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MULTIMEDIA MODEL HUMS WITH VERSATILITY

Frank's desk used to be known as the snake pit. Wires snaked from his old 386SX/20 Sun Moon Star to monitors, speakers, CD-ROM drives, the network, a backup disk drive, modems, printers, and heaven only knew what else. Not any more.

From the time Judi got her 386DX/25, Frank had been feeling somewhat unloved. So when a multimedia Acer Pentium made it through our grueling lab tests, he moved it onto his desk.As with most "multimedia" models, this is simply a standard computer with several add-ons already installed.

First, there's a 2X or "double-speed" CD-ROM drive built right in. One wire less to roll around on the desk. (If you just want to play music, 1X is fine. But a 2X is minimal for computer applications, and 3X is not overkill any more.) Second, there's a sound card installed so you can add recorded voice notes to Windows files and hear high-quality sound from CD-ROM disks.

Third, it's Windows ready.

The joys of running Windows are that all the programs look and run somewhat alike, many swap information easily, and most make their print-outs look the way the type looks onscreen.

But for that, you pay a price. Windows programs eat computer power.

This Acer comes with Windows loaded on its disk. More important, it uses a high-speed graphics card that gets its data through a PCI bus. (PCI is a set of specifications for moving data as fast as possible from a computer or accessory disk to the processor and then to the viewing screen.

It serves the same function as VESA, EISA, and other sets of specifications or "standards.") The Acer's graphics card comes with 1M of RAM memory on it and has space to add another 1M. Frank already ordered the extra 1M. (You, too, should have 2M RAM on your computer's graphics card if you opt for 256 colors or resolutions of 1,000 or more dots.) The Acer also comes with 8M of RAM.

That used to be enough to run Windows decently, but Judi (who does a lot of complicated page layout on her computer) needs 12M to see onscreen all the different fonts in our ten-page newsletter. Happily, the Acer makes it easy to add more RAM. The RAM sockets accept high-density or low-density SIMM RAM modules.

Frank's biggest surprise, though, was the excellent video monitor that Acer ships. We've found that most brands sold as cheapies chintz on the monitor. This is the first low-budget monitor we've seen come with a large bank of controls: for light to dark, for low to high contrast, for vertical and horizontal size, even for controlling barreling (the curving at the picture's sides).

In our lab, we start by testing computers as stand-alones, then try them with some rudimentary network hardware and software. In the office, however, our Novell network connections are paramount. So the very first thing Frank did after plugging it in was to pull off the Acer's cabinet (a no-screws affair) and shove in one of our Eagle network cards. This card has operated in 8 or 10 other PCs. But it wouldn't give a beep in the Acer.

Frank first thought that the problem must be the Acers' Pentium processor. This newest Intel chip causes more engineering headaches than any chip since the Apple III. So he shut off the PC, pulled the network card, set its jumper pins to new settings, found software configured for the new jumpers, turned on the PC, and tried the network again.

When he'd used up every combination on that network card, he switched to a card made by Lantastic. It had different settings for the interrupt (the electronic signal that interrupts what the processor's doing so it can do what the interrupt's source wants done). Card in, switch on, software on, no go, switch off, card out, change setting - until they were all used up.

It was time to phone technical support. But of course by now it was Sunday. Acer's automated around-the-clock aroundthe-calendar technical support system answered. But no canned message came close to the problem. When Frank's patience gave out, no human voice had yet cracked the din.

Onto CompuServe. There Acer (and many other vendors) has a technical support bulletin board. Once connected, Frank left an E-mail explaining his problem. For good measure, he also left a message on Novell's bulletin board.

While he was online, he read some answers to other users' problems. It led him to try whether loading the latest version of our network software would solve the problem. So he copied the updates Novell makes available for free on its bulletin board.

Back to trying boards and interrupts. Updating the network hadn't solved a thing.

The techie who peoples Acer's bulletin board answered first, with a message to try disabling the memory manager. "Maybe the network cards and software are trying to use RAM memory locations already reserved for some other program." That theory took 15 minutes to test. Frank E-mailed Acer's and Novell's boxes that memory didn't seem to be the problem.

Two days later, still no further answer. So Frank E-mailed Acer for a list of network cards that Acer knew to work with its machine. Acer E-mailed a request for our fax number. We didn't want to muddy the waters, but we sure wondered why they couldn't E-mail the list.

We're still waiting for the list.

By the following Sunday, Frank had done an awful lot of sleeping on the problem: "Why won't the network run on this machine?" He was at the point our lab techies call "Having a mystical experience" - walking around with a glazed look in his eye.

Suddenly, the glaze cleared. An invisible hand reached out, grabbed his beard, pulled him close to the Acer's monitor as it was powering up for the umpteenth time, and pointed to the command that's now routinely inserted in nearly every CONFIG.SYS file: LAST DRIVE Z.

Something - the kind of brainstorm that makes you a believer - made Frank decide to edit the file to read LAST DRIVE E.

Like a shot, the PC hopped onto the network.

Every other PC on the network has a CONFIG.SYS that indicates Z for the last drive. On every other computer, Novell's NetWare set-up ignores the Z, checks which drives are in use, and generally starts its own re-lettering scheme with F. (On one weird portable we use, it begins at I, don't ask why.) Why did Novell read the Z literally on this Acer machine, try to start with AA, find that AA can't exist, and refuse to do another thing? Who knows? Not Acer, anyway.