With Pentium flaw fixed, PCs fire on all cylinders


January 16, 1995|By MICHAEL J. HIMOWITZ

A while back I decided to investigate life in the high speed lane -- to drive the PC equivalent of a nitromethane-fueled dragster.

It feels wonderful. And with the prices falling as fast as horsepower is increasing, you can do it without mortgaging the house and kids.

The machine I tried out was a Packard Bell Pentium 90 multimedia outfit, which packs a lot of punch for a price in the $2,500 to $3,000 range.

The machine uses Intel's fastest microprocessor, and that's why I held off writing this review, even though I like the computer. Shortly before the piece was ready, news broke of the flaw in the Pentium's math coprocessor.

The flaw, which affects division in a very small number of cases, is unlikely to pose a problem for most home and small business users. But I couldn't in good conscience recommend any Pentium until Intel was willing to replace flawed processors on demand. Intel is willing to do that now, either directly or through its dealers. We'll discuss later how to tell whether the computer you're buying has the original Pentium or a corrected version.

There's no question that for users of older PCs, the Pentium 90 is a revelation. Windows snap and crackle as they pop up on your screen. Graphics that try your patience as they dribble into view on lesser machines suddenly explode into life. And if you like to play games, this heavy iron is as close to heaven as you're likely to get.

First things first. The Packard Bell unit I tested includes the Pentium 90 Mhz processor, eight megabytes of memory, a 720-megabyte hard drive, a PCI local bus video board with one megabyte of RAM, a double-speed CD-ROM drive, 16-bit sound card, internal 14,400 bps fax modem and a sharp, 15-inch super VGA monitor with side-mounted speakers.

The machine is also designed to take advantage of the new Plug 'n Play standard, which will make it easier to install new sound cards, ethernet adapters, scanners and other Plug 'n Play equipment as they become available.

The innards are wrapped in a compact, two-tone case with fluted accent panels that give the computer a Digital Art Deco feel. The monitor housing carries out the same motif, which led to a minor setup problem.

To keep the footprint small and save money, Packard Bell sacrificed expandability. With the CD-ROM installed, there's only one open drive bay. You can add a 5 1/4 -inch floppy or a tape backup unit, but not both. If you need both, one will have to be a more expensive external unit.

Likewise, there's not much room for growth inside. There are only two free expansion slots, one of which holds a regular ISA card, the other a PCI or ISA board. Considering all the goodies packed as standard equipment, this won't be an issue for home users, but in an office, adding a network card and a scanner controller will take the architecture to its limit.

Outside of the Pentium 90, none of the components is at the bleeding edge of technology. If you need an industrial strength file server for your office or a high-end graphics workstation, look elsewhere. But for home and general business use, you're unlikely to need anything more -- now or in the foreseeable future.

To test ease of setup, I opened the boxes, took out a large sheet of illustrated instructions and gave them to my 12-year-old son, Ben. Ben took up the job with alacrity. With the exception of two minor glitches, he managed to read the instructions and get all the color-coded cables in the right places.

Glitch one: The instructions explained how to plug one end of the video cable into the PC but forgot to mention that the other end goes into the monitor. I can imagine a technically challenged user trying to figure out why nothing happens on the screen when he pushes the button.

Glitch two: We both had trouble lining up the screws that mount the speakers on the monitor. This is a problem with the monitor's Digital Deco design -- a worthy artistic effort that's not worth the installation effort.

There were a couple of minor hardware flaws. The jack connecting the speakers to the sound card occasionally worked loose, cutting off the left speaker. And the space bar on the keyboard made a tambourine-like sound that drove me crazy. Nothing fatal, but annoying.

Once everything was together (aside from the speakers, a 15-minute job), the machine performed flawlessly. Given the number of add-ons and the potential for hardware and software conflicts, this is no mean feat. Give the folks at Packard Bell an "A" for setup. This baby was ready to roll.

When the computer starts up, it takes you to the Packard Bell Navigator -- an animated, user-friendly front end to Microsoft Windows. There's a workplace shell that can replace Windows' much maligned Program Manager, as well as something called Kids Space, an even friendlier program launcher that will keep the little hackers from messing with Mom and Dad's files. New users will find these comforting. Experienced users will probably get rid of them.

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