Stearns Desktop Computer. (evaluation) Russ Lockwood.
Stearns Desktop Computer
At first glance, the Stearns Desktop Computer seems no different from every other business desktop computer on the market. Like many other systems, it consists of three components: system unit, detachable keyboard, and display, and the advertising copy proclaims it is IBM-compatible.
So what else is new?
We get the feeling that Stearns examined the IBM PC, asked how it could be improved, and then went ahead and improved it. Best of all, Stearns did so at a price that can make a purchasing agent smile.
Slim seems to be in for system units. More and more manufacturers are using half-height disk drives, which means the overall thickness of the system unit is decreasing. The Stearns Desktop Computer proves to be no exception, using half-height 320K 5.25 floppy disk drives.
The drives use the more efficient rotating knobs rather than a hinged door to lock the disk in place. Optional 5, 10, and 20 Mb Winchester disk drives are available.
Stearns includes a clever touch in the system unit. The system unit sits practically flush with the table as do most other desktop computers. However, a portion in the front of the system unit is slightly raised, leaving a storage space just big enough to tuck the keyboard out of sight. Hence, no more hunting for a place to put the keyboard down, or balancing it on top of the monitor when not in use.
The heart of the Stearn Desktop Computer is the 16-bit Intel 8086 microprocessor, a big brother to the 8088 (used in the IBM PC and clones). The 8086 and 8088 both use 16-bit internal architecture which provides 16-bit wide registers, data paths, ALU (arithmetic/ logic unit), and instructions. The big difference between the two is that the 8088 uses an 8-bit external data bus interface while the 8086 uses a full 16-bit interface.
This translates into speed. The 8086 zooms along at 8 MHz, while the 8088 operates at 4.77 MHz (IBM PC). In effect, the 8086 leaves the 8088 in the microdust. For additional number crunching, the 8087 Numeric Data Processor is supported.
The Desktop Computer has five internal expansion slots--four for optional Stearns expansion boards and one for IBM-compatible boards. However, you cannot just plug any IBM PC compatible board into that slot. The board must operate at 8 MHz rather that the usual 4.77 MHz, and these are far and few between. Stearns sells all the boards you will ever need, however, including 128K RAM and 256K RAM boards, a color graphics board, a Winchester drive controller, and a communications board.
Standard ports include one parallel printer port and one RS-232C serial port with programmable baud rates between 75 bps and 19,200 bps.
The Desktop Computer runs a short diagnostic self-test upon powering up. Stearns also thoughtfully included a built-in clock/calendar.
The detachable keyboard is connected to the system unit by a one-foot long coiled cord. Stearns placed the connector underneath the raised portion of the system unit on the back wall of this storage space. Unless you have teeny tiny hands or long ET fingers, you must lift the system unit to plug in or unplug the keyboard--a bit awkward, but if the computer usually stays on one desk, this presents no problem at all.
On the plus side, this also means that the keyboard connects to the front of the system unit, which is much better than bringing the cord all the way around from the rear. As an added bonus, the keyboard and its cord tuck away under the system unit which frees up desk space.
The keyboard is slim, compact, and extremely light. The edge of the keyboard, under the spacebar, slopes away, allowing you to place your wrists on the table. All in all, quite a comfortable arrangement.
The 94 keys are divided into five groups in a layout that is a bit different from other keyboards. The 55-key, fullstroke QWERTY group looks pretty much like a standard typewriter keyboard. The shift, return, and caps lock keys are in their proper places, and the caps lock key has an LED indicator. The major difference is that two extra wide control keys flank the spacebar. Touch typists will have no problem adapting to the keyboard.
The second group consists of 10 programmable function keys located above the QWERTY keys. The third group, to the right of the QWERTY and function keys, is made up of seven special keys--insert, delete, alternate, print, function, program, and stop screen--all of which are self explanatory. The program key has an LED indicator and is used to program the 10 function keys.
Actually, when used with the control and alternate keys, these 10 programmable function keys do the work of 40. This especially handy feature speeds up using most programs, for example word processing or programming.
Unfortunately, the Desktop Computer does not include separate cursor keys. Instead, Stearns elected to make the 18-key numeric keypad double as cursor control keys, the same way IBM did.
The keypad has a Num Lock key with an LED indicator to tell you whether the numbers or cursor controls are active. Like most other manufacturers, Stearns places a subtraction, addition, and enter key on the side of the keypad. Unlike most other manufacturers, Stearns also thoughtfully included multiplication and division keys.
The last group consists of four special keys, each with an LED indicator, that are used for networking and communications.
The Desktop Computer comes with a black-and-white monochrome monitor, although for a very reasonable $39 more, you can replace the black and white with a green, amber, or eggshell (softer white) screen monitor. Stearns also sells a color graphics kit, which includes a color graphics board and color monitor, should you desire more than a monochrome monitor.
No matter which one you choose, all monitors sit on top of a pedestal, which sits on top of the system unit. The pedestal has two side walls, each ending in a shallow U shape, that fit into two slots on the underside of the monitor. Unfortunately, the pedestal is only half as effective as it could be. Although you can title the monitor roughly 30 degrees vertically, you cannot swivel it. Of course, you can drag the pedestal and monitor across the top of the system unit, just as you would without the pedestal. Still, half a pedestal is better than none.
The monitor displays 26 lines of 80 characters. The Desktop Computer uses a "256-character IMB font' and supports an additional 256 user-defined characters. Display attributes include normal, reverse video, boldface, blinking, and underlining.
The Desktop Computer has a resolution of 640 X 208 pixels using bitmapped graphics. Microsoft Basic provides all the commands necessary to produce color graphics. You can also use the GSX graphics option under the Concurrent CP/M-86 operating system.
Stearns gives you many choices of operating systems. The first is the popular MS-DOS from Microsoft, the operating system used on the IBM PC and virtually all other 16-bit microcomputers. Note that the IBM PC has an 8088 microprocessor, and the Stearns Desktop Computer uses a 8086 microprocessor. Thus, while the majority of programs on the MS-DOS disk supplied with the machine will run on the Stearns, some will not. For instance, the versions of Basic and Advanced Basic on the supplied disk will not run on the Desktop Computer.
Stearns also includes ST-DOS, which emulates PC-DOS (Microsoft's version of MS-DOS for the IMB PC). This allows you to access programs developed for the IMB PC.
You can also run Concurrent CP/M-86 and MP/M-86, both of which are geared primarily for multi-tasking and networking. Concurrent CP/M-86 also comes with the GSX graphics option.
We never criticize a machine for lack of software. After all, the IBM PC was released with only a bug-plagued word processing program, the venerable VisiCalc, and the Peachtree accounting software, and look at the plethora of programs available now.
Stearns knows this too, so the company made sure some of the most popular software programs were customized for the Desktop Computer. The five major business application, word processing, spreadsheets, database management system, accounting, and communications, are all represented. Stearns does not bundle software packages with their system. You must buy them separately.
At the top of the list is WordStar, the best selling word processing program. We had some minor problems installing WordStar on the Desktop Computer. The culprit turned out to be a misnamed file. Once we straightened this out, the program performed flawlessly, and with the 8086 microprocessor, WordsStar becomes a real speed demon. Commands from such simple procedures as page up and down to reformatting the text are carried out swiftly.
Spreadsheets are also popular, and you can use Multiplan from Microsoft. Once again, the speed of the 8086 microprocessor lets you recalculate rows and columns quickly. If you prefer a little graphics with your spreadsheet, Lotus 1-2-3 is available for the Stearns Computer.
Database Management Systems (DBMS) are quite popular, so for general use, dBase II is available. For use in the medical and dental fields, Stearns offers the Professional Data Base. And accounting applications are taken care of with the BOSS Accounting System.
Stearns markets its own communications package for networking. They say you can connect up to five Desktop Computers quickly, easily, and without "high-priced connection equipment.' But since we had only one Desktop Computer, we could not test the communications software or the installation claims.
Overall, the documentation for the Stearns Desktop Computer is clear and thorough, and the introductory booklet to familiarize new owners with the machine is especially good.
The Basic and software specific manuals seem to be the standard guides issued by the manufacturers. Since the Desktop Computer does not have any special keys, there was really no need to rewrite the existing manuals. All documentation is in three-ring, loose-leaf binders, which make updates easy to insert.
The Stearns Desktop Computer carries a very competitive price of $2995 for a base system with 128K RAM, two 5.25 floppy disk drives, and 12 black and white monochrome monitor. As we said before, substituting the green, amber, or eggshell monitor for the black and white monitor adds $39. The base system with a 10 Mb hard disk drive in place of the of the floppy drives costs $4995.
The color graphics kit, consisting of the color monitor and the color graphics board, costs $1595. However, if you purchase the kit with a computer, the cost is roughly $1000. Stearns sells 128K RAM expansion boards for $500, 256K RAM expansion boards for $700, and 512K RAM expansion boards for $1400.
A top-of-the-line Stearns Desktop Computer, with 896K RAM, one 5.25 floppy disk drive, one 20 Mb hard disk drive, and the color graphics kit sells for $9095.
Obviously, we think the Stearns Desktop Computer is a dandy small business computer. It has a lot going for it--the 16-bit 8086 microprocessor, MS-DOS, and a wide variety of software packages. We are certainly impressed with the speed of the Desktop Computer. This is a real benefit when reformatting text, recalculating large spreadsheets, and sorting databases. If communicating with mainframes and other Stearns machines lives up to the advertising claims, the Desktop Computer turns from dandy to dynamite.
We like the thoughtful details Stearns built in to the machine: things like a storage space for the keyboard, disk drives with rotating knobs, a numeric keypad with multiplication and division keys, and multiple-use function keys. Stearns did miss a detail or two, like the pedestal support and hidden keyboard connector, but these minor faults detract little from the machine.
The Stearns Desktop Computer is not a run-of-the-mill business computer. It is fast, contains many features, and sports a competitive price. Business people and professionals thinking of purchasing computers for the office should consider the Stearns Desktop Computer.
Photo: Numeric keypad doubles as cursor control keys.
Photo: The Stearns Desktop Computer with dual floppy disk drives.
Products: Stearns Desktop Computer(Computer) - Evaluation