When a Gateway 2000 representative suggested recently that I review the company's latest Pentium Pro PC, I balked. I thought that the "Pro" was just for corporations to use as a network file server, or for an advanced operating system like Windows NT.
But when I looked at Gateway's prices, I noticed that a machine with a 180-megahertz Pentium Pro chip costs the same as an otherwise identical system with a standard 200-MHz Pentium chip. So I tried out the company's Pentium Pro 180 Family PC, and I came away impressed.
I'll get back to this specific machine in a moment, but first let me at least try to explain the difference between a regular Pentium processor and a Pentium Pro.
All Pentium processors are fast, but the Pentium Pro can process data even faster because of its ability to execute more instructions at a time. Another advantage: It can look ahead at the programs it's processing and predict where the next group of instructions are so it can process those before finishing the instruction it's working on.
All that translates to faster processing of information. Whether or not it matters depends on what you're doing and what type of software you're running. Also, as I'll cover later, the raw horsepower of a CPU is only one of several factors that determines how quickly a machine can operate.
The Pentium Pro is optimized for 32-bit code, which is why it's the machine of choice for running Windows NT, an all 32-bit operating system. With the Windows NT operating system, the Pentium Pro runs about 55% faster than a Pentium 200, according to Intel's own benchmark software. Windows 95 users will generally see much more modest improvement, depending on what programs they run.
Applications that use mostly 32-bit code, such as Microsoft's soon-to-be-released Office97, should run faster. Older 16-bit applications should run at the about the same speed. Older 16-bit Windows programs don't run any faster on a Pentium Pro, but contrary to some early reports, they don't run more slowly, either. MS-DOS programs, including DOS games, will actually run a bit slower on a Pentium Pro than on a standard Pentium machine.
Overall, I'm finding that the 180 MHz Pentium Pro runs most Windows applications at about the same speed as a machine with a 200 MHz Pentium CPU. But the Pro does start to pull ahead in multi-tasking situations when I'm running several programs at the same time.
Let's put this all into perspective. These days, just about any Pentium PC that operates at 100 MHz or more will speed through most applications that people typically use. Sure, a faster CPU might save you a second here or three seconds there, but unless you're doing something intense like computer-aided design or graphical rendering, the actual amount of time saved is usually fairly trivial.
Besides, there are other factors that determine performance, including the amount of memory you've installed, the speed of your hard disk, and whether you keep your machine tidy by deleting programs you never use and running the "defrag" program included with Windows 95 periodically.
Speed ratings and benchmarks are great in theory, but the real test of a machine comes when you plug it in and use it for awhile. I've been using the Gateway Pentium Pro 180 Family PC for about a month, and I'm very pleased. As I expected, it made quick work out of running my typical business applications, including word processing, spreadsheet and my presentation program.
The machine costs $2,499 for a complete system that includes a 17-inch (15.9-inch viewable area) color display, a fast graphics card with 2 megabytes of memory, a 2.5-gigabyte hard drive, 32 megabytes of RAM, a 33.6-kbps fax modem with speaker phone connection and a nice set of Altec Lansing speakers. Like most multimedia PCs, it also comes with a stack of CD-ROMs, including Microsoft Money 97, Microsoft Works, Microsoft Publisher, Myst, Monopoly and several other products.
The system also comes with unlimited, toll-free 24-hour technical support, which turned out to be a lifesaver in my case. The machine was easy to install and worked fine out of the box. But, in order to use it for my work, I had to remove the internal modem and install a SCSI card so I could plug in my scanner and Jaz tape drive. The modifications caused a few hardware conflicts, but I was delighted by the quality of support I got from Gateway.
Lawrence J. Magid can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com