Australian Review

This review was published in Australia's Your Computer magazine in June 1988.

The Z88 is a new model from Cambridge Computer in the UK (Clive Sinclair's new company). It is the size of an A-4 pad, just over 2 centimeters thick, and is ruggedly designed. It weighs about the same as a large book, and could easily be carried around in a briefcase leaving plenty of spare room. The top of the unit has a full sized OWERTY keyboard with arrow keys, caps lock, and four menu keys. The keyboard is rubber-coated, or rather, the keyboard is made of rubber, with the keypads activating pressure sensitive contacts beneath them. This gives it the ability to be taken almost anywhere, although there are a few small gaps which would let in water if you were to fall into the pool whilst updating your database.

The review machine turned up from Barsons with a note apologizing for the sand on the keyboard - Barson's Sydney man, John Treloar, had let his son use it in his sandpit. It was a simple matter to wipe it clean with a damp cloth, and it has been performing faultlessly.

The basic unit has 32 Kbyte of RAM and three expansion sockets for extra RAM or EPROM cartridges. The review machine was equipped with a single 128 Kbyte RAM cartridge. It is completely portable, and is powered by four size AA alkaline batteries, which give about 20 hours of active computing. Optional additions include a mains power unit, printer cable (serial or parallel), modem, EPROM eraser and a package called PCLINK which consists of an RS232 serial cable and software to allow transferral of files between the Z88 and an IBM or compatible. There is also a link for communications with a BBC Micro. A single RS232 port on the side of the unit is the sole connection point for printer cables and for transfer and receipt of ASCII files and BBC Basic data.

The display is a supertwist LCD screen with eight lines of 80 characters each. Like the old Tandy 100, the screen is on the same plane as the keyboard, and to avoid reflections it is best to use the built-in stand to prop it up at an angle to the desk. Below the screen is a handy template that displays a quick reference to commands used in the applications programs. On the right side of the display is a micro representation of the document that you are working on, so even though there are only six lines being displayed at any time, you can see what the document will look like after it has been printed. At the left of the display is an area for menus.

Typing on the rubber keys feels a bit strange at first, especially if you are used to using an old rattler of a keyboard that makes noises every time you press something. The Z88's keyboard is almost silent to use (which could be an advantage in some situations) and it is like tapping away at a wetsuit until you get used to it. But, as mentioned earlier, the QWERTY keyboard is faster to use than the alphabetical layout on the Psion. Also, as I later discovered, there is a Panel menu that allows the user to alter defaults including selection of an audible beep when the keys are pressed. This also took a bit of getting used to, and it elicited 'What's that beeping?' from others in the office. Maybe something like a dull click would be a better feedback.

Software is included and ready to go, and it is simply a matter of booting the Z88 by pressing the two shift keys, and up pops a menu. Twelve applications are listed within the main menu, including Diary, Basic, Calculator, Alarm, and Filer. The principal program is called Pipedream, a wonderful name for any computer program. Pipedream is an all-in-one word processor, database and spreadsheet, and has a wealth of editing commands to give it the power to handle most applications. The other programs are popup utilities, such as Clock and Diary, and programs that enable communications and creation of your own printer driver, and the BBC Basic programming language.

From the main index, an application is run by selecting it from the menu when highlighted. If you enter Pipedream, the default set-up is ready to accept a word processing activity such as writing a letter. All applications use menus to show the user what options are available at any stage. This makes the Z88 easy to use, but I found it necessary to refer to the manual at first for details on how to use the menus.

All of the usual word processing features such as setting margins, saving files, search commands, block commands and printing commands are accessible via the menus. For example, it is possible to select underlining, italics, subscript, superscript and bold from the Print menu either through using the cursor keys and the Menu button, or by using the control (called the diamond) key and other key sequences.

If you return to the Index while creating a document, the Z88 places whatever you were working on under the List of Suspended Activities. This might sound like the next step should be something like going to all, but it is really quite a good way of keeping track of things as you go along.

The list shows the date and time for each activity, and the filename of the document or program. To re-enter an activity, you select it from the List of Suspended Activities and carry on as before. This enables fast access between various activities and files, and to make things even more convenient, the clock, alarm, calculator, calendar, file manager and panel default selector are all accessible as more or less instant popdown selections. This means that if you are writing a letter under Pipedream, and you want to look up a diary entry or check the time there is no need to exit Pipedream. All you have to do is press the appropriate control key combination and the diary or clock appears in a separate window.

As well as word processing, Pipedream can be used for spreadsheet and database applications. The manual gives clear instructions on setting up spreadsheet tables, using columns, performing calculations on spreadsheets, sorting and retrieving database information, and how to merge information between applications for writing and printing reports. The diary has search functions for listing engagements, and it can be used in conjunction with the calendar popdown to find any date quickly. Any number of alarms can be set, with a message displayed to tell you the the reason for the alarm. The BBC Basic programming language is included, with full access to display and database functions, as well the filer utility for managing information between RAM and EPROM modules.

Of the four models, which one gives the best value? It depends really on how much memory you need, and whether you want to keep a permanent record, even if the batteries run out. In terms of dollars per kilobyte (in their basic versions), the Casio gives the best value, and for a simple database for personal uses it has plenty of memory and will not lose it when the batteries need to be changed.

The most convenient model to carry around is the smallest, but the Megalogic has the disadvantage that it will lose its data eventually when the batteries run out. Either the Casio or the Megalogic are quite adequate unless you require more sophistication in terms of setting alarms, manipulating data, word processing and communications with other computers.

The Psion is smaller than the Z88, but it does not have a QWERTY keyboard. In other respects, the Psion and the Z88 are almost equal. They both have an initial resident RAM of 32 Kbyte. Both can be expanded with EPROMS or extra RAM, and both can be configured to talk to other computers via cables and software.

They can both be programmed with their own internal languages, and they can be run from mains power with appropriate adaptors. The Z88 has one big advantage if you plan to use your hand held computer for word processing, in that it has a full sized keyboard. It could be teamed up with a portable printer, such as the Diconix lnkjet, and you could print out you memoirs in the middle of the desert, the beach or up a mountain. It all depends on what you really want to do with your hand held (apart from carrying it around).

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