Osborne Executive. (evaluation) Stephen Arrants.
In 1980 Adam Osborne started an avalanche in personal computing with the introduction of the Osborne 1 Portable computer. The sewing-machine-like case opened up to reveal a self-contained computer with a small, monochrome display, two disk drives, and 64K of memory. Also included in the package was enough software to get the user up and running. WordStar, MailMerge, SuperCalc, CP/M, and utilities that cost almost as much as the computer were thrown in for free.
Imitators soon followed. Kaypro, Compaq, and other manufacturers began bundling portable computers with software for sale to a lucrative and previously overlooked market. In an effort to keep and expand its market share, Osborne has introduced a new generation of portable computers.
The new line is the Osborne Executive series. The result is a better computer, added features, more intelligent design, and improved software and documentation. As with the Osborne 1, there are no real technological breakthroughs. But the Executive does offer a refinement of existing ideas and technology. Specifications
As with Osborne 1, a Z80 microprocessor is standard, allowing access to the large library of CP/M software. 124K of RAM is included. Additional RAM includes 4K for two 128-character sets, 4K X 12 bit RAM for video memory, and 2K for scratchpad RAM. 8K of ROM is present.
The most noticeable improvements are a 7" amber display, which is easier on the eyes than the old 5" black and white screen, and two double density disk drives with 185K capacity each. The drives are now placed to the left of the video display. Two RS-232 serial ports, an IEEE 488 parallel port, an external video connector, and a composite video connector are located on the front panel. The power switch has been moved to the front, just under the screen. A fan on top of the case is another welcome addition.
The detached keyboard has 69 keys and a 12-key numeric keypad. Unfortunately, the keyboard feel hasn't been changed from that of the Osborne 1. It still offers plenty of key bounce and an odd feeling. I would have predicted that the keyboard would have been the first thing that Osborne would change.
Memory is bank-switched. A bank is simply a range of addresses in memory. By organizing memory into banks, the CPU can address more memory than would otherwise be available. This is done by bringing in memory segments as needed and hiding parts not used. Banks can consist of RAM, ROM, or a combination.
Bank 0 consists of 64K of RAM reserved for system use. It also contains BIOS, a part of BDOS, and disk and interrupt buffers. The top 4K controls bank switching and data handling, and therefore is never shadowed by any other bank.
Bank 1 consists of 60K RAM and Page Zero, which contains critical system address pointers.
Banks 2 through 6 are not implemented, but are reserved for system expansion. With sufficient hardware and a different memory scheme, up to 32 use banks are available.
Bank 7 contains the video screen image. The lower area contains bits 0 through 7 of the video memory and an area reserved for the Monitor and the DMA port. The upper portion contains the attribute bits, which control display type (reverse or normal, full or half-intensity, underscore, and the alternate character set).
Bank 8 is 16K, and is organized differently depending on whether the CPU is reading or writing to it. For example, when the CPU performs a read, Bank 8 contains 8K of ROM in the lower portion and 2K, as temporary storage, above it. The remaining 6K is unused. When a write is performed, the bottom 4K is RAM, containing the two character sets. Above this is 4K of ROM which is unused address space. The top 6K is unused, but overlays memory along with the rest of the bank. A map of Osborne memoryy is shown in Figure 1. Video Display
The new, 7" amber display is a big improvement over the 5" monitor on the Osborne 1. The display is now a readable 24 X 80. There is no need for left-right scrolling, with portions of the display off the screen. Full upper- and lowercase display is available in reverse video and half-intensity, along with 32 block graphic characters. The cursor may be invisible, a blinking block, a steady block, a blinking underline, or a steady underline. A key click may also be selected.
Osborne has done something interesting with the way display characters are generated. Normally, the characters are in ROM. On the Executive, the characters are entirely "soft." When you boot up the system, a standard character set is loaded in. You can, however, create and edit new characters to suit your needs. Characters specific to a certain profession or language can be created and stored on disk.
Two external video connectors are now available. One connects to a standard NTSC display. The other is the one familiar to owners of the Osborne 1. These extra connectors are helpful when you want a display larger than the 7" offered. Actually, the new display is quite nice. Since it is, after all, right in front of you, eyestrain doesn't seem to be a problem. Storage
Two built-in drives provide an increase in storage over the Osborne 1. The double density drives give you 185K of CP/M space each--almost double the storage of the Osborne 1. There is now sufficient storage space for almost all CP/M applications. There is one compartment for disk storage, but if the Osborne modem or RAM disk option is added, you lose it. Interfacing With The World
The Osborne 1 is noted for its excellent interfacing provisions. It has a standard RS-232 port, software drivers, a modem port, and an IEEE 488 port. The improvements in the Executive are truly spectacular. For example, Osborne is going all out on communications. The Executive will be able to emulate different IBM terminals, as well as other types of terminals. More than 25 emulations are planned; you have only to install the emulation into the operating system driver by menu selection.
Let's say you are an auditor working in the field. You want to retrieve information from your client's mainframe or mini. Select the correct terminal emulation, and you can retrieve his data. This makes for a very powerful, flexible communications system.
A Serial I/O port gives you a selection of 15 baud rates, all selected via the menu. The IEEE 488 port can connect you with a parallel printer, a teletype, and most scientific equipment. A modem port is also present.
Under the CP/M + operating system, logical and physical devices are entirely separated and easily assigned. The default setup usually assigns different functions to each port; a utility included by Osborne allows you to reassign them. Multiple physical devices can be assigned to one logical device. All three I/O ports could be assigned as list devices and you could have three printers printing in parallel. You may not want to do that often; in fact, you may never want to do it, but it shows that Osborne has tried not to close any doors unnecessarily. Software
A strong selling point for the Executive is the amount of software that comes with the system. The CP/M + operating system supplied offers all of the features of the earlier CP/M vers. 2.0 with a few modifications. MAC replaces ASM; SHOW and DIR include the older STAT functions, and SID replaced DDT. You should have no problems getting accustomed to this operating system.
One glaring omission is the lack of a Help screen. On the Osborne 1 the Help screen provided at least some help to first time users. Apparently, Osborne feels that users of the Executive know what they are doing.
The software consists of WordStar, one of the most difficult and time consuming word processors to learn; MailMerge, an associated mailing list program; and SuperCalc, an excellent spreadsheet program which some feel is superior to all others.
New software with the Executive includes the UCSD p-code and Personal Pearl, a database and information system. The addition of any type of database is welcome. Before you can use Personal Pearl, however, you must back it up on ten disks! I am certainly glad that they allow you to create backups, but performing this operation took a long time.
Personal Pearl is a serviceable program. It allows the creation of an address book, appointment calendar, forms, and information files. I can't figure out why Osborne included the p-code with the Executive. Although there is an excellent tutorial on its use, there are no suggestions as to what exactly an executive can do with it. Documentation
The documentation supplied is both comprehensive and informative. Everything you need to know is included in the manuals. The manuals guide you all the way through setting up the system to creating your own SuperCalc worksheets. The tutorial style is easy to follow, especially for a system with the complexities of the Osborne Executive. The section on p-code is the most readable I have seen. Summary
The Executive is a market improvement over the Osborne 1. The redesign of the front panel, addition of a cooling fan, additional disk storage, extra memory, and the software configurable keyboard make this a comprehensive system. AT 28.5 pounds, however, the Executive is a bit heavy to be called a portable.
If you are interested in a system purely for business use, the Executive and its bundled software may be just what you are looking for. Osborne has a good reputation for reliability and service, so I wouldn't worry about that. All in all, the Osborne Executive is a great machine. Now, if only I could play Pharaoh's Curse on it.
Products: Osborne Executive (computer)