U.S.I.T. Athena 386SX. (computer) (includes related article) (evaluation)
by Peer Plaut
The US Integrated Technologies Athena comes well packaged, and setup takes little time.
Longtime computer users could probably set it up blindfolded, but even computer novices should have little difficulty. The Getting Started chapter in the manual is straightforward and well illustrated with photographs outlining each step of the assembly process. U.S.I.T. has clearly labeled the ports on the back of the system box. As with most computers, all you'll need is a small flat-head screwdriver to tighten the monitor connection. Although plugging in the hardware poses no problems, the Athena comes to you bare, without any version of MS-DOS.
An attractive machine overall, the Athena has a design vaguely reminiscent of ancient Grecian architecture. I wish the small Power and Reset switches had more distinctive markings, however, to prevent confusion between the two.
Once inside the medium-foot-print case, you'll find plenty of room to move around. And with this much room, don't expect any ventilation problems. The fan located in the back of the case runs quietly. In addition to the 5 1/4-inch floppy drive, there's one more drive bay that can be accessed from the outside of the machine, and there's room in the hard drive bay to add another hawrd drive.
The video adapter, mouse port, keyboard port, one parallel port, and two serial ports are all integrated into the motherboard. This configuration leaves you with three open 16-bit expansion slots to install whatever cards you wish.
This computer uses SIMMs (Single In-line Memory Module), and you can upgrade to 8MB. The review unit shipped with 1MB of memory, but you should upgrade to at least 2MB if you plan to run Windows 3.0. For most desktop applications, 1MB should suffice.
U.S.I.T. sells only one keyboard, which compares favorably with most other keyboards. If you dislike a smaller-than-usual Enter key, though, you might want to hold on to the keyboard from your old machine. A nifty perk for those who use the U.S.I.T. stock keyboard: the Caps Lock, Scroll Lock, and Num Lock keys have their own on/off lights located conveniently on the keys themselves. This feature proved very helpful.
The shining star of this hardware bundle--the .28-pitch VGA monitor--insists of pampering your eyes by supporting only 640 x 480 resolution. Running Windows 3.0, I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me; the screen appeared tiny. I quickly whipped out my tape measure, only to find that the diagonal screen measurement was 11 1/2 inches across00something I never would have noticed until I ran a graphics-intensive program like Windows. I like the .28 pitch and would choose the smaller monitor with this high resolution over a 14 1/2-inch screen with a lower resolution any day. When I asked about the availability of a different monitor, I was told different monitors come with different products. I found this answer a little confusing; all I wanted to know was if I could upgrade to a different monitor. You can always go to your local dealer to see what is available if U.S.I.T. doesn't have a monitor that suits your needs.
The video adapter card supports resolutions up to 1024 x 768 but only in two colors and only with the 512K memory upgrade--information best confirmed by talking with technical support, since there's no monitor manual included in the package.
This computer's video adapter leaves a lot to be desired; most people use more than two colors on their Super VGA monitors. With the 512K video memory upgrade, the video adapter will support 256 colors in 640 x 480 mode. This is also the capability of the monitor that is standard with the computer. You can, however, disable your on-board video adapter and add your own. Since the expansion slots are industry standard 16-bit, the video card of your choice should work.
The installed 42MB Western Digital IDE hard drive rates at less than 18 milliseconds--fast enough for most users.
I tried several applications on the Athena, and all ran without a hitch. The better-known software I ran was Windows 3.0, Microsoft Works 2.0, and PC Tools 7.0.
I had the opportunity to call the technical support people twice. On both occasions they were courteous and helpful. The Athena line is sold through Value Added Resellers (VARs) and Inacomp. Technical support, should you need it with the Athena model, isn't toll-free. Since the computer is sold through VARs, I s uggest you contact your reseller before calling U.S.I.T., which supplies many different lines to many different resellers with many different options. The Athena could be packaged any number of ways. Because of this, technical support had trouble identifying my equipment and telling me if the equipment I had was right for the machine I had.
The computer comes with a standard 12-month warranty but with no standard on-site service. However, you can purchase an on-site service contract. The warranty is backed by U.S.I.T. but is handled through your reseller. U.S.I.T. does not have any specific guidelines as to how a reseller handles warranty work. If you buy the Athena from a reseller, find out how he supports the warranty. Does he give you a loaner, or will you be without a computer for three weeks while your computer has been shipped off to California?
An average machine, the Athena runs Windows well because of the faster hard drive installed, but processing performance doesn't exceed any other 386SX 16-MHz computer. If the Athena meets your minimum standards and you like the price, it would be a wise purchase.