We at Tom's Hardware are known for doing in-depth reviews of PC-technologies and PC-components. However, we still haven't tested any complete system yet. There are a lot of reasons that have kept me from doing so, which I don't want to get into right now, because it would go far beyond the boundaries of this article.
While I may not have reviewed any OEM-systems yet, I still need to keep track of what is going on in the PC-business, which means reading computer publications and checking the latest offers of the big OEMs as Dell, Gateway, Compaq, IBM, HP and Micron. Recently, when reading my favorite computer magazine, the German PC-gaming publication 'Gamestar', I was startled by an ad from Dell, offering a complete Pentium 4 system for the surprisingly low price of only $1500. I hardly believed my eyes, because I had considered Pentium 4 systems to be much more expensive. With that price, I thought, Pentium 4 is even able to compete against Athlon systems. Thus I had a closer look at this system, which goes by the name 'Dimension 8100'. After reading the equipment list of this system, I almost got angry. This particular wannabe-high end Dimension 8100 system, targeted to the rather critical German PC-buyer, had indeed teamed up a Pentium 4 1.3 GHz with NVIDIA's slowest TNT2 M64 3D-decelerator!
Pentium 4 Plus TNT2 M64? Insanity Par Excellence!
I was shocked. How could any sane person castrate the almost only strength of Intel's expensive Pentium 4 processor in 3D gaming with this pathetic graphics card? This seemed like a typical case of taking customers for fools, which really upset me. Instantly I went to my console and checked Dell's website to find out more details. I also looked at HP's, IBM's and Gateway's Pentium 4 system offers and found the very same situation. All those great OEMs are trying to ride Intel's Pentium 4 marketing pony by selling 'reasonably priced' Pentium 4 systems in highly mediocre configurations. The inexperienced customer might indeed get fooled by Intel's juicy promises of this supposed high-end processor, and completely overlook that the other components in those systems ensure mediocre performance.
Time To Wake Up
For me, this situation didn't only smell like the material for an article, it actually stunk. I decided that I had turned the blind eye towards those big, powerful and rich OEMs long enough. It was finally time to wake up. At first I decided to make an editorial (blurb) out of it, but then I remembered that my readers expect as well as deserve more detail. Thus I came up with a different idea. A decent article obviously requires some hard test facts, but I certainly didn't think that acquiring any of the above-mentioned mishap-systems was in any way justifiable. However, who says that I had to test those actual systems? Haven't we got enough components in our lab to actually build-up systems with equivalent components? Those could be tested, and using our own lab high-performance configurations would definitely ensure the best results that can be scored with those boxes.
Buying An OEM System
Before I go into more detail of the actual testing, I'd like to have a look at the actual purchase of an OEM-system in comparison to building up one's own box from scratch. I am currently not quite aware of the statistics, but I guess that a large number of the Tom's Hardware Guide readers are actually people who prefer to build up their own system. Still I am sure that there's a large number of readers who have either already purchased OEM-boxes before, or who are currently considering to do so.
The obvious disadvantage of buying an OEM-system is the fact that you can't quite tailor it the way you would like it. Although most of the large OEMs are nowadays offering pretty fancy options to customize their systems within a rather wide range, it still remains a fact that some important components of a system cannot be chosen by the potential buyer. I suppose that most overclockers will disregard OEM-boxes, simply because there is no way to choose a particular motherboard and in many cases the motherboard found in OEM-systems is a stripped-down version of some (often rather cheap) retail-motherboard without any tweaking options whatsoever. HP may be the big exception, being known to use Asus-motherboards in a large number of their systems. Other components, like special sound cards, mice, keyboards or especially monitors can also only be chosen within a rather limited range. Basically, an OEM-system takes away quite a bit of your freedom, which understandably is very important to so many of us, including myself.
On the other hand OEM-boxes do have a lot of advantages. In most cases, the price is considerably lower than that of a comparable self-built system. OEM-systems come with a warranty, a help-line and other forms of support, making the life of less experienced users much less difficult and giving you some feeling of safety. You also hardly pay for the operating system and the other software supplied with an OEM-box, which costs the owner of a self-built system a whole lot of money.
All in all it's always worth having a look at the latest OEM-system offers, because you might save money, nerves, you don't have to fight with incompatible hardware and in many cases you can later upgrade your OEM-box with the components you prefer.
Two Pentium 4 OEM-Boxes Vs. Two Athlon OEM-Boxes
The chapter above stated that it might well make sense to prefer an OEM-system to a self-made PC, but you still need to make sure you don't get a bad apple. Unfortunately there is no relying on any particular brand name, because in the end all those OEMs are merely interested in your hard earned money. Each OEM would gladly sell you a complete nonsense-system. If you don't believe me, I suggest you take a look at the websites of Dell, Gateway, IBM and HP. Some of the offered systems may only make you smile, others may even upset you too.
I am actually not trying to start a crusade against OEMs here. It is certainly true that most of them sell a bunch of systems that aren't worth its money, but rely purely on e.g. Intel's marketing. However, at each OEM you will also find very reasonably priced and well-equipped systems that seem very attractive to any of us. It simply requires experience and knowledge to make the right decision. Unfortunately, inexperienced and uneducated buyers will often fall into the marketing-trap and go for the wrong box. This article is supposed to give you a couple of examples.
For my comparison I chose two systems from Dell, a system from Gateway and a system from Micron. The two Pentium 4 boxes I chose had to be from Dell for two reasons. First of all it was a Dell ad that had inspired me to write this article in the first place, secondly Dell is the one OEM who is still in bed with Intel while ignoring AMD's Athlon and Duron processors as if they wouldn't exist. This article will show if Michael Dell and his company are indeed following the philanthropic ideas that are always displayed so sweet and nicely in their television commercials.
I decided that the low-end box of the 'opposing' systems should come from Gateway. Gateway has started to work with AMD a while ago and it is at least offering a decent midrange-solution equipped with Athlon or Duron processors. However, Gateway isn't any better than Dell in terms of the high-end systems it offers. You will find the same or even worse Pentium 4 system configurations at Gateway as you would find them at Dell, with the only difference that Gateway doesn't seem to sell you any of that crappy PC600 RDRAM along with it.
IBM and HP are both also offering their Pentium 4 solutions and you will find the same kind of situation as with Dell and Gateway. What particularly annoyed me with HP was the fact that each Pentium 4 system came with the slow PC600 RDRAM and I couldn't find a way to choose the faster and much more sensible PC800 RDRAM.
The system that competes with Dell's high-end Pentium 4 system comes from Micron and it could only be Micron. While Athlon systems with AMD760 chipset and DDR-memory are virtually unavailable from any other large OEM, Micron is shipping its Millennia MAX XP series for quite some time now. The other interesting fact about Micron is that it seems to completely disregard Pentium 4 right now, which I consider as rather remarkable.
Compaq would also have been a good candidate for an Athlon system, but I decided against a Presario simply because they have several proprietary solutions that make upgrading difficult to impossible.
Let's now have a look at the systems I chose: