The Morrow Micro Decision. (evaluation) Laurie Baggiani.
The Morrow Micro Decision
Unlike skyrocketing food prices, prices in the computer marketplace continue to fall. It's not so surprising, therefore, that George Morrow, founder of Morrow Designs, Inc. has adopted the phrase "more for less' in advertising his newest line of desktop computers named the Micro Decision.
There is no doubt the phrase aptly describes the Micro Decision, which is a powerful CP/M-type computer based on a single printed circuit board design. The basic two-drive system (MD2, as it is called) includes an 8-bit, Z80 main processor with 64K of memory, two serial ports, one parallel port, a green phosphor terminal, seven bundled software packages, and two 5 1/4 double density, floppy disk drives (storing 200K each)--all at a retail price of $1599.
These features alone, however, don't make the Micro Decision unique. After all, low-cost systems with bundled software have been on the market for a while, most notably in the humbled Osborne 1 and its close rival, the Kaypro II. What does make the Micro Decision special is being the first desktop offering in this class, along with several distinctive features designed to make CP/M-style computing less threatening to the computer novice.
One feature especially welcomed by neophytes is Morrow's Micro Menu, a menu driven front end to CP/M 2.2, which provides a gradual introduction to the popular and somewhat legendary operating system. Described as "your road map through CP/M,' the menu lets you access six of the applications programs provided with the unit, or select a utility menu for help in performing nine of the most common CP/M utilities.
Clear, concise, on-screen directions, make commands like formatting a disk, copying and renaming files, as easy as following a recipe--regardless of your level of computer expertise. Conveniently, too; once you become adept at working within CP/M, the menus can be deactivated, restoring the standard CP/M level of operation.
Another nice feature for beginners is the on-line tutorial which can be accessed via the Micro Menu or directly from the CP/M prompt. The CP/M tutorial provides explanations of all of the fundamental system commands such as ERA, REN, DIR, STAT, and SYSGEN, along with brief illustrations of the conventions required to use them.
I grant you, this is not a fancy 16-bit machine. Nor is it time-sharing, multiuser, or dual-processing, with inexpensive I/O expansion. But as an entry level, CP/M-based computer, it has a rather impressive array of hardware and software to offer, for the money.
Aside from user-friendly enhancements to the operating system, the computer comes with seven software packages, covering the full range of most initial software requirements. They include: WordStar, the popular word processing program; Correct-It, a spelling checker and corrector; LogiCalc, an electronic spreadsheet program; Personal Pearl, a database manager; and Morrow Designs' Pilot, BaZic, and Microsoft's Basic 80, three very different programming languages.
The MD3 version, which costs $1899 and provides 768K of disk storage in two half-height 5 1/4' doublesided, double density disk drives, also features Quest, a bookkeeping and accounting software package.
A choice of green phosphor terminals is also included with the system. The MDT20 is a beige terminal matching the color of the computer/drive enclosure. It is manufactured by Lear Siegler and roughly equivalent to their ADM20 model. The charcoal-colored MDT50 is manufactured by Liberty Electronics and similar to their Freedom 50 model. Both terminals retail for approximately $595; however, if you already own an RS-232 terminal you can buy a Micro Decision without the terminal for that much less.
Honoring trends toward smaller, light equipment, the computer and drives are efficiently housed in a single enclosure measuring 16.7 wide, by 11.3 deep, by 5.3 high. The case is made of radio frequency inhibiting fabricated sheet metal, minimizing interference with television sets and the like. The plastic front panel is a matching shade of beige and, depending on the drive configuration, the unit weighs between 14 and 18 lbs.
The single board computer resting at the base of the chassis is at the heart of this diminutive machine. It contains: a Z80A type central processing unit operating at 4 MHz, 64K of dynamic memory, 2K of EPROM, two RS-232C serial ports, one parallel port, and a floppy disk controller. A small switching power supply is located at the right of the chassis, in the rear. And although it is ventilate by convection-cooling the unit generates very little heat, even with extended use.
The I/O ports access the rear of the unit with plastic connectors mounted at right-angles to the circuit board. One serial port is used to interface to the terminal, leaving the second one free to attach to a modem or letter quality printer. The parallel port, similarly can be used to connect a parallel dot matrix or letter quality printer.
The disk drives which are two-thirds height on the MD2 and half-height on the MD3 further the overall efficiency of design. Unlike many floppy systems, the disk drive heads are in contact with the disk surface whenever the drive door lever is closed. This does not, however, seem to affect adversely wear on the disks.
From an external point of view, though, there are slight differences between the MD2 and the MD3, during disk operations. Aside from a reeling "whir' sound during read/write operations and a slight motor sound when the drives cycle on, the MD2 runs rather quietly. The MD3, on the other hand, is a bit noisier and more distracting during disk operations.
Both terminals provided with the Micro Design offer blink, reduce, reverse video, and underline attributes on a standard size (12 diagonal) non-glare screen. Accommodating 80 characters per line, 24 lines per screen, with a 25th status line, the full 128 character ASCII set is displayed on a green phosphor, dot matrix field. Information can be transmitted in conversation or block mode, at rates up to 19,200 baud, although the Micro Decision itself is limited to a maximum baud rate of $9600. The terminals also feature an auxiliary RS-232 serial output port, supporting X-ON/X-OFF (Busy/Ready Handshake) protocol, which will operate at a different baud rate than the main port to the computer.
With all this in common, you might be wondering what is different about these terminals, aside from their color. To be brief about it, three things. First, the screen resolution is finer on the MDT50. Letters are crisper, thinner, and clearer with character serifs. Second, the keyboard is in some ways superior on the MDT50, since the control key is positioned higher (where you don't tend to hit it inadvertently), and the keys present a little more resistance as you type; a feature I am told is usually favored by fast typists. Third, the MDT20 has a setup key which allows configuring many of the video attributes, simply by keyboard entry--a convenience lacking in the MDT50.
This last feature is actually rather ingenious. When the setup key in the upper left corner of the keyboard is pressed, a line of code is displayed at the bottom of the screen. The terminal user manual and a one-page summary sheet supplied with the unit provide instructions for configuring selected audio/ video attributes from this line of code. Accordingly, using the arrow keys on the top row of the keyboard, you can select such options as: blinking or steady cursor, underline or block cursor, dual or single intensity, inverse video, audible key clicks, a margin bell, control code displays, and XON/XOFF protocol.
The MDT50, lacking the setup key, has dip switches on the rear, which allow you to select manually some of these attributes. Options such as key clicks, margin bell, and single intensity mode, however, are not offered in the MDT50 dip switch line-up.
At this writing, Morrow is planning to offer yet another choice of terminal with the Micro Decision. It would be nice to see the best qualities of both of these models--namely, the superior resolution and keyboard layout of the MDT50 and the setup function of the MDT20-- features in the new one.
If the Micro Decision appears commonplace by its familiar hardware, this is easily amended by an uncommon attention to detail on the finer points of its use.
For starters, a terminal selection menu lets you configure the supplied software with the terminal protocol, by keyboard entry. The selection, which provides compatibility with over 26 terminals, makes the Micro Decision a versatile companion to prior hardware purchases. And once configured, this selection remains in effect until you change terminals.
Automatic diagnostic tests account for a second class of features examplifying an attention to detail. Once the power switch on the computer is turned on, the system automatically performs memory tests. Since the tests are located in EPROM, they execute whether or not a disk is in the drive.
The terminal also performs automatic diagnostics on reset or power on; checking the integrity of the display memory, program memory, non-volatile memory and the associated internal control logic. Upon completion of the tests, the terminal sounds a "beep' and the green cursor appears in the upper left corner of the screen.
Enhancements in the BIOS (Basic Input/Output System) are reponsible for another group of distinctive features. If you are familiar with CP/M, then you have probably seen cryptic error messages, such as BDOS ERR ON B:, which take what may be a simple problem and turn it into detective work. What is special about the Micro Decision is a built-in error detection system which translates these statements into plain English. For instance, if you try to execute a command without first closing the door on the disk drive, the following message will appear on the screen:
Disk error on drive A: Drive not ready.
Type R to try again, A to Abort, I to Ignore. Once you close the drive door and type R, the system boots normally.
The BIOS also has a Virtual Drive capability, which allows one drive to serve as an extra, providing you with virtually another drive. This ability can be advantageous in reading a directory, formatting a disk, copying files, or performing numerous other CP/M tasks without having to use the control-C normally required by CP/M. The virtual drive can be employed in both read and write operations, as well as within an application program like WordStar.
One pleasure in using this feature is its utter simplicity. To invoke the virtual drive, you simply substitute an imaginary drive reference for the physical drive reference normally used in a CP/M command. For instance, if all your drives are in use and you want to locate a file on another disk, you simply type DIR C: (the C representing your imaginary drive) and press RETURN. The system then assigns drive A to drive C, asking you to exchange disks, and displays the directory.
As stated earlier, the CP/M 2.2 operating system is enhanced with Morrow's Micro Menus. The menus are written in Pilot, a learning-oriented programming language and allow the most commonly used CP/M commands to be quickly performed with just one or two keystrokes. A bonus of the menu system is that if you don't already know CP/M, you soon learn it and become comfortable with it.
Like training wheels on a bicycle, though, there will come a time when you will no longer need or want the menus. At this point you can either exit to CP/M using the escape option within the manu itself or deactivate the menu permanently by erasing all programs with a pilot extension (.pil).
Several supplementary utility programs also provide useful computing tools. The auto program allows you to program a turnkey disk which automatically executes a particular program when the system is booted. A setup program also enables you to select conveniently the baud rate and protocol for the serial port and assign limited I/O byte functions to either the serial or parallel ports.
Disk compatibility programs also help to eliminate some of the problems with the current nonstandardization in minifloppy formats. Using these programs, the system can read, write, and run programs created on or for the Osborne 1 and Xerox 820 computers.
This is achieved either by redefining a drive to emulate the foreign format or by copying the foreign disk to a disk formatted by the Micro Decision. It can also read and write to CP/M-86 data files formatted for an IBM PC, but because of the different microprocessors, machine language programs for the IBM can't be run on the Micro Decision.
The software provided with the Micro Decision, valued at over $1500, is easily its most impressive feature. The selection covers an array of applications to satisfy many differing requirements. Lest we forget, however, the distinction between quantity and quality, a closer inspect from the user's viewpoint seems in order.
WordStar, the word processing program by MicroPro gets a gold star in my book as the prima donna in the software queue. WordStar is a very capable program--capable of far more, in fact, than I will probably ever use it for. At the same time, it is not that difficult to learn; requiring only a two or three-day effort to master the most essential commands.
With the exception of concurrent printing and editing operations, WordStar also performs quite well on the Micro Decision, with fast overlays and rapid execution of commands. You can't really fault the Micro Decision for this difficulty with concurrent editing and printing operations. It has been noted by WordStar users with other computers, and quite simply, the problem seems to lie within Wordstar itself.
Correct-It, written by Aspen Software Company, on the other hand, is minimally adequate as a spelling checker and corrector. Its 36,000 word dictionary is rather limited and frequently lacks accommodations for plural forms of a word. It does, however, have the capability of creating auxiliary dictionaries housing up to 36,000 words. Hence, the more you use it, the more effective it eventually becomes.
Correct-It works by identifying and counting misspelled or unknown words in a first run through a text file. A second run then lets you: look-up, correct, store, or accept the spelling of the words in question. Since most of these functions are performed with just one keystroke, it is convenient to use, with one exception. Correct-It views each half of a hyphenated word as a separate entity, so you must run the program before you hyphenate or have a lot of correctly spelled words identified as misspelled.
Another minor grievance I have with Correct-It is its lack of a word count function. This provision, included in MicroPro's corollary (SpellStar) would not have been difficult to include. But instead, Correct-It counts the number of different words in a document; something I have yet to find a use for--unless you like having your limited vocabulary flaunted.
Personal Pearl by Pearlsoft is the relational database program provided with the Micro Decision. In brief, it operates as a database manger by performing four main functions: create a form, create a report, enter data, and produce a report. An optional sort utility is also provided. Within this basic format, the data fields and definitions of data being collected are all user-defined, so that the scope of applications the program can serve seems limitless.
It does have several flaws, however. Anytime a change is made in a form, the index file must be updated. This isn't major, mind you, just an inconvenience. The program also lacks the programming required to skip over an empty data field in a report, as in a four-line report for mailing labels which is merged with a three-line data file. This, too, is a minor problem easily overcome with a little creativity on the part of the user.
Software Products International's LogiCalc is a spreadsheet program similar to Calc Star which performs financial analyses and forecasting on the Micro Decision. Ironically, the merits with this program have less to do with the program itself and more to do with the other software supplied with the Micro Decision.
LogiCalc works by taking text and numeric data and performing "what if' processing, linear regression forecasting, and file management functions. The screen display is small, showing only a portion of the spreadsheet at any one time. It does, however, run quickly on the Micro Decision.
Conveniently, the cursor control keys for LogiCalc are the same as those used in WordStar and echoed by Pearl; making the threesome a rudimentary kind of integrated system. More importantly, though, the "cells' of the spreadsheet, containing numbers, labels, or equations are capable of feeding directly into Personal Pearl for detailed reporting.
If you are a non-programmer, chances are you will appreciate the Pilot programming language provided with the Micro Decision, prized in many circles as one of the easiest programming languages to learn. This version is a derivative of the first Pilot, developed in the early 1970's at the University of California at San Francisco. Coined from the words: Programmed Inquiry, Learning, Or Teaching, Pilot is especially tailored to educational applications such as dialogs, drills, tests, and other forms of computer-aided instruction. Its primary hallmark lies in a very simple command syntax, one letter followed by a colon (t:, for example, means type). Once you become familiar with it, this interpreter will allow you to modify your system menus and write new ones.
The two basic interpreters included with the Micro Decision are a nice selection for programmers. Microsoft's Basic 80 is one of the most comprehensive interpreters available and widely respected as an industry standard. Moreover, it is relatively easy to learn, and a library of applications programs is available for it. BaZic, developed by Micro Mike's Inc., is compatible with the different programming world of North Star Basic; allowing low-cost programs written in North Star Basic to be run on this system without modification. BaZic is considered advantageous mainly for its channel-oriented I/O and file handling techniques.
The system manual, supplied in a three-ring binder, reinforces Morrow's attempts to make computing easy for the novice. Wrtten in clear, easy-to-understand English, it tells you quickly and to the point how to get the system up and running for the first time, making no assumptions about what you already know.
Complementing this tradition, the Pilot and Personal Pearl manuals (supplied in paperback book) are also excellent. Each is written with simplicity in an organized format and peppered with helpful examples throughout.
Documentation for the remaining software, also supplied in parperback, is adequate. The WordStar and Microsoft Basic manuals are verbose, disorganized, and frankly confusing at times. Fortunately, however, there are many good books on the market to compensate. The documentation on Correct-It is meager but very easy to understand. At the other extreme, the LogiCalc write-up is more substantial, but also more difficult to follow. BaZic seems to strike the happiest balance with a manual that is neither too brief, nor too complex.
Naturally, this small computer won't serve the needs of everyone. In my opinion, however, it is a very reliable, lowcost system, particularly for the novice. Although the software provided clearly does not represent the best available in each category, it does make the unit functional from the start, and at no additional expense.
Some people, I am sure, will fault the fact that it is not easily expandable. I haven't found this to be a problem, but nonetheless, it is true. You are limited by the board design to 64K of memory. And although there is a 40-pin I/O bus expansion port on the board, and it is possible to obtain more disk storage by extending the drive B ribbon cable, it is not practical to implement these features, nor are there any products currently available for this purpose. By the time you read this, however, there should be a hard disk version of the Micro Decision available, featuring, among other things, more disk storage and random-access memory.
There was a time not too long ago when $3000 was a good price for a general purpose, CP/M-based computer. Then the portables came along, almost halving the price and offering software in the bargain. With the dawn of the Micro Decision, the desktop arena has simultaneously been challenged with affordability and utility in a reliable, user-friendly machines. Who knows what the midday may bring?
Photo: With the MDT20 optional terminal resting above the computer enclosure, the Micro Decision bears a striking resemblance to IBM's PC. But at two-thirds the price it is a little easier on your pocketbook.
Photo: The detachable keyboard on the MDT20 comes with 92 keys, including: a setup key, seven programmable function keys, eight cursor control keys, four editing keys, and a fourteen-key numeric keypad.
Photo: Documentation and software provided with the Micro Decision.
Products: Morrow Micro Decision (computer)