The Monorail: $999 All-In-One Windows PC from 1996!

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 its “sealed case” maintenance 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 name “Monorail,” 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 like “Cyber” and “Tek.” Apparently “Monorail” fit 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 Superhighway” The ‘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 by “whatever” 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 640×480. 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. Please exit through the doors in a calm and
orderly fashion. [doors closing, monorail speeds up] If you had experiences with Monorail computers do leave a comment down below, I’d love to hear about it. Or perhaps check out some more LGR, I post new videos every week so there’s a lot to choose from. As always, thank you for watching!

100 thoughts on “The Monorail: $999 All-In-One Windows PC from 1996!

  1. How can I keep myself entertained during no nut November? Ah Ill buy some old tech to mess around with.
    Has half a gig of porn on it…shit

  2. I like the grey and white keyboard and the concept is quite interesting but those early non-MMX Pentiums are hardly better than a 486, as you say. Thanks for showing us. Cheers.

  3. 𝐄𝐫𝐫𝐨𝐫: @5:20 Phelps Technology went bankrupt 1998 because Monorail cancelled its contract early leaving and switched its business to Synnex Information Technology in the fall of 1997 leaving Philips to deal with the creditors and liquidation. (Just read the article.)

  4. I gasped when I saw this. Super nostalgia kick as I saw the adds back in the day and thought "Those look awsome!" Then my mom was a nurse at this time and the doctors office she worked in got one of these to connect to the earlyish medical document exchange networks to avoid sending over copies of physical paper charts. A nice attempt at standardizing computers/exchange methods of information. And a good attempt at making an all in one consumer PC.

  5. I forgot how terrible LCD monitors were back in the 1990s.
    I remember the first time I saw a laptop computer, this was back in 1994 if I recall correctly.
    The colors were so dull, it was almost like a washed-out old color photograph, where it slowly turns into black and white, or an old color 8mm home footage.
    I remember seeing negative color effects when viewing at any angle anything but dead-on.
    The trailing and ghosting and the overall blur of the picture was absolutely atrocious.

  6. Guy I worked with had one of these. I thought it was ridiculous with the do not open the case warning. Back then it was bigger taller towers, and giant cathode ray tube monitors.

  7. Now that I've got both a GPU and a monitor capable of 4k output, I'm fascinated by it! It's almost like I can reach through my screen and feel the classic 90's bumpy plastic texture!

  8. Sounds like they provided a pretty decent ultra budget PC for the time. A lot of people grew up on those games running at garbage frame rates.

  9. Selling mine! It was a special early / non-consumer beta unit for the military. Need to list it on eBay or something! No original keyboard or mouse though.

  10. the case is nice, i wonder what kinda retro upgrade you could throw in it, and what kinda monitor would fit.

  11. Omfg I spent probably forty or fifty hours playing the DEMO to Pod back in the day. Never thought I’d see that again.

  12. Clint, I have some other information for you on the build! The stamping dies for the case (think also stand) were designed and built by Progressive Die & Automation in Walker, Michigan. I worked there up until its closing in February of 2003 on the maintenance department!

  13. Came to learn about a computer.
    Stayed to learn more about '90s internet porn. Please upload those files on Pornhub. They are historical and need to be preserved for future generations.

  14. In 1996, I would've been on Kali playing Warcraft 2 online, and Descent, and other gems. So I would've had, what, a 56k modem(?) a pentium 60+ [or something]. But! That monitor just would not do. Ewww. I think we paid a bit more than $999 for whatever comparable system I did have, and that system was probable better, but c'mon… that monitor would've been a deal breaker. Just give me a heavy old tainted off-white thing from the 1996 pawn shop and call it a steal.

  15. It sounds like my family's first PC in the 90's was a jackpot of price-to-quality. A midrange Packard Bell multimedia thing with a CD drive. We had that until I got something better for myself in 1998, did ok at the preponderance of dos 2d games (and mega race) I played. and a few doom-style 3d things.

  16. First time PC users who had the Monorail: Thanks Mo
    Clint: I'd like to say thank you behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we passed the audition

  17. Do a review on Kali (the real pioneer in online gaming from the 1990's, it brought in ladder gaming, and ushered in pro gaming). If you need research, I can help with search threads, look up the Warcraft 2 community from that era, Shlonglor was the top gamer, Katan has his Kali Lair, Menthos had his first strategy guide. It's serious history that needs to be documented. I could say so much more, and name so many more real humans, if this were a board or something. (The true roots of pro gaming). If you weren't there 25 years ago, it is hard to piece back together, but it's going to get harder. I could help becuse i was immersed and at the correct age, but would take more than just me. [[[Lost history]]]

  18. 5:40 – Those "boring white tower PC" pictures bring back an intense feeling of desire I had back in the 90's. Tower cases were still new back then and I'd only ever had computers with console cases before. I wanted a tower PC so badly. Didn't get one til I went to college. As it happens, my first tower PC was in fact an eMachine. It was a good little computer.

  19. Dang it. I was hoping you'd use the clip of FedEx drivers drop kicking packages into the truck when you said that they handled the delivery of MonoRail PCs. Missed opportunity haha.

  20. Quick question, is the ghosting worse or better IRL? Or is it the same as it shows on video? I know that sometimes camera shutter is a thing that can make screen-based issues worse/better depending on the speed of the shutter, but then again in videos you've always seemed to be really good about matching that up pretty well because most noticeable artifacts related to screens and camera shutter don't appear in your videos in my experience.

  21. You know your startup company is running lean and cutting corners when your mascot is a stick figure!

    Monorail failed because they installed the automatic PC cup holder vertically instead of horizontally.

  22. Would make an interesting sleeper build. I like the form factor. I think would look interesting to update the monitor and the inside of it to modern specs.

  23. People laugh at the comments about the internet, but speaking as someone who was 20 in 1996 when he first got on, it really was that niche and mysterious.

  24. Looks like a fun case to build a new computer in. Doesn't even seem difficult to find a 10in square LCD panel. Prices were a bit steep at the top of google though. I would definitely turn it into a security console. We're buying a house soon enough. Can't wait to deck it out in electronics. I definitely need a front door console like this monorail.

  25. my mom had one of those! I actually got to use one for a few months in 2000, it was kinda cool but also sorta dumb. It was fun to use, but man was it a mess. Still a classic I remember.

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