Compact desktop PCs group test review

desktop power in a small package
Photo of Compact desktop PCs group test
£779 + VAT

The Dell GX240 system came with a 2.2GHz ‘Northwood’ P4 (the latest version of the P4 with 512KB of L2 cache), backed disappointingly by Intel’s 845 chipset using PC133 SDRAM and not the 845D and DDR, which would have given it stunning performance.

The Dell GX240 comes housed in the now standard black and grey Optiplex desktop case, which has to be one of the best-designed, tool-free desktop cases around. Its clamshell design makes accessing any part of the system straightforward.

The tool-free theme carries on inside with the drive bays, expansion plates and power supply all removable without the aid of a screwdriver. As an added bonus, by using the supplied base it can be converted into a mini-tower. You also get a padlock ring and a chassis intrusion detector, so the GX240 can be made a secure system.

The compact nature of the GX240 means there are no spare drive bays, but there are three PCI slots free for card upgrades. For storage Dell uses a slow 5,400rpm 20GB Maxtor hard drive, not state of the art by any means but perfectly suited for the business market the GX240 is aimed at, as is the optical drive – a modest 24-speed CD-ROM – and the 16MB ATI Rage 128 Pro graphics card. This drives the Dell 1503FP 15-inch flat panel monitor that’s bundled with the review system.

This is very much a business system, so the spec isn’t as performance-oriented as some of the other machines tested here. But workers aren’t supposed to be gamers, are they?

It’s interesting to see how far the all-in-one concept of PC has evolved in a short space of time. A year ago it would be easy to dismiss them as a gimmick. They were slower than a lot of notebooks and had a mis-match of technologies making for some unstable platforms.

How things have changed. It’s very hard to ignore AJP’s incredible all-in-one, the Neo PC-4. Yes, it may be the most expensive machine reviewed here, but it does come with 512MB of RAMBUS memory and it both out-performs and out-features (if that’s a word) all of the other machines. It’s only let down by its bulky chassis and lack of any manageability options. In other respects it completely outshines the other all-in-one, the Scenic F from Fujitsu Siemens.

However, if manageability and security are more of a factor than price and overall performance, then it is down to a choice between the systems from the big two – Dell and Hewlett Packard. Both the GX240 and e-PC 42 have the management tools and security features normally associated with business systems from these companies. The Dell machine in particular would make any IT manager’s dreams come true (well, some of them) with its sheer number of tool-free features.

For connectivity the Tulip C3 takes some beating. It’s astonishing how many ports can be packed into such a small space, including USB and 1394 FireWire, while the NEC and units show clever case designs. The Evesham,com is the only non-Intel system reviewed here; it has been cleverly designed and its AMD Duron gives it plenty of performance.

Ultimately, though, which one would we recommend? For its list of features alone the AJP is hard to beat.

Powered by a 2GHz ‘Northwood’ Pentium 4 backed by a huge 512MB of PC800 RDRAM memory, the Neo PC-4 all-in-one is a true desktop PC. It’s fast, full of connectivity options and with a large hard drive; everything, in fact, that its predecessors weren’t.

One of the problems usually associated with this type of PC is accessibility, but not so with the Neo PC-4. Just undo the five screws in the back of the screen to remove the rear cover and you have access to the two DIMM slots. The 7,200rpm 60GB IBM hard drive is also easy to get at, sitting under a cover in one side of the base of the unit.

The rest of the hardware is made up of two modular optical drives, an 8-speed DVD-ROM and a 4/4/24-speed CD-RW, neatly installed in bays in the top of the base unit. A floppy drive and two Type II PC Card slots are housed in the side of the screen, while onboard 10/100 Ethernet and 56K V.90 modem come as standard. Also included are parallel, S/P-DIF, TV out and video in ports, plus three audio ports, a 1394 FireWire port, four USB ports – two in the rear of the system, two built into the side of the screen – and an IR port.

The 17.1-inch TFT screen is powered by a 64MB ATI Mobility Radeon integrated chip that gives the screen a useful native resolution of 1,280 pixels by 1,024 pixels and is powerful enough for all but the post power-hungry games. The screen itself can be tilted and there is a swivel unit built into the base of the system. All in all, it’s a nice package.

The Tulip C3 takes the idea of a compact PC to the ultimate in compactness. The C3 is housed in a brushed aluminium box that measures a mere 26.6 x 18.8 x 17.2cm and weighs just 4.5kg.

Based around a Shuttle SV25 the C3 is powered by a 1GHz Pentium III (although a P4 version is also made by Shuttle) so performance isn’t the key with the C3. But one look at the rear panel shows what really matters – connectivity.

Despite its small size the C3 offers more ports than you’ll ever see on a normal sized desktop – mouse, keyboard, serial, VGA, S-Video, parallel, composite video, dual 1394 FireWire, LAN, audio in, audio out – the list is huge. These are all handled by the Shuttle FV24 motherboard which uses VIA’s ProSavage PL133 chipset and also supports a single PCI slot.

The hard drive supplied with the C3 is a Maxtor 5,400rpm 20GB unit, not big or fast by today’s standards but at least it has an ATA/100 interface.

You won’t be tempted to play games on the C3 as the integrated S3 Savage 4 graphics adapter is only powered by 8MB of memory, but it’s more than enough to cope with standard office applications.

Tulip supplies the C3 with Windows XP Professional as the pre-installed OS and a basic three-year RTB warranty. For sheer cuteness it’s hard to beat this tiny desktop system.

With office space at a premium, the need for small, compact PCs becomes even more pressing. But the trick is to fulfil this aim without sacrificing anything in connectivity. With bulky monitors being replaced by flat panel screens as the price of these continues to fall, the main occupier of space becomes the system box.

The two ways most vendors approach the reduction in size of the PC is to either to put it in a smaller box, with smaller processors to aid the reduction of heat build-up, or replace the box completely and go down the all-in-one route.

With motherboard manufacturers now beginning to add the Pentium 4 to micro-ATX boards, or even Flex-ATX boards, there’s suddenly a lot of potential for the small form factor format. Add to that the Intel 845 chipset with its cheap SDRAM support for the P4, or the 845D offering much better performance because of its DDR support, and the compact PC design is set to be revolutionised from the quaint slow systems of a year ago to systems that are usable for even some of the more advanced of today’s office applications.

Similarly, the all-in-one design has grown from the mis-match of notebook and desktop components and poor performance of one or two years ago to systems that match the standard desktop for speed and usability.

So here’s a selection of both types of compact PC, all bar one using an Intel processor solution and two using the new Northwood P4.

Click on the ‘NEXT’ link below to find out more.

Hewlett Packard was one of the first manufacturers to release a small form factor PC and the e-PC 42 is the first of its size to include an Intel Pentium 4 processor. Its small size (it measures just 28 by 9.5 by 25cm) means that it can fit just about anywhere. It can even be hung under a desk using HP’s mounting bracket.

Not only that but it is also very quiet. Despite using a 1.7GHz Pentium 4 CPU, which requires a lot of cooling because of the heat it generates, the internal fans are hardly noticeable. This is because the chassis has been optimised to allow efficient airflow, therefore reducing the need for large fans. And most important of all, the power supply is external, just like a notebook PC.

HP supplied the e-PC 42 with a 15-inch LCD monitor with a native resolution of 1,024 by 768 pixels and powered by an integrated ATI Rage 128 Pro 4XL GPU with 16MB of memory. Backing up the CPU is an Intel 845 chipset, and with only 128MB of PC133 SDRAM memory, it’s not the fastest system on the block.

One of the major criticisms of the original e-PC was its lack of expandability and its legacy-free connectivity. With this new version, the expandability is still non-existent, however the legacy-free ‘feature’ has been dropped, as you now get two PS/2 ports, plus serial, parallel and two USB ports at the rear with an additional two USB ports on the front of the chassis.

Windows XP Professional is the pre-installed operating system and also bundled with the system is HP’s useful DMI utility, Toptools. HP provides the e-PC with a standard 3-year on-site warranty with NBD response time.

Another system aimed at business buyers, the HP has some elegant touches, particularly for those whose desk space is so restricted that they want to mount their PC underneath it…

NEC’s I-Select ML3 has been designed to be all things to all people; the chassis allows you to use it as a slim-line desktop, or as a thin midi-tower system.

NEC uses Intel’s 845 chipset in the ML3 PL1700, which allows it to use cheap SDRAM support for the 1.7GHz P4 instead of the vastly more expensive RAMBUS solution, the downside being the much reduced memory bandwidth offered by SDRAM. Having said that it is doubtful you would ever notice too much of a difference when using normal office applications.

Usefully the ML3 PL1700 comes with four USB ports, split equally between the rear I/O panel and the front bezel. There’s also a 10/100 PCI Ethernet card. Expansion, though, is almost non-existent, with no spare drive bays and with the network card occupying one of the two PCI slots, so card upgrades will have to be carefully considered. The 15-inch NEC Multisync flat panel is powered by a 32MB ATI Radeon VE AGP card that provides a useful 1,024 pixels by 768 pixels native resolution.

Storage is provided by a fast 40GB 7,200rpm Seagate drive, making the quick movement of large amounts of data relatively easy, while the optical drive is a bit of a surprise – a Samsung DVD-CD/RW that is capable of 4/4/32-speed CD and 4-speed DVD speeds.

NEC supplies this system with a 3 year on-site warranty and a guaranteed NBD response time, reinforcing the idea that it’s a serious business tool that just happens to be much smaller than conventional desktop PCs.

The cleverly designed Arka 1200 is the only non-Intel powered system in this group test. It uses a 1.2GHz AMD Duran backed by 256MB of PC133 SDRAM and the reasonably fast VIA ProSavage KM133 integrated chipset, so the Arka 1200 lacks nothing in performance.

Housed in a cleverly designed tool-free, mini-tower case, gaining access to upgrade components is relatively easy. Two thumbscrews and a pull-out locking lever hold one side of the case in place, and when released the side panel drops down to reveal that the motherboard is built into this side panel, a clever and neat piece of design.

Storage is provided by a relatively slow 5,400rpm 40GB hard drive and a 16-speed DVD-ROM drive, both made by Samsung, and these sit in the only two drive bays provided. For connectivity, there are single parallel and serial ports, three audio ports, a midi/game port, a LAN port and four USB ports; two in the rear of the system and two in the front bezel.

The 15-inch LG 563LE monitor (not shown) is powered by the integrated graphics provided by the system chipset, which includes architecture from S3′s Savage 4 graphics chipset, backed by 32MB of memory.

Evesham’s Arka 1200 is a capable, well-built system although the small design offers limited expandability. But for those with limited space and no need for expansion it may be the one to choose.

The Scenic F is Fujitsu Siemens’ entry into the all-in-one market and although not as highly advanced as the other all-in-one in this review, the AJP Neo PC-4, it is still a useful tool where space is at a premium and performance isn’t an overriding issue.

Built around a 15-inch Fujitsu-Siemens TFT flat panel, the Scenic F’s overall performance is slow compared to the other systems in this review. This is due to the combination of a 1GHz Pentium III processor, 128MB of PC133 memory (upgradable to a maximum of 512MB), slow hard drive and the low-powered integrated graphics provided by the Intel 815e chipset.

Intended for business use, it comes as no surprise to find that neither the hard drive nor the optical drive are fast, state-of-the-art units. The hard drive is a 20GB Maxtor model that has a spin speed of 5,400rpm while the optical drive is a slim line 24-speed CD-ROM.

But performance isn’t everything. The Scenic F does come with onboard LAN, two Type II PC card slots and it also has legacy ports, unlike some of its competitors. All the I/O ports you would normally find on a PC are present, including four USB ports which are split between the rear of the system and the side.

There’s also a copy of Fujitsu Siemens’ manageability software, DeskView, and the Scenic F comes with a three year on-site warranty, backed by an NBD response time guarantee. This is not the fastest PC in the world, but it does have practical features for business buyers.


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