Capable Cortex

Max Phillips dissects a new business heavyweight - the graphical Cortex from C/WP

The perfect CP/M machine shouldn't be an impossible dream. CP/M has been around for long enough for designers to have massive experience and expertise to work with. The Cortex is a superb modern piece of hardware, combining a capable CP/M with hi-res graphics, a neat design and a good price. But as with all impossible dream machines, it is far from faultless.

The Cortex is aimed at the serious user - either a professional working from home or an office worker. Its main lot in life is running the WordStar word processor though being a CP/M machine it is, of course, capable of most jobs. A choice of disk storage up to 1.6Mb of floppy and 10Mb Winchester also make it more suitable to bigger business jobs than Apples and Osbornes.

Essential background reading is the name saga. The Cortex is actually an Ontel Amigo - same machine, different software. It's powered by Microworld and built by Ontel. C/WP's OEM version used to be called the Context - until its namesake objected. It is strange that the new name seems to have gone unnoticed by Powertran whose Cortex hit home computer has been around for a long time.

Presentation

The Cortex itself comes in a carriable cubic box. However, C/WP adds in its own drives. These arrived separately in plastic bubble wrapping - attempts to ship the machine may result in them getting dropped or lost.

Besides the machine and drives, you get a box of master disks, three tatty C/WP manuals and the new 3.3 version of Micropro's WordStar and manual. This official release even has its 8-inch distribution disk - purely decorative on 5.25" drives.

Documentation

It wouldn't really be fair to criticise the documentation. It gives the impression of being unfinished. Still, if you bought one tomorrow, you'd get an installatin manual, a C/WP WordStar manual (as well as the Micropro real thing) and a standard CP/M text book. And, with due nostalgia for days gone by, you get some of the documentaion in a file called READ.ME on the masters.

The installation manual will explain how to plug it in and switch it on, though it's a shame that it seems unaware of the configurations C/WP supply. It even seems convinced that you get an Epson MX100 as standard kit.

The C/WP WordStar manual is a giggle only because of the comical examples it uses. I have my douts about its success as a tutorial - it omits many simple things and dwells on trivia. And it's a non-starter as a reference guide. None of this is a serious problem as you get the brilliant Micropro manual. But remember that if you stay away from the standard 3.3 WordStar and use C/WP's custom version, you will need to flit between two manuals.

There is a superb though scruffy optional reference guide, price £30. It is a technical manual - it gives manufacturer's documentation for most of the major chips in the Cortex as well as listing useful info such as Escape sequences. It makes the Cortex an exciting adventure for the skilled hobbyist but it's almost no use for the business user.

The free CP/M text book is the only documentation about CP/M. You'll need it for minor things like TYPE, STAT and PIP let alone the programmer's stuff like ASM and DDT. C/WP sells the machine almost as a dedicated WordStar station. CP/M and buying and running programs don't seem to be possibilities. The point should be that the Cortex is a capable computer and the documentation should let you use it to the full.

Construction

As desktops go the Cortex is a neat design. The computer is housed in the bottom of the monitor, itself tiny enough to sit in a corner of your desk. The drives are separate and can more or less be positioned where you like. Finally, the keyboard is a standard copy of the PC keyboard on a suitably long lead. C/WP can supply the Cortex in the usual drab cream or a more tasteful range of colours - black, white, orange, green and blue.

It's well-built though not beautfully so. The drives are a bit 'heavy metal' and crudely finished. But the worst feature is that there appears to be a missing back panel on this and many other Cortexs. Not only does this leave the interfaces unlabelled but there's bare PCB exposed to the outside world.

I don't think it would take a very serious accident to do very serious damage to the machine. If you buy one make sure you get a cover!

The computer itself is a fun design. There's the standard Z80, 4MHz processor, plus 64K RAM for processing. This is coupled to a 6502 with 32K RAM driving a 6845 to provide the capable display.

Keyboard

The Cortex sports an IBM PC copy keyboard. You love 'em or hate 'em. In its favour, it is copiously equipped - ten function keys, numeric cum cursor pad, Caps and Num locaks with LEDs and sundry others such as ALT and so on. Some of the more well-known layout quirks are a tiny return key and a :/ key between Z and Shift. But even if you get used to that, the Cortex has some other oddities.

There's no pound sign on the keyboard - I thought this was a UK machine! C/WP will be fitting £ signs to machines soon. The Alt key is hardly ever used in a constructive way.

The other problem is that you can't program the function keys without direct mods to the BIOS. You should be given software to do two jobs - assign useful strings to individual keys and download a whole keyboard definition to do with a particular package. Programming the keys by modifying the BIOS is neither elegant nor simple. Again, software to do this is 'on the way'.

Finally, the Cortex has a beautifully implemented Print Screen key (PrtSc). Hit this at any time and the BIOS produces a sideways copy of the screen on the printer using its bit image mode. So even the Cortex graphics are faithfully reproduced. PrtSc works for Epsons or Epson-compatible printers - if you are not going to use a high quality daisywheel printer, make sure you buy a compatible dot matrix. PrtSc is, of course, a little slow but it is definitely worth having.

Screen

The Cortex's screen is definitely one of its more glamorous features. It's a high quality green phosphor monitor. The only external control is brightness but contrast can be software-controlled and the image is all but perfect except at the highest brightness levels. Spec-wise, it has amazing abilities courtesy of its 6502 plus 32K RAM video control.

Text is a standard 80 columns by 25 lines but there's a full 256 characters available. Besides the usual set, there's a handful of special symbols - arrows, ticks and so on. 128 characters are undefined on power up and the whole 256 can be simply reprogrammed at will.

Reprogramming can be done with Escape sequences from within programs or by the end user with a program called FONT.COM. This is a curious character definer.

All your definitions are first pre-loaded into a text file (using WordStar of course) as a mixture of *s and .s. Then you just FONT FileName to load the definitions. This method isn't as entertaining as most interactive definers but provided you're good with a text editor, it provides some powerful facilities.

C/WP has an additional menu-drive on-screen editor which will become a standard part of new systems.

Screen attributes allow for the whole range of inverse, blinking, underline and bright characters. There's even an overstrike ability. Scrolling is switchable between a normal fast scroll and a software smooth scroll. The scrolling appears to be the only major flaw in the system. There's an infrequent but annoying flash which appears to be a slight timing problem at the 6502/6845 end of things.

Hires graphics (640 x 300) can be freely mixed with text. The Cortex emulates an ANSI standard graphics terminal. Long Escape sequences (for example PRINT CHR$(27);CHR$... from Basic) trotted out to the BIOS are interpreted and sent to the 6502.

Facilities provided include dotted and dashed lines, arcs and circles. Characters can be written at any X,Y position and screen memory can be PEEKed or POKEd.

It is worth noting that the screen format does produce elongated circles. Visually correct circles are easily possible using the arc drawing commands. However, be warned that some business graphics packages may produce strange pie charts.

The Cortex also supports Digital Research's GSX graphics interface. This is a graphics BIOS that allows graphics packages to be portable between a number of different micros. GSX should ensure that the Cortex isn't short of graphics software. But remember it's a new system and it will take time for a big catalogue to build up.

For the review, C/WP lent a copy of DR Graph, Digital Research's business graphics package. DR Graph will be adequate for some jobs but is probably better off as a demo of the GSX system.

Having a standard package talking to specific hardware through GSX produces interesting results. DR Graph draws odd circles and offers colours it can't display. And it is very slow. It's a bit like the old court scene. Call Circles, says DR Graph.

Call Circles, says GSX. Call Circles, says the BIOS. And the 6502 drive program says 'alf a mo, one circle coming up. You might think that having a 6502 dedicated to the display would produce lightning-fast graphics. It helps, but it still isn't a fast process.

Storage

C/WP is known for its disk drives and the Cortex reaps the benefits. The Cortex can be supplied with twin 200K or 800K floppy disk drives and 5 to 20Mb hard disks. PCN tested a top floppy system - a luxurious total of 1.6Mb.

Obviously such abilities make the system a good choice for large database applications such as subscription lists and ledgers for starters. If you are buying it primarily as a low cost word processor then you could penny pinch and go for the smaller drivers. The nice thing is the upgrade path... if you need bigger drives, you buy them and plug them in.

Most of the time the drives work beautifully and quickly. There were no reliability programs. However, the Cortex's BIOS has a number of very jagged, rough edges. Most systems that are happy with different disk formats can sense the format of a newly-inserted disk and automatically adjust to it.

The Cortex BIOS tries but fails. It you try to copy from a 200K disk to an 800K disk without prior warning, the system fails to switch foramts. It reports a bad read - the actual message suggesting that your disk drive door is probably open. You hit Control-C to restart the Cortex. It tries to log on to the disks and this time spots the different format and adapts to it!

And you really can't swap disks without Control-C. None of this is very serious. After all, most users who have bought 800K drives will use them at 800K all the time. When they buy software on a smaller format, they can go through the laborious copy procedure. Because everything needs to be warm started before use, you need the extra step of copying a copy program onto the disk onto which you want to copy the new software.

So it's a small and insignificant hassle. Or at least it would be if it were documented with any clarity. The worry is that if this doesn't work there may be other things that don't work as well. There are certainly a number of points that could do with a little attention.

On power up, the Cortex goes for the disk in drive A without a sensible 'Insert disk in drive A and press Return' pause. Again, the inelegance doesn't matter but you may lose the whole system if drive A goes down and you can't boot from drive B.

Control-C to warm start the system fails to clear the keyboard buffer. Type lots of them, or accidentally let it auto-repeat, and the Cortex sits there warm starting over and over again.

A couple of last points about the drives. The boot message asks you to put your disk in the lower drive. On a 1.6Mb system, the drives are vertical. Strange how the standard A and B labels on the drives remove this sort of ambiguity!

The Canon drives also have an In-Use LED, capable of being red or green. The colour change depends on the head tracking - red for 80 tracks and green for 40 tracks. It could just be useful - red is 800K format and green is 400K or 200K.

Interfaces

The Cortex isn't really into expansion other than with bigger drives. It has a standard set of interfaces - RS232, Centronics, floppy disks and hard disk controller. Perfectly adequate for most business uses.

Software

Being standard CP/M lets you buy all the old favourites - Dbase II, Multiplan, Supercalc, MBasic, Cardbox and so on and so on. WordStar becomes a bit of a special case because it is bundled with all but the cheapest version of the Cortex. C/WP is always a keen pricer - keep an eye open for other offers.

And, as I've said, GSX graphics should help to ensure graphics software is available though it's packages written specifically for the Cortex that count. However, remember that the Cortex is primarily being sold as a WordStar box. To this end, C/WP has produced its own cannibalised version of the program - C/WP WordStar.

The basic idea is very sensible - to use the keyboard as much as possible. WordStar will work on the barest of keyboards using Control sequences for almost all functions. Along comes the Cortex with a PC keyboard with a lot of extra keys to generate sensible control codes and make the whole thing easier to use.

C/WP has done this for its Cortex WordStar. The cursor pad works, including Home, End, Page up and down, Insert and Delete. And some function keys do neat jobs, F9 saves your text and then puts you back where you were. Normally this is Control-K, S followed by Control-Q, P.

But there are no variable help levels. The ^J help menu is now a ^H menu. Bits of the ^K disk and ^O formatting menus have been moved onto a new ^J menu. And so on. Experienced WordStar users will be horrified. Even if you don't understand the changes above, you should realise that WordStar is a big seller and has a superb user interface. It takes a while to learn but soon becomes a very fast second nature. I doubt C/WP's version is anywhere near as good.

So you've got a different program and you can learn its idiosyncrasies. Don't expect to learn WordStar with this version or expect WordStar typist to be able to work its. Unfortunately, there are some nasties in the mods.

When you boot C/WP WordStar, it always logs onto drive B. 'Insert your disk into drive B', it invites. And, like the bootstrap, it then goes for Drive B without giving you half a chance to put a disk in.

Of course, in its defence, you do get a normal version of WordStar 3.3 with its excellent manual. And guess what? You've no way to configure it to work with the Cortex's copious keyboard. In short, C/WP's would have been better spent on developing a full set of utilities than messing about with established packages.

So what utilities do you get? A complete CP/M package PIP, STAT, ED, ASM, DDT, SYSGEN and friends. There's also a C/WP menu system - a simple device for either booting WordStar or running utilities. It's a very pretty little program though remember that the Num Lock key should be off for the snazzy bits to work!

The utilities are reasonably easy to work. There's a FORMAT program that always formats the disk in Drive B. Oh, and an apparently last minute addition, an AFORMAT program that always formats Drive A. There's a disk copy but it can't cope with different disk formats. The result being that you need to know how to use PIP and SYGGEN anyway.

Verdict

The Cortex produces mixed reactions. The hardware is excellent - big, fast disks. a high quality and speedy monitor, neat footprint and so on. Being CP/M puts lots of software within each reach, including all the classics.

The only thing that detracts from the machine seems to be the supplied software and documentation. Both seem to be either rushed or unfinished. Hopefully, C/WP is working very hard to tidy up the loose ends.

A serious hobbyist will find lots to do with a Cortex. It would also be ideal for an office worker or perhaps as a standard machine throughout a large office. Provided you can put up with some of the rough edges while you learn the system.

Rivals are easy to list although few compare with the Cortex on price/performance. An expanded Apple, a Cromemco C10 or British Micro are good examples. However, new 16-bit systems will offer strong alternatives - the ACT Apricot and the Advance being the most obvious.

So the Cortex is definitely a system to consider. It's a very nice CP/M system but it needs a bit more work. It's really up to C/WP to finish what it has started. The Cortex could do very well...

Prices

Cortex 2 x 200K £1,695 exc. VAT
Cortex 2 x 800K £1,995 exc. VAT
Cortex 1 x 5Mb hard 1 x 800K £2,795
If purchased with the machine, C/WP offers
WordStar £100
Dbase £200
Epson RX80 F/T £250
Prices include 1 year on-site maintenance

Specification

Price: £1,995 exc. VAT
Processor: Z90 4MHz
RAM: 64K
ROM: 8K
Text Screen: 80 x 25, 256 user-definable characters
Graphics: 640 x 300
Keyboard: Detatched, 83 keys, 10 function keys, numeric pad cum cursor cluster
Storage: 2 x 800K floppy
Interfaces: RS232, Centronics, Hard disk
OS/Language: CP/M
Software Supplied: WordStar
Distributor: C/WP, Willow House, Willow Place, London SW1 (01-828 9000)