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Compaq Pulls Off Coups With PCs

October 15, 1987|Richard O'Reilly | Richard O'Reilly designs microcomputer applications for The Times

Compaq Computer Corp. is moving to tighten its grip on the high-performance PC market with two speedy new computers: its new Portable 386 and a faster desktop machine, the Deskpro 386/20.

The newest Compaqs use a souped-up version of the Intel 80386 microprocessor running at 20 megahertz (million cycles per second), compared to 16 mhz for its year-old 386 computer. Compaq's performance tests show that its new Deskpro averages about 40% faster than its original 386 computer.

By introducing computers with that kind of speed, Compaq has beaten IBM to the punch for a second time in a year. Compaq previously bested IBM by being the first to bring a 386 computer to market.

IBM announced a 20-mhz version of its new PS/2 Model 80 computer with the 80386 chip last April, but the first shipments aren't expected until sometime later this year. In any case, Compaq executives say they don't care when the new IBM machine arrives because their top new Deskpro is about 25% faster than IBM's best model.

I find all this of more than passing interest because last April, upon delving into the intricacies of IBM's sophisticated new Micro Channel internal architecture--which happens to make the company's new Model 50, 60 and 80 hardware incompatible with all its previous PCs--I pronounced Compaq the loser in the technology race because it still relied on the old-style compatible architecture.

In retrospect, that opinion seems a lot like concluding that a Porsche 911 couldn't keep pace in today's performance car marketplace because its engine is the same basic design that it was 20 years ago.

The details of what Compaq has done to hop up its computers are best left to the computer magazines. It is enough to say here that the new Compaqs are proof that the old architecture has a lot of miles left in it. That's very welcome news to those who would like to move their expensive peripheral circuit board devices--for instance, a network interface card, a FAX card or a special graphics board--to a new, faster computer.

Beyond raw speed, Compaq pulled off some other coups with its new machines. For one, it introduced a new version of the MS-DOS 3.3 operating system that simplifies the use of hard disks that store more than 32 megabytes, or 32 million characters, of data. Until now, those larger drives had to be divided into segments of 32 megabytes or less, preventing storage of very large data files.

Another milestone was Compaq's decision to include a Microsoft program called Windows/386 with its computers through the end of the year. Windows/386 allows users to run various programs simultaneously. You can, for instance, write a report on the computer screen at the same time a large database is being sorted and a big spreadsheet file is printed.

The analogy with Porsche that I used earlier can be stretched a bit to make several points about the new Compaq Portable 386--it is small, very powerful and very expensive.

The top-of-the-line portable is pound for pound the most powerful computer available at any price, according to Compaq.

For a dollar less than $10,000, you get a 100-megabyte hard disk and one megabyte of random access memory in which programs operate and a high-resolution, orange gas plasma display. It weighs 21 pounds and is small enough to fit under an airline seat.

What's more, inside you can add nine more megabytes of RAM and a 2,400-baud modem. On the back, you can hang a tape backup drive or an expansion unit capable of housing two standard PC peripheral circuit cards. You'll be pushing $17,000, not counting the cost of peripheral expansion boards.

When you get ready to go on the road, everything slips into an elegant black leather carrying case (costing extra, of course) that should go well with the upholstery in your Porsche. This is definitely a status-symbol machine.

Prices for the 40-megabyte-equipped portable begin at $7,999, while base prices for the Deskpro 386/20 range from $7,499 for a 60-megabyte hard disk model to $12,499 for one with a 300-megabyte drive. Performance of the desktop model is about 20% faster than the portable because of a more complex internal memory design.

Both portable and desktop models are available now, but supplies are expected to be tight for several months.

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