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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OKI IF-800

Oki001

Equipped with an unusually high level of sophisticated hardware, this integrated microcomputer system is clearly designed to appeal to a wide range of business and technical users. John Dawson finds out whether its practical performance matches up to the advanced specification.

The OKI IF-800 Model 20 personal computer is an eight-bit machine intended as a small business computer, for scientific purposes, and for diverse applications such as instrument control and running business colour-graphics software. It uses a Z-80A CPU running at 4MHz, backed up by 64K of dynamic RAM for program store and 16K for the monochrome display, or 48K if you have the colour monitor. There is a 2K bootstrap ROM.

The IF-800 has a built-in printer which uses a five-by-seven-dot matrix, and consequently produces no lower-case descenders. The printer provides for both tractor and friction paper feed. The other input/output facilities for the computer are listed in table 1.

Two 5in. double-sided, double-density mini-floppy disc drives are built into the computer. Each drive has a capacity of 280K, giving a total on-line storage capability of 560K. With four floppy-disc drives in place, the machine can access 1.12Mbyte. A brochure accompanying the computer, dated November 1981, offers a 5.25in. hard-disc drive with a capacity of five or ten megabytes.

The computer is delivered as two units: the first incorporates the keyboard, printer and CPU/memory. The second unit contains the VDU and the two floppy disc drives mounted on a plinth to raise them above the keyboard. Power and data connections are brought neatly down the inside of one leg of the plinth to plug into the back of the computer/keyboard unit.

Eight-colour image

The computer is supplied with a mains lead wired directly to the machine and a continental three-pin plug at the far end of the lead. Despite this, the IF-800 contains a 240-volt power supply and the first job you will have to undertake after unpacking the computer is to cut off the plug to substitute a standard U.K. plug.

Oki002

An eight-colour image is available on the IF-800 with a high-resolution display – 640 horizontal by 200 vertical pixels. Alternatively the machine can be supplied with a green monochrome display with the same resolution.

The story, however, does not end there. The colour mask in the colour cathode-ray tube is perceptible to an operator using the computer, and the effect of this is to lower the apparent resolution. When this is combined with the absence of lower-case descenders in the VDU type fount, the result is to make the machine unsuitable for use over extended periods by, for example, a word-processor operator.

Any computer should have an easily legible character set that will not cause fatigue when used for a number of hours at a stretch – nothing less is acceptable, certainly not in the prestige, up-market product range to which the IF-800 aspires. The poor quality of the 80-character IF-800 alpha-numeric display is a serious shortcoming.

Oki003

In addition to the normal typewriter keys on the IF-800 keyboard, there are 10 user-programmable “soft keys” and 32 special-function keys, including a numeric keypad. Three keys are dedicated to printer functions: to print the current contents of the VDU on the printer; eject a “form” length of paper from the printer; and echo whatever is typed in at the keyboard to the printer.

The soft keys are repeated along the bottom edge of the VDU screen, and some of the CRT control options allow a label field to be displayed across the bottom of the VDU indicating the function of the 10 programmable soft keys. The keys along the bottom edge of the VDU are particularly useful when a menu of commands is provided for a user to choose from. The first three characters of the command are displayed when the CRT display is in 40-character mode, and the first seven characters of a maximum
of 15 are displayed when the VDU is in the 80-character mode.

A reset switch and a key to break into the operation of a Basic program are located on the left-hand edge of the computer. A diverse and comprehensive set of sockets scattered round the computer will allow you to plug in additional peripheral devices such as a light-pen, an acoustic coupler or British Telecom Modem, laboratory instruments, a printer with a Centronics interface, or the two additional floppy-disc drives.

Oki004

Hard information

Two manuals are supplied with the computer. The Operation Manual contains 200 pages packed with hard information about the system and example Basic programs. The second manual is the Basic Reference Manual which devotes about 30 pages to a general explanation of the OKI Basic interpreter, and a further 100 or so to a more detailed description of the use of each command and intrinsic function.

The IF-800 is likely to be marketed into offices, scientific and hospital laboratories, and possibly executive conference rooms. Many of the machine’s users will be intelligent and capable people who are quite ignorant about computers. The documentation supplied with the machine is crucially important, particularly where small detail is concerned, because this group of users is unlikely to have the accumulated wisdom that will allow them to disregard red lights and to cope with unexpected error messages when following programs in the Operation Manual.

For example, there is a caution that you should not attempt to remove a disc from the disc drive when the drive-select light is on. Yet the red light remains on the whole time on drive 1, presumably to indicate that the drive is selected rather than that the head is in contact with the disc, reading or writing material. Even if it were possible to select the second drive manually this is an incredibly clumsy way of removing a disc. There is no cross-reference in the manual to tell you how to overcome the problem.

Additional boards

The Operation Manual does improve when it reaches the technical description of the various additional boards that can be attached to the basic system. There is plenty of information, well set out, on the pin connections, voltage levels and timing patterns that are expected by the D-A and A-D boards, the IEEE-488 interface and so on. A technician in a polytechnic or university laboratory should be able to interface the IF-800 to other equipment without difficulty after consulting these sections of the manual.

There are, however, numerous other small discrepancies in the Operation Manual and generally too little attention has been given to a user approaching the computer for the first time. The poor introduction to the documentation has been overcome to some extent by an impressive training program supplied on disc. The program demonstrates some of the Graphics Macro Language commands, described later, and many of the other Basic commands concerned with drawing on to the screen. The screen photographs were taken while this program was running and you should be able to see the command in the lower portion of the screen, with explanatory comments and the effect of the command in the upper half. Training by the company supplying the machine is still necessary for other aspects of the computer’s operation.

The IF-800 is supplied with an extended Basic interpreter based on Basic-80 developed by Microsoft. The version of the language supplied allows various screen formats with either abrupt or smooth scrolling, and a Basic command which will access a Graphic Macro Language. Circle, for example, will draw a circle or arc on the screen, given coordinates for the centre, the radius of the circle and the colour of the line.

A further parameter allows you to set the elongation of the vertical axis of the circle, and the ratio of the vertical to the horizontal axes can be set between zero and one. Zero will make the computer draw a straight line while, a ratio of one will draw an ellipse. In the same way, the angle of arc that is to be drawn can be set, where zero represents 90 degrees, 0.25 represents 180 degrees, and 0.5 starts or stops an arc at 270 degrees.

Another basic command, DEF CHR$. allows you to redefine the graphics characters held in the machine. The eight-by-eight screen matrix can be controlled by a character string consisting of eight bytes expressed in hexadecimal notation, concatenated into a string.

The Basic interpreter contains many commands peculiar to the machine. Although the machine runs CP/M and has a vast quantity of software available through Lifeboat Associates, it is unlikely that WordStar, Fortran-80, Pascal, muSimp/muMath or the Peachtree financial packages will make adequate use of the special hardware and software features available on the IF-800.

For example, the Pen commands in OKI Basic will return the horizontal and vertical position of the light-pen on the screen to a resolution of one pixel. It should be possible to use the light-pen for editing purposes in a word-processor program, selecting first a command at the top of the screen such as Delete, and then selecting the character or word to be deleted anywhere on the screen.

In the same way, it should be possible to scroll the screen in any direction merely by placing the light-pen on the appropriate boundary. Obviously WordStar does not have this facility in the form in which it is implemented on a Superbrain or Cromemco. In the absence of software designed specifically for the IF-800 it is constrained into the mould of a straightforward business computer with a colour display.

The OKI Basic interpreter has two commands for storing and retrieving machine-code programs from disc, and has both Call and USR commands which transfer program execution to a user machine-code subroutine. There are no details in the manual to tell you how to return to the Basic program at the end of the machine-code subroutines.

VARPTR returns the address of the first byte of data identified with a variable name. VARPTR can be used to obtain the address of the variable array so that it can be passed to an assembly-language subroutine. For example the instruction

VARPTR (A (ZERO) )

identifies the lowest element of the array.

Conclusions

  • The IF-800 costs £4,300, including VDU, printer and double disc drive
  • The comprehensive input/output facilities on the IF-800 will be attractive to scientists wishing to gather and display complex information in graphic form. Business executives may find the colour display a useful presentation device for their colleagues.
  • The tidy appearance of the computer must be set against the fixed relationship between the keyboard and the VDU which is poor ergonomic design.
  • Operation of the machine is quite separate from programming it, and the confusion over details such as the orientation of the label on a floppy disc and the drive-select light on the floppy disc units is an unnecessary burden on a small business looking for a robust system for the first time.
  • The 80-character display is not backed up by a sufficiently high-resolution display on the colour VDU to make it acceptable for prolonged use as a word processor or for other applications which demand reading or correcting text.
  • Dot-matrix print is acceptable for memoranda and papers that will be used within an office, but the lack of lower-case descenders on the IF-800 printer makes documents tiring and annoying to read.
  • Despite its length, the documentation supplied is inadequate to allow anyone unfamiliar with microcomputers to operate the machine successfully.
  • A wide choice of C/PM software should be available, but this is unlikely to take advantage of the sophisticated hardware features of the IF-800. Software that is specific to the machine will take longer to emerge, but when available will provide a powerful and versatile system.
  • The IF-800 appears to be strongly made and should be reliable in operation.
  • If the price/performance ratio is attractive to you, and if you have the facilities to write appropriate software without needing too much support from the system manuals, the IF-800 is worth considering.
Table 1. Dimensions and input/output channel specifications

Two built-in mini-floppy double-sided, double-density disc drives – 280K per disc. An extra two disc units can be connected.

Loudspeaker: Can switch a tone on and off with a frequency range from 65Hz to 1,976Hz.
Calendar clock: A hardware clock is fitted, powered by a NiCad battery. It displays the year, month, day, hour, minute, second and day of the week on request.
ROM cartridge: Holds 20K, the interface is said to be addressable to 1 Mbyte.
RS232C interface: From 110 to 9,600 baud under software control.
External I/O interface: Three slots for optional cards to give a Centronics-type parallel interface, an IEEE-488 interface, and a two-channel, 12-bit D-to-A board or
an eight-channel, 12-bit A-to-D board.
Audio cassette I/O: Uses non-standard BMC protocol; cassette recorder motor control by Basic instruction.
Printer: Five-by-seven-dot matrix; tractor/friction feed; paper up to 9.5in. wide; no lower-case descenders.

Dimensions: width 20in. (51cm.); depth 26.7in. (68cm.); height 19.9in. (50cm.). Weight: 77lb. (35kg.) with monochrome display; colour display weighs an extra 111b. (5kg.).

First published in Practical Computing magazine, April 1982

Gem Desktop – WIMPS for All

GemDesktop01

Digital Research’s version of Gem runs on the IBM PC and compatibles. Versions for other systems will be supplied by hardware manufacturers.

Digital Research’s Gem brings a uniform Mac-style graphics interface to a wide range of personal computers, including the IBM PC.

By Mike Lewis

The arrival of Gem marks the most realistic attempt yet to bring the marvels of overlapping windows, pull-down menus and multiple founts to a wide range of personal computers. It is a strategically important product, for both programmers and end-users. If it succeeds it will do for graphical interfaces what CP/M did for operating systems.

The comparison is an apt one because, above all, Gem is to do with portability. Just as CP/M allowed software houses to write a program for one computer in the expectations that it would run on many others, so Gem gives them the world of Wimps – windows, icons, mice and pointers – without having to worry about the details of widely differing graphics hardware.

Gem is not itself an operating system, but rather a layer of software that lives between the OS and an application program. The hardware-dependent parts are provided by Gem’s licensees – that is computer manufacturers and OEMs – while writers of application software gain access by means of a programmer’s toolkit.

Software yet to come

What Gem will do for the end-user depends on the extent to which developers of databases, spreadsheets, accounting packages, etc. make use of the goodies that it offers. So far, Gem-based packages have come in a trickle rather than a flood, but it’s early days yet.

In fact, the only Gem offerings to date have originated, not surprisingly, from Digital Research. These include Gem Draw, Gem Paint, Gem Graph and Gem Wordchart, all of which should be available by the time you read this. At the moment, the only established product is Gem Desktop, which is in many ways the hub of the system.

To run Gem, you will need 256K of RAM and a graphics display. A hard disc is advisable, but not vital. The version we tried was for the IBM PC, but it ran quite happily on the closely compatible Compaq Deskpro and Olivetti M-24. Versions for other systems will be supplied by the hardware manufacturers – they already exist for the Atari ST series and the entire Apricot range – but the IBM version is sold by Digital Research itself.

Of course, you will also need a mouse. In fact, Gem can be made to work with various pointing devices, such as joysticks and touch-screens, provided the manufacturer supplies the necessary drivers. We used the two-button Microsoft mouse, only the left-hand button being operative in Gem. In the IBM version you can get by with the cursor keys instead of a mouse, but it is a slow and clumsy alternative.

Installing Gem is simple, the whole operation being carried out by a batch file called GemPrep. If you are using floppies, you end up with two discs: a start-up disc and the disc containing the Desktop program. To start Gem itself, you place the start-up disc in Drive A and type GemRun. You are then prompted to swap discs, after which Desktop takes over the screen. Drive B remains free for other programs and data. You can also start Gem from a hard disc.

The aim of Desktop, in a nutshell, is to replace the DOS command line. It does not replace DOS itself or even Command.Com, but it does provide an easy way of carrying out basic housekeeping tasks without having to remember unfamiliar commands. Experienced users might prefer the old fashioned A> prompt, but a newcomer should find Desktop less intimidating and easier to learn.

The initial Desktop screen shows an icon for each floppy or hard disc and a trash can. There is also a menu bar with four choices: Desk, File, View and Options. To do anything useful, you have to select a disc by moving the mouse pointer to the icon and clicking the button. This switches the icon to a dark picture on a light background, Gem’s standard way of highlighting a selected object.

GemDesktop02

Desktop provides a separate scrollable window for each sub-directory. Each icon in the window represents either a file or another sub-directory. The user is able to move windows to anywhere on the screen, change their size and make them overlap.

GemDesktop03

The Get Info option in the file menu brings up an information box for the currently selected object, which may be a disc, folder, application or document. In this case, it is the floppy disc in drive A which is selected, as indicated by the reversed disc icon.

To see what’s on the disc you open the drive, either by double-clicking the icon or by selecting Open from the File menu. Gem responds by displaying the disc’s root directory in a window, with an icon for each file. These so-called directory icons come in three varieties: folders, which are DOS sub-directories; applications – Bat, Com and Exe files; and documents, which are meant to cover text and data files, but are in fact anything that is not a folder or an application.

Branching

Since a folder is a sub-directory, it can itself be opened to display a further window of icons. Folders may contain other folders, reflecting DOS’s tree-like structure. There is a New Folder option in the File menu which serves the same purpose as the DOS MkDir command, and you can copy files between folders, root directories and other discs.

Copying a file is simply a matter of selecting the icon, then dragging it with the mouse button held down to where you want it to go. Gem warns you if the file already exists at the destination, and also gives you a chance to rename the copy. You can copy entire discs in this way, just by dragging one disc icon on to another. If you drag an icon to the trash can, it is deleted after a suitable warning message.

The most important operation that you normally carry out at the DOS command line is to invoke an application program. In Gem, this is done simply by opening the application’s icon. Before handing over to the program, Desktop invites you to enter a parameter, the name given to a command line tail, for passing to the program. Although the application takes complete control of the screen, when it finishes the Desktop reappears exactly as you left it.

The other type of icon which you can open is a document. The aim here is merely to see what is in it, via the DOS Type command. Bear in mind that a Gem document is not necessarily text, so trying to open a binary file will result in a screenful of rubbish.

Opening a document in this way reveals one of the main weaknesses of Desktop, something which is also evident when you wish to format a floppy or carry out a disc-to-disc copy. In each case, Desktop steps aside and allows the equivalent DOS command – Type, Format or DiskCopy – to take over, exposing the user to precisely the sort of cryptic dialogue that Desktop is designed to avoid.

Having opened a document, it is a trifle disconcerting to see your attractive Desktop display disappear, albeit temporarily, to be replaced by a monochrome text screen, with the contents of the file flashing past and only the Control-S key to stop the scrolling. Would it have been so difficult for Digital Research to have displayed the file in a Gemstyle window and to have given the user a little more control over the scrolling? As it is, relinquishing control to DOS in this way gives Desktop a decidedly unpolished appearance.

Fortunately, these are the only occasions on which Desktop’s dealings with the user are open to criticism. In general, you are never left wondering what is going on and most of the system’s messages are polite, clear and to the point. When you start an operation that might be either time-consuming or destructive, such as copying or deleting a file, Desktop issues an unambiguous warning and gives you a chance to back out. More confident users can switch off this feature.

A particularly interesting aspect of Desktop is the way in which documents with the same file type can be linked to a specific application. Once this is done, opening a document of the relevant type will have the same effect as invoking the application, with the document’s name as a parameter.

For example, you could assign all documents of type Txt to WordStar. Then when you double click on a file named Report.Txt, Desktop will load WordStar which will in turn open Report.Txt ready for editing. To help you remember which documents work with which programs, you can superimpose special icons on the normal application and document icons. Thus there is a typewriter icon which would be suitable for a WP program, and one resembling a sheet of paper for word-processed text.

Resume later

Normally, this link-up between applications and documents survives only for the current Gem session. The same is true of the various toggles and switches which you can set to disable the warning message before file deletions, for instance. However, if you use the Save Desktop function in the Options menu, all these settings are written to disc. The next time you invoke Desktop, the system will be just as you left it.

In any discussion of Gem, there is a strong temptation to make comparisons with the systems that has most furthered the Wimp cause: the Macintosh. Certainly, Gem has a great deal in common with the Mac, at least from the user’s viewpoint. This is no bad thing, because once you have learned how to operate one of these, you will know the other too.

Windows have a near identical anatomy in both systems. By manipulating the various controls around the edge of the window, you can scroll it any direction, move it, alter its size or close it altogether. The only difference is that Gem’s windows also have a Full box: you click this once to make the window fill the screen and click it again to return the window to its previous size. This would be a useful addition to the Mac.

Another small difference is in the use of pull-down menus. On the Mac, you pull down a menu by pointing to it and holding down the mouse button. You may then drag the mouse to the option you want and release the button. In Gem, the menu drops down as soon as you point to it, and the option is selected by a single click.

Desk accessories are also common to both systems. These are mini-applications which can be invoked from their own menu, either from the desk top or within other programs. Gem has just two of them, a clock and a calculator, while the Mac sports seven, including the indispensable scrapbook. Gem also lacks the equivalent of the Macintosh clipboard, a handy means of cutting and pasting between programs.

GemDesktop04

Desk accessories may be invoked from Desktop or within a Gem application. The clock and the calculator are supplied with the package. Programmers who have the Gem Toolkit may add their own accessory programs.  

But it is from the programmer’s point of view that the real differences between Gem and the Macintosh emerge. When you program the Mac, you are locked into a fairly fixed configuration. Access to the graphical interface involves working closely with the hardware and with the Mac’s ROM-based service routines, and this can be quite an undertaking. You can do a lot of Mac tricks in certain high-level languages like Microsoft Basic and Mac Pascal, but these are interpreted rather than compiled and so do not appeal to software vendors.

The Macintosh is controlled by a piece of software called the finder. This, together with the ROM routines, serves as operating system, Wimp manager, and desk top. It is highly machine specific, and adding non-Apple hardware like third-party hard discs generally involves obtaining a modified version of finder.

By contrast, Gem works in co-operation with existing operating systems, its role being confined to servicing programs that want to use the graphics interface. The programmer can communicate with DOS as before, and can continue to use all his or her favourite tools like keyboard enhancers and RAM discs. And you can use any language that permits calls to compiled library routines – although the calling sequence is particularly geared to C.

Highly portable applications

Because all interaction with graphics devices is routed through a set of drivers, Gem programs can be highly portable. This does not mean that you can port Gem itself from an IBM to an Apricot and expect it to work. But once you have Gem on both systems, your application code can be successfully transferred, which is more than can be said for packages that try to do their own clever displays by directly accessing the computer’s screen-mapped memory.

This approach also means that applications written for non-Gem environments can be used in a Gem system without change. Familiar programs like WordStar and dBase will run quite happily whether they were invoked from Desktop or the DOS command line, and they will not be put off by any Gem routines that happen to be resident in RAM. What is more, the user is not tied to Gem and can return to normal DOS operation whenever he or she feels like it.

But although these are important advantages, Gem will not succeed if it merely provides a standard, intuitive mechanism for invoking non-standard, non-intuitive applications. The future of Gem depends critically, on how readily the likes of Micropro and Ashton-Tate incorporate the Gem brand of Wimps into their mass market products.

So far the prospects are good, with around a dozen major houses promising Gem adaptations of their packages. The products include Thorn EMI’s Perfect range, the Pegasus accounting system, Lifetree’s Volkswriter, Plan from Chang Labs, SPI’s Open Access, Compsoft’s Delta, and the Prospect Graphics Library.

It is true that all these represent just announcements rather than actual discs and manuals on dealers’ shelves. But with this sort of muscle behind it, Gem certainly looks like being off to a good start.

Conclusions

  • With its Mac-like user interface, its availability on a range of business micros, and its ability to work with existing applications software, Gem certainly looks like being a winner.
  • At first sight the Gem environment is nice and friendly to programmers, especially those who do not want to work too closely with the graphics hardware.
  • In spite of a few rough edges, Desktop is a highly acceptable alternative to the DOS command line. It can be mastered very quickly and so should appeal strongly to computer novices.

Specification

  • Description: Gem is an operating system extension that lets programmers use overlapping windows, icons, mouse support, pull-down menus and multiple fonts; Desktop uses Gem to perform the common DOS utility functions.
  • Hardware required: IBM PC family or compatibles, Atari ST or Apricot, other versions available soon; bit-mapped graphics display, 256K RAM, mouse or other pointing device.
  • Publisher: Digital Research, Oxford House, Oxford Street, Newbury, Berkshire.
  • Price: Desktop costs £49.95 plus VAT
  • Available: Now

First published in Practical Computing magazine, August 1985

This CAD has Plans for Factories of the Future

Computer-aided design techniques are already well established as tools for design engineers, yet they are still far from having reached their full potential. Computer methods are now poised to move out of the drawing office to take charge of the average factory’s entire design and manufacturing process.

There is more to computer-aided design than meets the eye. This dynamic, fastest-growing sector of the computer industry heralds a total change for the industrial world. Senior management in every company that manufactures something had better take notice of CAD: to ignore it will be akin to having ignored the Industrial Revolution of the last century.

CAD is not simply an aid in the relatively simple task of producing an engineering or architectural drawing. It is an electronic medium in its own right which is fast, intelligent and interactive. Blueprints –  diagrams on paper – are a medium which belongs to an earlier age.

Uncomfortable transition

For the moment, we are stuck in the uncomfortable period of transition. Manufacturers are still geared to basing their product on familiar and reassuring “working diagrams”. They lie around the office or factory, constant and visible proof that work is in progress.

Even when the new oil refinery is on stream or when that neat little extension to the clubhouse is completed, then the builder makes yet another set of drawings – what the Americans call “as-builts” – to act as a guide for repairs and maintenance. Drawings have been around in one form or another for 20,000 years, but now, suddenly, they are not at all essential.

CAD001

CAD systems must be able to handle all the relevant design information

The most far-sighted people in the computer-graphics industry are aware that the present craze for hard-copy devices – printers and plotters – is but a passing phase along the road to total automation. The destination is the completely integrated factory in which the process of design and manufacturing is a single task. Karl Marx and his concept of the division of labour – an accurate analysis in its time – will be finally discredited as computers and robots team up to create all the necessary products of the future.

This vision is not mere science fiction. In the United States they already have a name and an acronym for it: computer integrated manufacturing or CIM. It is the next step beyond CAD/CAM – computer-aided design and manufacturing. Just as we are getting used to the idea of CAD/CAM, at least to the extent of understanding what the initials stand for, along comes CIM. You can be sure that it is coming because it is market forces which provide the motivation for the change.

The keys to economic survival are efficiency, competitiveness and productivity. The world’s population is expected to double and treble before it finally stabilises, and the emphasis will be placed on the most efficient uses of energy and materials. Our present use of resources is so wasteful because industry is not organised on a rational basis. Under the influence of those same market forces it has evolved like a Gothic cathedral, each generation tacking on its own contribution.

Now the time has arrived when industry has to increase its efficiency and productivity. It can do it only by the complete integration of computers into the industrial process. Piecemeal computerisation will not work in the long run. If you streamline one part of the operation, then you tend to create a bottleneck somewhere else. To get rid of the bottleneck you have to use a computer.

Everyone who has used a computer for even a simple task realises the importance of understanding the process which is being computerised. When a system has been analysed rationally, you may find that you do not need a computer at all. Yet no individual can keep in mind every one of the millions of operations that go on in a factory and so the best, simplest, the most rational manufacturing solution can never be achieved. What is needed is integration, and this will be the keyword to the future.

Agent provocateur

Why is CAD proving to be the agent provocateur in this leap towards the future? After all, industry has been using computers for years. So far, word processing, payroll accounting and even numerical control have not provoked a total rethink of how to run an entire manufacturing process.

The reason is simply that design is an “upstream” operation, whereas those parts of a business which are often the first to be computer-assisted are mainly “downstream” operations. Word processing is downstream of management instructions. Invoicing is done after you have made and delivered the product. Payroll is the most downstream operation of all: everyone is paid in arrears. But this downstream computerisation does not have a knock-on effect. It does not necessarily force us to make other changes.

CAD, by contrast, does. Frank Lloyd Wright was one of America’s greatest architects, yet some of his greatest buildings were designed on the back of an envelope. He and his assistants would fill in the details later on, in the conventional way. The design took shape in Frank Lloyd Wright’s head. It was a synthesis of experience, of knowledge of materials, of the environment and of architectural forms. More than that, it also contained the vital element of originality. A Frank Lloyd Wright building had all the elements of good design.

Being an exceptional sort of man, Wright did not spend much time developing his concepts diagrammatically. The model was in his head. The secret of design is in conceiving the model, and not at all in making a representation of the model on, for instance, a piece of paper.

The essence of CAD is in the creation of the model. If computers are going to be really useful in assisting us with designs then they have to assume the role of Frank Lloyd Wright’s head.

The computer has to contain the model. Where else could you put it? On paper? That would be far too complex. In our own heads? We are not all Frank Lloyd Wright, and the design capability of even his brain would not be sufficient for a high technology product, such as a car or a space shuttle. The machine has to be programmed with all the relevant information about the properties of materials, about the environment in which a product will be used, with appropriate marketing information – not to mention a whole library of existing designs.

Graphics are one of the windows into the model. They are a communications link which provides a visual representation of it. As graphics displays become more sophisticated, so the number of visual representations increases. For instance, with a model of the human body a display might one day be able to show the skeleton, or perhaps the nervous system, or the blood circulation, or the familiar skin-covered figure itself. More easily displayed with current technologies are engineering designs which involve structural, electrical, piping or instrumentation models. All these models are related to each other. You cannot change one without changing the others. The great advantage of CAD is that the computer can be programmed to make many of the changes automatically, and to warn you if something is not possible. The truth of my opening statement should now be apparent. There is, literally, more to CAD than meets the eye.

Graphics displays

Nevertheless, for the time being, CAD is mainly concerned with producing diagrams. Early graphics displays could show only the outlines of objects, conveniently echoing the tradition of engineering drawings. This does not necessarily mean that vector displays, or even drawings themselves, will be with us forever.

In the last two years, raster displays have made great strides, bringing with them all the benefits of full colour and fully-shaded surfaces. They point us in a new direction: the computer model itself need not be related to “wire-frame” drawings at all.

Much of what passes for computer aided design would be better described as computer-aided drafting. By the time the operator sits down at the terminal most of the work has already been done. A decision has been made to build a particular product, the shape and function of which is largely known. The CAD system is used to tidy up the details, put in all the symbols, put lettering in the right places, and then to print out sets of isometric and orthographic drawings.

Operators can, of course, refine and modify the designs. With a stroke of the pen you can magnify, rotate or move the image – or any part of it – and make additions and improvements. Using the keyboard you can type in facts and figures, descriptions and dimensions. You can ask the system to automatically retrieve the previous drawings, and there is always an instant library of symbols at your command, ready to be pasted into any position on the screen.

Even when it is being used as a high class drafting aid or as an expensive “ideas pad” the average CAD system is an effective and impressive tool. Shortly after it is installed, senior company men will murmur approvingly about high productivity ratios – that is to say: how much more work is being done as a result of using the new toy. It is not unusual to find that the work is completed in a fraction of the time. A piping diagram may have a 2:1 ratio, a mechanical diagram 4:1, an instrument diagram 5:1, and others may be even higher.

The bottleneck

What used to take a week to design on paper may take only a couple of hours with a little help from your friendly computer. Suddenly, the rest of the manufacturing process seems to be abysmally lethargic. The whole factory has become one long bottleneck. At this point, CAD has to be extended to CAD/CAM. A design is created with computer assistance, then the computer automatically instructs the machine-tools to start turning out the new product.

Those companies that have already made a heavy investment in CAD/CAM are beginning to reap the rewards: indeed, many of them could not survive without it. In the United States particularly, there is such a shortage of fully trained design staff that it would be impossible to handle a large defence contract without CAD. Automated manufacturing carries the process one stage further as components are produced with only a fraction of the highly-paid workforce which was previously needed. The time between design and production shrinks dramatically, while last-minute changes can be made without escalating cost.

Best answer

CAD/CAM is seen in the United States as being the best answer to the Japanese lead in manufacturing techniques. At present still in its early stages, CAD/CAM usually means that the computer design station has been linked up to some numerical-control machinery. The machine-tools are placed under the control of punched tape which comes directly from the designers. Though this is a leap forward, it is still a long way from the goal of CIM, where all the operations of the factory are plugged into a common database.

CAD/CAM not only provides increased productivity, there is often an outstanding increase in product quality as well. Machine-tool paths are generated more quickly and more accurately. The numerical-control programmer no longer has the task of making hundreds of error-prone calculations in specifying tool path motions, and is provided with a visual feedback guide at each stage.

Product testing

Other benefits include the ability to test a product before it has been manufactured. CAD deals with a model rather than an image, and models can simulate processes. This is particularly useful when physical tests might be dangerous or impractical. Much has been learned from flight-simulation techniques – which are now so advanced that in some countries an airline pilot can theoretically qualify for a licence without setting foot in a real plane. Trucks and cars can be tested in simulated bad weather conditions while many design variants are tried out in order to find the best solution.

Introducing CAD into a company usually implies a long-term commitment to CAD/CAM. A good example is the Hughes Tool company which manufactures equipment for the drilling industry. CAD has already helped to give Hughes Tool a competitive edge by halving the time needed to design a new product. A single designer, using a CAD system, can now produce a design for a new rock drilling bit in under two weeks. It is an industry in which speed is essential, because drilling bits are often custom made to cope with a specific problem which a drilling team has just encountered on site. Work is held up until the new bit arrives. Using an Applicon special-purpose graphics computer, Hughes Tool’s designers in Houston, Texas maintained their lead in the market. Once the CAD system was working successfully the company was able to extend the program to include design analysis and structural analysis – the next steps along the road to CIM.

First steps

CAD002

A typical stand-alone system is based on a minicomputer with VDU and plotter

A company’s first step in CAD might be to use a service bureau to produce some of the routine drawings. Royal Graphics of San Francisco and Houston is one such bureau, and has grown dramatically since introducing computer graphics in 1970. Most of its clients are architects. Using a Calma system, with standard software and specially-written subroutines, Royal Graphics produces more than 1.000 drawings a month.

Over the years a vast library of symbols has been created which can be slotted into the design. Architects can be provided with data such as the gross area or the gross volume of a building. Instant tile-count or brick-count can also save the client time and effort. With an 80 percent annual growth rate – and no CAD sales force – Royal Graphics proves that the bureau service is in demand.

After using a bureau and becoming familiar with the new techniques, a company may want to buy a CAD system to use in-house. The simplest approach is to buy a turnkey system from a manufacturer such as Computervision, Calma, Auto-trol, Applicon or Summagraphics. These companies, and others like them, will specify and deliver a complete, packaged system to meet your needs. Full training for the operators is supplied along with the equipment and software; no previous experience of computers is necessary.

A typical CAD system is modular, allowing you to add to it as your needs change. A stand-alone system would include a minicomputer and mass storage with its system software. The work station consists of a digitiser, a graphics tablet, a function keyboard, an alphanumeric keyboard, and a VDU. An appropriate hard-copy device such as a flatbed plotter will be linked to the system. Larger systems may have extra output devices such as a film recorder or an electrostatic plotter. Several additional work stations can often be supported by one central-processing facility. Individual users can create their own design databases on a single system while each person works on a different project.

Interesting art-form

The design of CAD work stations is an interesting art-form in itself. Operators have to spend many hours at a time at the work stations and it is very important that it should be as comfortable as possible. Once they have tried it, most designers prefer using a computer to working with passive instruments. The constant interaction usually increases concentration.

There has been a steady stream of innovations in work-station design. For example, Calma Corporation was the first manufacturer to introduce a voice-control unit. The operator wears a headset with a lightweight microphone attachment, which provides up to 50 functions under voice control. These can include commands such as Zoom, Pan, Multiple View, or Composite Image – all achieved without a keyboard, pen or menu. Calma claims a 99.8 percent accuracy rate for the input commands, and the technique reduces eye movements and achieves a faster operational speed.

Another graphics company, Genisco, has produced a three-dimensional display called Spacegraph. On this system you can actually see the model suspended in space, so that it looks like a real object rather than an image; for this three-dimensional effect you do not even have to wear special spectacles.

Once it has been decided to use CAD, one of the first questions to ask is whether you need a customised system or a general-purpose system. The fastest growing segment of the CAD industry is in providing general-purpose systems, though purpose-built systems may still be the best buy for some users, particularly for firms with printed-circuit designers on the staff.

Building your own CAD system to cope with exacting specialised work – such as printed-circuit board design – can give you an increased throughput of work. Britain has many small system houses which could design a purpose built CAD system.

Industry boom

Outside consultants can frequently be helpful. In the computer-graphics world there are two sorts of consultant: generalists and specialists. A good generalist who knows the industry can save a client a considerable sum of money. New products come on to the market almost daily – this is a booming industry. Your consultant should establish a broad picture of what you are trying to achieve, and point you towards specialists or to appropriate manufacturers. Since CAD demonstrations tend to be somewhat lengthy, and manufacturers are scattered round the country, “shopping around’’ can be time-consuming and expensive.

A complete, self-contained turnkey system for professional designers costs between £20,000 and £500,000 and there are some signs that the minimum price will come down this year. In 1981, Ramtek, the market leader in raster displays, launched a desk-top terminal in the U.S. at just under $6,000.

The micro future

It will be a few years before microcomputers have the speed and memory capacity to cope with the millions of calculations needed in a useful graphics display. Personal computers can produce interesting and colourful presentation graphics, but they are not yet serious contenders in the professional design market. They are, however. ideal training tools, since many of the techniques used in the larger systems can be performed by a micro – but without the speed and resolution which are necessary in most design tasks.

Computer-aided design is not a panacea for all the problems of ailing manufacturing industries. What the planned introduction of CAD can do is to help many engineering and architectural firms to increase their productivity and reduce their costs. All companies in these areas should at least take a look at CAD and evaluate its usefulness.

First published in Practical Computing magazine, April 1982

A Database by Any Other Name

Paul Myerscough contrasts three information-management systems on his IBM PC.

All may not be what it seems when database systems are under discussion. The accepted definition depicts a store of data with a physical nature that is independent of how it appears to users and application programs. But users of the three systems reviewed here will find that applications often do impose constraints on file design. An alternative definition culled from the Penguin Dictionary of Microprocessors may be more appropriate: it describes a database as “any file which might sound more important if called a database’’.

The names of two of these products are equally fanciful. Tomorrow’s Office, far from being software of the future, is a dinosaur of a system. It is still growing, but how long can it survive? A life-line to the business micro user is the message implicit in the name “Rescue’’. But to reach the market it deserves this package is sadly in need of a rescue itself in the form of an injection of cash for development and marketing effort. Only Delta avoids serious criticism.

Custom-built

All three packages are designed to provide a quick and easy means to develop a custom-built system. Such a system would consist of a set of data files, user input and enquiry screens, procedures for extracting and sorting data, procedures for creating reports, and special menus from which these options may be controlled.

The manuals that accompany the software seem accurate and comprehensive. But they are all too wordy, and they are not well formatted for quick reference. Delta’s comes out on top: at 236 pages it is the shortest, very easy to comprehend, and includes a good, confidence-building tutorial introduction. Rescue’s 408-page manual is far too long and its organisation is eccentric, though an excellent index makes it easy to use; it needs a rewrite.

The most remarkable first impressions come from the form in which the software is delivered. While Rescue arrives on one floppy disc and Delta on two, Tomorrow’s Office requires no less than nine. Over 2Mbyte of program code prompts thoughts of inefficient programming, maintenance and enhancement problems, and the need for disc-swapping dexterity as different functions are used.

Setting up the systems to run on the computer is easy. Tomorrow’s Office has the most polished screen presentation – see the opposite page – while Delta’s option menus and many messages make it the easiest to operate. Rescue has separate programs for data and process definition and for run-time features, and each has its own burgeoning network of menus – see figure 1. A neat help facility provides a short message when ? is entered in response to a prompt.

Figure 1 – One of the two menu networks in Rescue

Figure-1WEB

Rescue uses flat files of fixed-length records which hold up to 1,024 bytes. Each one can cope with up to 10 fields nominated as access keys. Tomorrow’s Office and Delta use a master/transaction file structure with one master field nominated as the access key, which in Delta’s case is sequenced. Tomorrow’s Office allows only 508 bytes to be shared out between a master and transaction definition, while Delta permits up to 2,000 bytes. The maximum file size for Delta and Rescue is around 33,000 master records; Tomorrow’s Office can handle multi-volume files to give 99 times this limit.

The process of defining a data file is prompt-driven. All the systems request entries for field name, type and length, which is a tedious business. It is made worse in Tomorrow’s Office by a requirement for additional screen format data. Rescue is worse still, as it also requires report format data and prompts 13 or more times for each field. Field typing is from a standard set of character, number, or date, with an extended set for Rescue which makes provision for optimising disc storage space and for building in validation criteria.

Database systems are notoriously inept when it comes to changing the format of a file. Delta and Rescue allow a limited amount of restructuring without the need to create a new second copy of the data, and with Rescue new key fields can easily be nominated.

For major reorganisation the standard procedure is to copy fields from records in the old file to a newly defined and empty version. Here Tomorrow’s Office leads the field with the Multi-file option. Delta’s Link and Copy utility offers greater flexibility but requires more effort to use. Rescue has a Loader utility which will do the same for Rescue files.

The first chance to test whether or not a user view is independent of a data file layout comes during screen definition. I was recently involved in the design of a system to handle laboratory test results from customers’ fuel samples. The prime piece of data is a fuel sample with transport/arrival information, laboratory test results and advice data that is sent back to the customer. That one record comes under three sets of fields, each with a different person responsible for updating them. What could be simpler than to provide three different screens to view the same record – one for the logging clerk, one for the lab manager and one for the fuel-quality adviser? Tomorrow’s Office cannot deal with this problem. It provides only one screen view for updating a file. Delta and Rescue can have alternative updating screens and, unlike Tomorrow’s Office, can spread data across more than one screen page.

Rescue provides a unique and useful feature which enables fields to be linked so that their display depends on values entered for previous fields. However, Delta is the outright winner for ease and sophistication in screen-design facilities – see figure 2. The Quick function enables immediate data entry on a screen which is generated automatically from the file description. A custom design is created by painting text on to the blank screen, and escaping to command mode to indicate data field names and display attributes.

Figure 2 – A custom-designed screen created using Delta

Figure-2WEB

Data validation

All three systems allow fields to be calculated from constants and entered field values. However, only Rescue addresses the serious requirement of data validation. For a first-time user it can be hard to grasp that a computer system based on inaccurate or out of date information is no better than a bad manual system.

Consider the simplest case of a field that should contain Y or N to indicate that an invoice is paid. What will happen to an invoice reporting system if the operator has entered H by mistake? Most systems have many fields where only certain values are acceptable. Rescue can associate a dictionary or table of correct values with a particular field which may be mandatory or optional. Numbers can be range checked and, furthermore, format masks may be used. These features are so valuable it is hard to understand why other designers have not followed Rescue’s lead.

For data entry Delta provides a full screen mode of operation, and alone has a useful logging option that will automatically print out the keys of master and transaction records that are added, deleted or updated. Rescue gives a pseudo-full-screen mode of entry, where each field is prompted in its position on the screen and adds its wonderful ? help feature. With Tomorrow’s Office data is entered on the command line as each field is prompted.

All three systems provide a means of selecting records from a file or extract file, and of sorting them into a new sequence. This output may be used for reporting to the printer or screen, and in Rescue and Delta for on-line file browsing too. On-line updating is allowed on Delta only, and batch updating on Tomorrow’s Office and Delta.

In defining selection rules Rescue is the most flexible and logical. Both Delta and Tomorrow’s Office provide rather difficult and limited ways of combining criteria. Delta alone allows some selection criteria to be entered at run time. Tomorrow’s Office has the poorest set of features for sorting data, despite a disconcerting array of main menu options which relate to the subject.

One of the most important features of any database is the ability to print out data. Most people will want a good degree of flexibility in formatting their output: Delta and Tomorrow’s Office run neck-and-neck with the features they offer while Rescue comes a poor third.

Rescue’s standard reports are defined within a file description, which seems unnatural and awkward. The manual puts emphasis on a feature which creates a disc file by merging data and a WordStar document, printing then being controlled from WordStar. This enables easy creation of address labels, standard letters and certain pre-formatted reports.

Tomorrow’s Office and Delta provide a quick route to an ad hoc report using a system-generated layout. For custom formatted reports the features offered are almost identical, and both are more flexible than Rescue. They each have a couple of exclusive features. Tomorrow’s Office allows maths calculations to be applied to data fields before they are reported, and it has a Forms option which eases output on to pre-printed stationery. Delta allows part fields to be printed, some field-editing options, and provides separate control fields for page and sub-total breaks. They both have separate options for creating address labels. Delta provides a useful bonus in its Letter Writer feature, which will merge data with pre-defined text to generate a set of personalised letters automatically.

Many users need to be able to update a file in batch mode without operator intervention, creating a program that will scan a file, recognise a condition in certain records and use what it finds to update some data fields. Delta and Tomorrow’s Office provide a very primitive processing language that can be used on one file to replace the contents of fields with constants or values calculated from data fields, work fields and constants. In both cases the lack of an If-Then type of statement is a severe constraint. Delta is the more flexible, offering the use of look-up tables and an option that reports on the updating that has taken place.

For a procedure not to affect every record on file it becomes necessary first to run an Extract procedure. Different criteria for updating different fields will require several Extract and process runs. This approach is as inefficient as it is inelegant.

All packages can transfer selected data fields from one file to another. This may occur directly in Tomorrow’s Office, and the same is planned for Rescue. Otherwise an intermediate sequential file has to be used. While it is less efficient, the sequential file provides more flexibility as the intermediate file may be operated on by external programs before copying to the second defined file. Delta provides the important ability to update records that already exist in the receiving file. The others allow the creation of new records only.

Custom systems are sometimes required for operators who have no need to learn their way around the whole package. They can be constructed by creating special menus with options that access only the processes required for the system. To print a report might require the selection of a file, the running of a Sort and Extract procedure, followed by the execution of a reporting procedure. They can be combined in one custom menu option with all or most of the required prompt responses pre-defined and acted on automatically. This facility is provided in all three systems, together with adequate password-protection features for screens and files.

What are transactions?

Tomorrow’s Office and Delta use the structural concept of a master file with related transactions. A master data record is accessed by key, and a transaction data record is accessed through the master. Figure 4 shows the one-to-many relationship of a master record to its transactions. This useful concept meets some of the needs of applications by storing data just once in a master record and by providing a variable amount of repeated data stored as transactions.

Figure 4 – Master/transaction files structure as featured in Tomorrow’s Office and Delta

Figure-4WEB

 

By allowing up to eight types of transaction, Delta provides a structural path from one type of data to another. With only one transaction type, Tomorrow’s Office cannot offer this important feature. The ability to relate a transaction to more than one master file would allow the design of a flexible network-type database, but neither system allows this.

Both systems provide a means of updating a master automatically when transactions are added, so a new Order transaction may cause the Quantity Available to be reduced in the master record. When data is viewed, a fixed portion of the screen is allocated to master data with a separate area at the bottom of the screen for transaction data, as in figure 3. In the lower portion transaction records may be scrolled, while data in the related master remains in place. This is less inconvenient with Delta, as alternative updating can allow more or less space for each type of data.

Figure 3 – Multi-file options and file definitions

Figure-3WEB

Delta

DeltaWEB

The option menus and many messages provided by Delta make it simple to use.

Delta is a package that is professionally produced and easy to use. It has a range of features designed to equal or better most of the competition. Its design shows an appealing degree of flexibility, and progressive enhancements should keep it alive for some years.

The master-file/transaction-file structure has much to recommend it. At the conceptual level it provides a first step towards the development of a real network of database files. Allowing eight transaction types is fine, but it is disappointing that only one can be accessed at a time; when using this type of structure it is natural to need to use more.

Another disappointment is the limited Process facility, which could at least be enhanced for use in validating input data. The Link and Copy facility is simple in concept, but it is good and flexible. It scores well for the data-entry logging option and for the ability to update records using an extract index.

Delta is well placed for a successful ride in the market-place. The fact that it is being distributed by IBM, DEC, and Xerox must be regarded as a recommendation.

Tomorrow’s Office

TomOfficeWEB

This product rose to fame with the Sirius computer, and caters for many of the file-processing needs of its user. It uses a master/transaction file structure and has fairly attractive development screen displays which consistently prompt for entries on a command line at the bottom of a screen.

Its range of functions allows Tomorrow’s Office to maintain its position in a feature-count with the competition. It is the only package among those reviewed that allows more than one volume of data, giving an almost unlimited file size. Multi-file allows secondary file look-ups and updates and is a feature worth having. It is not yet offered by Rescue or Delta.

Tomorrow’s Office has grown so large that it is no longer usable on a small floppy-disc based system; changing program discs all the time soon becomes unbearably tedious. It is limited by a record size which cannot exceed 508 bytes for master and transaction combined, and more seriously by the fact that any master/transaction pair may only have one updating screen. No provision is made for the validation of input, and many features are not as complete as their equivalent in Delta.

Many data-processing systems contain information which is duplicated in different files, and it is here that the relatively new Multi-file option comes into play. When adding records to a main file, predetermined fields may be Filled from data held in a secondary file. Likewise, data from the main file may automatically be Put to a secondary file to update it. These two processes Fill and Put, are in essence what Multi-file offers.

Multi-file uses windows in the creation of a process, as shown in figure 3. Some will contain processing options, while others may be scrolled across file-definition data. Most Multi-file processes can be defined simply by correctly positioning the cursor and pressing Enter to select both options and field names.

The limitations of Multi-file are largely those of Tomorrow’s Office itself. It provides scope for handling data from several files at once, but only in the context of the 508-character main file. Data which is not stored in the main file or transferred to it cannot be accessed or displayed, and there is no real conditional processing at the field level.

Rescue

RescueWEB

Rescue, a flat-file based system, has been implemented on over 40 different micros. Its features show that it has been produced by people who know the problems of applications system design.

The attention to data entry is outstanding. Validation of input is vital if a system is to function effectively, and only Rescue caters for this need. The Link feature addresses the problem allowing alternative fields to appear on a screen. The ? help facility, which is sensitive to predetermined validation rules, will prompt the user for data in the correct format. If “word processing” and “database” are designated as valid entries for a field, only w or d need be entered and the system will fill in the rest.

The reporting facilities are rather weak, and a batch updating option is needed. It may be added in a future release. The ability to update one database file from another will enable Rescue users to break out of the restrictions imposed by operating on only one file at a time.

There is a need to tidy up this system if it is to break into the IBM PC market-place. The manual must be rewritten, the multiple menus tamed, and screen and report definition should be unbundled from the file-definition process. Some additional features would place it ahead of its rivals in user image. Rescue is a potential prince for its type of software, currently wearing pauper’s clothing.

Conclusions

  • All three systems provide the means for a user with no programming knowledge to generate a working file-based system.
  • All provide a spread of equivalent features, and they appear to be average to good in terms of execution times.
  • Many basic features offered by a programming language are missing, and there are no interfaces for use by external programs.
  • Simpler systems are well suited to this kind of package, which will save up to 85 percent of development cost over using a conventional language.
  • Delta is the package with fewest faults, and is the easiest to use; it beats or equals Tomorrow’s Office in almost every area.
  • If you do not need a master/transaction file structure Rescue may be worth considering; despite its rough edges it has some unique and valuable features.

In brief

TOMORROW’S OFFICE
Runs on: IBM PC and most MS-DOS micros
Minimum memory: 256K
Supplier: Sosoft Ltd, 300 Ashley Road, Upper Parkestone, Poole, Dorset BH14 9BZ. Telephone: (0202) 735656
Price: £595
The system under review included the Multi-file option; the Standard version costs £395, and a Junior version is available at £195.

RESCUE
Runs on: CP/M-80, MS-DOS, PC-DOS, PCOS
Minimum memory: 52K TPA
Supplier: Qudos Systems Ltd, 5 Charterhouse Buildings, 27a Goswell Road, London EC1M 7AN. Telephone: 01-253 3998
Price: £295

DELTA
Runs on: IBM PC, MS-DOS, CP/M
Minimum memory: 128K under MS-DOS; 64K under CP/M
Supplier: Compsoft Ltd, Hallams Court, Shamley Green, Guildford, Surrey GU4 8QZ. Telephone: (0483) 898545
Price: £495

First published in Practical Computing magazine, April 1984

UK101 is ideal for Hobbyist and Kit Builder

UK101_Pic

By Martin Collins

The Compukit UK101 is a single-board computer supplied either as a kit or ready assembled. Included on the board is a memory-mapped VDU an upper- and lower-case QWERTY keyboard, up to 8K RAM – the kit is supplied with 4K RAM – a cassette interface using the Kansas City standard, and a 2K monitor and 8K Basic in EPROM.

The VDU controller has 1K of memory mapped RAM and an ASTEC UHF modulator with co-axial socket into which your TV aerial may plug directly. The VDU will display up to 16 lines of 48 characters. When using Basic, the line width may be set to any value between 16 and 48. Compukit advises that you normally set the width to 46 as the last two characters will be lost from the edge of the screen if you attempt to display 48 characters to a line. I certainly found that to be the case on my television.

Character Set

The display was excellent for this type of system. With the television tuned correctly, there was a slight wave motion on the screen, which could have been due to the television. Also there was some flickering, when a lot of rapidly-changing information was displayed. That was noticeable when running Hectic, one of the games supplied with our evaluation model.

The character set includes the full upper- and lower-case ASCII characters, and a range of special and graphic when a ‘y’ or ‘g’ on one line coincides with an ‘l’ or ‘h’ on the next.’

The keyboard is in the standard QWERTY lay-out with the numerals along the top, and special keys for control, rub-out, return shaft and shift lock. There are two re-set keys on the right of the keyboard. The re-set keys must be pressed simultaneously to initialise the system which reduces the chances of accidentally re-setting the system. However, as the keys are both together, it is still possible to do that accidentally. To prevent it altogether, the keys should have been placed further apart.

The keys have a positive feel. If a key is held down for longer than a second, the character is repeated until the key is released. The key switches are fitted closely to each other, and as the manual warns you in the assembly instructions, you must be careful not to misalign the keys so that they bind against one another.

had a problem when I first attempted to use our model; I followed the instructions on initial use of the system and was able to cold-start Basic – a cold start is employed when initially using the system, a warm start if you wish to return to Basic having used the monitor and     already have a program loaded. When you cold-start Basic, the system requests the amount of memory to be allocated as Basic workspace, and the terminal width to be used.

When I first used the system, I was unable to respond to these prompts because the machine kept displaying rows of zeros. I eventually realised that there must be touching contacts on the zero key, and I was able to cure the fault by fiddling with the key until the zeros stopped.

Shift lock

Another criticism I have concerns the use of the shift and shift lock keys. As well as both upper- and lower-case ASCII characters, the keyboard will generate the normal characters seen on typewriters and some of the graphics characters. On most keyboards, shift lock affects only the alphabetical characters, giving upper-case when the key is pressed down and lowercase when the key is in the up position.

Numeric and special keys are only affected by the shift keys. On the UK101,   however, shift lock affects all the keys which means it is possible to type only special characters like !, £, or by pressing shift with shift lock down. So typing lower-case text means continually pressing and releasing the shift lock key, hitting rub-out with shift lock up produces “‹–” and hitting return gives the character “M” which is also rather inconvenient.

The keyboard is software-scanned which means the system continually checks each row of keys to see if any keys have been pressed, and it is possible to detect which key has been pressed within a program. Special keyboard functions can, therefore, be programmed which is useful for games programs.

I found the cassette interface straightforward to use. Compukit supplied a tape with two Basic games; Taxi and Hectic, on one side, and an extended Monitor on the other. I had no problems loading any of these programs.

The manual supplied with the UK101 includes a very clear description of all the components and general hints on how to assemble the system. It doesn’t include the detailed step-by-step instructions you have with some kits, yet all but the complete beginner should find assembling the system easy. Beginners should, of course, practice on a simpler kit before attempting to assemble any microcomputer.

Having assembled the machine, I first switched-on to find an incoherent display and no response from the keyboard. Careful checking of the system revealed no obvious problems, so we telephoned Compshop who suggested that we took it in so that the board could be checked. We did so and within a few minutes of arriving, they had located and replaced a faulty IC.

The system is provided with a machine code monitor and 8K Microsoft Basic in EPROM. The monitor allows the user to examine areas of memory, input machine code routines, load machine code from tape, and start execution of a program from any point in memory. There is no facility within the monitor to save programs on tape although the user manual gives a routine to perform this function.

The Basic features two character variable names – giving a possible 962 numeric variables. String variables are the same except they must be followed by an S sign. Numeric variables may be in the range 10 ± 38, but only the six most significant digits may be displayed as is standard for most implementations of Basic. Strings may be up to 255 characters long.

Both string and numeric arrays may have up to four dimensions. Although the maximum dine width for the VDU is 48 characters, Basic lines may be up to 71 characters long. When you reach the edge of the screen, keep typing and the line will continue below. Line numbers may go from 1 to 63999, and several statements separated by may be included in our program line.

The Basic commands include LIST, RUN, CLEAR – to set variables back to zero – NEW, CONT, LOAD and SAVE. These commands may be included in a program, if you wish, allowing the program to control the system, although I think this has a limited application. LOAD and SAVE are used to load and save programs using the cassette. I missed the presence of a DELETE command to allow blocks of lines to be deleted, and no edit command. Lines may only be deleted by re-typing the line number and altered by re-typing the complete line.

Basic lines and multiple statement lines may be executed in immediate mode. That means they will be executed immediately they have been typed-in, by typing the line with no line number. The multiple statement line feature is quite useful here, allowing FOR loops to be performed in immediate mode, for instance. Several versions of Basic only permit single statements to be executed in immediate mode.

All the usual Basic verbs and functions are implemented, including READ, DATA, RESTORE, INPUT, PRINT, DEF FN, DIM, FOR-NEXT-STEP, IF-THEN, GOTO, GOSUB, ON-GOTO, ON-GOSUB, and POKE amongst the verbs. The functions include FRE, PEEK, USR, ASC, CHRS, MIDS, LEFTS, RIGHTS, LENS, SIN, COS, and TAN. PEEK, POKE and USR enable the programmer to examine and alter bytes of data and to call machine code routines from a Basic program. When a cold start is executed the system asks for the amount of memory available to Basic. That enables one to protect the top part of RAM from being over-written by Basic programs or data. So a machine code routine may first be input to this part of memory using the monitor, then a Basic program may be loaded which uses the routine.

As can be seen, the Basic is reasonably powerful, the only other criticism I have, apart from the lack of DELETE and EDIT commands concerns the lack of any method within a Basic program for reading or writing data to a cassette.

Variation

The only way to do this is to write machine code routines to be called within the program. I would have thought it simple to include a variation of the INPUT and PRINT commands to access data on a cassette.

The documentation with the UK101 provides only the essentials. It consists of a single 48-page manual describing the circuitry, construction details, and giving an introduction to Basic and the monitor. As such, it is well written and easy to follow – anyone with a fundamental knowledge of computers and electronics should find it quite adequate.

At the back of the manual are some useful tables including the UK 101 memory map and the 6502 machine code and architecture. The sections on Basic and the machine code are there only as quick reference guides. As it states in the manual, an introduction to Basic should be read if you do not already have any experience with the language. Similarly with the machine code, which is particularly difficult to understand unless you are experienced in machine code programming.

The advertised expansion capability of the system includes: an additional 4K RAM on board; an RS232 interface for a printer; a further 16K RAM; floppy discs, S-100 bus; colour display.

The first three are available, the additional 4K RAM on board costs £49 – sockets for it are included in the kit. The RS232 interface requires a few extra components, and instructions for adding it are included in the manual. The 16K RAM can be from an Ohio Scientific board or from a board specifically designed for the UK 101. In either case the cost is around £150.

Further expansion seems to be rather   restricted. The introduction to the manual states that floppy discs plug-in directly to the board, but the Compshop says that it would not recommend the use of floppy discs with the UK101. The original intention was to use the Ohio Scientific discs. They were made to work with the first version of the UK 101 but apparently do not work with the current version. The Compshop suggests that the Ohio scientific controller has been changed since the UK101 was designed. The Compshop does not recommend the UK 101 to anyone who is likely to want to expand their system to use floppy discs.  The colour board, which was due to be available in November 1979, has also run into problems. It has now been developed but not released.

UK101 Background

The Compukit UK101 is an offshoot of the Ohio Superboard. In March 1979, Dr Anthony Berk was asked by Compshop to design a kit, similar to the Superboard, which could be produced in the U.K. He re-designed the hardware while Andy Fisher, of Compshop, adapted the software. The first prototype of the UK101 was prepared by June 1979 and the kits should have been available to the public by the middle of the summer. Compshop had been let down by their supplier of ROMs and the first kits were despatched incomplete – the ROMs were forwarded several weeks later. Dr Berk works as a hardware and software consultant with Modus Systems Ltd, in Letchworth, Hertfordshire. He also lectures on microcomputing at Brunel University, Uxbridge, and is designing a small educational kit, at the bottom end of the market, which he hopes to sell for less than £30.

Conclusion

  • The UK101 seems to be an excellent machine for the hobbyist and kit-builder.
  • It is good for games programs and educational use.
  • Unfortunately, it is limited to these applications by the lack of facilities for mass storage of data.
  • The Basic is good but has some restrictions, chiefly the absence of DELETE and EDIT commands, and I/O commands for storing data on the cassette.
  • It appears very difficult to expand the system.
  • Some of the expansion capabilities mentioned are not yet available or no longer available.

First published in Practical Computing magazine, August 1980

Word Perfect 4.0 – The All-Rounder

This word processor for the IBM PC and compatibles is good enough to challenge WordStar as the standard general-purpose package.

By Susan Curran

Word Perfect is one of the many U.S.-produced word processors for the IBM PC and compatibles. This review is of version 4.0, which I tested on an IBM PC/XT with 256K of RAM. On most compatibles, the program will work with a minimum of 192K. It requires two disc drives and will handle colour if you have a colour monitor.

This is a general-purpose word processor, with a great deal of power and a correspondingly high price tag. The normal cost is £425, though it may still be available through lower-priced launch offers. The producer, Satellite Software International, is also offering a special trade-in price of £250 for those who have a copy of various other well-rated IBM word-processing packages, including WordStar, Multimate and Samna Word.

The version which I reviewed was not anglicised. However, as we go to press SSI has released the U.K. spelling dictionary, along with a database and spreadsheet package which link to Word Perfect.

Word Perfect is a clean screen word processor: it comes straight up with an editing screen, which includes nothing but a brief note of the document number, page, line and cursor column position. It is possible to swap between documents 1 and 2, but not to window both at once. There is no ruler marking tabs and margins, and there are no on-screen control codes – not even for hard Returns. As far as possible, text is laid out on-screen exactly as it will be printed. Line spacing is echoed correctly on-screen, though justification is not reproduced.

Special codes for formatting features

WorsPerfectExampleWEB

Almost all the formatting features are handled by special codes. The – Tab key produces a special Tab code, for example, rather than a row of spaces; the Indent key an Indent code. These codes are incorporated into the document, and have an effect upon its format either immediately, or when it is printed. The effect of many of the codes, including header and footer codes, page positioning and page numbering, is not obvious on-screen. In order to revise such features it is necessary to inspect the codes, and delete them if necessary before entering new ones, on a special Reveal Codes screen.

This should not be confused with the son of toggled Codes On/Codes Off arrangement that programs such as WordStar employ. The Reveal Codes mode is cumbersome in the extreme, and cannot be used for normal editing. Only a few lines are displayed at once, with the text often dwarfed by a mass of lengthy narrative code descriptions. The cursor can be moved, but haltingly, and with much screen flicker. It is not possible to insert text or carry out other commands in this mode, only to delete.

Almost all commands in the program are handled via the function keys. The 10 keys are each given four different functions, used alone and with Shift, Control and Alt. A four-colour template is provided with the program, which explains as clearly as is possible which combination does which. All the same, I do not like this arrangement. It is inevitably confusing when, for example, f7 is used for Exit, Print, Math/Column mode select, and Footnote select. Fortunately, there is a Cancel key which enables you to undo the effect of mistakenly chosen selections. There is also an Undelete buffer. These provisions ensure that with familiarity the program operation is not as horrendous as it appears at first sight.

Like so many IBM word processors. Word Perfect does not automatically reformat text on-screen when amendments are made to it. It is possible to reformat either by giving a Rewrite command, or by scrolling the cursor line by line down the text. Reformatting in either case is moderately fast, but tends to be a little hit-and-miss. If lines are shortened by deletions, sufficient words are not always brought up from the next line to straighten the right-hand margin, and it is necessary to fiddle around deleting spaces in order to format adequately. I also found disconcerting the program’s tendency to keep reformatting while blocks are being defined. There is no way of switching off the reformatting during this type of operation.

One other formatting failing is the tendency of Word Perfect to leave occasional spaces at the start of lines in mid-paragraph, producing a jumpy left-hand margin. Again, it is possible to edit them out, but they should not be there in the first place.

The program scrolls very smoothly in all directions, and the cursor commands are clear and effective, though not as copious as in some programs. Word Perfect shows page breaks on-screen, but it is not particularly page-orientated, and text can be moved across pages at will. Page breaks are adjusted dynamically as editing progresses.

The program defaults to right justification, which is not echoed on-screen, and to a very energetic hyphenation routine, which perpetually requests hyphenation decisions, not all of them sensible. I was relieved to find that these and other defaults can be altered in the setup program. The hyphenation zone can be abolished or set to different widths. Word Perfect defaults to a push-forward Insert mode, but it is possible to toggle between this and an Overwrite mode. Among other defaults which can be selected are widow/orphan protection to keep paragraphs neat, underline style, and page number position.

It is difficult to think of any command that is missing, or that is not handled well. There are all the usual block moves, copies and deletes, and no annoying restrictions on their use. Search and replace has many options, and works efficiently. There is a handy Indent command, which will indent either or both margins. Tab and margin changes are easily handled, and there is a Binding Width command allowing for alternate left and right wide margins. There are headers and footers – up to three of each, which will work on an odd/even basis – a footnote or endnote system, provision for producing tables of contents, a newspaper style columns feature, and a maths mode which will handle simple calculations.

It is a pleasure to find a program with a simple to use macro feature. Macros can be used to automatically call up often-used words, saving repetitive typing. For instance, I used Alt-W as a macro name for Word Perfect, in writing this review. More complex macros can include command sequences, and could, for example, streamline an elaborate form-letter operation. All macro definitions are automatically stored on disc.

File handling is sensible, and there is a neat List Files menu from which it is possible to edit, delete, rename or prepare outside files for editing using Word Perfect. The program will automatically back up files during editing sessions, and you can select the backup interval for yourself.

The merge feature seems easy to use, though I did not attempt to push it to its limits. Text can be retrieved from a secondary record file, or entered from the keyboard. Fields in the secondary merge file can be used in the primary document in any order. Merged documents can be saved in their merged form, or printed straight out. It is not possible to select or sort records for merging without using the additional database package, which I did not test.

Print time

The program is very good on printer support, and its printer section can be edited to cater for special needs. It will queue files for background printing, and there is full support for queue handling. It is possible to print blocks, pages or full documents without first saving them. Special printer commands, such as Escape sequences, can be sent to the printer from within the program.

The spelling checker works fast and efficiently, and all checking is done in context. The program claims to have a 100,000-word dictionary, but it seemed to offer a lot of common words for confirmation, not all of them obviously because the version I used was unanglicised. It is possible to add to the dictionary, edit it, or create subsidiary dictionaries. There is a wild-card lookup, to enable you to check the spelling of words when typing them. It is only possible to obtain a word count as a side-effect of a spelling check.

My only major difficulty with the various commands came with the page formatting. Endless attempts failed to position the text properly on the paper in my FX-80, and I sometimes could not induce the Top Margin command to work properly, or the conditional End of Page command. As the program seemed so reliable otherwise, I blame this on my own blindness to some special requirement.

Documentation

It seems to be obligatory now for word processors to have fat manuals. Word Perfect’s is at least well arranged, and the reference section is cut down to a well-filled 112 pages. The tutorial section is much more expansive, and I found it to be a little exasperating. It takes you key press by key press through a fairly random selection of program features, with the emphasis on rote following rather than comprehension. However, I did not find the program difficult to learn.

There are special training-orientated manual sections to cover the more complex features of the program, including the merge facility and the maths feature. The help features on disc are comprehensive and context-sensitive.

The program comes on unprotected discs, unless you buy the special educational version. I had no difficulty in installing it on my computer, or in adapting the defaults. I have used it almost full-time for a month, and carried out some very heavy editing of long – up to 20 pages, single spaced – documents on it. In that time, I have not succeeded in hanging the program, or losing more than a couple of words of text unintentionally. In my opinion, it does a very good job of sustaining reliability without hedging users around with too many restrictions and confirmations of commands.

Conclusions

  • On first acquaintance, I found Word Perfect a rather unattractive program, with confusing key assignments and appalling, clumsy code handling. With experience these prove to be less of a drawback.
  • The formatting imperfections are exasperating. Otherwise the program is extremely usable, very reliable and very powerful.
  • At £425 plus VAT it is expensive, and its lack of U.K. support is a failing.
  • Overall, I have not seen a better all-round PC word processor

Verdict

  • Performance 3/4 (Good)
  • Ease of use 3/4 (Good)
  • Documentation 4/4 (Excellent)
  • Value for money 3/4 (Good)
  • If I were using Samna Word or WordStar, I’d be inclined to make the swap to Word Perfect.
Specification
Description: Word-processing package with built-in mail merge, indexing and spelling checker
Hardware required: IBM PC with at least 192K of RAM – graphics card is optional, also available for various MS-DOS machines including the ACT Apricot, and some brands of local area network.
Publisher: Satellite Software International Inc., Orem, Utah, USA
Price: £425 plus VAT; £250 when traded for existing word processors
UK Supplier: Sentinel Software Ltd, Wellington House, New Zealand Avenue, Walton-on-Thames, Surrey KT12 12PY