The Pied Piper Communicator. (evaluation) Joe Devlin.
The Osborne 1, introduced in 1981, has many things going for it--a low price, portability, and bundled software that includes the CP/M operating system, a word processor and a spreadsheet package. The machine also has its limitations--most notably a 4" screen and a 27 pound weight that makes it difficult to carrylong distances.
There have been many imitators, all trying to grab a piece of Osborne's success by offering a few extras. Some give you a bigger screen, some a lighter weight. The Pied Piper Communicator 1 is the latest of this group. The Pied Piper does not look like the Osborne, but it is constructed according to the same formula--low price, bundled software, and portability.
The Piper is a Z80 based system manufactured by STM Electronics Corporation. It features 64K of random access memory, a single disk drive, and six software packages--all for $1299. Like the Osborne, it is quite a lot of machine for the price. In fact, the Piper is one of the least expensive portables on the market today. The manufacturer achieves this low price by offering a slightly different type of bait than Osborne and most of its clones. Some will wish to bite, others will go for the hook with the old flavor.
When judged by the standards of previous portable computers, the Pied Piper is an odd looking machine. This is not to say the machine is ugly. In fact it is quite attractive. It just doesn't look like a computer. With the protective cover in place over the keyboard the Piper is easily mistaken for one of those ubiquitous radios so often seen balanced on youthful shoulders.
Remove the protective cover and the Pied Piper begins to look more like a computer. The keyboard you find is a high-quality, full-sized, full-stroke keyboard complete with upper/lowercase shift, caps lock, escape, delete, break, and back space keys. Two cursor control keys provide vertical and horizontal scrolling.
All the keys have a nice, substantial feel and will repeat if held down long enough. Above the keyboard are three indicators which tell when the unit is powered up and when the disk drives are operational. A single 5.25" disk drive is built into the right front of the machine next to the keyboard.
All hardware interfacing is through the back of the machine. In the lower central region are a TV output, reset button, monitor output, and printer port. The carrying handle is recessed into the back of the machine. On the right is the on/off button and a place to plug in the power cord. Behind two plastic cover plates on the right is an edge card (expansion bus) and a four-pin connector that allows a dealer to attach a second disk drive. Other dealer-installed options include two RS-232 interfaces that go into the opening underneath the carrying handle, a built-in modem and an external hard disk drive.
Looks aside, the hard plastic case is not very sturdy and is one of the weakest points of the Pied Piper. For example, the hollow plastic handle that collapses into the back of the machine is of lower quality than handles found on most portable radios. The keyboard cover is difficult to remove and is awkwardly hinged on two flimsy plastic tabs. The disk drive and most of the cable connections are left open to the elements, and no space is provided in the case to carry the detachable power cable, CRT cable, or floppy disks. About The Screen (Or Lack Thereof)
One of the reasons the Pied Piper can be sold for so much less than the Osborne and its clones is that it lacks a built-in screen. This can be viewed as either a blessing or a curse depending upon how you want to use your computer.
If you must have a built-in screen, then obviously the Piper will not be your choice. On the other hand, many people have found the Osborne 4" screen with the 24 line by 52 character display too small for serious work. Sure, you can attach an external monitor to the machine, but if you are going to do this you don't need the dead weight of a built-in monitor. At almost 27 pounds the Osborne quickly becomes difficult for all but the burliest he-man to carry. The Piper may not have a built-in screen, but at just over 11 pounds it is much easier to tote around.
When the time comes to attach some sort of screen to the Piper you have several options. The Piper comes with both monitor and TV connections. This means that you can plug your machine into a CRT monitor or, if you don't mind an inferior picture, you can use an RF modulator to connect your machine to a convenient TV set. A two-line, 80-column LCD display can also be purchased from the manufacturer.
The monochrome image provided by using a video monitor is 80 characters wide by 24 lines deep and is clear and crisp. A program is provided that pares the screen width down to 40 characters for TV sets and monitors that cannot handle an 80-character line. If you do want to see 80 columns on the TV you can make use of a horizontal scrolling feature.
The cursor is a solid block. A blinking cursor would help. Disk Drive
The Piper comes with a single 5.25" floppy disk drive built in. That one drive, however, offers an impressive 784K of formatted storage (1Mb unformatted)--more storage than most computers offer on two disk drives. The Osborne, for example, typically provides only 340K of unformatted storage on two disk drives. Then again, two drives of a lower capacity can be much more convenient than a single drive of any capacity.
For example, backing up on a one disk drive system requires constant swapping of source and object disks. The copy program provided with the Piper copies files in segments of 30K each. This means that you will have to go through approximately 20 copy cycles to copy a full disk.
The disk connector in the back of the machine supports the attachment of a second floppy disk drive. The addition of that drive, while not necessary, would add a great deal of convenience. A hard disk drive is available for those who need even more storage. The Great Software Giveaway
The software that comes with the Piper includes the CP/M operating system (version 2.2), a selection of CP/M and Pied Piper utilities, and four applications packages produced by Perfect Software, Inc. The Basic language does not come with the system and must be purchased separately.
The applications software includes the Perfect Writer word processing package, Perfect Speller spelling checker, Perfect Filer file management system, and Perfect Calc spreadsheet package. These are all proven software packages that have been available for some time. (Kaypro, for example, offers the same four Perfect programs with their portable computer.)
Each of the four Perfect software packages is a well written and powerful example of software of its genre. STM says that the software that comes with the Piper could cost up to $1700 if purchased separately. (Perfect Writer retails for $289 and the other packages cost $189 each.) In addition, each of the four packages can work with data supplied by the other three. For example, names and addresses maintained in Perfect Filer can be used to compose form letters using Perfect Writer and can be checked for spelling using Perfect Speller.
Perfect Writer is the type of word processor that uses a logical sequence of two keystrokes to perform most word processing functions. Press CONTROL or ESCAPE in conjunction with other keys to tell the program what to do.
Perfect Writer can handle all the functions normally desired in a word processor. Features include search and replace, subscripts and superscripts, and the automatic placement of footnotes. The software can also construct a table of contents or an index of key words and can justify margins, paginate, underline, center text, and produce proportional spacing. You can save a document periodically during an editing session and you will find the command that lets you recall accidental deletions to be especially useful.
The virtual memory feature merits special notice. This feature allocates the resources of the computer, automatically breaking up documents too large to fit into RAM into smaller pieces that are automatically swapped in and out from disk as needed. The result is that the Piper can edit documents larger than its 64K internal memory and can control editing of up to seven programs and files at a time. At this swapping is done so quickly and efficiently that most typists will remain unaware that anything so sneaky is going on as they type.
Another nifty feature is the use of split screen displays, which allow you to work with and view two screens at a time. (For more information on Perfect Writer see the review in the June 1983 issue of Creative Computing.)
The other three packages use commands and operating logic similar to those of Perfect Writer, which means that you don't have to memorize four entirely different sets of commands. for example, all four Perfect software packages make use of the same virtual memory and split screen capabilities.
Perfect Speller is a spelling checker with a 50,000-word dictionary. It can handle 4000 words a minute or ten pages in about a minute and a half. Should 50,000 words prove insufficient, you can add your own words to the dictionary.
The Perfect Filer data management package will sort up to 65,000 records on up to five keys simultaneously and includes two predefined mailing list databases.
Perfect Calc is an electronic spreadsheet program that comes with a library of 16 predefined spreadsheets including personal finance, small business accounting, and stock portfolio evaluation. Documentation
The documentation that comes with the Pied Piper is a mixed bag. Each of the Perfect software packages comes withan excellent user's manual and a reference card. However, the manuals obviously were not written for the Pied Piper. For example, although all the commands in the Perfect Writer manual seem to work, there are a few commands that work on the machine that are not explained in the manual. The up, down, right, and left arrows will let you move the cursor through the document without having to type any control characters. This fact is not mentioned anywhere in the Perfect Writer manual.
There is a HELP function which should be used to explain machine-specific commands. You can easily get into the HELP function, but once inside, it is quite hard to get out. Not to mention the fact that HELP does not seem to give you any information that you can use.
The user's manual provided with the computer is a dreadful 72-page spiral-bound pamphlet. Two thirds of this pamphlet is devoted to brief descriptions of the more important CP/M commands. Nowhere does the manual describe the most rudimentary technical specifications of the machine. If you want to know how to attach or where to attach peripherals such as printers and modems youwillhave to look elsewhere.
I have also seen a photocopy of a well written, 17-page Software Primer. This short primer introduces you to the software, guiding you through such vital areas as copying disks and booting the various software packages. I am told that a 76-page specification book will be avaialble by the time you read this. with luck it will fill in some of the gaping holes in the original manual. Service
STM has signed a contract with Xerox to provide service for the Piper at any of its over 100 service centers throughout the U.S. Xerox guarantees 16-hour turnaround on Pied Piper repairs. A technical support number is being set up jointly by STM and Perfect Software to answer software related questions. A 24-hour telephone service line has been set up to provide information about dealers and service centers.
The Piper comes with the standard 90-day warranty. Those who want extra protection can purchase an extended one-year warranty that is activated at the end of the initial 90-day term for $199.
In sum, the Piper looks like a winner, a few rough edges notwithstanding. A sturdier, more weatherproof case would be nice, and the documentation has a long way to go. However, if you are looking for a low-cost, full-featured, portable computing system, the Piper may well be your choice. Especially if you don't want the buil-in screen that comes with most other portables and on't need the exercise that comes with lugging that built-in screen. At 11-1/2 pounds and $1299 the Piper may be the machine you want to carry away.
Products: The Pied Piper Communicator (computer)