Test lab. (multimedia products)(includes related articles) (Hardware Review) (Evaluation)
by Tom Benford, David English, Mike Hudnall
More informative, more persuasive, more fun--that's multimedia. And for a number of reasons, it's a technology you should consider now.
Increasingly powerful processors, bigger drives, and advances in sound and CD-ROM technology mean that multimedia works better than ever before. Falling prices in the hardware market and increased competition among multimedia manufacturers mean that you can afford more in a computer than ever before, including multimedia capabilities.
Who needs multimedia? Just a year or two ago, CD-ROM-based applications were mostly limited to the areas of institution-based education, business presentations, computer-aided training, and information kiosks. Today, there are hundreds of CD-ROM applications for the average PC user, including business, general-education, and entertainment programs. Many of these, especially those with full MPC support, have digitized voice, music, and sound effects; full-motion video; and a screen resolution of 640 x 480 with 256-color graphics. If you've been waiting for enough MPC applications to become available before you consider buying an MPC or an MPC upgrade kit, you don't need to wait any longer.
Do you still need to use the MPC version of Windows instead of the more up-to-date Windows 3.1? In November 1990, when Microsoft, Tandy, and other major companies in the industry announced the MPC specifications, the software platform was officially named Microsoft Windows graphical environment 3.0 + Multimedia Extensions 1.0 (or Windows with Multimedia for short). It was a separate version of Windows with the various multimedia drivers built in. In April 1992, Microsoft brought the audio drivers into Windows 3.1, as well as the MCI (Media Control Interface), which lets you add CD-ROM drives, videodisc players, MIDI sequencers, and other multimedia devices. As a result, you can run just about any MPC application under Windows 3.1 as long as you have the appropriate multimedia software drivers.
This month, Test Lab looks at four MPCs and four multimedia upgrade kits from Acer, ALR, AST, Creative Labs, Media Resources, Media Vision, NEC, and Tandy. These powerful yet competitively priced computer systems and upgrade kits offer you a range of prices and technologies from which to choose. You'll find sound boards from Acer, Creative Labs, Media Vision (including its 16-bit sampling board), NEC, and Tandy; CD-ROM drives from Mitsumi, Panasonic, Sony, Tandy, and NEC (the speedy MultiSpin drives); and an abundance of features-headphones, microphones, speakers, voice mail, communications hardware, an AM/FM tuner, and much more. And keep in mind that the manufacturers offer a variety of configurations and options.
How to choose? As always, you'll want to consider your budget as well as your current and future needs. To help you make a more informed decision, this month's Test Lab provides in-depth reviews, with discussions of installation, configurations, special features and capabilities, documentation, software bundles, and performance. Pay particular attention to the CD-ROMs provided with each package; often offered at an unbelievably low price, these discs are frequently a major selling point for a package. For convenient side-by-side comparison of features, you'll want to take a look at the features grid.
Because multimedia technology involves concepts and terminology that may be new to you, this month's Test Lab provides helpful sidebars: a glossary, a description of the MPC standards, and a description of the testing methodologies. Whether you're a techie or a novice, you'll appreciate the authoritative descriptions definitions, and explanations prepared in collaboration with industry experts.
While price and software bundles are important, you'll also want to consider performance, and here our benchmark results should prove quite useful. The graphs that present the results of the various tests are designed to help you understand as much as possible about the sound and CD-ROM technologies provided by the various manufacturers. Once you've considered all that multimedia has to offer, the only reason you may have for not buying a system now is that the future promises even more capable multimedia technologies. But then, there's always something better on the horizon. Why put it off? Multimedia beckons!
The AcerPAC 150 is so feature rich that a term like multimedia doesn't tell the whole story. Acer calls it a Personal Activity Center, hence PAC, and when you look at the list of standard features, you can see why this term fits so well.
Based on a 20-MHz Intel 386SX CPU, the AcerPAC 150 offers as standard equipment a 130MB hard drive and 4MB of RAM (expandable to 16MB on the motherboard). The system's footprint measures 14.4 inches wide by 16.5 inches deep, and the box stands 5 inches high, so this is a reasonably compact computer.
On the front, you'll find the high-density 3 1/2-inch floppy drive just below the internal CD-ROM drive. Jacks for attaching headphones and an extension microphone are also front mounted along with push-button volume controls and switches for power and reset. A built-in condenser microphone and a built-in monaural speaker also grace the front of the unit, along with LED indicators for power, disk drive activity, turbo speed (20 MHz), and CD-ROM activity.
Two serial ports, a parallel port, a joystick or MIDI port, a dedicated PS/2-style mouse port, audio line in and out ports, a coaxial antenna jack, and a modem connection port round out the list of basic I/O connectors. A single 16-bit expansion slot is vacant for adding a peripheral board of your choice, and the system will accept an E-mu daughterboard (for very advanced MIDI and sound-sampling capabilities), as well as an 80387 math coprocessor.
The front-mounted CD-ROM drive doesn't require a caddy. Pushing in the front of the drive lightly causes the disc drawer to extend. Lifting a door inside this drawer provides access to the disk compartment, and closing the door and pushing in on the drawer seats the disc and readies it for use. "Caddiless" CD-ROM drives are usually a tad slower than those which use a caddy, but the Acer CD-ROM drive performed respectably nonetheless.
What makes this a Personal Activity Center? There's an internal 9600-bps send/4800-bps receive fax unit with 2400-bps Hayes-compatible modem capabilities built in. There's also a built-in digital Telephone Answering Device (TAD), which is a functional voice mail system featuring automatic switching between the phone's answering machine and the fax functions.
You also get a Sound Blaster-compatible audio board with a software-controlled eight-channel mixer installed in the system and, of all things, a built-in AM/FM stereo tuner (now you know what the antenna jack is for). A flat ribbon antenna also comes supplied to improve radio reception.
The radio at first seems an unusual idea, but it has its practical purposes. Since you can make and receive telephone calls through the PC (as well as faxing and using the modem), the built-in radio can serve as your "music on hold, addition to providing listening enjoyment as you use the system.
The AcerPAC 150 offers an attractive software bundle. The included software starts with MS-DOS 5.0 and Windows 3.0 with Multimedia Extensions. Delrina's WinFax, a Prodigy startup kit, Microsoft's Windows Entertainment Pack, and Acer's Music Center software and Telephone Answering Machine/Speaker Phone software are all provided on floppy media. The bundled CD-ROM-based software titles include Microsoft Works for Windows Multimedia Edition, Microsoft Bookshelf, and Compton's Multimedia Encyclopedia--all excellent productivity and reference titles.
The Telephone Answering Device is really something special that deserves mention here. If you're away from the PC, the TAD records incoming messages and lets you retrieve them remotely. The ability to send and receive faxes, exchange data via the modem, place and take voice phone calls through the PC, and have it receive faxes and telephone messages when unattended is a significant achievement that you will readily appreciate whether you use your AcerPAC 150 at home or in a small business. A single telephone line connected to the PC can perform all of these functions, and they are all seamlessly integrated to work together while running under Windows--talk about productivity!
The VGA graphics adapter with 512K of video RAM supports 256-color palettes; an AcerView 35 UVGA color monitor with flat screen presents a dazzling display that makes your computing a truly pleasurable experience.
This package includes a comfortable 101-key keyboard, a two-button Microsoft-compatible mouse, and a one-year parts-and-labor warranty with on-site service. And in addition to excellent user manuals, Acer also provides a toll-free help line if you need further assistance.
With all this going for it, the AcerPAC is easy to love, indeed. Circle Reader Service Number 304
ALL FLYER 32DT 4SX/25 MPC MODEL 80
Multimedia readiness and 486SX power are the flagship features of the ALR Flyer 32DT 4SX/25 MPC Model 80, And in keeping with ALR's usual practice, the list of features goes on and on.
The Flyer 32DT has a low 3-inch profile and occupies a standard PC footprint area measuring 14 inches wide by 17 inches deep. Weighing in at a trim 25 pounds, the Flyer 32DT is nonobtrusive and light enough to move around if necessary.
As one would expect with a full-featured machine such as this, the I/O ports consist of a pair of 9-pin serial connectors, a parallel port, and a dedicated mouse port (an ALR two-button mouse is included), all located at the rear of the machine, along with the connector for attaching the 101-key keyboard. Audio I/Os, which reside on the mounting bracket of the sound card (a Media Vision Pro AudioSpectrum Plus), consist of jacks for microphone input, line input, and line output; you'll also find a jack for a joystick (or optional MidiMate kit). On the front of the internally mounted Sony CD-ROM drive, you'll find a headphone jack.
Although external speakers can be connected to the line-out jack on the sound board's bracket at the rear of the machine, you won't need them unless you want additional volume; the ALR features its own built-in speaker system, which provides more than adequate sound reproduction and plenty of volume. This factory-equipped audio setup should prove to be entirely satisfactory for most users.
The heart of the Flyer 32DT, an Intel 80486SX CPU running at 25 MHz, gives the machine the computing oomph required to run today's GUI-based applications at a respectable clip. To aid the CPU in its computing chores, the Flyer 32DT comes with 4MB of RAM as its standard complement, although you can expand this to a maximum of 36MB. A 16-bit Super VGA controller with 512K of RAM and capable of 1024 x 768 256-color resolution drives the 14-inch ALR FlexVIEW 3X color monitor; this video package offers both text and graphics in dazzling color and brilliant clarity.
A single 3 1/2-inch 1.44MB floppy drive is front mounted just above the Sony CD-ROM drive; adding another internal device such as a second hard drive is possible, though your options are limited because of the case size (one additional 31/2-inch drive bay is available). This Flyer 32DT came with a 19-ms 80MB IDE drive (you can order a 200MB drive), which proved to be a speedy and reliable performer for all the applications loaded and run from it during the reviewing process.
MS-DOS 5.0 and Windows 3.1 come preloaded on this PC. To make your use of the system even easier, ALR preconfigures Windows for the Pro AudioSpectrum Plus sound board and preinstalls the requisite Windows sound drivers and a special Multimedia Tools group containing four audio applications. These complete and useful accessories allow you to enjoy the full sound potential of the machine.
The Pro Mixer application, a mixing console, combines synthesizer, CD, microphone, and auxiliary audio sources, adjusting their individual volumes and recording and playing back from each of these sources. You get eight individual banks of slider controls with left and right sliders for each bank. The Mixer application sets the overall volume of music, CD-audio, microphone, wav sounds, and auxiliary sounds. The Pocket Mixer application, yet another utility for recording and mixing sounds, uses more of an analog-type interface, with dial controls rather than sliders. The Pocket Recorder records sounds and is quite similar in appearance and operation to the Windows Sound Recorder accessory.
The internal Sony CD-ROM drive uses a standard CD-ROM caddy (supplied). And to get you started immediately in the realm of multimedia, three Microsoft MPC CD-ROMs are also included with the system: Multimedia Works 2.0, Microsoft Bookshelf, and Multimedia Beethoven. Because ALR preconfigures Windows for you, you can run these CD-ROMs as soon as the system is turned on. ALR even includes an excellent multimedia presentation that acquaints the new owner with the Flyer 32DT's features. All documentation is excellent and easy to understand, even for the novice.
The Flyer 32DT provides an excellent means of getting 486 power along with multimedia capabilities painlessly in a factory-configured system built right here in the U.S.A. Circle Reader Service Number 305
AST ADVANTAGES! 386SX/25 MULTIMEDIA
Snappy performance, an excellent assortment of standard features, and full MPC Level 1 compatibility make the AST Advantage! 386SX/25 Multimedia a machine worth taking a closer look at if you're in the market for a multimedia PC that's ready for action right out of the box.
The system gets its computing power from an Advanced Micro Devices AM-386SX CPU running at 25 MHz. As part of the standard configuration, you get 4MB of RAM, expandable to 8MB or a maximum of 16MB (1MB or 4MB SIMMs populate the four sockets on the system board, but you cannot intermix them to produce configurations other than those listed; for example, a 5MB configuration isn't possible).
The data storage chores are handled via a 3 1/2-inch 1.44MB floppy drive and an 80MB IDE hard disk, a slimline unit side mounted at the rear of the chassis. Just below the floppy drive you'll find a Matsushita (Panasonic) CD-ROM drive. Internal drive expansion is limited to adding one additional side-mounted hard drive, as the system box doesn't offer any more front-accessible bays.
An average-size PC, the Advantage measures 15 1/2 inches wide by 161/2 inches deep by 6 inches high. AST supplies an AST SVGA 13-inch color monitor with .28-mm dot pitch as the standard video device for the system, driven by a Super VGA adapter with 512K of video memory. Because AST integrates this 1024 x 768 resolution video adapter right into the motherboard itself, you have a valuable expansion slot available for other uses. Of the five full-size, 16-bit expansion slots on the motherboard, four are vacant and can accept any user-installed peripherals (the audio card occupies one slot).
MS-DOS 5.0 and Windows 3.1 come preinstalled on the Advantage!, and for input and control, you get a comfortable 1 01 -key keyboard and a two-button mouse The Advantage! provided for review came with software preloaded on its hard drive.
Documentation--an MS-DOS 5.0 User's Guide (Condensed Edition), a Concise Guide to Microsoft Windows 3. 1, and a Microsoft Works User's Guide--accompanied the system, but no floppy disks were anywhere to be found. I should note that all of the user manuals bear the AST logo and color scheme rather than the standard Microsoft blue, so these are apparently special editions. Upon calling AST, I learned that in the haste of getting a review unit out in time to meet our editorial deadline, the company inadvertently left the disks out of the box. However, the company representative assured me that end users will indeed have the original floppy copies of the software.
The Advantage! comes with a Sound Blaster Multimedia Upgrade Kit already installed in it, so users are ready to start adventuring into multimedia immediately. The Sound Blaster Pro audio board provides stereo output, which you can enjoy through a pair of amplified Labtec CS-150 bookshelf speakers. A Labtec AM-20C dynamic microphone lets you sample your own sounds.
The internal Matsushita CD-ROM player connects to the Sound Blaster Pro, so all audio CD-ROM, FM synthesized sounds, wav files) is channeled through the audio board. A headphone jack at the front of the CD-ROM drive allows for private listening, and a joystick port (which can also do duty as a MIDI port) is available on the audio board's mounting bracket, along with the microphone and auxiliary input jacks. The CD-ROM drive bears the MPC logo on its front bezel, since it, along with the Sound Blaster Pro audio board it works with, complies with MPC Level 1 standards (the Advantage! case itself bears no MPC logo, however).
Four CD-ROM titles come packed with the Advantage!. King's Quest V and Mixed-Up Mother Goose from Sierra On-Line are sure to provide pleasant recreation for all age groups; Macmillan's Dictionary for Children supplies ready reference in an easily digestible format for younger PC users; and Microsoft Bookshelf offers up a wealth of reference resources with a mere mouse click, including an online encyclopedia, dictionary, atlas, thesaurus, and more.
All of the CD-ROM applications are set up at the factory to run through Windows, which is very convenient. I did, however, experience some clicking and choppiness in the audio portions of King's Quest V when running the game through Windows; these problems were not present when I ran the program from the DOS prompt. I also noticed that the game moved along faster in general when run from DOS rather than Windows. Bookshelf and Macmillan's Dictionary for Children require Windows to run, while King's Quest V and Mixed-Up Mother Goose run from DOS as well as Windows.
AST presents this machine as a good entry-level multimedia system. Having worked with it my I agree with that appraisal. Circle Reader Service Number 306
CREATIVE LABS SOUND BLASTER MULTIMEDIA UPGRADE KIT
You can't say, "Sound Blaster," without immediately thinking of the best-known sound cards with the longest list of supporting software titles available today. Creative Labs, the company that practically set the standard for PC sounds cards with its Sound Blaster models, now provides a complete multimedia upgrade kit that includes everything you need to get started in multimedia.
The heart of the Sound Blaster Multimedia Upgrade Kit is the company's flagship product, the Sound Blaster Pro audio card. This three-quarter-length card f its into a 16-bit slot and features stereo output utilizing the Yamaha YMF262 OPL-3 FM synthesizer chip to produce 20 voices of instrument sounds and effects. Jacks, mounted on the metal mounting bracket of the card, are provided for microphone input and stereo line input and output. A wheel on the bracket controls volume. Doubling as a connector for the included MIDI kit, a joystick port, also mounted on the bracket, can handle one or two joysticks.
The Sound Blaster Pro card contains the proprietary interface required to activate the CD-ROM drive that comes with the kit. A flat ribbon cable mates the audio board's 40-pin connector with its equivalent on the CD-ROM drive. A CD-ROM audio interface cable routes CD audio through the Sound Blaster Pro for amplification and mixing. All of the system's multimedia audio (CD, sampled, synthesized, MIDI) thus comes through the sound board, so you'll need only one set of speakers or headphones (not included), regardless of the sound's origin.
If you don't have an available drive bay for a CD-ROM drive, take heart. You can buy the kit with either internal mounting for the CD-ROM drive (this was the one supplied for review) or external mounting. Essentially, the only difference between the two (aside from a slight difference in price--the external version being a tad more expensive) is that the external version encloses the CD-ROM drive in a freestanding cabinet containing its own power supply, whereas the internal version mounts internally in a 51/4-inch half-height drive bay and gets its electrical current from the PC's power supply.
Not all upgrade kits permit using the audio card's MIDI capabilities right out of the box; most require the purchase of an additional MIDI accessory kit to access these functions. Such is not the case, however, with the Creative Labs kit; it includes a cable which attaches to the joystick port at one end and terminates with DIN connectors for MIDI input and output at the other end. MIDI sequencing software comes with the package.
Good instructions and keyed cable connectors simplify installation. The internal version even provides mounting screws for installing the CD-ROM drive in an available front-accessible drive. The software portion of the installation is highly automated, only occasionally requesting user input in response to a prompt. The only disk-based software provided consists of 3 1/2-inch floppies containing the CD-ROM drive installation program (a single disk) and Mathematica's Tempra, a DOS-based paint program (two disks). All other software is provided on optical media.
An excellent assortment of software comes on the six CD-ROMs packed inside the kit. Microsoft Bookshelf, a versatile multivolume reference work, is included along with the multimedia edition of Microsoft Works to get you off to a productive start. To lighten things up in a recreational vein, you can take a stroll down Baker Street or tour old London Towne in a horse-drawn cab with ICOM Simulations' Sherlock Holmes--Consulting Detective. You also get a CD-ROM called Software Library, which contains Authorware Star and Macromind Action! for creating and producing your own multimedia presentations and productions. On another disc you'll find Windows 3.1, the Sound Blaster Pro software, and an assortment of music clips. A Creative Sounds disc with an abundance of music and effects rounds out the optical media software library.
Creative Labs certainly didn't skimp on the audio and multimedia utilities included in the Sound Blaster kit. You get Voice Editor, a full-featured waveform editor; SBTalker, a text-to-speech program; FM Intelligent Organ, an easy-to-use music creation and playback program; MIDI Sequencer SB Pro, a full-featured sequencer package; CD Player, a control panel for playing audio CDs on the system; and MMPlay, a utility program for integrating graphics and animations with synchronized audio.
Most of the kit's documentation is truly top-drawer, from the materials checklist through the reference and application manuals. Do pay careful attention, however, to the instructions for attaching the cables between the sound card and the CD-ROM drive; some versions of the kit have used a ribbon cable that can be attached incorrectly if you're not careful.
The Sound Blaster Multimedia Upgrade Kit packs lots of value and features into a single box. Just add speakers and a microphone, and you're off to explore the fascinating world of multimedia on your PC! Circle Reader Service Number 307
MEDIA RESOURCES MEDIA KIT (ADVANCED MODEL)
If you're interested in professional-level music and sound capabilities that go far beyond the basic MPC Level I requirements, you'll want to learn more about the the Media Resources Media Kit (Advanced Model).
The designation Advanced certainly applies to this multimedia upgrade kit, since installing it turns a mundane 386-or-higher PC into a commercial-level sound and multimedia production facility. The kit provides a higher-speed CD-ROM drive than Media Resources' basic multimedia upgrade kit and adds a dedicated MIDI card in addition to the standard sound card, increasing the sound capabilities of the system significantly.
Since two cards come supplied in the kit, you'll need two slots for installation. The three-quarter-length audio card, a Media Vision Pro AudioSpectrum Plus, requires a 16-bit slot for installation; you can install the three-quarter-length Roland SCC-1 MIDI board also included in the kit in an 8-bit slot.
An NEC CDR-83J internalmount CD-ROM drive with its blazingly fast MultiSpin technology takes care of the optical reading capabilities for the kit. The drive interfaces via an included ribbon cable to the SCSI connector on the audio board, and another cable channels CD audio through the sound board for mixing and amplification.
Adding the Roland MIDI board to the system increases the number of voices from the 20 available through the Pro AudioSpectrum Plus itself to a whopping 317 sounds and nine rhythm sets using both the audio and MIDI boards in combination. Additional benefits derived from the Roland board include reverberation and chorusing effects; dedicated MIDI in and out ports, which leave the joystick port on the audio board free (an optional MIDI breakout box is required for MIDI in and out with the basic version of the kit); and a dedicated MIDI headphone jack and left-and right-channel RCA jacks for direct connection to external amplification sources.
Hardware installation is easy and doesn't require any special talents, but since there's an extra peripheral to install, it takes a couple of minutes longer to complete than with most other kits. I found all cabling clearly marked and keyed, all required hardware supplied, and the instructions excellent. Even a novice shouldn't have any difficulty completing the installation in well under an hour.
The kit includes the Microsoft CD-ROM Extensions (MSCDEX), of course, and a collection of Roland Utilities for the MIDI board, both supplied on 31/2-inch disks.
The optical media software is provided on two CD-ROMs. The first contains Midisoft's Recording Session for Windows, which is a MIDI sequencing package with realtime music notation; Brightstar's At Your Service animated talking appointment calendar software with greetings, reminder, system report, and health-watch services; Gold Disk's Screen Craze animation package; and Microsoft Windows 3.0 with Multimedia Extensions 1.0. The second is Nautilus CD Sampler, an MPC CD-ROM "magazine" chock-full of samples of music, sound effects, games, photo images, multimedia industry news and views, programming tools, utilities, and tips.
You get all the necessary cables and adapters, along with a pair of amplified speakers, although no microphone comes with the kit.
User manuals and reference guides accompany all of the kit components, and everything is well written and clearly illustrated to help you get the most out of multimedia.
If your multimedia computing needs are modest, you may opt for the Media Resources Media Kit (Basic Model), a less expensive kit (model MKB-01) which consists of a sound card, a CD-ROM drive, software, and accessory items. An intermediate multimedia upgrade kit, possibly available when this review is published, will include Digital MIDI sound. And if you own a Sony Laser Library, you may wish to look into the Media Kit for the Sony Laser Library, which includes a CD controller, a sound card, and Windows 3.1.
However, if you're interested in doing serious music and audio production work with professional-caliber results, the Media Resources Media Kit (Advanced Model) is definitely a multimedia solution you should consider. Circle Reader Service Number 308 MEDIA VISION PRO 16 SYSTEM
High-quality components are integral to the success of any product. That reality is obvious in Media Vision's wise choice of individual components for its multimedia upgrade kit, the Pro 16 System. What makes this system really special, however, is the 16-bit sampling rate of the Media Vision Pro AudioSpectrum 16 card. The result is a high-end, high-powered multimedia upgrade kit that will delight virtually any PC user.
The Media Vision ProAudioSectrum sound card handles the sound functions, as well as providing the essential SCSI interfacing required to control the CD-ROM drive. This 16-bit three-quarter-length card uses a Yamaha YMF262 (OPL-3) 20-voice stereo synthesizer chip to generate sound, and the board delivers four watts per channel of output power. While almost every other multimedia sound card offers only an 8-bit sampling rate, the Pro AudioSpectrum 16 offers both 8-bit and 16-bit sampling rates. The 16-bit rate gives you more sound information and cleaner samples.
The kit's NEC CD-ROM drive mounts internally in any front-accessible 5 1/4-inch half-height drive bay of your PC. A ribbon cable connects the CD-ROM drive to the SCSI interface on the audio board, and audio cable routes the CD audio through the sound card, as well. Having all of the audio (CD, wav, and FM-synthesized sounds and music) emanate from one location (the output port of the audio board) means that you can intermix sounds with individual volume adjustments for each audio source. Additionally, you need only one set of speakers (or headphones) for all audio playback.
I found installing the kit an essentially straightforward process that doesn't require any particular technical or mechanical skills. Excellent descriptions and illustrations in the documentation facilitate your installation of this upgrade equipment. To install the hardware, you remove the PC's system cover, insert and secure the Pro AudioSpectrum board in an available 16-bit slot, install and secure the CD-ROM drive in an available bay, attach the "pigtail" power connector from the PC's power supply to the socket on the CD-ROM drive, connect the SCSI ribbon cable to both the drive and audio card, connect the audio-link cable to both devices, replace the system unit cover, and attach a pair of speakers or headphones to the audio output port on the board's mounting bracket. All connections are keyed so that they will only mate when properly oriented to each other, which greatly reduces the chances of making a mistake.
As for the software, you'll install Windows 3.1 (supplied on floppies with the kit) on the system if it isn't already resident and then run the Pro 16 Multimedia System installation program, contained on two 3 1/2-inch disks. Highly automated, the installation process only occasionally requests user input in response to a prompt. An additional disk contains Media Vision drivers for Windows. And a fourth floppy contains Monologue, a memory-resident text-to-speech utility that runs from DOS (not Windows).
The kit consists of the audio board, the CD-ROM drive, the requisite cabling for connecting the two devices, documentation, software disks, and five CD-ROMs no additional accessory items come with the kit. If you want to use speakers, headphones, a microphone, or any other accessories, you'll have to purchase them separately.
You'll find plenty of sound utility software in this kit, most of which runs under Windows (a program called Audio Mate is a DOS-based multimedia application, and the Monologue program mentioned earlier also runs under DOS). The Windows utilities include Stereo Studio F/X, a stereo waveform sound editor; TrakBlaster Pro, a four-track music studio; SP Spectrum, a MIDI sequencer that facilitates composing and playing back music; Control Panel, a software-controlled mixing console; and an assortment of music and sound files.
The CD-ROM software included with the kit provides something for everyone: Lotus 1-2-3 for Windows with Multimedia SmartHelp provides spreadsheet and charting for the business user, Compton's Multimedia Encyclopedia provides a wealth of reference material on myriad subjects for users of all ages, King's Quest V provides recreational adventure for the whole family, and MacroMind Action! provides all the tools needed to create dazzling multimedia presentations easily. As a bonus, you also get an introductory "sample issue" of Nautilus, a multimedia "magazine" on CD-ROM with sound bytes, MIDI and wav music files, graphics images, demos of software programs, utilities, and lots more.
The Media Vision Pro 16 System has lots of the "right stuff" to get you off to a fine start and keep you happily running with multimedia. Circle Reader Service Number 309
NEC MULTIMEDIA UPGRADE KIT
The NEC Multimedia Upgrade Kit offers you quality and features that show just how seriously the company takes multimedia technology. In addition to a CD-ROM drive that's among the speediest around, you get just about every component and accessory you could possibly ask for in this kind of kit.
The heart of the upgrade kit is the NEC CDR-74 CD-ROM drive. An external unit, this drive has its own cabinet and power supply. It connects to the PC via a supplied SCSI cable (a SCSI terminator plug is also provided for the drive's pass-through SCSI port). The CDR-74 drive (which is the same as the NEC CDR-84, except that the latter installs internally in your PC) features NEC's MultiSpin technology, which makes it the fastest MPC-compliant drive available (as of the time of this review).
The cable that links the CDR-74 to the host PC also has audio and MIDI cables attached to it so that CD audio can be played through the audio board. Line input and output jacks and dual MIDI connectors on this master umbilical cable facilitate connections. NEC labels all cabling clearly, making the installation quick and easy for. virtually any PC user, even the novice.
The audio board supplied with the kit is a Media Vision Pro AudioSpectrum Plus unit that has been modified to NEC's specifications. The board supports full stereo output using a pair of Yamaha YMF262 OPL3 synthesizer chips (one for each channel), which deliver 22 voices in 18 timbres. Two MIDI ports (one for input and one for output) are also supported by the board and accessed via the DIN connectors on the umbilical cable. In addition, the audio board contains SCSI interface for controlling the CD-ROM drive.
This kit offers a rich assortment of accessories--the most complete of all the kits (and systems) reviewed here. In this kit, you get a pair of amplified Labtec CS-150 miniature bookshelf speakers and a DC power adapter for powering the speakers when you don't want to use the four C cells. However, the speakers do not have to be powered to operate; without batteries or DC power connected to them, the speakers operate in the passive mode, deriving their volume from the sound board itself. Adding power to the speakers amplifies the audio coming from the sound board and provides a bass boost, as well.
A pair of lightweight Labtec stereo headphones also comes with the kit for private listening. The headphones are equipped with a stereo miniphone jack, but you can also use an adapter supplied in the package to plug them into your home stereo or other audio devices sporting standard-sized headphone jacks.
A Labtec AM-20 deluxe microphone with an on/off switch comes with the kit. With the Labtek microphone, you can sample sounds and record your own voice. As with the speakers, the mike has a stereo miniphone jack installed on its eight-foot cord and comes with an adapter so that you can use it with devices requiring a standard phone plug.
The kit also includes a copy of Asymetrix's Multimedia Toolbook software package, an "industrial-strength" multimedia authoring system. Of the multimedia authoring and development packages available on the market today, Multimedia Toolbook is probably the most flexible and is certainly the best known. NEC's decision to include Multimedia Toolbook was a solid one, adding significant value and versatility to this excellent upgrade kit.
NEC provides only one CD-ROM application with the kit--a copy of Windows 3.1 along with the appropriate drivers required to upgrade your PC to multimedia Windows and activate all of the MPC features of the hardware.
The documentation in NEC's upgrade kit is truly excellent, explaining every step of the installation in lucid detail with a generous assortment of illustrations to further clarify the upgrade process. Most of the installation is automatic, requiring only minimal user input. Believe it or not, you can install the entire upgrade, including Windows 3.1, in under an hour, and it doesn't require any special technical knowledge or prowess. NEC keys all cable connections so that they will fit together only one way (the correct way), a good feature that further guarantees a successful installation.
Make no mistake about it: This is not a "bargain basement" multimedia upgrade kit for the budget conscious. But then again, quality never comes cheap. Looked at in that context, the NEC Multimedia Upgrade Kit is indeed a bargain when you consider the quality and quantity of the goodies it contains. With it, you get more than your money's worth. Circle Reader Service Number 310
TANDY 4825 SX MULTIMEDIA
Editor's note: After testing and review evaluation of this system had taken place, Tandy announced its new Sensation! multimedia system. According to Tandy representative Fran McGehee, you'll still be able to order the 4825 SX system with the multimedia features described in this review when the December issue hits the stands. The Sensation! uses the same CD-ROM drive as the 4825 SX but a different audio card.
In the same way that Tandy brought computers to the home, the Fort Worth company is now bringing multimedia computing to the masses. Its 4825 SX Multimedia PC takes the new user gently by the hand on a colorful audio-visual excursion into MPC-land.
A compact PC, this Tandy offers a baby--AT form factor of 151/2 inches wide by 15 inches deep with a low profile of 41/4 inches and a weight of about 17 pounds. The review unit came equipped with the standard configuration of 4MB of RAM, although you can expand memory up to a maximum of 32MB.
An Intel i486SX CPU provides the power to make it all happen, and with a clock speed of 25 MHz, this PC makes things happen fast. The machine's highly integrated motherboard features a built-in 16-bit IDE hard drive interfaces, as well as a built-in Super VGA video port. The standard video memory configuration is 512K, which yields noninterlaced 1024 x 768 and 800 x 600 graphics modes with 16-color palettes. Tandy offers an optional upgrade kit for boosting the video RAM to 1MB, which supports 1024 x 768 noninterlaced graphics in 256 colors (the review unit had the standard 512K video RAM setup). A socket on the motherboard lets you install a math coprocessor.
A 3 1/2-inch 1.44MB floppy drive and a 31/2-inch 120MB IDE hard drive move and store data on this machine. A PS/2-style Tandy two-button mouse plugs into a dedicated PS/2-style port, also integrated into the motherboard. Two serial ports and a parallel port handle the input-output chores, while an excellent 101-key keyboard with audible key clicks makes typing fast and comfortable.
Since the audio board in the 4825 SX occupies one of the three 16-bit expansion slots, only two remain available to accept additional device cards. A single 31/2-inch front-accessible drive bay is available for adding a second floppy or hard drive or a compact tape-backup unit.
A Tandy VGM-441 14-inch color monitor supplied with the 4825 SX for the review provided crisp, comfortable viewing, even for very prolonged sessions exploring the MPC capabilities of the machine, as well as for extended text and number-crunching sessions.
MS-DOS 5.0 and Windows 3.0 with Multimedia Extensions came preinstalled on the 4825 SX. I was somewhat puzzled when I first booted the system and saw the 3.0 opening screen, since I fully expected to see Windows version 3.1. A bright red card in the documentation packet immediately caught my attention with its boldfaced heading: "WARNING: DO NOT UPGRADE THIS COMPUTER TO WINDOWS 3.1!" The message went on to say that the Multimedia Extensions work correctly with Windows 3.0 but not with 3. 1. (I know from personal experience that this is true; however, since 3.1 already has the Multimedia Extensions built into it, I found this message to be even more confusing.) The message also said that Microsoft plans to release Windows 3.1 with Multimedia Extensions in the fourth quarter of 1992 and, at that time, owners of registered 4825 SX multimedia systems will be notified about how to receive their free 3.1 upgrades., The message ended with a repetition of the bold warning it began with.
Indeed, Windows 3.0 with Multimedia Extensions is installed on the system, and it moves along at a decent clip, thanks to the 25-MHz CPU. Having become accustomed to the faster performance that Windows 3.1 delivers, I was pleasantly surprised at how swiftly this machine performed with the older, slower Windows version.
The built-in CD-ROM drive doesn't require a caddy. With a slight push, a drawer extends from the drive to accept the CD-ROM directly. Another push retracts the drawer and seats the disc in the drive. Tandy's published specifications list CD-ROM drive disc spin-up time as one second, although it certainly seemed much longer than that whenever the drive was accessed initially (the benchmark test times for the 8K block test corroborate this); after the initial "logon," subsequent access of the CD-ROM drive was almost instantaneous. This wasn't a great surprise, however, since "caddiless" drives almost always take longer to achieve proper spin-up speed than drives that use caddies.
The audio board contains jacks for connecting two Tandy-compatible joysticks and a MIDI cable, as well as a jack for attaching speakers or headphones and another jack for plugging in a microphone. No microphone, speakers, or headphones are supplied, although a MIDI cable comes with the system.
You'll find Microsoft Works for Windows supplied on floppy disk and also preinstalled on the hard drive. Manuals for Works, DOS 5.0, Windows with Multimedia, and general system features are up to Tandy's usual fine standards.
The one CD-ROM disc in the package provides lots of software demos of programs, including multimedia titles for entertainment, education, reference, and productivity, as well as an introduction to the system's multimedia capabilities.
While this is a good system for getting started in multimedia computing, the sparseness of accessories (no mike, speakers, and so forth) and the demo-only CD-ROM (instead of at least one fully functional, useful CD-ROM software title) put a damper on my enthusiasm for it. Circle Reader Service Number 311
THE MPC STANDARD
The MPC standard is a set of technical specifications for multimedia hardware products which is being widely adopted in the PC industry. The standard provides plug-and-play simplicity for the consumer and helps the marketplace develop quickly for products that comply with these specifications.
The MPC Hardware Specifications Version 1.0 are as follows: CPU
The minimum requirement is a 386SX or compatible microprocessor. RAM
The minimum requirements is 2MB of extended (linear address space) memory. CD-ROM
The drive must be capable of a sustained 150K-per-second data transfer rate with an average seek time of one second or less. (For specific benchmarks, see the bar graph with Data Transfer Speed Rate Test results.) The drive must also provide Mode 1 audio capability (the ability to play your audio CDs) and an MSCDEX 2.2x (Microsoft CD Extensions) driver that implements extended audio APIs (Application Programming Interfaces). The drive cannot consume more than 40 percent of the CPU bandwidth (in other words, no more than 40 percent of the CPU's computing power) while maintaining a sustained transfer rate of 150K per second. The drive must provide CD-DA (Red Book) audio outputs and have a front-mounted volume control. VIDEO
There must be a VGA-compatible display adapter and a color VGA-compatible monitor. INPUT DEVICES
There must be a 101-key IBM-style keyboard with a standard DIN connector or a keyboard which delivers identical functionality using combinations, a two-button mouse with a bus or serial connector, and at least one additional available communication port. I/O
There must be a standard 9- or 25-pin asynchronous serial port, programmable up to 9600 bps, with a switchable interrupt channel; a standard 25-pin bidirectional parallel port with interrupt capability; one MIDI port with input, output, and throughput capability with interrupt support for input and FIFO transfer; and an IBM-style analog or digital joystick port. MPC SYSTEM SOFTWARE
MPC system software must conform to APIs, function, and performance as described in the Microsoft Windows Software Development Kit Programmer's Reference, Volumes I and II (version 3.0) and the Microsoft Multimedia Development Kit Programmer's Reference (Beta version, published November 15, 1992, and due to be updated at the final release of the Multimedia Development Kit).
Additional information on the technical specifications required for hardware compliance are available upon request from the Multimedia PC Marketing Council.
The term multimedia applies to a number of new computer technologies on the market today. Keep in mind, however, that only MPC upgrade kits and full systems which have been certified by the Multimedia PC Marketing Council as being compliant with its MPC specifications are granted the right to use the official MPC trademark logo, shown above. Look for it when considering a product.
A NOTE ON PRICES AND CONFIGURATIONS
The multimedia market is changing rapidly, partly because of competition among manufacturers and partly because of the rapid advance of technology. As you make your way through this month's Test lab, please keep in mind that between the time we receive our information and the time the issue hits the stands, there may have been changes in prices, packages, and components. As hard as we try to keep up with changes and provide you with the latest information, it isn't always possible to do so.
To make sure that you're getting exactly what you want at the price you want, you should check with the manufacturer or retailer before buying. Also, keep in mind that we provide suggested list prices and that you can often find street prices that are much lower. It pays to shop around.
MPC AUDIO TERMINOLOGY GLOSSARY
ADPCM. This is an abbreviation for Adaptive Differential Pulse Code Modulation. ADPCM is an algorithm for compressing audio data so that it requires less memory and disk space. The amount of compression appears in ratio format, such as 4:1, 3:1, and so forth. The ratio numbers indicate the degree of compression in a sample. For example, a 2:1 ratio means that the compressed sound is only one-half the size of the original uncompressed sample; a 3:1 ratio indicates that the sound has been compressed to one-third its original size.
chip sets. The YM3812 and the YMF262, manufactured by Yamaha, are known as frequency-modulated (FM) synthesizers, since they can generate sounds. The principal difference between the YM3812 chip and the YMF262 chip is that the latter has stereo capabilities and produces 20 voices, while the former is a mono chip producing 11 voices (thus, two YM3812 chips are required for stereo sound cards). Also, the YMF262 has four additional "operators," or modes, which makes it capable or producing a wider variety of sounds and timbres. See timbre.
dynamic range. This is a representation of the span of volume between the loudest and softest sounds, expressed in decibels.
MIDI. An acronym for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, the specification was developed as a cooperative effort among major manufacturers of electronic musical instruments in the 1980s with the objective of permitting musical instruments of different brands to communicate with each other. Additionally, several MIDI-equipped devices can be linked together under the control of a PC and software for creating, storing, editing, and playing back music in digital data format.
MPU-401. The Roland company (a major developer and manufacturer of music synthesizers and sound processors) developed the original MPU-401 MIDI interface for use with PC-compatible and Apple II series computers. MPU-401 is a widely accepted interface, featuring its own onboard CPU for processing some MIDI data without taxing the system's CPU for these tasks. The MPU-401 interface also supports the UART (Universal Asynchronous Receive and Transmit) mode, which bypasses the card's processor and relies entirely on the host PC for all processing.
sample size. This is not to be confused with the physical size of the expansion slot the sound board fits into. Simply put, the sample size is the range of data for the sampled sound, with 16-bit sampling encompassing double the amount of sound data that 8-bit sampling does (8-bit sampling provides 48 decibels of dynamic range, whereas 16-bit doubles the range to 96 decibels). Since more sound information is involved, 16-bit sampling requires more memory and more disk space for storing the sounds than 8-bit sampling.
sampling rate. Measured in kilohertz (kHz), this refers to the lowest-possible and highest-possible ranges of sound that can be successfully digitized. According to the Nyquist Sampling Theorem, the highest audio frequency that can be reproduced must be sampled at a frequency at least twice that high. This means that in order to reproduce a 20-kHz tone, you must sample it at 40 kHz.
Windows 3.1 has a sampling limit of 44 kHz, although some audio cards are physically capable of sampling up to 88 kHz. The threshold of human hearing is about 21 kHz. Why sample at rates beyond the limits of human hearing? The higher rates provide much cleaner samples by reducing the amount of alias distortion (extraneous information that filtering removes from the sampled sound).
signal-to-noise ratio. This number, usually represented in decibels, depicts the strength ratio of the desired signal (for example, music) to the extraneous noise present (such as background hiss). The higher the number, the "cleaner" the sound will be. The signal (music) is measured at full volume, whereas the noise (hiss) is measured when no signal is present (during silence). In addition to hiss, noise can also be the whine of the computer or any other undesirable noise that isn't a part of the signal itself.
timbre. Also called tonal color or musical quality, this term refers to the sound characteristics that allow us to differentiate one sound from another, the qualities that make sounds unique. For example, timbre is what makes a saxophone sound like a sax instead of a guitar.
MULTIMEDIA TESTING METHODOLOGY
Complete MPC systems were tested using only the hardware supplied by the manufacturer unless a required component was not part of the standard package (for example, a microphone for sampling sounds); in such cases, a Shure Unidyne dynamic microphone served as the standard test instrument. A pair of Labtec SS-100 series amplified speakers and a pair of Sennheiser HD-414 Professional Series dynamic headphones allowed us to check audio quality when manufacturers do not supply speakers or headphones.
MPC upgrade kits, on the other hand, were all tested on the same computer. The test system used a Mylex i486/33-MHz motherboard with 8MB of RAM. The chassis for the test system was equipped with a calibrated 200-watt Senstron regulated power supply provided by Triton Technology Lab (New Hyde Park, New York) along with hard and floppy drives.
The MPC Audio Test Suite consists of several tests designed to establish the sound card's ability to record and play back sampled sounds using the supplied software utilities as well as those provided in the Microsoft Multimedia Development Kit. We tested sound cards to ensure correct playback of sound files with the way extension as well as MIDI files using the card's on-board FM synthesizer. Way files used the native sound format understood by Windows (digital sound data). Not actual sound files, MIDI files contain control signals for activating a MIDI device.
Additionally, our MPC Audio Test Suite included numerous tests to check the audio capability of the CD-ROM drive itself, its playback audio capabilities through the audio card, its conformity to the MPC hardware standards, and its ability to read the ISO 9660 High Sierra data format (the original CD-ROM format agreed upon by major manufacturers) as well as audio-only CD-ROMs.