CMS 386SX/16-40. (computer) (evaluation)
by Tom Benford
The 80386SX desktop computer has never been more capable or more affordable. A year ago, SX machines were underpowered or overpriced. Today, it's a different story, as this month's Test Lab shows. The 9 machines reviewed here--7 running at 16 MHz and 2 running at 20 MHz--offer both tremendous value and impressive features. Why are we seeing these improvements in pricing and features? Improvements in computer technology, new microprocessors, and competition have driven prices down and produced a dizzying array of choices. Now you can have your choice of hard drives, memory, monitors, microprocessors, warranties service, expansion capabilities, keyboards, software bundles, and much, much more. So whether you're new to computing and have modest needs or you're an experienced hacker with a hunger for storage, speed, and power, our benchmark statistics, sidebars, and hands-on reviews will help you make the right decision.
The CMS 386SX/16-40 has everything I find indispensable in a desktop system: VGA graphics, dual floppy drives (5 1/4-and 3 1/2-inch), a 40MB hard drive, and 2MB of RAM. Right out of the box it's a machine that's ready to do business.
MS-DOS 4.01, GW-BASIC 3.23, and TriGem EMM driver software are furnished with the machine, and an optional hi-res 14-inch VGA color monitor with .29-mm dot pitch completes the system reviewed here. The VGA board has 256K of video RAM and yields a mximum resolution of 800 x 600 pixels. The Oak Technology video BIOS is multimode, providing EGA, CGA, MDA, and Hercules graphic modes in addition to VGA.
The CPU case gives you plenty of room for expansion with two 8-bit and four 16-bit slots (the VGA board uses one of the 16-bit slots, however). Occupying a footprint 14 3/4 inches wide by 16 3/4 inches deep, the box itself isn't space hungry. Since the expansion cards mount into the slots vertically (rather than horizontally as in some "low profile" desktops), the case is about 6 1/2 inches tall, which will allow it to stand with stability on its side next to your desk if you wish.
Although there is no dedicated mouse port, two 9-pin serial ports are provided for serial device I/Os, along with a parallel port. The VGA card has D connectors for 9- or 15-pin monitor cables, along with a bank of DIP switches for video mode selection.
The keyboard connects via a standard 5-pin port also mounted at the rear of he cabinet. The 101-key keyboard is very nice, offering a very light and springy (not mushy) touch. Good tactile and audio feedback make it a pleasure to use, especially if you're a relatively fast touch-typist. Indicator lights for Num Lock, Caps Lock, and Scroll Lock keys show keyboard conditions at a glance; dedicated cursor control keys and a full numeric keypad make data entry fast and accurate.
I popped the four Phillips screws on the back of the system cabinet, slid the case cover forward, and took a look "under the hood." In keeing with the latest engineering and manufacturing practices, the motherboard makes extensive use of VLSI (Very Large Scale Integration) technology, with only a handful of chips performing numerous tasks. This type of design not only keeps manufacturing costs low (resulting in lower consumer prices), but it also allows the machine to run cooler and more reliably, since there are fewer components to generate heat and possibly fail.
The 145-watt power supply has an extra pigtail connector for attaching another peripheral device (for example, an internal CDROM drive or a second hard drive). While this should be adequate for most users, if you're a power user intending to fill up every slot and add an additional drive (magnetic or optical), you might want to upgrade the power supply to a 200-watt unit to handle the extra demands for juice these peripherals will require.
The review unit came equipped with a high-density 1.2MB 5 1/4-inch floppy drive in the upper bay position and a high-density 1.44MB 3 1/2-inch drive in the lower bay. Unfortunately, no additional exposed bays are available, so adding an internal CD-ROM drive, an internal high-speed tape backup unit, or another floppy drive isn't an option. Another hard drive could easily be mounted inside the cabinet, however, since you wouldn't need to access it physically from outside the machine.
All of the components and all of the workmanship appear to be of very good quality, and the overall layout and design of the machine's interior are excellent.
A socket for an 80387 math coprocessor is provided on the motherboard, as well as space for RAM expansion of up to 8MB. The AMI software BIOS performs a complete set of diagnostic tests with a single keystroke on boot-up, and changing the CMOS configuration to reflect any changes made to the system (such as adding extra RAM) is a breeze as well.
The documentation for the CMS 386SX/61-40 is truly first-rate: clear, well organized, and uncommonly complete in what it covers. Virtually anything you'd like to know about the system is contained in the operations guide. In addition to the system specifications, you get useful information regarding various memory configurations, I/O addresses, connector pin-outs, and more--even a section on removing the motherboard and running diagnostics.
The system performs admirably, thanks to its 16-MHz 80386-SX CPU and a very quick 40MB IDE hard drive. During my review I ran several programs under DOS version 4.01 (included with the system) as well as Windows 3.0 and found the CMS to be quick and reliable. If you're a DOS aficionado, upgrading to DOS 5.0 should make it perform even better. The included TriGem EMM drivers and utilities disk facilitate taking advantage of the expanded memory above the base 640K and configuring it for use in your applications.
CMS backs the machine with a one-year parts and labor warranty covering repair or replacement when it's returned to the factory.
If the configuration reviewed here doesn't fit your requirements precisely, the base system can be ordered to your specific configuration requirements with more (or less) RAM, higher capacity hard drives, a math coprocessor, and more. If you're of the hands-on, do-it-yourself persuasion, you can order a bare-bones unit consisting of the basic cabinet, motherboard, and power supply only and dress it up according to your own particular recipe. Or you can order it with some components in place and add others at a later time yourself. You get the idea; CMS custom-builds the units any way you wish.
Overall, I was very favorably impressed with the appearance, performance, and design of the CMS 386SX/16-40. It's a "real world" machine that delivers plenty at a price that won't break the bank.