Pen Lab Review
Pentium power for pens!
Drum roll, please. For all those who have been wondering when pen computing
will enter the Pentium era, your wait is over. The MediaPro from AMS (Associates
Mega Sub-System, Inc.) of Irvingdale, CA, is available both with a pen option
and Pentium processors up to 100MHz. We tested the 90MHz version, and, as
expected, the AMS MediaPro is far and away the fastest pen computer we have
ever had in our lab. Its PCBench 8.0 processor score is roughly four times
higher than that of almost any other pen notebook or pen tablet we've tested.
If you need raw, blazing pen power, this is your machine. And-big surprise-all
this power doesn't mean the MediaPro is a battery hog. In our benchmark
tests it ran for almost 2-1/2 hours on a single charge, just 15 minutes
less than the 486DX2/50 ThinkPad 360PE and better than such excellent pen
systems as the Fujitsu Stylistic 500.
Thoughts about pens
It is our firm belief that a pen is far and away the best point & click
and editing device for notebooks. Ideally, you'd use the pen in conjunction
with a trackball, touch pad, or touch stick. Unfortunately, most notebook
manufacturers seem oblivious to this. Over the past year or so, as the market
for vertical market pen tablet has taken off, we've seen several excellent
pen-enhanced clamshell notebooks fall by the wayside. Of the true clamshells,
only the IBM ThinkPad 360PE and the Panasonic CF-21VP have survived. The
Panasonic 21VP, though a nice machine, never really made it into the mainstream.
The IBM ThinkPad 360P was a thoroughly terrific pen notebook with an excellent
dual scan color screen, good battery life, and the new 360PE is even better
with a faster chip and a full audio subsystem (see review on page 64). However,
even the new 360PE is no speed demon and at a time where more and more (increasingly
sophisticated) pen applications are running under Windows, the lack of a
fast Pentium pen system was beginning to become painfully obvious.
Big and well built
Physically, the AMS MediaPro is quite substantial both in size and weight.
Its solid matte-black case measures 11.6 x 10.0 x 2.2 inches, and it weighs
in at 7.5 pounds including battery and the 540 MB drive. The unit is well
designed and built with sturdy, tightly fitting doors and latches.
The MediaPro has a plethora of ports and interfaces. One latch on the MediaPro's
backside covers a 9-pin serial, a parallel, a SVGA video, a MIDI/game, and
PS/2-style mouse and keyboard ports. The other covers a CD-ROM connector
for Sony or Mitsumi-compatible CD-ROM drives, and a 200-pin expansion connector
designed for use with AMS' optional PC video adapter (PAL or NTSC), a mini
dock, or a docking station. On the left side there are audio jacks for stereo
equipment, a speaker-out jack, a microphone jack, and a volume control knob
for the internal or external speakers. A latch covers two PCMCIA card slots,
one for a Type II or II card, the other for a Type I or II card. The latter
is only about an inch deep so that an inserted card sticks out. On the right
side, there is the 3-1/4 floppy drive bay, the hard disk bay, and a covered
RJ11 port for an optional internal data/fax modem. There is also a small
cover underneath the machine through which you can access and change the
Brightness and contrast are adjusted via two relatively unwieldy sliding
knob controls at the bottom of the LCD screen. The MediaPro's keyboard is
slightly smaller than a standard full-size keyboard, but the keys provide
good, firm feedback. There is a recessed trackball with trackball switches
to either side in front of the keyboard. It feels ergonomically proper and
works well with the ribbed 1.5-inch palm rest area.
The MediaPro's operation can be monitored on an LCD strip. The strip indicates
battery use, AC adapter in use, suspend and standby modes, hard and floppy
access, PCMCIA slot status, and Num, Caps, and Scroll lock status. Finally,
the MediaPro has a special "Suspend" button, something we've been
asking for for a while. No need to memorize obscure key combinations. You
want the MediaPro to go to sleep, you press the suspend button. You press
it again, and the system wakes up. Excellent.
The MediaPro does not come with Windows for Pen Computing but Windows for
Workgroups 3.11. Pen functionality is provided by Dialogue Technology and
Bluestar Corp software that was developed for their PenMount universal detachable
writing panel. The software allows basic configuration and calibration.
For an extra $100, AMS throws in a Microsoft software bundle including Microsoft
Works, Microsoft Encarta, Microsoft Musical Instruments on CD, and the Microsoft
Entertainment Pack on disk. Included also are all the pen, video, PCMCIA,
and audio drivers.
Documentation consists of a rather thin User's Guide and a couple of ancillary
pamphlets. The manual isn't bad, but it covers so many different versions
of the MediaPro platform that it isn't always easy to figure out if a given
section pertains to your system or not. AMS does, however, supply full,
original Windows documentation and a full set of disks.
The screen: the good and the not so good
The screen itself is a backlit monochrome 640 x 480 LCD that measures 9.5"
diagonally. The very legible screen has good contrast and brightness. Both
are controlled by sliding controls at the bottom of the screen. The surface
of the screen offers just the right amount of resistance for writing. Since
the MediaPro uses a touch sensitive digitizer, you do not need an expensive
pen with batteries. Any passive stylus will do. You can even operate applications
with your fingers.
AMS economized by designing the MediaPro with a detachable screen. Open
two latches and the screen comes off. You then turn it around and pop it
back in, thus converting the MediaPro into a pen tablet with a screen facing
upwards. You don't even have to turn off the computer to switch the screen
Overall, the MediaPro's screen has its pros and cons. The good news is that
it exists, thus making pen power available on a Pentium notebook. It also
works quite well, has little ghosting, and offers decent contrast. The not
so good news is that in this day and age of 10.4" active matrix color
displays, a 9.5" monochrome screen looks small and murky. Also, much
of the multimedia functionality that this machine is capable off requires
an active matrix screen.
The MediaPro comes with an Adlib and Sound Blaster Pro compatible audio
subsystem, an internal microphone, a MIDI interface, a 16-bit analog-to-digital/digital-to-analog
converter, stereo output, and a stereo mixer. Voyetra's Audiostation, MIDI
Orchestrator, Audio Calendar, and a number of audio utilities get you started.
As was to be expected, performance is where the MediaPro really shines.
Using the Ziff Davis PCBench 8.0 and WinBench 4.0 benchmarks, the machine
blasted to a 78.76 processor score, several times faster than any other
pen machine we've tested. A very credible local bus video subsystem and
good disk performance resulted in an overall DOSMark score of 470.72, roughly
twice that of a good 486 pen system, and beating our previous speed champion,
the Hyperdata 320 by 165 points. While we expected exceptional performance,
we were skeptical about battery life. However, the MediaPro put in a more
than respectable showing, running 2:22 hours in continuous use with standard
power management settings. This is less than the old IBM ThinkPad 750P (5:07
hrs) or the Compaq Concerto (4:23 hrs), but much better than the Hyperdata
320 and, despite the Pentium processor, better than a number of far slower
pen systems. In automotive terms, look at it as a Corvette getting 20MPG.
Price: surprisingly affordable
What does all this power cost? Not as much as you'd think. The AMS MediaPro
with a 90MHz Pentium processor, 8MB of RAM, the pen option, and a 540MB
hard disk goes for a surprisingly affordable $3,372.
As of this writing, if it's Pentium speed you need in a pen system, the
AMS MediaPro is your machine. Due to its 90MHz Pentium processor, intelligent
design, a surprisingly affordable price, and surprisingly good battery life,
the AMS MediaPro is a combination that's hard to beat. Of course, we'd love
to have a big, bright active matrix color screens and one of those wonderful
Wacom pens, but the facts of life are that right now there are only a very
small number of pen convertible notebooks on the market, and of those, the
AMS MediaPro is far and away the fastest.