Test Drive: Gateway 300X

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted June 12, 2002
By Eric Grevstad

Last fall, the glass of PC price/performance was positively overflowing; today, we're debating whether it's half full or half empty. The pessimists in the latter camp focus on the fact that memory, LCD monitor, and other component costs are pushing PC prices upward from last year's record bargains.

The optimists will retort that home computer shoppers are getting more features and better equipment - that, for instance, Intel quietly replaced its tepid value-segment Celeron CPU last month with a newer, extra-horsepower-headroom design based on the Pentium 4. And both sides can point to the Gateway 300X as an example.

For some time, the Holstein-happy direct vendor has prided itself on offering reasonably priced desktop bundles with stylish flat panels instead of stodgy CRT monitors, including a system with CD burner for the eye-catching price of $999. It still does, but that system is now hard to recommend - it comes with only 128MB of memory, which leaves Windows XP stuck in second gear.

But if you can swing $1,099 for the 300X model, you get a full 256MB - of decently quick PC2100 DDR, not lowest-common-denominator SDRAM - and Intel's new 845GL chipset and 1.7GHz Celeron with 400MHz front-side bus (not older Celerons' arthritic 100MHz bus) to make the most of that memory bandwidth. You get both DVD-ROM and CD-RW drives, and a 40GB hard disk that spins at 7,200 instead of an economy-class 5,400 rpm.

You get a three- instead of two-piece speaker system, with a subwoofer for bodacious bass. You get six USB ports - the latest, high-speed USB 2.0 ports, thank you very much - plus both 56Kbps modem and 10/100Mbps Ethernet connections. You get a smooth-gliding optical mouse instead of a cheap rolling-ball rodent. And you get a svelte 15-inch LCD monitor for an energy- and space-saving, classy-looking desktop.

In short, you don't get an ultra-low, impulse-buy price tag, as you might have found a few months ago. But do you get more bang for more bucks?

We know mega-tower-case, dozen-slots-and-bays PC builders who insist on a 350-watt power supply as the bare minimum. The Gateway 300X takes the opposite tack, with a relatively wimpy 160-watt supply, but realistically, most of its home-based buyers will neither want nor be able to install plenty of power-draining add-ins.

A single thumbscrew and a tight squeeze of a plastic latch let you lift off the easy-access side panel, but the job reveals only one vacant drive bay (an internal 3.5-inch nook for a second hard disk) and two free PCI slots (the GTW V.92 modem occupies a third). At least the slots are wide-open and easy to reach, as are the two memory sockets (one empty, one holding a 256MB DDR module).

The most prominent omission is an AGP slot for a replacement video card - the only graphics controller the 300X will ever have is the one built into the Intel 845GL integrated chipset on the motherboard. And while what Intel calls its "Extreme Graphics" solution (which borrows up to 48MB of system memory for the display buffer) is two to three times faster than its earlier, don't-even-try-to-play-a-game 810/815 integrated offering, the i815 was so awful that's not saying much.

Thrown a softball - the old Quake III Arena (Normal 640 by 480) benchmark - our test system yielded a playable but underwhelming 39 frames per second, slowing to 18 fps in High-Quality 1,024 by 768 mode. That's right on par with the S3 ProSavage DDR integrated graphics of the $599 (with no monitor) eMachines T1600 we reviewed recently, but it's hardly impressive. The 845GL proved faster than the ProSavage in MadOnion.com's 3DMark 2001 Pro SE, with a score of 1,213, but it couldn't complete all the DirectX 8.1 test sequences as the S3 could.

We made a distinction between older, less demanding and the latest 3D-intensive games in our eMachines review, remarking, "at least we can see families using the T1600 to play The Sims, if not Serious Sam." Perhaps Gateway agrees, since the 300X comes with The Sims - no longer a hot new title, but more fun than the old remainder games usually bundled with consumer PCs. But our frequently expressed disappointment about vendors' outfitting otherwise handsomely equipped new family PCs with subpar graphics still applies.

Besides griping about the 845GL graphics, performance snobs will have mixed feelings about the new 1.7GHz Celeron that powers the 300X - not only its clock speed but its up-to-date Socket 478 design and 400MHz front-side bus are big improvements on the formerly best-in-class Celeron/1.3's antique Socket 370 and 100MHz bus.

But its 128K of Level 2 cache is only one-quarter that of its current Pentium 4 cousins (only half that of the Celeron/1.3, even), so you definitely sacrifice speed for economy. Basically, the Gateway beats other low-priced PCs we've benchmarked lately, including the Athlon XP 1600+-based eMachines, but not by a big margin.

On MadOnion.com's PCMark 2002, we saw a CPU score of 3,943; memory score of 3,387; and hard disk score of 739 -- the last a bit of a letdown for a 7,200-rpm drive. In BAPco's SysMark 2002 real-world application tests, the Gateway racked up a healthy overall score of 141, with 182 in Internet Content Creation balanced by 109 in Office Productivity ... good, solid scores, but a step behind 1.7GHz or 1.8GHz Pentium 4 desktops we've tried.

We hasten to say the 300X doesn't feel sluggish; in fact, it's a pleasure to use. PCMark aside, we didn't grow impatient waiting for the 40GB Western Digital WD400BB hard disk to load applications. The 16X DVD-ROM (HL-DT-ST model GDR8160B) and 24/10/40X CD-RW drive (NEC NR-7900A) spun smoothly and worked seamlessly. While game maniacs would want to install a dedicated sound card, the Intel D845GRG motherboard's Analog Devices AD1981A audio was a good match for the Boston Acoustics BA745 speakers with subwoofer - the satellites not the biggest or strongest we've heard, but the subwoofer a distinct upgrade from most retail PCs' minimal speakers when we wanted to enjoy audio CDs or DVDs.

All Modern Conveniences
Gateway's "Millennium Keyboard" has a soft, plasticky, pleasant-enough feel akin to that of nearly all consumer keyboards nowadays, but we like that it provides multimedia volume and track controls. A supplied utility makes it simple to reprogram the five program- or Web-site-launch buttons if you don't like their defaults (My Documents, Internet Explorer, Outlook Express, help, and a shopping page; speaking of trivial utilities, Gateway also provides a very nice wallpaper manager).

And the Logitech optical scrolling-wheel mouse is a noticeable improvement on the scratchy, generic mice bundled by some PC makers (ahem, Sony). The mouse uses one of the four rear-panel USB 2.0 ports, while the keyboard takes one of two PS/2 ports; you'll also find parallel, serial, VGA, Ethernet, and audio line-in, line-out, and microphone jacks back there. Two more USB 2.0 ports are handily mounted up front by the floppy drive; a blank panel bears an icon for a front-mounted IEEE 1394 port, although we couldn't find the option on Gateway's 300X order page.

CRT loyalists can save $150 by choosing a 17-inch monitor, but Gateway's 15-inch, 1,024 by 768-pixel FPD1520 flat panel is a nice match for the compact tower system (and for the 845GL, which drops off in quality as you push past 1,024 by 768 -- Ed.). Though on the economical end of the LCD spectrum, it's a bright, attractive display: It's limited to LCDs' usual 60Hz refresh rate at its native resolution, but didn't look a bit flickery to us under office fluorescents as some 60Hz flat panels have.

Setup was a slight chore; you must snake the AC and VGA cables through the base to sockets placed awkwardly on the display's bottom edge, and while the one-button tuning worked great for centering and brightness, text was slightly fuzzy until we tinkered with the on-screen menu's phase control. But after those hurdles, the FPD1520 was crisp and classy - and all LCD monitors should have its handle on the top edge for moving the display around your desk.

In addition to Windows XP Home Edition and The Sims, Gateway bundles Microsoft Works Suite 2002 - with the full-featured Word 2002 as well as the Swiss-army-knife Works package, Roxio's Easy CD Creator Basic and InterVideo's WinDVD SE, and a Norton AntiVirus trial edition. You get a surprisingly thick and detailed printed manual, along with a one-year warranty.

Overall, we liked the Gateway 300X; its performance, extras, and LCD monitor are attractive enough so we don't mind its landing $99 over the psychological one-grand barrier. But unless you're sure you're seeking a light-duty, second or third home PC, we can't help urging you to choose Intel's 845G instead of 845GL chipset, which supports the latest Pentium 4 processors' 533MHz (up from 400MHz) front-side bus and an AGP slot for adding gameworthy graphics later.

Unfortunately, such systems' prices are more likely to draw a balk - when we tried configuring a Gateway 500S comparable to our 300X, it came to $1,529. To be sure, the extra $430 gets you a terrific PC, with a big boost in performance (a 2.26MHz Pentium 4 with 512K cache) as well as more room for future video or even CPU upgrades. But it sort of leaves the 300X in limbo: We'd either stretch our budget to buy something much better like the 500S, or settle for a cheaper but almost-as-capable integrated desktop like a Celeron/1.3 or the abovementioned eMachines.

Pros: Nice LCD monitor, nice case design, nicely equipped; better-than-perky performance for everyday tasks.

Cons: Mediocre-at-best integrated graphics, with no AGP slot for alternatives; one question about the 1.7GHz Celeron: Are you sure you can't afford a 1.8GHz Pentium 4?

Reprinted from hardwarecentral.com.

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