Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 140 / MAY 1992 / PAGE 98

Packard Bell 520SX. (microcomputer) (Evaluation)
by Peer Plaut

Whether you're thinking about dipping your toes in the home-computing waters or you're already wet and looking to get wetter, the Packard Bell 520SX might be the machine you need. It's easy enough for a novice to use, yet it's powerful enough and packaged with sufficient software to offer a potential step up.

The machine comes with enought software installed for you to start computing quickly, and setup is a breeze. If you've ever set up a computer before, you should be able to handle this one with your eyes closed. The Quick Start Guide covers the most basic MS-DOS commands and contains useful illustrations that show how everything should be put together. If you're a brave and adventurous first-timer, you'll be glad to find that the back of the computer is fairly well marked, with both icons and abbreviations showing where everything is supposed to go. The Packard Bell comes with another User's Manual that goes into a lot more detail than you'll probably ever need. But hang onto it--your computer repair person will need this book to make repairs and upgrades.

The case is sturdy, and it opens easily to a very serviceable layout. Because the 520SX is so well equipped, there are only two reasons you'd ever need to get into the case: to add more memory or to add another expansion card. The case has a warranty seal on it, so if you upgrade before your warranty runs out, you may void it.

The 520SX comes with 2MB of SIMMs (Single Inline Memory Modules) and is upgradable to 16MB. The memory modules are easily accessible and should take the novice computer user about an hour to install. Use only high-quality 265K, 1MB, or 4MB x 9MB SIMMs; otherwise, you could have problems with some programs.

Adequate ventilation can be a concern if you're using your computer in a warm environment. With its roomy case, the Packard Bell 520SX looks as if it will keep cool satisfactorily. Its fan is moderately noisy but not disturbing. Because this machine comes with a 125MB hard drive, a tape backup would be a good next purchase. If you're good with a blowtorch, you might wedge a tape backup system somewhere under the 5 1/4-inch drive. If not, you may have to look toward an external tape backup or remove one of your floppy drives to get a tape backup to work. If Packard Bell had placed its on/off switch somewhere else on the computer, you'd have one more drive bay.

Today's all-in-one motherboards, such as the one that comes with the Packard Bell 520SX, have several advantages and disadvantages. The main disadvantage is that if a component on the motherboard goes bad, you could have to replace the entire motherboard--a costly proposition. However, manufacturers say the new boards are cooler and more efficient. (I'd imagine that they're also less expensive to manufacture.) The advantage to the consumer is a smaller computer on the desktop. With so many ports located on the motherboard, including the keyboard, mouse, parallel, and two serial ports, you have four 16-bit expansion slots left on you computer. The 520SX come with a modem already installed, leaving you three open expansion slots.

The cost of expanding this computer is only as expensive as your best deal, but be wary of too good a deal. You get what you pay for, and sometimes problems don't crop up until it's too late to point fingers. Sixteen megabytes of RAM should be adequate for most of today's needs, and it will probably be a few more years before most programs you run will be able to utilize that much memory. If you want to add more drives, you'll probably have to replace existing drives with bigger ones or look at external drives. If Packard Bell would just move the power switch, the expansion capabilities would be the same as for most other computers on the market.

The monitor is a high-resolution, 14-inch Super VGA type that has a good set of program utilities to run a variety of software in 1024 x 768 mode. When 1 ran the 1024 x 768 mode from DOS and then tried to run some other software, the system froze up every time. The Windows 3.0 screen drivers installed easily, however, and Windows ran without a hitch.

The 520SX comes with several nice features. It has its own unique Windows-like opening screen, which experienced computer users will probably discard quickly inf avor of Windows 3.0 or their own menu programs. However, this program is an excellent tool for beginners because it protects them from encounting the DOS prompt, which can be a harrowing experience for first-time users.

LotusWorks comes installed and ready to go. Works is a combination word processor with spelling checker and thesaurus, spreadsheet with graphics, database, and communications package. The documentation for Works is printed by Lotus. You'll probably want to get a third-party book on Works; this documentation is awfully dry. The reference guide has a large index which, if scanned, can be more advantageous than reading the book cover to cover.

This computer also sports a mouse and internal modem/fax, both of which worked well in software packages I tested. To test the mouse and modem, I dialed out on Prodigy, which is included witht he 520SX. The fax capabilities took a little while to get up and running, and the documentation didn't always match what the software was showing on the screen. I found it easier to figure out using trial and error.

Packard Bell computers seem to be some of the lowest-priced computers around that offer a basic software set to hep get you going. Because these computers are sold prinmarily through deep-discount discount department stores, the only technical support is by telephone.

Even so, if you want a good starter computer or a powerful upgrade, give the Packard Bell 520SX a look. It's easy to set up and use, and it comes with enough software to satisfy the average home computer user.