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NetVista A series review: NetVista A series

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The Good Wide range of configurations; six USB 2.0 ports, two of which are front accessible; onsite service; easy-open case.

The Bad Cramped case interior; limited range of graphics card options.

The Bottom Line The highly configurable IBM NetVista A series offers both basic workstations and high-end PCs equipped for work and play.

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7.0 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 7
  • Performance 7
  • Support 7

With its compact shape and attractive black case, the IBM NetVista A series looks right at home in both small businesses and home offices. But Big Blue realizes that even the most dedicated workers occasionally unbutton their collars, so the latest incarnation of the line includes decidedly nonstuffy options, such as 3D graphics cards and three-piece speaker systems. Preconfigured models range from a basic Celeron system to a loaded Pentium 4 setup, but you can configure your own NetVista A system to meet a wide variety of needs. Hard-core gamers and serious video editors will still be better off with a more traditional system, but the NetVista A is well equipped for typical office and entertainment use. The NetVista A's jet-black, compact tower case is a great fit for tight quarters: it measures only 16.3x7.5x16.0 inches (HWD). There's also a desktop box that is 2 inches thinner, which you can place horizontally under your monitor or, using its stand, vertically underneath your desk. The tower has five bays, whereas the desktop version has four. Either chassis affords you easy entry with no screws to remove.

Power supply gets in the way.
Getting into the case is simple, but once inside, your hands will have to maneuver in cramped quarters. The unusual positioning of the power supply against the left side of the case makes for tight access to the NetVista A's single AGP and three PCI slots, and it blocks access to much of the motherboard. It does swing out of the way, but you still might get tangled in the power cords that run from it to the hard drive and the optical drives.

However, the case's front panel sports a pair of convenient USB 2.0 ports, and you'll find another four USB 2.0 connectors on the rear. There was neither a FireWire port nor a modem on our NetVista A30 test system, but the motherboard comes broadband-ready with its built-in 10/100 Ethernet connector. Dial-up users can add a 56K V.90 modem card for $30, and for $59, owners of FireWire peripherals can opt for a two-port FireWire card.

The NetVista A puts two USB ports in front.

And includes four more in back.

The NetVista A offers two basic chassis--both of which you can upgrade or strip down almost to the hilt. The five-bay tower version that we tested ships with processors ranging from a 1.7GHz Celeron to a blazing 2.8GHz Pentium 4. There's also a compact, four-bay desktop, available only with 1.7GHz or 1.8GHz Celeron processors. The motherboard is the same in either chassis and offers integrated Intel 845G graphics, along with an AGP slot for those seeking more graphics oomph. IBM offers the ATI Radeon 7000 LP, Nvidia GeForce4 MX 420, and GeForce4 Ti 4200; we recommend the latter option for the biggest boost over standard graphics. Gamers, digital video enthusiasts, and anyone wanting to stay on the multimedia cutting edge will be disappointed with IBM's decision not to include the current king of Nvidia cards, the GeForce4 Ti 4600. For most of us, though, the Ti 4200, which was included in our test system, packs more than enough pixel-pushing power without the premium price.

IBM's preconfigured NetVista A models cover a wide range, and there's also a build-it-yourself, online option that gives you lots of flexibility. The preconfigured model we tested, the NetVista A30 831047U (we have to assume that IBM's marketing department doesn't name the systems), includes DVD-ROM and CD-RW drives, the aforementioned GeForce4 Ti 4200, 512MB of DDR SDRAM, and a 120GB hard drive. This $2,249 system is nicely equipped for business, gaming, and multimedia, though desktop video editors will want to add the optional PCI FireWire card.

DVD-ROM, CD-RW, and floppy drives.

Monsoon PlanarMedia 9 speakers.

Our NetVista A series test system also came equipped with two Monsoon PlanarMedia 9 flat-panel speakers, backed by a midsize subwoofer--decent sounding speakers at medium volumes, but distortion is noticeable when you crank the volume to 11. You can scale back to a two-piece IBM speaker system or, for the same price as the Monsoons, choose the five-piece Altec Lansing 4100 speaker set.

Our system also included IBM's 19-inch P97 Trinitron monitor--a stunning display that's among the brightest and sharpest CRT that we've seen--housed in an ominous black case to match the system tower. It adds $429 to the price of your system, but unless desk space is at a premium, we'd still opt for this CRT over the 15-inch flat panels available at around the same price. There are 21 monitors to choose from in all, so no matter what your budget or space constraints may be, you should have little trouble finding a display to suit your needs.

Big, bright, and beautiful.
The only truly disappointing NetVista A series component was the mouse, a two-button, ball-equipped throwback to the preergonomic early '90s. We'd suggest a third-party optical replacement with a scroll wheel. The IBM keyboard is boringly average, a disappointment from the company that used to offer keyboards with unmatched tactile feedback.

With so many of today's PCs shipping with trial applications and marketing offers, the NetVista's minimal but useful software bundle is refreshing. Along with your choice of Windows 2000, XP Home, or XP Pro, the system includes WinDVD, a 90-day Norton AntiVirus subscription, and PC Doctor. Office XP Small Business and Professional are available as extracost options.

Application performance
Industry wonks predict that DDR SDRAM will eventually replace RDRAM as the memory architecture of choice for high-end performance systems, which begs the question: is IBM way ahead of its time or is it just on the leading edge of a trend? We were surprised to find that the IBM NetVista A30 sports a superfast 2.8GHz P4 processor but uses DDR SDRAM instead of RDRAM for system memory. The system's application performance is still wicked fast, but it's not as speedy as 2.8GHz P4-based systems using faster RDRAM. The bottom line: The NetVista A30 is a solid performance workhorse, but it's not the speediest 2.8GHz P4-based desktop out there. Still, it is burly enough for major number-crunching and most multimedia apps--almost anything but the most demanding games and video production work.

Application performance  (Longer bars indicate better performance)
BAPCo SysMark2002 Rating  
SysMark2002 Internet Content Creation Rating  
SysMark2002 Office Productivity Rating  
ABS Awesome 3530 (2.8GHz P4)
Dell Dimension 8200 (2.8GHz P4)
Gateway 700XL (2.53GHz P4)
IBM NetVista A30 (2.8GHz P4)
MicronPC Millennia TS2 (2.8GHz P4)
To measure application performance, CNET Labs uses BAPCo's SysMark2002, an industry-standard benchmark. Using off-the-shelf applications, SysMark measures a desktop's performance using office-productivity applications (such as Microsoft Office and McAfee VirusScan) and Internet-content-creation applications (such as Adobe Photoshop and Macromedia Dreamweaver).

3D graphics and gaming performance
An Nvidia GeForce4 Ti-based graphics card and a fast CPU all but guarantee high frame rates with even the most demanding games. The NetVista A30 matches its 2.8GHz P4 processor with a GeForce4 Ti 4200 for superfast frame rates. As with IBM's choice of DDR SDRAM for system memory, we question why IBM didn't go with the faster GeForce4 Ti 4600 graphics card, too. Nonetheless, everyone but the most extreme hard-core gamers will be satisfied with this level of 3D graphics performance.

3D graphics performance  (Longer bars indicate better performance)'s 3DMark 2001 Pro (16-bit color)'s 3DMark 2001 Pro (32-bit color)  
ABS Awesome 3530 (2.8GHz P4)
Dell Dimension 8200 (2.8GHz P4)
Gateway 700XL (2.53GHz P4)
IBM NetVista A30 (2.8GHz P4)
MicronPC Millennia TS2 (2.8GHz P4)
To measure 3D graphics performance, CNET Labs uses's 3DMark 2001 Pro. We use 3DMark to measure a desktop's performance with the DirectX 8 (DX8) interface at both 16- and 32-bit color settings at a resolution of 1,024x768. A system that does not have DX8 hardware support will typically generate a lower score than one that has DX8 hardware support.

3D gaming performance (in fps)  (Longer bars indicate better performance)
Quake III Arena  
ABS Awesome 3530 (2.8GHz P4)
Dell Dimension 8200 (2.8GHz P4)
Gateway 700XL (2.53GHz P4)
IBM NetVista A30 (2.8GHz P4)
MicronPC Millennia TS2 (2.8GHz P4)
To measure 3D gaming performance, CNET Labs uses Quake III Arena. Although Quake III is an older game, it is still widely used as an industry-standard tool. Quake III does not require DX8 hardware support--as 3DMark2001 does--and is therefore an excellent means of comparing the performance of low- to high-end graphics subsystems. Quake III performance is reported in frames per second (fps).

Find out more about how we test desktop systems.

System configurations:

ABS Awesome 3600
Windows XP Home; 2.8GHz Intel P4; 512MB RDRAM 533MHz; Nvidia GeForce4 Ti 4600 128MB; two Maxtor D740X 80GB 7,200rpm; HPT372A UDMA/ATA133 RAID controller

Dell Dimension 8200
Windows XP Home; 2.8GHz Intel P4; 1,024MB RDRAM 400MHz; Nvidia GeForce4 Ti 4600 128MB; Western Digital WD120JB-75CRA0 120GB 7,200rpm

Gateway 700XL
Windows XP Home; 2.53GHz Intel P4; 512MB RDRAM 400MHz; Nvidia GeForce4 Ti 4600 128MB; Western Digital WD120BB-53CAA0 120GB 7,200rpm

IBM NetVista A30
Windows XP Home; 2.8GHz Intel P4; 512MB DDR SDRAM 266MHz; Nvidia GeForce4 Ti 4200 128MB; IBM IC35L120AVVA07 120GB 7,200rpm

MicronPC Millennia TS2
Windows XP Home; 2.8GHz Intel P4; 512MB DDR SDRAM 266MHz; Nvidia GeForce4 Ti 4200 128MB; IBM IC35L120AVVA07 120GB 7,200rpm

Setting up the NetVista A30 is straightforward, but only because IBM color-codes its ports--IBM's minimal documentation doesn't help much at all. The printed quick-start guide offers only basic information, and the 116-page PDF user guide covers a wide variety of systems in addition to the NetVista A. If you run into problems, IBM offers 24/7 toll-free tech support during the warranty period, as well as automated Web- and phone-based support databases.

The NetVista A series we tested is covered by a one-year labor warranty, with three-year coverage on parts (other, less-expensive models in the series are covered by a one-year warranty for both parts and labor). IBM promises second-business-day response on warranty issues, and the warranty can be extended to three or four years, including onsite repair if the system is located in a business. IBM will pick up the shipping costs both ways should home users' systems need repair. Extensions range from less than $100 to more than $400, with the higher-priced plans offering 24/7 service with a four-hour response time.

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