Flashback: Remembering the 386SX

What the heck is a 386SX? If you're old enough to know the answer, then you may just be old enough to have read this comparative review in the August 1990 issue of BYTE Magazine.

byte386sx.jpg

That was at the beginning of an era when personal computing magazines, flush with advertising dollars, ramped up expensive testing labs and ran scores of PC clones, printers and other personal computing accessories through their paces to fill up hundreds of pages with the large-scale roundup reviews.

Headlines trumpeted the quantities: 100 Printers Tested! 25 386 Screamers! And of course, the more ominous sounding 386SX Showdown, which I co-authored with Rick Grehan and Steve Apiki in the BYTE Labs. With its 386SX roundup, BYTE also debuted its latest MS-DOS performance benchmarking test suite.

Intel introduced the 386SX CPU as a bridge between the generation machines built around its aging 16-bit 286 chips and the more full-featured, state-of-the-art 32-bit 386 processor. These were the days when personal computers were beige- or putty-colored metal boxes and people could easily spend $5,000 on a single computer. Programs ran on MS-DOS, which executed in about 65K bytes of memory, if my own memory serves.

Windows had yet to take the world by storm, so for most people the personal computer user interface looked like this:

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The 386 sold for a premium in an era when even an entry-level PC would set you back two grand. There was a large price gap between the 386 and 286 lines that the PC clone vendors were eager to fill, and the 386SX architecture fit the bill in spades. By golly, you could have one of these babies for as little as $1,945 -- well into the 286 price range -- or for as much as $6,495 for a "compact" unit. Many of the clone vendors have since disappeared, with names like Club American, Arche Rival, Everex and Micro Express. But others, such as Dell, HP and Acer, went on to become powerhouses in the PC market.

The technical differences between the 386- and 286-class chips sound a bit arcane today. No one thinks it's cool anymore to spout off about whether your processor had a 16- or 32-bit bus or how big your hard drive was (Wow - 40 megabytes!). But enthusiasts ate this stuff up. They read BYTE to find out all of the specs, spouted it at parties, and made recommendations on what to buy to their friends.

For the record, the 386SX was a less capable, PC Jr-like sibling to the 386. Its external data path, or "bus," was only 16 bits wide to the 386's 32-bits, and it ran slower -- the clock speed was 16 MHz rather than the 20 MHz clock speed of the 386 at the time, so it could process more instructions per second. But it also had two things that the old 286 systems lacked: The 386s' protected and virtual 8086 memory modes, a full 32-bit internal data path between the components of the central processing unit, and processor clock speed of 16 MHz to the 286's 12 MHz.

So obviously, the 386SX, with better memory management,faster clock speed and extended instruction set would be preferable to a comparably equipped 286 machine.

Got it?

If you knew all of that stuff who could argue? I was one of those geeks who, after completing the testing, recommended a 386SX machine -- the Micro Express ME 386 SX/SL to be specific -- to friends and relatives.

me386sx_0.jpg

My brother-in-law bought several for his newly founded home improvement company, and the business went on to become very successful. In some small way I like to think that I was responsible.

I should have asked for stock options.

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