Out hunting, Power User nabs big game at bargain-lover's price

I recently got my hands on a 233-MHz MicroFlex Pentium II with 64M of memory,
56-kilobit/sec modem, large hard drive, large low-radiation monitor, nice keyboard and
other goodies priced to make a miser smile.


You may not know the maker, Micro Express of Irvine, Calif., because it isn't a leading
government vendor. But it also isn't one of those instant PC companies that appear and
then disappear next month. It's been around for years selling PCs and notebooks to the
budget-minded.


It's not the fastest PC available from this vendor, but a 233-MHz Pentium II with 64M
RAM has enough oomph for most power users. I hesitate to state the unit's price, which may
be lower when you read this. I'll just emphasize that when it arrived, it was a real
bargain.


The system came with Microsoft Windows 95 preinstalled but no bundled applications. If
your office runs standard applications, view this as an advantage: There's no need to
spend hours cleaning out office suites, games and other extras.


I connected the stereo speakers, keyboard, mouse and monitor. Everything ran fine.
Users moving up to this type of system from a fast 486 or 90-MHz Pentium with 16M RAM--the
typical government systems being replaced today--should be delighted.


After about a week, though, my review unit died. I quickly diagnosed a power supply
failure. The PC was under warranty, so I had a choice of a replacement PC or a power
supply. I opted for the power supply, which arrived the next day, and I made the swap in
about eight minutes.


Power supplies in my experience are the likeliest component to fail. The MicroFlex ran
flawlessly for the next two months, so I concluded the power supply failure was a fluke
rather than a sign of poor-quality construction.


The monitor, a low-radiation Impression Products Inc. Impression 7 Plus with
0.27-millimeter dot pitch, allowed on-screen adjustments via four front-panel buttons.
After running one month it needed a minor image adjustment. I changed the settings in less
than two minutes without looking at the documentation.


Even with the power supply problem, I still consider this unit a good buy for the user
who needs raw power and isn't afraid to tinker a bit in exchange for a rock-bottom price.


Price is paramount in a fast system. When the cost is low, you can afford to beef up
the memory and hard drive. But some users need reliability more than speed.


My Energy Star-compliant Micro Express computer came with a well-known BIOS and a
Toshiba America Information Systems Inc. CD-ROM drive. Big-name PCs sometimes fail, too.
My oldest test machine, a 66-MHz Compaq Computer Corp. Deskpro XL 566, is still running
strong, but I have had to reboot on startup occasionally.


Like the MicroFlex problem, the Compaq's glitch is annoying but no threat to data. Some
government offices might find it unacceptable. To me, it's an occasional delay.


These systems carry warranties and can be returned for free replacement. But the hassle
of packing and shipping back a computer with a minor problem is often greater than simply
swapping a part, as I did.


When the MicroFlex arrived, a Dell Computer Corp. system with comparable performance
and capacity cost about $800 more, so I could have bought the Micro Express plus a low-end
Pentium system for the same amount.


It's always a good thing to have two computers for the price of one.


John McCormick, a free-lance writer and computer consultant, has been working with
computers since the early 1960s. E-mail him at powerusr@penn.com.


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