STM PC; selling a product before its time. (evaluation) John J. Anderson.
It's a stock line, but it's true: when a manufacturer thanks me for giving his product a good review, I sometimes reply that it is easy to write a good review of a good product. Enthusiasm translates into momentum. When I'm pleased with the way something works, the words come easily.
More rarely, I come upon something utterly stinky. Fact is, it is also rather easy to write a really bad review of a really bad product. In that case it is disgust that translates into momentum. When something is truly a piece of garbage, it takes very little effort to say so. A Troubling Assignment
Between these two poles, the job becomes much more difficult. Not that I'm complaining, of course. But in the case of a product like the STM micro, to sit down and create a coherent point of view is nearly impossible. No matter what approach is taken, it is likely to be interpreted as a cop-out. It is a complex situation, you see. The machine has some neat, innovative features that you won't find anywhere else. And it has some wooly mammoth problems--with tusks, folks. A Beauty on the Drawingboard
The STMPC measures 11"X20" 4" and weighs just over 17 lbs. I would classify it as a portable but for the fact that it must be powered from a wall outlet. So let's call it a transportable. It's CPU is an 80186 chip, which is twice as fast as the 8088 you find inside the IBMPC. It ships with 256K RAM standard, expandable to 512K. It sports two quad density drives similar to those on the Tandy 2000, which can read but not write to standard formatted disks. The drives hold 720K each. They are half-height drives, and stacked on top of each other are only 3" high. You can also order them in 360K format for "enhanced" compatibility.
Most fascinating about the STM machine is its full-screen LCD display, which provides 80 columns by 25 lines in the text mode and 480 X 200 pixels in the graphics mode. The LCD is built-in to the system unit, pre-angled at about 15". The display measures 10" X 3" and includes a contrast control and a switchable backlight.
As if that weren't enough, the STM also has a built-in autodial/autoanswer 300/1200 baud speakerphone/modem, and a built-in thermal printer. The keyboard is very rakish--only 7" X 14" and lightweight--and key placement is excellent. The keyboard hinges into the system unit when not in use.
On the back of the unit you'll find a parallel printer port, RGB and NTSC video outputs, hard disk controller interface, two serial ports, and an acoustic coupler jack next to a modular phone jack.
Bundled with the package is the STM version of MS-DOS and the Wordstar work-alike word processor, New Word. Basic is optional. But Compromised, Rushed
So here is a machine that should have a good chance of getting a rave. It is not just another PC clone, but a machine that attempts to synthesize some new ideas. Im respect that, and I admire it. It is better to take a risk and maybe fail than just to follow the crowd--at least from the point of view of a nonstockholder.
Somewhere along the way, however, things went seriously awry for the STM PC. What started out as a strong design on paper seems to have been worked and reworked--and seriously compromised, to say the least. The STM PC is a good idea gone wrong, and it's a pity.
Setting the machine up I was amazed at how thin its plastic casing is. The darned thing actually groans when you move it around. Drop this baby on the floor, and it will shatter like crystal.
Then there is hte LCD display. It is virtually illegible. With or without backlight, regardless of the contrast setting, we couldn't bring it in satisfactorily. It reflects ceiling lights something fierce, and that 15[deg.] angle is utterly fixed.
When you think about it, what is the purpose of an LCD display on a machine that cannot run on batteries? The STM is locked into the need for AC power, and that implies that a CRT can be brought to the scene without too much difficulty. You will certainly want a CRT with the STM, which renders the LCD a superfluous waste of money.
The printer on this machine has some problems, too. It uses 4" thermal paper, which isn't big enough for anything much more useful than laundry and grocery lists. What useful documents could you turn out a that width? Compounding the problem is the fact that the printer is abominably slow (less than 10 cps), and its print quality is low. What's more, the operating system doesn't even recognize the internal printer. All you can do is serially transmit ASCII files to it.
Obviously the STM was designed to work with an external printer. That makes the inclusion of the thermal kludge a highly questionable proposition,, and certainly, a further waste of money.
to make matters worse, the keyboard feels rather cheap. It is so light that it moves under your fingers as you type, and, like the system unit, does not suggest sturdiness. The disk drives also seem somewhat cheesy. They use a pushbutton eject system that is inconvenient, and it is hard to tell whether or not a disk is fully inserted. The LEDs on the drives themselves are positioned in such a way as to be absolutely out of view, unless you happen to be sucking on the keyboard.
The documentation is singularly lacking. It seems rushed and incomplete. It is possible that the documentation we received was preliminary--I pray it is so, but fear it is not.
Then I made the mistake of trying to boot some PC software. About the only thing that ran without a hitch was New World, supplied with our evaluation unit. The STM PC is the least compatible PC compatible I have ever encountered. I wanted to believe our unit was damaged somehow, but the DOS disk, New Word and Lotus 1-2-3 booted just fine. Too bad, as this led to a damning conclusion. STM claims to be righting the situation now. I certainly hope that is true.
To top off my complaints, I must report that talking to someone knowledgeable at STM is a tough job. As far as technical support goes, well, I guess it was just bad timing for three calls in a row. So Back to the Drawingboard
As I said in the beginning, it is difficult to draw any real conclusions in a case like this except to say "gee, too bad," or "better luck next time; do keep on trying." To potential buyers, I must say "wait and see, don't buy this now." The only other suggestion that comes to mind is to keep a lookout for reviews of this machine in the other magazines and use them as a yardstick. If they say things like "great choice," or "a traveling executive's dream," you'll know where they stand on editorial integrity.
Products: STM PC (computer)