Test labs. (Intel 80486 DX2/66-based microcomputers) (Hardware Review) (Evaluation)
by Tom Benford
Combine the blazing speed and colossal computing power of Intel's 486DX2/66 with the latest local-bus technology, and you've got a computer ready for the most demanding applications. Windows programs that seem sluggish on older computers are downright snappy on these systems, so you can spend less of your time waiting for the Windows hourglass and more of it taking care of business.
Not inexpensive by any means, these systems nevertheless deliver lots of value, especially when you consider what you could get for the same price a year ago, how much time you can save, and how expandable they are.
You may be asking yourself whether you really need this much power and speed right now--a fair question. Here at COMPUTE, we see today's cutting-edge technologies as tomorrow's consumer technologies, and with the current dizzying pace of change in the computer industry, tomorrow will probably be here sooner than you think. Already, Intel has announced its new Pentium chip, which by all accounts significantly outperforms the 486DX2/66 but is likely to cost significantly more, and I suspect that by the time this issue hits the stands, most computer companies will offer VESA local bus as a standard feature rather than as an option.
In setting up this month's lineup of systems, we asked for Industry Standard Architecture (ISA) because it's less expensive than Extended Industry Standard Architecture (EISA) and because most of our readers won't need EISA's performance benefits. We asked for 8MB of RAM because many of the systems include 8MB as the standard complement and because some of the more demanding applications that would benefit from the extra horsepower of 486DX2/66 chips also require more than 4MB. We also asked the manufacturers to install whatever cache was part of the standard configuration, since many COMPUTE readers will opt for standard packages. Because these high-powered computers are likely to handle high-powered applications and mountains of data, we requested hard drives of at least 200MB, not at all an unusual size for these machines.
All ten of the systems in this month's Test Lab come with Windows 3.1 and DOS, and they're all, of course, 486DX2/66 systems with local-bus video. Beyond those common elements, you'll find a variety of prices and features. While most of these computers, for example, use standard VESA local bus, some companies use proprietary local-bus video. At least a few include a local-bus drive controller along with the local-bus video adapter. And in some cases the video card is accelerated for optimized Windows performance.
For the specifics of configuration, expandability, and other features, you should find the features grid helpful. Whether or not you understand the differences among local-bus video standards, you'll appreciate the benchmark graphs, which provide not only Norton index data but also real-world performance data--how long a particular computer required to find and replace text in a word processor, index and sort a database, play back video, and so forth. These systems were so fast that our lab had to redesign the benchmark test suite to produce more statistically significant data. In fact, we had to drop a planned spreadsheet benchmark because even a Windows spreadsheet proved too small a challenge for these machines. Tom Benford's reviews home in on significant features of these computers, whether it's their strategies for handling the heat given off by their microprocessors, their memory expansion capabilities, their case designs, their use of caching, or their ability to accept upgrade chips.
Whether you're ready to buy one of these systems now or just want to see the kind of system you could be buying before long, Test Lab has information to help you understand the technology and make a more informed purchase.
COMPUADD EXPRESS 466/DX2
The CompuAdd Express 466/DX2 is the current top-of-the-line model in the company's series of "scalable" computer systems designed with upgradability in mind.
Scalable is, for all intents and purposes, another word for modular in that the Express lets you change the configuration by simply replacing the CPU and changing the jumper switch settings. The company offers six varieties of the machine, ranging from a 40-MHz 386DXL-based system to 486SX models and the 466/DX2 model reviewed here.
You'll find many of the essential system functions integrated right into the motherboard itself: the IDE controller, the floppy drive controller, the parallel and serial ports, the keyboard connection, and local-bus video for faster video performance.
The full-profile case occupies a baby-AT footprint and provides three bays accessible from the font: two half-height 5 1/4-inch bays and a vertical 3 1/2-inch bay. A hidden 3 1/2-inch bay is also available. To power any additional drives you might install, just use the three available connectors from the 200-watt power supply.
A Western Digital Caviar 2340 (333MB formatted) hard drive provides the mass storage for the system, while a combination 3 1/2-inch/5 1/4-inch half-height unit occupies the uppermost bay and provides floppy disk I/O.
Because the Express integrates so much into the motherboard, all of its full-length 16-bit slots are available. A proprietary slot holds a proprietary video adapter card and is, apparently, the local-bus connection; Tseng Labs manufacturers the video BIOS. I found no other local-bus slots.
The high-speed, high-powered 66-MHz i486DX2 CPU generates an enormous amount of heat, the archnemesis of electronic components. The CompuAdd folks, however, have taken some serious measures to ensure that heat won't be a problem with this system. A high-volume fan mounted at the front of the case less than six inches from the CPU pulls in outside air through the case vents. A deeply finned heat sink and a miniature fan mounted atop the CPU itself also help; under this arrangement, the heat sink dissipates the chip's heat and the fan keeps cool air circulating over the heat sink to further aid in keeping the interior case temperature "comfortable" for the components. The design apparently works well, as I didn't experience any problems or anomalies during the time I spent using this system for the review.
A three-button mouse supplied with the system has a switch that lets you select either a Microsoft (two-button) mode. While the mouse itself resembles a Microsoft mouse in style, feel, and shape, the clicking action could best be described as erratic; frequently, several rapid clicks were required to enter a Windows command or function.
I wasn't entirely satisfied with the keyboard (made by Lexmark here in the USA), either. I found the action quite stiff, there was no audible click, and it had a straight cable (which looked very similar to RJ-14 telephone cable) rather than the heavier, coiled cords usually found on keyboards.
Aside from the mouse and keyboard difficulties, the CompuAdd Express 466/DX2 local-bus system provides good performance, features, and expandability.
DELL SYSTEM 466/M
Dell has built its reputation on high-quality, dependable PC systems that are popularly priced. Maintaining that reputation, the Dell System 466/M proves itself to be a sterling performer.
The baby-AT-sized desktop case provides a surprising amount of expansion room, thanks to large-scale integration of components on the system's motherboard. Components critical to the system, including the video adapter, input and output ports, and disk controllers, are all integrated rather than requiring separate expansion cards. As a result, you have five full-length 16-bit expansion slots available for user-installed peripherals, in addition to a single three-quarter-length 16-bit slot for shorter boards.
Looking for room to add drives? The system has two available exposed half-height bays and an internal 3 1/2-inch bay. Dual floppy drives are provided as standard equipment on the system, but rather than being individual units that require separate bays, the two floppy drives are integrated into one half-height combination drive--a nice touch that conserves space and improves expansion capabilities.
A 240-watt power supply provides more than enough power for the system and sports three "pigtail" connectors available for powering any additional drive devices you might install in the system.
An extra-large finned heat sink on the 66-MHz Intel 486DX2 CPU helps dissipate the heat this fast chip generates. To aid the heat sink in its cooling functions, a high-volume fan mounted almost directly in front of the CPU provides excellent air flow inside the case.
Dell uses a proprietary local-bus standard which is not VESA compliant, and there is no local-bus slot available for user-installable cards, since the local-bus features are integrated into the motherboard's circuitry. Dell handles video through this local bus, using the popular S3 accelerated video chip set, which can generate 1024 x 768 noninterlaced resolution with a maximum color palette of over 32,000 colors.
The integrated IDE interface features a 32K cache buffer, which helps to keep things moving at a brisk pace in the system. You can also get an optional 128K internal system cache.
Knowing that users naturally upgrade their systems as their needs for power and speed grow, Dell offers a motherboard with a 238-pin (low insertion force press-pin) socket that can accommodate future upgrades, such as higher-speed 486 chips or the P24T (Pentium Overdrive) when they become available. The flash memory Phoenix/Dell BIOS is disk upgradable, another feature which ensures the system's longevity.
The review system contained 8MB of RAM, but you can upgrade the memory to a maximum of 64MB using 16MB SIMMs in the four sockets provided on the motherboard. Dell also included a Maxtor LXT-340A 320MB IDE hard drive and a Dell UltraScan 14C SVGA monitor as part of the standard equipment.
A Microsoft two-button mouse supplied with the system plugs into the built-in PS/2-style mouse port. MS-DOS 5.0, Windows 3.1, and an enhanced keyboard round out the system and ensure that it's ready to go to work as soon as you plug it in.
Dell has an excellent system here in the 466/M, and it deserves your serious consideration if you're in the market for a 486DX2/66 local-bus system.
Smart styling, good expansion potential, and snappy local-bus performance make the DT 486DX2/66 system from Diamond Technologies a pleasing package.
A full-height baby-AT case provides expandability while maintaining a reasonably small footprint for the desktop. For adding drives, this system includes two half-height bays accessible from the front of the machine. No additional unexposed bays are available, but since the Diamond comes equipped with dual floppies, two bays should suffice for the vast majority of users. The 200-watt power supply is also adequate for such expansion, although it comes with only one extra "pigtail" connector for powering another drive.
The i486DX2/66 CPU, mounted in a standard press-pin socket, has a deeply finned heat sink to minimize heat buildup and the problems associated with it. Since the AT-sized case affords plenty of internal "breathing" room for air to circulate, this arrangement works well, keeping the CPU and other components cool and thus contributing to system reliability. The motherboard, a fairly compact unit manufactured by S&A Labs, uses an American Megatrends, Inc. (AMI) BIOS. Eight SIMM sockets on the motherboard accept either 1MB or 4MB SIMMs, yielding a maximum configuration of 32MB on the motherboard itself.
The system came with two local-bus slots on the motherboard, both occupied; a Diamond Viper SVGA card is installed in one, while the IDE caching disk controller resides in the other. Five of the six full-length 16-bit slots are available for adding expansion boards (the sixth slot contains the multi I/O card, which provides the parallel and serial ports).
At the front of the case, above two flush-mounted push-button switches for changing to and from turbo mode and resetting the system, you'll find three LEDs for signaling power on, hard drive activity, and turbo status. The 3 1/2-inch high-density drive is vertically mounted next to the 1.2MB 5 1/4-inch drive which occupies the topmost bay in the case. Look for the power switch on the rear panel of the case at the right side.
A comfortable enhanced keyboard (no audible click) comes as part of the standard package, along with a three-button Microsoft-compatible serial mouse. While considerably larger and bulkier than a Microsoft unit, the mouse is still quite serviceable.
The system delivers excellent video performance, thanks to the combination of the Diamond Viper board equipped with 2MB of video RAM and the local-bus slot. If your eyes tire easily from staring at a screen, you'll appreciate the CTX CMS-1561 SVGA monitor that came with this review system; the monitor can display 1024 x 768 noninterlaced resolution with 256 colors. This combination of a high-powered SVGA card, a local bus, and an excellent monitor is hard to beat if you do lots of graphics-intensive work.
Word processing, desktop publishing, database operations, and spreadsheet work all benefit from the overall power of DX2/66 CPU and the local-bus architecture, resulting in overall performance that is above average in all respects.
MS-DOS 5.0 and Windows 3.1 are supplied already loaded on the system, which enables you to get off to a productive start immediately. I found the system and software manuals thorough and well organized.
The Diamond DT 486DX2/66 puts lots of muscle into a baby-AT-sized case and certainly merits your serious consideration when shopping for a 486DX2 local-bus system.
DECPC 466D2 LP
The design of Digital Equipment Corporation's DECpc 466d2 LP exemplifies how good expansion possibilities can be incorporated in a diminutive case.
The footprint of the PC approximates that of a baby AT, but the case has a much lower profile than that of a standard desktop, measuring less than four inches from the top of the desk to the top of the case. On the front of the machine, you'll find recessed LEDs for power, hard drive activity, and turbo status. The reset button and power switches, similarly unobtrusive, contribute to the streamlined appearance of the machine.
A single 3 1/2-inch high-density drive comes installed as standard equipment on the DECpc 466d2 LP, but there's a front-accessible 5 1/4-inch half-height bay available underneath the drive for accepting another device of your choice. By virtue of its dual-sized plastic bay cover plate, this bay can also accommodate a 3 1/2-inch drive. DEC has provided a hidden 3 1/2-inch bay inside the machine, and two power connectors are available for powering any user-installed drives.
DEC has integrated the parallel, serial, mouse, and keyboard ports; the video adapter; and the floppy and hard drive controllers into the motherboard itself to keep the design compact and leave as many expansion slots free as possible. An extension card inserted vertically into the system board provides three full-length 16-bit expansion slots for any peripherals you choose to install. There are no 8-bit or local-bus slots provided in the system.
The 66-MHz 486DX2 CPU and related performance components reside on a separate board (referred to as a CPU module in DEC's manual) attached via an interlocking connector to the main system board. This module permits quickly changing the system's configuration, presumably allowing upgrades. The module's vacant 238-pin socket certainly seems to support such a conclusion. The CPU itself resides in a press-pin socket on the module board.
I was somewhat surprised to find that the only means of dissipating heat generated by the CPU was a deeply finned heat sink attached to the top of the chip. There was no cooling fan to circulate air within the case interior which, compared with the other systems reviewed, was much less spacious. However, heat buildup didn't seem to be a problem; the system performed as expected during the review period.
The system's integrated local-bus video adapter, based on the popular S3 accelerated chip set, comes with 512K of video RAM installed. Even though the review unit came with an additional 512K of video RAM installed (yielding 1MB total), I was unable to initiate or use Windows in 1024 x 768 256-color mode. Since running in 800 x 640 256-color mode wasn't a problem that's the mode I used. DEC provided a Digital PC7XV-DE monitor with the review unit, and I suspect that the monitor, and not the video card, prevented accessing the 1024 x 768 mode successfully.
DOS 5.0 and Windows 3.1 come supplied with the system, as does a copy of Diagsoft's QAPlus software.
If your expansion requirements aren't too demanding and you like the idea of a slimline case, this DEC machine may be worth a closer look.
EPSON PROGRESSION 486DX2/66 PC
Epson has taken a modular approach with its Progression series of computers, and the Progression 486DX2/66 PC model is representative of this design trend.
The Progression's full-height baby-AT case provides room for expansion without requiring lots of desktop real estate. The review unit came with a single one-third-height high-density 5 1/4-inch drive, leaving three front-accessible bays (one one-third-height and two half-height bays) available for additional devices. Two half-height internal bays are also available for upgrading the system.
There's lots of room for expanding RAM beyond the system's standard complement of 4MB. With four SIMM sockets, you can expand up to a maximum of 128MB using 16MB SIMMs. The review unit came equipped with 12MB of RAM; the lab removed one 4MB SIMM so that this system could meet the 8MB configuration requirement for the benchmark testing. During the review, however, I used the full 12MB configuration and found performance to be respectable for all types of general computing work.
The i486DX2/66 CPU resides on a separate card which plugs into a special slot on the motherboard. Under this modular arrangement, someone with a Progression 486SX/25 or 486DX/33 machine could upgrade to a 486DX2/66 simply by replacing the CPU card rather than changing the chip itself. Future upgrades to more powerful CPUs as they become available will also be easy to perform under this design scheme.
The review system's CPU, installed in a low-force press-pin socket, has a deeply finned heat sink. A vacant ZIF (Zero Insertion Force) socket is located adjacent to the i486 chip on the CPU card itself, presumably for future upgrade options. The proprietary slot that accepts the CPU card looks like a local-bus slot, but it is not one; it is a slot designed to accept the modular Epson CPU cards only.
You'll find all of the I/O ports (parallel, single serial, mouse, video, keyboard) integrated into the motherboard. This leaves six full-length 16-bit slots open and available for use. A 200-watt power supply provides the essential operating voltages for the system.
Instead of the local-bus architecture found in other systems covered in this issue, the Progression uses its own Wingine Graphics Acceleration Technology for improved video performance. The heart of the Wingine is a CHIPS and Technologies display controller equipped with 1MB of video RAM (upgradable to 2MB) and a BrookTree RAMDAC. Rather than using an expansion card, Epson's Wingine integrates the video controller into the motherboard itself.
Another unusual aspect of Epson's Wingine technology is that the total amount of system RAM can also affect the video performance. For example, with only 8MB of RAM installed, the system could not support 1024 x 768 256-color noninterlaced resolution in Windows; 800 x 640 was the highest video mode that would operate with the monitor supplied for review, a 14-inch Epson T1183A extended VGA model. Curiously, Epson lists the 17-inch Professional Series monitor as the standard unit for this system.
A two-button mouse and a comfortable enhanced keyboard provide the means for inputting data and controlling system and application functions.
The Progression provides a workable alternative to the local-bus technology of this month's other systems, and it provides some appealing features that make it worthy of consideration.
Gateway 2000's 4DX2-66V is a local-bus PC in an attractive, standard-sized AT desktop case with reasonable expansion options. A vacant front-accessible half-height bay beneath the dual floppy drives is ready to accept a CD-ROM drive or tape backup unit, and two additional half-height bays are available at the front of the case adjacent to the drives, if you want to mount additional internal devices. (Editor's note: A CD-ROM drive now comes standard.)
In this system, Gateway uses a standard-sized, highly integrated motherboard that incorporates the floppy drive controller and a local-bus IDE hard disk interface. The motherboard can support up to 64MB of RAM directly using 16MB modules in its four SIMM sockets.
The 66-MHz Intel 486DX2 CPU resides in a standard press-pin socket and is fitted with a heat sink with crosshatched fins to dissipate its heat. An upgrade socket next to the CPU lets you add an upgrade chip, such as the Intel Overdrive accelerator. However, since the 486DX2/66 is the fastest CPU currently available, there is no advantage or benefit to be derived by adding an Overdrive chip at this point in time.
The system includes two local-bus expansion slots, one holding the ATI Graphics Ultra Pro video card. Of the five 16-bit expansion slots available, four can accommodate full-length cards; the other 16-bit slot can only accept a half-length card. Of course, you can use the remaining local-bus slot as a 16-bit slot for non-local-bus expansion cards if you need to.
The reset and turbo selector switches, flush mounted on the front of the case, reside next to the key lock, just above the illuminated power, hard drive activity, and turbo LEDs. The power switch is located at the right rear corner of the machine.
The machine comes with a special 124-key keyboard, but you can order a traditional AT-standard 101-key keyboard if you prefer. The 124-key keyboard has an enhanced cursor-control station with extra keys, which I found confusing. I found that both keyboards, made for Gateway by MaxiSwitch, feel great.
Gateway's 1572 FS 15-inch CrystalScan SVGA monitor accompanied the system unit and provided an excellent display for the high-speed graphics processed through the ATI video card and the local bus.
Overall, the performance of this machine was excellent, especially when running Windows. Even with a screen resolution of 1024 x 768 with 256 colors, Windows was fast and snappy. And the Mach32 control panel, which is a dedicated front end that manages the ATI local-bus controller, makes it very easy to change resolutions, colors, and system fonts.
All in all, the Gateway 4DX2-66V is a first-rate local-bus system in a well-designed package. It's definitely worth considering.
INSIGHT 486DX2-66 VL
Need a 486DX2/66 local-bus system with plenty of expansion possibilities as your needs grow? Well, then, you'll want to take a closer look at this tower configuration from Insight.
The full-size tower case has a base that pulls out laterally, from both sides, to provide stability. The full vertical configuration affords lots of room for adding drives or tape backup units, with three half-height front-accessible bays still available even with the system's dual floppies and 210MB Western Digital hard drive installed. If you need additional mounting room, there's also a concealed full-height bay.
A beefy 250-watt power supply should adequately power any drives or expansion boards you add to the system.
The motherboard, manufactured by ASUS, is one of the smallest 486 motherboards I've seen to date, and it looks out of place in the gargantuan cavity of this tower configuration. Small size not-withstanding, the motherboard still provides five available full-length 16-bit expansion slots, which should prove to be more than adequate for most users. The motherboard also contains two full-length local-bus slots, which are already occupied; the video controller occupies one local-bus slot, and the combination multi I/O-drive controller card resides in the other.
The Intel 80486DX2 CPU is mounted in a ZIF socket for easy removal or upgrading. I found no heat sink on the chip (to help dissipate heat); however, owing to the spacious area of the tower case, heat buildup doesn't seem to be a problem. The large front-mounted cooling fan does a good job of circulating the air within the case to keep things cool, and I didn't experience any problems usually associated with over-heating during my review.
The manufacturer integrates the drive controller and I/O ports all on a single board, which occupies one of the VESA local-bus slots. In addition to the parallel, game, and dual serial ports, this card also provides an IDE interface for the hard drive as well as control for the dual floppies.
A comfortable enhanced keyboard (no audible click) comes with the system, along with a Microsoft-compatible Insight three-button serial mouse. Software supplied with and installed on the system consists of MS-DOS 5.0, Windows 3.1, Dr. Solomon's Anti-Virus, and Stacker 2.0.
The Insight machine had a quality assurance sticker plainly affixed to the rear of the case, yet I was greeted with a HDD controller failure message when I first turned the machine on. I decided to remove the system cover to look for any obvious problems before calling Insight's tech support number, and as soon as the cover was removed I found the culprit: The ribbon cable coming from the hard drive had become disconnected from the pin connector on the I/O card. I reattached it and reinstalled the cover, and the system booted and performed perfectly, without incident, from that point on.
The machine proved to be quite a snappy performer for all types of applications--from word processing to spreadsheets and charting to 3-D modeling and other graphics-intensive tasks. The system came supplied with a 15-inch Viewsonic 6FS monitor, which provided excellent viewing and enabled the STB Powergraph video card (S3-based) with 1MB of RAM to show its stuff (aided in the express department by the system's 32-bit local bus).
Performance for today with room for expansion is what the Insight 486DX2-66 VL delivers.
KEYDATA 486DX2-66 VL
If you're looking for 66 MHz of local-bus speed and power but prefer full-size tower computers, you'll be interested in Keydata's 486DX2-66 VL Bus WindowStation.
Like the Insight tower also covered here, the Keydata uses the Taiwan-manufactured ASUS local-bus motherboard. This compact motherboard provides two VESA-compliant local-bus slots.
In the first of the local-bus slots I found a Genoa Systems Windows VGA 24 video card (model 8500VL) with 1MB of RAM and a Cirrus Logic chip set. Keep in mind, however, that Keydata may furnish a different video adapter.
The second local-bus slot provides a home for the IDE disk controller card, which also includes the parallel port, two serial ports, and a game port. By using these two local-bus slots for the video, disk functions, and I/O, the manufacturer leaves five full-length 16-bit expansion slots free for adding expansion cards of your choice.
Four front-accessible half-height drive bays are available, as well as an additional hidden half-height bay. All of these available bays are located above the 3 1/2-inch and 5 1/4-inch floppy drives and the 250MB Conner 30254 IDE hard drive. A particularly nice feature of the Keydata case is its use of a hinged door that conceals all of the drives and drive bays, giving the case an extra-clean, streamlined look.
The flush-mounted power, turbo, and reset switches, as well as their related LEDs and the three-place speed LED, are all mounted at the top of the case at an angle, which makes them easily accessible. I consider the Keydata case one of the best-looking tower units I've seen, with lots of eye appeal in addition to its functionality.
The i486DX2/66 CPU mounted in a ZIF socket is directly in the line of air flow coming from the front-mounted cooling fan. The manufacturer doesn't use a heat sink on the massive chip, and the chip apparently doesn't need one, thanks to the excellent circulation provided by the fan and the large open area of the case. I didn't experience any heat-related problems while using the machine for extended periods.
The CTX Model 1560 Proscan SVGA monitor I used with this system provided excellent color and definition. Other standard equipment includes an enhanced Chicony 5181KT keyboard with audible click and a three-button serial mouse. Keydata preinstalls MS-DOS 5.0 and Windows 3.1 on the system and supplies floppy backup copies.
If you expect to expand your system's capabilities as your requirements grow--perhaps adding a CD-ROM drive, a tape backup unit, a sound card, a digitizer, and so forth-it's comforting to know that the Keydata's 250-watt power supply has plenty of muscle and three available power connectors to service these additional devices. Clearly, this system delivers plenty of performance for today while affording great potential for tomorrow's expansion.
MICRO EXPRESS 486-VL/DX2/66
Building upon the success of its 486-Local Bus, which used a proprietary local-bus implementation for high-speed graphics processing, Micro Express now offers the 486-VL/DX2/66 for your purchasing consideration. This model features two VESA-compliant local-bus slots for accommodating a graphics processor and another local-bus expansion card, such as a disk controller.
The minitower configuration of the Micro Express case provides a nice compromise between standard desktop cases, which eat up lots of desktop space, and a full tower case, which sits on the floor. The minitower should work equally well either on a desktop or next to it.
You'll find flush-mounted power, turbo, and reset switches aligned vertically on the front of the case, just above the key lock. LEDs indicate power on, hard drive activity, and turbo status, and another LED display indicates the current CPU speed.
An ATI Graphics Ultra local-bus SVGA video card equipped with 2MB of video RAM ensures speedy graphics processing. The card resides in one of the 486-VL's two local-bus slots, leaving one vacant and available for a user-installable local-bus expansion card. This slot can also be pressed into service as a standard 16-bit slot if needed.
Of the six 16-bit expansion slots built into the motherboard, only four are available for accepting expansion cards. Of the available slots, two are full-length and the other two are three-quarter-length. One 16-bit slot has the IDE caching hard and floppy controller board inserted in it, and another 16-bit slot holds the I/O board with parallel, game, and serial ports.
The system includes dual floppy drives (a 3 1/2-inch and a 5 1/4-inch), leaving two 5 1/4-inch bays and one 3 1/2-inch bay available for adding drives. For mass storage, the system uses a Western Digital Caviar 2200 (210MB) hard drive. Micro Express installs Windows 3.1 and MS-DOS 5.0 on the drive for you, and you get floppy copies along with manuals.
The system comes with 8MB of RAM as the standard complement, but you can expand the memory up to a maximum of 32MB by replacing the 1MB SIMMs with 4MB units in the eight SIMM slots. The review unit came with 512K of cache memory, and this, too, can be upgraded to a full megabyte.
The manufacturer uses two methods of dissipating heat from the i486DX2/66 CPU: a deeply finned heat sink mounted atop the CPU chip and a miniature fan attached to the top of the heat sink. The fan serves two functions: It dissipates the heat which is transmitted through the heat sink's fins, and it also pulls cooler air through the fins to keep the chip's operating temperature within reasonable limits. Since heat buildup is the major cause of CPU and component failure, it's reassuring to see that the Micro Express folks have taken the bull by the horns, so to speak, with these preemptive measures.
I liked everything about this system except for the mouse. A three-button serial mouse from XOA, I found it to be a bit too bulky and stiff for my liking, but this is a minor point and purely one of taste. The enhanced keyboard supplied with the system is available in either audible-click or silent versions (a silent model came with the review machine), and it has a nice slope and comfortable action.
The minitower configuration provides lots of installation flexibility, and the 486-VL should prove to be adequate for the needs of most users. It certainly merits a closer look if you're interested in moving your data on the local bus.
When you unpack and set up as many computer systems as I do, you really appreciate it when the manufacturer has done a good job of preparing and testing the machine before it leaves the factory. The folks at ZEOS deserve some kind words in recognition of the exemplary job they do in making sure everything's right with a system before they ship it.
In addition to a detailed packing slip with a complete inventory of the system components (both internal and external) and their associated part numbers, ZEOS also included a quality assurance checklist with the system. This checklist confirms that all aspects of system preparation and component quality assurance checking have been performed--not just once but twice--and that everything passed.
There's even a parts check section that ensures all required cables, manuals, power cords, and other required elements are also present and accounted for prior the system. Kudos to ZEOS for going the extra mile here.
Every computer system is the sum total of all its component parts, and ZEOS has supplied a shining example of what a good system is made of. The 200-watt power supply with built-in surge protection provides the operating voltage to power the system's dual floppy drives, its 245MB Seagate ST-3283AT hard drive, and the system board.
The spacious case provides lots of expansion room. Flush-mounted push-button reset, power, and turbo switches have LED status indicators, and a system key lock is also mounted at the front of the case. A snap-off plastic cover conceals the screws securing the case cover to the chasis and gives the rear of the machine a smooth and uncluttered appearance. As far as vacant bays go, you'll find a 5 1/4-inch bay and a vertical 3 1/2-inch bay, both accessible from the front of the machine; inside the case there's room to add two additional 5 1/4-inch half-height drives.
ZEOS uses its own motherboard, which provides a total of seven full-length 16-bit expansion slots and a single three-quarter-length 8-bit slot. Two of the 16-bit slots have local-bus extensions on them as well. In the review unit, one of the local-bus slots was occupied by the Diamond Viper SVGA card, while all of the other slots were vacant and available. To dissipate the excess heat generated by the CPU, ZEOS installed a large heat sink about an inch longer than the 80486 chip itself. A ZIF socket makes removing the CPU for future upgrades an effortless procedure that consists of lifting the socket's locking lever, replacing the chip, and pushing the locking lever back down again.
I found the system's performance beyond reproach, handling both text- and graphics-based applications quickly and without a whimper. A comfortable enhanced keyboard with audible click and a Microsoft serial mouse make using the system a pleasure, and Lotus Organizer software, DOS 5.0, and Windows 3.1 all come standard. And if that's not enough, you can choose either Lotus 1-2-3 for Windows, Ami Pro, or Lotus Freelance as an additional included software package.
ZEOS builds a solid machine that should deliver excellent, trouble-free performance for many years to come. If you're thinking of purchasing a 486DX/66 local-bus system, this one should be high on your list of potential candidates.