AST 4/33S Model 123B. (AST Research, microcomputer) (Hardware Review) (Evaluation)
by Ralph Roberts
The Cold War may have ended, but that doesn't mean they don't build battleships anymore.
The AST 4/33s model 123B 486SX computer system is a welcome change from the recent spate of ever-cheaper, ever-more-shortcuts-taken, no-name systems filling the pages of mail-order catalogs. At $1,895 suggested retail with a street price of around $1,700, the system is competitively priced and offers more features than average.
AST is a well-established American company. The company's Six Pack memory and clock enhancement board was one of the few viable ways to make the original IBM PC (the XT) truly usable in the early 1980s. In the years since, AST has enjoyed a reputation for building solid, reliable systems.
Of course, you may not have the room to dock a battleship on your desk. The one real drawback to the 123B is its larger-than-standard size: 15 1/4 x 61/4 x 161/2 inches. The advantages of the unit could lead you to consider digging a larger harbor, though.
There are good reasons for the 123B's bulk. The computer gives you four full-sized expansion slots, as well as two 5 1/4-inch and two 3 1/2-inch drive bays--all surrounded by a solid metal case. You have all sorts of room if you want to add additional drives, internal modems, and cruise missiles. Whatever.
Installation's simple. Plug the monitor into the back of the computer (the connector will only fit one place), attach the mouse and keyboard, then connect the power cords to the monitor and computer. Turn them on. That's it. Both DOS and Windows are preinstalled on the hard disk, and the AUTOEXEC.BAT file is programmed so that Windows comes up ready to use.
It may not look like it's built for speed, but the 123B is fast and powerful. The one I tried came with a 120MB hard drive, 4MB of RAM, and a Super VGA display. The amount of RAM is easily upgradable. The only blip in an otherwise beautiful design is that while the SIMM outlets--where the additional memory chips get installed--are convenient, the sockets for adding video RAM can only be reached by removing the power supply temporarily. This, at least, is a simple task, and the rest of the system's conveniences makeup for this minor inconvenience.
The documentation is excellent, with good illustrations of the procedures to follow for the various types of upgrades.
Some of the 123B's speed comes from a large 256K memory cache, coupled with a very fast Quantum 120MB hard disk. Combine that with the quickness of a 486SX-33, and you'll find, as I did, that the system has very satisfactory throughput. Such Windows applications as CorelDRAW! and PageMaker--heavy system resource users--show nice zip. I was especially pleased with the quickness of display updates for CorelDRAW! figures that had a lot of fountain fills.
Hardware settings can easily be switched through the BIOS setup routine--no need to take the case off and look for DIP switches. I found in my tests that the computer is above average in disk- and processor-related tasks, compared to machines in a similar price range.
We all know that computer technology changes rapidly. The 123B solves that problem by offering an easy upgrade path. Currently--for about $350 to $700--it's possible to increase the performance of the 123B (and, in fact, all of AST's Bravo series) by adding a clock-doubler chip (DX2) and bringing its speed up to 66 MHz.
Upgrading the processor is a relatively simple operation. Just flip up the zero insertion force lever on the CPU daughter board, and the old chip jumps right out. Insert the new chip, and the upgrade's done. This feature and the 123B's overall solidity will let you keep the machine current with technology for years to come, thus making it a better investment than computers that are harder to upgrade.
Yes, the 123B is built like a battleship (maybe that's what the B really stands for), but it's a fast, easily upgradable, and solidly reliable behemoth. I like it a lot. AST Research (741) 727-4141 $1,895 Circle Reader Service Number 434