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-- by James Alan Miller
Everyone from Bill Gates to Al Gore has heralded the advent of the "computing appliance." Now, a company has actually produced one. The Monorail PC 133 comes closer to hitting the mark than any system we've seen so far. This inexpensive, three-piece (CPU/display, mouse and keyboard) PC aims to be a home computing appliance.
Monorail's policy is comparable to that of a television: You void the warranty if you open the unit. You must return the system for repairs or upgrades. The PC 133 has only one half-size ISA slot with no options available to the buyer as of this review. An optional network card will likely be offered in the future.
Powered with processors from AMD, the Monorail has an attractive price tag of $1,299, but its features are limited. (There's also a 75MHz K5-powered unit with a 1GB hard disk for $799.) Even so, the Monorail makes an ideal choice for a second home system.
The unit measures 11 by 15 by 3.25 inches and weighs 17 pounds. An integrated 10.4-inch dual-scan 640x480 display lends the system an unprecedented degree of portability for a desktop PC.
The Monorail is also an easy system to set up. Simply plug in the color-coded mouse and keyboard and connect the modem. A diagnostic tool will check to ensure that you've set up the PC 133 correctly.
Three major components are integrated into the custom-designed Mitac motherboard: a Crystal Sound 16-bit sound chip with FM synthesis, Chips and Technology's 65548 video accelerator with 1MB of VRAM and a Rockwell 33.6Kb-per-second modem. Other integrated parts include a Mitsumi 4X CD-ROM drive, a 2.1GB Quantum hard drive, a microphone, a meager 50W power supply and a pair of front-mounted single-watt NMB speakers. The sound quality was surprisingly crisp considering the power limitations.
The unit is upgradable to 200MHz; it bundles 16MB of EDO RAM (expandable to 80MB) into only two SIMM slots and omits a level 2 cache. Rear connectors include two PS/2 ports for the mouse and keyboard; standard serial, parallel and MIDI/game ports; and three audio jacks (line-in, line-out and microphone). Monorail conveniently color-codes the ports.
Monorail's performance doesn't reach the level of the systems on our WinList. Under Wintune benchmarks, the Monorail achieved 236MIPS, 1.5MB per second uncached disk throughput and 6.6Mpixels per second video throughput. By comparison, Gateway 2000's P5-133 FPC offered 243.67MIPS, 3.03MBps uncached disk throughput and 13Mpixels per second video throughput. On real-world application macros, the PC 133 took 26.33 seconds for Word and 20.33 seconds for Excel, compared to 13.67 and 12 seconds, respectively, for the Gateway.
The Gateway P5-133 FPC has more features, a 17-inch monitor, a 12X CD-ROM, 256KB of pipeline-burst cache and SDRAM. However, our WinList system costs $1,739, and that is without the Monorail's attractive portability or setup ease.
The Monorail's biggest disappointment is its display. The picture quality is dim and difficult to correct. Its dual-scan, passive-matrix screen produces shadows and trails, which are most apparent during cursor movements.
Too many compromises prevent the Monorail from appearing on our WinList. However, it might suit a first-time buyer on a tight budget who wants a fairly powerful, portable, easy-to-set-up system.