NCR Decision Mate V. (evaluation) David Ahl.
The NCR Decision Mate V is an interesting entry in the world of business-oriented personal computers. In its normal configuration, it is furnished with an 8-bit Z80A microprocessor. However, an optional plug-in module is available that converts the machine into a dual 8/16-bit processor with the capability of running both CP/M-86 and MS-DOS. If this option is ordered with the basic machine, it is installed internally. We think this is the configuration that will have the greatest appeal to users, so that is what we tested.
The basic machine includes 64K (expandable to 512K); a 12" high-resolution monitor (monochrome or color); dual 5 1/4" double sided, double density disk drives; and a detachable keyboard. Available as options are a Winchester disk drive, parallel and serial interfaces, and additional memory, as well as a wide range of software.
In a departure from the traditional separate keyboard, display, and system unit, the German-engineered Decision Mate V combines the system unit and display into a single, compact package (14.9" x 18.1" x 14.6"). The CRT and disk drives overhang the base of the unit so the total desk space occupied by the keyboard and display/disk unit is about the same as TRS-80 Model 4 or IBM PCjr.
The unit we had for evaluation had the 8/16-bit processor option, 128K, dual floppy disks, color monitor, and parallel printer port. Low-Profile Keyboard
Upon seeing the Decision Mate V, most people comment about the keyboard. Instead of the familiar sculpted keys found on most full-stroke keyboards, the Decision Mate V has square keys with raised round concave tops. Although the travel of each key is the same as on a standard keyboard, subjectively it seems quite different. After a few hours of use, we had to trouble touch typing on the keyboard, but we never shed the feeling that it was "different." NCR tells us that a standard, sculpted keyboard will be available for the machine. On the other hand, it is our feeling that if this your only computer, you will not have any trouble adjusting to the current unit.
The keyboard is physically divided into two groups of keys although there are the usual for logical groups of keys: alphanumeric, numeric keypad, control keys, and function keys. The alphanumeric keys are arranged in a reasonably standard pattern; there is only one extraneous key that might confuse a touch typist--the backlash between the Z and SHIFT at the left end of the bottom row. The RETURN key is double size and labeled NEW LINE. A second CONTROL key is found over it at the right side in addition to one in the usual place at the left side of the keyboard.
The CAPS LOCK key is a toggle and latches in a down position when it is depressed. All keys repeat automatically when held down for about one-half second. All keystrokes produce audible feedback through a small speaker in the system unit, the volume of which can be controlled (from silen to annoying) with a volume control of the front.
A 17-key numeric keypad on the right provides keys for the ten numerals, double zero, decimal point, for arithmetic operations, and NEW LINE. Also in this cluster are CLR, HOME, and four cursor keys. Unfortunately, the cursor keys are laid out in a horizontal row rather than a more logical diamond or rectangular pattern.
Across the top of the keyboard are 20 programmable function keys. These are colored a dark gray to contrast with the other keys, which are white with black markings. Function Key 20 is normally set up as a RESET key, but the other 19 have different meanings depending upon the software package in use.
On the right side of the keyboard is a male DB9 connector for a switch-type (Atari) joystick or other controller. This is wired in parallel with the cursor control keys, and the fire button is equivalent to NEW LINE. Although not documented by NCR, we found this a wonderful tool for moving around a spreadsheet program and editing word processing documents and Basic programs.
On the bottom of the keyboard is a DIP switch for selecting eight different character sets for English and seven other languages. The keyboard attaches to the system unit by means of a coiled cable with a reach of about four feet--more than enough for lap use. The keyboard has an eight-character buffer which permits rapid data entry without loss of characters. High-Resolution Display
A high-resolution monochrome or color display is built in. On the color unit that we had, text is displayed in green on a dark blue background. As with most RGB displays, there is only one adjustment for brightness; no others are accessible to the user.
Text resolution is 25 lines of 80 characters. The characters have a good definition the color screen with a full lowercase descenders and two-pixel interline spacing. For some reason, in reverse video (dark blue on green), much of the resolution is lost, and small characters are difficult to distinguish. On the other hand, reverse video is used only for notations at the bottom of the screen, so this is not especially bothersome.
Graphics resolution is 640 by 400 pixels (about 15% more than the IBM PC and its clones) so the detail on graphs, schematic diagrams, and engineering drawings is truly amazing. Moreover, this resolution is preserved in all eight colors (black, white, red, blue, yellow, magenta, green, and cyan). The only computer that we have evaluated in this price range with similar color graphics capabilities is the NEC 8801, although several of the other Japanese units have the same specifications.
The display is angled back at about five degrees; there is no provisions for tilting or swiveling it. The Heart of the System
In addition to the display, the system unit contains the mpu, memory, disk drives, and seven expansion slots. The basic unit has an 8-bit Z80A. The 8/16-bit option is contained in a 4" x 4" expansion module that plugs into expansion slot 1. This contains an 8088 mpu and, when installed, the Z80a is automatically dedicated to input and output functions. Graphics are produced by a third mpu, the NEC 7220 graphics chip (which explains why the graphics are the same as those on the NEC 8801). In addition to the graphics chip, separate graphics memory is included in the unit, 32K for the monochrome display and 96K for the color display.
The speed of the Decision Mate V in the standard Creative Computing benchmark is comparable to that of other computers in its price range. Although not listed in the specifications, it would appear that the machine is operating at a 2MHz clock rate (see Table 1).
The basic unit includes 64K of user memory. Three plug-in expansion modules, which increase total memory to 128K, 256K, and 512K respectively, are available.
Three plug-in peripheral adapters are available: one for a Centronics-type parallel printer, one for an RS-232 compatible modem, and one for an RS-232 serial printer. In theory, any serial or parallel printer can be used with the Decision Mate V, but, NCR recommends using one of their own units (6411, 6442, or 6455). We used the computer with a Diablo 630, a popular daisywheel unit, and had no trouble although, frankly, we did not try to do any fancy printing or graphics.
Two slimline 5-1/4" disk drives are mounted vertically to the right of the display. They are use the reliable quarter-rotation levers to secure the disks rather than fold-down doors. Each double sided, double density drive has a formated storage capacity of 320K.
Seven 96-pin expansion slots are found in a 4" x 8-1/2" recess in the back of the system unit. These slots accept processor, memory, and I/O port expansion modules. This is handy design and eliminates the necessity of removing the cover or disassembling the computer to plug in an expansion module. The I/O modules have either an attached cable or appropriate connector on the rear. The parallel printer module, for example, includes a six-foot attached cable.
The 10Mb Winchester drive, if installed, replaces the floppy disk drive on the left side. Like the floppy disk drives, it has a small red LED indicating operation of the drive.
The system unit has an outward-facing muffin fan at the rear which is all but inaudible. A welcome touch is the orange rocker power switch on the front of the unit and green power-on lamp; this replaces the inaccessible power switch found on the side or rear of many similar computers. System Software
Three operating systems are implemented for the Decision Mate V: CP/M, CP/M-86, and MS-DOS. Depending upon the options installed, you can use one or all of these. For our testing, we used CP/M and MS-DOS.
As a protective feature, the MS-DOS master disk supplied with the Decision Mate V will not run until it has been copied onto a backup disk. Although manufacturers generally recommend copying the master disk, you can usually run the disk without doing so. Not so, with this machine. However, page 2.3 of the manual takes you step by step through the format and backup procedure, so it is not an onerous process to create this required backup disk. Once this is done, you are ready to go.
A plain vanilla version of MS-DOS-no menus or fancy stuff--is included. Nor are any of the function keys implemented. Of course, if you want, you can use the CONFIG utility to assign frequently used functions such as DIR, DEL, or COPY to function keys.
CP/M does not have the same protective feature as MS-DOS although it, like the other software disks with the system, is furnished on a disk with a permanent write-protect tab.
In addition to the standard CP/M disk, a second disk containing 15 demonstration and application programs is furnished. We found it curious that the contents of this CP/M disk are described in a supplement to the MS-DOS User's Guide, and there is no hint that they are CP/M programs rather than MS-DOS ones.
These programs include several mediocre games (but after all, you don't buy a computer like this to play games), an excellent real-time clock demo, a continuous graphics demo, a music program with 11 tunes, and an excellent graphics application program.
VEGAS (Very Easy Graphics Application System) is a program written in MBasic which allows you to create line, bar, and pie charts and output them to certain NCR and Epson dot matrix printers. See Figure 1 for sample graph created on this system.
Both MS-DOS and CP/M functioned as expected. One minor annoyance is the use by the main CP/M screen of black characters on a light blue background; we found this was more difficult to read than the standard green on dark blue used with MS-DOS. Curiously, the CP/M applications programs do use the green/dark blue combination. Applications Software
Obviously with the availability of MS-DOS, CP/M, and CP/M-86, a great deal of software should be available for the Decision Mate V. As of this writing, NCR has made arrangements with several manufacturers to market customized versions of their packages. These include Microsoft GW Basic; MicroPro Wordstar, SpellStar, and MailMerge, Sorcim SuperCalc.sup.2.; and several others. In addition, NCR offer its own business graphics package, DR Graph.
As we have often remarked, WordStar is an excellent full-functioned word processing system that should meet the needs of the most demanding user. It is not especially easy to learn, but the spiral bound Training Guide that MicroPro now supplies should make the task easier. Furthermore, it includes the usual extensive printer drivers for every imaginable type of printer in the WSINSTALL module. WordStar includes two manuals, a 20-lesson training Guide in a spiral binder and a fat Reference Manual in a three-ring binder. It also includes a three-panel command card and keyboard overlay which fits over the function keys.
The function keys are not set automatically in WordStar. Rather, the WSKEY utility program must be run before you load WordStar. Unfortunately, WordStar does not take advantage of the color display as does the version furnished with the TI Professional and some other machines. Obviously, people have used WordStar for years without color, but having used the color version, we think it is a shame that more manufacturers do not customize the package to take advantage of color. We were pleased to see that unlike WordStar, SuperCalc.sup.2 takes advantage of the color display. Row and column labels are yellow while worksheet entries, prompt lines, and the cursor are green. This is a pleasing combination and very easy to read at a glance. SuperCalc.sup.2 is an excellent, easy to learn, and easy to use spreadsheet package. It comes with a six-panel reference card, 20-page spiral bound booklet (10 Minutes to SuperCalc.sup.2.), and a looseleaf three-ring User's Guide and Reference Manual.
GW Basic is the most advanced version of Microsoft Basic with all of the extensions and graphics statements implemented. Unfortunately, NCR did not follow the lead of Wang and re-do the Microsoft manual, so the user is faced with a three-part manual consisting of the MS-Basic User's Guide, MS-DOS Extension Guide, and GW-Basic Extension Guide. As if what weren't bad enough, none of the three has an index. Although the manual is terrible, GW-Basic is nifty--particularly the color graphics extensions. Using these graphics extensions, we tried some high-resolution plots and were amazed at the detail and clarity of the output, even with several colors mixed. DR Graph
DR Graph is an interactive software package that lets you create a graph, preview, change, and enhance it before you print or plot it. This menu-driven package can create text-only charts as well as six types of graphs: line, bar, pie, step, stick, and scatter. As you design your graphs, you can generate titles and legends in different type sizes, fonts, and colors; add text to graphs; fill areas with various colors or patterns; and select line styles, widths, and colors.
DR Graph is furnished in either CP/M or CP/M-86 versions, and requires, for hard copy, either a plotter or dot matrix printer. The package supports a wide range of printers and plotters including units from Epson, Hewlett-Packard, Houston instruments, DEC, Digital Engineering, ADDS, Datamedia, IDS, Okidata, Printronix, Strobe, and Televideo. The graph in Figure 2 was produced by DR Graph driving an Epson MX-80 printer with Graphtrax Plus.
We mentioned taking advantage of color in the previous section. Talk about color! If you have it, DR Graph uses it, and uses it well. Of course, if you have a monochrome system, the high-resolution displays is capable of displaying the detail on the graphs as well.
The manual is divided into four parts: a getting started tutorial, an advanced tutorial, a section on data interfacing, and a section on moving around in the menus. The data interfacing section describes how to load and use data from VisiCalc, SuperCalc, and other programs which store data in the DIF or SDI formats. Documentation
This is the first computer we have evaluated in quite some time that did not come with a fat User's Guide or equivalent. Instead, the Decision Mate V has a 52-page introductory packet in the MS-DOS manual titled "User Information." The first two sections describe installation procedures and the elements of the system. The next tells how to get it started, and the last two sections provide helpful hints ("Discourage smoking and drinking near the computer") and a troubleshooting chart. We rate this guide adequate, but no more.
The MS-DOS User's Guide is the standard mishmash supplied by Microsoft. Actually, the MS-DOS Guide is better than most. It consists of three sections: the main basic guide, a supplement (which isn't about MS-DOS at all, but describes the CP/M applications programs), and the MS-DOS Programmer's Manual. In all, this is a formidable package and one designed to discourage all but the most courageous user.
The manuals for the MicroPro and Sorcim packages are written by the software producers and are quite competent and understandable as is the DR Graph manual from NCR. The GW Basic manual is awful, but at least a wide assortment of books on MBasic is available. Unfortunately, none of these describes the use of the graphics commands particularly well. We did not have the CP/M manual so we cannot comment on it. Service and Support
As a major manufacturer of mainframe computers, NCR has a large field service organization in 1200 offices throughout the world. Hence, they offer a range of service options including an on-site service contract, time and material service, and depot service. Also, computer stores and system houses selling the Decision Mate V may have established their own servicing arrangements.
To aid in the service procedure, a plug-in diagnostics module is available. This may not be an economic investment for sites with just one machine, but for companies with several units, it probably makes sense to diagnose problems before the clock starts running on expensive service rep time.
For real do-it-yourselfers or for multiple systems installations, NCR offers a set of service manuals. Be warned: these are not for the casual hacker. Local Area Network
while this is not a review of a local area network, we should mention that NCR offers a network for up to 64 stations. NCR Omninet, a version of the 64K of memory: 1. 8-bit mpu, monochrome display, $2650. 2. 8/16-bit, monochrome, $3090. 3. 8/16-bit. color display, $3440.
Memory, other options, and software are priced as follows:
64K to 128K upgrade $200 64K to 256K upgrade 550 64K to 512K upgrade 1200 8 to 16-bit upgrade 500 10Mb Winchester drive 3000 Parallel interface 100
RS-232 serial interface 200 RS-232 modem interface 150
MS-DOS 50 CP/M-86 60 CP/M 150 WordStar 495 SuperCalc.sup.2 295 DR Graph 400
Our 8/16-bit test machine with 128K, color display, parallel interface, MS-DOS, CP/M-86, WordStar, SuperCalc.sup.2., and DR Graph--more or less an ideal configuration for business applications--would go for $5040, certainly no bargain, but no out of line either. A Decision for Decision Mate V?
Should you buy a Decision Mate V? The system is solidly engineered and constructed, and shows off its German heritage. For the price, we don't think the 8-bit configuration makes much sense (you can get a Z80A machine for one-half as much). However, the 8-16-bit configuration is another story. In one machine, you have the ability to run CP/M, CP/M-86, and MOS-DOS software. While NCR doesn't offer that many packages directly, they are available from dealers and third party vendors.
The graphics are stunning and second to none. Moreover, the NCR DR Graph package produces business charts and graphs in an easy to use package.
The shortcomings? The keyboard for one. while it is possible to get used to the unusual round keys, there is no substitute for the good, solid feel of an Epson QX-10 or TI Professional keyboard. Since the system is not bundled with software, and interface modules are extra cost items, the price can mount up fast. A fully configured Decision Mate V with a good selection of software can cost upwards of $5000, certainly no bargain.
On the other hand, we were impressed with Omninet at Softcon and, for companies wanting this capability, it is a cost effective choice. But even as a stand-alone machine, the Decision Mate V offers a great deal of capability and potential.
Products: NCR Decision Mate V (computer)