AST Premium Exec 386SX/20. (notebook computer) (evaluation)
by David English
Have you ever loved something so much that you were willing to overlook its flaws? That's how I feel about the AST Premium Exec 386SX/20. Despite the problems with early production models, this is the best overall notebook computer I've seen.
For one thing, it speeds along at a full 20 MHz, which is fast enough to run most Windows programs at a comfortable clip. In addition, you can order the Premium Exec with a 20MB, 40MB, or 60MB hard drive that's rated an impressive 23 milliseconds (20MB drive) or even faster 19 milliseconds (40MB and 60MB drives). I'm using the 60MB version, and it's a real joy to have so many of my favorite programs with me--no matter where I go.
AST Research has made upgradability a major feature of its desktop computers and has carried that philosophy to its new line of notebook computers. You can buy the 12-MHz 286 version of the Premium Exec notebook and upgrade the microprocessor later to a 20-MHz 386SX--for not much more than the price difference between the two machines ($400 as opposed to $499).
While the 386SX comes with 2MB of RAM and the 286 comes with 1MB, you can expand the memory of either machine to a total of 8MB. Even though the Premium Exec is relatively new, you can already buy memory upgrades from discount mail-order houses at a substantial discount. (AST charges $995 for 4MB, while one mail-order company charges $388 for the same amount of memory. As for the notebook itself, you can buy the various models by mail order at a discount of about 20-25 percent.)
The Premium Exec's LCD screen is the sharpest I've seen, and its VGA controller, from Cirrus Logic, does a great job of translating colors into 32 shades of gray. For those times when you absolutely must have color, you can hook up a color VGA monitor through the external VGA port.
In addition to the VGA port and the usual parallel and serial ports, the Premium Exec includes a PS/2 port that lets you add an external keyboard, mouse, or numeric keypad. You can also add an internal 2400-baud data modem ($249) or an internal 2400-baud fax modem ($349). The fax modem is send-only (9600 baud) and uses the Sierra chip--so it works fine with WinFax. Even though you can hook up an external keyboard, you'll probably use the built-in keyboard most of the time. The AST's keyboard stands out as one of the best I've seen on a notebook computer. It has a good feel and a slight audio click when you press a key. Unlike some other notebook computers, this one doesn't make you press a special option key to access the Home, End, PageUp, and PageDown keys. My only criticism is that the right Shift and Backspace keys are too small.
As for the case itself, it's solidly built and looks great. The small battery is relatively lightweight and easy to remove. The screen feels firm when you move it into place and locks tight when you close it for travel.
Many notebook computers offer power-saving features to extend the life of the battery. The Premium Exec tops them all with three ways to save power: programmable timeouts that can shut down the hard drive and LCD screen when they're not being used, a suspend/resume mode that can shut down the entire system while preserving your data (unfortunately, this feature doesn't work with protected-mode programs, such as Windows 3.0), and a BIOS-level clock-speed control feature that can automatically slow down the processor when it isn't processing data or redrawing the screen. With the power-saving features switched on, you can expect over three hours of battery life with each charge. Until notebook computers are available with Intel's new power-saving 386SL chip, the Premium Exec is the state of the art in power management.
So what were the problems with the early production models? The screen flickered slightly when the Premium Exec was running on the battery, and Windows programs wouldn't recognize the modem. I also couldn't get one of the units to recognize the PS/2 port. All three problems were fixed with BIOS updates, so be sure to get a BIOS with a version number of 1.06.04 or higher.
Notebook technology moves so fast that a recommendation can be outdated by the time you read a review. With that disclaimer out of the way, I can safely say that the AST Premium Exec offers the best speed, expandability, and power-management features of any notebook computer. And all for a very attractive price.