Monroe System 2000. (evaluation) Russ Lockwood.
Monroe System 2000
State-Of-The-Art Never Looked So Good
Although new to the personal computer market, Monroe is no stranger to the business machine market. The company began operations back in 1912 with a single product, a mechanical calculator. At that time, the calculator was on the cutting edge of technology. Now, some 70 years later, Monroe is offering another state-of-the-art business machine --the System 2000 microcomputer.
The System 2000 consists of three components: a display, detachable keyboard, and system unit housing the cpu, disk drives, and the electronic innards of the system.
The system unit looks sleek, in part because Monroe uses half-height disk drives. Despite its diminutive dimensions, a floppy drive holds a whopping 720K per disk under the MS-DOS operating system. The capacity declines to 640K under the CP/M-86 operating system. For those with larger storage requirements, an optional 10Mb hard disk drive is available.
While the floppy drive performed flawlessly, it sounded a hairraising clunking noise when accessed. We did not lose any data, suffer head crashes, or anything of that ilk, but the noise was unnerving. The floppy drives use efficient rotating knobs rather than hinged doors to lock disks in place. However, the beauty of the System 2000 is more than skin deep. Beneath its ivory-colored exterior resides a 16-bit, Intel 80186 microprocessor operating at 8 MHz. The 80186 is a development of the 8086, but is faster and more powerful. An optional Z80A co-processor is also available to run CP/M software designed for 8-bit machines.
The System 2000 has five internal expansion slots, and Monroe sells memory boards, a Z80 processor board, and a RS-232/SDLC communications board. The base model comes with 128K of RAM and is expandable to 896K.
Standard ports include one parallel printer port and two RS-232C serial ports with programmable baud rates between 75 bps and 19,200 bps. Monroe sells a 300/1200 baud modem with autodial and auto-answer capabilities.
The System 2000 goes through a reassuring diagnostic self-test each time you power up the machine. A small system reset button is located on the rear panel among the various cables. The button is tough to find and awkward to reach, so if you are using MS-DOS, you are better off using Control-Alternate-Delete. The alternative is waiting 10 seconds between shutting the computer off and turning it back on.
Monroe thoughtfully included a clock/calendar, one of the handiest little extras you can find on a computer.
When it comes to describing keyboards, ergonomic is now an advertising buzzword. But, all hype aside, the System 2000 really does have a well-designed keyboard.
The detachable keyboard is connected to the system unit by a three-foot coiled cord. Monroe placed the connector in the front of the system unit, a thoughtful and helpful change from the usual practice of putting it at the back. Contrary to popular fears, the keyboard plug does not work itself loose and snap you in the nose.
The keyboard is as sleek as the system unit. It contains 92 keys arranged in four logical groupings. The 58-key QWERTY group is pretty much standard, although not an exact duplicate of a typewriter keyboard. Monroe thoughtfully placed the shift and return keys in their proper places and included an LED light on the Caps Lock key.
The cursor controls keys are arranged in a logical diamond pattern. However, the left and right keys could be larger. While one or two finger operation is fine, three fingers proves to be a bit crowded.
The numeric keypad also doubles as cursor control keys and includes special cursor keys Home, End, Page Up, and Page Down. The 0 and the decimal point double as the specialized editing keys insert and delete. The keypad has its own Enter key, and the Num Lock and Scroll Lock keys have LED indicators.
The last grouping places 10 userprogrammable function keys and four application defined keys along the top of the keyboard. The 10 programmable keys can actually do the work of 40 because they can be used with the Shift, Alternate, and Control keys.
Overall, the keys have a good feel, being neither too mushy nor too stiff. Aural feedback is good, although the lack of raised bumps on the J and F keys may prove disappointing to touch typists.
The normal display supplied with the System 2000 is a 12 monochrome (amber) monitor. However, for $900 more, the computer can be equipped with a 14 color monitor capable of displaying 16 colors.
The monitor mounts on top of a pedestal that sits on top of the system unit. The pedestal is a good idea, one that should be standard equipment on personal computers. It allows you to tilt the monitor roughly 30 degrees upward and swivel it 180 degrees from side to side. This helps position the monitor for the most comfortable viewing angle, especially when more than one person is looking at the screen.
Character resolution of the display is 25 rows of 80 characters. The "IBM-compatible' character set consists of the standard 96 ASCII letters, numbers, and symbols, with an additional 140 foreign, mathematics, and graphics characters. Character display attributes include normal, underlined, high-intensity, blinking, non-display white, and non-display black in either normal or reverse video.
The display has a resolution of 640 pixels by 400 pixels using bit-mapped graphics. All the expected graphics statements and commands are implemented in Microsoft GW Basic, which is a fefinement of Microsoft Basic for MS-DOS operating systems and includes special graphics and sound capabilities.
Instead of brightness and contrast knobs on the front of the monitor, Monroe chose a sliding switch mounted on the side of the monitor. This is not the cleverest of ideas because you cannot fine tune your video display with one switch as well as you can with two knobs. Futhermore, to get a comfortable intensity level, we had to pull the switch almost all the way forward, leaving very little leeway for those operating in brightly lit offices.
Monroe gives you a choice of operating systems for your System 2000. The first is the popular MS-DOS from Microsoft. MS-DOS is virtually identical to the PC-DOS (which Microsoft also wrote) that runs on the IBM PC. As you can imagine, with skyrocketing IBM PC and compatible sales, MS-DOS is well on its way to becoming the worldwide standard for 16-bit operating systems.
A distant second to MS-DOS in popularity, the other operating system bundled with the computer is CP/M-86 from Digital Research. Actually, the System 2000 uses a version called CP/M-86 DPX, but in general, it functions much the same as CP/M-86. Including MS-DOS and CP/M-86 with the System 2000 lets you run most of the 16-bit software available.
Presumably, for those unwilling to part with 8-bit software, or the cash to buy 16-bit software, the CP/M operating system should work with the optional Z80A co-processor bord. We did not have a Z80A board and could not test this hypothesis.
No matter how sleek the design or how advanced the hardware, if the computer does not have software to run, it becomes an expensive paperweight. Most manufacturers bundle a selection of business programs with their machines. Monroe does not, but several popular software packages have been converted to run on the System 2000.
The most popular computer application in offices is word processing, so Monroe offers the most popular word processing software package, WordStar from MicroPro. The version we had used the CP/M-86 DPX operating system and took quite a bit of effort to install. We started the installation procedure, received an error message, and got thrown out to the operating system. A quick call to Monroe solved the problem, and WordStar worked flawlessly, with fast overlays and rapid execution of commands.
Data base management systems (DBMS) are the rage for business computers, so the Condor DBMS is also available for the System 2000. Like WordStar, it uses the CP/M-86 DPX operating system, and also like WordStar, it gave us trouble in the exact same spot during the installation procedure. Fortunately, the same solution worked and Condor soared onto the screen.
Spreadsheets are also very popular packages, and Monroe offers SuperCalc2 from Sorcim. Unlike WordStar and Condor, the spreadsheet runs under MS-DOS. Also unlike the other two packages, it worked on the first try. SuperCalc performed smoothly, calculating rows and columns rapidly.
Monroe claims an "ever-growing' selection of accounting, wholesaling, finance, health care, and other industryspecific software will become available for the System 2000.
The manuals with the System 2000 are for the most part clear and thorough, especially the Guide to Operations. This illustrated introductory manual really holds your hand as it takes you through setting up and using the computer. How detailed is it? It goes as far as explaining how to insert floppy disks into the drive and how to pull them out.
The GW Basic and software specific manuals seem to be the standard guides issued by the manufacturers. Since the System 2000 does not have any specially marked keys, there was little need to rewrite the manuals.
All manuals are in three-ring looseleaf binders, making updates neat and easy to insert.
Monroe offers 12 configurations of the System 2000.
The base model includes 128K RAM, one floppy drive, amber screen monitor, MS-DOS, and CP/M-86, and carries a suggested retail price of $3695. The same package with 256K costs $3925, and a color monitor instead of an amber one increases the price to $4825. Adding a second disk drive adds $600.
A System 2000 with 256K, amber monitor, one floppy drive, and a 10Mb hard disk drive costs $6095. The top of the line System 2000, with 256K, color monitor, one floppy drive, and one 10Mb hard disk drive, sells for $7225.
An add-on memory board with 128K costs $450; the Z80 co-processor board, $475; and the RS-232 communications board, $395.
Obviously, Monroe is not trying to secure a niche in the market by using price as its primary weapon. An equivalent IBM PC base system (128K, floppy drive, monochrome monitor) costs roughly $3000, about $700 less than the System 2000. Potential customers will make their purchasing decisions based on hardware and software features rather than price.
The Bottom Line
Are there enough of those features to attract buyers? Certainly. The System 2000 is aimed squarely at the business market, and it performs admirably. The heart of the computer, the 16-bit 80186 microprocessor, is fast--about 8 MHz fast--and this speeds up reformatting text in word processing and recalculating numbers in spreadsheets.
Monroe includes the MS-DOS and CP/M-86 DPX operating systems, which means a great deal of business software can be converted to run on the System 2000. For those who want to develop their own software, the System 2000 supports GW Basic, Pascal, Fortran, Cobol, and C.
Monroe scores a great many points by paying attention to convenient little details--things like attaching the keyboard to the front of the system unit, putting the cursor keys in a diamond pattern, using a tilt pedestal for the monitor, and including a clock/calendar. The company did miss a detail or two, like the slide switch on the monitor, but the plusses outweigh the minuses.
The System 2000 is a small business computer that compares favorably with the competition. Advanced design, sleek styling, and the Monroe reputation point to success. Businesses considering purchasing a microcomputer would do well to consider the Monroe System 2000.
Photo: Cursor control keys are arranged in a logical diamond formation.
Photo: WordStar on the System 2000.
Products: Monroe System 2000 (computer)