Epson PX-8 "Geneva". David H. Ahl.
Epson, you will remember, introduced the very first notebook computer, the HX-20, in 1982. We were very enthusiastic about the machine despite its diminutive 4-line by 20-character display size. Unfortunately, it got off to a slow start and was soon eclipsed by the Tandy Model 100 with its larger screen and--although some will argue with me--more user-friendly design.
Now, two years later, we have put the second-generation Epson portable, the PX-8 "Geneva," through its paces. Epson has done just about everything right the second time around. Nevertheless, we have mixed feelings about the machine, partially as a result of the competition and partially as a result of, well, overdoing some of the features. "Sounds strange," you say. Read on. Nifty Hardware
The PX-8 is a compact machine (8.5? x 11.5" x 1.8") and weighs just over four pounds. In this neat package is a tilt-up 8-line by 80-character LCD screen, microcassette recorder, full-size keyboard (with some extras), and, of course, the guts of the computer.
The main mpu is a CMOS version of the 8-bit Z80A, the same chip found in the HX-20 as well as the Tandy 100. A 6301 slave mpu is used as a device controller for the serial interface, LCD display, microcassette drive, and ROM capsules. A second slave mpu (7508) controls the keyboard, clock, and power supply. This should give the computer improved throughput on most tasks although, of course, on our computation-bound benchmark it was no great ball of fire.
The system has 64K of RAM, 32K of ROM, four interfaces (RS-232, serial for disk drive or printer, analog, and bar code reader), built-in speaker, real-time clock, microcassette recorder, and provision to add an external clamp-on "RAM disk" with either 64K or 128K. You might expect the RAM disk to be a couple of plug-in chips in carriers. Not so; it is a unit the full width of the computer that fits under the rear of the PX-8 and elevates it about one inch. Without the RAM disk, two folding legs on the rear of the PX-8 raise it a similar amount to provide a comfortable typing angle.
The packaging bespeaks solid quality. All switches are recessed slightly so nothing protrudes beyond the edge of the case. Indeed, the reset switch can be pushed only with the tip of a ballpoint pen. Connectors are provided on the back for the RS-232 and serial ports, battery recharger, and other external devices. A slide control beneath the tilt-up LCD screen controls the view angle of the liquid crystal elements, and a similar control on the side controls and speaker volume.
The display measures 1.3" x 8.7" and, depending upon the software being used, can operate in up to four modes. (Characters, incidentally, are formed in a 5 x 7 dot matrix and do not have descenders.) Mode 0 is the standard 80-column character mode. Mode 1 plits the screen into two halves, each 39 characters wide. Mode 2 is also a split screen mode but the widths of the two windows can be set by the user in the range of 8 to 48 characters. Mode 3 is a graphics mode, although text may be displayed in this mode also.
Complicating matters somewhat is the fact that the real screen is actually a window larger than the real screen (up to 40 lines and 80 columns). Moreover, in Modes 1 and 2, there are two virtual screens which, in Mode 2, may be viewed independently of on another. In general, unless you are writing applications programs, you will not have to worry about these screen modes. However, a rudimentary understanding of them will give you an insight as to how Portable WordStar, Calc, and Scheduler achieve some remarkable effects. Of course, for the adventuresome, all these screen modes are available from Basic, and to a limited extent, from the CP/M operating system (using CONFIG).
The keyboard has 63 full-stroke keys which have the excellent feel that we have come to expect from Epson. The keyboard uses a hard stroke design and aural feedback is provided by the noise of the key hitting the bottom of its travel. Indeed, the keyboard is rather noisy (like the Model 100) and we felt it would have benefitted from some acoustic damping.
Layout of the keys is perfectly standard with no keys in unexpected places. The orange cursor control keys at the right are arranged in a reasonably logical pattern; in the same area, we find the CLR/DEL, SCRN/INS, and HOME/BS keys. We won't explain the function of each of these special keys, but we were disconcerted to note that they functioned differently in the applications software packages than they did in CP/M and Basic.
A very thoughtful touch is the series of three LEDs above the center of the keyboard which indicate caps lock, numeric keypad on, and insert on. The keyboard provides access to every printing character including 32 graphics characters (lines, circles, card suits, car, plane, man, telephone, etc.). For the most part, these characters will not print out unless your printer is equipped with a special ROM. All keys repeat when held down for about one-half second.
Above the standard keyboard is a line of nine rectangular function keys. Leftmost is a red STOP key, which functions in Basic and CP/M but generally not in applications software packages. Three of the function keys have permanent labels: ESC, PAUSE, and HELP. As with STOP, they may or may not be implemented in applications software packages. The other five light gray function keys are programmable and, in conjunction which may be set in software or from the CONFIG program in CP/M.
The microcassette recorder uses standard tapes and usually is completely under software control, although it is possible to use the function keys for manual operation. We found the recorder useful for saving Basic programs but extremely cumbersome to use with WordStar. In fact, in the WordStar manual on page 9.17 it says, "The microcassette tape can be used to store files" and five paragraphs later on page 9.18 it says, "You cannot save files onto the microcassette tape." Not very helpful!
A clock module manages the software clock and controls alarm and wake functions which allow the PX-8 to switch on and present a message or start a program running. If the computer is in use, and alarm or wake time is reached, the program being run will be interrupted. A wide range of time options are available for these functions, including a specific date and time, every hour, every 24 hours, once a month, every day for a month, every minute for ten minutes every hour, or practically any combination you can dream up.
The PX-8 uses two sets of batteries. The main NiCad battery pack provides power for running the PX-8, while the back-up batteries hold programs in memory when the main battery voltage falls below a useable level. According to the manual, "The maximum length of use on battery power is 15 hours without input/output operations" (does that mean the keyboard?). The AC charger/adapter will restore a full charge to the batteries in eight hours. CP/M Operating System
When the PX-8 is turned on, a number of routes can be taken by the built-in operating system. Most typically, a menu, which lists the command (COM) programs on devices B and C, will appear. These devices are ROM cartridges which plug in the bottom of the PX-8. We used four such cartridges: Basic, CP/M utilities, Portable WordStar and Portable Calc (which includes Portable Scheduler). Only two can be plugged in at one time. A program is selected from the menu by moving the cursor over the program name and pressing RETURN. If you prefer to work directly from CP/M, the built-in operating system, the ESC key will exit the menu and bring up the familiar C prompt. This is the approach necessary to load programs from any of the other devices: A is the RAM disk, D through G are floppy disk drives, and H is the microcassette. If you expect to use a program from any of these devices regularly, it is possible to rebuild the menu program to include it.
CP/M functions just as it would on a desktop computer and has the usual commands and utilities, cryptic error messages, and other idiosyncrasies. In addition, it has two programs unique to the PX-8. TERM is a program that allows the use of the PX-8 as a terminal to another computer, remote database, or on-line service bureau. The manual provides extensive instructions for using the PX-8 to communicate with an Epson QX-10 desktop computer although the directions are applicable for other CP/M systems as well.
FILINK is used to transfer files between the PX-8 and other computers. It is more specialized than TERM in that it supports specific protocols and is used solely for sending and receiving files. From the manual, it would appear that FILINK must be used with another computer also running FILINK, and the only other machine for which it is available at the moment is the QX-10.
CP/M was the first microcomputer operating system I ever used (on an Altair in 1976), and thinking about it conjures up all kinds of fond and not-so-fond memories. Some of the latter surfaced when, after using the PX-8 for just 15 minutes, I got the message BDOS ERROR ON D: BAD SECTOR. The manual said to press the RETURN key to ignore the error. Ha! Five presses of the RETURN key later, I had a screen full of the same error message. I tried STOP, ESC, HELP, everything...but there was no escape.
In desperation, I turned the computer off and back on. Ah; finally the menu reappeared, but the minute I tried to select something, the screen filled with the same BDOS ERROR message. Now, in real desperation, I pressed the recessed reset switch. But to no avail. The PX-8 has an excellent memory; it doesn't forget anything--not even error messages. Finally, for no explicable reason, a series of CTRL/ESC keypresses returned me to the operating system. To add insult to injury, the message was "incorrect"; what I had tried to do (by mistake) was write to a write protected disk.
Not being content to leave well enough alone, I experimented with some other commands that I felt an unwitting user might invoke. For example, the system uses double sided disks, so it might be logical to think of side 1 as drive 1 and side two as drive 2. So I tried to save a file to the second drive (E) and got the same BAD SECTOR message that just wouldn't go away. Not nice!
If you shut off the machine while you are in Basic and turn it on later, it will still be in Basic with the same program in memory, a nice feature. However, just try to get directly to CP/M when you power back up. It is not easy. I finally found that the combination of STOP/ESC would usually do it.
Perhaps warnings about all these naughty things are in the manuals--unlike some writers, I am not opposed to reading manuals--however, I do not feel that one should have to read two 300-page manuals before using the computers. Basic
The Basic supplied with the PX-8 is "Epson-enhanced Microsoft Basic for the PX-8." Quite a mouthful. In general, it is quite similar to Microsoft GW Basic although, of course, it is oriented to the PX-8 LCD display and lacks certain graphics commands like CIRCLE (although LINE is included). Actually, a variety of graphics statements and functions are included specifically for the 480 by 64 pixel screen. Also, as mentioned earlier, Basic includes statements for using the four screen modes.
A screen editor allows changing program lines without entering a separate edit mode. Basic also has statements that support communication through the RS-232 serial interface and statements that make it possible to use the built-in microcassette recorder like a disk drive.
As in the HX-20, the Basic program area is divided into five parts so five programs can be stored simultaneously. As in a timesharing system (also the HX-20), these areas are accessed via a LOGIN command. One rather nasty problem I had was trying to save programs in these areas. (With the HX-20, the problem is deleting a program.) Actually, after poring over the manual and experimenting at great length, I determined that programs can be saved only to cassette, RAM disk, or floppy disk, and not in the five program areas. Portable WordStar
As its name suggests, Portable WordStar is adapted from standard WordStar to run on the PX-8. The adaptation was done by MicroPro International, so the product is quite true to the original. It is our custom to write a computer review on the target machine whenever possible. This turned out to be remarkable easy and straightforward on the PX-8 as WordStar was familiar and behaved exactly as expected. Yes, some of the more esoteric features are stripped out--after all, the package has to fit in a 32K ROM cartridge--but it is remarkably complete.
Since we assume a basic familiarity with WordStar, it is probably easier to list the missing features rather than the included ones. Missing are: help menus, file directory, file renaming, paragraph tab, hyphen help, soft hypens, column mode, decimal tab, and print control display toggle. Since I rarely use any of these, I did not find Portable WordStar at all limiting.
One thing I found a bit annoying is that the top two lines on the screen are used for the status information (program name, page, line, column, and operating mode) and the ruler line (shows tab stops and margins). Furthermore, the package does not use the bottom line on the screen; hence, only five lines of text are displayed at a time. With a 65-character line length (printer width = screen width) this means that the PX-8 displays exactly the same amount of text as the Model 100 (which has a display half as large)!
As with many other portable computers, moving through a large text file is agony. To scroll through one double-spaced page takes 26 seconds. Hence, to insert a correction in the middle of a 16-page document like this review takes four or five minutes. A command to move the cursor to a particular page would be very welcome (MicroPro, are you listening?).
Portable WordStar comes with a 200-page manual, fold-out menu map, three-panel command reference card, and 26 sticky keytop labels with control key markings. Other applications
Portable Calc is an electronic spreadsheet program and includes the most used spreadsheet functions as found on desktop machines. The design approach was to economize on prompts and messages but try to retain the functions and calculating power of a larger program. We tried a few simple problems but did not put Portable Calc through an exhaustive evaluation. It has a complete array of arithmetic and logical functions, including MAX, MIN, LOOKUP, and AVG. It does not, however, have any statistical, trig, or financial functions. Replicating, inserting, deleting, saving, and printing are allhandled quite adequately.
Portable Scheduler is a 25-day appointment scheduler that permits notations to be made in half-hour increments. In addition, alarms can be set at designated times and the next 24 days displayed in graphical form. I confess to being partial to a standard paper calendar and did not make use of this program (other than to make sure it loaded). Peripherals
Unlike the situation with the HX-20 in which peripherals and software were not available until the computer had been out for more than a year, Epxon is concurrently releasing a battery-operated 3-1/2", double density, double sided, microfloppy disk drive. The drive measures 8.2" x 4.8" x 2" and has built-in NiCad batteries that provide up to 50 hours of service between charges. Formatted capacity is 320K per disk. The drive is connected to the computer through the serial port and tends to be somewhat slower than a standard desktop floppy disk; nevertheless, it is a substantial improvement over nothing at all, and considerably faster than the microcassette recorder.
RAM disk units in capacities of 64K and 128K (60K and 120K usable memory) also will be available almost immediately. Other peripherals promised as a direct connect modem, acoustic coupler, and 80-column thermal printer. Pricing
The PX-8 with 64K, built-in CP/M, AC charger, CP/M utility ROM, Basic ROM, Portable WordStar ROM, Portable Calc/Scheduler ROM and four manuals is priced at $995. The disk drive is $599; 60K RAM disk, $329; 120K RAM disk, $460; direct connect modem, $180; acoustic coupler, $120; and thermal printer, $250. We think most people will want to get the basic unit with either a RAM disk or floppy disk drive, thus putting the total price between $1300 and $1600. Is It Worth It?
I admitted to having mixed feeling about the PX-8 at the beginning. Some of my uneasiness stems from the eight-line display in the face of other manufacturers introducing 16- and 24-line displays. I understand that this was done to hold the cost of the basic unit under $1000, but is that really a magic price point?
Second, the PX-8 does lots more than the Model 100 and has a "real" operating system (CP/M 2.2) built in but this makes it more difficult to use. The machine has many novel features like the alarm/wakeup facility but it takes nine pages in the manual to describe how to use it. Motoring magazines sometimes say, "the controls fell naturally to hand"; the alarm/wakeup function most decidedly does not.
Facilities like the Password module sound wonderful if you want to protect your computer and files against use by "unauthorized" people. However, this feature is incredibly dangerous since once a password has been assigned, it is impossible to use the machine or remove the password without knowing that it is. Have you ever forgotten a familiar phone number? At least there are phone books; in the case of the PX-8 you have no recourse.
Lest I leave you with negative vibrations, I should say that in general I am most enthusiastic about the PX-8. There is no other computer under $1000 with comprehensive word processing and spreadsheet programs. The built-in microcassette recorder is a real plus, although I would still recommend a RAM disk or floppy disk drive. The unit is solidly built, and with the NiCad rechargeable batteries you need not buy stock in Duracell. If you don't yet have a notebook computer, be sure to give the PX-8 a close look.
Products: Epson Geneva PX8 (Microcomputer)