Desktops that reduce legacy baggage

Despite technological advances and lower prices, today's PCs in some ways remain similar to those built 6 years ago. Modern systems still contain architectural relics such as ISA slots and parallel and serial ports. But with essential subsystems integrated into the motherboard, USB becoming increasingly common, and performance outpacing the demands of current software, users rarely need expansion slots on corporate workstations. Accordingly, Compaq and Hewlett-Packard (HP) have introduced corporate PCs that reduce or eliminate legacy features.

The Compaq iPAQ and HP's e-Vectra are dramatically different from earlier corporate desktops. Both vendors recognize that corporate buyers might wait to use USB until more USB-enabled products that solidly support Windows 2000 reach the market. However, the vendors have taken different approaches to redefining the corporate PC.

Compaq iPAQ
Compaq has been promoting the Compaq iPAQ as an Internet device, but the Compaq iPAQ is truly a simplified PC in a more compact, stylized case. At 14.6" * 6.4" * 10.5", the case is much smaller than most desktops.

Compared with a PC, the Compaq iPAQ's hardware components are simplified and the configuration choices are limited. The company offers two system versions: Compaq iPAQ (with legacy ports) and Compaq iPAQ Legacy-Free. The standard (with legacy ports) model provides PS/2-style keyboard and mouse connectors, two front-mounted USB connectors, and parallel and serial ports for organizations that aren't ready to replace existing peripherals or aren't ready to adopt USB. Compaq iPAQ Legacy-Free provides only USB ports: three on the rear panel and two on the front. Both versions lack ISA and PCI slots.

All Compaq iPAQs feature 500MHz Pentium III or Celeron processors, Quantum Ultra ATA/66 hard disks, the Intel 810E core logic chipset with integrated sound and 2-D and 3-D graphics capabilities, and an integrated Intel Pro/100+ network interface with Alert on LAN functionality. A 56Kbps USB modem is also available for $79. Compaq offers the standard version with Win2K Professional, NT Workstation 4.0, Windows 98 Second Edition (Win98SE), or Win95, but the legacy-free model is available only with Win2K Pro. Table 1, page 104, lists the standard configurations and system prices. Compaq will custom-build systems for large orders.

Compaq supplied us with a V75 17" CRT display, which sells for $225. However, before press time, Compaq discontinued the V75 and introduced the S510 15" ($199) and S710 17" ($299) models. For those who need to conserve desk space, Compaq offers a TFT 5010i 15" flat-screen display for $999.

I downloaded the Insight Manager LC client and console free of charge from Compaq's Web site. This software combination lets you run remote diagnostics, view system information, and monitor alerts from a Web browser. Insight Manager LC also enables driver distribution and BIOS updating. Compaq provides a Compaq-specific version of Altiris' PC Transplant as a free download for buyers. PC Transplant for Compaq lets administrators transplant a user's workstation settings and preferences from any PC to a Compaq iPAQ. Compaq also provides a 30-day trial version of the Altiris eXpress console program for download, and Compaq iPAQs ship with the Altiris eXpress client. Altiris eXpress lets you create application packages or entire disk images and distribute them to clients. I downloaded the Altiris eXpress console application, which provides a 5-page Getting Started manual and a 29-page User Guide.

The Compaq iPAQ comes Preboot Execution Environment (PXE)-enabled, so you can use Altiris eXpress to distribute disk images to Compaq iPAQ clients that lack a bootable OS. Unfortunately, the Getting Started manual isn't Compaq iPAQ-specific and assumes target clients have disk drives that let the clients boot to the Altiris eXpress environment. The manual doesn't mention how to use Altiris eXpress with a PXE-enabled client, which is a likely choice for Compaq iPAQ users. I installed the Altiris eXpress console application on a Compaq iPAQ, and the installation process prompted me to install a PXE add-on to a specific directory. The Getting Started manual didn't mention that this add-on required a separate download from the Altiris Web site. The more detailed User Guide provided an overview of PXE and a detailed explanation of Altiris' technical terms and product operation, but this manual wasn't Compaq iPAQ-specific either.

I tested standard and legacy-free Compaq iPAQ models equipped with Pentium III CPUs, 128MB of RAM, 8.4GB hard disks, 24X variable speed CD-ROM drives, Win2K Pro, and Compaq's V75 17" display. With the exception of the rear panels, both Compaq iPAQ versions look the same. A silver center section, 14.6" tall, houses most of the electronics and sits between two black panels. The left panel contains the Compaq iPAQ's only drive bay, which is a hot-swappable MultiBay drive bay. The test unit came with an optional MultiBay 24X variable speed CD-ROM drive module ($75). Other MultiBay modules include Imation's SuperDisk LS-120 module ($99), a DVD-ROM module ($175), and an extra 6GB hard disk ($219). To install or remove the second hard disk, you must shut down the system. Compaq's Armada notebook computers share the same MultiBay modules.

Without rebooting the system, I ejected, then reinserted the CD-ROM drive. First, I shut down the CD-ROM drive by using Win2K Pro's Add/Remove Hardware Wizard, then I pressed an eject button on the back of the left panel. Ejecting the drive required more force than I expected.

After removing the right side panel, I easily gained access to the hard disk, the cooling fan, and the two memory expansion slots, which can hold a combined 512MB of RAM. One memory slot contained a 100MHz 128MB SDRAM DIMM. Like HP, Compaq doesn't offer hard disks larger than 8.4GB or recommend installing third-party disks. You might find the ability to easily access and upgrade the memory an advantage over the e-Vectra's more buttoned-down design. Although Compaq doesn't provide a lock to secure the right side panel, the company offers an optional security cable, which attaches to a tab on the back of the computer, to secure the computer to the workspace.

I ran BAPCo's SYSmark 2000 application-based benchmark on the test units. The office productivity scores were slightly above average compared with other 500MHz Pentium III processor systems running Win2K Pro that the Windows 2000 Magazine Lab has tested. The Pentium III-based iPAQs have 4MB of dedicated graphics memory, and the Celeron-based Compaq iPAQs dynamically allocate up to 4MB of system RAM to graphics chores. When I connected the Compaq iPAQ to the V75 display, the computer delivered an 85Hz vertical-refresh rate in a 1024 * 768 pixel, 16.7 million-color graphics mode. The refresh rate dropped to 60Hz at 1280 * 1024 pixels.

The Compaq iPAQ comes with a 1-year parts and labor warranty. Compaq provides next-business-day onsite service for parts that a user can't replace, but this service excludes the internal hard disk, memory, and MultiBay modules.

Compaq iPAQ
Contact: Compaq * 800-345-1518
Web: http://www.compaq.com/
Price: $499 to $1049 depending on configuration
Decision Summary:
Pros: Entry-level legacy-free Windows 2000 configuration has a low price;
provides a removable storage bay; offers easy memory upgrades;
can share MultiBay modules
(e.g., CD-ROM, SuperDisk LS-120, 6GB hard disk) with Compaq's Armada notebooks
Cons: Can't secure internal hardware components; has a short warranty period

e-Vectra
HP's e-Vectra shares some design characteristics with the Compaq iPAQ, but one look at the e-Vectra will tell you that it isn't a Compaq iPAQ clone. The e-Vectra's rectangular case, which is much smaller than the Compaq iPAQ's case, measures 9.4" * 3.25" * 10.7". You can position the system either vertically or on its side.

The e-Vectra offers fewer Win2K and NT configuration choices than the Compaq iPAQ offers. HP offers Win2K Pro or NT Workstation 4.0 configurations that include 600MHz or 667MHz Pentium III processors, an 8.4GB Ultra ATA/66 hard disk, a 24X variable speed CD-ROM drive, integrated 3Com 10/100Base-T Ethernet networking with Remote Wake Up capability, integrated sound capability, an Intel 810E chipset with integrated 2-D and 3-D graphics, two USB connectors, and parallel, serial, and PS/2-style keyboard and mouse ports. Obviously, HP believes corporate buyers won't be ready for USB-only versions until more peripherals are available. HP also offers less-expensive Win98-based configurations that use Celeron processors. Table 2 lists the e-Vectra configuration options and system prices.

HP offers two 17" monitors: the HP 71 for $249 and the HP 75 for $299. For those who have limited space, HP also offers a 15" flat-panel display for $1049.

The e-Vectra's space-saving design comes at the expense of a swappable device bay and access to memory slots. The system's CD-ROM drive is stationary, and the memory slot is impossible to access. So if you might need 256MB of RAM, buy the high-end configuration at the outset. The e-Vectra has one access door on its right side that provides access only to the hard disk. However, HP doesn't currently offer a larger hard disk for the e-Vectra. In fact, replacing the original disk with a third-party product will void the e-Vectra's warranty, including the original hard disk warranty.

For users who can't survive without a floppy disk drive, HP plans to offer an external USB floppy disk drive option. Other options, as yet unpriced, that will be available soon include a 56Kbps USB modem and a four-port USB hub.

Physical security is where the e-Vectra excels. I was surprised to find a chassis lock on the computer's rear panel. This lock prevents intruders from opening the hard disk access panel; it also secures a removable plastic cover that attaches to the rear panel to make loosening or removing cable connections (inadvertently or purposefully) difficult. HP also sells a master-key option that lets administrators use one master key to lock down all e-Vectras. The e-Vectra also lets you attach a Kensington security cable and lock to a security slot on the unit's back.

The test unit came equipped with HP e-DiagTools and a Desktop Management Interface (DMI) 2.0-compliant version of HP's TopTools for Desktops 5.0 client. HP e-DiagTools is a Web-based diagnostic program that lets administrators remotely troubleshoot e-Vectras. HP TopTools for Desktops lets administrators remotely manage a fleet of e-Vectras from the HP TopTools console, which administrators can download from HP's Web site at no charge. When I launched the HP TopTools for Desktops client on the test unit, the software gathered the unit's identity, component status, and configuration information and provided a tabbed user interface (UI). The Identity tab listed information such as the computer model and name, BIOS version, and serial number. The Status tab showed that the processor and memory were functioning normally and that the boot-time self test showed no problems with the unit. The Configuration tab provided information about the processor, memory, hard disk, and BIOS version. Similarly to the Compaq iPAQ, the e-Vectra comes PXE-enabled, so you can distribute disk images to e-Vectra clients that lack a bootable OS.

I tested the e-Vectra D9898T, which had a 600MHz Pentium III processor, 128MB of RAM, an 8.4GB hard disk, and the HP 75 display. Win2K Pro was preloaded on the system. The e-Vectra provides 4MB of dedicated graphics memory, just as the Pentium III processor-equipped Compaq iPAQ does. The graphics subsystem and monitor combination delivered an 85Hz vertical-refresh rate in the 1024 * 768 pixel, 16.7 million-color graphics mode. At 1280 * 1024 pixels, the graphics refresh rate dropped to 75Hz. With the 600MHz Pentium III processor, the e-Vectra's office productivity score on the SYSmark application-based benchmark was about 20 percent higher than the 500MHz Pentium III-equipped Compaq iPAQ's score.

The e-Vectra comes with a 3-year limited warranty. However, the warranty requires you to send defective units to an HP service center.

e-Vectra
Contact: Hewlett-Packard * 650-857-1501 or 877-462-8947
Web: http://www.hp.com/desktops/epc/
Price: $999 for model D9898T; $1199 for model D9899T
Decision Summary:
Pros: Is small in size; provides powerful processor choices, has good physical security features; supplies a long warranty period
Cons: You can't upgrade memory after purchase; lacks a removable storage bay; offers no entry-priced Windows 2000 or Windows NT configuration

Final Comparison
If you're looking for low-cost, fully functional Win2K workstations and are willing to give up parallel and serial port peripherals, the low-end Compaq iPAQ Legacy-Free is very attractive. The cost, just $499, is very reasonable, but I recommend spending an additional $110 to upgrade to 128MB of RAM. With the CD-ROM drive and SuperDisk MultiBay modules, the Compaq iPAQ still costs less than a traditional PC.

For those who aren't yet ready to make the leap to Win2K or USB, the standard Compaq iPAQ with a 500MHz Celeron processor is reasonably priced. Even after adding a CD-ROM drive or SuperDisk MultiBay module, the Compaq iPAQ still costs less than the e-Vectra D9898T. Plus, if your company has standardized on Compaq's Armada notebooks, sharing the MultiBay modules might reduce your costs further.

However, the e-Vectra's 600MHz Pentium III processor provides superior performance, and the e-Vectra provides better physical security. HP's 3-year warranty deserves consideration, and you might find the e-Vectra's smaller size advantageous. If you choose the e-Vectra, make sure you plan for future memory needs, because you can't add memory later.

The Compaq iPAQ and e-Vectra models are both less expensive than similarly equipped corporate desktops and are more functional than any thin clients. As to the vendor claims that these products reduce support costs, you need to evaluate how much time and money your support staff uses addressing ISA-slot-, PCI-slot-, and legacy-port-related problems.