The NEC's Step

Bryan Skinner checks out NEC's long overdue comeback in the big business micro field

The spate of new micros being launched in the UK shows no sign of abating. The introduction of 16-bit hardware, operating systems and applications software has further served to stimulate manufacturers keen to keep abreast of, or create, competition.

Each new 16-bit micro has at least one unique feature and NEC's Advanced Personal Computer (APC) is no exception. It may even have more than its fair share of innovations.

The APC is not brand-new. It was released in Japan some two years ago, in the US in May 1982 and in Australia last November. Its disk capacity, processor speed and graphics were, in Australia, compared favourably to the IBM PC and the Sirius.

The first impression is one of sheet size. The APC is a large and heavy beast, weighing in at 80lbs with keyboard. This makes it difficult to move around but raises the question of the extent to which one might want to move a micro around once its use has been clearly defined.

The cream plastic case is some 18 inches square, though there is a peculiar visual illusion whereby the machine appears to be deeper than wider. Despite its apparent size, it does not take up much more desk-space than comparable machines such as the dual processor NCR Decision Mate V.

The second impression is that this machine has 8in drives. We have become so accustomed to the standard 5.25" drives (be they full height, two-thirds or half-height) that this comes as something of a surprise at first. Why has NEC taken the apparently retrograde step of using yesterday's technology in a brand-new 16-bit machine which it hopes will capture a large proportion of the IBM PC market?

A few moments' thought reveals the logic. First, the capacity of the drives: the APC's double-sided double-density (DSDD) format provides about 1Mb of storage per disk. At £1,985 for the twin-drive monochrome version, the APC must be the most cost-effective micro in terms of disk capacity on the market today, surpassing even the DSDD Sirius at £2,695.

Second, the machine can read standard IBM 3740 single-sided single-density (SSSD) disks. This format has been around for long enough to have become almost an industry standard and so many companies have facilities for copying programs on this disk format.

Most software distributors are supplied with master disks on this format so they can easily make copies of programs to suit the APC without having to worry about matching an awkward disk format such as that of the Sirius and Mimi. Software should be available for the APC from more sources than is the case for most other micros.

Of course, the IBM format gives only some 240K of disk capacity, but the nice thing about the APC is that it automatically recognises what sort of format disk is being used, so you can easily transfer files from one type to another. You can, as I must confess I did, create problems if you start using an SSSD disk then swap it for a DSDD (or vice versa) without doing a rest or Control-C.

Documentation

I have never seen such a cornucopia of manuals. There's an Operator's Guide, a system Reference Guide and a Maintenance Guide - from which I swear you could construct your own APC - and even a CP/M-86 User's Guide and separate CP/M-86 Reference Guide.

The manuals are covered with a light brown substance which I can only describe as 'suedette'. This has the unforeseen advantage of giving the texts a high coefficient of friction so that they stay in place when propped up as desk or table-tops.

The manuals are well-presented and range from novice's introduction to a micro (clearly explained definitions of phrases such as 'booting up') to an engineer's workshop manual (detailed circuit diagrams and technical specifications of the PCBs) with everything you could wish to know about the machine in between (including a guide to 8086 assembly language programming).

There is almost too much information and I found it difficult to find my way around such a welter. Even so, a welcome change from the paucity of useful detail that so many manufacturers see fit to provide.

Keyboard

The keyboard, like the rest of the machine, is large. An enormous coiled lead connects it to the rear of the machine and allows it to be placed up to 5ft away from the screen. All cables provided were of a generous length. It was something of a novelty to be able to set the printer up far enough away from my desk to avoid interference with telephone conversations.

The keyboard is standard qwerty but looks a bit old-fashioned compared with the superb ergonomic design and modern styling of the IBM PC or TI Professional keyboards. The keys have a pleasant feel, with a short travel and positive response, though feeling a bit functional. I asked some typists for their opinions and most were favourable.

There are 109 keys, including numeric keypad and 22 programmable function keys which unusually can usually be shifted, theoretically giving 44 user or program-defined functions. In practice, however, only 32 such functions can be character strings - e.g. commands such as PIP B:=A:*.*[VO].

The keyboard also has a clearly labelled Backspace, Control, Tab, Escape, Delete, Insert, Clear/Home, Break/Stop, arrows, print keys and so on. The keyboard contains its own chip which is supposed to provide a 64-character buffer - rather excessive and generally not available as a 'type ahead buffer' during program operation.

At the top of the keyboard is a panel which holds a plastic grid, underneath which you can insert a strip of function key labels. Plenty of room is provided here and it is needed, given that each such key can have two functions. Unfortunately, the plastic cover does not fit well and is prone to dislodging. I tested two machines and one was better than the other in this respect - with one of them it was virtually impossible to keep the label strip in place which made using the word-processor a real bind, so dependent is it on function-key usage.

Display

The 12" screen may be monochrome (£1,985) or colour (£2,500) and only one control - brightness - is offered. A contrast control would be a useful facility as I found character clarity not all it might have been. Nonetheless, if you want to tinker with the CRT controls such as focus or linearity the manuals provide a wealth of information.

The CRT coating is slow to respond to character deletion, giving rise to a disturbing ghosting at times, such as when doing a large DIRectory. The screen is claimed to have a special matt surface, but I found it very reflective and almost impossible to use if the machine was facing a window. It is nowhere near as good as the high-tech screen of the Sirius but is a lot easier to clean.

The colour monitor provides eight colours and they are good. It was a novel experience to use the Metasoft Benchmark word processing package, which makes use of some of the many attribute facilities for character display.

Perhaps the most unusual display facility offered by the APC is its resolution - 1024 x 1024. This is not all available on-screen however, being referred to as the 'virtual graphic area'. The 'real graphic area' size is 640 x 475, which provides a window onto the larger resolution 'screen'.

NEC marketing manager Alan West is quoted as saying that '1983 will be called the year of business graphics'. NEC is clearly preparing to lead the field here with the APC. It will be interesting to see how soon the Digital Research GSX system will be fully available on the APC. No graphics packages were provided for the review but some disks held GSX files, the function of which would appear to be CRT drivers, allowing emulation of such graphics terminals as the ADM-5A. Other GSX files looked as if they were designed for printer/plotter configuration.

Interest in high-resolution graphical representation of data among business users is high and companies such as Chang Laboratories are already offering programs like Graphplan, a colour graphics-oriented spreadsheet.

Also available soon will be a graphics adaptor board which will simplify graphics applications such as pie or bar charts with area shading and even simulated movement, if we are to believe the advertising copy.

Standard characters are composed within an 8 x 19 matrix and include a stick figure, miniature clock-face and even the Greek alphabet. Up to 256 customised symbols can be designed using the CHR file and these can, of course, be saved to disk. However, accessing such characters is not explained clearly. Indeed, I found this a general failing with the documentation - marvellous facilities were available, but finding out exactly how to use them proved problematic.

Alternative character sets (foreign fonts) are also provided (I particularly liked the Swedish characeters), as well as a set of predefined graphics, characters which can be invoked by use of either of the two graphics keys or the ALT key.

The CRT has a number of interesting facilities such as scrolling, partioning and scrolling within defined areas, over and under-line, as well as the normal functions of flashing, highlighting, reverse video and so on. The speed at which characters are sent to the screen can be altered by pressing Control and a numeric key. This latter reminded me of early experiences using Applesoft and provided hours - well minutes - of fun. Even so, this aspect can be used to good effect in training programs.

Storage

The drives are Sanyo-made and are well-designed. The doors are opened by squeezing the flange on the drive door against the protruding lip on the machine case then releasing pressure. Inserting a disk requires you to press it home firmly against a spring locking device before squeezing the door shut. Opening the drives springs the disks out neatly.

My only criticisms of the drives are that they are noisy compared to 5.25" (and some 8") drives used today and you have to insert disks back-to-front, i.e. with the label facing away from the door. Still, these are minor points and I found that I quickly got used to them.

Below each door are plastic panels labelling the drives A and B are two red lights which shine through the panels. Two may seem excessive but they provide a useful diagnostic function, the lower light being on all the time the machine is switched on, as an indication of 'disk ready'. The upper lights are lit when the disk is being accessed as is usual.

A single drive version is available at £1,875 and a 10Mb hard disk version shoudl soon be available in the UK at about £3,690. Such low prices show NEC's determination to break into the UK market.

The drives are a bit slow. Although disk formatting time is on a par with other machines, the PIP (file transfer) facility of CP/M-86 is slower than other machines I have used. This is probably due to the high track-access time.

Software

NEC claims that one reason for the delay in introducing the APC to the UK was the preparation of software. NEC's chairman recently declared: "We are now prepared to sell total business solutions."

NEC has a licence for Metasoft's Benchmark - the word processor with which this article was written - and there is also a mailing list program by the same name. Comshare provides Masterplanner, a comprehensive business-oriented spreadsheet, and Systematics International offers a Sales Ledger under the NEC banner.

These two companies are British, a fact which underscores the chairman's recent remark that "We have found many good UK programmers."

Certainly the standard of most of the software I have encountered is fairly high, with clear screen formatting and instructive manuals. This is not true of the word processor, which caused me a lot of aggravation by losing documents for reasons I was unable to discover from the sparse details of its manual. It is nowhere near as transparent or friendly as WordStar, is slow and lacks many of that package's useful features such as changing default drives, directory viewing. Save and Continue, I would certainly not use it from choice.

An acquaintance in the software supply industry was at first unable to install WordStar or other standard CP/M-86 programs on the APC. However, when supplied with a revised version of CP/M-86 (version 1.107), WordStar and other products installed easily, with the APC defined as an ADM-3A terminal. Even this paragon may have teething problems.

Expansion

The standard interfaces provided include parallel printer and an RS232C port, synchronous or asynchronous (with transmission rates up to 19,200 bytes per second). Optional extras include a second RS232C port.

The versatile Setcom file provided allows the user to define such factors as transmission rate, parity, length, and number of stop bits for the serial port.

The APC has a standard S100 bus and the five-card cage at the rear of the chassis (under the easily removable one-piece case moulding) can be used to hold such useful PCBs as a 32-bit maths processor, communications devices, development boards and extra RAM - up to 640K. The existing boards had clips at the tops making removal and insertion very easy - a nice touch.

At the rear of the machine is a small panel which is a bit awkward to remove. Underneath this are three D sockets for the keyboard, printer and comms devices. Cabels and plugs are threaded into this compartment through a hole in the base of the machine.

In Use

The APC comes with CP/M-86 as standard and NEC UK say MS-DOS should be available soon. This is curious as some of the manuals make reference to MS-DOS as a *de facto* item and it is implemented on the APC in other countries. CP/M-86 has been dealt with extensively in this and other magazines so I will not go into detail here except to say that I hope the fact that the CPU is not a real 8086 but one of NEC's own look-alike chips will not cause problems. Certainly NEC has a good track record with chips and the rest of its products seem reliable and well-designed. There are so many features that make up the unusual character of this machine that I feel there are other interesting and unusual aspects to discover.

The APC has a built-in clock (powered by a lithium battery) which is used to display the current date and time on the first screen line. This is reserved during normal operation as a status line (giving an effective 26 lines on-screen) and also provides information as to whether such functions as CAPS LOCK are engaged.

The clock is a welcome addition and a relief from the tedium of machines such as the Sirius which require you to enter the date and/or time on boot-up.

The battery also powers 4K of CMOS RAM and should need replacing every two years or so. In theory it should be possible to write often-used information such as function key assignments to this store.

There is a file called POW that can be initiated remotely or locally which turns off the power to the system. This could surely prove useful, if only to give the peace of mind of knowing that the system would shut down at the end of a long run, perhaps in the middle of the night.

Another soft feature is the HELP file, which provides on-screen information about some of the CP/M-86 and APC commands, with examples if required. The contents of the information files may be altered easily. When CP/M-86 boots up it obeys any commands found in a file called AUTSTRT, which allows such utilities as alternative character definitions to be loaded.

Couple this with the other functions mentioned here and you could easily turn the APC into a dedicated turnkey applications machine for almost any level of user in any market.

The APC can make noises - optimistically referred to as music in the manual - having a pitch range of 2-plus octaves; duration of 1/32 to whole and dynamics called piano, medium and forte accent. The demo program called BACH is little more than a pathetic reminder that single-channel noises should be reserved for user prompts when keyboard errors are committed. Those who've heard the demo music on the Torch will understand the mistake made here.

As with the majority of new machines, both 8- and 16-bit, the APC runs through a set of diagnostic routines on boot-up but these are mercifully short - especially when compared with the IBM PC, which allows you time to make a cup of coffee between morning boot-up and usability. I believe a more extensive set of system diagnostic routines called Test 82 is available, but these were not supplied for review.

Finally, the APC has a feature that I believe should be implemented in any operating system or program worth its salt. That is, if you attempt to divert data to an unconnected printer you will be prompted to retry or abort the print. How much more sensible this is than being faced with a 'frozen' system.

Support

NEC appears to be committing itself wholeheartedly to the future of the APC in the UK; witness the fact that it is negotiating with such unlikely partners as the John Lewis Partnership, Steiger and Tesco, has established some 70 APC dealers already and plans to appoint 100 by Christmas. A maintenance contract should also be available through GEC.

Verdict

The NEC APC is an extremely impressive machine overall. In some ways it looks and feels a bit old-fashioned with its rather solid keyboard, large, heavy body and 8" drives, but with such features as its large storage capacity, graphics capabilities and built-in facilities, it is very moderm. It I was in the market for a 16-bit micro for business applications it would be at the top of my shopping list.

Given the level of support, its many useful facilities and low price, the APC could easily become the market leader in 16-bit micros and to my mind represents the best value for money on the market today.

Prices (Ex. VAT)

APC, 128K, monochrome, single disk £1,875
APC, 128K, monochrome, twin disk £1,985
APC, 128K, colour, twin disk £3,118
Monochrome graphics subsystem £396
Colour graphics subsystem £687
128K expansion board £437
128K RAM for above £125

Specification

Price: £3,118 (see box for breakdown)
Processor: 8086, 5MHz
RAM: 128K-640K
Text Screen: 80 x 25, 8 colours, programmable character set
Graphics Screen: (Optional) 640 x 475, 8 colours, NEC7220 graphics processor
Keyboard: 109 keys, detatched, numeric pad, cursor cluster, 22 function keys
Storage: 2 x 1Mb 8" floppies
Interfaces: RS232, parallel printer, 5 expansion slots
Operating System: CP/M-86
Distributor: NEC, 164/166 Drummond St., London NW1. 01-388 6100