Build a better computer; a look at some new, interesting, and affordable additions for your IBM PC. (evaluation) Russ Lockwood.
We did a cover story last fall on upgrading your IBM PC. In particular, the expansion boards proved especially enticing--an easy and relatively inexpensive way to boost your computer power. IBM PC users have discovered what Apple II users have known for years--new expansion boards can infuse older hardware with new designs, applications, and productivity.
A horde of boards has been introduced for the IBM PC during the past year. We could easily fill several issues of the magazine with reviews of new boards, but space limitations restrict us to a selective approach.
In upcoming issues, we will follow through with 10,000 baud modems, 2Mb extended RAM boards, and other exciting developments. For now, we are taking a look at five innovative and inexpensive enhancements for the IBM PC.
Graphics boards have come a long way since IBM settled on a four-color resolution of 320 x 200 pixels as the standard for color graphics on the PC. Many of the new enhanced boards show 16 colors at the same resolution. The Paradise Modular Graphics Card displays both standard and enhanced graphics, drives a monochrome monitor, and displays true gray scale (in 16 shades) on a monochrome monitor. In effect, it functions like four graphics boards in one.
The board produces RGB or composite color graphics as well as graphics on an IBM or other monochrome monitor. Only one monitor at a time attaches to the board and a jumper (easily moved when the system unit cover is removed) matches the board to the type of monitor. The DIP switches on the IBM PC motherboard are always set to indicate a color graphics board.
Several DIP switches on the graphics board must be set to match the manufacturer and model for monochrome monitors. For example, the IBM monochrome monitor has a different switch setting from that of the Amdek 310A. Paradise includes a software program to calibrate and provide switch settings for monochrome monitors not already included.
If you own an older IBM PC (circa 1982, before the ROM chip was changed), you may experience problems booting software using graphics on the IBM monochrome monitor. In our case, the monitor suffered from severe vertical roll, even after we used the Paradise-supplied calibration program and changed the switch settings. Paradise does provide a utility program to correct this deficiency, allowing us to run graphics programs from the A > prompt.
Paradise also includes a utility program to turn the screen flicker off. This marvelous little program benefits those who use a color monitor for text work.
The modular aspect of the Paradise Modular Graphics Card includes the ability to piggyback two modules to the main card. The $125 "A" module adds either an RS-232 serial port or a parallel port. The $195 "B" module adds a clock calendar and 64K (expandable to 256K) RAM. Paradise includes RAM disk, print spooler, and clock calendar software.
The Paradise Modular Graphics Card is easy to install, earns excellent marks for performance, and carries a competitive price of $395. It is best used with one-monitor set-ups, as removing the system unit cover to change the jumper from monochrome to color and back proves to be rather inconvenient. If you need a feature-packed graphics board, we recommend you take a look at the Paradise Modular Graphics Card.
The STB Graphix Plus II is another second generation graphics board. It supports the standard RGB four-color IBM PC graphics at a resolution of 320 x 200 pixels as well as the enhanced 16-color graphics at the same resolution.
However, while the board displays true gray scale (16 shades) on composite monochrome monitors, it will not display such graphics on the IBM monochrome monitor unless the software comes with special drivers. STB includes the drivers only for Lotus 1-2-3, Lotus Symphony, and Ashton-Tate's Framework. Without drivers, you can still run the IBM monochrome monitor for text and character graphics, but not true graphics. DIP switches on the graphics board determine whether color, monochrome, or both modes are used.
In theory, the board automatically switches between color and monochrome monitors depending on the software. In practice, the board works as advertised most of the time, but certain programs requiring graphics do not automatically switch to the color monitor. In these cases, you must use the DOS 2.0 MODE command to change monitors and run the program from the A > prompt.
The board comes with a built-in parallel port attached to the end of a ribbon cable. The port peeks out from the rear of the system unit.
The STB Graphix Plus II combines the color graphics adapter and the monochrome display adapter on one board and offers solid performance on both. It does not run graphics software on an IBM monochrome monitor without special software drivers, which are few and far between (STB manufactures the $395 Chauffer graphics board which runs graphics software on an IBM monochrome monitor).
At $395, the STB Graphix Plus II is competitively priced. For those with a two-monitor (text in monochrome, graphics in color) setup, we suggest you consider the Graphics Plus II. Those who are content with one monitor should look for another board.
If you own a Data General/One, Kaypro 2000, or other laptop computer with 3.5" floppy drives: just how do you transfer all those files created on 3.5" floppy disks to your IBM PC desktop computer with 5.25" floppy drives?
You could tangle with the RS-232 port, send the file via a modem, or lug around the optional 5.25" drives. However, a better solution is to plug the disk into the Manzana MDP3 drive.
This external unit connects to the disk drive controller board inside the IBM PC. A shielded signal cable runs from the 37-pin D connector on the back of the controller board to the rear of the MDP3 drive. An AC adapter provides power to the drive. You do not even have to remove the system unit cover to install the device.
Two utility programs, a device driver and a format program, control the drive. The manual shows you how to set up an autoexec file to load the device driver automatically. The format utility operates much like the FORMAT command in regular MS-DOS. Several formatting options are available, including disk formats for single-sided drives, standard IBM 40-track schemes, and separate disk formats for the DG/1, TI Pro-Lite, HP 150, HP 110, and GridCase laptop computers. Note that the format for the DG/1 also works with a Kaypro 2000.
We tested file transfer and operation between an IBM PC and a Kaypro 2000. In a nutshell, the process was accomplished smoothly and without a hitch. In seconds, we exchanged several data and program files, all of which worked on the Kaypro 2000.
We think the trend toward 3.5" disks is gathering momentum--witness the Macintosh, Amiga, Atari ST, Apricot, and recently released laptop computers--and will eventually cause the 5.25" disks to go the way of 8" disks. Sooner or later, you might need a 3.5" drive for your IBM PC. Manzana, which is working on versions of the MDP3 for Compaq, AT&T, Leading Edge, IBM PC AT, and Tandy 1000 computers, offers a drive that is easy to install and even easier to use.
The $625 pricetag is a bit steep for a disk drive, especially when you can buy an add-on 5.25" disk drive and adapter for the Kaypro 2000 for about $450. On the other hand, the drive might save you enough time in transferring files to make it worth the price.
Do you remember Quadram's Quadlink? To jog your memory, the Quadlink (reviewed December 1983) is a plug-in expansion board for the IBM PC with 80K of RAM and a 6502 microprocessor. This Apple computer on a card allows you to run Apple software on your IBM.
In short, the Quadlink did the best it could, running Apple software that did not use half-track protection schemes, read parallel or serial ports, or check a specific area of Applesoft ROM.
Enter Diamond Computer Systems with an IBM PC expansion board called Trackstar. It includes a 6502 microprocessor for running Apple II+ software and a Z80A microprocessor for running CP/M software. The board works with the IBM PC disk drives, although it has a connector to hook up an Apple drive. Diamond aims for the educational market, where Trackstar allows schools to combine the resources of the vast library of Apple educational software with IBM PC business software.
We tried a variety of Apple programs using just the PC and PC drives. Almost all of the educational programs ran without a hitch. For games, the board worked about half the time. Diamond claims the board reads half-track protected software, although the company suggests using an Apple drive for "difficult programs." We tried a few business programs, and they also operated without difficulty, although programs written specifically for the IIe did not run. All IBM PC software ran without problems while the board was installed.
The pricetag of $499 is tempting, although you must decide if adding an Apple II+ and CP/M to an IBM PC is worth that much. We suggest strongly that you try the software you intend to use before buying the board. If the software runs and if you need to use a large library of Apple and CP/M software on an IBM PC, by all means take a look at Trackstar from Diamond Computer Systems.
The RAM 7 is an expansion board with 256K RAM (expandable to 384K) and a clock calendar. Seattle Computer includes utility programs--RAM disk, print spooler, and diagnostics--with the board.
It installs quite easily: flick a few DIP switches and plug the board into an expansion slot. The RAM 7 board performs well, and we had absolutely no problem running software and setting up RAM disks.
Perhaps that is the highest accolade we can give this no-frills memory expansion board--it offers trouble-free installation and operation--except, of course, to point out the price of $195 for 256K RAM and $225 for 384K.
Products: Paradise Modular Graphics Card (computer apparatus)
STB Graphix Plus II (computer apparatus)
Manzana MDP33.5 Disk Drive (computer apparatus)
Trackstar (computer apparatus)
Seattle Computer RAM 7 (computer apparatus)