We set the specs and the price and had a look at what Australia's PC vendors could come up with in terms of performance.
For this review we looked at business desktop PCs for under AU$2,000. Some of the main requirements we set were 1GB of memory, built-in Ethernet, and an LCD display. We decided high-end graphics and sound features were not necessary; most companies will not pay for speakers or high-end graphics cards. CD/DVD burners were also not needed (companies tend to provide these separately where appropriate), but a standard CD/DVD drive was required.
Intel processors still dominated this review. Intel Pentium 4 3.0GHz processors seemed to be the price point where vendors could still supply a fast P4 system under AU$2,000.
It was surprising to find only one vendor who submitted an AMD solution -- that being Paragon who sent us an AMD 64 3000+ processor. It proved to be a wise choice as it came out fastest in our performance tests.
All the PCs we tested had DDR-RAM bar the Dell which came with DDR2 RAM. DDR-RAM still seems to be the RAM of choice as it's less expensive that DDR2.
DDR2 is the next-generation memory technology. It is based upon DDR memory technology, with enhancements to enable improved performance. These enhancements include faster speeds, higher data bandwidths, lower power consumption, and enhanced thermal performance. DDR2 memory modules are not backward-compatible with DDR, due to incompatible pin configurations, voltage, and DRAM memory chip technology.
DDR2 speeds include 400MHz, 533MHz, and 667MHz and is expected to become the dominant technology by late 2005 or 2006.
Serial ATA drives are quickly becoming the default standard with new PCs. All the vendors in this review submitted PCs with SATA drives. They were mainly Seagate drives of different sizes, sizes that ranged from 80BG to 120GB (with 120GB a little on the excessive side). One of the reasons SATA is becoming mainstream is because of the huge advantages the format has over traditional parallel ATA (PATA).
Your graphics subsystem can dramatically increase the overall performance of your PC. Most the vendors in this review submitted integrated solutions, which don't tend to be quite as fast as AGP/PCI Express graphics cards.
As with many notebooks these days, we are seeing more and more USB ports on PCs. The inclusion of up to eight USB ports is not uncommon with most of the ports on the rear and usually two on the front. A single FireWire port can sometimes be found on some motherboards but typically you would buy a FireWire card if you need FireWire. And of course your good old legacy ports aren't going anywhere in a hurry.
It is important to create an image of your hard disk in case of disastrous crashes which you may not be able to recover from. By having a disk image you will be able to restore your PC to the condition it was when it was working reliably.
A disk image will also save you time installing the operating system, device drivers, and applications from scratch. We should mention that disk images are very rarely changed and usually last for the life of the hardware. If for some reason you were to upgrade any hardware, however, you would have to create a new disk image.
Altech Business PC
In the engine room was a 3.0GHz Intel Pentium 4 processor, 1GB of RAM, and a 120GB SATA HDD. There were only two memory slots, both of which were taken up by the two 512MB modules. All this was connected to an Abit motherboard that integrates an Intel graphics accelerator. The motherboard also has a 6-channel audio codec on board and three PCI slots. The board didn't come with an AGP slot but there was provision for one. Altech tried to keep the costs down of the system by only offering a DVD-ROM drive. Most of the other systems came with CD-RW/ DVD-ROM combo drives.
At the rear of the PC were all your standard I/O ports with the inclusion of 6 channel audio connectors. On the front were only two USB connectors.
Cutting back on a combo drive meant Altech could provide a better-quality display panel. They sent a 17in Samsung LCD which was very good. Only the Dell display was better. The Altech PC performed quite well; however, it did fall away a little in the graphics tests.
|Product||Altech Business PC|
|Phone||02 9735 5685|
|I/O: 6xUSB, Serial, Parallel, 2xPS/2.|
|Poor graphics performance; support for up to 2MB of system RAM.|
|Case not suited for a corporate desktop.|
|Three-year onsite warranty.|
Dell OptiPlex GX280
Expansion isn't a problem with this machine as there are two PCI slots and a single PCI 16x slot. There were four memory banks, two of which were taken up by 256MB DDR2 modules. We would have liked to have tested this PC with 1GB of RAM but we couldn't get our hands on any more DDR2 RAM in time.
Like many of the other systems the Dell had an 80GB SATA HDD but also had a DVD+RW drive which none of the others did. This consequently made it the most expensive PC (pushing it over the AU$2,000 mark). The unit has a standard range of I/O connectors at the rear but also, located under a small hatch in the front of the case, an extra pair of USB ports and a headphone socket.
The Dell LCD panel was the pick of all the displays. Its image quality was slightly better than that of the Altech (Samsung) and Paragon (LG). The Dell panel featured a four-port USB hub, both standard RGB and DVI connectors and cables as well as one of the smoothest display stands we have ever used. The stand allows you to swivel the display horizontally as well as up and down. Even better, you can change the display's mode from landscape to portrait.
The Dell keyboard wasn't bad to use but we still preferred the Microsoft keyboards. The Dell keyboard's footprint was made smaller by not having a plastic area around the standard keys. The mouse, on the other hand, was a good quality optical mouse.
In terms of overall performance the Dell was just as quick as most its competitors. It did have a major disadvantage and that was it only had half the RAM of the other PCs.
|Product||Dell OptiPlex GX280|
|Phone||1800 808 312|
|I/O: 8xUSB, Serial, Parallel, 2xPS/2.|
|Gigabit LAN, DVD Burner, DDR2 technology; low on system RAM (512MB only).|
|Excellent design and workmanship.|
|Three-year next-business-day onsite warranty.|
Hallmark Business PC
From the outside there is room for one 5.25in and 3.5in drive; from the inside there wasn't any more space for additional drives. Inside appeared neat and tidy and access to the CPU and memory was easy and you only have to remove one screw to pull out the hard disk cage to get to the hard disk.
The Intel mainboard is the same one used by Optima, the D915GAG, which has onboard graphics, one PCI Express x16, and two standard PCI slots.
The rear of the Optima had all the standard IO connectors and the front has two handy USB ports and headphone and microphone connectors.
The Hallmark also came with a Microsoft wireless keyboard and wireless optical mouse as well as a cable lock to lock your PC.
The 17in Viewmaster LCD was colour matched and had built-in speakers. Its footprint was also small which was great but where it really counted like image quality it didn't perform too well.
We expected the Hallmark to perform similarly to the Altech considering they were running almost identical hardware. To our surprise the Hallmark was slightly slower in some tests. After looking into it a bit more it was the Hallmark's hard disk that was slower which meant its overall performance in Windows-based applications was slower.
|Product||Hallmark Business PC|
|Vendor||Hallmark Computer International|
|Phone||03 8558 8400|
|I/O: 6xUSB, Serial, Parallel, 2xPS/2.|
|Largest HDD at 120GB; support for up to 4GB of System RAM.|
|Good design, extras like wireless keyboard and mouse, cable lock.|
|Two-year RTB is included, with optional purchase of 2-, 3-, or 4-year onsite warranty at AU$40 per year.|
IBM Think Centre S50 Ultra Small Form Factor
IBM cut down the size of the system but also cut a few other things like the size of the hard disk only supplying a 40GB hard disk and you only get a CD-ROM drive. Like Optima, IBM only supplied a 15in LCD.
The S50 wasn't the fastest PC on the block this is because it used a PATA hard drive whereas the other PCs used SATA drives and it struggled in the graphics department. The 865 chip is somewhat less advanced than Intel's new 915 chip which some of the other units were using.
The S50 comes standard with 512MB RAM however IBM put in an extra 512MB for this review. The combined price of the PC, monitor and extra RAM is AU$2,258. This includes promo pricing of AU$1,999 for the S50 PC and 15in LCD monitor bundle which is available until December 31, and AU$259 for the memory.
IBM also has the same ThinkCentre model bundled with a ThinkVision L170 17in TFT Flat Panel Monitor for an extra AU$150 (AU$2,149), also available until 31st Dec. The extra 512MB RAM is an option here as well.
We guess you are paying a bit more because of its small form factor. So if you need to save space this would be the one you would go for but you may want to bump up some of the specs.
|Product||IBM Think Centre S50|
|Phone||13 24 26|
|I/O: 6xUSB, Serial, Parallel, 2xPS/2.|
|Poor graphics and disk performance; support for up to 2MB of system RAM; no floppy; gigabit LAN; Rapid Restore.|
|Excellent design and workmanship; most expensive.|
|Three-year limited warranty.|
Optima Business PC
And, as with many of the other PCs, an 80GB SATA HDD and CD-RW/DVD-ROM combo drive was supplied. This Optima PC uses an Intel motherboard that makes use of the 915G Chipset and Intel GMA900 graphics processor. It has a single PCI Express card x16, two standard PCI slots, and a single PCI Express x1 slot. In the PCI Express x16 slot was a DVI card which was strange since the LCD panel they supplied didn't have a DVI input.
The PC had a fairly standard array of I/O connectors at the rear besides the DVI connector and on the front of the PC were an extra pair of USB ports and audio connectors.
The display was a 15in LCD. We were surprised Optima couldn't do this PC with a 17in LCD for less than AU$2,000. Image quality wasn't too bad but there was certainly a lot better on show. In terms of performance the Optima was well off the pace, mainly in the graphics department.
|Product||Optima Business PC|
|Phone||1300 658 175|
|I/O: 6xUSB, Serial, Parallel, 2xPS/2, DVI.|
|Small display (only 15in); support for up to 4GB of system RAM.|
|Basic design, expensive considering you only get a 15in LCD.|
|Three-year onsite warranty.|
Paragon A3000 Series
From the outside there were three 5.25in drive bays and a single 3.5in drive bay. Inside however was enough carriage space for four more drives. Just like the Dell and Hallmark you can order the PC either as a tower or desktop.
The AOpen case uses locking latches to lock PC Cards, HDD, and FDD into place. This removes the need to use screws but it doesn't make the case completely screwless. The optical drive was screwed to a drive cage. The cages were also cleverly designed making pulling a drive out very easy. The cages were also marked with HDD, FDD, and CD-ROM so you won't mix up where your drives should go. Markings also show you how to remove your drives. The inside was also extremely tidy with cables nicely tucked away.
At the heart of the MSI motherboard was an AMD 64-bit processor, 1GB of RAM, and a 64MB Geforce 4 AGP graphics card. The MSI board also had three PCI slots and a single CNR slot. Making up the main components was an 80GB SATA HDD and CD-RW/DVD-ROM combo drive.
On the back of the PC were all your standard connectors as well as FireWire. On the front, underneath a latch, were additional USB ports and audio connectors.
The 17in LG LCD display was on par with the Samsung display. We found it to be quite sharp and vivid. The MS keyboard and Microsoft optical mouse were also very nice to use. The same keyboard-mouse combo shipped with the Altech system.
On the performance side the Paragon was the fastest PC tested. It was fastest in every test with the AMD CPU and fast graphics card making the difference.
|Product||Paragon A3000 Series|
|Phone||03 8564 0200|
|I/O: 6xUSB, FireWire, Serial, Parallel, 2xPS/2.|
|Support for up to 2GB of system RAM.|
|Good design, was also the fastest PC.|
|Three-year onsite, next-day response.|
Xenon Business PC
The Xenon chassis appeared to be robust and the assembly was neat and tidy. From the outside there were two 5.25in drive bays and two 3.5in bay. Inside there was room for another hard disk drive. Access to these drives was relatively easy but it did mean you had to undo a few screws.
The Intel mainboard was the same one used by Optima and Hallmark: the D915GAG, which has onboard graphics, one PCI Express x16, and two standard PCI slots.
The rear connectors were also the same with two USB ports, and headphone and microphone jacks on the front. Xenon only opted for a CD-ROM which is fair -- most companies will only be rolling out PCs with CD-ROM drives only. An 80GB Seagate SATA drive was also standard.
The Philips display was clear and sharp and only marginally behind the 17in Dell in terms of image quality. In our speed tests the Xenon was one of the slowest PCs. This was mainly because it used a 2.8GHz processor whereas the majority of the others used a 3.0GHz processor. We decided to test the Xenon with both 512MB and 1GB of RAM. It was only slightly faster with 1GB of RAM. To be fair all the PCs in this review were extremely fast -- a difference of 200MHz is nothing to make too much of a big deal about.
Xenon was the only vendor to ship its PC with management software. Called X-alert Management, the system involves installing an agent on the user's PC from which administrators, over IP, can open a remote session to this PC (just like terminal services). Administrators can check the health status of the PC as well as set up policies which can e-mail and SMS them of any changes or thresholds that have been exceeded.
It lists all the processors that are running and software installed, it can also produce reports. Xenon has indicated X-alert will be bundled with every Xenon PC; up until now it has only be bundled with the manufacturer's servers.
|Product||Xenon Business PC|
|Phone||1300 888 030|
|I/O: 6xUSB, Serial, Parallel, 2xPS/2.|
|Low on System RAM (512MB only); support for up to 4GB of system RAM.|
|Basic design, but comes with PC management software.|
|Standard one-year onsite and 1-year RTB; optional three-year onsite.|
|Name||Altech Business PC||Dell OptiPlex GX280||Hallmark Business PC|
|Distributor||Altech Computers||Dell||Hallmark Computer International|
|List price (test configuration inc. GST)||AU$1999||AU$2249||AU$1990|
|Phone number||02 9735 5685||1800 808 312||03 8558 8400|
|Warranty||3 year onsite warranty||3-year next business day onsite||2-year RTB is included with optional purchase of 2-, 3-, or 4-year onsite warranty @ AU$40 per year.|
|Optional 3-year onsite|
|Processor type & speed||Intel P4 3.0GHz||Intel P4 3.0GHz||Intel P4 3.0GHz|
|Motherboard||Abit IS-20||Intel D915G||Intel D915GAG|
|Hard drive||Seagate 120GB SATA||80GB SATA (sourced from two different manufacturers)||Seagate 120GB SATA|
|AGP/ PCI slots||3xPCI||1xPCIe 16x, 2xPCI||1xPCIe 16x, 2xPCI, 1x PCIe 1x|
|Total system RAM (test configuration)/type /speed||1GB DDR 400MHz||512MB DDR2 400MHz||1GB DDR 400MHz|
|Expansion & Video|
|USB/FireWire/serial/parallel/PS/2||6xUSB, serial, parallel, 2xPS/2||8xUSB, serial, parallel, 2xPS/2||6xUSB, serial, parallel, 2xPS/2|
|Video card and memory||Integrated Intel 865G/ Shared||Integrated Intel GMA900/ Shared||Integrated Intel GMA900/ Shared|
|Monitor||Samsung SyncMaster 710V 17in LCD||Dell Ultrasharp height- adjustable 17in LCD with DVI||Viewmaster JM777 17in with built-in speakers|
|CD/ DVD manufacturer/model and speed||LG DVD-ROM 16x||Dell 8X DVD+R/RW||Sony CD-RW/ DVD-ROM 52x32x52x/16x|
|Soundcard||Integrated Realtek AC97 Audio 6-channel audio||Integrated SoundMAX audio||Integrated Realtek Hi Definition Audio|
|Modem/network name and model||Integrated Broadcom 10/100 LAN||Integrated 10/100/1000 PCIe LAN||Integrated Intel 10/100 LAN|
|Other hardware||MS PS/2 keyboard, MS USB optical mouse||Dell USB keyboard and optical mouse||Wireless MS keyboard and mouse; cable lock|
|IBM Think Centre S50 Ultra Small Form Factor||Optima Business PC||Paragon A3000 Series||XENON Business PC|
|IBM||Optima Technology Solutions||Paragon Systems||XENON Systems|
|13 24 26||1300 658 175||03 8564 0200||1300 888 030|
|3-year limited warranty||3-year onsite warranty||3 years onsite, next-day response||Standard: 1-year onsite + 1-year RTB,|
|Optional 3-year onsite|
|Intel P4 3.0GHz||Intel P4 3.0GHz||AMD Athlon 64 3000+||Intel P4 2.8GHz|
|Intel 865GV||Intel D915GAG||MSI-6741||Intel D915GAG|
|Seagate 40GB ATA||Seagate 80GB SATA||Maxtor 80GB SATA||Seagate 80GB SATA|
|1xPCI||1xPCIe 16x, 2xPCI, 1x PCIe 1x||1xAGP, 3xPCI, 1xCNR||1xPCIe 16x, 2xPCI, 1x PCIe 1x|
|1GB DDR 400MHz||1GB DDR 400MHz||1GB DDR 400MHz||512MB DDR 400MHz|
|Expansion & Video|
|6xUSB, serial, parallel, 2xPS/2||6xUSB, serial, parallel, 2xPS/2||6xUSB, FireWire, serial, parallel, 2xPS/2||6xUSB, serial, parallel, 2xPS/2|
|Integrated Intel 865G/ Shared||Integrated Intel GMA900/ Shared||AGP Geforce 4 with s-video and composite/ 64MB||Integrated Intel GMA900/ Shared|
|IBM ThinkVision 6636-AB1 15in LCD||Optima SL5006 15in LCD with built-in speakers||LG Flatron L1710M 17in LCD with built-in speakers||Philips 170B with built-in speakers and DVI|
|1024x768||1024 x 768||1280x1024||1280x1024|
|TEAC CD-ROM||Mitsubishi CD-RW/ DVD-ROM 52x32x52x/16x||LG CD-RW/ DVD-ROM 52x32x52x/16x||LiteOn CD-ROM|
|Integrated SoundMAX Audio||Integrated Realtek Hi Definition Audio||Integrated in VIA VT8237 AC97||Integrated Realtek Hi Definition Audio|
|Integrated PRO/1000 LAN||Integrated Intel 10/100 LAN||Integrated VIA 10/100 LAN||Integrated Intel 10/100 LAN|
|IBM PS/2 keyboard and IBM USB optical mouse||Samsung PS/2 keyboard, Logitech USB optical mouse; DVI card||MS PS/2 keyboard and MS USB optical mouse||Philips PS2 keyboard and Philips USB optical mouse|
How we tested
What kind of input/output connectors does the PC provide, including USB, FireWire, and legacy?
What is the expansion potential of the machine, and what are its networking capabilities?
What is the overall cost of the machine, and how well does it perform for the money?
How long is the warranty? What service and maintenance contracts are available?
Company: DBL International
This company's desktop PCs were last renewed pre-Y2K and are now becoming slow and unreliable, causing headaches for the help desk. The company wants to roll out new desktops for 100 of its users.
Approximate budget:Ã‚Â AU$2,000 per desktop PC.
Requires:Ã‚Â A desktop PC with 1GB memory, built-in Ethernet, Windows XP pre-installed, and an LCD monitor. Graphics and sound features are considered unnecessary; the company will not pay for speakers or high-end graphics cards. CD/DVD burners are also not needed (the company will provide these separately where appropriate), but a standard CD/DVD drive is required.
Concerns: The company is looking for a robust desktop platform that will last as long as possible and minimise work for the helpdesk. The availability and capabilities of any management software will also be an important consideration.
Best solution: The Xenon PC didn't come with the bells and whistles that the Dell came with but it follows the scenario we provided all the vendors. Also it was the only PC to supply any management software, so it is most suited to this company's requirements.
What to look for when buying a corporate PC
- Performance (45 percent). Processor speed as well as the amount of RAM and the graphics subsystem plays an important role in the overall performance of your PC.
- Monitor (25 percent). Look at the overall display quality including evenness of illumination, clarity and colours and resolutions supported.
- Workmanship and design (15 percent). Look at ergonomics, robustness and durability as well as expandability.
- Multimedia (10 percent). Look at the audio chip that's been used as well as the sound quality and volume levels of any speakers. Look at how many and the type of I/Os supported.
- Mouse and keyboard (45 percent). Look for good feedback, support, and colour differentiation in your keyboard. With the mouse look at the general ergonomics as well as the button size, travel and feedback.
Editor's choice: Dell OptiPlex GX280
In any case, we are confident it would be just as fast if not slightly faster than any of the other P4 systems with the full complement of RAM. Yes it was expensive but it did come with a DVD burner. If this was not required, you could replace the DVD burner with a standard DVD-ROM drive and that should bring the price down to near AU$2,000.
The Dell was really well made and uses the latest technologies like DDR2 and gigabit Ethernet. The Dell display was also exceptional. If you want to be a hero to all your employees give them a Dell PC. Just missing out was Paragon. The company made a great attempt putting together an AMD solution which proved to be the fastest PC.
This article was first published in Technology & Business magazine.
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