NEC APCIII; NEC's PC with style. (evaluation) Corey Sandler.
Japan's NEC has taken the good, gray flannel IBM PC and given it a touch of style, a splash of color, and a burst of speed. They've packed it in a neat little case and called it the NEC APCIII.
Almost all of what NEC has done can be considered improvements, unless your particular need demands total hardware and software compatibility with the IBM PC original. NEC's marketing plans call for the company's logo to appear on every possible piece of hardware it can sell, from keyboard to microprocessor to disk drives to monitor to printer.
The first thing you notice on sitting down before the APCIII is likely to be its "style." The system unit itself is a tidy little box of roughly two-thirds the dimensions of the IBM model. Next there is the optional color RGB monitor, its jet black tube encased in an attractive brown frame and mounted on an infinitely adjustable swivel. And the once the system is turned on, the eyes are treated to an exceptionally sharp color screen with a finely chiseled character set.
That color display is presented in as many as eight colors at a high-resolution setting of 640 by 400 pixels, double the potential resolution of the IBM PC standard color/graphics adapter. The keyboard, though blessed with a generous 102 keys, has a few idiosyncrasies that may take a bit of getting used to.
The APCIII can be described as a "data compatible" machine. In general, it can be counted upon to read from files created on an IBM PC, and produce files that can be used on that machine. It does require, though, its own versions of many programs and programming languages. And, under the hood, the NEC uses its own system bus--for the moment, you are limited to NEC adapter cards, NEC monitors, and NEC-authorized disk drives.
In general, programs written to run under MS-DOS should work on the NEC machine; programs written under PC-DOS and optimized to access system BIOS directly and hardware designed for the IBM PC will have difficulty. For example, I was unable to use an IBM version of WordStar on the NEC, or the NEC's program on an IBM. However, data files on disk created with either version of the program could be readily moved back and forth between the two machines.
NEC has announced versions of many of the heavyweights of business software, including WordStar, MultiPlan, dBase II, Superculc 3, PFS:File, PFS:Graph, PFS:Report, DR Graph, DR Draw, BPS Business Graphics, BPI Accounting, and the Microsoft Basic compiler.
The APCIII is built around the 8086-2 microprocessor, a true 16-bit device running 8 MHz. This makes the APCIII a close cousin to the IBM PC, which uses the 8088 (a hybrid 16/8 bit chip) at a speed of 4.77 MHz. We put the APCIII to the Creative Computing Benchmark test (see July 1984), a measure of computational speed and accuracy. The result was a zippy 8.5 seconds for the random number test, with an accuracy rating of 0.0058599375. This is nearly three times as fast (and twice as accurate) as the score turned in by the IBM PC (24 seconds and 0.01159668). The APC scored within fractions of several other 8086 machines, including the Stearns Micro, the Tandy Model 2000, and the Eagle 1600.
The motherboard includes an open socket for an 8087 coprocessor chip, which should add jet power to the computer for computational tasks and graphics. A NEC spokesman, though, said that 8 MHz versions of the 8087 chip are not expected to be available until sometime later this year.
Another measure of speed could be seen in using the machine with the NEC-optimized version of WordStar. The cursor zipped from top to bottom of a long file at speeds approaching the same three-times advantage seen in the computing test. The installation program from Micropro, by the way, allows you to select as many as four colors for on-screen display--I used light blue for text, violet for highlighting and screen messages, dark blue for function key names, and red for function key labels. Trust me, it was a work of art.
The standards for video display have been advanced with each new generation of machines using the IBM standard. IBM's original PC offered a medium resolution screen of 320 by 200 picture elements (pixels), with as many as four colors on display. IBM's high resolution screen offered 640 by 200 pixels and a single color for the foreground.
NEC has more than doubled the stakes all around, offering a high-resolution screen of 640 by 400 pixels and one, four, or eight colors on display. The medium-resolution mode offers four or eight colors at 320 by 200 pixels. Be aware, though, that the applications software you purchase for use with the NEC or other high-performance machine may or may not take advtange of the advanced capabilities of the computer.
Although I was quite impressed with the sharpness of the NEC monitor, I did notice a pronounced "pulling" of the video image so that the left border of a row of text was decidely bow-legged. And the block cursor has no clearance between its position and the next character, sometimes making it difficult to read letters at the cursor position.
The APCIII includes a serial and a parallel port, color and monochrome display outputs, and a battery-backed clock/calendar. There is room for four expansion boards in a card cage that can be reached through plates on the rear of the machine. The cover does not have to be removed for installation of most options.
NEC's prices average 10 to 15 percent below IBM's list prices before discounts on either system. A basic system of 125K RAM, one 360K disk drive, a high-resolution monochrome monitor, MS-DOS, and GW Basic has a list price of $1995. The RGB color version of the same system lists for $2295. A second disk drive for either system costs $400 additional.
Although both standard NEC machines include RGB color output, a separate color/graphics adapter board with a list price of $200 is required for display of graphics screens. Additional memory cards are available for $325 with 128K on board and room for another 128K. A joystick/sound board lists for $79.
(IBM PCs now come standard with 256K of RAM. A single-drive PC with monochrome monitor and adapter with parallel port, a serial port, and DOS had a list price of $2685 in November. A color version with RGB monitor was offered for $3038 at IBM Product Centers. Second drives were offered at $425 extra. For comparison with the NEC prices, be sure to add $325 to the APCIII for an additional 128K of RAM. If you will be using games or advanced graphics programs, add another $200 to the NEC price for the color/graphics board).
NEC also offers a hard disk version of its system, with an internal 10Mb drive adding $1700 to base prices. A GPIB (General Purpose Interface Bus) card, which adds a standard IEEE-488 interface for connection to measuring equipment and other devices, lists for $299, and a Unix Memory Management Board is also priced at $299. The Unix board is aimed for multi-user environments to keep concurrent tasks from colliding. The board includes another 8086 microprocessor that actually takes over control of the internal bus. NEC sells PC/UX software (a System 3 derivative) for $700 for the APCIII.
The monochrome version of the NEC system produces resolution of 640 by 400 pixels, which compares favorably with the 720 by 350 display of IBM's proprietary monochrome adapter and monitor.
"This is not a clone," said Jonathan Joseph, product marketing specialist at NEC Information Systems, the U.S. marketing arm of the Japanese firm. "Our target is the small business with need of packaged solutions." Also targetted, he said, would be users of graphics-oriented systems, including engineers, designers, and CAD/CAM manufacturers.
Among the packages NEC will offer are bundles including several different NEC printers, part of a marketing and manufacturing strategy that stresses a uniform source for hardware. NEC manufactures its own 8086-2 microprocessors under license from Intel, and many of the other internal parts are also from the parent company. The half-height floppy disk in early models is supplied by Teac; according to Joseph, drives from NEC will be substituted in 1985. The hard disk option for the computer is made by NEC.
This concentration on vertical integration can also work to the disadvantage of some users. For example, the PRINTER and SETCOM utilities included by NEC in its supplement to MS-DOS, are aimed at NEC printers--models by other manufacturers are supported only if they happen to match the protocols of a NEC device.
Similarly, the printer installation menu of the NEC version of WordStar is heavily weighted toward NEC's machines. I would suggest any purchaser ask to see "foreign" printers working with the APCIII computer before a purchase is made. And, as noted, you cannot plug an IBM or third-party IBM-compatible memory or special purpose adaptor into the NEC system.
The keyboard has a professional, firm touch, somewhere between the click-clack of the IBM PC and the soggy marshmallow effect of some other boards. If the board is too quiet, NEC includes a utility called KEYCLICK that adds a muted beep with each signal sent to the computer-personally, I'd prefer a tooth extraction without anaesthetic to a beeping keyboard, but to each his own.
In keeping with the tradition of the quirky IBM PC keyboard, NEC has made some unusual choices in its design. The biggest problem I found was with the placement of a tiny Caps Lock key between the A and the tiny Ctrl key on the left side of the board. I was writing this review with the aid of WordStar, which requires a lot of Ctrl-punching, and I don't think I once hit the key on the first try in three days of work.
The Return key is only one row high, making possible to miss the pad with a hit above or below target. The board includes two graphics shift keys--Grph1 and Grph2--for extended ASCII character codes. The keys, though, sit next to the spacebar and just below the slim Shift key, and again I found myself giving false codes regularly.
Also a bit disconcerting was the design of the cursor pad, a block of 25 keys on the right side of the board. The directional arrows are clustered very tightly together, with the up and down arrows double-wide, and the left and right arrows single key sized. Insert and Delete are stacked above, with PgDn and PgUp sitting in a separate row at the top of the board. I'm sure I could get used to almost any arrangement of keys on a keyboard, but I have to believe there are more efficient designs than the one used on this computer.
The 12 function keys are arrayed across the top of the board. NEC allows each of the keys to be defined in five ways--standard, shifted, Ctrl, Alt, and Fnc shifts--for a total of 60 possibilities. Helping out is a strip at the top edge which can hold a cardboard strip with function key labels.
Interestingly, WordStar, as delivered by MicroPro, has all 12 keys assigned--the additions to the standard 10 are Crtl-K-D (Save and exit to menu), and Ctrl-K-S, Ctrl-Q-P (save and return to text at the same cursor position). However, only the first 10 keys are displayed on screen. In Basic only six keys are displayed.
NEC provides Microsoft's MS-DOS 2.11.GW-Basic 2.01, and the GSX graphics extension software, together with reference manuals and a macro assembler package. MS-DOS 2.11 is roughly equivalent to IBM PC-DOS 2.1, and GW-Basic is equivalent to IBM BasicA version 2.0. IBM has added a few commands and statements of its own to its offering, and NEC has matched many of them with its own custom set of commands.
For example, NEC's version of MS-DOS has an equivalent of IBM's DOS 3.0 ATTRIB command. Using the NEC, the CHATT command can be used to set a file attribute to read only, system, hidden, or archive status. The following are some other NEC additions to MS-DOS:
* COLOR GREEN or COLOR WHITE sets the default screen color for color monitor or the grey-tone intensity for monochrome monitor.
* CTRDUMP is an equivalent of the IBM's PrtSc for text and the GRAPHICS add-on to DOS for graphics screen prints. However, NEC has customized this command to dump to the NEC Pinwriter P2-3 and P3-3 printers only.
* DISKCOMP is an equivalent to IBM's proprietary command of the same name.
* KEY allows reprogramming of the keyboard, including function keys.
* MOUSE configures the GSX device driver to accept input from a mouse. It sets serial port baud rate and communications protocol for the Microsoft, Mouse Systems, or Summagraphics device.
* PRINTER configures standard default PRN Device from among six NEC printers.
* RAMDISK sets up electronic disks of 128,256,384, or 512K in size.
* SETCOM is used to declare communications protocols in a manner similar to IBM's MODE command.
AS Japan's largest maker of desktop computers (70% share), NEC must be doing many things right. The APCIII is their latest entry in the U.S.
I was impressed with the performance of the APCIII--evident in both computational speed and running applications software--as well as its solid design and construction. The color display is outstanding, and much of the software can be customized to take advantage of that color.
I found some quirks in the keyboard layout and would have liked to see the software utility programs support more than just the NEC printers. These are minor quibbles, however, against the overall excellence of the unit. If your computing requirements can be met by the software available for the APCIII, I recommend that you give it serious consideration.
Products: NEC APCIII (computer)