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PowerBook G3 and Solo Image

PowerBook G3/250 vs Gateway Solo PII/266 9100XL
By Mike
Review Date: July 1998

In this review I'll be comparing the 1998 PowerBook G3 (Wallstreet 1) from Apple to arguably the best Windows notebook on the market as of summer 1998, the Pentium II 266 based Gateway Solo 9100XL. Although the Powerbook G3 250 is not the top of the Powerbook line, it's comparably priced to the Solo and a PB 292/14.1" model was not available to me at the time of this review.

I think you'll find this article informative and interesting, as these machines graphically illustrate the two different schools of thought in hardware design and operating systems. I'll be including not only performance comparisons, but ease of use, features, bundled software/accessories and price. This is the first of two parts of the review, with the applications performance tests result shown in the second installment.

At First Glance:

Viewing these two machines side by side immediately shows the two different schools of thought on notebook design. The PowerBook G3 looks like a work of art, the Solo a stark, utilitarian design. However there is more than just good looks to behind the PowerBook's sleek lines and sexy shapes; a lot of thought went into human engineering, ergonomics and how people actually use portable computers. This becomes even more evident after using the two machines for a few days.

After using each machine for about a week, I've created summary comments by categories such as layout, keyboard, video, and other features.

Human Engineering/Initial Impressions:

Gateway Solo

PowerBook G3

The Solo is designed and built like a brick - thick, square and heavy. The stacked DVDII/Floppy drive is primarily responsible for the base unit height, but is a fair tradeoff since it saves swapping modules (not a quick operation as I'll explain later).

The palmrest was shorter than I would like and the touchpad was too close to my left thumb - resulting in immediate frustration when this caused unwanted cursor movement and repeated typing mistakes (the insertion point would move suddenly while typing for instance, with the result being letters and words being typed in preceding paragraphs by accident. This proved to be such a problem that I eventually disabled it in the Bios and used a mouse. I've never been a fan of touchpads, and although some may love the special features in the unique Gateway software for it with my busy day I do not have the time to spare learning to work with (around?) it. A computer should be designed to adapt to the way you work, not the other way around.

Having the floppy drive integral with the DVD drive is a nice feature, as you do not need to swap modules. Removing modules requires pressing small release tabs under the notebook, not nearly as convenient as the PowerBooks front mounted release levers. It's especially cumbersome doing this in operation, as you must either fumble around blindly after raising the front edge up or (preferably) lift the whole notebook up to visibly locate the releases.

Labeling of the ports was poorly done, as tiny icons were molded into the gray plastic, and I actually had to get a flashlight out to see which of the 4 identical looking jacks were audio in/out/mic in/headphones. From experience I could recognize most of the others by connector type but some sort of contrasting color label or larger icons at least would have been a big help.

I know I sound like a broken record, but the PowerBook G3 is one beautiful, functional design. Form follows function and only after using it will you fully appreciate all the attention to detail and little touches that make life a lot easier.

The palmrest area was wider and longer than the Solo's (a friend calls them 'pillows'). I had much less problem with my thumbs or palms brushing the trackpad - a chronic problem I had on the Solo.

Swapping expansion bay modules is a breeze with the wide, front mounted levers. It's obvious from using the PowerBook that a lot of thought and usage tests were performed in the design phase. So many areas show a great advantage over the Solo as far as design and layout of the hardware.

The labelling of the I/O ports on the back shows the same attention to detail, as large contrasting color icons and lables are present, even on the inside of the protective cover, allowing easy identification when viewed over from the top, without requiring moving the notebook around and the flashlight I needed for the Solo. Another example of the little touches that show a lot of thought went into the design and will pay off in normal use.

The PowerBook was superior in design to the Solo in other areas such as the PC Card eject buttons, audio mute controls, etc. These things may seem small, but they really make a difference in long term use. Often you fully appreciate this attention to detail only after using other notebooks.

Keyboard layout/feel:

Gateway Solo

PowerBook G3

The Solo's keyboard was large and complete, with good tactile feel, but not as good as the PowerBook's. It did have a standard size set of arrow, home, end, Windows and menu keys (long time users of standard keyboards are always hitting these by mistake in games - which throws up the windows start menu and can interrupt a game in progress).

As noted early on I did not like the location of the trackpad as I was constantly inadvertently moving the cursor due to my thumb or palms brushing against it accidentally. It was so frustrating I finally disabled the touchpad in the bios and used a mouse instead.
The PowerBook G3 really surprised me with its excellent keyboard feel. It honestly is my favorite keyboard of any I've used on the Mac - far better than the Macally and standard Apple keyboards IMHO. The keyboard design comments in the glossy PB G3 ads is not hype - they did a great job.

One nit I have is the tiny arrow keys, which are hard to get used to after using full size ones, and I wish there was support for home/end/pageup/pagedown keys, as I've gotten accustomed to those keys at work. The arrow keys are labled with alternate fn (function) labels for these but only the pageup/pagedn functions seem to work, at least in any application I've tried.


Gateway Solo

PowerBook G3

The 14.1" screen was better than I expected, bright even at the lowest setting and of two Solos I used, none had any bad pixels. Comparing it side by side to the PowerBook screen it did not look quite as good, but very close. Text was very well defined and easy to read at the default 1024x768 resolution and millions color mode is supported. There were options to change the resolution, but the results were not pretty when 800x600 was scaled to the full size of the display.

The graphics chip used by the Solo is the Trident Cyber 9397 and 4MB of SGRAM provided surprisingly good 2D and 3D speed for a notebook, even in games like Unreal and Tomb Raider II. There was some evidence of edge artifacts (seams) of wall and sky textures in outdoor scenes in TR and Unreal, indicating a possible driver or hardware bug; most noticeable in Tomb Raider II.

Performance in several 3D applications was good, except for Bryce 2, which was horribly slow and had artifacts in the rendered images making it totally useless. Even at millions colors images rendered in Bryce 2 displayed black specks in some areas of the image (skies usually). Bryce 3D fared much better, offering much better speed and good image quality. The tech note for PC Bryce 2 noted that the PC version used more realistic materials (refraction/reflection for instance) which may be partly responsible for the speed differences but a scene in Bryce 2 that took about 6 minutes to render on the PowerBook G3 took over an hour to finish on the Solo. Bryce 3D does seemed to perform much better as did Ray Dream Studio 5 and others.

The 13.3" screen was bright and very crisp. Text was noticeably smaller than the Solo, owing in part to the different font sizes of the Mac vs PC and slightly smaller screen. I think the 13.3" screen is a good value as the 14.1" option is much more expensive and availability is constrained at the current time. I did find one dead pixel, about 1" away from the left edge of the display, about half way up vertically, fairly common on 13.3" displays based on reports on the net. Another one appeared a few days later, but it seems to come and go. I did not find these to be a problem in their current locations but should more appear I would be concerned. Last I heard it takes 5 dead pixels to qualify for a replacement display, depending on "clustering" of the dead pixels.

The graphics chip used by the current PowerBook line is the ATI RageII LT, basically a LCD compatible version of the Rage II+ that ATI said contains some of the 2D speed improvements of the RagePro but none of the 3D enhancements. It's great for general use and 2D games such as std Quake (512 mode, scan doubled), or Duke 3D, etc. The Rage II does not have the horsepower to run Rave games well, as has been documented many times at the site. For most portable work however it's fine - and even Myth runs very well. 4MB of SGRAM is standard on the 13.3" and larger displays, allowing millions colors at 1024x768.

As is typical of current notebooks, games that run at less than 1024x768 will have a black border around the image as no scaling is done (the same is true of the Solo). I don't find this to be a problem personally.


Gateway Solo

PowerBook G3

Although a new machine just built (a 30 day waiting period), my initial checks showed that a later bios for the supplied 3COM 56K X2 PC card modem was available at Gateway's site. This flash update improved connect rates by about 5K. Maximum connect speeds I saw was 50.6K, typical was 37-43k. Gateway's site showed what appeared to be later video driver files, but that was a typo on the revision, after downloading them they were the same revision as the installed files. I notified Gateway tech support of this fact, but weeks later the revision on the web page had not been corrected. This will lead to unnecessary downloading of files as owners mistakenly thinking it's a later version.

On the original Solo with Win95, the installed Office 97 needed the 6MB Service Pak 1 and Excel patches and the version of McAfee VirusScan was not current. Quicktime was not included and had to be downloaded and installed. Transferring files using the parallel port (direct cable connection and ZIP drive) was slow and took most of the night to complete.

On the Windows 98 Solo, inserting my CoolPix PC card camera or PC Card flash module adapter resulted in an automatic install of the needed drivers (since the Windows CAB files were on the hard disk otherwise I'd have had to insert the Windows CDROM) but on the Windows 95 Solo it was not nearly so smooth. I'd inserted the Coolpix first, and Win95 detected it and installed a driver, however the PC Card flash adapter was detected as a different device, and the drivers installed for it conflicted with existing devices. I finally solved the problem by disabling the IR port/Com Port to free an IRQ (Interrupt Request line) for the device but this would have been beyond the average users capability. Windows 98 did seem to be an improvement in this area.

The PowerBook required no updating of files to use and within minutes I'd connected my SCSI ZIP drive (installing Iomega Guest from a floppy) and was copying over Emailer2, my mail files and installed my applications.

After the trouble in Windows 95 with the Coolpix and PC Card adapters it was a breath of fresh air to just insert them into the PowerBook and see them appear on the desktop - no drivers needed at all. Now that's the way it should be!

Out of the box I was doing productive work much more quickly on the PowerBook. Not surprising since this is a hallmark of the Mac in general.

The first thing I recommend that all PowerBook owners do is add RAM. The Solo 9100XL came standard with 128MB of RAM. 32MB is standard for the 250 MHz PowerBook G3 so I added a 128MB dimm, now under $200 from some sources.

Adding RAM and disabling virtual memory made a noticeable improvement in performance, responsiveness and stability and also allowed more applications to be open simultaneously (I normally keep Emailer 2, Fetch, HTML Editor and Internet Explorer open). For serious applications like Photoshop (useful since millions colors at 1024x768 resolution is supported) you'll need more RAM than the standard 32MB and this should be your first upgrade. (See my Inside the PowerBook G3 article for a step-by-step guide to installing the RAM module.)


Gateway Solo

PowerBook G3

The Solo 9100XL weighs over 9 pounds and feels much heavier than the PowerBook. The supplied carrying case, although nice, is large and when stuffed with everything that came with it (DVD samplers, manuals, headphones, etc), weighs a ton. If I had to carry it every day I feared one arm would eventually be longer than the other.

The 5100 series Solos are a few lbs. lighter and would be a better choice if portability is more important than the DVD and video input features of the 9100XL.

Add a couple more pounds to the load if you take along it's extra 12-cell battery pack, it's quite heavy but needed for long runtime with the mobile Pentium II and large screen.

If you need a ZIP on the road, the Addtronics slimline zip and PC card interface are the only practical options, as adding a standard external ZIP and AC adapter would push the carrying weight and bulk over anyone's threshold of tolerance.

The PowerBook G3, although no lightweight at about 8 lbs., just feels more portable than the Solo. It's slimmer and in the Targa Universal carrying case I already owned the whole package is much smaller than the Solo. (Granted, the Solo and basic accessories would fit in the same case.)

Carrying an extra battery with the PowerBook is much less a chore since it is smaller and quite a bit lighter than the Solo's.

If you need a ZIP drive on the road, the VST ZIP expansion bay drive is very nice, and compared to the external ZIP and huge AC adapter it's much more compact.

Battery Life:

Gateway Solo

PowerBook G3

Battery life averaged about 2-2.5 hours during several tests, made possible by the size and number of cells in the Solo battery pack (12 Cell 3900mah). The battery pack is large and very heavy, but needed to provide decent run time with the mobile Pentium II and large active screen.

Unlike the Powerbook there is no way to check battery charge levels without turning on the machine. There is a single lit indicator (when on) that glows in several colors to indicate relative charge levels but I didn't find it very useful, as a fully charged battery showed green, after sitting overnight (no use) it powered on with an amber color, indicating a lower charge level. I know even Lithium Ion batteries can self-discharge a bit but this made me wonder how useful the indicator really was.
Although the PB G3 battery pack is said to offer up to 3.5 hours of run time in my tests battery life averaged 2.5 hours in normal use. I did not experiment with the many options in the energy saver that could help lower power usage. The PB battery is much smaller and lighter than the Solo's.

Unlike the Solo, the PowerBook battery has 4 LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes) to indicate charge level without having to power up the machine, another of those nice features I keep mentioning that can make all the difference. If you're in rush, at the press of a button you can check battery status, without booting up the machine. I also noticed the Solo's batteries seemed to self discharge at a much faster rate than the PB's.

Software/Hardware Bundle:

Gateway Solo

PowerBook G3

This is one area where the Solo does excel, as it comes with a lot of extras. Deluxe carrying case, 56k X2 PC Card modem, 2nd 12-cell battery, external battery charger, port replicator (sort of a mini-Dock), headphones, DVD sampler disks, Office 97 Small Business Edition (no Access database), McAfee VirusScan, Laplink 95, Bookshelf and a coupon for two free DVD movie titles.

Microsoft's agressive bundling offers allow such niceties as Office to be included at very low cost to the OEM, due to competition in the Office Suite market on the PC and huge volumes. Of course the current models also come with IE 4.01 installed and a CDROM with Netscape Communicator. However with the integration of the browser appearing so deeply rooted in Windows 98, I'd be hesitant to install Netscape.
The PowerBook G3 is supplied with OS 8.1, a suite of internet apps (IE and Netscape v3, Emailer Lite, WebWhacker 3.0) and STF Fax software. Some sort of applications bundle would be nice, even ClarisWorks. Software bundle is the only question potential buyers ask that I hesitate to answer. A bundle similar to that announced for the iMac would be a welcome addition.

My model had the internal 56K Flex modem, saving a PCMCIA slot over the Solo design. The modem connected at the highest rates I'd seen for a 56K Flex (non-V90) modem here - up to 44K. The PowerBook G3 also included builtin Ethernet, missing from the Solo.

Disk Drives/CDROM/Audio/MultiMedia:

Gateway Solo

PowerBook G3

The 9100XL Solo comes standard with a combination floppy and DVD II drive with hardware decoder on the motherboard. DVD performance was excellent, full screen movies played back well with no dropped frames and very good image quality. The DVD Player had options for skip, chapters, FF/Rev, camera angle (supported in some DVD movies) and language options (varies by title).

Stereo Audio is provided by a Yamaha audio chip which has simulated 3D and hardware wavetable (odd though, with the DVD drive installed only software wave synth is available). The two small speakers in the front of the palmrests provided adequate sound that was better than I expected when first seeing them. Still not the quality of any desktop speakers however. There was a external speaker volume wheel (no on-screen indication of position) in addition to the usual Windows audio volume controls/mixer control panel.

The microphone was useless - due to it being placed in the main case (ahead of the keyboard) it picked up ambient noise and feedback from the chassis components. I tried every trick in the book (and all of Gateway's suggestions) and still could not get satisfactory recorded audio without using a external mic. Apple showed much better design thought by placing the mic on the top of the display, where it is much less prone to picking up noise from the notebook components.

The current Solo 9100XL comes standard with a 8GB IDE hard disk. Earlier models used a 5GB drive. In the last 30 days prices dropped several hundred dollars on the 9100XL as well as other additions being added. Retail buyers have 30 days of price protection which must create a nightmare for the company with the rapid price and features changes of the PC market.

The PowerBook G3/250 comes with a 20X CDrom drive, stereo audio capability, dual speakers and a 4GB drive. DVD drive and an 8GB hard disk are available options from the Apple Store for additional cost. The new hardware DVD decoder PC Card and cool DVD controller software are nice additions but DVD is not really a necessity in a notebook. However based on the DVD demo at MacWorld it looks to be a very desirable option and one that would have been nice to have for comparison.

The 20X CDROM performed well, but was prone to noise and vibration on discs that had heavy labeling or were not perfectly balanced. The manual mentions this as well. The Bryce 3D install CD generated a lot vibration that could be felt on the palmrest above the CD for instance. Other CDs, especially unlabelled ones that I had made here were much quieter and generated literally no vibration at all.

Audio capability is good, as are all Macs and the builtin PB speakers are fine for portable use. The audio mute button was a nice feature and I preferred the up/down button scheme for audio volume, an improvement over the rotary wheel on the Solo in my opinion (on screen feedback was present, missing from the Solo).

The PowerBook's mic worked much better than the Solo, again due to better placement of the mic. As with many features of the PB, this too showed more thought went into how people actually use these things - I can't see how anyone could have tested the Solo's mic and let the design get released as is (useless).

Just how Hot are they?:

Gateway Solo

PowerBook G3

The 266 MHz Mobile Pentium II Solo ran surprisingly cool - the top and bottom of the Solo never became hot even after 6-8 hours of use. Some heat could be felt wafting up through the keyboard after several hours, just like on the PowerBook.

Given the wattage history of the Pentium family this was a shocker. Gateway did an excellent job of thermal design on the Solo. I would not have believed this had I not seen it for myself.

Unlike the nice utilities available for the Mac, I had no way to tell the CPU junction temperature.

As is common knowledge now, the new PowerBooks do run very warm on the bottom of the case, so much so that it is not comfortable to use it in your lap for extended periods. Thankfully Apple made dramatic improvements over the original PowerBook G3 as far as topside heat that was my main complaint in the original PB G3. The topside of the new PB G3 never gets warm, whereas the original PB G3 left palmrest got uncomfortably warm after many hours of use.

Maximum CPU junction temperature I saw after 6 hours of use was 76C (168 degrees F) per the Powerlogix SpeedMeter utility. I encountered no heat related problems although the bottom side does get hot after several hours of use. This is normal as the bottom side is used as a heatsink.

Interfaces/IO Ports:

Gateway Solo

PowerBook G3

Solo I/O Ports include:

  • 2 PC Card Slots (Cardbus/Zoomed Video Support)
  • PC Card 56K X2 Modem (Cellular capable)
  • Dual USB ports
  • PS/2 Mouse/Keyboard
  • Joystick/Midi port
  • VGA Out
  • Composite Video Out
  • Composite Video In
  • Printer Port
  • Audio: Mic/Headphones/audio in/out
  • Port Replicator connector
  • 9 pin Serial (Com port)
  • IR port (4mb/sec)
  • Docking station included

As stated previously, the identification of these was not well done as the symbols were too tiny and not very contrasting to the molded case.

Ejecting PC cards was somewhat frustrating however, as even with the eject button pressed fully in, the card protruded only about 1/8" out of the slot, and you need fingernails to grasp the card to remove it.

PowerBook G3 I/O Ports include:

  • 2 PC Card Slots (Cardbus/Zoomed Video Support)
  • 56K Flex internal Modem
  • ADB
  • VGA Out
  • Audio in/out
  • SCSI (5MB/sec)
  • S-Video Out
  • Ethernet (10BaseT)
  • Serial port (Printer/modem)
  • IR port (4mb/sec)

As noted earlier, most ports were very clearly labelled allowing connections to be made without moving the PowerBook.

The PC Cards were ejected fully from the PowerBook, unlike the Solo.

OS/Applications Notes:

Gateway Solo

PowerBook G3

Even with the mobile PII 266 Mhz with 512K backside cache, Windows 98 seemed noticeably slower at the OS level than the other Solo running Windows 95. The Windows 95 Solo seemed suprisingly snappy and other than in Bryce 2 applications speed seemed very good. Bryce 2 however was useless - it took over an hour (I gave up) to render the sample scene that the Application performance seemed similar, but in general Windows 95 seemed more responsive than Windows 98 on an otherwise identical Solo, even after turning off animated menu effects, etc.

The 'system agent' running in the background (set to optimize the drive for applications use after a selectable period) could have been partly responsible, but in general I think 98 just feels less responsive than 95.

Within hours of use of both the Win95 and Win98 Solo I saw problems. After 6 hours the winsock memory leaks (TCP/IP Sockets) caused a complete lockup in Win95 and after 3 hours of surfing in IE 4 (at the MS site no less) on the Windows 98 Solo the browser view became a mess of overlaid text (like seeing 5 different transparent background web pages on top each other - a error dialog box soon popped up, and guess what - the infamous "Kernel32.dll" error is alive and well in Windows 98! (Will they ever fix these???) I guess not much has changed under the fancy new wallpaper. Thankfully IE exited gracefully and operation of other programs was not affected, but in the past (Win95) after a kernel error it was recommended you restart Windows.

My first few hours in Windows 98 (even on a machine with 128 MB of RAM) left me feeling like I'd be walking through a minefield from now on. I immediately wondered if the next application install would overwrite a shared DLL file, modify the registry or system INI files in some incompatible way that would result in more problems down the road. In only a few short hours, surfing only at the Microsoft site, any hope I had that Windows 98 would be a more reliable operating system was shattered. And this was on a new machine that came with a Windows 98 clean install.

The on-board Yamaha audio was configured to odd DMA channels, which would not have allowed the standard Sound Blaster emulation to work. This would not be a problem for windows programs but would be for any legacy DOS apps and games. There is an option for simulated 3D audio, with mixed results depending on the application.

The Windows 98 automatic software/driver update feature seemed to work well, but the proof will come later when there are system level drivers that are updated. I also missed the automatic folder pop-open feature of OS 8 when dragging files around, and find I always spend more time pressing buttons and flipping menus out to get to what I need in Windows compared to the MacOS.

No long multiple paragraphs needed to describe using the PowerBook - all the updating and configuring headaches are not required with it. I did have one or two lockups before upgrading the RAM, probably due to attempting to run too many apps at once. Overall it's been reliable and a pleasure to use.

Using the two machines it became apparent that I was often doing a lot of clicking and extra effort to get the same work done on the PC. I much prefer Emailer 2 to any mail client I've used on the PC (most I despise). Applications performance was very good and it has quickly become my favorite Mac, I use it so much the keys are starting to get polished already.

With a 250 MHz PowerPC G3 CPU and 1MB of backside cache applications performance was very good and I now use the PowerBook G3 as a substitute for my desktops. Now I can use one machine for all email, site maintenance (including graphics) - saving me precious time every day. And having this much power that is portable is truly amazing. It's a great tool in so many ways, and I've yet to see anyone not marvel at the new design.

Another Great bonus of the Mac is that it can read and write PC files - an extra cost option on the PC. And don't forget you can run Windows 95 and 98 if necessary via emulators like RealPC and Virtual PC.


Gateway Solo

PowerBook G3

The Gateway Solo 9100XL is currently $4599.
(128MB/8GB/14.1"/DVDII.) Available only from Gateway's web site.

Processor: Intel Pentium II Mobile, 266 MHz with 512k of backside cache running at 133 MHz, 66 MHz bus. (Fastest option currently available.)

The PowerBook G3/250/13.3"/32MB/4GB currently sells for $3899. Lower prices are often available from other outlets.

I added a 128MB RAM upgrade at $199.99 (Apple's 128MB total RAM option adds $560). 8GB HD option adds $500, as does the 14.1" screen upgrade. DVD option adds $450.

Processor: Motorola PowerPC G3, 250 MHz with 1MB of backside cache running at 125 MHz, 83 MHz Bus. (A 292 MHz version is available for $500 more.)


Gateway Solo

PowerBook G3

Standard configuration is very well equipped (128MB/DVDII, USB, Video capture, 8GB drive, carrying case, etc.). Application performance better than expected. Excellent display with zero dead pixels. Runs suprisingly cool. Great hardware and software bundle - out of the box there is literally nothing else you need to buy. 3 year warranty only $99 extra.

Heavy. Usual Windows complaints. Microphoone not useable. Controls and features not as easy to use as the PowerBook. Can't read Mac disks without extra-cost software.
Superior layout and human engineering. Easy to use OS. Great speed in graphics applications. Excellent keyboard feel. Well laid out controls and features. Good display image quality. Built-in modem and Ethernet saves PC card slots. Expansion bay devices available including ZIP drives, Road Rocket PCMCIA Graphics card. Can run Windows OS if need be, great file interchange capability. A pleasure to use and powerful enough to replace many desktops.

Needs more RAM standard. Bottom surface heat prevents extended use on lap. Noisy CDrom drive with many CDs. Display developed several dead pixels quickly. Some users (myself included) reporting cabling problems which lead to intermittent display functioning.Limited software bundle.

Bottom line is that I'd much rather have the PowerBook, it just fits the way I work better, has my preferred OS, is more portable and easier to use. It also has many features that are designed to make life a little easier. And of course you don't have to rely on Windows as your OS, although you do have that option.

Since this page was so long, I put the photos I took of each of the machines on a separate page. The Illustrated Comparison page has pictures of the two notebooks side by side from various angles to compare and contrast the two designs. This page is therfore a little 'heavy' due to the number of images.

The Applications Performance Tests page compares the two machines in several real-world applications from Photoshop 5 to Microsoft Office 97/98.

Illustrated Comparison
Application Performance Tests

For other system reviews see the Systems page

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