Test Drive: IBM NetVista S42

by Eric Grevstead

Last year, Mazda made a pitch to computer-savvy drivers by introducing a car named MP3. Today, BMW could do the same by calling its remodeled British compact not the Mini, but the Small Form Factor.

Space-saving, downsized desktops, especially paired with skinny LCD monitors, are catching on in both corporate and home offices. IBM knows it, even if its first pairing didn’t fly – the all-in-one NetVista X, a PC built into the back of an LCD monitor, Gateway Profile-style, has been replaced by the new NetVista S, which aims to fit a conventional PC into the smallest possible space.

How conventional? The NetVista S42 is a legacy-hardware-friendly design with two PCI slots plus parallel, serial, and PS/2 mouse and keyboard ports (as well as six USB 2.0 ports) and a 5.25-inch, half-height bay for ordinary CD or DVD drives, instead of notebook-style slimline optical drives.

IBM hopes IT managers will prefer this familiar architecture to the likes of HP’s Compaq Evo D510 Ultra-Slim Desktop, which lacks expansion slots and legacy ports and obliges owners to buy proprietary, swappable MultiBay drives. (The Evo also peaks with Intel’s 1.9GHz, 400MHz-bus Pentium 4, while the S42 is available with 533MHz-bus P4 processors up to 2.53GHz.)

How small? Though a fraction deeper and taller than the D510, the IBM is dwarfed by some unabridged dictionaries: The system measures 12.2 by 13.6 by 3.3 inches, only about one-third the volume of some of its NetVista desktop siblings, and can be positioned either horizontally (as a monitor stand) or on edge (using a supplied plastic base).

Does it work? Yes: We think the S42 could be just the ticket for corporate offices looking to put real PCs in the space of thin clients. It might even merit a glance from home-office consumers trying to set up shop in a tiny corner, though that’s a longer shot – its graphics are too slow for night-or-weekend gameplay; IBM has basically written off the quantity-one buyer (Big Blue hasn’t offered desktops at retail since the long-gone Aptiva home PCs, and its Web site has only a fraction of the configuration choices of Dell’s or Gateway’s); and we’re not overly impressed with what Big Blue touts as a revolutionary system-self-maintenance software bundle.

Don’t Need Gigabit? You Got It
Our test system combined a 2.4GHz Pentium 4 (533MHz bus) with 256MB of PC2100 DDR, a 40GB hard disk, and 16X DVD-ROM drive. It’s priced at $1,119 with no monitor, with a Web-site discount trimming that to $1,063 when we checked; the price includes an enterprise-ready Intel Gigabit Ethernet controller, which – in an example of the configuration limitations we mentioned – neither the site nor a call to IBM’s sales line let us downgrade to civilian 10/100Mbps Ethernet. (Nor can you find a larger hard disk or CD-RW drive on the site, apart from an external USB 2.0 CD burner for $349.)

The NetVista wins points with a first-class if slightly plasticky-feeling keyboard, and loses them with a low-class, mechanical two-button mouse – you can step up to a smoother optical mouse with scroll wheel for $28 extra. Audio speakers are not included, though you can plug both headphones and a microphone into handy front-mounted ports, next to four of the USB 2.0 ports. The remaining two USB ports and duplicate headphone and line-out plus a line-in port are at the back, as are the parallel, two serial, two PS/2, and RJ-45 ports.

The 16X DVD-ROM (HL-DT-ST model GDR8160B) and 1.44MB floppy drive occupy the front-accessible bays; the sole internal bay holds the 40GB IBM Deskstar 120GXP 7,200-rpm ATA/100 hard disk.

Replacing any of these drives would be a daunting surgical task, as you can see by twirling two thumbscrews and sliding off the top of the case to reveal the tightly packed insides and MSI MS-6557 motherboard, but the two DIMM sockets (one vacant, permitting a maximum 2GB of DDR266 memory) are fairly accessible. A riser card holds the two horizontally stacked PCI slots, while a 200-watt power supply with a, well, not really loud, but decidedly noticeable cooling fan keeps things running.

Graphics are handled by the Intel 845GV chipset, with no AGP slot for possible upgrades. By now the numbers 845 inspire knee-jerk derision of the chip giant’s sluggish, integrated “Extreme Graphics,” though the GV revision bumps the controller’s clock speed to 266MHz and comes at least a little closer to game-worthy performance – the trusty Quake III Arena benchmark yielded 44 frames per second in High-Quality 800 by 600 mode and 29 fps at 1,024 by 768. MadOnion.com’s 3DMark 2001 SE Pro puttered to a score of 1,391, which is fine for the office applications the NetVista’s meant for.

Indeed, the S42 should percolate through PowerPoint, Word, and Excel without a hitch; the 2.4GHz Pentium 4 and 7,200-rpm hard drive helped it post thoroughly respectable PCMark 2002 benchmark ratings of 5,808 (CPU), 4,454 (memory), and 787 (hard disk).

Look on the Bright Side
Along with Windows XP Professional, Norton AntiVirus 2002, and InterVideo’s WinDVD, the NetVista comes with a likable, browsable (plenty of links and cross-references) online help system called Access IBM.

Another program supposed to save users’ bacon and IT managers’ time is Rapid Restore PC, a utility that uses a hidden partition (by default 20 percent of the hard disk) to save images for turn-back-the-clock recovery from software-installation-snafus, virus attacks, or other disasters.

Unfortunately, we crossed off Rapid Restore when, although running on a Win XP system and labeled as the Win 2000/XP version, it popped up an “Insert Windows 98 Emergency Diskette” message. Memo to IBM: Ditch this turkey and license Roxio’s similar but rock-solid GoBack.

Since a compact, “stealth black” PC deserves a matching LCD monitor, IBM also sent its T541 – a 15-inch, 1,024 by 768-pixel flat panel with analog VGA connector and curvy control buttons on the bottom edge. It’s an economy model, with just an analog VGA connector (versus IBM’s analog-and-digital T541H), a tilt-but-no-swivel-or-height-adjustment base, and not the widest viewing angle we’ve seen. But once we turned its brightness and contrast up from the extremely dim defaults (32 apiece on the monitor’s 100-point scale), the T541 was a perfectly pleasant screen as well as stylish space-saver. It adds $349 to the price of a PC.

All in all, remembering the office PCs we’ve been assigned in various jobs, we think the employee given a NetVista S42 is a lot luckier than average. The cooling fan’s too noisy to put the system right next to the phone, but users will find the unit does an inarguable job of saving desk space while packing perky performance, while IT managers will like its use of standard, full-sized components. The NetVista brand is due to disappear before long, replaced by a ThinkCentre label to ride the coattails of ThinkPad notebooks, but the S42 proves IBM’s still in the desktop business.

Reprinted from hardwarecentral.com.

Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing addresses the technology needs of small businesses, which are defined as businesses with fewer than 500 employees and/or less than $7 million in annual sales.

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