The new Amstrad machine, says John Lettice, is up and running.
Amstrad has traditionally made larger and larger piles of money not by stating the obvious so much as by doing it. Obviously, there was big money to be made in the home computer market, so the CPC464 was launched. Obviously serious users wanted a complete system that they could use rather than puzzle over, hence the PCW8256 and 8512
The latest move, the launch of the PC1512 series, is probably the most obvious of the lot IBM has dominated the business market for the last five years and has sold stacks and stacks of its PCs simply by virtue of the fact that it is IBM. Other business manufacturers have followed the IBM standard, and until recently, when a lot of small companies decided they could put together IBM clones, sell them for half the price of an IBM PC, and still make a profit, the bigger companies were all doing very well for themselves.
Now the obvious bit here is that it needn’t actually cost any more to produce a business machine than it does to make any other machine, and that if a company were to produce a PC clone in volume it could sell it at a price low enough to make the business manufacturers lose interest in the PC standard fairly rapidly. That’s what Amstrad has done with its PC, and the initial intention is to carve out a large slice of the world market. On first impressions the new machines might just be neat enough and cheap enough to do it.
The machine is simple in construction. It’s smaller and lighter than the IBM PC, but the need for 5.25inch disc drives and IBM standard expansion slots has kept its desktop footprint up to around 15 x 15 inches.
The entry-level machine has a single drive plus monochrome monitor, and the series goes up to single drive plus 20Mb hard disc and colour monitor. The review machine s twin floppy drives look up the whole of the front plate of the machine, and being substantial metal-sheathed beasts extended back across half of the machine’s base unit.
I/O ports are on the left-hand side and around the back. On the left beside the volume control (zero to horrible racket) is the keyboard plug and mouse port. I take it the latter’s placing was dictated by circuit board layout, but while I’m happy to meet my first left handed mouse I’m not sure how the majority of users, who are I believe right handed, will take to it.
Parallel and serial ports are at the rear, with video output and power input (like other Amstrad machines the power supply goes through the monitor) just along from them.
On most PC compatibles the expansion slots are accessed by unscrewing the casing, generally a fiddly task on a crowded desk, but the Amstrad PC uses a hatch to the rear of the top of the casing plus one on the side for access to the cards’ interfaces. Both these are easily snapped in and out.
The monitor is again neatly designed, and is mounted on a tilt and swivel stand that fits into a well on the top plate. Unlike standard IBMs the monochrome and colour versions use the same video output, with the mono simply showing shades of grey instead of colour.
IBMs also have severe limitations on the number of colours that can be displayed at once – which is why PC games generally have odd colour combinations – but the Amstrad can handle 16 in 80 column mode. It’s also compatible with two of the modes available on IBM’s EGA (Enhanced Graphics Adaptor), which is more than you can say for most software packages…
Screen quality is quite good, although not superb, and this leads on to a major disadvantage. Because the power supply is in the monitor you can’t fit third party monitors to the machine without fitting a new power supply or running two monitors. You’d also better be sure of the monitor you want when you buy the machine, because if you upgrade from Amstrad mono to Amstrad colour you’ll wind up with a useless mono monitor.
The machine s keyboard is basically IBM format, although there’s a separate Enter key on the numeric keypad (operation being similar to the one on the PCW), and the Alt, Control, Caps lock and PrtSc (print screen) keys have been moved to slightly more sensible locations.
The feel of the keys is fine, although I’ve seen better on machines four or five times the price of the Amstrads. The keyboard also includes a joystick socket, but this apparently emulates the cursor keys rather than being compatible with point here is that the basic mechanics of I/O flatten out performance considerably.
Screen handling is also an impediment to the Amstrad’s speed. As far as text display is concerned it’s faster than the IBM, but seems lower than the Olivetti M24, which also runs an 8086 at 8MHz. Graphic screens are more significantly slower. The test used here, which I hereby patent, involves F15 Strike Eagle software (see last week’s issue for review) and time taken to run out of fuel. With afterburners engaged the Amstrad took just under three minutes, while the Olivetti turned into a brick at just over two.
The Amstrad, however, is probably still faster than the IBM in terms of graphics. The spectacular differences in Basic speeds (over twice the speed of the M24) can incidentally be ascribed in part to Locomotive’s Basic 2, which is very fast indeed It also runs under Gem, and together Gem and Basic 2 suck up over 470K of the machine’s 512K Ram, but that’s another story.
This is probably the most valuable, and unnerving, area of the whole machine. The standard IBM operating system is Microsoft’s MSDOS. and this is included. It is, however, also possible to use the machine with a second system, Digital Research’s Dos Plus, which is also bundled, and finally it can be run under Gem, DR’s windowing front end for the PC. Gem isn’t strictly an operating system, but has been pre-installed on a third disc which also includes Dos Plus.
Working out which you’ll use is problem enough, but the confusion is heightened by various bits and pieces that squirt out of the discs as you chug along.
Dos Plus allows a measure of multitasking, and the disc includes a couple of little programs, including an alarm and background printing utility, that take advantage of this. These, however, can only be accessed through Dos Plus, not through MSDOS or Gem. Considering DR wrote both Dos Plus and Gem I’m sure there must be a way to put the two together, but initial phone calls didn’t enlighten me.
Dos Plus and Gem in fact, although worthwhile independently, don’t seem to add up to more than the sum of their parts. Exit to Dos from Gem and you can’t get back to Gem Desktop. Instead you’ve got to put the Gem Startup disc back into A, type autoexec or gem (although the latter appears not to work if you’ve run a program in the meantime) then reload the Desktop disc. It seems to me that DR ought to be able to make the two systems a lot more integrated than this.
The way to make a machine totally compatible is to make it as slow and horrible as the original IBM. Amstrad to its credit hasn’t done this, but the machine is still almost 100 per cent compatible. Lotus 1-2-3, dBase, Flight Simulator and Open Access all run, and I had no trouble with a fairly wide range of other programs, apart from Sargon 3 chess, which seemed reluctant to return to a text screen after going to a graphics display. The latter also, however, gives trouble on the Olivetti, where it crashes whenever it seems to be losing…
Hardware compatibility is more difficult to judge, but the machine is likely to be able to take most IBM expansion cards, with a few exceptions. It won’t take an EGA because it can’t patch out its own graphics, and extra serial and parallel cards may cause problems depending on which areas of memory they use. The advice here is try before you buy.
There are a few disadvantages to the Amstrad machines in absolute terms, but as a total package of software and hardware they’re well up in the front runners among PC clones. Take price into account and they have no competition there. Their competition elsewhere really depends on what you want a machine for.
If you want a fast, non-compromise machine at the cutting edge of technology you’d probably look elsewhere, but the Amstrads make no pretence to being this kind of machine. What they are is cheap, relatively fast machines that run more different software packages than any other micro. At the moment this software is mainly business, but as the support market goes crazy it’s inevitable that software of all kinds will be launched for the PC.
So, the message is. if you want it for business it’s a good buy now (although bear in mind you’ll have to buy extra applications software and a printer) while if you are an enthusiast it may be worth your while waiting until the support starts coming through. Either way, at the price it’s hard to go wrong.
- Machine: Amstrad PC1512
- Supplier: Amstrad, Brentwood House, 169 King’s Road, Brentwood, Essex, CM14 4EF
- 512K machine plus –
- Single 360K drive and monitor – £469
- Single drive and colour monitor – £649
- Twin drives and mono monitor – £587
- Twin drives and colour monitor – £764
- Single drive, 10Mb hard disc, mono – £822
- Single drive, 10Mb hard disc, colour – £999
- Single drive, 20Mb hard disc, mono – £940
- Single drive, 20Mb hard disc, colour – £1,116
First published in Popular Computing Weekly, 25th September 1986