Micro Express 386-SX. (computer) (includes related article) (evaluation)
by Peer Plaut
As I pulled the Micro Express 386-SX unit out of its cardboard box, I breathed a sigh of relief. Important elements of the machine's architecture--VGA card, hard drive controller, and I/O ports--were all ditinctly separate from the motherboard. Some newer machines have all the cards and I/O ports as part of the motherboard. This may save the manufacturer a few dollars, but when there's a breakdown, replacing the hard drive controller means replacing the entire motherboard. This can be expensive, costing only about $300 less than a new computer. Standard architecture also allows for use of inexpensive clone hardware for future upgrades and replacement, keeping both of these costs well within reason. With six expansion slots available to you (four 16-bit and two 8-bit), you can expand your system at will, budget allowing.
The machine comes with 2MB of SIMMs (Single In-line Memory Modules) and will expand to 4MB. Easy to replace or upgrade, these SIMMs cost even a bit less than DRAMs (Dynamic Random Access Memory). If you choose to install the memory yourself, you may find it easier to remove the motherboard than to wrestle with the SIMMs in cramped quarters.
Located just above the Reset button, the computer's readily accessible Turbo switch bumps the processing speed up to 16 MHz. Be aware that both the Turbo switch and the Reset switch are exactly the same shape and color as the case. You could easily reset the machine by accident when you intend to hit the Turbo switch; I did. Most of the time you'll probably run the processor at 16 MHz anyway. Probably the only time you'll want to intentionally slow down the motherboard is when you want to play games.
The Micro Express comes standard with a 3 1/2-inch ##MB IDE (Integrated Device Electronics) hard drive manufactured by Quantum. Included in the drive package is also one 5 1/4-inch 1.2MB floppy drive. There's plenty of room to add the 3 1/2-inch floppy disk drive and a tape backup system or one more hard drive. If you call Micro Express, it will configure the machine any way you desire before you buy it. I suggest these extras: the popular 1.44MB floppy disk drive and a 100MB drive instead of a 33MB. This may sound like a lot of hard drive space, but given the size of today's programs, it's not. Take advantage of Micro Express flexibility and order exactly what you want and need for the computer. From an aesthetic point of view, the case won't win any prizes. However, thanks to its small size, the case can sit under your desk and never be noticed. One problem with this setup, and also when the machine rests on a desktop, is that the power switch is located on the back of the machine--very awkward.
Ventilation should not be a problem--the case seems large enough, and the fan located in the power supply is standard fare. The computer is no noisier or quieter than the average desktop. Its footprint, too, takes up an average amount of space on your desk.
My Micro Express 386-SX shipped with a 14-inch analog Super VGA color monitor with resolution up to 1024 x 768 and a .28 dot pitch. The colors on this monitor did not appear especially bright, but the picture was crisp because of the .28 pitch. The non-glare screen helps when you're working at odd angles for long periods of time, giving your eyes a little more mileage.
Keyboard layout ranks high on the list of significant attributes for any computer. Micro Express's keyboard (a standard clone) has the familiar row of 12 function keys across the top, an extended numeric keypad, and cursor movement keys. An audible click accompanies each keystroke, and each key feels solid. Still, I prefer a more compact keyboard. Trim the borders and move the function keys a little closer to the numeric keys across the top, and the keyboard would work well. Nevertheless, this machine and I were up to speed in no time.
The standard Micro Express 386-SX sells for $1,394 and will serve two purposes extremely well. If you're looking for a replacement 386SX, this machine will meet your needs. If you don't like the keyboard, keep it as a spare. Any of your existing hardware and software should transfer readily to this machine.
If this is your first experience shopping for a 386 computer, and you already own some software, this standard system is a good place to start. You can easily install more memory and add a mouse or a 3 1/2-inch disk drive. Be forewarned, however, that the Micro Express comes with no software outside of your choice of DOS 3.1 to 4.01. Manufacturer-installed software often helps computer newcomers get in the swing. With the Micro Express 386-SX, you'll start almost from scratch.
Technical support has always been important to me. Nowhere in the manual did I find a technical support number or even a mailing address--true to form for a lot of mail-order businesses. Hang on to the toll-free technical support number that shows up on Micro Express invoices; that's your ticket to unlimited free, knowledgeable, and friendly technical support.