HP Vectra vl800

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  • Editors' rating
    7.5 Very good

Pros

  • Fast and well-equipped, with many good features for maintenance in corporate environments.

Cons

  • Despite its 1.5GHz clock speed, this is not the fastest PC for all tasks.

Any new Intel chip comes with a measure of controversy. With the Pentium 4, released last November, this has become as hot as its heatsink: benchmark after benchmark shows it to be performing less well than one might expect from the clock speed.

This may explain why HP's new business-orientated Vectra vl800 comes wreathed in briefing papers explaining that the clock speed is not the full story. It's true that the vl800's specification looks most impressive: a 400MHz frontside bus, 256MB of Rambus memory, a 32MB nVidia Geforce 2 GTS graphics card, a 12-speed DVD-ROM drive, and so on. All topped off with a 1.5GHz Pentium 4 processor -- currently, the fastest available clock speed on an IA-32 instruction set.

Such power packs a lot of heat, and the vl800 has no fewer than four fans to waft away the joules. Two are on the back of the unit -- one on the power supply and one next to the processor and memory. The third is on the processor itself, embedded in a delicately-cut helical heatsink, while the fourth is tucked away on the graphics card. But despite this proliferation of spindles, the computer is very quiet -- almost inaudible, in fact, even when sited on the desktop. HP is proud of this, as it's due to the company's 'intelligent cooling system'. Essentially, the computer only fires up the fans when the heat demands it: most of the time, they idle.

Sound is integrated on the motherboard, but the 10/100 3Com network adapter, somewhat surprisingly, is not. Even so, four PCI slots remain free for expansion, which should be enough for most corporate users. The vl800 comes with HP's own remote diagnostics and monitoring software, e-Diagtools. The case doesn't need tools to open, but can be locked shut. This, combined with an intrusion detection circuit and HP's support for migration onto the platform, demonstrates how keen the company is on corporate acceptance. The whole system is built to HP's tradition of robust thoughtfulness.

If only the Pentium 4 made good use of all that. Our benchmarks show that on Business Winstone 2001 -- a mix of standard applications doing corporate tasks -- the vl800 ran a disappointing 2.2 times faster than a similarly-equipped Pentium III system running at 550MHz. Under Content Creation Winstone 2001, which uses more demanding multimedia-type applications, the vl800 was even more disappointing, delivering only 1.8 times the performance of the 550MHz Pentium III system.

Until new software is written that specifically addresses the Pentium 4's strengths, this performance ratio of running approximately two-thirds as fast as expected from the clock speed will continue. Thus, the Pentium 4 will only start to pull ahead of the pack when it reaches 2GHz at the end of this year.

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But it's not about the megahertz, says HP. It's about manageability, all-round performance, and the psychological reassurance of having the most advanced PC available. If you need a powerful system, then the Vectra vl800 is well worth looking at. But if you want the most powerful computer to do a specific task, it makes sense to do your own benchmarking on a Pentium 4 and a 1.2GHz Athlon. Chances are, the fastest system won't be the one with the fastest clock speed.

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