AST Advantage! (Evaluation)
by Denny Atkin
The AST Advantage! notebook computer actually presents a bad omen for a large sector of the PC industry. No, it doesn't bode negatively for the future of laptops, but it could be a sign of eventual doom for the behemoth desktop PCs that currently inhabit our work areas. When manufacturers can create laptops with all the functionality, performance, and ergonomics of a full-size computer, there's little justification for most people to give up the top of their desks to a mammoth PC.
No, the Advantage! doesn't have expansion slots, a CD-ROM drive, or a 4-billion-color graphics card. What it does have, though, is a set of features that will probably satisfy all the computing needs of a large percentage of the PC-using public, all packed into a case that's small enough to slide over to a corner of your desk. And since the Advantage! is sold through mass-market outlets such as Circuit City, its street price should be competitive with prices of brand-name desktop PCs.
When you go on the road, you don't have to settle for a stripped-down machine to get the advantage of portability. With a 20-MHz 386SX processor, a 40MB hard drive, 4MB of RAM (expandable to 8MB), an internal 2400-bps modem, and VGA graphics, the Advantage! packs a lot of utility into a six-pound package.
The machine is solidly constructed, with a heavy-gauge plastic case. In three months of use, including numerous airplane trips, I never experienced a problem with it. Its size is just about right to fit on an airline tray table, although it's a little deep; you'll find the keyboard pretty close to your belly if you're sitting in coach.
The Advantage! has one of the best laptop keyboards I've used. The keys have a deep throw, and their feel is very similar to the feel of a desktop's keys. A PS/2-style keyboard port on the back of the machine allows you to connect a full-size keyboard (or a separate numeric keypad) when using the machine in the office. The same port can also accommodate a PS/2-style mouse.
The gray-scale LCD screen on this laptop is sharper and clearer than that of any other laptop I've ever used. It exhibits none of the ghosting problems of earlier-technology laptop screens. The onscreen clarity of the sharp black-on-white text was the primary reason I chose to do all my writing on the Advantage! instead of my desktop PC. If you do need color, the Advantage! has a monitor port on the back that supports all standard VGA modes. Also present are parallel, serial, and power-adapter ports.
The Advantage! has a host of power-saving utilities built in, including the automatically timed shutdown of both backlighting and the hard disk. The modem and speaker can be shut off if they're not needed, and a sleep mode slows the processor to a crawl if the computer is idle for a period of time, saving even more power. On average I was able to get about three hours of usage from a single charge. If you buy an extra battery, you'll find swapping batteries a literal snap. Just open the battery cover, pull out the old battery, and slide in the new one--a welcome change from the days of removing nicad battery wires with a screwdriver. Using a standard bulky power brick, charging takes only 3 hours when the Advantage! is turned off and 10-16 hours when it's on. If you need more portability, you can purchase a trickle charger--a small, light unit that charges the machine overnight with the power off. You can't run the computer from the trickle charger, though. You can also buy an automatic adapter and an external battery charger for the unit.
The only really negative aspect of the machine is its poor documentation. The 38-page user's guide is probably all an experienced computer user will need to get up and running, but its short, one-line definitions of DOS commands will do little to help the novice. Considering that this model is designed to be sold in mass-market outlets, where the sales staff's computer knowledge is inconsistent at best, AST should have included more thorough documentation.
That minor caveat aside, the Advantage! is a real winner. Its speedy performance, power-saving features, and crystal-clear LCD screen make it a standout among laptops. All but the most power-hungry PC users will find the Advantage! a better choice than either underpowered notebook computers or desk-hogging PCs.