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The developer's guide to buying a 386

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With Presentation Manager now ready, now is the time to upgrade your development machine. Robert Schifreen surveyed the recent PC show looking for a 386 machine with colour VGA graphics that wouldn't break the bank.

Although there were very few major product launches at the PC Show this year, the event was an ideal opportunity for those in search of a new PC to take a look at what was on offer. As a software developer, I was after a cheap 386 machine with a fast hard disk, that would allow me to edit and compile my code as fast as possible. I wasn't too bothered about looking to buy from a major manufacturer - I wanted a VGA system (ready for Presentation Manager) with hard disk, at least 1 MB of RAM (very expandable, too) and a price tag of around ś3000. Surprisingly, I found quite a few machines. Each has different points in its favour, so I'll refrain from the customary tables of figures and specifications. Instead, I'll give the basic facts on each, plus phone numbers in case you want to find out more.

Amstrad 2386

If you need your machine to be available now, don't bother reading any more of this section. Amstrad's 386 won't be on sale until January. By then, the company will have a 20 MHz machine with 4 MB of RAM as standard, expandable to 16, and a custom cache controller chip with 64K of 35ns static RAM. There will be a socket for a 387. The Amstrad BIOS will be 32 bits wide, whereas some (like Walters's) are only 16. The fast BIOS makes it unnecessary to copy it into cache memory, as some 386 machines do.

Storage comprises one 1.44 MB 3.5 inch floppy, and a 65 MB RLL hard disk with 40 ms access time. External 5.25 inch drives will also be available. You get Microsoft Windows/386 and MS-DOS 4.0 thrown in, and the on-board VGA adaptor (chips by Paradise) is coupled with a new Amstrad 14 inch hi-res colour monitor. The graphics system will emulate MDA, CGA, EGA and Hercules. The whole lot will retail for ś2999+VAT which, taking the amount of RAM into account, will make it the cheapest machine on the market.

Amstrad are currently overhauling their dealer network, and only the more upmarket ones will be allowed to sell this machine. More on 0277 230222, but it's not worth calling this side of Christmas.

CAS Computers Ltd

CAS provide a range of 386 machines. Perhaps the best value comes from their 20 MHz system with 40 MB 28ms hard drive, 1MB of RAM, a 1.2MB 5.25 inch floppy, keyboard and VGA card, with NEC Multisync II monitor. This retails at ś2425, to which you add VAT, and ś50 for DOS. More on 01 291 5777.

Dell System 310

Dell launched the 20 MHz system 310 last year. It's now been reduced in price, following the launch of their 25 MHz system 325. The 310 (the 325 is too expensive for this sub-ś3000 list) contains 1 MB of RAM, a 102 key keyboard, two serial and one parallel ports, one floppy drive (choose which size) and monitor. A colour VGA system with 40 MB, 28 ms hard disk is now down to ś2999 + VAT. A mono VGA system is ś200 less. Call Dell (free) for more information, on 0800 414535. One reason why the systems are so cheap is that Dell operate a mail order service - there are no dealers.


Elonex have a 20 MHz 386 machine called the 386-S. This runs at 20MHz and has 2 serial ports and one Centronics. It comes with a 44 MB, 28 ms hard disk, 2 MB of RAM and a 1.2 MB floppy. A VGA system with VGA monitor is ś3195 + VAT. Add ś100 for an NEC Multisync. More on 01 965 3225.


You may not have heard of the name, but it's well worth looking at the prices before you turn away. Hi-Grade have 2 machines. The first is based on the Micronyx motherboard and contains a 386-20, running at 20 MHz. You get 1 MB of RAM and a 20 MB, 28 ms hard drive for ś2165. This is a mono system, and includes one of each floppy. Add ś335 for VGA (card and monitor) and you get ś2500. This includes 2 serial and 2 parallel ports, but not DOS. The other machine is similar spec, but runs a 386-16, though also at 20 MHz. This is ś2085 for the full VGA system and is based on a chips and technologies motherboard. Hi-Grade are on 01 482 4024.


The Samsung S800 is a desktop 386 running at 20 MHz. The VGA system is due out later this month. Meanwhile, the EGA system with 1 MB of RAM (of which the top 384K holds a copy of the BIOS), a 1.44 MB and 1.2 MB floppy and 20 MB 65 ms hard drive retails for ś2970 + VAT. You'd need to add a monitor to this. For a 40 MB hard drive with 28 ms access, the price goes up to ś3475. These are official retail prices, and you can get them much cheaper. The best reductions I have found are from Fast Micro Ltd in London, who charge ś2348 and ś2772 respectively, plus VAT. Fast Micro are on 01 291 6565, which makes Samsung's phone number irrelevant.


Vegas are new to the UK. Rather than having a catalogue of two or three machines, the company sells each component separately. You specify all the bits you want, and they will be assembled into the system of your choice. To build a 386 system you start with a cabinet (floor standing) containing a 16 MHz 386 motherboard and an unpopulated memory card. This is ś1378.50. One way of making this into a usable system is to add 2 MB of RAM (ś748.50), a Mitsubishi 1.2 MB 5.25 inch floppy (ś96.75) and Mitsubishi 720K 3.5 inch drive (ś97.50), a 30 MB Seagate RLL hard drive (ś217.75 plus ś100 for controller), Genoa Super VGA card (ś230.25), 2 serial ports and a parallel port (ś34.50), keyboard (ś41.75) and mono VGA monitor (ś93.25). This comes to ś3039.25, plus VAT. More information from Vegas on 01 659 9166.


Viglen introduced a 386 machine at the PC show. The V4411 has a 40 MB hard drive and runs at 8, 16 or 20 MHz with zero wait states. There is 2 MB of RAM on board, 2 serial and 2 parallel ports, a games port and mouse, a 1.2 MB floppy, DOS, Windows and BASIC. With VGA card and monitor, the price is ś3444.25 + VAT. Another ś402.50 ups the clock speed to 25 MHz. Further details from Viglen on 01 843 9903.


Walters launched the cheapest 386 machine of the year at the PC show. For ś1260 + VAT you get a 16 MHz machine with 1 MB of RAM, expandable to 16. The system has 8 slots and a 1.2 MB drive, plus parallel port and Hercules graphics monitor and card. To this, you must add ś800 for VGA, ś30 for a serial port and ś330 for a 20 MB, 65 ms hard disk, which brings the total to a very respectable ś2420 + VAT. More on 0494 32751.

Please be aware that, although the quoted prices were current at the time of writing, exchange rates and RAM shortages may well cause them to change slightly.

Colour VGA, 386 machines including monitor and keyboard but not VAT.

                    MHz  RAM  HD MB  HD speed  FDD   Price

Hi-Grade            20    1     20      28     Both  2085
Samsung             20    1     20      65     Both  2348 (EGA)
Walters             16    1     20      65     5.25  2420
CAS                 20    1     40      28     5.25  2425
Amstrad             20    4     65      40     3.5   2999
Dell                20    1     40      28     5.25  2999
Vegas               16    2     30      28     Both  3039
Elonex              20    2     44      28     5.25  3195
Viglen              20    2     40      28     5.25  3444

NOTES:  1. Viglen's price is INC VAT
        2. CompuAdd's phone number is 0272 637488.

This article taken from .EXE Magazine, November 1988. You may distribute copies of this file, as long as this notice is not removed. For details of .EXE, please call 01 994 6477.