Midwest Micro Ultra 386SX-20. (laptop computer) (Hardware Review) (Evaluation)
by Troy Tucker
If you were judging the Ultra 386SX-20 laptop on looks alone, it would be a good computer. It's very attractive--I especially like the exterior casing, which is finished in a charcoal gray graphite coating. Though pleasing to the eye, the semirough finish is designed to resist the fingerprints that seem to accumulate on other laptops.
Fortunately, besides its good looks, the Ultra laptop is also a good value with plenty of worthwhile features. The machine I reviewed came equipped with an 80MB hard drive, 4MB of RAM, an external 2400 baud fax/modem, and a handy travel bag.
I put the computer to work doing what it was designed to do--perform on the road. Before my journey, I installed DOS 5.0, Microsoft Windows, two programming languages, a communications program, and a fax program. I packed up the computer, along with a colleague's Microsoft Ball-point mouse, and headed for the airport.
While on the road, I used the computer for programming, writing, and telecommunicating. It performed flawlessly in every aspect. The external fax/modem works well with the many online services that I deal with. I used it tb stay in touch with the office, as well as to stay on top of COMPUTE/NET The modem comes with an AC adapter, but you can also plug in a nine-volt battery for true portability. Under heavy use, the modem battery lasted about a week.
The Ultra has plenty of external ports to keep you connected with the outside world. It comes with two COM ports, a printer port, an external floppy drive port, and connections for an external keyboard and VGA monitor. Best of all, the ports are standard. You don't have to fuss with strange adapters every time you try to connect something.
Expanding this laptop is no problem. Sturdy sliding panels on the bottom of the unit provide quick and easy access to the expansion slots and the battery compartment. There are slots for additional memory and a math coprocessor.
The computer has an extremely clear VGA display. Even after hours of use, I suffered no eyestrain. The controls for contrast and brightness are located on the side of the display. The keyboard has a very comfortable layout. The keys are a little stiffer than I like, but adequate for a laptop computer. One thing I found particularly bothersome, however, was the space bar. It registers only a very firm press in the center of the key. Since I'm a touch typist, I occasionally missed the center.
I found the 80MB hard drive more than adequate in both speed and size. The internal 1.44MB 3 1/2-inch drive, located on the right side of the case, performed with equal results. Both shut down after limited use to conserve precious battery power. Under moderate use, you can operate under battery power for about three hours.
When power is fleeting, you are given a flashing LED and an audible tone. After a few minutes of warning, the system shuts down. The power supply/charger that comes with the unit is small, light, and easy to pack. It has a green LED on top that lights up when in use. When you're operating on AC power, the battery pack is trickle charged, so you'll always be ready.
There are several extra-nice features found on the Ultra. You get ten LED status lights to keep you informed of what's going on. The casing above the keyboard has three rows of ventilation slots that help keep things cool inside. All of the rear ports are concealed by a single hinged door with a magnetic fastener. Unlike the Ultra, most laptops have separate doors for the various ports.
I think the Ultra is a good value. The price beats that of many of the comparable models on the market. It's solidly built and easy to upgrade. I'm thinking about purchasing one myself, so it goes without saying that I'd also recommend one to anyone looking for a powerful, portable laptop computer.
(Editor's note: At press time, Midwest Micro indicated the Ultra 386SX-20 had been discontinued and replaced by a 386SX-25 machine with several changes, including a faster coprocessor and improved keyboard and screen. The Ultra 386SX-20 may still be available at retail stores.) TROY TUCKER
Midwest Micro Ultra 386SX-20-$1,549 with 60MB hard drive and 1MB RAM, $1,938 with 80MB hard drive and 4MB RAM 1MB RAM upgrade-$89 4MB RAM upgrade-$289 Infotel Travel fax/modem-$105
MIDWEST MICRO 6910 U.S. Route 36 E Fletcher, OH 45326 (800) 942-8080
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