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August/September 1995

Pen Lab Review

AMS MediaPro

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.

Connectivity galore
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 BIOS.
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 around.
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.

Audio included
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.

Sizzling Performance
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.

Bottom line
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.