Amstrad joue la carte Sega (SVM)AMSTRAD MEGA PC (PC Review)
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Is it a console ... is it a PC?

Amstrad's Mega package

Amstrad's Mega PC combines a 386SX PC with the Sega Megadrive — the best of both worlds or a double compromise?

Putting two different types of device in one box has become an Amstrad forte: with its hi-fi units in the later 70s, its one-plug CPC games computer and PCW word processors in the early 80s, and the combined TV and video player more recently. After Sega's flirtations with its PC-plus-console Teradrive, it seems almost inevitable that it would be Amstrad to pick up the reins of this concept.

The result is the Mega PC: a 25MHz 386SX PC, with an integral Megadrive. The PC side of the machine is basically the Amstrad 7386SX ; the Megadrive end is produced under licence from Sega.

As a PC, the machine has the components you would expect from an entry level consumer configuration: 1Mb RAM (expansible onboard to 16Mb), a 40Mb hard drive, Ad Lib sound card and joystick port, speakers (built directly into the VGA colour monitor), 3.5" disk drive, parallel and serial ports, and a free expansion slot.

In PC mode, a front panel flap conceals the Megadrive. Slide that across, so that it now covers the disk drive and the Megadrive's cartridge slot is revealed. Moving the flap over puts the machine into Megadrive mode, so that the monitor and speakers are now being driven by the Megadrive main board. Now all you need do is insert your game cartridge and off you go. This is beautifully simple and a very neat piece of design.

Furthermore, flipping to Megadrive operation doesn't reset the PC. If you slide the flap back again, you'll find yourself back on the PC, exactly where you left off, even if you were in the middle of an application at the time, which makes the whole set-up either ideal or disastrous for inveterate skivers.

The whole idea of the Mega PC is fascinating — now, why has Amstrad done it, and who it thinks is going to buy it?

The Mega PC will cost £999.99, inclusive of Vat. The 7386SX starts at £740 (although this is with a monochrome monitor), while a standalone Sega Megadrive is around £140. Since there isn't a dramatic price discrepancy between the individual machines and the combined Mega PC, one should perhaps look at the attractions of it as a package.

Amstrad's own response is that, with the Mega PC, it is going straight back to its roots as purveyor of technology to the masses, at a price they can afford, in a form they can understand. At a Vat-inclusive £999, it may sound distinctly expensive to anyone who knows how to shop around for components and order direct from the supplier, but still compares favourably (-ish) to high street prices. What makes the Mega PC easy to understand is the inclusion of Counterpoint, Amstrad's graphic-based front end which effectively shields the beginner from any tinkering with DOS (it basically acts as an application launcher), and there's also an on-screen illustrated PC tutorial as well.

The tutorial's thoroughness is admirable, although one wonders if the sheer amount of detail contained within will prove just as daunting to the novice as the weighty traditional manual.

A further note on the Mega PC's price: until very recently, you could accompany this with a quiet hint that £999 could all too easily become £799 within a few months. However, a weakening pound, strengthening dollar, deepening recession, etc, etc, mean that this is by no means a certainty any more. Chip prices seem to have bottomed out recently and a number of PC suppliers are actually raising prices. What is far more likely is that, if the Mega PC idea proves successful, Amstrad will bring out more highly specified versions next year — "deluxe GTi versions", as Amstrad puts it — but not necessarily at a lower price.

Amstrad's thinking is that the Mega PC will be bought by parents as a true family computer. It can be used for business applications (or, let's face it, PC games), during the day, or after the children have gone to bed, and by the kids themselves, as a Megadrive, at other times. Amstrad also believes students will be interested, the Megadrive having a higher age profile than other consoles.

What this doesn't seem to take into account are the advantages of keeping the family console and the PC separate; the lack of arguments when more than one person wants to use the computer. David Hennell, Amstrad's marketing manager, is unconvinced: "Surely the arguments over the console versus the television are greater than that."

Hennell is also unrepentant about Amstrad's refusal to lead the market technologically. "We are selling computers to the domestic market. Sure, the techies can put together a highly specified system, buy it on mail order and more or less put it together themselves. But the average consumer is uncomfortable with the technicalities and buying unseen: they want to go into a shop, see it running, buy it and take it home with them. And to appeal to that market, we have to build to the right price."

This is true Amstrad philosophy; the company has played and missed at the corporate buyers and is now concentrating on its ability to spot a consumer gap and make it its own. It's certainly the leading seller among the PC entertainment bundles in the high street.

Entry level machine

So, from the PC buyer's point of view, one is getting a fair entry level machine: at 25MHz, the 386SX processor is good enough for all games around at the moment, the RAM can be expanded easily if need be (although this does rather negate the plug-in-and-go philosophy), and there's no point in berating Amstrad for only putting a 40Mb hard disk in there — all the other games packers use 40Mb hard disks — incorporating the speakers in the monitor saves on trailing wires and improves the machine's aesthetic appeal. There is also a headphone socket, so you can play without deafening the rest of die household.

However, if Amstrad wants you to buy this to keep the kids quiet, or if you have a yen for a console on the side (as a number of PC owners do), what does this package look like from a potential Sega buyer's standpoint? Paul Clancy, editor of the Megadrive magazine, Megatech, has his doubts. "The concept's fine. But compared to a Sega Megadrive at £140, it seems like an awful lot of money.

The beige machine on the left, plus the black machine of the right,equals the Amstrad Mega PC. >>

"If I was a parent and I spent £1,000 on this as an all-purpose computer, the prospect of it being thumped on by my seven year old would be decidedly risky."

There is also a point which may seem pifflingly unimportant to mum and dad and crucial to youngsters, which is that the styling of the Mega PC categorises it utterly as a PC: it's beige (so is the included Megadrive joypad controller), it's a rectangular block, it inevitably has a keyboard and PC-like front panel.

The Sega Megadrive is well designed for its market, a moody black hulk which looks like something out of Gotham City, and the line between 'cred' and 'non-cred' in the teenage male market is very finely drawn. However, this did not detract from the Mega PC's pulling power at this autumn's Computer Shopper, where Amstrad's stand was swamped for three days.

Also,the Mega PC does have inbuilt advantages. Firstly, and obviously enough, it uses the VGA monitor supplied rather than the TV, so the screens will immediately be crisper than the standard Megadrive looks, and the sound goes through the integral stereo speakers by default.

Secondly, Amstrad has deliberately included a CD bay under the cartridge slot. When Sega brings out its Mega CD, the Mega PC will be ready for it. Which just makes it a shame that there is no such space on the PC side of the machine, though one can see Amstrad baulking on principle at the idea of having to incorporate two different CD standards in the one box.

It's extremely difficult to come to any sensible conclusion about the Mega PC because there's nothing to compare it with. The only precedent is the Sega Teradrive, which was sold in Japan, whereas this is initially intended for the UK and Australia (and later next year, the rest of Europe), so comparisons would be invidious.

Amstrad has a huge asset in the strength of its brand name. It has also consistently shown imagination, and some guts, in the machines it conceives in its genuine — and successful — determination to make PCs accessible to the non-technically minded, and that holds true here. With Counterpoint and the tutorial, there is no excuse for anyone to find they can't work out how to use the machine (and there is telephone hotline support as well). The 386SX at 25MHz is a fair entry level processor (look at the comments in our feature on page 32 for confirmation of this), although given the interdependent nature of the Megadrive and PC within the machine, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to upgrade the graphic and sound capabilities.

Amstrad Mega PC 386SX

  • 25MHz 386SX processor
  • 1Mb RAM
  • 40Mb hard disk
  • 3.5" disk drive
  • Parallel port
  • Serial port
  • Ad Lib compatible sound card with joystick port
  • Mouse
  • Joystick
  • VGA card
  • VGA colour monitor
  • Speakers (built into monitor)
  • One free expansion slot
  • MS-DOS 5.0
  • Counterpoint
  • PC tutorial
  • Megadrive (produced by Amstrad under licence from Sega)
  • Slot for Mega CD
  • Joypad controller
  • 12 months on-site warranty
  • Telephone hotline support
  • £999 inclusive of Vat

The bottom line has to be that while you can buy a 386SX PC for less, and you can buy a Sega Megadrive for less, this is the only way you can buy the two together, and if that idea appeals, then this is the way to go. Either way, the Mega PC is certainly one of the more interesting PCs to be released for a long time.

Christina Erskine reports , PC Review #15

★ PUBLISHERS: Amstrad Consumer Electronics / SEGA
★ YEAR: 1993


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L'Amstrad CPC est une machine 8 bits à base d'un Z80 à 4MHz. Le premier de la gamme fut le CPC 464 en 1984, équipé d'un lecteur de cassettes intégré il se plaçait en concurrent  du Commodore C64 beaucoup plus compliqué à utiliser et plus cher. Ce fut un réel succès et sorti cette même années le CPC 664 équipé d'un lecteur de disquettes trois pouces intégré. Sa vie fut de courte durée puisqu'en 1985 il fut remplacé par le CPC 6128 qui était plus compact, plus soigné et surtout qui avait 128Ko de RAM au lieu de 64Ko.