Multiplan

Mike Liardet looks at Multiplan – Microsoft’s entry to the spreadsheet fray.

After releasing the Apple version of Visicalc about three years ago, Visicorp enjoyed at least 18 months completely unchallenged in the market for what has now become known as spreadsheet software. But in the last year and a half there has been a steady stream of Visicalc rivals arriving on the scene and, naturally, some of the established companies have been getting involved in this growth area.

Probably the best known of all the micro software companies, Microsoft’s pedigree goes right back to those prehistoric days of ‘core-store’, paper-tape and teletypes – 1975 in fact, when the first of a million microcomputer systems was equipped with a Microsoft Basic interpreter. Now Microsoft has augmented its own spreadsheet system: Multiplan. Will Multiplan further enhance Microsoft’s reputation for excellence? Will it be another Ford Edsel? (You should get this point if you have heard of a Ford Edsel and you definitely will if you haven’t!)

The first thing that strikes you when confronted with a copy of Multiplan is the packaging: Microsoft has obviously invested a lot of effort (and money as well, I am sure) in presenting its ‘new baby’ to maximum advantage. A heavy-duty transparent plastic case holds a substantial ring-bound manual, system disks, various leaflets and a few pieces of carefully positioned cardboard mouldings – simply there to mask out awkward gaps and present an uncluttered appearance through the transparent box. Readers who are concerned by such a flagrant wastage of the world’s resources on a mere piece of marketing-hype will doubtless be relieved to learn that you need not throw the box away after purchase – it readily converts into a sweet little bookstand to support your manual!

Anyway, underneath the packaging we eventually find the disks – my review copy was for the Apple II (DOS 3.3), but Multiplan is also available for The Apple III, CP/M systems and, of course, Microsoft’s MS-DOS. All versions are evidently functionally identical, with just a few pages at the start of the manual outlining any minor differences, so non-Apple owners should still bear with me! (I also had the opportunity to take a quick look at the MSDOS version on a Sirius, so have made occasional references to this, too. In particular, I have included benchmark results for the Sirius version, specifically to check out Multiplan’s performance with a new generation (8088) processor and all that extra memory capacity.)

Getting started

Getting started proved fairly easy – the ‘First Time’ instructions were not on page 1, where I like to see them, but a little bit of page-thumbing soon tracked them down. A bit of disk copying, data disk initialisation, and two or three minutes later I was faced with a reassuringly familiar display of a spreadsheet. The only hold-up in all this was to have a good chuckle at the latest piece of computer jargon, encountered in the instructions for seeking the system for optional (on the Apple) 80-column display mode: ‘Recable’ – to exchange 40-column video cable connection with 80-column!

The initial display is of the top left hand corner of the spreadsheet, showing seven spreadsheet columns and 20 rows, all completely blank. The remainder of the display is devoted to helpful prompts: the names of twenty different ‘commands’, a ‘what to do now’ message and status information, such as percentage of storage space remaining, current cursor position, etc. Both rows and columns are identified by numbers, unlike many systems which use the alphabet for column headings. The repercussions of this are fairly great, since whereas ‘Q99’ is unambiguously a reference to a specified cell, ‘1799’ clearly is not. Multiplan provides several alternatives for identifying cells, but the simplest is that they be written as ‘RyCx’ – eg, ‘R17C99’ – a little bit longer than ‘Q99’!

Moving around

Moving the cursor around the spreadsheet is very simple – single control-key hits (ie. simultaneously pressing ‘Control’ and one other key) move the cursor left, right, up and down, with the VDU screen window being ‘pulled along’ by the cursor if an attempt is made to move to a cell off the edge of the screen. Sensibly, the keys that achieve this movement are arranged in a diamond (on the Sirius the arrow keys are used) – easy to remember and easy to touch-type when you are looking at the screen. Further investigation reveals that there are also control-key hits to ‘home’ the cursor to the top left hand cell and to the bottom-right, and a ‘Go-to’ command where destination coordinates can be typed in, as well as a rapid scrolling facility where the cursor is moved several cells at one go.

Also of particular interest is a very powerful split-screen facility. The screen can be subdivided into display areas (called ‘windows’ in the manual), each displaying different parts of the spreadsheet, and the cursor can be quickly ‘jumped’ from one to the next. There are many possible uses for this: locking row and column headings for continual display, quick movement between different parts of the spreadsheet, and keeping totals or whatever continually in view when other parts of the spreadsheet are being modified. Moreover each window can be displayed with a nice surrounding border, and can also be ‘linked’ to another window so that columns or rows in both always line up correctly. If all this sounds a little confusing to the newcomer, then take heart. You can completely ignore the facility at first, but once you are ready for it, the chances are that however you want to lay-out your display then Multiplan will accommodate you.

Entering data

As with most spreadsheet systems, the ‘bread and butter’ activity centres on entering or changing numbers, titles and formulae. To achieve this, simply move the cursor to the cell to be changed and start typing whatever is required there. The only thing to watch out for is that text entry must be preceded by selecting ‘Alpha’ mode (simply press ‘A’ before typing the text) otherwise the chances are Multiplan will assume you are entering a command – occasionally disastrous. For example, a sensible abbreviation for Total-Costs-Yacht could be ‘TCY’. Enter this without pressing ‘A’ and Multiplan does a ‘Transfer-Clear-Yes’ wiping out the entire spreadsheet! Don’t believe it could happen? A PCW editor (I’ll spare his blushes) did it! Well, it probably wasn’t a yacht, but a yo-yo or a yard-of-ale or something…

The formulae themselves can be built up using a wide range of maths and other functions, including trig, standard deviation, string concatenation, logical and table look-up, etc. The notation used is the classic keyboard version of school maths notation, easily learned by anyone not already familiar with it. As we have already mentioned, formula references to cells require an RyCx’ notation – eg, the formula to add the first 2 cells on the first row could be written as ‘R1C1 + R1C2’. However, there is a little trap lurking for experienced spreadsheet users – the replication facility does no formula adjustment whatsoever. Thus, if the above formula was located at R1C3, and then copied to 99 cells below, each and every copy would be ‘R1C1 + R1C2’ and the expected Column 3 = Column 1 + Column 2 would not be achieved. It turns out that the original formula, quite correct if no replication is envisaged, should be ‘RC[-2| + RC[-1)’, meaning ‘add cell in current row two columns back, to one in current row one column back’. Now, wherever this formula is located, it will add together the two previous values on the row, and in particular, if replicated right down column 3 it will do the column sum correctly.

If typing ‘RC[-2] + RC[-1]’ seems like a bit of a fingerful (tactile equivalent of mouthful) then Multiplan to the rescue! Instead of working out ‘RC[-2]’, etc, simply use cursor moves in mid-formula entry and Multiplan will type in the formula for you. In the above example only the ‘+’ need be entered from the keyboard, the rest of the formula being built up by using the cursor to point to the cells to be referenced.

It is also possible to refer to cells by their row or column name and thus build up formulae like ‘profit = sales – costs’. Since (a) this is immediately comprehensible and (b) always replicates correctly, the extra typing involved is well worth it!

In conclusion, I must say that I did not greatly like Multiplan’s methodology for referencing cells. It should be noted that cell references occur not only in formulae, but are also required by the majority of commands (see below), so a major part of one’s time at the keyboard is spent using them. In fairness I must point out that (a) my previous spreadsheet has been with the Visicalc style of cell-reference and (b) that Multiplan has some compensations for this minor irritation with some excellent other features and facilities.

Commands

Thus far, we have looked at Multiplan’s basic essential facilities, but of course there are many other, typically more peripheral (in both senses!), functions needed to provide a comprehensive spreadsheet system. These extra functions are provided for by Multiplan commands, and invoked by selection from a command-menu.

Actually, in passing, we have already touched upon four commands provided by Multiplan – ‘Go-to’ cell, ‘Alpha’ for entering text, ‘Copy’ for replicating cells, and ‘Window’ for the split-screen facility. There are in fact 20 in all, each starting with a different letter of the alphabet, and all permanently displayed at the bottom of the screen. Bearing in mind that there were only six letters of the alphabet to spare, the implementers have done a pretty good job of choosing 20 sensible names – probably the worst one is ‘Alpha’ (it couldn’t be ‘Text’ because that clashes with ‘Transfer’ and ‘Transfer’ couldn’t be ‘File’, ‘Storage’ or ‘Disk’ because F, S and D are in use, etc).

Anyway, in the unlikely event that a command’s meaning is unknown, or in the more probable event that the precise method of usage is unclear, there is an excellent ‘Help’ facility available. Basically the list of command names has its own cursor, which can be shifted along by pushing the space bar. Commands can be selected by moving the command-cursor then pushing ‘Return’ (or by just typing the command’s first letter – much quicker). However, if ‘?’ is hit instead of ‘Return’ the spreadsheet screen is replaced with a ‘help’ screen for the currently indicated command. Moreover the information is not just a few cryptic instructions, but a fairly comprehensive run-down which in some instances extends to several pages. By the way, all the help-screen information is read from disk when needed, and does not affect the precious memory allocation for the spreadsheet itself.

To get some idea of the command facilities available, here is a quick rundown of all 20:

  • Enables text to be entered at the current cursor position.
  • Blanks out one or more cells. Contents are blanked out, but display format assigned to cell is unchanged. Not the same as Delete since, in particular, the following rows or columns are not shifted.
  • Copies cells from one place to another (ie, replication). Relative-copy is not possible (see text above) – must do absolute copy of relative formula!
  • Deletes a row or column of cells, moving all subsequent rows/columns back by one.
  • Instead of correcting a long formula by retyping from scratch, this command can be used to apply the changes quickly.
  • Numerous different display formats are possible: different column widths, centre, left, right justify, scientific, integer, financial, primitive bar graph, and more besides! As an extra convenience, a default format can be specified, assigning the format you most expect to use to all cells not explicitly reformatted to something else.
  • Go to cell specified by its name or coordinates.
  • Gives general help information, not covered by the help-screens, for each specific command.
  • Inserts a blank row or column, moving all subsequent rows/columns along by one.
  • Locks or unlocks specified cells. Can permanently lock all formulae – useful for turnkey systems.
  • Moves a row or column to between two other row/columns.
  • Enables a cell or group of cells to be given a user-supplied name. This name can be used in formulae, and also by the ‘Goto’ command. It saves confusion if the name here is the same as the visible title.
  • Used to set basic operational features, eg, switch off auto-recalculation or audible error beeps. The former is very useful when the spreadsheet is getting fairly full and every change takes several seconds – not to be registered on the screen, but for its effects to permeate through the system. The latter is absolutely priceless if you work at home and your family ‘can’t stand that incessant cheeping’ (to quote my good lady).
  • Can print to printer or disk file. Option to print the formulae as well as the calculated values. This is useful for documenting or debugging the model. It’s also possible to print selected areas.
  • Finish – back to resident operating system (eg, CP/M, MS-DOS, etc).
  • Sorts calculated or entered numbers or text by suitably shuffling rows.
  • Load, save, delete and other disk file operations. Of particular note: Multiplan can read Visicalc data files, or read/write files in a well-documented external interchange format, as well as using its own internal disk format. As it can also print to disk, it is extremely versatile in its file-handling.
  • Can optionally be used for entering formulae or numbers.
  • Split screen facility.
  • Used to read in answers calculated by one spreadsheet as raw input data for another. Can be used for ‘consolidation’.

Documentation

The documentation is comprehensive, clear and well-written. The bulk of it is in a stout ring-bound manual (minor niggle – the rings are not circular and tend to snag the pages when you are turning them quickly). It has obviously been put together with the sort of thoroughness we would expect from Microsoft, right from the Contents page at the front to the Index at the back. The basic material provided is:

  • System-specific instructions. How to create your working disks under your particular operating system.
  • Organised as seven lessons. Gives you key by key instructions, starting with simple cursor moves in lesson one through to multiple work-sheets at the end. Well illustrated.
  • In alphabetical order, everything you need to know about the command, key-strokes and formula-functions. Also includes a list of all system messages, together with advice on what to do when you encounter them.
  • Extra helpful information, including a glossary and notes for Visicalc experts – a nice touch!
  • Quick Reference Guide. A separate pocket book (16 pages), being a condensation of the reference section in the main manual.
  • Help Screens. Comprehensive instructions on-screen for every command and a few of the other facilities.
  • With this breadth of documentation, there should be something to please all levels of user. Complete beginners can try the tutorial. Experts will probably just use the quick reference guide or help-screens and everyone can make good use of the comprehensive index.

Sirius slip-up

Having given the Apple version a thorough work-over, I arranged a joyride on somebody else’s Sirius. The article was nearly complete – I just needed to pencil in the Sirius Benchmark times and then off to Mustique for yet another three weeks.

First problem: Sirius version of Multiplan manual temporarily mislaid. Well, I should know the system well enough by now. So, in preparation for Benchmark 1, I quickly set up the first 12 columns by 200 rows of the spreadsheet. (Readers familiar with the benchtests will know that this results in a display of 1.. 12 in the first row, 13. . 24 in the second, etc.)

Next I needed to set up column 13, each cell in it being the sum of the previous 12 in the row. Easy! Just use the row-sum function in column 13 of row 1, and then copy it down to all cells below it. Unfortunately I couldn’t remember the correct syntax for using it. Anyway, after experimentation I found that ‘SUM(C1:C12)’ at least did not give a formula error message, but it did seem to be displaying the wrong answer. Okay – time to copy it. Well, much disk-whirring and clanking, then watch the calculation count-down on the VDU display. 45 minutes later; I’m still waiting and the disk is still whirring and clanking and countdown’s still not finished – I’m frightened to switch off in case I corrupt the disk (it’s not mine, anyway) – can’t stop it at the keyboard, etc. Anyway it took about 50 frustrating minutes.

So, what went wrong? Well, basically a minor slip-up in my use of the SUM formula. I eventually got it right (by using a help-screen, what else?): ‘SUM(RC[-12]:RC[-1])’ and the whole test was over in under a minute. The formula I had originally used did not add the row up, but calculated the whole 12 x 200 array of numbers, and of course this formula was then copied 200 times down the column – a bit of a hefty number-crunch!

Anyway, the moral of this story is: make a good effort to learn Multiplan’s cell referencing – it could save you a long wait!

Conclusion

We have taken a fairly fast swoop right through the major facilities and features of Multiplan; so fast that some very valuable features, not generally available in mere state-of-the-art spreadsheet systems, may have gone unnoticed. Just for the record.

Multiplan gives you:

  • If you need to sort columns of figures or text then it is impossible to do this without a ‘Sort’ command.
  • Multiple worksheets. Results from one worksheet can be communicated to another, useful for consolidation.
  • Multiple split-screens. Very flexible facility to design VDU screen display of spreadsheet.
  • Flexible file handling. In particular data interchange with other software is feasible, and Visicalc data files can be read (but not written! – no doubt Microsoft doesn’t want to encourage users to migrate that way!).
  • Available on 16-bit microprocessor (8088/6). The new 16-bit processors can handle a lot more memory, and spreadsheet systems which have been properly installed on them can use this extra memory for setting up bigger spreadsheets (see Benchmarks).
  • Comprehensive help-screens. In addition to these. Multiplan also provides more mundane, but by no means universally available, facilities – such as cell references by names, formula protection, formula printout, print to disk and formula editing.

Certainly Multiplan has a lot of facilities to offer, but what is it like to use? Well some minor complaints here: the row/column numbering scheme increases the amount of typing for formulae. You have to consider replication consequences when you enter a formula, rather than when you do the replication, you have to choose the ‘Alpha’ command before you enter text (okay, it’s only one extra character, but most other spreadsheet systems don’t do it this way). To balance these minor grumbles are comprehensive error messages, and understandable prompts for all input.

So finally, my advice to spreadsheetless owners of Apples, CP/M or MS-DOS systems, or to anyone looking for an upgrade: put it near the top of your list!

Benchmarks and other measurements

These tests were run on an Apple II system with 64k of RAM (which is in fact mandatory) and an 80-column display card (which is optional). Available space for the spreadsheet itself amounted to 21k. Figures are also included for the Sirius (with 128k of RAM, and theoretically extendable to 800k+), running MS-DOS and allowing greater storage space for the spreadsheet. Where the Sirius figures are different they are appended in parentheses after the Apple figures.

Incidentally, a Sirius retails for around £2500, and the nearest equivalent Apple system (but with lower disk capacity, half the RAM, 8-bit processor) would be around £1750.

  • Spreadsheet size: 63 columns wide by 255 rows.
  • Numeric precision: 14 digits.
  • Max column width: 32 characters.

The benchmark tests are described in ‘Which Spreadsheet’, PCW Feb 1983.

Benchmark 1: (a) max rows accommodated: 95 (235); (b) recalculation time: 60 (55) seconds – ie, 1.5 (4) rows per second: (c) recalculation time: 60 (55) seconds; (d) vertical scrolling: 6 (6) rows per second; horizontal scrolling: 4 (4) columns per second.

Benchmarks 2: max rows of text accommodated: 190 (Sirius not tested).

Benchmark 3: max rows of numbers accommodated: 190 (Sirius not tested).

Price: Around £150.

Checklist

Documentation: 400+ pages, contents, tutorial, reference, index, quick reference and help-screens. Well-illustrated. Excellent.

User-friendliness: Consistent and easy to use — cell-referencing can be a little tricky!

Error-handling: 20+ error messages. Erroneous calculations (eg, zero-divides) displayed as special error values.

Facilities: Arithmetic and other functions: +, -, *, /, %, string operations, logic, descriptive statistics, trig, logs, look-up and more besides!

Configuration: version tested easily configured for different types of Apple screen.

Graphics: a let-down compared with the other facilities!

Interface to other software: specifically can read Visicalc files, and print to disk. Can also be interfaced to other software using data interchange format (requires programming skills to do this).

Spreadsheet overlays: yes – can do consolidation or merge information into existing spreadsheet.

Turnkey: Apple version is turnkey with all disk formatting, copying, etc, achievable without recourse to Apple DOS.

Insertion, deletion and replication: yes.

Display flexibility: just about everything you could possibly want. Excellent.

Protected cells: yes.

Formula printout: yes.

Formula editing: yes.

Automatic/manual recalculation: yes.

Out of memory: memory left permanently displayed. Recovers correctly when it runs out of memory.

Long jumps: can jump directly to any specified cell.

Sorts, searching and logic: yes.

First published in Personal Computer World magazine, April 1983

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Professional Standards

TIProfessional001

Philippe Michiels delivers the verdict on the latest Texas micro.

Increasing concern about industry-wide standards has meant that big manufacturers – including IBM and Digital – have begun producing hardware running on systems like MS-DOS and CP/M-86. Texas Instruments has now joined the drive for standardised software with the TI Professional.

Texas Instruments selected the Intel 8088 processor in favour of its own 9900 for this very reason, and the result is the Professional – a hardware package that will run much of the industry’s bestselling software.

Documentation

The unit is supplied with all the necessary hardware and documentation, right down to the plug, but since it is capable of running more than one operating system, the latter is not included in the basic price. This leaves users with the choice of running their favourite software.

The operating instructions are well laid out in five sections, with a particularly clear guide to setting up the system.

Adequate information is provided for adjusting the display and positioning the separate units for comfortable use.

Diskette handling instructions are well explained, and the use of each key on the keyboard is well documented.

Once the system is set up the diagnostic diskette (which is supplied as standard) runs a comprehensive diagnostic test right down to testing each key.

Construction

The Professional itself comes in three parts – the system unit. the keyboard and the monitor. The system unit is large for a desk-top, measuring 48 x 43 x 14.5cm. It is metal-cased, and feels heavy and solid.

There is a large illuminated power switch at the side of the case, but there are no other controls, and there is no external fuse or reset switch.

The unit is fan-cooled, but the fan is excessively noisy.

TIProfessional003

Inside the Professional: the huge PSU dwarfs the disk drives at the top. On the right are the expansion slots.

Removing the top cover – by means of two screws – reveals a sealed power supply, two 5.25in disk drives and the motherboard. The motherboard has a video controller card installed in one of the expansion slots. The review machine also had an expansion RAM card installed. The construction was of a high standard, and all interconnecting cables were neatly tucked away. All connections are made at the rear.

The motherboard contains the Intel 8088 microprocessor running at 5MHz the floppy disk controller, capable of controlling four drives; 64K of single bit parity checked memory; the keyboard
interface; a parallel Centronics printer interface and the expansion interface.

Expansion

TIProfessional004

To the rear – on the right are blanked off slots for interface cables/ Video output is the only one present here.

Although there are six expansion slots on the motherboard only five may be used for peripheral expansion. The sixth slot may only be used for RAM expansion.

The review machine was installed with a 192K card, but a 512K card is planned.

One of the expansion slots is required for the video interface card, and this is available in a number of configurations. The minimum configuration is a text card and contains no graphics capability. This card may be expanded to full colour graphics by means of a ‘piggyback’ card.

The review machine also had the full colour graphics option and with this in place the TI Professional still has room for four expansion cards.

Our machine Screen also had a National Panasonic colour monitor. When the monitor was placed on top of the system unit, which is the most desirable position, the display was unsteady. When it was placed away from the system it gave a perfectly acceptable display.

Texas Instruments says this was because it was a US monitor, and that production units certainly will not suffer from this problem.

Controls are provided for brightness and horizontal centring and the screen had good anti-glare properties.

The graphics resolution is 720 pixels horizontally and 300 vertically, with a maximum of eight colours, or eight grey levels on a black and white monitor.

Keyboard

TIProfessional002

The keyboard is connected at the rear of the system unit by a rather thick coiled cable. It has a tilt adjustment but when used on smooth surfaces tended to slip.

The keys themselves have a positive action and are pleasant to use, although I thought their travel was too great. The keys are switchless and should provide trouble-free operation for a long time.

The machine has a low-profile sculptured keyboard, well laid out with 12 programmable function keys, and separate numeric and cursor control cluster.

Software

The MS-Basic supplied with the review machine had some interesting features. When Basic is started the function keys are loaded with reserved words allowing single key program entry. The ALT key allowed single-key reserved word entry.

Program editing was relatively easy since Basic allows you to place the cursor on any visible portion of text for rapid re-entry using the ENTER key.

The function keys INSERT and DELETE may also be used to edit text lines. The Basic has powerful inbuilt graphic commands. PALETTE allows any of the eight colours to be instantly redefined.

The commands CIRCLE and LINE allow circles, lines and blocks to be drawn by one command. Circle drawing is not as fast as one would expect from an 8088, but pie-charts can be drawn at acceptable speeds.

The commands GET and PUT allow the program to fetch a graphics object from the screen memory and then redisplay it at any other location on the screen.

The command PAINT is used to fill in graphic objects with a particular colour.

Basic allows the keyboard to be redefined using the KEY function and can be used to program the function keys with user information.

MS-DOS, CP/M-86, Concurrent CP/M-86 and UCSD P-system all run on the TI Professional. Hardware options include CP/M-80, additional floppy disk drives and the TI Winchester drive offering up to five megabytes of storage space. A speech input/output card will be available later.

Overview

The TI Professional is a good looking, albeit slightly bulky, desktop machine with impressive colour graphics at a reasonable price. The choice of two of the most popular operating systems means that many software packages will be available for it, and it already has Easy Writer and MultiPlan implemented for MS-DOS.

The documentation for the system and software is well presented and the inclusion of section tabs and clear indexing makes it easy to use.

Overall, I would say this robust machine is well worth the price.

Specification

  • Price: £2,075
  • Processor: 8088, 5MHz
  • RAM memory: 64-256K
  • ROM memory: 8-16K
  • Text screen: 80 x 25
  • Graphics screen: 720 x 300
  • Keyboard: full travel, 97 keys, 16 function keys
  • Interfaces: Centronics, others optional
  • Storage: 320K double-density. double-sided disks
  • OS/Language: MS-DOS and MS-Basic
  • Others: Cobol, Fortran, Pascal
  • Distributor: Texas Instruments
  • Software supplied: none (user selected)

First published in Personal Computer News, 1st April 1983

Microsoft Excel

Microsoft Excel is a powerful, sophisticated spreadsheet which runs under Windows and has the potential to overtake Lotus 1-2-3 in the popularity stakes. But how do its features compare with those of its established Macintosh relative? Anthony Meier finds out.

Microsoft’s new spreadsheet program, Excel, looks set to leave Lotus 1-2-3 and its lookalikes well behind in the spreadsheet stakes. It promises to be the most powerful and user-friendly spreadsheet written to date. It is being introduced as the third generation spreadsheet for personal computers, and is designed primarily to run on machines based on the 80286 and 80386 microprocessors. Macintosh users will be familiar with this program already, as a version of Excel has been available for this machine for 24 months or so (see the ‘Function comparison’ box for a comparison between the two versions).

Overview

Excel is a sophisticated piece of software which offers many advanced spreadsheet facilities and programming features, an integrated onsheet database and a wide range of charting and graphing facilities. It is the first spreadsheet in the MS-DOS environment to offer interactive, dynamic linking of worksheets, a one-step automatic macro recorder and high-resolution output. It runs under Microsoft’s Windows 2.0 and takes full advantage of all its facilities, providing multiple worksheets in overlapping windows onscreen, pull-down menus and full mouse operations.

Excel001

Excel makes use of the ability of Windows 2 to have a number of spreadsheets open at once. The arrows at the top left size the windows. The most obvious difference from Excel on the Apple Macintosh is the use of colour.

A run-time version of Windows 2.0 is bundled with the program for users without the full version. A version of Excel is also planned for the OS/2 operating system. Windows 2.0 has an identical interface to that of OS/2 with Presentation Manager, so Excel users should find making the transition to that new operating system easy.

The machine I used for the review was a Dell 286 with a 20Mbyte hard disk, EGA card, colour monitor and mouse. I also had an AST card installed which increased the memory from 640K to 2.5Mbytes to give more room for testing large spreadsheets. There is only about 140K available for data on a standard 640K machine.

Installing the program on the hard disk was very simple. It involved inserting the setup disk, typing ‘setup’, and following the instructions given on the screen. These asked for the other disks supplied to be inserted one by one until all the necessary files had been copied across. I was supplied with 14 disks, eight of which contained the files for Excel, the other six were files for run-time Windows.

In use

When the program had been installed and loaded, I found Excel very simple to learn and use. Virtually all of the user-friendly features of the combinations of clicking, double-clicking and dragging.

The mouse can be used to give all the commands and instructions you need in Excel. It saves you from having to learn and type in commands at the keyboard, and makes program operation very fast. You can also keep your eyes on the screen instead of continually glancing at the keyboard. However, keyboard lovers can still use the keyboard instead of the mouse for all the commands and operations they need – even moving and sizing windows. Pressing the ‘Alt’ key makes the menu bar active, then pressing the underlined letter of the menu title you want (or using the cursor key and Return) pulls down that menu. Finally, pressing the underlined letter of the command you want (or using the cursor key and Return) invokes that command. Pressing the ‘Esc’ key cancels the menu selection.

The mouse, however, does make it quick to select a cell, or cells, for data entry – you just move the pointer to the cell you want and click to make it active. You then need to use the keyboard to type your data in. The mouse can also make operations like inserting and deleting rows and columns, and cutting, copying and pasting cells, very fast.

The mouse also comes in handy for entering cell references into formula. Instead of typing in a cell reference, you only need to point and click on the cell in question for its reference to be automatically inserted into the formula. Dragging the pointer across a range of cells inserts that range into the formula. And you can include references to cells on another spreadsheet (linking the spreadsheet) just by clicking on the cells in that other spreadsheet. This saves time setting up formulae and speeds up the creation of models.

Spreadsheet handling with Excel is very impressive. You can have several spreadsheets, charts and macro sheets onscreen at the same time, each one in its own window, like so many pieces of paper. You can shrink or expand the windows, depending on which one you are working on, and you can transfer information easily from one to the other.

Spreadsheets can easily be linked, allowing you to consolidate figures from as many different spreadsheets as desired. Because you can work on many spreadsheets at once, you can see the effects of changes in one worksheet on other linked worksheets immediately on the screen.

Each spreadsheet has a maximum of 16,384 rows by 256 columns, and it is easy to move quickly to any desired location using the mouse on the scroll bars along the sides of each window. Column widths and individual row heights can be adjusted easily with the mouse. Each window has a horizontal and a vertical split bar which you can use to divide the window into a maximum of four panes, to see different parts of a spreadsheet next to each other. You can also open up new windows for the same spreadsheet if this is more convenient. As you are expected to have many windows fighting for space on your screen, there is a window menu which lets you select the window you want to bring to the top of the others.

Functions

Excel has all the features and functions you would expect to find in a top spreadsheet package, such as cell protection, calculation options and zero suppression. It has an ‘undo’ feature that can reverse your last command if you make a mistake, and it also has a matching ‘repeat’ feature that you can use to repeat your last command.

Excel only recalculates those cells that have changed since the last calculation, thus speeding calculation. It also uses ‘background’ calculation which lets you continue working while it recalculates. And it doesn’t require you to wait until all the cells have been calculated before you can start working again, which is nice.

Excel has more functions than both Lotus 1-2-3 version 2 and Excel for the Macintosh. The box on page 140 gives a comparison, although functions alone should not be used as a guide to a program’s overall capabilities.

Many of Excel’s functions are similar to those of Lotus 1-2-3, so 1-2-3 users should be able to build spreadsheet models with Excel’s functions without too many problems. Some of the interesting new functions provided by Excel are as follows:

  • The ‘information’ function, CELL(type-of-info, reference), returns information about the formatting, location or contents of the upper left cell in ‘reference’. CELL(“width”, F13), for example, would give you the column width of cell F13. CELL(“format”, B12) would give you information on the cell formatting.
  • The text function, CODE(text), returns the numeric ASCII code of the first character in ‘text’. CODE(“Alphabet”), for instance, would equal 65. CODE(B5) would equal 70, where cell B5 contained the text “February”.
  • Excel can be used for working on arrays, which are groups of two or more values that can be used like a single value in formulae and functions. Excel also has matrix functions which can be used for working with these arrays. The matrix function, MMULT(array1,array2), returns the product of two arrays, where both arrays contain only numbers. This might be written as MMULT(A1:B2,D1:E2).

Compatibility with Lotus 1-2-3

Many of Excel’s new users are expected to be previous Lotus 1-2-3 users, and Microsoft has developed tools and functions within Excel to make learning and using the program easier for these users. The features will also help Excel integrate more easily into a Lotus 1-2-3 environment.

For beginners, two-way file compatibility enables spreadsheets to be exchanged between the two programs. Then there is a useful 1-2-3 macro translator that can automatically convert nearly all 1-2-3 macros into Excel macros. A ‘1-2-3 Help’ facility lets users type in the command sequences they would have used in 1-2-3 and automatically gives them the corresponding Excel commands.

Presentation features

Excel002

Fonts, type styles and colour can be used to enhance the appearance and logic of a spreadsheet both onscreen and when printed. Debits, for example, could appear in red

Excel’s presentation facilities are very impressive, and provide you with a wide range of screen display and printing options. You can turn the spreadsheet grid on or off, show or hide the row and column headings, switch them between R1C1 and A1 according to your personal preference, and choose between different font types and sizes. You can use up to four different fonts on one worksheet – individual row heights will automatically adjust to accommodate the font sizes you choose. There are 19 number-formatting options which are meant to be used for things like date formats, decimal places, commas and negative brackets.

Excel007

An Excel worksheet can be as plain or as detailed as you want, with grid lines and headers being optionally shown in various colours and styles.

Individual cells can be emboldened, underlined or italicised. You can add shading, create boxes or lines around cells or blocks of cells, and control screen colours to enhance the appearance of the screen display or printed document. You could have all the positive figures in a column display automatically as blue, and all negative figures red, for instance. All these facilities help you to produce printed documents that rival word processor output and can be used for final reports and presentations.

There is a page preview facility to let you see a miniature version of your page as it will look when printed out, which is very useful for checking pages before printing them. It is also useful for viewing large spreadsheet models like a map to give you a better idea of what they look like.

Printing

A wide variety of printers and plotters are supported, and your own printer and plotter drivers can be installed during the ‘SETUP’ procedure. High-resolution graphics printers are required if you want to take advantage of the graphics output of the program – a laser printer would be ideal.

Excel includes a sophisticated printer spooler that lets you queue up print jobs, control the printing operation and continue with your work while they print in the background.

Charts

Excel003

Charts are created by selecting an area of data and then choosing a chart style option. Charts are automatically updated as the data changes.

Excel has sophisticated charting and graphing facilities. A wide range of charts can be summoned instantly from selected spreadsheet cells and will change shape automatically if the cell contents are changed. You can see a chart in one window change as the data in the spreadsheet window alongside it is altered.

To create a chart from data in your spreadsheet, you first need to select the data you want to chart. This can be done by dragging the mouse across the relevant cells to highlight them, then you select the ‘File New’ command and click on the ‘Chart’ option. This creates a new chart window that automatically contains a default-type chart built up from the values in your highlighted cells.

The program has 44 pre-designed chart formats grouped into seven types of charts: area, bar, column, line, pie, scatter and combination. When any of these is created, the program provides default labels and designs. The charts are highly customisable, however, and most of the parameters can be altered to suit your own requirements. You can alter the colours, add text labels and legends, and scale the chart horizontally or vertically to get it to look just the way you want.

Excel004

Many chart styles are available. The ‘help’ system includes a cross-reference to Multi plan and 1-2-3 commands, so users who know what to do in those programs can transfer across.

Auditing & documenting

Excel has very useful auditing and documenting features. These help you check the logic and formulae in your model, track down errors and discrepancies, and document your model for your own reference and for other users. You can attach notes to any cell and view them using the ‘Show Window Info’ command. This command also shows you other information such as the cells that contain references to your active cell (dependents) and the cells that it refers to (precedents).

You can use the ‘Formula Select Special’ command to highlight all the dependents and precedents in the worksheet for easy identification. You can also automatically find all the cells with notes or those containing a particular formula.

These features are a great help when you are creating or amending a spreadsheet model and when you are checking its logic. They reduce the risk of missing important cells and making errors.

Excel has sophisticated cell-naming features, too. You can name each cell in a block of cells automatically by using a combination of the titles in your row and column headings. You can easily find cell references in a spreadsheet and replace them with names, and you can find cell names.

You can define a name which is not attached to a particular cell, but which refers to a value: ‘INFLATION’, for instance, can be defined to be ‘4%’. Then, whenever you use the name in formulae in your spreadsheet (and in other spreadsheets) it will equal 4%.

Macros

Excel005

Macros can be created line by line or recorded; this allows Excel to ‘learn’ a process that the user performs. A separate module allows for the conversion of 1-2-3 macros.

Excel has powerful macro facilities which let you pre-program the system to perform calculations and operations automatically. Excel macros have their own programming language and are created on separate macro sheets which are handled in the same way as spreadsheets. The macro commands are typed into cells in a column and, like cells on a spreadsheet, can be deleted, copied and moved around. You can have as many macro sheets as you want, and as many different macros as you can fit on each macro sheet. The macros can then be used with any spreadsheet.

You can incorporate branches and loops into your macro, and control can pass from one macro to another if certain conditions are satisfied. You can create ‘intelligent’ macros to interact with the user for example, to prompt for information at certain stages, using dialogue boxes.

There is also a group of macro commands for customising the appearance of the program itself. You can set up your own menu bar and menu options, and create your own commands and dialogue boxes. You can use these facilities to effectively create your own custom applications within Excel.

The automatic macro creation facility can be used to build macros if you want to avoid programming – this works by simply recording actions you perform. The ‘Record’ command starts the macro recording, after which you can perform the task you want to record. When you have finished, you give the ‘Stop Recorder’ command. When the macro has been recorded, it can be edited and added to just like any other macro. In fact, you can see your macro being created line by line as you perform the actions it records. You can do this if you place the macro sheet window next to your worksheet window.

Macros can also be used for creating new spreadsheet functions; these are called function macros as opposed to the command macros just described. The 131 functions already available cover most of the standard purposes I can envisage, but function macros can be created for more complex, customised requirements. A function macro called ‘PAYE’, for example, could be set up to calculate the tax due for a given set of variables such as gross pay, tax code, month, and so on. Function macros can be used in formulae in the same way as standard functions.

Database

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It is possible to create forms for the entry of information into a database section of an Excel worksheet. There is provision for creating search criteria for finding records.

Excel has on-sheet integrated database facilities with 11 database functions and a new feature, an automatic database form interface. Any rectangular area of the spreadsheet can be designated as the database area, after which its rows become database records and its columns database fields. All the database functions, like ‘EXTRACT’, ‘DSUM’ and ‘DMAX’, are then available for acting on the information, but these don’t interfere with other spreadsheet functions which can be used as normal.

The ‘Database Form’ command is used to bring up the automatically created form window, which you can use to enter, edit, delete and find records. The form resembles the standard form layout screen that many database programs provide, and makes using the database very simple.

The macro facilities can be used in conjunction with the database facilities to perform customised database operations and create customised database applications.

How Microsoft Excel compares to the Macintosh version

On running the Windows version of Excel for the first time, I was amazed at its similarity to the Macintosh version. The look of the spreadsheet with its cell grid, the cross pointer, the menu options and the way in which the mouse operated are all the same. The ways in which you create macros, databases and charts are the same, too. On closer inspection there are a few differences, all of them turning out to be improvements. The Windows version I used did not seem to be as fast, however, but the final release version should be faster as all the debugging code will have been removed.

The Windows version has all the features of the Mac version with many more besides. The first new feature difference I noticed was a status line at the bottom of the screen that gives brief explanations of each command as you move through the menu options – very helpful for the first-time user. Another feature is that you can choose between short and full menu options: short gives you the most commonly-used commands and may be more suitable for beginners; full gives you the complete range of commands.

On the Mac version you can adjust only column widths on a spreadsheet, but on the Windows version you can adjust the row height of individual rows as well. You can also use more than one font on a worksheet. Both these features give you a lot more flexibility in designing models and spreadsheet reports.

On the Windows version, there is a new ‘Arrange Windows’ command that automatically resizes and fits all your windows into neat boxes on the screen to let you see them all side by side. I found this feature very useful when my screen became cluttered with several spreadsheet windows.

The ‘Resume Excel’ feature from the Macintosh version has been enhanced in the form of the Workspace feature on the Windows version. This lets you save all open worksheets and window arrangements you are working on for any particular project as a workspace file, to which you can give a name. You can then reload that workspace file (or any other) if you wish to continue working on that project, and all your worksheets and windows will be opened up exactly as they were when you saved them.

The auditing and documentation features of the Windows version, described in the main text, are an important new addition that make the Windows version useful and practical, and there are also many new spreadsheet functions (see the ‘Function comparison’ box).

There are other differences too, but for day-to-day operations the programs are basically the same; and a Macintosh Excel user should have no problem at all getting to grips with complex spreadsheets on Excel for Windows. However, the Windows version offers more features and functionality which power users will find very useful indeed.

Data transfer

Data transfer facilities are very important, as you may often need to import data from other programs to Excel in order to perform analysis and create reports from it. Excel can read and write files in any of the following formats: text, CSV (comma separated values), SYLK, WKS and WK1 (Lotus 1-2-3), DIF, DBF2 and DBF3 (dBase II and III). This is a comprehensive range and facilitates the exchange of data with a wide variety of programs.

The Dynamic Data Exchange (DDE) protocol resident in Windows can also be used by Excel to exchange data with other programs running under Windows.

Documentation

The Excel manuals are well up to Microsoft’s usual standard, and I didn’t have to refer to them too often since the program’s menu options are fairly self-explanatory.

Conclusion

Excel is an impressive program, and there is no reason why it should not ultimately overtake Lotus 1-2-3. It has superior power and ease of use, more facilities, and it is easy for 1-2-3 users to upgrade to. I have been a regular user of Excel on the Macintosh for some time, and I am confident that Excel for Windows will serve me equally well.

Function comparison      
Function Type Lotus          1-2-3 Excel (Windows) Excel (Macintosh)
Maths/Trig 17 26 18
Logical/Special 18 34 23
Text/String 18 21 8
Date & Time 11 12 10
Financial 11 13 8
Statistical 7 14 11
Database 7 11 7
89 131 85

Anthony Meier is a chartered accountant and computer consultant.

First published in Personal Computer World magazine, December 1987

The Vienna PC-Whiter Than White?

Designed as part of an integrated office automation system, this stylish 80186-based micro with superb graphics can function equally well as a stand-alone machine.ViennaPC003

The screen phosphor has been chosen to be as easy on the eye as possible so that prolonged use is less stressful

By Glyn Moody

The Vienna PC is a stylish premium product from the international telecommunications company Northern Telecom. Conceived principally as part of the Vienna Office, a complete medium-size integrated office-automation system, the Vienna PC can nonetheless function as a stand-alone 80186-based MS-DOS micro. It is notable chiefly for the fast high-resolution graphics capabilities of its white phosphor screen. The cost for a system with 256K RAM and a 20Mbyte Winchester is about £5,000.

The Vienna Office represents a major assault on the European market by Northern Telecom, which is the second-largest manufacturer of telecommunications equipment in North America, with total revenues of $4.4 billion in 1984, and 47,000 employees worldwide. The Vienna system, including the PC, has been designed specifically for the European market, and initially is only being sold there.

Apart from its name and the various national keyboards and character sets available, the European slant is also evident in the concern for neat good looks, and in fact it won the European 1984 Ergodesign Award. The overall look of the three-piece setup is smart, and only marginally spoilt by the bulk of the main system box.

At the front of the main unit is the on/off switch and disc drive. The model reviewed here had one 1.2Mbyte floppy and a 20Mbyte Winchester. There are also dual-floppy versions and a 10Mbyte hard-disc model. Apart from the cable which goes to the power supply on the right-hand side next to the fan, the rear panel sports only a couple of RS232 sockets and the main cabling for the terminal.

The terminal port occupies one of five expansion slots. Options available include extra RAM cards, taking the basic 256K up to a maximum of 768K, and two more serial ports. No parallel ports for printers are offered since Northern Telecom tends to sell its own varieties of serial printers, which can handle the full range of international character sets. For example, it sells an ink-jet printer from Siemens for about £600. There is no Reset button, which can be inconvenient.

The keyboard plugs into the VDU rather than the main systems box. It is ultra-thin, with keys that are nicely sprung but which may rock slightly too much for some. The keyboard layout is generous to a fault. In addition to standard QWERTY keys, numeric keypad and 10 function keys, there is also a facility for emulating an IBM 3270 terminal. To this end there are extra markings inscribed on the sides of many keys as well as additional keys. There are extensive soft-key definition facilities.

Paper-white screen

Perhaps the chief point of interest of the new system, and certainly its chief glory, is the screen and graphics facilities. Northern Telecom has made efforts to procure a very high-quality display unit suitable for intensive office work, the visual properties of which match those of paper as closely as possible. The unit chosen has a white phosphor of a creaminess which makes even the Mac’s white screen look garish. Easiness on the eye is enhanced by the 71Hz refresh rate for the screen, which makes for a rocksteady picture. The overall resolution is an impressive 800 by 420 pixels, with a nine by 13 matrix for alphanumeric characters. To save power and the precious phosphor, the screen automatically goes blank after several minutes’ non-use. Pressing the Shift key reactivates it.

Wisely, Northern Telecom has capitalised on this high performance by allocating a second 80186 purely for screen graphics handling. The results are impressive, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the implementation of Digital Research’s Gem. This is available for about £300, which includes the cost of an optical mouse. Like the keyboard, the mouse plugs into the base of the VDU.

Optical tracking

Instead of using the trackerball principle of measuring the movement of the mouse by detecting how much a small ball in the base has rolled, the optical mouse employs a reflective sheet to work out the change in position. On the plus side, problems of dirt and slipping are avoided, but you are restricted in movement to the mirror pad, which may be useful on a crowded desk.

Gem is discussed in greater detail on page 50 of this issue. Whatever your feelings on the wisdom or otherwise of this approach, there is no denying that on the Vienna it looks very plausible. In particular, Gem graphics features, such as zooming, show Northern Telecom’s micro to tremendous advantage. The images are drawn very fast, with excellent Infill routines and clean curved edges.

As a part of the Vienna Office, the Vienna PC is able to run most of the constituent application packages. These include all the usual options like word processing, spreadsheets, graphing and databases. Functioning as async terminals, Vienna PCs can also communicate with the Vienna Office central controller. Eventually it will be able to communicate via Ethernet and Cheapernet.

Paying the extra for MS-DOS, which is not included in the price of the hardware, opens up access to the large number of programs written to run under the operating system. Although the Vienna PC is not an IBM compatible, Northern Telecom claims it is possible to swap some data discs between them.

Northern Telecom has recognised that there is at least one PC-DOS product that many Vienna PC users could well want to use: Lotus 1-2-3. Therefore, it has adapted the program so that the low-resolution colour graphics will work on the Vienna’s high-resolution monochrome monitor.

There is a uniform set of manuals for each of the component parts of the system. The user manual for the Vienna PC itself is well produced and comes complete with tasteful illustrations of Viennese sights but, regrettably, without an index. If it seems rather thin, this reflects Northern Telecom’s desire to keep the user firmly outside the systems box. Even taking the cover off is awkward and for this review we decided not to violate the delicately textured paintwork. Installation procedures are normally carried out by an engineer from the company.

This whole approach reflects the fact that the Vienna PC is conceived of as very much an integral pan of the whole office automation strategy of Northern Telecom. That said, the PC exists in its own right as a serious and viable business system. Its overall design, its speed, and above all its superb graphics facilities are strong recommendations for it.

Verdict

  • Performance – 4/4 (Excellent)
  • Ease of Use – 3/4 (Good)
  • Documentation – 2/4 (Average)
  • Value for Money – 3/4 (Good)
  • The Vienna PC is an up-market MS-DOS machine with an up-market price tag. The graphics on its white phosphor display are superlative.

Conclusions

  • The Vienna PC is stylish up-market MS-DOS micro, originally designed as part of a larger office system but quite able to stand on its own feet.
  • The high-resolution white screen is one of the best we have ever reviewed. It could well overcome the continuing reluctance on some people’s part to come to terms with the dreaded VDU.
  • As befits such a classy system, the price is not cheap at around £4,000. Similarly, the size of the system box means that it is no retiring wallflower.
  • Although it lacks IBM compatibility, the Vienna PC is well enough served by MS-DOS programs and the packages which form the Vienna Office. Provided you are content with functional rather than fancy software, being locked out of the IBM-clone world should prove no desperate problem.
  • Anyone impressed by the Mac approach to micro life but wishing to remain within the MS-DOS fold may well find the fast and effective implementation of Gem very tempting on the Vienna.
  • Minor grouses include the closed box approach and the lack of a Reset button
Benchmarks
The figures below show the time in seconds taken to run the standard Basic Benchmarks – see the January 1984 issue of Practical Computing for details. The Vienna emerges as a respectably fast machine, marginally slower than the RML Nimbus, also an 80186 MSDOS machine, and even closer to the IBM PC/AT.
  BM1 BM2 BM3 BM4 BM5 BM6 BM7 BM8 AV.
Vienna-80186 0.6 2.2 4.8 5.0 5.2 10.0 15.6 16.6 7.4
Sprite-80286 0.5 1.6 3.5 3.5 4.2 7.8 11.6 9.3 5.3
Nimbus-80186 0.5 1.8 3.9 4.0 4.6 8.5 13.2 13 6.2
IBMPC/AT-80286 0.5 1.9 4.6 4.7 5.2 9.1 14.6 13.5 6.8

Specification

  • CPU: 80186 running at 8MHz; a second 80186 is dedicated to graphics handling
  • RAM: 256K as standard/expandable up to 768K
  • ROM: 16K self-test and bootstrap
  • Dimensions: main unit box 13.7in. (350mm.) wide by 16.5in. (420mm.) deep by 8.5in. (216mm.) high
  • VDU: white phosphor, 80 columns by 27 lines, nine by 13 pixels character matrix; overall resolution 800 by 420 pixels; refresh rate 71Hz
  • Keyboard: full QWERTY with numeric keypad, 10 function keys, cursor keys, IBM 3270 terminal-emulation keys
  • Mass storage: 2Mbyte floppies, 10Mbyte or 20Mbyte Winchester
  • Hardware options: optical mouse, ink-jet, dot-matrix or daisywheel printers
  • Interfaces: two RS232s, with optional further two
  • Software in price: none
  • Software options: MS-DOS 2.11, Gem, Level II Cobol, MSBasic, GWBasic, Vienna family of software including word, diary, plan, chart and paint options
  • Price: double floppy, 256K RAM £3,100; 10Mbyte Winchester £3,760; 20Mbyte Winchester £4,563; VDU and keyboard £446; MS-DOS about £58, Gem and optical mouse about £300
  • Manufacturer: Northern Telecom Data Systems Ltd, Maylands Avenue, Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire HP2 7LD.

First published in Practical Computing magazine, August 1985

Data General Portable PC

DataGen002

By Corey Sandler

Is the Data General/One the crowning achievement of the IBM-compatible laptop portable race? Or, is it yet another triumph of nascent technology over real-world utility?

Well, it all depends on how you see it.

The DG/One is an MS-DOS compatible, full-keyboard, battery-powered microcomputer that can be equipped with a pair of built-in disk drives and 300 baud internal modem. It is possessed of the first commercially applied full-screen (80 characters by 25 lines) liquid crystal display (LCD). And, though at 11 or so pounds for the standard configuration it is not quite the weight or size of a three-ring binder, it does honestly qualify for the title of “portable.”

Prices start at a hefty $2895 for a 128K, one disk drive machine. A second internal disk drive lists for $599, and each block of additional 128K of RAM is listed at $599. The internal modem lists for $250, an external 5.25″ disk drive for $795, and a portable thermal printer for $499. A battery pack and recharger and a carrying case for the whole system each list for $99.

Under the hood beats an 80C88 microprocessor heart, the low-power CMOS equivalent of the 8088 chip used in the IBM PC and compatible machines. The DG/One comes equipped with at least 128K of RAM, expandable in blocks of 128K to as much as 512K. However, the video display circuitry of the machine does not have its own memory, and therefore you must lop off the first 48K of RAM for the screen. If the program you intend to use requires 256K of RAM, you will actually have to move up a notch to a 384K machine.

And, unlike many other laptop portables, the RAM is not kept under power when the computer is shut off; like a standard microcomputer, the RAM is volatile and information in it disappears when the power is shut off or the batteries run down. You must be certain that the contents of RAM are copied to permanent storage on disk.

The computer has several disk storage options, beginning with one or two built-in 3.5” disk drives. These drives, based on the Sony technology also used by Apple in its Macintosh machine, can store as much as 720K of data each – twice the capacity of the IBM PC floppy disk drives and two-thirds of the way to the high-density storage of IBM’s 1.2 megabyte drives in the PC-AT machine. The disks are formatted at 512 bytes per sector, with eight or nine sectors per track, and 40 or 80 tracks per side, yielding the 720K top end.

Safe and Sound Disks

The disks themselves are nicely protected inside plastic carriers, with a sliding metal door protecting the medium from fingerprints, dirt, and paper clips. However, because the size and design of the drives are different from the 5.25” floppy system found on the IBM PC, using a program written for the IBM requires a few extra steps – you must either buy special 3.5” disk versions of software or download programs from a 5.25” drive or a telecommunications source. Data General sells an external 5.25” drive with connector to the DG/One to allow direct exchange of magnetic media with an IBM PC or compatible.

Be aware, though, that you will not be able to transfer copy-protected software to the smaller disk format, and that the software use license for a particular program may legally limit use of a program to a single computer. The seller may object to a user making copies for use on a PC at the office and a DG/One for the road.

Another issue involves software that is tied directly to hardware rather than to the MS-DOS operating system. Data General appears to have done a good job of ensuring near-total compatibility through careful design of its BIOS system which is present as part of its adapted MS-DOS system. Data General provided downloaded 3.5” disk versions of standard WordStar and ThinkTank for this review. The system also booted up IBM DOS 1.1 on one disk I tried.

Data General has announced that it will make available soon an expansion unit for the portable that will include five IBM-compatible hardware slots and hold an external 5.25” floppy disk drive or another storage option. The box – the size of a small desktop computer – will allow use of an IBM or compatible display card and other devices. The price had not been set at the time this article was prepared.

The MS-DOS package from Data General includes Microsoft’s GW-Basic, which is a functional equivalent of IBM’s BasicA. (Here is a free inside tip: If an applications program on any PC-compatible absolutely insists on finding a program called BASICA.COM before it will execute, you may be able to save the day by renaming GW-Basic as BasicA.)

The LCD: Good News and Bad News

It is the LCD display that is both the boon and the bane of the machine. By opting for the full-sized screen, Data General (and its Japanese manufacturing and design arm Nippon Data General) has dealt nicely with one of the most damning criticisms aimed by many at the rest of the crop of laptop computers.

Pioneering devices like Radio Shack’s Model 100 display only 8 lines of 40 characters. Other newer machines like Epson’s PX-8 have pushed the frontier to 8 lines of 80, while Hewlett Packard’s Portable goes one step beyond to 16 by 80. And in November, Texas Instruments announced its entrance into the fray with a device called the Pro-Lite, which includes an LCD with the same display abilities as those of the Data General/One.

Data General’s machine mimics the full IBM PC display. It will show a full page of text from a word processor, or it can show a full-sized Lotus 1-2-3 screen. And, if you are so inclined, you could check up on the pilot by running the standard (monochrome) screen of Flight Simulator on your lap as your jet lines up on final approach to O’Hare.

The inherent nature of the LCD screen is that it works with the aid of reflected light rather than as a light source itself like a cathode ray tube (CRT) or other luminescent technologies (see “Hi-Res and Color Liquid Crystal Displays” in this issue). And, it seems that the larger the screen and the smaller the pixels (and therefore the more information displayed) the more difficult it is to find just the right amount and angle of light for viewing.

The reason the LCD screen has been adopted by nearly every manufacturer of battery-powered portable computers is that it draws very little current, thereby allowing the use of relatively small and lightweight batteries. Other technologies, such as electroluminescent screens, plasma displays, and low-power CRTs for battery-operated machines, are still in the labs.

Impressed though I was by the technological achievement of the full screen, I found it a bit of a strain to read in most situations. The best lighting I found was from a strong but indirect source over my shoulder- I’m not certain that an airliner’s overhead spotlight would save me from a headache. The contrast of the DG screen can be adjusted through commands from the keyboard, but the angle of the screen cannot be changed – it is either open or shut. And, the characters on the review model I used did not seem as sharp as those displayed by the smaller and more limited Radio Shack and Epson machines I have used.

The Vital Statistics

DataGen001

The device itself is also larger than the “typical” laptop computer, measuring 13.7″ by 11.7″ by 2.8″. Its starting weight is 9 pounds, with a single disk drive and without the optional rechargeable battery pack. With a second drive and batteries, the system crosses the 11-pound threshold. I was quite surprised to discover that the unit did not include a built-in carrying handle; a separate case or briefcase is necessary.

The batteries are supposed to be good for at least eight hours of typical use – disk drive and modem operation consume more power than do screen display and computation. Recharging the batteries requires use of a small transformer cube and power cord; operating the computer directly from an AC outlet requires a different transformer cube and power cord.

The microprocessor runs at a clock speed of 4MHz, almost 20% slower than the IBM standard of 4.77MHz. The difference was noticeable in computation intensive operations like screen updates. Data General included with my review package a copy of a PacMan-like game, and fighting boredom I was able to rack up record scores by outrunning the slightly slower ghosts.

Users familiar with the forgiving nature of the entrance slots of most 5.25″ disk drives will find the DG units to be slightly more demanding: the plastic case must be inserted exactly right or it will not drop into place for reading and writing operations. The disks include a small movable notch to write-protect contents – an improvement over the silver tape method used for floppies. By the way, the prices of the 3.5″ disks have settled thus far in a range of about twice the price of a 5.25″ floppy. Byte-for-byte, that makes the media identically priced.

The optional 5.25″ disk drive is called device C by the operating system, but the DG ROM BIOS has been told to boot from drive C if there are no disks in the first two internal drives. This should allow programs with their own operating systems to load from the external drive.

Making Your Own Disks

Copying from a 5.25″ disk to a 3.5″ disk is a straightforward procedure using the copy or diskcopy command. (Using diskcopy, though, will format the smaller but more capacious disk as a standard 320K or 360K disk, depending upon the formatting of the original.)

Going the other way, from the small internal disks to the external floppy requires the copy command, and you must consider the halved capacity of the floppy – it could take two floppies to store all of the data recorded on a single 3.5″ disk.

One other storage option for DG users is a RAM disk (also called an “electronic disk” or a “virtual disk”). This is a program that fools the operating system into thinking of a portion of RAM as a disk. Programs and data can be copied into and out of the RAM disk at a significant increase in speed over the physically limited real disk drive. You must take care to observe two cautions, though: first, any data in the electronic disk must be stored to a permanent disk before power is shut off, and second, you must leave sufficient RAM available for the needs of an application program. For example, WordStar requires at least 128K. Together with 48K for the screen display memory, the first 176K must be left untouched in such an application. DG’s supplied VDISK.COM program creates a CONFIG.SYS add-on to DOS, calling the RAM disk drive D.

The DG/One keyboard is a competent device, about half an inch narrower than a standard typewriter or computer board. The 79 keys have a sure, dicky feel to them, slightly softer than the IBM PC model but should prove quite comfortable for most users. Across the top of the board are ten downsized function keys, plus Ins, Del, Num, Lock, Scroll Lock, and PrtSc buttons. A carrier just above the function row holds a plastic cheat sheet card that can be used to remember specialized assignments given the keys.

In addition to the standard Shift, Ctrl, and Alt keys, DG has added a Cmd key, a Spcl key, and a blank and thus far unassigned key along the right side of the board. A set of four cursor control keys resides along the bottom right – the horizontal placement of up, left, right and down are not my favorite arrangement. The small board understandably does not include a separate cursor key pad. Instead the UIO/JKL/M keys can be toggled into roles as the bottom half of a keypad for number entry.

A Choice of Video Options

The DG/One equivalent of a video display adapter can be set to emulate the IBM special monochrome adapter and screen or the IBM Color/Graphics adapter. Commands from the DOS prompt can also set the display to 40 characters. At the Comdex show last November, I saw the DG/One with a prototype of the expansion box with a standard IBM Color/Graphics board driving an RGB monitor.

One of the more common uses for a portable computer is as a link to a main office computer for electronic mail, database inquiry, or transfer of files. Other users tie into public networks like MCI, the Source, and CompuServe for various purposes. The DG/One accommodates these uses through an optional 300 baud direct connect modem, or through an RS-232C serial port that can be wired to an external modem. Data General will offer a 1200 baud device, but the price had not been set at the time of this review.

The DG internal modem follows Hayes protocols, including auto-answer. The device comes with a T-connector allowing a telephone to be plugged into the same line to allow you to switch back and forth between voice and data communications. Also available is a set of acoustic cups to be used with nonmodular telephones.

I tried the modem with MCI mail and had no trouble using that system’s commands. I did not have a full-function telecommunications program to test uploading and downloading. One word of warning: the communications chip set used in the CMOS system of the Data General is not the same as that used by the IBM PC and most compatibles, and as such it is a good bet that many off-the-shelf communications programs will not work on the machine. You’ll probably have to use an altered version.

I also successfully linked the DG/One directly to my IBM PC using a null modem cable, the system I use to download data from my personal portable. The two computers, both under control of my IBM, swapped files at a gratifying 9600 baud.

The Built-In Programs

The DG/One includes four small scale utility programs on a ROM chip inside the unit, including a terminal program that allows configuration of the portable as a standard terminal or as an emulation of a Data General Dasher terminal. Options include use of an internal or external modem, output flow control, and several other protocol elements – but no way I could discover to save files to disk or retrieve from disk or RAM.

Another of the ROM programs is Notebook, a simple text processor that can be used in conjunction with the modem for sending and receiving files, or as a quick memo pad. The program will hold as many as 500 lines of 80-column text in RAM. The other two options are a Setup configuration program (the settings are retained in a small portion of RAM that is powered by a separate lithium battery that also runs an internal clock/calendar) and a set of extended diagnostic routines to check memory chip-by-chip and test the various available disk drives.

There is also a built-in self-diagnosis program that is invoked when the computer is first turned on. The test reports net available memory (48K of RAM is taken by the operating system) and then a numeric code indicating any tests failed by the computer. The routines check the microprocessor, RAM, ROM, DMA controller, LCD controller, keyboard and speaker interfaces, various interrupts, power supply, output ports, and the internal memory if installed.

DG also sells a portable 27-pin thermal matrix printer that connects to its own serial output port on the computer. Powered either by its own set of rechargeable batteries or from an AC outlet, the device can work with regular bond paper using a special thermal transfer ribbon, or with specially coated thermal paper. According to Data General, the printer emulates an Epson MX-80 with Graftrax or its close cousin the IBM PC Graphics Printer, running at 40cps for draft quality and 20cps for “letter-quality” printing.

What’s New?

The DG/One pushes LCD technology to its present commercial frontier. In addition to obtaining sufficient supplies of the new large screens (Epson is reported to be one of the OEMs), engineers also found a way to deal with the “ghosting” problem often associated with LCDs. In effect, the large DG/One screen is treated by the computer as if it were several smaller screens with an individual driver for each portion of the display.

Another interesting design choice was the use of 8K by 8-bit RAM chips instead of the more common 64K. by 1-bit chips. Both devices will store a total of 64K bits, and therefore in a bank of eight will store 64K bytes. However, the IBM PC design stores each bit of an 8-bit byte in a separate chip, while the DG stores all eight bits in a single chip, saving another smidgen of power.

The construction of the machine seems solid, although the plastic shell does have the appearance of a device selling for less than $3000. A hinged cover at the back of the unit slides into place to cover the panel of connectors at the back and also serves as a prop to adjust the angle of the machine; it popped out of its grooved track every time I used it. DG does not endorse users taking the covers off to install add-ons. If the machine does make a significant dent in the marketplace, though, third-party manufacturers may seek to tie into the planned expansion chassis or attach to one of the ports.

Who should consider buying a device like the DG/One? Well, I spoke recently with a book editor who said his company’s sales staff was lugging one of those 40-pound “transportable” PC-compatible machines around the country for use in order entry and communication with the home office – the DG/One would be a quite worthy, back-saving replacement. It would also make a worthy companion for traveling heavy users of electronic spreadsheets.

You should have noticed by now that the only significant knock against this machine – assuming you can afford the price of admission – is based on a completely subjective decision about the LCD screen. A long word processing session did not appeal to my tired eyes. But, if you are considering the purchase of a portable, go and see for yourself.

Data General’s achievement with its portable computer is in a way comparable to IBM’s with its original PC model. The technology – with the exception of the LCD screen – is proven, off-the-shelf provisioning. What DG has done is make up a package combining a very high degree of PC compatibility, several disk storage options, a capable keyboard, and perhaps most important, added into the mix an established and respected name. You might say that the company immortalized in “The Soul of a New Machine” has brought a little of that soul from the minicomputer to your lap.

Hardware Profile

  • Name: Data General/One
  • Type: Portable PC-compatible computer
  • CPU: 80C88 at 4Mhz
  • RAM: 128K standard, can be increased to 512K in blocks of 128K
  • ROM: 32K
  • Operating system: MS-DOS 2.11. Can also use CP/M-86
  • Keyboard: 79 keys, with 10 function keys
  • Display resolution: LCD display of 640 by 200 pixels, or 25 lines of 80 characters.
  • Ports: Two serial ports built in. Expansion chassis that will accept IBM compatible hardware cards announced.
  • Dimensions/wt: 13.7” x 11.7” x 2.8”. Approximately 11Ibs. With two disk drives:
  • Documentation: Instruction manual
  • Summary: The first commercially available full-screen LCD portable computer with a high degree of PC compatibility.
  • Price: $2895 for unit with 128K RAM, one internal disk drive.
  • Manufacturer: Data General, 4400 Computer Dr. Westboro, MA 01580

First published in Creative Computing, February 1985

Amstrad PC1512-The Clone of Contention

PC1512-001

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.

System software

PC1512-002

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.

PC1512-003

Compatibility

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.

Verdict

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

Prices

  • 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

LSI M-Four

LSI M Four001

Jane Bird tackles a heavyweight British newcomer to the 16-bit market

The M-Four is built by British micro manufacturer LSI, based in Woking, Surrey. The company intends it primarily as a single user system for business applications such as word-processing, stock control and accountancy. Other possibilities include instrumentation control. It is the centrepiece of a new family of machines anticipated by LSI.

In the beginning was the M-One, a single user business computer that ran only proprietary software. Then came the M-Two, a multi-user system, but also restricted to LSI’s own software. Those two systems sacrifice the advantages of supporting a standard operating system such as CP/M with the abundance of associated software in favour of higher performance from proprietary software. LSI claims that the standard operating system for networks, MP/M, in particular, is less efficient for multi-users in a business environment than the company’s own operating system.

With the 8-bit Z80- based M-Three LSI moved into general purpose desk-top machines. The M-Three was launched two and a half years ago and has sold nearly 3000 units to date. Its successor, the M-Four, which offers both an 8-bit Z80B processor (twice as fast as the Z80) and a 16-bit Intel 8088 which controls the Z80B, was first exhibited last September. Production got underway in January. About 50 had been sold at time of going to press.

The M-Four supports two standard operating systems, CP/M86/80 from Digital Research and MS-DOS from Microsoft. In addition it supports the not truly compatible 8-bit CP/ M which actually runs on the 16-bit processor. The total system thus supports an enormous range of standard software.

According to LSI, this machine is only the first in a whole family of machines anticipated by the company. Rather than continually upgrade the M-Four the company expects to launch other machines in the range. Even so LSI may introduce an 8Mhz version in the future. (The 8088 functions at the standard 5MHz in the M-Four – the same speed as in the IBM Personal Computer and the Sirius.) Throughout, the priority with the M-Four is to keep price down as it is intended to be a single user system. For this reason, LSI has no plans to switch from the 8088 to the higher performing but much more expensive 8086. The latter, it thinks, is only really necessary for multi-user systems or number crunching applications. Intel’s iapx 80186 will be used as the basis for a different machine in the family.

The Z80B is under the control of the 8088 in the M-Four. The system has 128 Kbytes RAM with parity as standard and an option of 256 Kbytes RAM. There is also a real-time clock and calendar with battery back-up.

During the second half of this year we can expect to see other members of the family beginning to appear, with networking a major component of the new developments. Networks may include other processing units as well as M-Fours. In addition to MS-DOS and CP/M-86/80. LSI is currently implementing its M-Two multi-user software ELSIE on the M-Four. It is also implementing MP/M, against its better judgement, because of market demands.

Hardware

Perhaps I should explain the disturbing pattern of events that led up to the moment of bench testing the M-Four. It must have been way back last September that PCW first expressed interest in looking at the machine and there followed a fiasco of being sent two (or was it three?) M-Fours one after another, none of which worked. By the time we got a machine that lit up when you switched it on we had already lined up a whole lot of other micros to look at first and that is why you won’t be reading this until March at the earliest (When will manufacturers learn not to launch machines before they’re working?) The machine I tested was a pre-production model which may excuse some of the defects. Once I did start to put the poor thing through its paces, I found that the keyboard had several duff keys – but more of that later.

The M-Four comes in two parts – the main unit houses two disk drives, a 24 x 80 screen and the processors; the keyboard is separate and plugs in at the front of the main unit.

The main unit is housed in mushroom-coloured polyurethane. But the final keyboard I received clashed horribly, being ivory pale. Apparently the production machines now come in a two-tone breed of the mushroom colour. The unit weighs a ton! Well actually it weighs 35kg (77 lbs) including keyboard. It is also massive, being 642mm wide and sporting a keyboard to match.

The disks are arranged vertically on the right-hand side of the main unit with the left-hand drive housing the system disk. I tested an M-Four 250/4 series machine which gives a maximum formatted capacity of 2.4Mbytes on its two 8in floppy drives. Other models offer 5.25in drives at the lower end or a 10Mbyte Winchester at the upper end.

The screen is to the left with the qwerty keyset directly in front of it In the centre of the main unit is the on/off switch and below that a badge bearing a billowing Union Jack to remind you where your heart was in buying the LSI machine.

Beside the connector for the keyboard, at the bottom left hand side of the main unit is a dial for controlling the contrast on the screen – but you can’t control brightness. LSI dictates that the brightness has been ‘pre-set during manufacture for optimum operating conditions’. In fact, I found that brightness and contrast are satisfactory though the screen does have a sheen across it that tends to cause reflection. A gauze cover might alleviate this.

At the back are the interface plugs for connecting peripheral devices. My system had two standard RS232 serial ports with 25-way D-type connectors. It also had a parallel printer port with a 36-way Delta socket. The latter gives connection to any Centronics compatible parallel printer. Also available is an RS422 asynchronous/synchronous interface which you need for networking.

LSI M Four002

Rear view of the M-Four

Removing the lid of the main unit to examine the innards of the machine was quite a challenge. The machine is sealed and solid as though it were expecting an armed raid, which is almost what you need to get in. Eventually I located some allen keys of the right dimensions and was able to remove the top which turned out to be excessively thick and strong. Should you so wish, you could easily stand on it, which is a resilience quite unnecessary in a part of the machine that serves basically to keep the dust out of the components.

Inside, confirming all my suspicions, there is lots of empty space. It’s almost as if LSI had built a big machine to give the purchaser the impression of buying lots of electronic goodies. Still, I suppose this make room for enhancement should LSI dream up some plans. The main processor board sits inside the bottom left of the machine. On it are clearly visible the 16 64k RAM chips in the 128kbytes version with space for another 16 in the 256kbyte model (The Z80 can be programmed to use any block of 64k RAM within the main memory). You can also see the 8088, and the Z80B is located next to the PROMs in the middle of the board.

It is good news for fast servicing that the processor and memory are all mounted on the one board – allowing the whole lot to be swapped in and out at once. All the main processor and memory chips are socketed rather than soldered and could be yanked out with a screwdriver. This also facilitates maintenance by allowing you to switch chips in and out. The inside is a bit of a rats’ nest on wiring but is not as bad as some I’ve seen. There was no obvious patching of last minute bugs and the overall effect is very clean. The power supply is also mounted on its own board but the strength and solidity of the thing is reminiscent more of a Victorian viaduct than a modem microcomputer!

Disks

Once you have switched on, the screen asks for a system disk to be inserted. This goes in the left-hand drive: take care if you have to open the drive first by pressing the illuminated door button – the door springs back violently.

Inserting the disks is another clumsy task with this machine which has drive doors so hard to close that you have to concentrate real force into the fingertips and slam the doors across as if ramming home a winning goal. Once you’ve done this there emanates a pandemonium of clicking, clunking and thumping with deep echoes giving the impression of lofty caverns inside the machine. Each disk access is accompanied by a resounding clunk. It is bad that the drives keep the disks constantly spinning even when not in use since this tends to wear them out inside their jackets. It also promotes wear to the bearings of the drive – and drive B will keep spinning unused for a whole session if you don’t need it. Other manufacturers provide auto cut-out after a few minutes if you don’t access the disk.

Disk formats are unusually flexible on the M-Four – undoubtedly one of its finer points. Immediately after loading the system disk the screen presents details of available disk formats. The review machine restricted itself to double sided and double density for the left hand drive, but in addition to that could also handle double sided single density, single sided double density and single sided single density disks on the right hand drive. You specify which one you want by the prefix B:, C:, or D: respectively before the file name when accessing. The M-Four also reads IBM 3740 disk formats.

The maximum number of files allowed on a double sided 8 in disk for the M-Four is 256.

It was not very auspicious when the manual gave the incorrect information on how to switch on the system. ‘Depress the “power-on” switch so that it lights up’, it said. Unfortunately my machine switched on by means of a key and didn’t have a light. When you switch on, the machine emits a high-pitched bleep just to let you know it’s alive. The cooling fan also whirs into action and the M-Four starts off in the tradition it intends to follow as a rather noisy machine that likes to assert its presence.

Keyboard

LSI M Four003

The M-Four has a magnificent 109 keys on its 642mm wide keyboard

The keyboard has been carefully designed to be just as wide as the machine – a magnificent 642mm. This makes it almost totally impractical to rest the keyboard on your lap, although being an armchair programmer I persistently tried to do so.

A thick unwieldy piece of cable attaches the keyboard to the main unit. There is space underneath the keyboard to push in the spare cable but the whole arrangement is a bit primitive. It would be better with a flexible, coiled telephone-style cable to connect the two.

I also found that, although the keyboard is attached to the main processor by over 600mms of cable, it is rather heavy and so long that if you try to use the qwerty part of the keyboard in a central part of your lap the whole thing cascades to the floor on your right!

The keys are grouped in three banks across the front, with a row of function keys across the back. The left-hand bank is the standard qwerty keyboard, just to the right is the numeric pad and then further right again is a bank of function keys, a HOME key, and four cursor arrows. The arrows are much too far away and it is impossible to move the cursor about the screen without watching where you put your fingers on the keyboard. There are 24 function keys across the back of the keyboard which can be programmed to perform different functions in the SHIFT and normal positions. There are seven more to the right and one at the foot of the qwerty cluster, giving a total of 32 programmable function keys that can either be programmed by the user or by LSI as in the case of Wordstar. There are also 32 control codes which are addressed by using the CTRL key in conjunction with the alphabetic keys or @, [, /, ], ^, and . The control codes can be assigned to functions as dictated by the resident software. ‘ESCape’ generates the same control code as ‘[’ but provides two keys for the same function – one either side of the keyboard – which can save time in use.

There is a caps lock as well as a shift lock. The caps key allows you to type everything in upper case but the top row of the qwerty cluster still generates numbers. It puts on line most of the keys you need to write a program (although unfortunately not brackets, inverted commas or $).

The main keybank includes both DELete and BACKSPACE keys. The DELete rubs out text immediately preceding the cursor, and the BACKSPACE simply moves the cursor backwards without affecting the text it traverses. According to the manual in some software the DELete key causes the same character to appear on the screen again, but either way it will be considered by the system to have been erased. Then there is a LINE FEED which corresponds to CTRL J and therefore gives quick access to the HELP menu when using Wordstar. BREAK is a special function key on the main section which generates code outside the ASCII range.

The numeric pad to the right generates the same ASCII codes as the qwerty cluster but is separated off for fast data entry.

The first keyboard I had included a raised pip on the central key of the numeric keypad for touch-key entry but the new keyboard seemed to have reneged on this useful idea and all numerics were smoothly indistinguishable to the touch. Confusion is certainly caused by the apostrophe key being indistinguishable from the comma key – both have the punctuation symbol marked in the lower part of the key and I kept forgetting which was which. In all the M-Four has a magnificent 109 keys!

If keys are held down for more than 0.5 seconds they repeat. The repeat key is said to operate about three times per second.

I mentioned earlier that the keyboard on the final machine turned out to be defective. This took some time to sink in. Incredulous at the apparent defect in the nth machine, I paused before pressing the offending keys 20 times without result. Then I took a deep breath, walked twice round the room, approached the machine gently and gave a perfect short sharp jab. This produced a character – or rather several characters all the same.

It took LSI a little over 24 hours to deliver a new keyboard. Unfortunately this one had a defective shift lock which caused problems when using the Wordstar function key set – I kept accidentally saving the exiting Wordstar when I only wanted to save and resume, or deleting the character at the cursor when I wanted to delete the one to the left.

Operating system

The manual contains a partial guide to CP/M-86/80 which is the standard operating system for the M-Four. CP/M-86/80 maps out RAM into three areas: the main system management program modules, the system data, and the user programs and data(TPA). Within the first of these three areas are three main program modules, the console command processor (CCP) the basic disk operating system (BDOS) and the basic input/output system (BIOS). The CCP recognises the commands input by the user and initiates the appropriate program from within BDOS. BDOS calls BIOS if access to external data is required.

Programs from disk have to be loaded into RAM before they can be run. If they are to be run by the 16-bit processor then the space available to them in TPA is the total memory size (128 or 256kbytes) minus the space occupied by the operating system – about 30kbytes, depending on the release. If they are to be run by the 8-bit processor then they get 63kbytes because the operating system resides outside the Z80 address space. The remaining 1k is taken up by the bare minimum of CP/M needed to accept the user program.

The M-Four also supports MS-DOS, which bears a remarkable resemblance to IBM Personal Computer DOS. This is hardly surprising since Microsoft wrote the IBM operating system! M-Four users will be able to benefit from the vast amount of software that will be, and indeed already has been, written for the IBM PC.

Software

The M-Four allows you to run 16-bit and 8-bit software without changing disks. Program files are identified by the file extensions .CMD for CP/M 86 and .COM for CP/M 80. In fact, CP/M 80 programs are run in 16-bit mode under an 8-bit like environment. There isn’t an 8-bit operating system sitting at the top of the 64k associated with the Z80B processor. It gets translated into CP/M 86 sitting alongside the 64k on the Z80B.

LSI claims that its method of CP/M emulation is more efficient than other manufacturers’ because it leaves 62.5kbytes of TPA in the Z80B’s RAM as opposed to about 52kbytes of TPA left on a typical 8-bit machine. The Z80B also improves functionality over other machines because it operates at 5MHz as opposed to 4MHz for the Z80A and 2.5MHz for the Z80. The larger amount of TPA allows programs with large databases to do large disc access. The spare memory can be used to hold the actual matrix, in SuperCalc for example.

Basic

Although LSI gives you interpreted Microsoft Basic for both CP/M-86/80 and for MS-DOS, the 8-bit Z80 compiled Basic is much faster than the MS-DOS Basic. This is because, to provide Basic on the 16-bit processor, Microsoft simply did a semiautomatic translation giving very poor 8086 code. The same thing has happened with Wordstar and LSI reckons that Wordstar on the 8-bit processor is 1.6 times as fast as the 16-bit version. However, I had a more recent version of Microsoft Basic on the MS-DOS disk LSI sent than on the CP/M disk – 5.21 as opposed to 4.51. This created an anomalous situation. All the Benchmarks ran under MS-DOS at the same speed or slower than they did under CP/M-86/80. All, that is, except for Benchmark 8 which took 50.8 seconds under CP/M and only 29.2 under MS-DOS. A Basic compiler is also supplied under MS-DOS.

The screen is software-controlled on the M-Four so you can build display functions such as absolute cursor positioning and partial line erasure into your applications programs. The facility is intended to be used if you are designing a system to be used by operators working directly from the screens. When you write your application program you can include an ESCape H, for example, to move the cursor to the Home position in the top left hand corner and present your user with a completely screen. Other ESCape screen functions include ESC E to erase the screen, ESC J to erase the screen from the current cursor position to the end, and ESC A, B, C, D to move the cursor non-destructively up, down, right and left respectively.

The manual mentioned two other ESCape functions. There is the cursor address (ESC Y) and the graphics mode (ESC F). The cursor address supposedly allows you to move to a position using x, y co-ordinates. Graphics mode provides 32 graphics symbols using lower case alphabetics and six punctuation keys. Regrettably the manual refers the user to two appendices for further explanation of these facilities, but the appendices are not there – even in the final version of the manual!

You can store two different fonts in RAM at the same time – they take up 2k each – and these live in a file with the extension .FNT, and are loaded into RAM using the LOADFONT utility. You can then switch from one font to another in an application program by means of ESCape p. This displays all subsequent characters using the second 2k of font RAM, until it is switched off again by ESCape q. Under normal conditions the second 2k of font RAM contains the reverse video ASCII set so you could use ESCp and ESCq to toggle in and out of reverse video, giving clarity to applications on screen.

System utilities

There are three different aspects of the M-Four that the user can change: key programming, the character set displayed on the screen and system parameters. The last of these covers areas such as serial ports, logical/physical device assignment, cursor characteristics (flashing or steady, blocked or underlined) and the way the screen behaves in certain conditions like wrap-around at the end of a line.

The information relating to these aspects is stored in the following three different file types: .KEY, .FNT and .PRM.

On your system disk you get three utility programs for generating and editing these files. The programs are KEYGEN, FONTGEN and PARMGEN. These are interactive programs with a series of friendly and explanatory menus detailing how to use the utility. They are useful for generating the files the first time and also for going back to edit them later.

The first time you switch the system on it goes into AUTOEXEC. SUB as defined by LSI. But you can also create this file and edit it yourself.

LSI told me that the keyboard is delivered with a set of plastic overlays for the programmable function keys. The only overlay I had was for Wordstar and my main criticism of it is that it doesn’t specify which set of functions are executed by holding down the SHIFT key in conjunction with the function key, and which functions are executed by holding down the function key alone. Of course, I eventually learnt that SHIFT was for the bottom set of functions and that if you didn’t use it you’d get the top set executed instead. But all this took considerable time, trial and error and caused much annoyance. Also I kept forgetting every time I came back to the machine after a few days’ break. LSI also intends to provide an overlay for the spreadsheet package SuperCalc and for its own Modular Accounting Package (Map). You can get hold of blank overlays for your own special function programming.

The set of functions you have programmed into the keys are stored in a special file identified on the directory by the file extension .KEY. You can have as many of these files as you like and you load whichever one you want into the system by typing its name from CP/M. There are 511 codes available to the function keys and although they do not have to be shared equally, a complex sequence for one key will deprive the remainder.

KEYGEN is very friendly and leads you through a set of options. ‘T’ allows you to set an ERASE key other than BACK SPACE to help in a programmed key code sequence. ‘R’ is to call up a key function table which has already been created under KEYGEN. ‘I’ provides information on how to use KEYGEN and ‘F’ goes directly into key function programming mode. However, I found the utility much less friendly when it came to saving and exiting my KEYGEN file. When you have finished with the file you are given a two-option menu: ‘A’ to give the file a name and save it, or ‘E’ to abandon. Naturally you press ‘A’. But the menu comes straight back and if you genuinely don’t want to abandon the file you press ‘A’ again and go on looping the loop, conspicuously failing to get back into CP/M. Eventually I realised that after pressing ‘A’ to save, ‘E’ changed its meaning and became E to Exit to CP/M not E to abandon. So that needs tidying up.

KEYGEN is well laid out and at the top of the screen it displays a pictorial representation of the programmable keys with a pointer indicating which key you are currently programming and whether it is the SHIFT function (upwards arrow) or the normal function (downwards arrow).

A KEYGEN file is loaded into memory simply by typing LOADKEY followed by a space and then the filename.

The PARMGEN utility is for setting up the system’s parameters such as baud rate, word length or cursor characteristics. Again it is organised in a friendly series of options. ‘A’ is for cursor personality, ‘B’ is for the serial port, ‘C’ is for logical/physical input/output device assignment; ‘D’ is to change drive B to single/double sided, and ‘X’ is to overwrite existing parameters.

Logically enough, a file that has been created under PARMGEN is loaded into memory with the system command LOADPARM followed by the filename.

Devising the font is the third aspect of the system that the user can manipulate, and it is the most fun, if not the most vital. FONTGEN allows you to create all your own characters for the entire ASCII key set. In the top left it provides a visual representation of each location available in the file. On the right is a diagram of the character cell and you switch bits in it on or off using an ‘X’ or a ‘.’. At the bottom left hand side of the screen is information giving you the location of the current character you are working on in both decimal and hex. I designed a hieroglyphic style font which was wonderfully spidery and spikey. It would have been a good font to use while writing a ghost story – I’m sure Mervyn Peake would have approved. Sadly, you would of course need a more than ordinary printer to actually produce the characters on a printed page. But you could wake up sleepy users by fixing it so that important messages suddenly appear on the screen in scrawly handwriting style! I also designed a graphics font but there was a problem remembering the ASCII locations of the graphics.

My only complaint about the FONTGEN utility relates to the display it provides of the existing character’s font that you wish to edit (or blank set of locations waiting for characters in an empty file) eight pixels across and 13 down. If you think 13 is a strange number, it should be made clear that LSI wanted to have 14 with the extra line giving space for clarity between characters. However, the extra electronics involved in providing this would have added unacceptably to the cost of the system. The annoying thing here is that moving the cursor around the display of the font file has to be done using CTRL E, X, S, and D for up, down, left and right respectively.

I did hit another problem due to my own stupidity. I accidentally loaded an empty font file so that there was nothing on the screen. I could find no way out of this other than to switch the machine off and start again. I wonder what happens if you accidentally load an empty font file into your submit autoexec program! Which reminds me, one oddity of the M-Four is that it has no reset button!

Files created with FONTGEN are loaded with the LOADFONT command. This command has several options. As mentioned you can have two fonts loaded at the same time, with Font 1 occupying the first 2kbytes and Font 2 occupying the second 2kbytes. By default, two fonts are loaded. But if you follow the LOADFONT command with /1 this loads Font 1 only, and /2 loads only Font 2. You can also use ‘U’ to underline the loaded font and ‘R’ to reverse the loaded font. You can compound these specifiers to create /1 R for example which loads in Font 1 in reverse video.

The other utilities on the system disk were FORMAT, HELP, TIME, PIP, RDCPM and STAT. These are all menu driven and easy to use. HELP can be used for virtually anything on the system, but LSI seems to have lost interest halfway through the explanations. They go into things in some detail and at the end ask you if you want to see examples. I dutifully asked to see examples every time – but I never found any and always ended up back at the first HELP menu or back to CP/M.

As an example of the clear and unpompous way that HELP is written, look at the explanation of STAT. First you get a long paragraph describing the purpose of the STAT utility: ‘To supply information about the disk drives, files and peripheral devices attached to the computer. STAT also changes attributes of files and devices…’ and it goes on to explain the command line parameters. Then you are told that STAT gives you the free space ‘in kbytes (1024 bytes or 1k) for all online disks since CP/M was loaded’. It describes using STAT to set drives to Read/Write or Read Only, and how STAT VAL shows the possible external devices that can be assigned to your computer.

The manual also describes the utility DISCOPY but I did not find this on any of my system disks.

PIP is a standard CP/M utility to copy, combine and transfer files between peripherals. RDCPM allows you to read CP/M files from MS-DOS.

TIME refers to the real time clock system which tells you the date and time whenever you switch the system on. One pleasing feature about it is that you input the initial date and time in digits it is printed on the screen at the beginning of a session with the day of the week printed in English. Unfortunately my clock had a few problems. On one occasion it told me, on booting the system, that it was 02.59.04 on Monday July 15th 2058!!! LSI assures me that the fault has been patched and now functions properly on production machines.

Conclusions

LSI regards the dual processor as the big selling point of this system and although a similar facility is available on the Digital Equipment Rainbow LSI claims to be in the lead with a machine that is up and running and in the marketplace. Also the Rainbow only uses a 4MHz Z80A. LSI says the M-Four is definitely faster than the Rainbow when running in 8-bit mode and the M-Four is also cheaper for the 128k version (The Rainbow starts at a 64k version, which LSI thinks ridiculous for a 16-bit processor.) LSI also claims the M-Four is cheaper than IBM.

I did find my patience somewhat stretched with the reliability of the machine although the fact that I was testing a preproduction model probably gave me an unfair impression of the system before final bugs had been disguised.

Aesthetically, I thought it an ugly machine which takes up far too much space – especially since the M-Four is being marketed as a single user tool and therefore ought to sit easily on a desk top. It needs a table all of its own about 130cms wide to accommodate the main unit, keyboard and a small printer. It is also very deep, 683mm counting the main unit and keyboard together. The unwieldly bulk of the keyboard and the long stretches involved amount to a significant handicap.

Undoubtedly the major advantage of the M-Four is the amount of standard software it will support Most people should be able to find a package to do more or less what they want under CP/M-86/80 or MS-DOS. It is also useful to be able to use a variety of different density disks in the same drive. On price it matches up respectably against the competition.

Prices

These prices apply to the LSI M-Four with 8088 and Z80B dual processors, 128k RAM, real time clock, Centronics printer interface, two RS232 interface ports, screen, keyboard two disk drives and CP/M-86/80.

  • Model 150/4 (5!4in double sided drives, two 400k byte disks – £2390
  • Model 250/4 (8 in double sided drives with two 1.2Mbyte disks) – £3475
  • Model 650/4 (10Mbyte Winchester formatted capacity, 8 in double sided with 2Mbytes) – £4875
  • Model 160/4 (5.25in quadruple density double sided disks, not yet in production) – no price available.
  • Model 652/4 (21Mbyte Winchester disk, 8in double sided disk) – no price available.

Options

  • Extra 128kbytes RAM, one RS232 interface, one RS422 interface – £500
    MS-DOS – £500

Technical specifications

  • CPU: 5MHz Z80B, 5MHz 8088
  • RAM: 128k expandable to 256k
  • ROM: 4k bootstrap loader
  • I/O Ports: Centronics parallel printer ports; 2 x RS232 and 20mA Current loop async ports; General purpose interface bus – optional; RS422 serial port – optional.
  • Disks:25in 8in
  • O/S: CP/M-86/80, MS-DOS
  • Languages: Wide range available under CP/M and MS-DOS
Benchmark timings
BM1 1.9
BM2 4.8
BM3 11.5
BM4 11.5
BM5 12.4
BM6 19.8
BM7 30.9
BM8 50.8
All timings in seconds. For an explanation and listing of the Benchmark programs, see PCW November 1982.

First published in Personal Computer World magazine, April 1983