Top 10 Midrange PCs

The Micro Express MicroFlex-550B maintains its hold on the coveted number one spot this month. Meanwhile, the Quantex M500 rises to number two, thanks to its improved service rating. Dell's affordable Dimension L500c follows close behind. No new systems, however, make it onto this month's chart.

1 MICRO EXPRESS MICROFLEX-550B

WHAT'S HOT: Powered by an AMD Athlon-550 processor, the MicroFlex-550B zipped to a PC WorldBench 98 score of 256, substantially higher than that of any Pentium III-550 PC we've tested, and higher (by a small margin) than those of most PIII-600 systems we've seen. Best of all, the system will set you back only $1299. Documentation includes a quick-setup guide and a thorough manual.

The neat, well-designed interior has four open slots and four free drive bays for upgrades. The 6X DVD-ROM drive (with a software MPEG video decoder) played our test movie smoothly, even with other applications running.

WHAT'S NOT: To get inside the box, you must loosen a screw, remove the midsize tower's top, and slide off the side panel. Of course, putting the case back together requires just as many steps. The keys on the large, solid keyboard make a lot of noise when you type on them, and they're almost too big for comfortable typing.

WHAT ELSE: Color quality of the 17-inch Impression 7VX monitor is subpar, but the screen displays readably crisp, clear text at most resolutions. The Altec Lansing ACS44 speaker set includes powerful satellites and a booming subwoofer.

BEST USE: The well-equipped MicroFlex-550B makes a great all-around workhorse for the budget-conscious office.

2 QUANTEX M500

WHAT'S HOT: You won't find a better multimedia powerhouse for the price. The 6X DVD-ROM drive, Aureal Vortex2 sound card, and Joytech S3 Savage4 graphics board make the M500 a capable authoring station. And after work it's fine for watching movies, thanks to its 19-inch DiamondTron flat CRT monitor. In the past our anonymous calls to Quantex's tech support line yielded incomplete answers, but recently reps have been accurate and helpful. The M500 has lots of expansion room, with five free slots and five unoccupied bays.

WHAT'S NOT: Quantex's warranty on the M500 covers labor for just one year.

WHAT ELSE: The M500's PC WorldBench 98 score of 230 is average for a Pentium III-500 system with Windows 98. Quantex throws in an Iomega Zip 100 drive.

BEST USE: The M500 makes a fast presentation system or a choice executive workstation for the Big Cheese.

3 DELL DIMENSION L500C

WHAT'S HOT: The Dimension L500c earned a 214 on PC WorldBench 98--just four points shy of the fastest score we've recorded for a Celeron machine running Windows 98. We had no trouble getting inside this minitower's stiff, plastic case, and ports on the rear are color-coded.

WHAT'S NOT: The L500c's integrated components save space, but they aren't of as high quality as most discrete components, and this shortcoming limits the performance of the system's otherwise solid peripherals. For instance, the 17-inch Dell M780 monitor provides passable text and images, but the integrated Intel 810 video subsystem restricts the monitor to 24-bit color and 1280 by 1024 resolution (a 4MB display-cache chip, however, should help the system's 3D graphics speed). And if you want to upgrade the system's graphics in the future, your choice will be limited to PCI video cards.

WHAT ELSE: The L500c's

keyboard suffers from a slight excess of flexibility, though keystrokes are

solid. The interior is small, but the power supply swings out so you can access

motherboard components easily. The easy-to-configure Harman/Kardon HK195

speakers reproduce most sound faithfully, despite being limited by the

integrated audio.

BEST USE: A good workstation for a small office on a budget, the $1399 L500c is backed by Dell's excellent reputation for reliability and service.

4 SYS PERFORMANCE 450K3

WHAT'S HOT: The 450K3's score of 231 on our PC WorldBench 98 tests tops all other K6-III-450-based PCs, and outpoints every PIII-450 system we've tested so far. The excellent Sys SPM-17-MS 17-inch monitor, backed by a 3dfx Voodoo3 AGP 2000 card, provided crisp images at all but the highest resolution.

WHAT'S NOT: There's no overall system manual and the rear ports are identified with labels that could fall off over time.

WHAT ELSE: This large midsize tower system--with plenty of expansion room--offers great performance at a decent price.

BEST USE: The Voodoo3, a great monitor, and the Creative Labs Awe 64 sound card tailor the Sys for presentations.

5 MICRON MILLENNIA MAX 600

WHAT'S HOT: The Millennia's mammoth case opens easily--push down a handle on the back, and the side panel slides off. (To reattach the panel, push the handle again.) The 8X DVD-ROM drive starts movies automatically and plays them smoothly, even with other apps open. Micron throws in a well-illustrated user manual and CD-ROM reference materials.

WHAT'S NOT: The case's concave top is an unstable place to put items down. And despite the huge interior, cables obstruct access to the RAM slots. The 17-inch Micron 700VX monitor produces bright colors but slightly blurry text, and it can attain a maximum resolution of 1280 by 1024 only at a very low 60-Hz refresh rate; users sensitive to screen flicker, take notice. (You can upgrade to a sharper Trinitron monitor for $99.) The Advent AV009 three-piece speaker set--especially the satellite speakers-- musters weak audio.

WHAT ELSE: The Millennia Max 600's PC WorldBench 98 score of 250 is plenty fast, though average for a PIII-600. Despite the keyboard's flimsy feel, you can type on it smoothly and quietly. The system ships with Microsoft Office 2000 Small Business Edition. Accessing expansion cards for upgrades is simple:

Loosen a thumbscrew on the metal rail, and you're in.

BEST USE: The Millennia Max 600 easily fills the bill as a powerful, bare-bones multimedia system that you can upgrade painlessly as your needs change.

6 AXIS SYSTEMS ORION 100H DVD 500

WHAT'S HOT: The Orion 100H DVD 500 packs a 6X DVD-ROM drive and a 4X CD-RW drive. The 19-inch monitor displays clear text and graphics even at 1600 by 1200 resolution. The Altec Lansing ACS33 speakers and subwoofer, in concert with a Creative Labs Sound Blaster Live audio card, yield terrific surround sound. DVD video playback is great, even with other programs running.

WHAT'S NOT: To open the case, you must take off first the top and then the side panels. The system's PC WorldBench 98 score of 237 is a few points below average for a PIII-500 running Windows 98.

WHAT ELSE: Rear ports are labeled but not color-coded.

BEST USE: The Orion makes a great presentation system, thanks to its formidable multimedia features.

7 NEC POWERMATE ES 5250-500K

WHAT'S HOT: The PowerMate ES 5250-500k's well-designed case puts various controls at your fingertips. A silver bar at the top of the tower houses power and sleep buttons, a volume control, and a headphone jack. A front-mounted USB port sits next to the bar. Documentation includes a quick setup guide, a pamphlet on ergonomics, and a thick system manual with copious illustrations.

The included LS-120 removable media drive gives users an extra storage possibility. The interior makes room for substantial expansion options, with five open slots and three open bays.

WHAT'S NOT: The 6X DVD-ROM drive autoplayed our test movie, but playback was choppy when we opened other programs in the background. Expansion cards go into the box upside down, making installation awkward, and unkempt wiring impedes access to them.

WHAT ELSE: The PowerMate ES 5250-500k's PC WorldBench 98 score of 228 is average for a PIII-500 system running Windows 98. The NEC S770 17-inch monitor produces less-saturated color and brightness than most. In our tests, text looked sharp at 1024 by 768 resolution but blurred at the maximum resolution of 1280 by 1024. The large, sturdy keyboard features an attachable wrist rest and permits quiet and smooth typing. The PowerMate's chassis features color-coded ports and a case lock.

BEST USE: With a price of $1687, the network-ready PowerMate ES 5250-500k will suit offices that don't need a screamer.

8 KINGDOM PINNACLE 500

WHAT'S HOT: At $1247, the Pinnacle 500 has been the lowest-priced PC on the midrange chart for three straight months. The generous software bundle accompanying the system consists of Corel's WordPerfect Suite 8, Compton's 99 Encyclopedia Deluxe, National Geographic Trip Planner Deluxe, and a demo game pack to complement the APAC Multimedia Voodoo Banshee graphics board. The system's manuals include a thorough glossary and troubleshooting section.

WHAT'S NOT: Despite the system's stellar video card, text on the 17-inch Kingdom 77i monitor looks fuzzy even at 1024 by 768 resolution. You won't be able to open the case without using tools, and in our tests, the keys on the ergonomic Microsoft keyboard tended to stick.

WHAT ELSE: This PIII-500's score of 231 on PC WorldBench 98 matches the average for similarly configured systems running Windows 98. The Pinnacle 500 ships with a V.90 modem and an integrated ethernet connector, making it a good candidate for networked offices. You get an LS-120 drive, too.

BEST USE: Its WordPerfect Suite, three-piece MLi 450 speaker set, and excellent graphics acceleration help the Pinnacle fit well in a small-office or home-office environment.

9 MIDWEST MICRO VENTURE XPO-450

WHAT'S HOT: With an attractive price of $1299, the Venture XPO-450 is beaten on price by just one system in the midrange Top 10, the Kingdom Pinnacle 500.

Another pleasant surprise at this price point: The XPO 450 carries a 6X DVD-ROM drive, albeit one with a software MPEG decoder. Four open expansion slots and four free drive bays offer users plenty of room for upgrading.

WHAT'S NOT: As its score of 211 on our PC WorldBench 98 tests indicates, the XPO 450 is no performance star by any means. Despite toolless entry, removing and replacing the case requires some work.

WHAT ELSE: The PC comes with small but powerful Altec Lansing ACS44W speakers that produce good sound and volume. Midwest Micro color-codes exterior ports so you can connect peripherals easily. Microsoft Office 97 Small Business Edition comes bundled with the system.

BEST USE: This expandable machine is a stellar choice for any small business with budget constraints.

10 IBM PC 300GL PIII-600

WHAT'S HOT: Powered by a PIII-600 processor and the Via chip set, the 300GL managed a PC WorldBench 98 score of 255--a few points above the average for similarly equipped PIII-600s running Windows 98. At $1968, it costs less than most systems with similar performance capabilities. Three large thumbscrews make opening the desktop case a breeze, and the detailed system manual contains lots of excellent diagrams and troubleshooting information.

WHAT'S NOT: The low price comes at the expense of features. For example, the PC 300 GL contains neither a network interface nor a modem. The integrated speakers generate weak, tinny sound.

WHAT ELSE: The 17-inch IBM G74 monitor produces sharp text even at the maximum resolution of 1280 by 1024, but image colors look washed out. Though the Number Nine SR9 graphics card features a digital output jack (for connecting flat-panel displays), the analog monitor we received required an adapter that stuck out several inches from the system's back. The PC 300GL offers three open slots and a single open drive bay.

BEST USE: The PC 300GL is a fast, basic system for offices that have extra modems or network cards handy.

TECH TREND

Understanding Ultra ATA-66

You might expect the new Ultra ATA-66 hard drive interface to be twice as fast at data throughput as its predecessor, the Ultra ATA-33. But it's not that simple, says Steve Wilkins, strategic marketing manager for Quantum, a hard drive manufacturer.

While the interface is important, hard drive speed also depends on several other factors, such as the internal data rate (currently still at 33 MBps).

"What we're doing with the [faster] interface is opening up the pipe for internal data rate speedups further down the line," Wilkins says. "With the new [Ultra ATA-66] structure in place, the interface won't be a problem as successive drive generations improve in speed." By the end of this year, internal data rates will exceed 33 MBps, and the new drives will be able to take advantage of Ultra ATA-66.

Besides doubling interface speed, Ultra ATA-66 is designed to resist voltage spikes from the power supply and other sources, improving the reliability and signal integrity of transmitted data, Wilkins says. In addition, the multiple-line IDE cable that comes with Ultra ATA-66 drives reduces signal crosstalk (the interference between data lines) more successfully than the ATA-33 drive cables do. New motherboards and chip sets that support Ultra ATA-66 have the appropriate connections built in, whereas current systems require installation of a special adapter card before they can take advantage of the new interface. So users who plan to upgrade their hard drives in the future will have their systems ready for the higher speeds.

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