BCC Avanti 486SLC. (notebook computer) (Hardware Review) (Evaluation)
by Bruce M. Bowden
Just a couple of years ago, a laptop or portable computer had little in common with a desktop model. Essentially, the portables were just make-do, low-power devices used when "real" computers were unavailable. No more! Today, a notebook computer selling for the same price as one of those make-do models of the recent past not only packs the power of a desktop unit but also includes a multitude of enhancements enabling it to serve in both desktop and portable roles. Case in point: the Avanti 486SLC.
The Avanti 486SLC notebook computer from BCC is as aesthetically pleasing as it is powerful--and it's a powerful machine! It's built around the Cyrix 486SLC 25MHz, 32-bit microprocessor, with all the 486 features intact. On board are an 87SLC math coprocessor for those arithmetic-intensive chores, a high-speed cache controller (on-board cache memory is 1K), and an Advanced Power Management (APM) controller. It has a 2 1/2-inch hard drive, with a 19-ms average access time.
Most eye-catching about this notebook PC is its well-thought-out physical design. The soft-touch rubberized case is sleek and stream-lined--both stylish and professional. The contoured shape also makes the unit easy to carry. The 80-key layout is neatly arranged and inclined forward for comfort.
My standard of good design is how well a small keyboard approximates the omnipresent 101-key variety. Minor variations in key size and placement aren't usually a problem, nor is a missing keypad. But I begin throwing fits if major keys are out of place or awkward to actuate. In the case of the Avanti 86SLC, the cursor keys are at the lower right in an inverted-T formation, as they should be. While the Esc, Ctrl, and Alt keys occupy familiar positions, the oft-used Home, Page Down, Page Up, and End keys are accessed as special functions on the cursor keys--a very annoying arrangement.
If you hate notebook keyboards regardless of the cleverness of their design, remember that this is a new era of notebook design. You can still enjoy a full-size keyboard by plugging it into a PS/2-type mini-DIN socket on the side of the computer. The very same plug can accommodate a mouse instead--or both keyboard and mouse using a Y connector supplied with the machine.
You're not really inhibited when it comes to the display, either. The unit's own 10-inch nonglare, triple supertwist, backlit LCD has a 9-1/2-inch viewing area and 1 : 1 aspect ratio. VGA color emulation utilizes 32 shades of gray--a very sharp and adequate emulation, in most cases. You can time the backlighting to go off at a convenient interval. If an LCD isn't to your liking and there's a VGA monitor available, a handy 15-pin video port on the side allows you complete color VGA capability.
In terms of power management--always a consideration with notebook computers--the Avanti 486SLC uses a nicad battery rated at three to six hours under normal use. It can be fully recharged in an hour's time. The speed of the CPU is switched automatically as usage allows. There's sleep-mode shutdown of the CPU, video display, hard disk drive, floppy disk drive, and ports. You have complete control of the intervals before it enters sleep mode.
The power button is recessed at the rear of the right side--easy to reach and use, but unlikely to be depressed accidentally. The socket for the keyboard or mouse is on the right side near the front. The 9-pin RS232C serial port, 25-pin parallel port, and video port are located behind a flip-down hatch at the rear of the left side. The hatch can be something of a problem because it hinges open and lies level with the base of the unit and can't be removed for convenience.
The unit also comes with a 9600-bps fax and 2400-bps data modem. You can receive faxes even while the unit is in sleep or suspend mode.
You get an interesting pointing device which can serve as a mouse substitute. It's a hand-held trackball with measurements of about one inch by one inch, and it consists of the trackball with three buttons. The trackball is a tiny plastic thing which works surprisingly well. Two of the buttons correspond to those of a two-button mouse, while the third serves as a lock for dragging.
Directly below the LCD screen lie LED indicators for power, battery charge, low battery, floppy drive access, hard drive access, caps lock, number lock, and scroll lock. On either side at the base of the LCD panel are the brightness and contrast slider controls.
After a month's frequent but typical use, I timed the battery and power-warning functions. After powering up at full charge, I used the unit only in spurts.
During that time, the hard drive was accessed for no more than a total of 5 minutes. It took two hours and 45 minutes for my first warning beeps to begin. The final warning beep came 10 minutes later; I had just enough time to append a note to a text file and save the file before the computer shut down entirely. After a complete power-down (even the battery-charge indicator went out), it took an hour and 8 minutes for a full recharge.
The unit, with battery, weighs only about six pounds. It's about 8-1/2 inches deep, 11 inches wide, and 2-1/2 inches high.
In other respects, it's hardly a pint-size lightweight. Although there's room for improvement on the keyboard and it powers down awfully quickly, the Avanti 486SLC from BCC does everything a notebook should do--and does it well.