Wide screen computing. (evaluation) George Blank.
Would you like a computer than can network with IBM PCs, and Aplles, and CP/M computers, sharing files on a hard disk? How about a computer that would easily allow you to develop a spreadsheet, create a three-dimensional graph from the spread-sheet, write explanatory notes on an excellent word processor, and then drop the graph and relevant section of the spreadsheet directly into the middle of the word processing text to be printed? Would it helf if the screen could hold more than six times the information normally found on the screen of an IBM PC, Apple II, or TRS-80? If so, you might want to investigate the Corvus Concept.
Calling the Concept a personal computer is stretching a point. While this computer compares favorably as a stand-alone system with the Apple Lisa and the IBM PC XT, it is clearly intended to be used in a network of computers; a network that can include Apple and IBM computers as well as other Concepts.
The system is fairly large and covers a full desktop. The monitor mounts on a swivel base on top of the CPU and can be tilted to set the viewing angle. It can be mounted either horizontally or vertically; a switch on the back of the CPU sets the mode. The detached, 89-key keyboard has a coiled cord that allows use anywhere within five feet of the back of the CPU. The hard disk drive and 8" floppy drive take up the rest of the desktop, but could be mounted underneath.
This is a very complex system. It takes a long time to set up and even longer to learn to use it effectively. Although the system is provided with enough manuals to stock a library, they are of mediocre quality, and most lack an index. However, Corvus does offer excellent technical support over the telephone. I had to make at least a dozen calls over a two-month period, and was never disappointed with the quality of the help I received.
During the week after Christmas, when the rest of Corvus was on vacation, the telephone support staff was on duty. When I asked a question during that period that no one on duty could answer, they called me back a few hours later with the answer. By waiting until after 5:00 p.m. to call and using Sprint, I kept the total cost of the phone calls to $35--probably reasonable for a $10,000 computer system. (I have had extensive experience with many different computer systems, however, and someone with less experience would probably have more questions and more difficulty.) Setting Up the System
After unpacking the system, i spent half an hour browsing through the various manuals trying to figure out what to do first. (Corvus does not provide a Read This first instruction sheet, but they desperately need one.) Finally, I just picked one of the installation guides at random and started with it. By working my way step by step through the Personal Work-station Installation Guide, the Diskette Drive Installation Guide, and the Disk Drive Installation Guide, I managed to get the system set up, but not working. When I could not get past part of the hard drive set up, I called Corvus. they quickly diagnosed my problem as a need to reformat the hard disk drive and talked me through the procedure.
After setting up the system, it is necessary to install the software. this is also a complex process, taking several hours and involving step-by-step instructions in a separate manual for each package. In general, the process involves setting up a area on the hard disk to hold each application, possibly setting up another area of storage for files generated by that application, copying the software to the application area, then deciding which users of the system will have access to each application and setting up the access tables to allow them to do so.
Many of the other tasks involved in using the system are equally complex. This does not mean that the system does not support casual users. I taught an artist to access the system and use the graphics software in ten minutes, and he had not previously operated a computer. But at least one skilled computer operator should be available at each installation to serve as the system manager and handle special problesm. Even such a simple operation as copying a file from the hard drive to a floppy disk can involve 15 minutes of searching through manuals and ten or more programming steps.
To use the system, as a casual user you would type your user name, then enter your password. This would bring you to the "dispatcher level" of the operating system. Labels at the bottom of the screen would reference the ten function keys at the top of the keyboard. Probably, you would first press function key 4, labeled SetVol, and type the name of the volume (hard disk memory storage area) within which you wanted to work. Next you would press the function key appropriate to your application. For example, on my system, function key 1 is the UCSD Pascal programming environment, key 2 is the Logicalc spreadsheet program, key 3 is the ISYS system described later, and shifted function key 3 enters the Edword word processor. Depending on which key is pressed, the appropriate software would load into memory from the hard disk, initialize, and begin to accept your input. isys integrated Software System
It is necessary for me to stress that I am speaking as a beginner in evaluating the ISYS software. It typically requires at least 60 hours of use to become proficient using any typical business software application, such as a word processing program. ISYS includes several such application, plus operating environments that are as complex as the applications.
I have used Edword for only about eight hours, Logicalc about 30 hours, and Graph about 20 hours, so I cannot claim to be an expert on any of them. I spent only a brief time looking at the data communications, list management, and file sorting functions of ISYS. The desk tool functions were moderately useful and very easy to learn.
Using the 60-hour average, which seems appropriate from my experience with the system so far, I estimate that it would take 12 weeks of full time use to become a fully qualified system manager of a Concept workstation running the ISYS software, and another four weeks if the system were networking with other computers. This is largely a function of the complexity of the system; if it did a lot less, it would be a lot easier to learn and use. But it does indicate that warmware (a human being, probably collecting a good salary) is becoming the major cost in a computer system rather than hardware or software.
The ISYS system environment is menu driven. It works through ten function keys, which (unlike those on the IBM PC) are properly placed along the top row of the keyboard. The bottom three rows of the display typically contain ten inverse-video blocks--one for each function key--with up to two labels for each key and the label F1 through F10 about each block.
Each function key can have four meanings at any single menu level: the regular function, another with the shift key, a function when the command key is also pressed, and a function with both the Shift and Command Keys. Pressing the command key by itself displays a second set of function key labels. Above the function keys will usually be a box containing two more lines to receive command input and display messages from the application or system environment. Because the screen is so large, dedicating five lines at the bottom to command and control functions does not appreciably reduce the work space available.
The top of the screen contains a status line, displaying the current operating system, user name, station number, disk volume name, day of the week, date, and time. To set the command areas apart from the work area, the work area is enclosed in a box made from four narrow lines.
The well-labeled function keys make the Corvus Concept, at one and the same time, one of the easiest and one of the most difficult systems I have ever used. If the function I need is displayed on the screen, it is easy to find and use. This is true in most of the applications for most of the commonly used functions. If I have to press the Command Key to find the function, I am not quite as satisfied. If I have pressed a function key to go into another menu and then find the function I need. I become exasperated.
Sometimes you have to go through several pages of menus to get to a function, and it is easy to get lost on the way. But worst of all, for many functions in the Corvus, you have to search through several manuals that don't have indexes to find the instructions. Then you have to page through several menus to accomplish preliminary functions. Then you must type relatively meaningless or illogically abbreviated commands without error after accomplishing all of the necessary preliminaries. This is far too much effort to complete what should be a simple task! In general, however, the functions are well thought out. For example, function key 10 is usually dedicated to exiting from the current menu. If this is likely to cause trouble if done at the wrong time, then the shifted F10 key may be required to exit. Word Processor
I like the Edword word processor better than any of the more than 20 word processing programs I have used in the past six years. Although if would probably take many hours to become an expert with the system, it takes only a few minutes for a beginner to learn to accomplish most ordinary word processing tasks.
After I created my first sample work-space, without even looking at the Edword manual, a letter from Corvus Systems appeared in the workspace automatically. The letter, which would fill about three single-spaced typewritten pages, was actually an interactive tutorial on Edword. It taught me how to use the function keys, enter and delete text, mark sections of text, cut and paste, and use the undo function. I love having function keys for both undo and redo.
It is a joy to be able to display 72 rows of text on the screen at one time, with 90 characters in each row. AT the top of the screen is a ruler with the tab positions indicated for laying out your text. Also listed are the program name, version number, and the same of your file. The screen functions as a moving window, so the document can be wider and much longer than that which could be accommodated on a single screen. On the left edge of the screen is a line which has a thick portion to show the vertical positon of the current window in the document and an arrow pointing to the line that holds the cursor.
At the bottom of the screen you find a long open box with the current horizontal position in the workpad shaded solid, the number of the current line, the number of lines in the document, and the column number of the current cursor position. The line below that holds the mode (i.E. Edit) in inverse video, plus any status messages from the program to the user.
The function key labels indicate 20 functions on the regular menu, with 12 more on the command menu. Some of the functions invoke a new menu. For example, the Format key displays a new menu with 16 functions, including headers, footers, line spacing, justification, margins, headlines, page breaks, centering, and comments. Altogether, the program has more than 140 funstions, and it is fully integrated with the data communications, spreadsheet, and business graphics in ISYS. Edword is included in the price of the Concept, and for some people, may justify the purchse of the computer. Spreadsheet
The Corvus spreadsheet program, Logicalc, is a powerful application. It is the fourth spreadsheet program I have used seriously. I prefer Logicalc to Microsoft's Multiplan and to VisiCalc, but, given a choice, I would do my own work on the IBM PC using Perfect Calc. The biggest advantage of Logicalc is the increased screeb size of the Concept.
I was able to display 12 months of 18 different accounts for my business on the screen at one time, with summaries, titles, and extra lines and blank space on the screen to increase readability. The function keys make the system easy to use in most cases, and I found all the functions that I have come to require in a spreadsheet, including titles displayed over more than one cell, independent column widths, and the ability to lock areas of the spreadsheet.
What I liked least about Logicalc was the inability to exit a newly entered cell with the arrow keys. You must press Enter or Return (the Concept has both keys, with no functional difference!) to exit a cell. If the advance key is on, this will automatically move you one cell to the right. If you don't want to go right, you must use the arrow keys after pressing Return. I much prefer to eliminate a keystroke and exit the cell with an arrow key.
The lack of an index to the manual or a reference card for Logicalc is very serious drawback to this system. I had so much trouble searching for information in the manual that I finally gave up and went back to Perfect Calc. I found that I was happy to trade a large screen display for ease of use.
Logicalc can be entered directly from the opening menu of the Concept, called the Dispatcher Level, or through the ISYS menu. If you enter directly, your spreadsheet defaults to 40 rows of 11 columns of 10 characters. From ISYS, only 34 rows of 10 columns of 10 characters are displayed. However, several features are added under ISYS, including an Undo command; table lookup; selective column display; direct line charts, bar charts, or dot graphs (in addition to the ISYS Graph program); and program suspension while another ISYS function is used. Additional functions include a forms mode, user defined functions, and built-in functions for internal rate of return and net present value. Graph
ISYS Graph is a fascinating high-resolution business graphics program. There are 83 built-in templates for pie charts, bar, line, surface, ribbon, outline, and freeform graphs, and you can modify any of the templates or create your own. It will read several forms of files, including Logicalc files and Edword files, and draw charts from the data.
You can select a three-dimensional graphics template and press a single function key to draw a chart automatically from your data file. You can also use a zoom lens function to set the graph to the size you want, rotate it around the X, Y, or Z axis for the best viewing angle; choose three different shadings for the base and two displayable reference planes; choose a border for the base; choose a text font, printing angle and size for the labels; and move the whole graph to the desired location on the screen, redraw it, save it, move over into Edword, and drop the graph right into the middle of your text.
The system is very powerful and easy to learn and use, but it is limited to producing graphs from data files. If you wanted to use the high-resolution graphics on the Concept for other purposes, Corvus offers another program (not tested) called Corvus Paint, which has 200 commands and uses a mouse, for $395. ISYS Desk Tool
The ISYS desk tool includes a perpetual calendar that will display any month of any year, and an international clock which shows the time in all world time zones, with one city referenced in each. Also included are a high-resolution analog clock with moving hands, a stop watch with lap timer, and a calculator that includes trig and log functions and which displays a moving tape. I haven't figured out a use for the lap timer yet. Perhaps I could look out the window and clock cars on the highway? List Management
The ISYS List Management program allows you to create files that are collections of records, such as a mailing list made up of multiple fields for title, first name, last name, street address, city, state, zip code, and information fields. Once a template is created for the necessary records, the program can input data, edit, search, and sort a list.
The ISYS Lookup program will search files up to 100,000 characters long. You can selectively search any data field in the list and display it to the screen or save it to a file. You can also use the List program to create a form to merge a list with Edword files for printing form letters or addressing envelopes. Unfortunately, merged fields have fixed lengths, so if you allow 25 characters each for first and last names, Sam Smith will receive a form letter with 22 spaces between his first and last name. Data Communications
The ISYS Data Communications program is a complete serial communications program. The function keys and menus make it extremely easy to use, and the screen display is one of the most helpful I have ever seen in a communications program. Most of my own file transfer in-house uses the XModem (Christiansen) protocol, which allows automatic file transfer with error checking, so I was happy that this was supported on the Concept.
The program will emulate a VT100 terminal for communication with mainframe computers. The instructions for hooking up to another computer are much better than I have seen with other terminal packages. They include information on pin connections for creating a null modem and settings for the Hayes Smartmodem.
The automatic dialer allows you to maintain a directory containing name, phone number, logon sequence, password sequence, baud rate, word length, and parity for systems you use. The only feature I like in a communications program that is missing is the ability to program individually the output lines and read the input lines (CTS, DSR, etc.), so that I can analyz handshake problems. Overall Impressions
With the exception of the need to reformat the hard disk drive before setting up the computer, I did not experience any hardware problems in three months of regular but intermittent use. I encountered several software problems, none serious. The most embarrassing one (for Corvus) was that the Set Year function in the system clock absolutely refused to accept 1984 and insisted that it was still 1983. When I tried to use a template in the ISYS Graph program with more than the number of columns and rows recommended for that template, the system locked up and I had to turn it off to regain control. With I blew a circuit breaker by plugging an electric heater into the same circuit as the computer, the system locked me out of the application I was in, telling me it was already in use. Corvus telephone support directed me to the section of the manual that told me how to reset the semaphore table, which prevents two users from accessing a file at the same time, and everything worked fine again.
Although Corvus sent me a CP/M emulator, I was never successful in installing it on the system, probably due to a defective diskette. I lost interest when I found out that it emulated only 8080 instructions, since most of my software contains Z80 specific instructions.
On the positive side, I loved the large screen, the excellent, well laid out 89 key keyboard, and the use of the function keys in different applications. I didn't have a printer that could handle it, or I would have really gone overboard with the integrated word processing, graphics, and spreadsheet. Edword seems far better than any other word processor I have used.
Because I couldn't hook up my TRS-80s, my PCjr, or my Seequa Chameleon, and I seldom use my Apple II, the networking did not appeal to me. I hated the operating system, particularly all the extra work that is, unfortunately, necessary to achieve controlled access multi-user systems.
I also hated the manuals. I think the best way to judge any complicated product is to pick up the instruction manual and look through the index. If it doesn't have an index, you may have a serious problem if you buy the product. Of the 15 Corvus manuals that I received with system, only three had indexes. The Digital Research manual for CP/M and the four Softech Manuals for the UCSD P-System did have indexes.
Despite the 68000 microprocessor, I was not impressed with the speed of the system. I started to run benchmarks, but considered it unfair when I reflected on the increased time required to rewrite the oversize display and the extra overhead required for multiple user access control. I did find the system speed adequate, however, and significantly better than the Apple Lisa, which seemed to spend 20 minutes of each hour displaying an hourglass and the words "Lisa is preparing this window's display."
Using the UCSD Pascal operating system, I did not find any apprecialbe differences in speed among the Concept, my Seequa Chameleon, and my Apple II Plus. I did not run any number crunching benchmark tests because this system seems unsuited to number crunching applications; the supplied applications are oriented to business, not science, and the UCSD P-System has pathetic accuracy. Using a Pascal adaptation of Dave Ahl's benchmark test--computing 100 square roots, squaring them, and adding the sum of the differences--I received perfect accuracy (.00000000000000) on the Seequa Chameleon with Turbo Pascal, accuracy in the top 5% of the systems tested by Creative Computing on the TRS-80 with Pascal 80, and by far the worst accuracy of any of the systems tested on the Corvus using UCSD Pascal. Since Corvus does not currently supply a Basic interpreter, (a Basic compiler is available from Softech Microsystems for $395) and UCSD Pascal (unlike the other Pascals mentioned) lacks random number functions, the actual benchmark could not be run. Additional Software
Since this computer is obviously aimed at small business users, it is critical to know what other software packages are available. Applied Software Technology offers Versaform for the Corvus at $495. This is a powerful and reasonably flexible business forms processor with some data-base functions. I have been using Versaform for two years on the Apple to maintain my company mailing lists.
A.D.I. America offers the Aladin Plus relational database manager for $795. Aladain Plus allows a million records per file, unlimited key fields, and access to non-keyed information, with special features including summation, protected and comment fields.
Accounting packages are available from Great Plains Software ($500 to $2600), Molten Lava Software ($500 to $2800), and Microfinancial Corp. ($900 to $11,150). Abacus Data supplies five different database management systems for $399 to $1195, including Informax-20, a multi-user DBMS. Some of the many packages offered by other suppliers include medical office management, electronic mail, PERT charting, mailing list management, legal client record keeping and billing, statistics, manufacturing analysis, and educational administration software. Pricing
The Concept workstation, as tested, included 512K of memory, 20Mb of hard disk storage, an 8" floppy disk drive, and a monitor which can be mounted vertically to display 72 rows and 91 columns, or horizontally to display 56 rows and 120 columns of text.
List prices for the system are $3995 for a 256K Concept workstation, with monitor and detached keyboard, and $4995 for the 512K workstation. The floppy disk drive is $750 additional, and hard drives range from a 6Mb drive for $2195 to a 20Mb drive for $3995. The operating system and Edword word processor are included in the price. The ISYS integrated spreadsheet, graphing, word processing, and communication software costs $495. If you are networking the system, the necessary cards, cables, and tap boxes cost $495 per workstation (Concept, IBM, or Apple), or $1895 for a four-system Omninet Transporter Package. Separate versions of the 512K Concept workstation that run Unix cost $4295 for the Concept Uniplex that can be expanded to two users and $5995 for the Concept Plus that can service eight users. The Unix versions of the Concept cannot run non-Unix software.
The Corvus Network system would be a good choice for lawyers, doctors, retailers, wholesalers, real estate brokers, small manufacturers, and other small businesses with a need for three to eight work-stations--businesses too large for a single microcompuer, but too small to justify a minicomputer system.
Products: Corvus Concept (computer)