The MicroOffice RoadRunner. (evaluation) David H. Ahl.
The MicroOffice RoadRunner
Appearently it is in vogue to delete the spaces between two words. We have been noticing this trend increasingly with software packages. But now we have the RoadRunner computer from MicroOffice Systems Technology with SuperCalc software. Well, perhaps we are saving lots of bytes of memory by not using those spaces, but, frankly, we don't think readability is enhanced. Be that as it may, the RoadRunner is a new entry in the notebook computer sweep-stakes.
Like the Gavilan, the product is being aimed primarily at OEMs and large-volume end users. It probably will not be found on the shelves of your local computer store, at least not by the name RoadRunner. However, one or more OEMs may well market the machine through retail outlest.
On The Outside
The RoadRunner comes in a compact package measuring only 11.5 X 7.8 X 3 and weighing five pounds. When the display is opened, the machine automatically comes to life with a high-pitched beep and menu on the LCD display.
Opening the computer reveals an 8-line x 80-character LCD display, a standard QWERTY keyboard with 73 full-stroke keys and an extra row of 14 special keys at the top, and four small plug-in slots above the keyboard.
The active portion of the LCD display measures 1.3 X 9.3 . It tilts back and forth, but does not have a contrast adjustment for the LCD elements thus making it difficult to read under certain lighting conditions. We were told by MicroOffice that production models would include a contrast knob.
Characters are quite small on the display, about the same size as dot-matrix printer print. Characters are formed within a 5 X 7 dot matrix with one row of dots between lines; there are no letter descenders. Thus, readability of a full screen of text leaves much to be desired. The screen has 64 X 480 individually addressable pixels.
According to the published specifications, 255 characters can be displayed. Perhaps so, but we ran a short program to display all the CHR$ characters and counted only 221 different ones. Frankly, that's a nit since the RoadRunner provides all the foreign letters and graphics symbols you would ever want.
The keyboard has a good feel with no give in the center. The keys are concave sculpted with a matte finish. Alphanumeric keys are light tan with dark brown markings while control keys are a darker tan. This subtle color scheme is carried throughout giving the RoadRunner an attractive, contemporary appearance.
Unfortunately, MicroOffice has followed the IBM school of keyboard layout, i.e., pepper the keyboard with extra keys in unexpected places. Next to the M on the bottom row, we expect to find a left arrow, right arrow, question mark, and SHIFT. The RoadRunner puts the up cursor key in place of the question mark (the other three cursor keys are to the right of the spacebar). It is nice that the cursor keys are in a logical pattern, but what an ill-chosen location!
The CMD (control) key is under the right SHIFT and is all-too-easy to press inadvertently bringing on all kinds of undesirable results.
On the other hand, millions of people tolerate, perhaps even like, the keyboard on the IBM PC, so perhaps we are being overly harsh toward this one. Acutally, it is more standard than that on the IBM PC, so it is likely that RoadRunner users will adjust after a week or two.
On the top row are several special keys including HELP, SAVE, and MENE (functional in most software packages). Next come eight function keys which have default meanings in most software packages, but which also can be set by the user from either Basic or CP/M. Keys to delete, insert, and exit programs are to the right of the top row.
The standard RoadRunner comes with a 16K of ROM and 48K of RAM built in. The built-in ROM contains a CP/M-compatible operating system, and editing, scheduling, phone directory, and terminal emulation (DEC VT100) software.
Four slots labeled A to D are provided above the keyboard into which memory cartridges can be plugged. Cartridges can be blank or contain software. Currently available are 16K blank cartridges; 32K and 64K ones are promised later.
Each cartridge measures just 2.5 square and weighs one ounce. It contains CMOS memory and a lithium battery which will keep the memory refreshed for five years.
Software packages such as Microsoft Basic and Sorcim SuperCalc are also available on cartridge.
Each of the four slots is addressed just as though it were a disk drive. Although a 37-pin bus connector is accessible at the back of the machine, no floppy disk unit is available or even promised for the RoadRunner. The design philosophy seems to be that if you need a disk unit, the RoadRunner can easily be connected to another machine--we saw it done with an IBM PC--and data up- and down-loaded through the RS-232 port.
On The Inside
The RoadRunner uses a CMOS version of the Z80A running at 2.5 MHz. Thus, we would expect performance similar to the NEC 8201 and, indeed, the time to run our standard benchmark was virtually identical.
The machine has a real-time clock which can be programmed to "wake up' the computer at a specified time.
Connectors are provided in the rear of the unit for the main bus (for parallel devices, but alas, no printer interface is available), RS-232 serial devices, and modem module.
A battery compartment holds a removable 10-ounce NiCad battery pack. The RoadRunner will run approximately eight hours on a fully-charged battery which we are told will recharge "overnight;' no exact time is given.
A compact modem module which plugs into the back of the machine is available. It is a 300-baud direct-connect modem with auto-dial, auto-answer, and a wake-up mode of operation. This means, for example, that the computer could be set to wake up at 2:00 a.m. and send the daily sales report back to the computer at the home office.
Built in to the operating software is a terminal emulation mode which imitates a DEC VT100 terminal. In this mode, the computer can talk to many timesharing systems as a hard-wired terminal. It is not likely that one would wish to use the nachine in place of a VT100, but this is another way to up-and down-load data from a larger host machine.
As mentioned, the basic RoadRunner comes with a "CP/M 2.2 compatible' operating system. Why not just CP/M 2.2? Because, we are told, the RoadRunner operating system has a background print capability, and regular CP/M does not. However, all (?) CP/M software will run on the machine, as long as there is sufficient memory.
The scheduling and name/address/ phone directory capability are similar to those on the Tandy Model 100. We haven't found these especially useful, particularly since they devour memory like crazy, but perhaps other people do. The DEC VT100 terminal emulator is also built in.
Included with the basic machine is a text editing cartridge, MicroOffice 100 Editor. This is a more than adequate text editor. It is always in insert mode (like the Model 100), but it has several unexpected features such as character, word, and line delete, and global search-and-replace.
With the MicroOffice Editor, when the screen is full, it pages up seven lines, so the previous bottom line becomes the top line on the next screen.
The definitions of eight function keys can be toggled on and off on the bottom row of the display. We found the functions understandable and sensible, even without an instruction manual (the ultimate test).
Microsoft Basic is available as an extra-cost ($175) software package. It is the standard Z80 implementation except that the version we used did not have on-screen editing. The folks at MicroOffice said this may be available later.
Sorcim SuperCalc is also available as an extra cost ($275) option. We did not have an opportunity to try it out.
MicroOffice tells us that many software suppliers are planning to convert their packages to the machine. The availability of CP/M should make this fairly easy, so we would expect to see many more packages in the not too distant future.
The RoadRunner comes with the usual 90-day limited warranty. At the moment, no field service facilities are planned. Faulty machines must be mailed back to Fairfield, CT for repair or replacement.
The basic RoadRunner with AC charger/adapter, blank 16K data cartridge, text editor cartridge, soft carrying case, and manual has a suggested list price of $1695.
The modem module costs $240; Microsoft Basic, $175; and Sorcim SuperCalc, $275. For a limited time, the RoadRunner plus these three extras (total $2385) is being offered for an introductory price of $1895.
A 16K cartridge costs $90 and an extra battery pack costs $25.
An Office On The Road MicroOffice positions the RoadRunner as an office on the road, and the description is apt. With the text editor, spreadsheet program, scheduler, and communications capability, you truly have a portable office. With a weight of only five pounds and the compact data cartidges, you will be tempted to carry the machine everywhere.
We wish the keyboard layout could have been more standard and the display could have been larger with more room between the lines and lower-case letter descenders. We would have liked a Centronics parallel printer output too.
On the other hand, MicroOffice has done most things right. Now, how do we become an OEM so we can get a machine of our own?
Photo: Cursor control keys are arranged in a logical pattern, but unfortunately the up cursor key is where the question mark is usually found.
Photo: The MicroOffice RoadRunner opened up. In the foreground are a battery pack and two memory cartridges.
Photo: When closed, the RoadRunner fits easily into an attache case.
Products: MicroOffice RoadRunner (computer)