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  • Greetings and welcome to an LGR thing!

  • And today we're headed back to the '90s with this boxy beast right here: the Monorail

  • PC, an all-in-one desktop computer that first hit the market in November of 1996.

  • [Windows 95 startup sound plays]

  • Despite its bulky metal case making it look like a piece of industrial equipment, the

  • Monorail was a low-cost desktop PC intended for first-time computer users.

  • And for a short period in time they were the new hotness, with Monorail being the 14th

  • leading manufacturer of desktop PCs, growing at a rate of 50% per quarter, and looking

  • to become a $2 billion company by 2003.

  • Unfortunately for them that didn't happen, but this machine is still a notable footnote

  • in personal computer history.

  • The first reason is its unprecedented design, packing a Pentium compatible motherboard,

  • desktop-sized CD-ROM, floppy drive, and hard drive,

  • and a color LCD monitor all into one unit.

  • The second thing setting it apart was pricing, with the original Model 7245 first going on

  • sale in 1996 for just $999.

  • At the time, that was a magic number for a PC with a monitor included.

  • So the Monorail was not only one of the cheapest complete systems around, but it was perhaps

  • the first all-in-one desktop with a built-in LCD, predating computers

  • like the Compaq Presario 3020 by nearly a full year.

  • And obviously, before Apple's iMac G5 by a good eight years, that didn't arrive until 2004.

  • Of course the Monorail is a way chonkier lil guy by comparison,

  • but the underlying idea is the same.

  • Adjustable LCD screen up front, optical drive bay on the side,

  • I/O section with all your ports around back.

  • Even itssealed casemaintenance philosophy is very Apple-esque,

  • with Monorail intending it to only be upgraded by the manufacturer,

  • voiding the warranty if you opened the case yourself.

  • Something many tech reviewers back then did not appreciate, despite Monorail's efforts

  • to make upgrades as painless as possible.

  • You see, Monorail Computer Corporation

  • was dead-set on forging a new path in the personal computer business.

  • The company was founded in 1995 by Doug Johns, formerly the senior vice president of Compaq's

  • PC division, basing Monorail in the city of Marietta, Georgia just outside Atlanta.

  • At the time, 30 million American households had never owned a computer, and Johns saw

  • things like pricing, distribution, and maintenance as barriers to entry.

  • So he invested $2 million into Monorail in 1995, with several talented folks helping

  • co-found the company, each coming from the likes of Compaq, IBM, and Oracle.

  • Pricing was one of the biggest initial hurdles, since the main goal was to sell a sub-$1000 computer.

  • Reducing overhead costs was key, and this was accomplished

  • by outsourcing practically everything.

  • Monorail designed their PCs in-house and received orders by telephone, but all manufacturing,

  • logistics, repairs, and financials were handled by outside partners.

  • An original equipment manufacturer took care of building the machines, at first being

  • Phelps Technologies out of Kansas City, Missouri.

  • Federal Express would handle all the shipping and handling of the machines once they were

  • built and packaged by the OEM.

  • CompUSA was Monorail's sole retail partner, initially, so they took care of regional advertising

  • and kept limited inventory in stock.

  • And Suntrust Banks handled company finances,

  • acting as Monorail's accounts receivable department.

  • Even the machines themselves were designed around the idea of using third party options.

  • FedEx told Monorail that the ideal dimensions for a package

  • weighing between 15 and 25 pounds was 19”x19”x9.5” inches.

  • Too small to fit both a monitor and a PC, which is why Monorail decided to use a dual

  • scan laptop LCD panel integrated into the case.

  • The rest of the components were on the lower end as well,

  • with a 75 megahertz Pentium-class AMD CPU, 16 megabytes of RAM,

  • a 1 gigabyte hard drive, 4x CD-ROM, and a 33.6 Kbps FAX/modem.

  • Nothing mind-blowing, but Monorail was keen to push its planned upgrade path, offering

  • faster processors and up to 80 megs of RAM

  • at prices they claimed were comparable to doing it yourself.

  • They recommended holding onto the shipping box for this, so you could simply drop off

  • your Monorail with FedEx, they'd deliver it to the original manufacturer for upgrades,

  • and then send it back in a few days.

  • As for the nameMonorail,” you might be wondering: what kinda name is Monorail anyway?

  • - ”Monorail!"

  • - “Monorail. Monorail. Monorail.”

  • Well, like almost everything else at the company, the name was outsourced.

  • Another company called Name Lab was tasked with the job, and the mandate was to come

  • up with a friendly name that avoided overused computer company words

  • likeCyberandTek.”

  • ApparentlyMonorailfit the bill, despite it not really having much in the way of meaning.

  • It did at least lead to the company mascot, Monorail Mo, the Monorail system conductor.

  • Yeah we'll get to you later, Mo.

  • Anyway, despite their lofty ambitions and positive press,

  • Monorail had a bit of a rough go of it at first.

  • Their OEM, Phelps, went bankrupt so they had to move manufacturing to Mitac and SCI Systems,

  • certain retail partners were marking up the price above $1000, critics weren't happy

  • with the stingy warranty and upgrades, and competitors were slashing prices to get their

  • own PCs under a grand.

  • By 1998 Monorail decided to move away from all-in-ones and start focusing on boring white

  • box towers aimed at business users, with machines like the NPC 5000 and 7000 series

  • hitting shelves late that year.

  • You know what else hit shelves in late '98?

  • eMachines, with their sub-$500 PCs using almost

  • the exact same specs as those from Monorail, but at prices hundreds of dollars less.

  • The race to the bottom was finally bottoming out and Monorail wasn't fully prepared.

  • Pulling out of the PC market in the year 2000 and rebranding as Monorail E-Solutions, briefly

  • becoming a business decision-making company before fizzling out in 2002.

  • But that was then and this is now, and we've got ourselves this lovely boxed example of

  • a Monorail Model 133.

  • This was introduced in early '97 at a price of $1,299, with upgrades to the CPU, hard

  • drive, video RAM, and CD-ROM drive over the original Monorail.

  • The manual and the mouse were long gone by the time I got this, but it does have the

  • original keyboard as well as this quick setup poster

  • that kinda reminds me of a board game somehow.

  • And there's our friend Mo again, guiding us through the process of plugging things

  • in, a quaint reminder of how fresh the PC experience still was to many folks in 1996.

  • But yeah, there's really nothing to it: just plug in the keyboard, a mouse, and a

  • power cable and you're good to go.

  • Time to power on the Monorail!

  • [computer powers on, whirs to life]

  • [beep]

  • Right, so this runs the venerable Windows 95,

  • complete with a custom Monorail boot screen. A nice touch indeed.

  • Takes a while to load with that old hard drive, so let's take the opportunity to admire

  • that die-cut steel case.

  • [clunks metal metallically]

  • Yeah for being a budget machine, this thing is surprisingly sturdy.

  • It's metal all the way around, weighing in at just over 17 pounds or around 8 kilograms.

  • And yes, it does feature expansion possibilities,

  • there's a proper 16-bit ISA slot right there above the floppy drive.

  • As mentioned earlier, this was not intended to be user-serviceable.

  • Though you can open it up somewhat by removing a handful of T15 Torx screws around back.

  • This provides access to the monitor, drives, and expansion slot, but you're only gonna

  • get so far without really tearing things down further.

  • And regrettably, that slot is in a really cramped space up against the CPU and its fan,

  • so there aren't many cards that'll fit without blocking the exhaust.

  • From what I gather, Monorail only offered a network interface card for this slot, and

  • it was a very specific model since almost nothing else fit.

  • Once Windows finishes loading, a couple of programs start up.

  • One is this control panel for showing system information and display options.

  • This is where you control the LCD brightness settings,

  • which is either bright or dim.

  • Just either/or, nothing in between.

  • Contrast is an entirely separate thing, controlled

  • using these two rubber buttons below the power and volume.

  • There's also a system tray icon that runs on startup letting you open and close the

  • CD tray by clicking it.

  • [CD-ROM tray opens, closes]

  • Yep, that's... that's all that does.

  • Seems Monorail included this after users complained the CD-ROM's eject button

  • was cumbersome to reach by hand.

  • Which, it is, so good call.

  • Oh and before I disabled it,

  • the Monorail Home Station program also used to start up with Windows.

  • Keeping in line with the idea this might be someone's first PC, it's a collection

  • of shortcuts to commonly-used programs, settings, tutorials, games, and website links.

  • And hey look, there's Monorail Mo again, let's hear what he has to say!

  • - “Monorail Central Station! It's where every Monorail user starts off.”

  • [door closes, monorail SFX]

  • - “Approaching Internet Central.”

  • - “Now I know you've heard about the Internet.”

  • - “Information SuperhighwayThe 'Net? Cyberspace?”

  • - “Call it what you will, it's on the tip of everyone's tongue these days.”

  • - “Right now over 63 million people are linked by computer

  • - “to the Internet! To access the Internet, all it takes is your Monorail,”

  • - “a standard phone line and an account with an Internet Service Provider.”

  • So yeah, Monorail Mo walks you through signing up to

  • Mindspring dial-up and Monorail's warranty and registration, and that's about it.

  • There are other web-focused tutorials included though, minus Mister Mo and instead it's

  • some generic narrator dude. It's pretty great.

  • - “Make sure nobody has picked up the phone recently,”

  • - “as this can cause the modem connection to hang up.”

  • - “If the modem seems to be in order and no one has picked

  • - “up the phone, exit Internet Explorer and start it up again.”

  • For whatever reason, you can rewind the playback here,

  • but like, in the way that you'd play a record in reverse.

  • [narration plays backwards]

  • Not entirely sure what the point of that is, but it amuses me so I approve.

  • Anyway, as for how the Monorail PC is to actually use?

  • Well, it's not ideal.

  • The biggest issue is that awful 10-inch passive matrix display, with its washed-out colors,

  • tiny viewing angles, and smeary motion.

  • Evidently Monorail offered a TFT active matrix later on,

  • but this original display is dreadful even for '96.

  • Granted, it's perfectly fine for productivity and games that require little in the way of movement.

  • You're not gonna have a problem with word processing, for example,

  • or looking up articles within Microsoft Encarta or whatever.

  • And uh bywhatever” I mean adult entertainment!

  • Yeah it seems the previous owner figured out the seedier side of cyberspace pretty quickly,

  • there's seriously like half a gig of late 90s dial-up wank bank.

  • [clears throat] Anyway so uh, point being that this display isn't very good,

  • and even something like Solitaire can be irritating to play

  • with it being so easy to misplace the mouse cursor in a waft of blurry pixels.

  • Yeah, you can enable mouse trails to alleviate this,

  • that's what it's there for after all.

  • But eh, cheap passive matrix displays, one piece of '90s tech I won't be yearning

  • to use again anytime soon.

  • At least the keyboard it comes with is half-decent, being manufactured by NMB Technologies.

  • [keyboard keys thunking away]

  • It's not a mechanical board or anything, but it does feature NMB sliders over rubber

  • domes, making it feel quite similar to the Dell Quietkey keyboards.

  • One can certainly do worse.

  • However, you can certainly do better in almost every single way when it

  • comes to mid-to-late 90s gaming.

  • Again that display is total balls, and while you can hook up an external monitor to alleviate

  • that, it's hard to justify going to the trouble when the horsepower simply isn't there.

  • Even though mine is the upgraded 133 megahertz model, with RAM upgrades taking system memory

  • up to 48 megs, it's still in a rather un-sweet spot in overall performance.

  • First-person shooters from 1996 are sluggish, with Duke Nukem 3D being playable but choppy,

  • close to what I get on a PC running a hundred megahertz 486 Overdrive.

  • Quake is another step down from that in terms of playability, as expected.

  • The Monorail only has an integrated Chips & Technologies SVGA graphics chipset, with

  • the Model 133 here boasting one whole megabyte of VRAM.

  • So it's really no surprise to get frame rates in the low twenties.

  • Something like Hot Wheels Stunt Track Driver is playable too, something I was curious about

  • since it relies on full screen full motion video.

  • And it does run rather sluggishly as well, dulling down the game's pacing with every

  • stunt happening in slow motion.

  • And 1997 games like Pod here are truly unplayable,

  • with chops, skips, and jumps all over the place.

  • [choppy, skipping audio plays]

  • This game was really made for Pentium MMX CPUs and at least two megs of video memory,

  • which the Monorail doesn't have and it shows.

  • Really about the best kinda game to play on this would be higher-res adventure games,

  • like Pajama Sam here.

  • You're still gonna lose the mouse cursor on occasion because of the LCD, but at least

  • you can keep up with what's going on.

  • And real-time strategy games like Age of Empires, those tend to work pretty well too and the

  • movement is slow-paced enough on default speed settings.

  • This kinda 2D fare really is about as far as you'd wanna take the Monorail in terms

  • of Windows 95 games.

  • There's also the DOS side of things to consider, which is actually not half bad with its Crystal

  • Sound chipset offering Sound Blaster compatibility.

  • It's an imitation of the real thing of course, notable in games like

  • Commander Keen Goodbye Galaxy, but overall it's entirely passable.

  • And the speakers do an okay job too, they're actually louder and less garbled than I expected.

  • [Commander Keen plays for a bit]

  • Heh, again, not that you'd wanna play a side-scroller very long with all the ghosting

  • going on, and some additional issues with resolutions lower than 640x480.

  • There's this black line running through the middle of the screen, along with non-integer

  • scaling, plus this wonky wave effect on top of that.

  • Not at all pleasant, but I think I've made my point.

  • [Keen pathetically dies]

  • That being, the Monorail PC is a downright compelling device, both to research and to

  • go back and use, despite its cost-optimized inferiority.

  • Parts of it are astonishingly well-made, while others are serious letdowns, and in the end

  • I wouldn't recommend trying to track one down except as a retro curiosity.

  • You may have noticed the RMA markings all over the box I showed earlier, and yeah,

  • from what I've read on old user's forums it seems these were

  • constantly breaking in one way or another.

  • I got lucky and found this one fully working, something I'm grateful for because I've

  • been wanting to share the Monorail experience on LGR for a long time now.

  • And with that, I hope you've enjoyed this excursion with the Monorail.