The Compaq Presario 425 and 433 are popular machines with retro enthusiasts. They are Compaq 486s from 1993, and they look like exactly what they are. They’re well built, have recognizable branding, and don’t take up a lot of space. In some ways they’re the ideal 486 today. Let’s look at why they weren’t necessarily the ideal 486 for 1993, but helped transform Compaq anyway.
My experience with the Compaq Presario 425 and 433
I sold the Compaq Presario 425 when I worked at Best Buy, in 1993 and 1994. Presumably I sold the 433 too, which came out later that year, but I remember the 425 better.
My coworkers didn’t think much of the Presario 425 at the time, and I found it to be a bit of a hard sell. The all-in-one design is a strength today, but it limited your audience in 1993. Not everyone in 1993 could afford a CD-ROM drive right away but pretty much everyone knew they’d want one eventually. And everyone aspired to eventually have a bigger monitor than the 14-inch display that came built in.
Compaq’s use of 25 and 33-MHz 486SX CPUs wasn’t a popular choice either. Software that actually used the floating point unit in the 486DX was still pretty rare in 1993, but Intel’s marketing had convinced people otherwise. The low clock speed, though, made this look like a machine designed for quick obsolescence.
This machine really helped me sell the SFF Compaq desktops that had a 5.25″ bay and 3 expansion slots. An external SCSI CD-ROM was an option but by the time you did that, the SFF desktop was cheaper, and took up less space on the desk.
Why Best Buy management liked the Compaq Presario 425
Best Buy liked to do a good-better-best positioning in its computer department, which required at least three brands, and ideally, three models of each brand. Compaq was at the top tier, with Packard Bell as “good,” Acer as “better,” and some combination of Compaq, Dell, HP, and IBM at the top. This machine was good for getting people to look at the top-tier machines, get thinking about that price point, and then they’d notice the other machines in its price class and how they were easier to upgrade. More often than not, they walked out with one of those, spending close to $1,500, and putting the managers that much closer to hitting their sales quotas.
The 425 retailed for $1399, which was a pretty good price for a 486 with a monitor in 1993. The price came down as time wore on. I seem to remember we sold them for closer to $1,200 the second half of the year.
We didn’t sell a lot of this unit at our store. But media from the time called it a hot seller. In some markets it must have done well.
Critics loved the Presario 425. Popular Mechanics, in its April 1994 issue, called it a no-compromises home computer. My coworkers and I took issue with that stance, but reviewer Stephen A. Booth would probably argue we weren’t the target audience for either the review or the computer. The price was right for a sturdy top-tier name brand PC. It met at least the minimum requirements for all of the popular software available at the time, and usually came close to meeting the recommended requirements. It came with lots of useful software preinstalled, and the all-in-one design made it easy to set up. Booth said Compaq’s claim you could set it up in 18 minutes was probably overstating it, and I agree. Setting it up required taking it out of the box and plugging in five cables: a power cord, the keyboard, the mouse, and two cables for the modem. If you weren’t in a hurry to go online you could put off setting up the modem.
Who bought the Presario 425 and 433
Power users and people looking to upgrade an existing PC weren’t going to give the Presario 425 or even the 433 a second look. It apparently sold well to first-time computer users, but also to schools.
In a school setting, it made a lot of sense. It took up 15 inches of desk space and only needed one power plug, making it ideal for a computer lab setting. Its all-in-one design made it easy to move around, which helped multiple classrooms share a single machine when needed. The CD-ROM was a luxury most schools could do without in 1993 and 1994.
It had 4 MB of RAM on the board, which was fairly common on Compaq machines of the era. There were two additional SIMM sockets for adding more RAM. The maximum was 20 MB. The two SIMM sockets can both take up to 8 MB modules. Some Compaqs can only take a 4MB module in slot #1, so this is a departure from those.
The board had a 487 processor socket in addition to the soldered-on 486SX CPU. The 486 socket had an extra pin that disabled the onboard CPU. This meant you could plug either a 487 or Intel Overdrive CPU in and get a math coprocessor, or, if you knew the secret, a math coprocessor and a higher clock speed. There was a jumper on the board to select between a 25 and 33 MHz system bus. If you bought a 66 MHz Overdrive, you could turn even a 425 into a nice, compact Compaq 486DX2-66.
There was only one 3.5-inch bay for a hard drive, but you could replace the built-in 200 MB hard drive with a larger drive. Compaq’s BIOS was better than most about supporting larger drives. Today you could put a compact flash or SD card-based solution in one.
If your ideal 486 setup has a CRT display for period authenticity, an upgraded 425 or 433 is a nice choice. It doesn’t take a ton of space. A DX2-66 with 20 megs of RAM will run all the 486 software you want. And you can network it to negate some of the inconvenience of not having a CD-ROM. With two ISA slots available, you can plug in a network card and sound card.
Problems with the Compaq Presario 425 and 433
The reason my coworkers and I didn’t sell a lot of Presario 425s and 433s was because we didn’t see it as a PC with much of a future. It ran the included Windows 3.1 just fine, but Microsoft was promising this new thing called Windows Chicago was right around the corner, and we all knew it wasn’t going to run that very well. Windows Chicago became Windows 95, which didn’t come out until August 1995. But in spite of the delay, this machine was still on the shelf a year before Windows 95 came out.
And getting Windows 95 to run on the Presario 425 or 433 wasn’t an easy or inexpensive proposition. At the very least you’d need more memory. Ideally, you’d need more memory, a bigger hard drive, and a CPU upgrade. You could easily spend $600 just so you could run an $80 operating system upgrade.
The Presario 425 and 433 illustrate all of the pitfalls of buying a computer in the mid 1990s. I’m typing this on a 10-year-old PC. It still runs Windows 10 fine, all I had to do was swap in an SSD. The 425 was a nice machine for 1993 but it was looking a bit shabby just two years later.
The Compaq Presario 425 and 433 as a retro PC today
Today, if you want a 486 to run early 90s DOS software, you can do much worse than a Presario 425 or 433. Upgrading it to 66 MHz and 20 MB of RAM, adding a sound and network card, and upgrading its hard drive is a series of fun projects. It was an expensive proposition to do all that in 1995, but it’s not expensive today.
And when you’re done, you have a sturdy all-in-one 66 MHz 486 that runs most software of the era well, and it’s quick and easy to set up and quick and easy to store when you want to use something else. It’s the Amiga 600 of PCs, and in more ways than one. Compaqs can be a little different from other PCs, and these are no exception, but if you can handle the quirks of a Compaq, these make good hobby machines today.