Test lab. (486SX computers)(includes related article) (Hardware Review) (Evaluation)
by Tom Benford, Mike Hudnall
They're powerful, fast, and capacious, these 486SX systems. And undeniably tempting. I know: It's easy to get caught up in the hype and the statistics, for the pulse to quicken and the mouth to water when the subject turns to megahertz, megabytes, megathis, and megathat. But rest assured that buying a 486SX system makes sense.
This month, Test Lab focuses on ten 486SX systems that offer value, power, and room for expansion. It's a great time to buy a computer, and this month's Test Lab can help make you a more informed consumer.
To see just what a great value these systems are, consider the four 386SX systems we covered in the April 1992 Test Lab. List prices ranged from $1,195 to $2,348. Less than a year later, eight of the ten 486SX systems featured here have list prices below that of the most expensive 386SX. Decreases in microprocessor prices and increased competition among computer manufacturers have made this very much a buyer's market.
This month's systems offer more than attractive prices, however. They deliver considerable bang for the buck. The 486SX microprocessor has a 32-bit path internally and externally (unlike the 386SX, which has only a 16-bit external path), it runs faster than the 386s we tested, and it contains a highly efficient internal cache.
The only difference between the 486SX and the 486DX is that the 486SX lacks the latter's built-in math coprocessor. So powerful is the 486, in fact, that we had to redesign our application benchmarks so that they would offer more statistically significant data.
If you're put off by technical discussions and prefer to examine real-world results, take a look at the Test Lab bar graphs. The Norton system benchmarks and the application benchmarks offer realistic pictures of relative performance. You can see, for example, how a particular 486SX system handles a word processor, a spreadsheet, and a database. These benchmarks prove especially useful, however, because they reflect the overall performance of a particular system-the microprocessor, hard drive, and memory all working together.
The system components that work in concert with the powerful 486SX microprocessor provide another reason for buying. Take hard drives as an example. In April the largest hard drive on one of the 386SX systems was 84MB. In this month's lineup, the smallest hard drive is 80MB, and many of the systems offer as part of the standard configuration hard drives with more than 100MB of storage as well as options for hard drives with capacities over 600MB.
All of this month's systems come with 4MB of RAM, a realistic configuration for working with today's Windows applications. What's really surprising is the number of options for expansion. Two of the systems allow you to install 64MB of RAM, and five others let you install up to 32MB. Several of the systems allow you to upgrade the microprocessor to a 486DX, and most allow you to upgrade the memory on the video adapter if it doesn't already come with a full megabyte of memory.
If the internal cache isn't enough, some of the systems let you add an external cache--up to 256K. Clearly, these system manufacturers are looking to the future, planning for applications that make greater and greater demands on system memory and storage. For all of the distinctive features of these power machines, look to the reviews, which also comment on documentation, installation, drive bay options, open slots, and many other features you'll want to check out before you buy. For convenient side-by-side comparisons, there's also a features grid.
Most of these systems come standard with Windows 3.1, and you'll really appreciate the snappy performance of Windows apps on these systems. While a number of Windows programs will work on a 386SX running at 16 MHz, their lack of speed can leave you frustrated, especially if you've had a chance to try the same programs on a 486. For sizzling performance, three of this month's systems offer local bus video.
These 486SX systems pack so much power, performance, and value that your only question may be which system to buy. With reviews, benchmark data, and detailed information about system features, Test Lab can help you make that decision.