Top 10 Midrange PCs

SAN FRANCISCO (08/28/2000) - There's a shake-up at the top of the midrange chart this month, with two new Best Buys assuming the throne. The similar Dell Computer Corp. Dimension 4100 and Micro Express MicroFlex 8A (both sporting PIII-800EB processors, 20GB hard drives, and 17-inch monitors) posted nearly identical--and above-average--PC WorldBench 2000 scores. Toward the other end of the chart, the inexpensive Systemax PVW-T733 Venture PC logs on at number eight.

1 Dell Dimension 4100

WHAT'S HOT: Thanks to its 800-MHz PIII CPU, the Dimension 4100 scored near the top in performance among similarly configured Win 98 systems, earning a healthy 154 on our PC WorldBench 2000 tests. The US$1659 system offers a lot of useful extras not often found at this price, including the top-of-the-line Celestica NVidia GeForce2 graphics board and a 17-inch Dell M780 monitor, which displayed vibrant colors and crisp text (albeit with some blur at the maximum resolution of 1280 by 1024). Note: Our review system came with a Microsoft Natural Keyboard and Microsoft Office 2000 Professional, but Dell now ships it with a Dell QuietKey keyboard, which provides smooth, quiet typing; MS Office 2000 Small Business Edition; and Norton AntiVirus 2000.

WHAT'S NOT: To reach the Dimension 4100's reasonable price, Dell had to forgo both CD-RW and DVD drives.

WHAT ELSE: A large reference-and-troubleshooting guide provides lots of detailed system information, and a poster makes setting up this system a snap.

But even with thumbscrew access, removing the side panel of this lanky midsize tower took some work. Although a bit cluttered, with a support bar blocking access, the interior offered three open PCI slots and four open bays for expansion.

BEST USE: With a strong feature set and excellent performance for the price, this Dell would fit well into any office.

2 Micro Express MicroFlex 8A

WHAT'S HOT: Powered by a PIII-800EB processor, this MicroFlex earned a score of 153 on our PC WorldBench 2000 tests, slightly above the average for similar systems. Its $1249 price nearly qualifies it for our budget category. Opening the basic midsize tower case is easy--remove one thumbscrew, then pop off the top and the sides. Four open PCI slots and four open bays provide plenty of expansion room within the neat and spacious interior.

WHAT'S NOT: Colors on the Impression 7VX 17-inch monitor were rich, but they appeared rather dark. Text blurred slightly at the monitor's maximum resolution of 1600 by 1200, though it looked crisp at lower resolutions. Micro Express keeps costs down on this system by bundling no software with it, but most users will want at least a basic office suite, which can add significantly to the price.

WHAT ELSE: The ATI Rage Fury Pro graphics board offers composite input as well as S-Video and composite output for connecting to a video recorder or a TV. A spiral-bound system manual contains thorough system information and a helpful list of manufacturers' phone numbers, but screen shots have a photocopied look.

BEST USE: We have only minor complaints about this system, and the combination of below-average price and above-average performance might make it appealing to any small office.

New on the Chart

8 Systemax Pvw-T733 Venture PC

WHAT'S HOT: With a score of 148 on our PC WorldBench 2000 tests, this system performed about 5 percent faster than similarly configured Pentium III-733 computers running Windows 98. A setup poster and color-coded rear ports help to simplify assembly. You can remove and replace the solid side panel smoothly without tools, and the neat, spacious interior provides three open PCI slots and four open bays for expansion.

WHAT'S NOT: The 17-inch Systemax DE-770 FA3 monitor delivered rich colors in our tests and sharp text at normal resolutions, but slight blurring occurred at the highest resolution of 1280 by 1024. In anonymous calls to the company's tech support, we received only fair service.

WHAT ELSE: The manual provides a de-cent glossary plus documentation for the individual components, while Microsoft Office 2000 Small Business Edition beefs up the software bundle. Microsoft's Internet keyboard, which features several programmable multimedia buttons, allowed for smooth, quiet typing.

BEST USE: For only $1389, any small office would welcome the above-average performance of this Systemax.

Also of Note

Four new machines failed to crack the chart this month. For a midrange system, the $1739 Axis Orion AVM S3 offers a lot of extras: a PIII-933 processor, an 8X/4X/32X CD-Rewritable drive, a 16X DVD-ROM drive, both Slot 1 and Socket 370 processor connectors, and the Hercules 3D Prophet 2 GTS graphics board with 64MB of video memory. Unfortunately, the Axis Orion's below-average PC WorldBench 2000 score of 154 kept it off the chart.

Size does matter, and the minuscule NEC PowerMate ES SlimLine PIII-733 take up less space than most. The $1748 compact model features ports on the front for USB, a headphone, and a microphone; it also has chassis intrusion detection.

Expansion is not an option, however, as the system has no free slots or bays, although you can fit extra RAM into the slots positioned precariously by the case edge.

Barely larger than the PowerMate, the $1599 Tiny Millennium Station 800 offers only one open PCI slot in its crowded interior. It does include strong business features, such as a modem and a network interface card, an 8X/4X/32X CD-RW drive, and Microsoft Office 2000 SBE. But its score of 136 on our PC WorldBench 2000 tests is below the average for PIII-800 Win 98 systems.

Even less expensive is Alvio's $1399 Techno 600B. Powered by a Celeron-600 processor, it matched the baseline score of 100 on our PC WorldBench 2000 tests; unfortunately, that baseline was set by a Celeron-500 PC. Its network interface card and 8X/4X/32X CD-RW drive soften the blow a bit, but this Alvio's performance keeps it from reaching the charts.

PC133 Versus PC100--Is Older RAM Slowing You Down?

Tech Trend

A of the systems we review use PC133 memory; others stick with the older PC100 variety. The difference between the two types is the speed of the system clock that determines how fast data can be sent to or retrieved from memory--100 MHz for PC100, 133 MHz for PC133.

Because PC133 memory runs at a higher clock speed than PC100 memory, it can send and receive data faster. But this extra speed won't make much difference if the rest of the system runs slower than the memory.

The important measure of the system speed is how fast it can run the applications that you want to use, which is precisely what our PC WorldBench 2000 tests reveal: the speed at which a system can perform tasks in a mix of common applications, including Microsoft Word and Netscape Navigator. This benchmark measures the performance of the entire system, not just of one individual part of the system.

PC133 memory costs slightly more than PC100 memory: A 128MB PC133 DIMM typically costs 5 to 10 percent more than a similar PC100 DIMM. However, now that more chip sets that support PC133 memory are becoming available, more vendors are starting to use PC133 memory as standard. (Chip sets are the system support chips, such as the Intel 815E, that manufacturers use to build motherboards.) Our PC WorldBench 2000 tests show a slight speed increase with the faster memory in otherwise similarly configured systems, but the benefit is marginal. When we tested a Micron Millennia system using both memory types, the system with PC133 memory came out less then 3 percent faster--a difference most users would never notice.

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