Magic Computer. (evaluation) David H. Ahl.
Perhaps you have seen the ads for the Magic Computer, the ones with the cartoon characters that resemble Zippy, the pinhead. Unfortunately, the tone of the ad seems to imply "computer game' and the Magic is anything but. On the other hand, the ads certainly stand out from the hundreds of look-alike ads for "serious' business computers.
In any event, once we started reading about the Magic, we got very interested. Here is a machine with both 6502 and Z80A microporcessors, 64K of RAM, dual, double density, double sided disk drives, and detachable keyboard all in a portable package. Also included in the bundled system price is a 12 monochrome monitor and a software library including CP/M, Perfect Writer, Perfect Calc, Perfect Filer, CBasic, and a utility that permits the use of Kaypro II software--pretty impressive for the suggested price of $2295.
The main processor in the Magic computer is a Z80A running at 4 MHz. A 6502 is used to control the video RAM and for certain I/O transfers.
The Z80A can access the main 64K memory, 8K of which is devoted to the operating system and 56K of which is available for user programs. A separate 3K memory is accessed by other processors for video information. Freeing the Z80A from the task of refreshing the video should result in a significant increase in execution speed in many programs.
For carrying the Magic, the keyboard tucks into a slot at the rear of the top of the system unit. A carrying handle is on the rear. Although the computer can be carried like an attache case, you would not want to set it down like one, since you would be setting it on the front surface. While the disk drive doors are recessed, the reset switch and nameplate are not and are likely to be damaged.
Setting up the computer is a simple process. The keyboard is plugged into a DB-15 connector on the front panel, the power cord plugged into an outlet, and the monitor power cord and video cable plugged into the system unit, and you are ready to compute.
The system unit also has connectors for a parallel printer, serial RS-232 device, and "industrial video display' (whatever that is). A DIP switch next to the RS-232 connector is used to set the baud rate to one of 15 speeds from 50 to 19,200 baud.
At first glance, the disk drives appear to be full size units. However, upon opening the protective plastic doors, it is apparent that the drives are low profile (half height) units with about one inch of storage space for extra disks above each drive. The disk is held in the drive by means of a rotating handle, a system that we have found more reliable than pull-down doors. In contrast with industry convention, drive A is on the right and drive B on the left.
The power switch is on the right rear of the system unit, and a reset button is on the right front. When power is switched on, the system does a brief selftest and loads whatever disk is in drive A. CP/M comes up in about three seconds.
Power on is indicated with a small red LED on the keyboard, an illuminated power switch on the monitor, and the fan in the system unit (a scaled down airplane turbine?). The fan totally drowns out the whir of a spinning disk drive.
The manual describes two hardware tests that can be done with no disk in the drive using just the keyboard and the reset switch. The first test did not seem to work on our machine, while the second one worked fine. Nevertheless, our machine seemed to work correctly in all other regards.
Also at set up time, you can set the cursor to one of six modes: block or underline, and fast blink, slow blink, or static.
The keyboard has 73 full-stroke keys divided into an alphanumeric keyboard and numeric keypad (with three function keys over it). The QERTY portion of the keyboard is absolutely standard, and touch typists will have no trouble stumbling over keys in strange places or resting their pinkies on active keys.
The numeric keypad is also standard and is not surrounded with arithmetic symbols so often found on other keyboards.
However, the keyboard has only three function keys. Thus many software packages which use single stroke function keys become two-stroke or two-key functions on the Magic (for example, CONTROL-D instead of f4).
The cursor control keys are combined with the numeric keypad which is fine for woard processing, but less good for spreadsheet work. Ironically, the cursor keys are not implemented in any of the included software packages. On the Magic with Perfect Calc, for example, the numeric keypad is activated and the cursor moved by CONTROL-F for forward, CONTROL-N for next line, and so on. We much prefer spreadsheets which use both a numeric pad and directional cursor keys.
The caps lock key has two distinct positions so you can tell at a glance whether it is activated. Every key repeats after it is held down for about one-half second. Unfortunately, the spacebar on our machine stuck down whenever it was depressed, providing an infinite automatic repeat. We obtained a replacement keyboard which had exactly the same problem. We have, however, been assured by the manufacturer that later units no longer have this problem.
The keyboard has a rather short coiled cord which can be stretched to about 15 inches, enough for lap use as long as you don't lean back.
Except for the sticking spacebar, the keyboard had a good feel very similar to a TRS--80 Model 4.
The Magic computer comes with a 12 monochrome monitor made by Disco Electronics in Taiwan. It displays 24 lines of 80 characters. Each character is formed within a 7 X 9 pixel matrix which permits two-pixel letter descenders. Interline spacing is three pixels, so clarity is excellent.
By our calculations, the screen has a resolution of 480 X 268 pixels. As far as we could determine, individual pixels cannot be addressed--at least not with any of the included software. Indeed, the character set appears to include only the letters, numbers, and symbols on the keyboard with no extra graphics characters.
The Magic is a business computer, and the designers apparently judged that business users don't need color so the capability is neither built in nor available as an option.
The monitor itself is a green screen unit in a 12 cubical metal-and-plastic housing. Behind a latching front door are controls for brightness, contrast, vertical hold, and five other less-used adjustments.
CP/M And CBasic
The operating system that Magic has chosen in CP/M, that workhorse of the microcomputer world. The version furnished is 2.21. It has all of the standard features plus a few additional utility programs not found in earlier versions. These programs include D (alphabetical directory with program size), UNLOAD, DUU (a helpful disk utility), MODEMM, COMPARE, and CCPLOC. Unfortunately, these are not described in the User's Guide, but many of them are self-explanatory.
Two other utilities are included, KAYPRO (to copy and use kaypro II software), and CATCH (to copy IBM PC files).
Since we are not into masochism, we generally avoid using the CP/M editor, ED. This is probably the weakest link of CP/M. However, since the Magic includes only CBasic, it is necessary to generate the source code with an editor of some sort. (If you are not familiar with CBasic, check out "The CBasic Clinic' series which started in the November issue of Creative.)
Since we didn't know how to generate a non-document file with Perfect Writer (the included word processing package), we had no choice but to use ED.
To make a long story short, after several false starts, we got several short programs to run, including one which displayed the entire character set (only keyboard characters as we had guessed), and perform our standard benchmark.
This is not the place for a long-winded discussion of the pros and cons of different versions of Basic, but we should mention a few facts to put the benchmark test in the proper perspective. In general, a compiled language like CBasic takes less memory space and, because it is converted into machine code for execution, is faster than an interpreter. But not always.
Our benchmark is heavily computation bound; thus a compiled language is not likely to offer much of a speed advantage. Moreover, CBasic does all its computations in double precision whereas MBasic uses single precision. Thus, we would expect CBasic to be slower than MBasic--and it is--much slower (see Table 1). On the other hand, the Magic is many orders of magnitude more accurate than the IBM or Kaypro. Indeed, few microcomputers among the 103 that we have tested are more accurate.
Don't expect to be able to write CBasic programs using the Magic User's Guide. It has 1 1/4 pages on CBasic which was barely enough for us. A good book on CBasic is a small investment against the price of the system, although we have no idea why one was not included.
The world processing package bundled with the Magic is Perfect Writer with Perfect Speller. This comes with a Lessons disk (with six lessons) and fat 378-page manual prepared by Perfect Software, Inc. A brief eight-page introduction to the package is also included in the User's Guide.
Perfect Writer is a comprehensive word processing package with more features than most users will ever need. It can have two windows which can be independently scrolled. This is useful for copying and moving test, and Perfect Writer has a wide range of commands for just that.
We are not enthusiastic about moving the cursor with CONTROL-F for forward, CONTROL-N for next line, and so on, but users will undoubtedly adjust in short order.
Perfect Writer has every imaginable print format and includes built-in support for most standard printers. For other printers, a longish menu, which need be used only once to set up the correct parameters, is included.
Perfect Calc is an electronic spreadsheet which, like Perfect Writer, comes with a series of lessons. Unfortunately, the file TEACHME.PC on our disk was flaky and refused to read correctly. Nevertheless, we have seen this tutorial, and it is very effective. For an even more comprehensive approach, a 346-page manual is included.
Perfect Calc is on a par with other spreadsheets and includes advanced features such as LOOKUP, NPV (net present value), and logical operators.
As with Perfect Writer, we don't like the control key combinations to move the cursor--hey, guys, that's what cursor directional keys are for!
Perfect Filer is a database management system designed primarily for mailing lists or other applications requiring lists of people. Of course, it is possible to set up generalized lists as well.
The package comes with two prestructured database disks, one set up for individuals, and the other for companies and other organizations. The printing utilities are geared to this format and will produce address labels, telephone lists, and form letters.
The manual with Perfect File is arranged as a series of tutorials. We did not think it was as effective as the more straightforward manuals supplied with Perfect Calc and Perfect Writer.
The User's Guide with the Magic Computer consists of a 70-page manual with sections on installation, disk care and backup, CP/M, ED (the CP/M editor), CBasic (very short), Perfect Writer, Perfect Calc, and Perfect Filer.
The manual is very complete in some places and woefully inadequate in others. The first time user will need some handholding from his dealer, but more experienced people can probably muddle through.
The manuals with the applications software were al! prepared by Perfect Software, Inc. and are very professional. As mentioned earlier, we don't particularly like the approach taken with the Perfect Filer manual. All three packages also come with multi panel, two-sided reference cards.
Warranty And Service
The Magic Computer has the usual limited warranty of 120 days (30 days longer than most). Both in and out of warranty service are said to be available from both Magic Computer in Fort Lee, NJ, as well as your "authorized dealer,' presumably the one who sold the computer to you.
Obviously, it is far too soon to judge the longevity of the machine or the effectiveness of the service arrangements.
Should You Buy One?
The Magic is an interesting computer with many nice features. The combined power of the Z80A and 6502 should make it faster than other machines, although this was not apparent in our short test. We like the high capacity half-height disk drives with storage space over each one. And the portability is helpful for the times you want to take your office computer home.
The weak link of the system is the keyboard. The sticking spacebar (on two units) was frustrating. We also think the cursor keys should be separate from the numeric keypad and should be implemented in the software packages (obviously, this is a minority view since the Perfect Software packages are bundled with many computers, all of which use the kludgy control/letter combinations for cursor movement). We also would have liked to see some graphics characters implemented.
Is the Magic for you? Ask yourself: Do I want CP/M? Do I like the Perfect Software packages? Will a text-only system meet my needs? Would limited portability be a nice extra? Am I willing to do business with a manufacturer without the initials IBM? Can I get along without much handholding? Lots of yeses--look at the Magic; lots of nos--look elsewhere.
Photo: The Magic Computer is a bundled system with 12 monitor, detached keyboard, dual disks, and software library.
Photo: For carrying, the keyboard tucks into the back of the system unit.
Photo: Keyboard has 73 keys arranged into standard alphanumeric keyboard, numeric keypad, and three function keys.
Photo: Cursor control keys double with numeric keypad, but are not implemented in the included software packages.
Products: Magic Computer(Computer) - Evaluation