UP A BLIND ALLEY?
The first of a new breed of computers or an over-priced home micro? Martin Banks reports.
The most cursory of glances at the pages of any personal computer magazine will be enough to tell most readers that there is something afoot. The clear definition that once existed between the two major classes of personal computer - home, games-playing machine and desktop, small business engine - is starting to get muddied by the appearance of a new class - the small professional.
The theory being expounded and exploited by the computer manufacturers is that there is a new group of potential users that are professional people (whatever that means) who want to use a computer at home for both business tasks and all those home-oriented bits and bobs like playing Space Invaders and storing recipes.
The existence of a new group of people of course requires the introduction of a new type of machine. This thinking is rumoured to have had some effect on a small company up in Cambridge which recently made some announcement or other! [A reference to the Sinclair QL]
It is a market that other manufacturers are also looking at closely, and some have decided to have a go at it in an attempt to grab a slice of the action while it is still in its infancy. The strengths of this tactic rest on the idea that if a company gets it right, it will corner the market as it starts and grow with it. However there is an obvious flaw in this argument: because the market sector is so new and undefined, it is just as easy to produce the wrong type of product and miss the boat completely.
The problem from the observer/reviewer's point of view lies in trying to guess which way the market will jump. What has forced us into coming to some conclusions is the arrival on the market of machines like the Alphatronic PC from one of West Germany's mega-companies, Triumph Adler. The company is one of the first to make a concerted pitch at this new market for very small, professionally oriented business/home/gamesplaying computers. Either that, or it has produced a games playing machine that does a few small business tasks with a reasonable degree of competence, but at a high price. Which way you look at the machine will depend on how it measures up to its rivals in the marketplace.
The Alphatronic PC is derived from the original Alphatronic microcomputer introduced by Triumph Adler at the end of the seventies. This was (and still is) a rather uninspiring but workmanlike rendition of the Z80 processor/64K memory/two disk drives/CP/M software package that was being produced at the time by all except Apple, Tandy and Commodore. It was a middle of the road business machine and achieved middle of the road sales.
As such it was something of a follower of the prevalent market trends, a position which Triumph Adler continued to adopt after the introduction of 8088-based 16-bit machines (for instance those produced in America by IBM).
There are times, however, when being a follower in a game sometimes allows you to end up in front, or at least provides you with that possibility. This is either how it is or how it could be with the new Alphatronic PC. The march of technology being what it is, the Z80/CP/M etc package which was once considered trendy state of the art computing (and therefore quite expensive) is now just another market where the price can be bombed.
Bombing the price is, however, only part of the problem. Will the users want a low-cost CP/M running bog standard box, or will they want something different and trendy which provides a conversation point at parties? Given that a good percentage of the purposes to which such new quasi-professional machines will be put are in the standard small-business category - word processing, spreadsheet budgeting, medium complexity accounting and the like - the boring old standard box stands a good chance.
That, in essence, is what the new Alphatronic is all about, though the description is misleading. It is, for example, most unlike a 'standard box' in appearance. The packaging of the PC is really quite neat and well made, and it is full of all that is best in sound, teutonic engineering. At home either on a desktop, a shelf or on the lap, it is light and comfortable to use.
It comes with a full complement of switches and holes through which it relates with the outside world. On the right hand side as one looks at the keyboard there is a single on/off power switch. This lives alone so that there is no mistaking it for something else, such as the rest button (a failing on other machines that we could name). On the left hand side of the package are three sockets, two for video I/O and one for the cassette port. The latter requires a DIN plug. The two video ports are an RGB socket for interfacing to a colour television, and a monochrome monitor port.
Along the back are the power-in socket, the reset button (which takes a bit of finding if groping blind for it), a serial port, a Centronics parallel port and an expansion bus socket. There is also a removable cover on the top left hand corner of the casing, for access to the ROM cartridge port.
The test system we were given came with a single disk drive in a separate box. This is connected to the computer via the expansion bus port, and is one of the weak points of the machine. The connector is one of those horrendously stiff multi-way round cables that is both amazingly inflexible and, more importantly in the context of potential home use, too short. This means that the ideal situation for the machine is a desktop, with the disk drive next to the computer. Pull the computer off the desk and on to your lap and the drive is likely to try and keep it company - a trick which can prove distressing if it is actually reading or writing at the time. A longer, more flexible flat cable might have been a better choice here.
Getting everything connected up is not too difficult, though the pins on the disk drive connectors seem to be a bit fragile, or at least a bit flexible (remedial action with a knife was necessary to straighten them out). The documentation, of which more later, is not as helpful as it could be however, and some users brand new to computing might find the lack of comprehensive information off-putting.
With everything switched on and working the next element of the machine to which the user must interface is the keyboard. On balance this is really quite good with only one possible weak point (and that is a matter of personal preference as much as anything). It is a full QWERTY board with all normal control and cursor keys. In addition it has a full numeric keypad, and six function keys, all of which are software programmable. For anyone used to business computers, these function keys are what will be 'expected', though they make a nice touch for anyone 'coming up' from the games-playing environment.
The subject of touch leads us on to an aspect of the machine which bothered us. Although, unlike many machines in this price range, the keyboard seems well-engineered and nicely robust, it is of the limited travel type. This means that those with a tendency to be just a trifle heavy-handed on the typing front may well find the PC a bit of a finger-bender. This leads to the nagging doubt that the keyboard might not stand up to a great deal of heavy-duty usage. [Of course, unlike a modern PC, it was not possible to easily fit a new keyboard.]
Having used the keyboard, the next thing is to look up and see what has appeared on the display. In our test, the PC was connected to a standard 14-inch colour television. In general, the quality of the display was high, especially when you consider that much of the time it was being used to run the Wordstar word processing package, under CP/M, using the 80-column display option. This is an interesting facility that is built into the Alphatronic PC. The command WIDTH, followed by either 40 or 80, will reconfigure the display accordingly. As hinted at earlier, the documentation is somewhat remiss here. It gives no indication, for example, that using an 80-column display is probably a good idea when running CP/M applications, especially as the ability to run them in a low-cost package would seem to be one of the machine's main selling points.
Once such problems have been overcome, the display gives good quality, easily legible characters with little or no flicker. Only once in a while will the display give a momentary nervous twitch to remind one that a TV is being used rather than a monitor. It also manages to avoid all those spurious colour changes that set-ups like these can be prone to.
The single disk drive provided with the Alphatronic is a bit limiting in terms of assessing the machine's capabilities in the professional area; two would have been much more useful. It is also a rather noisy little beast, rumbling and chuntering away as if to let you know that it is still alive.
The Alphatronic PC is, for an otherwise well-specified CP/M machine, amazingly slow in certain important areas. The most noticeable of these is program loading. Though there was never quite enough time to make a cup of coffee, the Alphatronic proved to be one of the slowest machines at loading programs from disk that we've seen for some time. It took, for example, over three seconds to load CP/M from a reset. This may not seem too bad, but there are serious problems with bigger programs like Wordstar: the first time this was loaded there were grave doubts that something had gone wrong. There were no loading error messages, but no program either. It took 17 seconds to load the program which, when you are sitting there wondering what has happened, is rather unnerving. It took even longer - 23 seconds - to load Supercalc. It is only the confident chuntering of the disk drive that gives any clue that something might be happening. [These loading times would still have seemed fast to anyone used to cassette storage, which would take several minutes to load a program. Besides, twenty years later it still takes 8 seconds to load Microsoft Word from hard disk.]
Once it has overcome its reluctance to load a program, however, the PC cracks along really well. In fact the keyboard is so fast and positive that it can easily run away with the speeding typist.
It is here, of course, that the programmable function keys come into their own. In this implementation of Wordstar five of the six have been given individual editing functions, such as INSERT ON/OFF, Up a Screenful, Down a Screenful, character delete, and the search routine, FIND.
Without doubt the weakest aspect of the whole system, and the one for which Triumph Adler wins no gold stars whatsoever, is the documentation. Why it is so often the case that a perfectly acceptable computer, running perfectly acceptable software, is let down by poor instructions is one of the great mysteries of modern life. One can only conclude that it stems from an unwillingness or inability to spend the money needed to get it right. One must assume in Triumph Adler's case that it was not due to failure to find sufficient funds for the job.
The manual we were given was a small tome printed on the obligatory bog-paper and with the equally obligatory typographical errors needed to demonstrate that it was produced on a word processing system. It comes in two parts, a How-To-Work-It bit at the front, and a breakdown on the commands of the Basic Interpreter at the back. Neither provides adequate explanations for the uninitiated.
It was the little faults that annoyed us most. For example, the PC comes without a cassette lead, so you are supposed to use the one you normally use for connecting a cassette recorder to your hi fi. Well, they may use DIN connectors in West Germany, but not here. In the depths of the manual they do tell you how to make a lead, but in the section on connecting the recorder it just tells you where to stuff a lead in the box. Not terribly helpful.
Along the back are the power-in socket, the reset button, a serial port, a Centronics port and a bus socket
Similarly, on the subject of disk drives it tells you to stick the connector in the expansion port. There is no explanation of how to get a disk running and reading, how to load an operating system by pressing the reset button or anything really useful. On the question of CP/M and getting it running on this particular machine it ducks the issue explicitly. Go get a CP/M manual from a specialist dealer, you are told (or words to that effect).
Despite these shortcomings, for a machine aimed at the home/professional/small-business-with-a-bit-of-games-playing-thrown-in market, the Alphatronic PC comes across as a well-engineered and reasonably well thought out machine. It breaks no new ground in its design, but given the character of the market it is pitched at, this is not necessarily a bad thing. There are likely to be many CP/M business users who want a cheaper machine at home, but one that works in a familiar way. The Alphatronic PC can provide just that.
On the vexed question of whether or not it provides good value for money, it is difficult to come to any firm conclusions at the moment. The basic box costs £347, which is a bit high for Z80-based, 64K byte games player. That is, essentially, what it is without the disk drives. One drive, at £330 makes it probably tolerable in terms of price/performance, while the second drive, at an additional £270 makes an all-up price of £947. This is quite reasonable for a full CP/M machine, though it is running the risk of failing to measure up to the competition from machines like the Wren transportable. One assumes, however, that the manufacturers have allowed themselves some leeway for cutting the price.
In the end, whether it succeeds or not depends on what the marketplace eventually decides it wants. The PC could strike the right chord, but it could also fall between all possible stools. We shall see.
|Processor: CPU Z80A running at 4MHz|
|Memory: 24K Basic Interpreter ROM, 4K Monitor ROM, 64K RAM|
|Keyboard: 58 moving keys, soft scanned. Full upper and lower case with space bar.|
|Display: Will drive a monochrome monitor display or a colour television, via separate outputs. Software configurable for either 40 x 24 or 80 x 24 format.|
|Cassette interface: Connected via a DIN socket, 1200 baud Kansas City standard.|
|Serial interface: RS232 with software selectable baud rates.|
|Expansion bus: 50-way parallel interface|
|Printer interface: Standard Centronics type parallel interface allows connection to a wide range of different printers.|
|ROM pack interface: A 30-way connector from [sic] ROM-based applications software.|