NEC 8401A Portable Computer. (evaluation) David H. Ahl.
The NEC 8401 A is the second generation NEC notebook portable computer. It is significantly different from the 8201, and we expect it will appeal to a different type of customer. Briefly, the 8401 has a 16-line by 80-column fold-up LCD screen, 64K of RAM, and a built-in 300 baud modem, and can be operated using batteries or an AC adapter. It uses the CP/M operating system and has four built-in software packages including Wordstar-To-Go, Calc-To-Go, Telcom (telecommunications utility), and Filer (personal card filing program).
The basic package includes the computer, phone cable, cassette recorder cable, four manuals, quick reference guide, information about on-line services, and license and warranty cards. The package does not include either an AC adapter or batteries. Optional peripherals include a CRT/disk adapter, micro floppy disk unit, 1200 baud modem, external 32K RAM cartridge, and a wide assortment of cables. Compact Package
Somewhat larger and heavier than the 8201, the 8401 measures 11.8" x 8.4" x2.8" and weighs 4.7 lbs. It uses a CMOS version of the 8-bit Z80 mpu operating at 4 MHz. Built in are three 32K ROMs (96K total) which include the BIOS and applications software. The 64K of RAM is segmented into two 32K blocks, one for storing user programs (called an internal RAM disk) and the other for file creation and manipulation. With an optional floppy disk drive attached, it is possible to allocate all 64K of the computer to program execution.
A compartment in the top of the computer accepts four C-cells; alkaline batteries are said to have a life of eight hours or longer. There is an automatic power shutoff if no key has been pressed for ten minutes; this time period may be reset by the user to 1 to 25 minutes.
Going around the outside of the case, we find a power switch, screen contrast adjustment, rest switch, telephone and modem connectors, 300/1200 baud switch, and RS-232, parallel, cassette, and bus connectors. LED indicators on the top indicate low battery condition and sleep mode. Franky, we couldn't see much use for the sleep feature since when the machine "wakes up" it simply displays the menu and cannot be instructed to execute a program automatically (such as sending a file late at night to another computer).
The keyboard has 59 regular keys, five function keys (which double to ten with the Shift key), and four directional cursor keys (arranged in a convenient diamond pattern). A numeric keypad can be toggled on and off with the NUM key, while the ALT key toggles on an alternative keyboard which includes 28 Greek letters, 17 math symbols, and 38 graphics symbols. While it's nice to know that they're there, it is not at all clear how these symbols can be used. Although a bit noisy, the keyboard has an excellent feel and a sensible layout.
We are less enthusiastic about the display, however. It measures 7.5" x 2.4", the same width and only 0.4" higher than the one on the 8201 (and Tandy Model 100). This means that nearly four times as many letters are packed into the same screen size as the previous machine. Characters are formed in a 6 x 8 dot matrix; to enhance legibility, vertical strokes are wider than horizontal ones. Nevertheless, one pixel vertical and horizontal spacing coupled with one pixel descenders occasionally makes for difficult reading. Far worse is the fact that the screen tilts back only 30 degrees from the vertical. While this is plenty for a CRT screen, an LCD screen requires reflected light. Thus if you are depending upon overhead illumination you will be disappointed with the results and may want to consider a table or desk lamp positioned to illuminate the screen. The Big Four In Software
Wordstar-To-Go by MicroPro International is a scaled down version of the full-blown Wordstar. The main features which have been left out include: help menus, file directory (you use the 8401 menu), paragraph tab, hyphen help, soft hyphen entry, column mode, decimal tab, and print control display toggle. Beyond that, the 8401 runs standard Wordstar with all its facilities and foibles. Because it automatically stores both a working copy and a backup of every document created, it gobbles up memory faster than you can imagine.
Like its big brother, Wordstar-To-Go is not particularly easy to learn or easy to use but it has nearly every imaginable word processing feature, allows embedded printer control instructions, takes advantage of the 8401 function keys, and comes with MicroPro's 200-page manual. Thus, it gets our reluctant endorsement.
Calc-To-Go is a first class spreadsheet program that includes the most frequently used features from spreadsheet programs for larger computers. Expressions can use all the standard arithmetic and logic operations as well as MAX, MIN, SUM, AVG, and COUNT. Limited logic functions, including IF, AND, OR, NOT, TRUE, and FALSE are implemented. LOOKUP will search a range for a value, and CHOOSE will return the value of the nth cell in a range. Rows and columns can be inserted and deleted, but not moved. Formats can be applied globally or to individual rows, columns, or cells. Column widths can be set globally or individually--a feature lacking in many larger spreadsheet programs.
A Calc-To-Go spreadsheet can theoretically contain as many as 16,384 cells (64 columns x 256 rows) although with only 32K of working memory, it is unlikely that a spreadsheet with more than 4000 cells could be constructed (which should be plenty large for most problems).
Filer is a card filing program that lets you design your own form for a file card and then use it to store and retrieve data. A file card can consist of up to 13 lines with a maximum of 80 characters per line. The maximum size of a card file is 23K; this would be filled by 55 cards with 10 lines of 40 characters per line. Thus, it is important to design your card judiciously.
Once you have created a file, you can add data or cards; retrieve a card (based on any rules you specify); delete, view, sort, or print cards; and even have the computer dial a telephone number from a card. (As mentioned earlier, in addition to an external modem, a connector is provided for a standard voice telephone.)
The Telcom program has two main functions: connecting to an on-line data service (Compuserve, The Source, Dow Jones, OAG, etc.) and connecting to another computer. The manual provides specific instructions for communicating with an NEC 8800, IBM PC, or Apple II, although the 8401 can easily by connected to other computers as well. The Telcom program is completely menu-driven and allows manual, partially automatic, or competely automatic operation. Telcom can be used for voice operation as well as data transmission. Optional Extras
A 32K RAM cartridge, which plugs into the left side of the computer, is available. This is similar to the one offered for the 8201, and at 7 oz. is the most portable type of add-on memory.
The micro floppy drive provides more memory (328K per 3-1/2" disk) but requires the drive (7.7 lbs.) and CRT/Disk adapter (1.1 lbs.). On the other hand, this latter component provides monochrome or RGB color output to a monitor. Moreover, the computer provides true VT100 terminal emulation should you need it.
Although a 300 baud direct connect modem is built in, a 1200 baud external unit is also available. The Notebook Computer of Choice?
So is the NEC PC-8401A the notebook computer of choice? As we have said so many times in the past, it depends upon your needs and expectations. Our main criticisms are the limited screen angle (can be remedied with a lamp), less than friendly Wordstar-To-Go, and--one thing we haven't mentioned--the lack of a programming language. Perhaps we are just old-fashioned in thinking that a computer ought to be programable.
"But," you're thinking, "the computer uses a Z80-type mpu and runs CP/M; surely Basic is available as an option." No it isn't. At least not yet. Presumably if there is sufficient hue and cry, NEC could release it in the future. Nevertheless, if you are looking for a machine on which to write Basic programs right now, look elsewhere.
On the other hand, if you want the big four in software--word processing, spreadsheet, database, and communications--in a portable machine, you can have them all at a surprisingly modest price. Moreover, with the options, the 8401 offers close to real desktop computing power and, for some, may meet the need for a true dual purpose computer (desktop and portable).
For the 8401 to be a big success for NEC, we think the company will have to face up to two major issues: improving distribution and developing vertical markets, but that's a story for another place and time.
Products: NEC 8401A Portable Computer(Computer) - Evaluation