN FRANCISCO (05/26/2000) - Dell Computer Corp.'s top-notch reliability and support ratings keep the Dimension XPS T600r ahead of the CyberMax Enthusiast K7-750 and the MicroFlex-850A, a speedy newcomer from Micro Express that sports a hard-to-beat price of $1449 for an Athlon-850 CPU. Three new machines from Dell, Gateway 2000 Inc., and Micron also hit the chart this month, each earning an impressive PC WorldBench 2000 score and selling for a moderate price.

1 DELL DIMENSION XPS T600R

WHAT'S HOT: With a Pentium III-600 CPU and running Windows 98, this Dimension earns a hearty PC WorldBench 2000 score of 136--on a par with some PIII-700s we've tested. Four open slots (three PCI and one ISA) and four open bays offer room for expansion components in this midsize tower's smallish interior. You pay a reasonable $1519 and still get Microsoft Office 2000 Small Business Edition.

WHAT'S NOT: You can type smoothly on the solid Dell QuietKey keyboard, but not as quietly as its name suggests. The Dimension's standard labor warranty lasts for only one year.

WHAT ELSE: The system ships with thorough documentation, including a setup poster and guide, and a thick reference and troubleshooting manual. The side of the case comes off easily after you loosen a thumbscrew and lift two levers.

Dell's PCs earn Outstanding reliability scores.

BEST USE: With its high-end office suite, this Dimension would excel as a robust system for small businesses.

2 CYBERMAX ENTHUSIAST K7-750

WHAT'S HOT: Quicker than some Athlon-800 systems we've tested, this Enthusiast posted an impressive PC WorldBench 2000 score of 154, and its $1549 price tag won't break the bank. The machine is easy to put together, with a handy quick-setup guide, color-coordinated ports, and a detailed system manual filled with helpful illustrations.

WHAT'S NOT: We weren't impressed with the PC's display--colors on the 17-inch CyberMax CX750N monitor appeared washed out in all our image tests.

WHAT ELSE: Although the case comes off easily, accessing the five open slots (four PCI and one ISA) and four open bays is difficult in the fairly cluttered interior. The generous software bundle offers Corel's WordPerfect Office 2000, Grolier's Multimedia Encyclopedia Deluxe Edition on DVD-ROM, and Sierra's Visual Home and Master Cook CD-ROMs.

BEST USE: The Enthusiast K7-750 packs performance and features that any home- or small-office user would appreciate.

3 MICRO EXPRESS MICROFLEX-850A

WHAT'S HOT: For only $1449, Micro Express packs a speedy Athlon-850 CPU inside the MicroFlex-850A. The system, running Windows 98, earned a 153 on our PC WorldBench 2000 tests--the highest we've seen for similarly configured Athlon-850 systems. The easy-open midsize case, secured by one thumbscrew, allows unimpeded access to three open PCI slots and four open bays. Micro Express offers a generous four-year warranty on both parts and labor.

WHAT'S NOT: Colors on the 17-inch Impression 7VX monitor looked rich, but text blurred slightly at a standard resolution of 1024 by 768. In our anonymous calls to Micro Express's tech support lines, we received only Fair service.

Also, you must call the company to get the $1449 price; on its Web site, Micro Express prices this system at more than $2100.

WHAT ELSE: Detailed setup information in the spiral-bound system manual and color-coordinated ports make the MicroFlex easy to set up. The manual contains a handy phone list for major component manufacturers and a detailed glossary.

Typing on the Microsoft Internet keyboard is smooth and quiet, with plenty of programmable Web buttons for quick access to Internet and system apps.

BEST USE: The Micro Express MicroFlex-850A provides heady performance at a great price for any small office.

4 GATEWAY SELECT 700SB

WHAT'S HOT: With an Athlon-700 CPU inside and Windows 98 on the 20GB hard drive, the Select 700SB earned a PC WorldBench 2000 score of 144--above average for similarly configured systems. Three USB ports ease the transition for users leaning toward legacy-free machines. The Select 700SB ships with a network interface card and Microsoft Office 2000 Small Business Edition and has a low $1499 price.

WHAT'S NOT: Unfortunately, the fan inside could cool an extra room in your house: Five inches in diameter, it crowds the interior and impedes access to the three open slots and five open bays.

WHAT ELSE: Thanks to guide rails along the side of the solid midsize tower, the side panel slides on and off smoothly after you loosen two thumbscrews, but you have to work around the monstrous system fan to add cards or drives (there's a generous allotment of three open PCI slots and five open drive bays). Colors on the 17-inch Gateway EV700 monitor looked a tad washed out, but text appeared crisp at a standard resolution of 1024 by 768 (though blurred a bit at the maximum resolution of 1280 by 1024).

BEST USE: Strong performance, handy business extras, and low price make this Gateway a solid choice for small offices.

5 MICRON MILLENNIA MAX 733

WHAT'S HOT: Expansion, expansion, expansion. The Millennia Max 733 offers five open PCI slots, five open bays, and both Socket 370 and Slot 1 CPU slots on the motherboard (so you can upgrade with a processor of either type). It offers a network interface card and a case lock. Setting up this Micron is simple, thanks to the helpful setup poster and color-coordinated rear ports. The extensive system manual contains a thorough glossary and lots of illustrations.

WHAT'S NOT: The system lacks documentation for individual components. In our tests, colors on the 17-inch Micron 700DX monitor appeared somewhat washed out, although text remained crisp up to the maximum resolution of 1280 by 1024.

WHAT ELSE: This Micron's PC WorldBench 2000 score of 148 is average for PIII-733 systems running Windows 98. Its moderate $1699 price includes Microsoft Office 2000 Small Business Edition. The neat interior of the Millennia's roomy midsize tower offers toolless, easy-load expansion slots and a swing-out power supply. The sturdy side pops off easily with a slide-up handle (but reattaching the panel does take some work).

BEST USE: The Millennia Max 733 is an excellent system for a small office environment planning on future upgrades.

6 QUANTEX SM700

WHAT'S HOT: The Quantex SM700 is simple to set up, thanks to color-coordinated ports labeled with icons and to substantial documentation, including guides for system components. Users with big storage needs will like the 20GB hard drive and Iomega Zip 250 drive. The SM700 also comes with useful small-office features such as a 12X DVD-ROM drive and Corel WordPerfect Office 2000.

WHAT'S NOT: You will have a tough time trying to reattach the case's flimsy side, and the cramped interior adds extra work to your expansion efforts.

WHAT ELSE: With a score of 143 on our PC WorldBench 2000 tests, the SM700 keeps pace with comparable Pentium III-700 systems. Colors on the 17-inch Quantex XP175D monitor were deep and rich; text looked sharp at standard resolutions but blurred at higher ones. An S-Video output port on the NVidia RIVA TNT2 graphics card lets users switch between a TV and the monitor. Inside, four open slots (including three PCI) and three open bays provide adequate room to expand.

BEST USE: A small office looking for a lot of storage and midlevel performance would be pleased with this Quantex.

7 DELL OPTIPLEX GX110

WHAT'S HOT: An excellent interior design makes expanding this OptiPlex simple--you don't even need tools to fill the three open PCI slots and three open bays, and the power supply swings out to give you more room to work.

Though priced as a midrange system ($1758), this OptiPlex is rich with corporate extras, including a network interface card, a case lock, and chassis intrusion detection.

WHAT'S NOT: While the OptiPlex ships with detailed online documentation, it lacks manuals for individual components.

WHAT ELSE: With a score of 140 on our PC WorldBench 2000 tests, the OptiPlex lands in the middle of the pack of Pentium III-667 PCs we've seen running Windows 98. Accessing the interior is easy: The side of the midsize tower slides off after you press a button on the front of the case, though replacing it takes some finagling. Colors appeared bright and deep, and text looked crisp up to 1280 by 1024 resolution on the 17-inch Dell M770 monitor. Dell's sturdy QuietKey keyboard enables smooth and quiet typing.

BEST USE: The OptiPlex GX110 would be at home in a corporate environment; it should please businesses looking for a dependable PC that won't drain the budget.

8 SYSTEMAX ASCENT PVO-600A

WHAT'S HOT: Solid multimedia hardware surrounds this reasonably priced ($1449) machine. The 17-inch AOC Spectrum7Glr monitor displays rich colors and crisp text, and the Cambridge SoundWorks SBS52 three-speaker set pumps out powerful sound. Unless you traffic in gargantuan files, the 20GB hard drive will take a while to fill up, and the 4X/4X/24X CD-RW drive lets you write and rewrite data to your heart's content. Interior access is outstanding: The midsize tower's case pops off when you depress a lever on the side.

WHAT'S NOT: Although it permits smooth and quiet typing, the keyboard feels flimsy and flexes too easily.

WHAT ELSE: The Ascent PVO-600A earned a score of 131 on our PC WorldBench 2000 test suite--about average for an Athlon-600 system running Windows 98 SE.

Cables crisscross the interior, but you still get unimpeded access to the four open slots (three PCI and one ISA) and four open drive bays.

BEST USE: Thanks to its CD-RW drive, top-notch monitor, and good sound system, this PC makes an attractive multimedia system.

9 AXIS SYSTEMS ORION CXV

WHAT'S HOT: The Orion CXV's PC WorldBench 2000 score of 132 makes it one of the fastest Pentium III-600 units we've tested with Windows 98. The system sports an 8X DVD-ROM drive (which played test movies smoothly and clearly) as well as a 4X/4X/24X CD-RW drive for an additional backup option.

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 manual, so the user must rely on the electronic one.

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

BEST USE: The Orion CXV works well as a stand-alone PC for general business use.

10 NUTREND AMD K7-600

WHAT'S HOT: Multimedia goodies abound in the NuTrend AMD K7-600's configuration. The 8X DVD-ROM drive offers smooth software-decoded video playback, and the solidly constructed keyboard has programmable buttons. A large binder contains both the comprehensive, well-illustrated system documentation and the software bundle, which includes a copy of Corel WordPerfect Office 2000.

WHAT'S NOT: A score of 127 on our PC WorldBench 2000 tests was all the AMD K7-600 could manage--the lowest we've seen for similarly equipped systems running Windows 98.

WHAT ELSE: Colors appeared washed out on the 19-inch ADI GD-166G monitor, but text remained sharp up to the maximum resolution of 1600 by 1200. The ATI Rage 128 graphics card offers S-Video and composite outputs for sending PC signals to a television set. The roomy interior of the midsize tower has four open slots (three PCI and one ISA) and four open bays for expansion.

BEST USE: Despite the lackluster color display, this NuTrend's large monitor and DVD-ROM drive make it a choice presentation system.

Tech Trend

How Processors Cache In

PC vendors often list the amount of Level 2 (or secondary) cache their systems have, and they may state whether it is on-chip or discrete. (We also list the amount of L2 cache in our Top 10 PCs charts.) L2 cache--speedy memory that stores data likely to be needed by the CPU--is used to reduce the number of times the system must access its main memory. As noted, there are two flavors: on-chip and discrete.

On-chip is also called integrated, or on-die, cache. It resides on the same chip as the CPU. Discrete (nonintegrated) L2 cache resides close to the processor but on a separate chip.

The CPU can access integrated L2 cache faster than a nonintegrated one, enhancing performance. For example, according to Intel spokesperson Seth Walker, a PIII processor with 256KB of integrated L2 cache can be up to 10 percent faster than a PIII processor with 512KB of discrete L2 cache, given similar clock speeds. So why do some PCs use discrete cache?

Space constraints on the chip holding the CPU are the reason AMD's current Athlon processors use discrete cache, says company spokesperson Drew Prairie.

AMD's newest Athlon processors are created with smaller transistors, making room for AMD's engineers to add more features to the chip, including L2 cache.

Prairie says that with lower-speed processors, the speed difference between on-chip and discrete L2 cache isn't that noticeable. At higher speeds the benefit of integrated cache becomes more pronounced in a PC's performance; as CPU speeds increase, chip makers will be more likely to use it.

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