When Intel released its superfast Pentium Pro microprocessor last fall, the chipmaker disappointed many power users hungry for the latest and fastest. Intel said the Pro was for file servers that run networks and maybe a few very high-end workstations. Mere mortals, it added, should stick with the plain old Pentium.
But nothing stays the same for long in the PC world. Intel now pushes the Pentium Pro as "the next wave in business computing." And computer makers are responding by offering mainstream businesses Pro-based desktops that start below $3,000.
SMOOTHIE. Software explains why these machines are intended mostly for businesses. Intel made the chip to run with operating systems, such as Microsoft's Windows NT or IBM's OS/2, that gulp data 32 bits at a time. Windows 95, the operating system of choice for the home, for small business, and for laptops, is only partly 32-bit software. Win95 runs games and older software that Windows NT can't handle. But while it runs fine on the Pro, Win95 shows little performance gain over a standard Pentium.
Windows NT, however, is a star in the office. Networking is smoother, and it lets computers take full advantage of up-to-date software. Later this summer, when Microsoft ships NT 4.0 with its Win95-like interface, many businesses will find the Pro-NT combination irresistible.
The OptiPlex GXpro series from Dell Computer Corp. (800 822-1609, www.dell.com) shows why. The basic model sells for $2,899, including Windows NT 3.51. That's only about $150 more than a similarly equipped OptiPlex GX with a 166 megahertz Pentium. Intel's tests show that the 180 MHz Pentium Pro, the slowest of the breed, runs 32-bit applications, such as Microsoft Office 95, up to 72% faster than a 166 MHz Pentium.
SPEEDSTER. I tested a midrange system with a 200 MHz Pentium Pro, 32 megabytes of RAM, and a high-end Imagine II display adapter from Number Nine Visual Technology. The display adapter offers speedy performance that is a huge asset when running graphics-intensive programs such as PhotoShop or AutoCAD. Except for some minor networking glitches, I got the preinstalled Windows NT running without hassle. The machine was screamingly fast. For example, a database search that took 139 seconds on my workhorse 90 MHz Pentium took just 24 seconds on the OptiPlex. If you're doing serious graphics or heavy number-crunching, a dual-processor OptiPlex with gobs of memory and a big monitor will set you back around $8,000. But the machine can compete with more expensive workstations from Sun Microsystems Inc., Silicon Graphics Inc., and others.
Speed isn't all the OptiPlex GXpro has going for it. Home-computer designers should look at how easy servicing is. The cover comes off without screws. Flip a lever and a cage containing all the add-in cards lifts out, allowing you to add or remove cards without contortions or skinned knuckles. And the power supply is hinged to flip out of the way, leaving the entire system board exposed. In addition, the steel-reinforced plastic case is designed to be completely recyclable.
The Pentium Pro still isn't for everybody. But what was exotic technology a few months ago is now poised to become a business workhorse--and one you may well want on your desk.