Mindset micro; pushing the envelope, or whatever happened to innovation? (evaluation) John J. Anderson.
It isn't often I get to write about a microcomputer that has found its way into the Museum of Modern Art. The Mindset microcomputer has managed that rare feat, and in that regard I might only add that its beauty is far more than skin deep. If you are not already aware of it, you are about to learn that the Mindset is, as computers go, quite a work of art.
Why, then, has the Mindest not managed to find its way into very many businesses or households? The answer to that is complex. The answer to that tells us something about the microcomputer market today that we may not care to know--certainly not care to trumpet. Personally, I find the answer somewhat disheartening. But it is a fascinating question, so I'll attempt to answer it nonetheless.
I hope your curiosity has been piqued. Toward a Next Generation
You may or may not have noticed how alike microcomputers have become. They may fit a somewhat broad price category, but as a general rule, tend to look very much like their similarly-priced competitors. Certainly the MS-DOS standard and ensuing clone wars have done much to enforce this bland confromity. But rather than issue my standard broadside on the mediocrity of MS-DOS, I will, simply as a change of pace, give it some due this time around. There has been a need for some standard in the industry, and MS-DOS has helped. Because of MS-DOS, some good things have, in fact, happened: programmers have had an easier time of reaching a larger market base, and the impact of IBM's entry into the microcomputer marketplace has been mitigated.
I'll freely admit that I come from a highly biased, non-IBM background in low-end systems--specifically Atari and Commodore computers. Neither will run MS-DOS, and both are quite similar within their own price category. Both also attempted to follow up on initial success in that price range with next-generation machines that were neither compatible with their own ancestors nor with MS-DOS. And those machines have not fared very well. The only company that has challenged MS-DOS and lived to boast about it is Apple.
As I sit here tapping out these words on a Fat Mac, I can guess it was more a matter of hubris than marketing involved in the decision to snub MS-DOS in the Macintosh and Apple II series gameplan. Compatibility today must be presented as a given: the user has evolved a certain right to assume that a body of extant software will run on a given new machine. I believe that the era when a machine could be introduced successfully into the marketplace with a total dearth of software ended abruptly with the Macintosh. And those days will not return.
How, then, does a next-generation machine make its entry into the fray? Can we not pin at least a fraction of the blame for the current doldrums in hardware volution on this very point? Can we not posit that the trade-off for standardization is a bad case of inertia of rest--of procrastination, and of overall aversion to new ideas? Atari Alumni
Already it is a little difficult to remember what a giant in the business Atari used to be. A blast from the golden low-end past: becuase of Atari's involvement with coin-op arcade and dedicated home video games, design recruits had an instilled love of quality graphics and sound. The early Atari computers set a precedent for the sophistication of such capabilities. And around Atari's hardware and software developers, the evolution of same was taken as a given.
Roger Badertscher and Bruce Irvine, both formerly of Atari, had and still retain a ferocious commitment to these capabilities. When Atari fell on hard times, they set off to find the hardware future on their own. And that is where the story of the Mindset begins. But in realistic deference to a maturing market, both realized that any new machine, even a next-generation graphics box, must offer MS-DOS compatibility. In early 1984 they began shipping a machine that was soon to earn itself a pedestal in the Museum of Modern Art. Blend, not Bland
The Mindset is no mere clone. It is a next-generation micro that also offers MS-DOS compatibility. Based on the Intel 80186 processor, it offers 8088 compatibility at a better clock speed (6 MHz as opposed from and write to IBM-format disks.
Added to this improved 16-bit processor are two custom VLSI chips designed by Mindset in cooperation with VLSI Technology Inc. These take much of the processing load of graphics chores off the CPU, freeing it for the real work at hand.
At one time the Mindset was envisioned as a modular system which would allow a buyer to opt for a broad range of configurations. By and large these distinctions have been erased with the passage of time and the impact of the Mindset on the market (or of the market on the Mindset, if you care to view it that way). The system we received sported 128K RAM, two single sided, double density 5.25" drives, and serial/parallel interface modules. I don't see how a user could get by with much less than this nowadays, and assume that this is the target configuration toward which the Mindset is currently aimed. And a Real Looker
While we're on the topic of modularity, let's get our look at the cosmetic side of the Mindset out of the way. The Mindset is not exactly the most beautiful piece of hardware you've ever laid eyes upon. But in terms of the maxim "form follows function," it is a winner. The disk drive/memory expansion box is itself modular and plugs into the top of the low-slung, powder white system unit through an internal bus connector. This forms the Mindset into a sleek, attractive double-decker shape. Parallel and serial interfaces are modular, as are memory expansion boards, enclosed in their own plastic cartridges. The front of the unit features two ROM cartridge slots with dummy carts plugging access as an added cometic feature. On the side of the units a ROM cart lock to ensure that the user won't pull out a cart at the wrong time. The Keyboard
The detachable keyboard of the Mindset is an 83-key fullstroke keyboard, laid out in true Selectric style. The 10 function keys run across the top, where they belong, and in place of a numeric keypad, cursor and dedicated function keys appear in that familiar 3 x 4 key matrix to the right of the qwerty keyboard.
The system power switch resides on the back of the keyboard unit--a very convenient design feature. The switch is placed in such a manner that accidental power-off is not an issue, and yet you don't have to reach around the side of the system unit to turn the machine off or on. The joystick/mouse ports are on the sides of the keyboard unit--a further convenience.
The mechanical mouse that came with our evaluation Mindset was a two-button model with a heavy black cable and metal ball. The heavy cable was a chore to work around, and the uncoated metal ball inside the mouse scraped the desktop like a fingernail on a blackboard. Still, we found the mouse to be accurate and useful working with the software package Lumena (see accompanying review).
A mention should be made of the ROM cartridge slots of the Mindset and the original plans the manufacturer had for them. Originally Mindset GW-Basic, with a strong emphasis on color graphic and animation commands, was slated for ROM manufacture. The system manual also makes mention of non-volatile RAM cartridges planned for the cartridges slots. This CMOS RAM would be maintained by its own internal battery power between AC sessions. I'm sure the maker also had in mind the possibility of games and other computer languages to be available on ROM.
However, perhaps because the Mindset has failed to set the industry on fire, our version of GW-Basic arrived on disk rather than ROM. It seems unlikely to me that new ROM software, is likely to appear for the machine, let along costly CMOS RAM cartridges. And it's a shame. The RAM cartridge is a concept still quite ahead of its time. Graphics Box
To pinch the term of former editor Ted Nelson, the Mindset computer has been designed first and foremost as a "graphics box," and on this account is very impressive indeed. It sports a resolution of 320 x 200 pixels in 16 colors, or 640 x 400 pixels in two colors. Three outputs offer total flexibility: RF for conventional television, NTSC monitor, and RGB monitor jacks are standard. Certainly for maximum quality, an RGB monitor is indicated.
Of the 11 graphics modes available on the Mindset, the very hi-res modes makes use of interlaced scan, which shortcuts screen refresh ingeniously to improve signal quality. Unfortunately the best of these modes must be supported by a custom Mindset monitor, which may be quite a rarity by the time you read this. However, interlaced scan and other techniques are employed by the custom chips to provide color graphics that far outstrip the competition, even on a stock RGB monitor.
And it is very important to note further that Mindset graphics are not restricted to the static variety. The Mindset is capable of handling animation of a new level of sophistication for the price. Impressive animated effects can be created by the user simply by rotating through color registers--or through the use of the standard built-in 32K frame buffer, which can switch between two entire screens instantly. According to the manufacturer, the VLSI chips speed graphics operations by up to 50 times of the IBM PC. The Lost City
You might imagine what this kind of graphics power could do for the creative programmer (see sidebar). One such programmer, and a very talented one, was Kelly Jones, of Synapse Software. His team got hold of a prototype Mindset and were stunned by its capabilities. One result of their efforts was City, an arcade game that depicted low-altitude flight over a city--in smooth, multicolor, real-time animation. Everyone lucky enough to have seen the program went ape over it. Finally, it seemed the goal had been reached: graphics rivaling dedicated arcade games possible on a personal computer.
But I have never seen City, and at press time had still not been supplied with even a prototype or demo copy of the program. The reasons for this tie in with the question I posed up top about the fate of the Mindset and the fate of innovative machines in the industry as a whole.
To coin a term that also epitomizes Ted, the marketplace has "matured," and in its maturation process it has lost much of its original spark, innovation, and imagination. Today supposed graphics "experts" think of graphics in terms of when to use a pie chart as opposed to a bar chart. Today a program like City had better run on the Commodore 64, or else be capable of charting the cost of equity capital. Today the idea of designing machines that push the envelope of graphics price/performance has caved in to the design of machines that are compatible but cheaper. It is a shift in emphasis that makes the micro world a colder place for those who are motivated enough to seek something more.
There was a rumor afloat not too long ago, that with the accession of Jack Tramiel, the Mindset was under consideration to join the next generation of Atari micros. The unit would not look too bad alongside a range of new micros, and certainly fits the description (see upcoming issues). One might imagine that such an arrangement could only benefit the marketing, advertising, and distribution of the Mindset--areas that have suffered in the past. Compatibility Caveat
I must add my now-standard disclaimer, which has evolved over the series of so-called "compatible" reviews I have amassed recently. I have yet to see a compatible that was truly 100% compatible. The point I try to emphasize is that it is not really a question of how compatible a given machine is: 90, 80 or 40%. The real question is: will a given compatible run the programs you want to run? Make sure you answer this question before you buy.
I found that the Mindset would boot just about anything out of its version of MS-DOS, with the exception of some programs in extended Basic. Wordstar ran without problems. However, no protected programs would boot from cold start or out of MS-DOS. I could not try Lotus as we were supplied with a 128K machine. So if it is games compatibility you are after, the Mindset is not your machine. If you need to run copy-protected programs, the Mindset is not your machine.
If, on the other hand, it is a creativity machine you want, the Mindset is something you can truly get lost in. I only wish developers had the chance to cash in on its power.
Products: Mindset (computer)