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

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