Z88: Open For Business

Steve Mansfield

Despite early cynicism on the part of seasoned Sinclair-watchers, Cambridge Computer's Z88 laptop has found favour with business users.

The Z88 has taken a lot of people by surprise. Many were quick to dismiss it as a toy, or another example of Sir Clive Sinclair's ability to market gimmicks that would soon be obsolete. Yet this slim, black laptop micro can now be found lurking in the briefcases and desk drawers of a wide range of users, from corporate managers to hard-bitten computer hacks.

The corporate world is rather different from Sinclair's usual budget-price enthusiast market. Some business users want power, others want flexibility, and many want both. Industry standards - de facto or otherwise - are what matter. Why else would most of us, even after all these years, still be staring at PC screens and wondering what we did to deserve MS-DOS?

Enter Sir Clive with his long-promised laptop micro, the first product of his new company, Cambridge Computer. And true to form it is unique: incompatible with everything, flying in the face of much conventional wisdom. But this machine has a lot more going for it than some of Sinclair's other offerings.

You have to handle a Z88 to appreciate just how small and light it is. It is A4 in area and around an inch thick. So unlike most laptop micros, the Z88's claim of briefcase compatibility is justified.

About half of the top surface is taken up by the keyboard - the feature which most quickly polarises opinions of the machine. Conventional, full-travel keys add cost and bulk. The rubber-topped membrane keyboard is both economical and virtually-silent, but the lack of response means that it is often difficult to tell if you have correctly hit a key - especially the space bar. That will lead most users to turn on the key click, which is software selectable. Although not loud, it might annoy fellow travellers on buses, trains and aeroplanes. The only other oddity is that the keys which, on any normal machine, are called Alt and Ctrl are represented by square and diamond symbols.

Running almost the full width of the computer is a narrow supertwist liquid crystal display. This gives an eight-line editing area with a full width of 80 characters, plus a couple of extras. To the left of the editing area is a menu section, showing the main options available for the current application. And to the right is a general purpose display.

In most lighting conditions, the screen is fine. But in dim room lighting the characters disappear. Presumably, adding backlighting would have put too great a strain on the batteries, but it would have helped a lot.

Assuming you can live with the keyboard and the display, you have to get used to the software. This machine does not run MS-DOS, and in any case there is no disc drive to load software even if it did. Fortunately, the Z88 comes with its main applications software already loaded, in the form of on-board ROM chips.

The main application is Pipedream, which used to be on the BBC Micro, disguised as View Professional. Pipedream is a combined word processor and spreadsheet. Indeed, it is really a spreadsheet with enhanced text handling, which includes all the basic word processor functions, such as formatting, pagination and printer control - even a word count. But parts of it can be awkward.

Having to use Ctrl-N to insert a new line is tolerable, but having to type Ctrl-E-S-L to split lines is going a bit far. To balance that, the spreadsheet approach does give the software some unusual features, such as a useful multi-column facility, and of course, the ability to mix text and calculations - ideal for invoices and reports. There are also some database capabilities, with sorting and searching available on columns and rows.

A helpful feature uses the right-hand area of the display. This shows a graphic representation of the page - each letter represented by a dot. A vertical bar indicates the portion shown in the main editing area. This really helps when moving around a file.

Although brochures for the Z88 hint at possible graphics applications, using suggestive illustrations of drawing implements, it is hard to see this taking off.

The Z88's strength lies in its ability as a data capture device. You could use the Z88 as your main computer, but with severe limitations. It becomes much more useful as an extension of your PC - a way of taking the keyboard and some processing power with you, on the move, to remote locations. Then, when you're back in the office, the data can be downloaded to your PC for refinement or consolidation with other files.

Cambridge Computer is well aware of this and has made the downloading part easy. Among the machine's many optional extras are cable and software packages for transferring data back and forth between the Z88 or a BBC micro.

The latter may seem an odd choice at first. But the Z88 does come with BBC Basic and shares its main application with the Acorn micro. That gives Cambridge Computer a reasonable stab at the education market.

Of more interest to potential corporate users is PC Link. This has software for the Z88 and PC, and a cable - in a choice of PC or AT formats. Cambridge Computer claims to have fixed bugs in the original version, in which some ASCII codes were vandalised.

Transferring files between the machines is easy. The software checks to make sure the connection is good, and then everything is handled from the PC end. There are even utilities to convert Pipedream files into or from Wordstar and Lotus 1-2-3 formats. Alternatively, Pipedream is now available on the PC.

Despite early rumours to the contrary, in use the machine is trustworthy, providing you keep an eye on the battery life and backup your files regularly - preferably by downloading them to a PC. The manufacturer claims a useful life of 20 hours operation for each set of four AA alkaline cells, which works out to about 12p an hour. This means that you will need some way of safely storing data.

Integral 3.5 inch disc drives and micro-cassette tapes have been passed over in favour of EPROMs. Rather than save a file to memory - the default method - it can be written to a chip, where it remains reasonably ensconced until the chip is placed into an EPROM eraser - available separately. Although it means that the medium fills up quickly, especially if you frequently update a file, at least you are not at the mercy of batteries or vulnerable magnetic surfaces.

Along the front edge of the Z88 is a clear plastic panel which folds down to give access to three cartridge slots. The cartridges can hold extra RAM, additional software on ROM, or EPROMs for holding files. The RAM and EPROM cartridges come in a variety of sizes and prices. A 32K pack costs £19.95 and 128K costs £49.95. A 512K RAM pack is already available at £199.95, while a similar size EPROM cartridge, and 1Mbyte RAM and EPROM packs, are promised. That could be a little over the top, though. A sensible arrangement is to have one 128K RAM and 128K EPROM cartridge, leaving the third socket free for software.

One of the earliest pieces of third-party software was a communications package called Comm88, from Wordmongers. The ability to plug into phone lines is now seen as a crucial factor in laptop sales, which is why so many machines have the option of built-in modems. The Z88 is too small internally for that, but the modem supplied with the machine was small enough for that not to matter.

The Datatronics Discovery 1200P pocket modem is a battery-powered device capable of handling 300 and 1200 baud data, as well as 1200/75. It comes with a short lead to the micro and a long lead ending in a BT jack plug for the line connection. A telephone can be plugged into the modem, although it is a non-standard socket. At the time of writing, the modem had not been BABT-approved.

Comm88 is a reasonably capable package, providing auto-dialling from a user list of services and the usual control of parameters, ability to capture text, and so on. Amazingly, it also manages to operate in viewdata mode - with an eight-line LCD screen. The viewdata screen is split into three, but the LCD screen shows only one section - when it is capable of displaying two side-by-side. The reason? It uses half the screen telling you how to access the other parts of the page.

Using 300 baud not only gives greater reliability, but reduces the speed at which the text scrolls by. And if this speed is fine for you, and the Z88 isn't your principal comms machine, an acoustic coupler which you can use in phone boxes might be a good idea.

The next product from Wordmongers will be a database called zBase which, it is claimed, will look familiar to users of dBase II. It is currently out at 40 beta test sites, and is planned for a third quarter launch at £69.

Both interactive and command file modes are available, and up to three files can be open at once, allowing fast searching on multiple files. Data can be output in comma-delimited format, if you want it in your PC, and Pipedream files can be converted to zBase format.

With applications written in a dBase-like language, in addition to its natural calculating and text-handling abilities, the Z88 could find a comfortable niche in the business market. Sales teams, peripatetic managers, warehouse supervisors - all sorts of people - could find its portability extremely useful.

Cambridge Computer's Z88 is an A4-sized laptop which is light, easy to carry around and has a clear, if small, display. It can be linked to the outside world via a Discovery 1200P pocket-sized modem (above centre).

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