Epson QX-10; the friendliest computer around. (evaluation) Roger H. Edelson.
The Epson QX-10 and the Valdocs operating System represent an ambitious attempt to produce a new geneartion of truly user-friendly microcomputer systems. Because of this bold new direction, the system deserves to be evaluated from two different points of view: as a stand-alone microcomputer and as the first step in the evolutionary progress toward a jargon free, user-friendly ergonomically designed microcomputer.
This review covers the standard QX-10 with two disk drives, the HASCI (for Human Applications Standard Computer Interface) keyboard, and Valdocs version 1.18. This version of the Valdocs (short for Valuable Documents) may represent the last issue of version 1.x software and is both an improvement over, and a cleanup of, earlier releases.
There remain some problems with Valdocs at this point (mainly in response speed), but remember that before you can run you must walk. Actually, version 1.18 is probably more akin to a baby's crawl; and according to Chris Rutkowski of Rising Star Industries, the proud parents of Valdocs, 1.18 ends the crawling period.
Version 2.x will signal a new phase of greatly improved capability and speed, and version 3.x will put it all together, add the few missing business application modules, and really run--we'll see.
While most of the innovative design on the QX-10 has been poured into the Valdocs operating system and its supporting HASCI keyboard, the hardware design is also well thought out.
The computer is divided into three attractive light cream colored packages: the main electronics unit, the 12" (diagonal) monitor, and the detachable keyboard. Charcoal coloring has been used for the disk drives, the insert surrounding the CRT, and the keys to provide an interesting and eye appealing contrast. The total system weighs in at just under 40 pounds. The System Unit
The heart of the QX-10 is the electronics package or main system unit which houses the two thin (1.5" high) disk drives, the Z80A CPU, a speaker, memory (RAM, ROM, and battery backed-up CMOS RAM), and the I/O. This unit is just a little over 4" high and occupies a 20" wide by 13.6" deep footprint, which is not overly large given its formidable capability.
The disk drives are somewhat unique in that they are made by Epson and employ a voice-coil linear actuator for the head positioning, rather than the familiar stepper motor technology. This actuator design, usually found only on hard disk drives, provides fast track-to-track stepping speeds and is extremely quiet during operation. In fact, the noise of the drive is almost entirely masked by the noise of the small muffin cooling fan.
This fan represents what might well be the only mistake that Epson made in their hardware design. the diminished height of the main unit requires a very small fan which must turn at a high (and noisy) RPM to move the air. Even worse, the fan blows the air directly out of the unit. With this arrangement, room air (along with all its contaminants) is sucked into the machine through every opening in the case, including the disk drive slots. A much better design draws the air into the fan through a filter then disperses ot throughout the electronics and power supply areas and finally forces it out of the case through the drives and outlets. This flow pattern limits the amount of trapped grit, dust, and dirt on the disks.
The design Epson has chosen for the disk insertion and removal operation is also different, but it has a nice positive action which I like. The disk is inserted as in all drives, but once it is fully seated in the unit a small latch clicks into place, holding it firmly; there is no drive door and no possibility of closing the door and crunching an improperly inserted disk. Next, the small button on the upper left front of the drive must be pressed firmly to inform the drive, and the system, that the disk is in place.
This button is also used to remove the disk. It is designed as a mechanical toggle, and a second push performs this operation. The Valdocs system waits ever so patiently until the system disk has been inserted in the left drive, displaying a message to INSERT DISKETTE.
The system also notifies the operator if the data disk has not been inserted into the righthand drive; it really is user-friendly. The machine performs a self-test when you turn it on, and checks the printer--at the same time. It will inform you if the printer is not connected, if it is out of paper, or if the I/O interface is not correct. Mine complained for weeks, until I finally located a missing wire in the extension cable I had added. (It was not Epson's fault; the cable manufacturer had left out one handshaking signal line.)
The Z80A CPU operates at a moderate 4MHz clock rate, but it is unable to access a remarkable (for an 8-bit machine) 256K of RAM under Valdocs (only 64K in the CP/M version), 2K of CMOS RAM supported by a backup battery, and up to 8K of ROM housing the basic boot routines. this ability to use more than the 64K of memory, which is normally the maximum for an 8-bit machine, somewhat negates the main advantage of the newer 8/16 machines, since the faster computational speed of the latter chips has not proved a major factor.
Actually, the main unit of the QX-10 has even more memory than is available to the Z80A. There is another 32K to 128K of dedicated memory supporting the bit-mapped video monitor. The overall design represents a well thought out, fully mature implementation of an 8-bit microcomputer system, and the availability of CP/M 2.2x as an alternate operating system assures a large base of available software. The Display
The display is an easy-on-the-eyes, high-persistence, monochrome green phosphor monitor, which provides a moderate- to high-resolution 640 x 400 pixel display. The CRT uses an etched faceplate to reduce the reflected glare of ambient lighting, but no provision has been made to adjust the viewing angle--a minor irritation.
The display is pleasantly clear and readable, and in the text processing mode provides an 80-column by 25-line display. The last line is used for status information such as the line spacing, page number, line number, character position, and the time (kept current by a battery powered clock calendar).
The only feature of the monitor which takes a little getting used to is the length of the phosphor persistence. The characters take somewhat longer than normal to fade out and move. The Keyboard
The keyboard is unconditionally excellent; it ranks with the best units I have handled in terms of stroke, feel, appearance, and arrangement, and the HASCI architecture makes operating the Valdocs system both logical and easy. Another version of the keyboard, a standard ASCII arrangement, is also available for users who want just a Z80A CP/M system.
The two-color keys (charcoal and dark grey) are divided into four functional groups, consisting of a collection of 61 standard text keys, a separate numeric pad (including the four calculation keys, a separate ENTER key, and even a decimal tab key), an editing and cursor movement group, and the Valdocs specific function keys, which are arrayed along the top. Epson really designed this layout well; too many other computers skimp on the keys making the numeric pad to do double duty as the cursor movement keys. This shared key arrangement greatly slows down data entry when using a spreadsheet program, but that is not the case with the separate functions of the QX-10. Even with the extra keys, the keyboard is not unwieldy. It is the same width as the main unit (20"), less than 2" high, and only 9" deep. It rests comfortably on either desk or lap, weighing in at 5.5 pounds.
Speaking of fast data entry, Epson forgot the little bump in the center of the 5 key, a feature which makes data entry considerably faster and easier. The detachable keyboard is connected by a coiled cord and a DIN type plug equipped with a convenient lever that folds out to make removal easy. Using simple plastic adjustable legs, the tilt of the keyboard can be varied to suit the desire of th user. The key tops are sculpted, and have a matte finish. Five of the keys (SHIFT-LOCK, INSERT, CALC, SCHED, and DRAW) have internal LED status indicators.
But the real difference between the HASCI keyboard architecture and other computers is embodied in the 17 specialized Valdocs control keys, which are divided into four logical groupings. The first four keys on the far left are labelled System Controls and control the HELP, COPY-DISK, and UNDO functions, plus a bright red STOP key. The STOP and UNDO keys ar real error correctors; STOP halts whatever operation the QX-10 is currently pursuing, and UNDO allows you to reverse the last specified command. Oh, how many times I have wished for a key like this after deleting the wrong file under CP/M. Unfortunately, this is one operation the UNDO key does not provide, but the file handling routines force a second positive response from the operator before a chosen file can be erased.
the STOP key turns out to be more useful than expected. Because of the slow response time of valdocs during some operations and the large type-ahead buffer (32 characters), it is possible to stack up a series of identical commands, such as view next page or retry disk access. The result is a very long wait while the computer patiently retries the operation over and over and over again. This is where the STOP key earns its keep: one press and the operation ceases at the end of the currently executing command and the buffer is cleared.
HELP and COPY-DISK are time-savers; in particular it is almost magical to have a single button that automatically makes a backup copy of a disk. It takes a few minutes to do the job, and you still have to swap disks, but compare this with the CP/M operation, which requires exiting the program, calling up the copy program, and changing the disk. File Handling
The next group of keys (STORE, RETRIEVE, PRINT, INDEX, and MAIL) are the File Control functions, which provide a single-key implementation of the most commonly used file handling operations. With STORE and RETRIEVE, files are placed on, or removed from, disk storage. PRINT and MAIL send files either to a printer or to other systems via electronic mail. It is true that Valdocs 1.18 does not support a true save function with the store command, but the newer versions are expected to implement this function.
Among the most impressive features of HASCI and Valdocs in the file handling department are the INDEX key and the operation it commands. Instead of the limited eight-letter name and three-letter extension for files allowed by CP/M (i.e., FILEFOO1.ROG), in the 1.18 version of Valdocs every file (graph, document, database) may be indexed by a description of up to 16 keywords. That's right 16 words, and the index function ignores what Valdocs refers to as noise words--I, or, and, it, etc.
With this power it is easy to use English for file names and provide enough information to allow the establishment of simple relations between different files. This function offers the power of a mini-database in a single key at the slight cost of increased time for file handling operations. For example, all my articles for Creative Computing can be found by indexing on those words or I can search for all articles or files on peripherals or printers. Miscellaneous Applications
Most of us use our computers for more than one application. While I mainly use mine for text processing, there are times when I need graphics capability or want to schedule my appointments and meetings. With most operating systems, to change from one task to another requires saving the work currently in progress, exiting the present program, entering the new program, and loading the correct file. Only then can the new task begin.
With the common sense, user-friendly approach of Valdocs and HASCI, the operator simply presses one key to change tasks. While Valdocs comes up in the word processing mode, all one has to do to change applications is select from the application keys, MENU, CALC, SCHED, or DRAW.
CALC turns the computer into a four-function calculator which can place numbers in the text or total row or column of figures which already exist in the document.
SCHED provides a time management function, and DRAW offers a powerful graphic capability. Each time you change applications, Valdocs automatically saves the work which was in progress. Word Processing
The QX-10 word processor works on visual and actual pages. The visual page consists of the 60 characters by 24 lines displayed on the screen, while the actual page is the 55 lines of text which will be printed. A horizontal line marks the actual page break on the screen, and a status display is always present.
The status display shows the visual page, lefthand margin, line spacing, current actual page number, current line number and character (cursor) position on that line, Replace or Insert mode, tab settings, righthand margin, time of day, and a vertical righthand flag line which indicates the applicable line codes, such as carriage return, word wrap, characters past the margin setting, etc.
All of the normal variables may be set by calling up one of the various editing menus and inserting new values. No other "work windows" are displayed during normal editing. Files may be merged, for example, to place a letter-head file at the beginning of a form letter held in another file.
All the normal facilities you would expect in a word processor are available in Valdocs, including justification, block moves, reformatting, insertion, and search and replace. With just the word processor and calculator it is possible to create spreadsheets and other business related forms.
Valdocs also offers a spooling facility which will queue up to three documents to be printed, releasing the CPU for other tasks.
With the QX-10 in the text processing mode, the final group of keys (BOLD, ITALIC, SIZE, and STYLE) take effect, providing a true what-you-see-is-what-you-get document presentation. The QX-10 uses a bit-mapped graphics capability to display italics, bold, and underlined text. Under version 1.18 the STYLE key provides underlined letters and the SIZE key allows the display (and the printed output) to vary the line spacing selection for one, two, or three lines.
To some degree, it is this graphic depiction of text that slows down the word processing function--perhaps the loudest complaint lodged against Valdocs. Notice that I didn't say the QX-10; under CP/M, running other word processing software, the computer is as fast as most 8-bit machines. Improvements in Valdocs
Rising Star Industries recognizes this complaint and has attacked the problem in several ways. First, version 1.18 has corrected some of the earlier software: the menus have been greatly refined and improved; a repeating vertical cursor control has been added; the text processor now automatically comes up in replace mode rather than in insertion mode: the STYLE and SIZE keys are now partially implemented (as mentioned earlier); and additional printer support is now provided. The so called "open manhole covers" through which data and files dropped from sight have been closed; I couldn't get the system to lose any of my files. The speed of operation has been significantly improved, but it still seems maddeningly slow in many cases.
During certain operations, this slowness is really operator perception rather than actual measured timing. The file handling operations appear to respond slower than equivalent CP/M procedures because CP/M keeps the user involved in the operation by forcing the entry of different commands throughout the process, while all Valdocs requires is a single keystroke. In addition, the speed increase of version 1.18 is effective only when operating under Valdocs. There is no change in the Creative Computing benchmark values because Basic runs outside of Valdocs under CP/M.
Version 1.18 has expanded the capabilities of the earlier releases in many of the applications and file handling areas, thus making the system easier to use. For instance, the INDEX feature was limited to eight words per file, rather than the two-line, 16-keyword titles available in the current version.
Rising Star has also given the Valdocs user ability to modify the text processor both to speed up its operation and to change certain of its characteristics. It is now possible to change the text mode so the cursor is not locked in the center of the screen with the text moving past it. The cursor can appear, instead, in the upper left corner and move through the text--a technique I prefer.
Further, by changing the Valdocs experience level from the lowest level (there are foru levels: Beginner, Novice, Advanced, and Expert), you can access the Quirk function which allows the modification of the text screen to a character-oriented, as opposed to graphics-oriented, display. In this mode, the text processor is significantly faster, but is no longer capable of displaying the bold, italic, and other graphic styles. The characters are still printed as commanded, but they are not displayed on the screen.
One change in Valdocs 1.18 that is not an improvement becomes evident when you select the PRINT function. The number of lines left blank at the top and bottom of a printed page must be set in the printer parameter file using SETUP.SYS. But even when this value is set to 0, the printer supplies several linefeeds before printing. This is particularly bothersome when using single sheet paper. Valdocs a Success?
the operation, success, and problems of Valdocs must be viewed from the perspective of the attempt to create an entirely new synthesis between the computer and the user. Rising Star Industries intended to produce a user-friendly computer system supported by a logically designed dedicated keyboard, which can be used immediately by even complete computer neophytes without reference to the operating manuals. I think they have succeeded. Okay, a beginner will need to read the first chapter of the QX-10 Operations Manual to make sure the computer is correctly unpacked and connected and to learn which drive takes the operating system disk and which is for the data disk.
A first time computer user should read the simple first chapter to avoid some of the really dumb things that have been done: like stripping the outer jacket off the disks (after all, it is obvious that a square object can't rotate correctly, isn't it) or taking the disks to the photocopier to make backups.
Aside from this very preliminary education, there is almost no need for the manuals. You can sit down at the QX-10, turn it on and immediately produce either a text document or excellent graphs without reading a single instruction. Your operation may not be as efficient as possible, but it will be effective and catastrophe free. The philosophy of design as expressed by Chris Rutkowski is "that which is not specifically prohibited is allowed," as opposed to most other computers which are based on the converse, " that which is not expressively allowed, is probably prohibited."
Version 2.x of Valdocs is intended to take an operating system which was essentially a proof of design offering and turn it into a system which minimizes some of the compromises involved in the first implementation. It is based on the first thorough investigation of a user-friendly operating system.
In this next generation, in place of separate software modules, will be a package written as an integrated entirety, with consequent increased operating speeds. According to Rising Star, almost the entire Valdocs operating system has been rewritten; something less than 10% of the code from version 1.x has been retained. The HASCI interface portable, so users will probably barely notice the difference in generations.
There is also a strong movement at Rising Star to ship version 2.x without any manuals at all, since the company thinks that many people are threatened by the manuals and documentation shipped with some systems. The new user thinks "Oh my gosh, does this mean I can't use this thing without reading 500 pages of computerese? As I have attempted to make clear, this is definitely not the case with Valdocs; as mentioned earlier, even with version 1.18 a new operator can begin efficiently using the machine minutes after unpacking it.
The final stage (at least as now planned) in the evolutionary progress of Valdocs will be version 3.x, which will contain 95% of all applications software required of a business computer. Spreadsheet, database, and sorting capabilities will be added to complete the package.
All of these applications (and more) are available from the QX-10 under CP/M, but without the user-friendly overmind of Valdocs. If Rising Star and Epson can complete this ambitious undertaking, the QX-10 will take its place as the most user-friendly business computer on the market.
Products: Epson QX-10 (computer)