IBM NetVista A30p

This pricy, stark-black PC offers respectable speed and multimedia performance but limited room for expansion

WHAT'S HOT: Clad in black, the NetVista A30p is a good-looking, well-equipped system for small offices, and its petite stature (16 inches tall) helps conserve space in tight quarters. Its best feature is the IBM P77 17-inch CRT monitor, which delivered professional-grade image quality. In tests, it displayed newsletter fonts with razor-sharp clarity, rendering even small fonts crisply. It displayed photos nicely, with bright colors and realistic skin tones. A plus for businesses, the monitor swivels easily to wide angles, making it a useful tool for conference room presentations. A few high-end controls (horizontal and vertical convergence, which help sharpen images) round out the stellar display.

IBM was one of the few vendors to receive an overall rating of Good in our latest reader survey of reliability and service. Aside from ABS and Dell (plus Apple and local retailers), which were also rated Good, other vendors rated no better than Fair.

WHAT'S NOT: Much as we liked the monitor, we expected to see a larger screen on a system priced at $2713. Also, the short stature of the A30p's case results in a cramped interior and minimal expansion options. With no available hard-drive bays, it won't allow you to add a second hard drive internally. The motherboard supplies only two RAM slots, both of which were filled on our test system. Additionally, a mild case of IDE cable clutter hinders access to the drive bays.

This small PC employs clever design features to improve access, but the attempts aren't always successful. For example, a swing-out power supply does not swivel far enough outward to improve access substantially to the motherboard. You'll need to undo the short power connectors to move the unit out far enough. And opening the case at all was a challenge because a large, side-mounted button that releases the right panel of our test unit jammed very easily. We had to struggle to pull the panel off.

WHAT ELSE: One feature we did like about the case was its easy access to the hard drive, which you can reach without opening the entire system. Pushing a button on the back of the PC releases the front panel and allows you to open a metal door upon which the drive is mounted. You release it from the mounting by pressing two plastic tabs.

Equipped with a 2.8-GHz Pentium 4 processor and 512MB of 266-MHz DDR SDRAM, our test unit scored a 119 on PC WorldBench 4--just a point below the average for three systems we tested with the same configuration and running Windows XP Professional.

The NetVista A30p is not marketed as a gaming machine, but our test system performed respectably as one. Its GeForce4 Ti 4200-based graphics card with 128MB DDR SDRAM pumped out 56 frames per second in the game Return to Castle Wolfenstein and 87 fps in Unreal Tournament 2003, each at 1280 by 1024 resolution and 32-bit color. While not in the same league as true gaming PCs, those scores are in the upper half of those we have clocked for similar general-purpose systems. Buyers who don't need high-performance graphics can opt for a lower-priced card or rely on the 845G chip set's integrated graphics.

The Monsoon MM-702 set's two satellite speakers feature a spiffy metal grille front, and the attendant subwoofer is solidly constructed. Both components are a cut above what we usually see in 2.1-channel speaker sets. They sent out powerful sound at high volumes, but individual track layers (background singers, for instance) were hard to discern. Bass notes thumped out strongly, but sounded slightly muddled.

For software, IBM supplies coupons you can send in for Lotus SmartSuite Millenium Edition and Microsoft Works Suite 2003, which includes an ample starter set of home and office applications including Word, Encarta, Money, and PictureIt Photo. IBM says it provides coupons instead of discs because not all customers will want those applications. But those who do must take an extra step--and suffer a delay--in getting their software.

UPSHOT: This NetVista is a well-built, compact starter system. However, those willing to forego the name-brand cachet of IBM will find similar, less-expensive offerings elsewhere.

By Mick Lockey

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