WACCI 138 Index - Home Page www.wacci.org.uk

01 - Thanx & Stuff 02 - Fair Comment 03 - A to Z of the CPC 04 - From the Archives
05 - Twenty Questions 06 - Keyboard Scanning 07 - Meet the Relatives 08 - Programmers' Patch
09 - Genesis 10 - Famous Last Words

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Meet the Relatives

Brian Watson recalls some of the CPC's youthful offspring, embarrassing uncles, litigious ex-wives and other hangers-on

Mea culpa (Virgil)

If there were only 25 hours in the day and 8 days in each week, our Editor would have had this article over a month ago (I'm trying to persuade myself). Unfortunately there are not and, what with Christmas and all,...
  But you don't want to hear about my trials and tribulations, you want some hot CPC action. OK, here we go.

Let there be cash

When Amstrad decided that the exciting cut and thrust of home audio set-ups was insufficient challenge for their technical expertise and corporate expansionism, they looked at what was then the relatively new market for home computers and, verily, they saw that it was good - or, at least, they could probably make a lot of money out of it.
  So they made the computer that was released as the Amstrad CPC 464, and then followed it up after a decent interval with a CPC 664, and then (shortly afterwards, having been criticised for introducing that only into the American market and therefore, allegedly, "keeping it from British customers") the CPC 6128.
  What each of the latter two models had that the 464 did not have was "more". Or in the terminology of business, they had "value added" to a previous release. Each new computer was not just different from what had gone before, it was actually building on what had gone before to create a wish in the existing owners for an upgrade to the new model - but with backward compatibility of files and programs.
  This was very clever marketing, and not a concept invented by Amstrad. But they used it to good effect with virtually all their computer ranges - including, of course, the CPC Plus range.
  Speaking of those other Amstrad computers, it means the CPC has some close relations that were also built by Amstrad. And like their equivalents in the "real" world outside computing, it is useful to understand them and be able to have communication with them at times other than just at Christmas.
  So let's have a quick and rather superficial look at some of these close cousins of the CPC and see what use they might be to us (isn't that often the way we regard our own relations, or is that just me who does that?). First up is the PCW series.

Joycean wisdom

No sooner was the CPC 464 off the blocks and selling well than Amstrad released what was to be their major money-spinner, the PCW series.
  The first PCW out was the PCW 8256 and, with 256k of memory at its disposal, it should have been better than a CPC, shouldn't it? Well no, it wasn't actually: it was considerably duller than a CPC, comparing them like-for-like straight out of the box.
  It was supplied with a 3" disc drive and CP/M (oh joy!), and could therefore run some of the same programs as a CPC (Protext, MasterFile, and Newsweep, to name but three). But it had only a mono (actually green) screen and was designed to be, and was therefore marketed as, a dedicated word processor using the bundled Locoscript program. A glorified typewriter, if you will.
  Despite this, it sold like the proverbial extremely warm buns and the series soon blossomed and spread with the release of - in turn - the PCW 8512, then a PCW 9256 and finally, in the first part of the series, the PCW 9512.
  As you will have deduced, the last three digits indicate the available memory of each and with every release LocoScript was enlarged to take up more and more of it! Mail-merge, spell-checking, database functions, fancy fonts ... If only they could have done it in 128k like, erm, Protext.

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Clear as mud

  As each new member of the PCW series was released, better printers were supplied as standard with the computer and the mono green screen gave way to a brilliant new ... mono white screen. Doh! What a missed opportunity!
  Text is tough enough on the eyes, but the effect can be ameliorated a little (and such things as italics and bold passages can be made more legible) if the colours can be different in different parts of the screen, just like on a CPC.
  The 9xxx series PCWs were fitted with a 720k disc drive which makes a CPC's communication with them more difficult than with an 8xxx series - PCWs can read in data from the smaller format discs from earlier PCWs and CPCs, but not vice versa without special software. However, cable connections are an option if the computers are adjacent.
  I'll return to this, and the ease or otherwise of your CPC communicating with the rest of the Amstrad ranges that I'm covering here, in more detail in the next issue.

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Sense at last

Just when the world of writers and vicars was reaching saturation point with the old PCWs, and you will have noticed the same upgrade path habit had been cultivated in their PCW-using adherents, Amstrad pulled a new rabbit from the hat; the PcW9512+
  As well as apparently running out of upper-case Cs at this point, Amstrad were also running out of 3" drive mechanisms. So they switched to fitting 3.5" units for the "new" PCW computers. In fact, it was not until the PcW 9256 was released a little while afterwards that the PcW case got a slim-down case redesign. Otherwise the 9512+ was very much just a rebuild of the old 8xxx series, but to be able to use the bigger disks.
  The PCW/PcW range was still going well for Amstrad when suddenly, with a minimum of PR fuss, writers to the 8-bit press started reporting seeing a new PcW on the shelves of the big box-shifters like Comet and Argos. It was badged up as a PcW10, and it had the look of a 9256 but with 512k of memory.
  I suppose that if what you want from your 8-bit computer is a relatively enormous storage capacity for your MasterFile database or for your text, and a word processor capability that produces very fine printed output to the page (if you don't mind waiting a while for it to transfer to the paper), a PCW/PcW makes quite a handy second Amstrad for the desktop. Communication with your CPC will not be completely straightforward, but will not be an insurmountable challenge either.

Designs on the future

I must also mention here that there is a lot of dedicated software that has been written for the PCW series that most LocoScript users don't even know exists. (PCW users are more dedicated in their advocacy of their computers than any other I've known. Most of us have a sense of the limits of our CPC. Even the least technical PCW users, on the other hand, think nothing of adding laser printers and hard drives to their machines. I once had an "I know my rights" user of RoutePlanner PCW whinging vociferously that it wouldn't work with his laser printer. It would, of course, he just hadn't read the manual for the laser printer interface. - Richard)
  The best known 'other' PCW program is probably MicroDesign, which branched off from its CPC cousin at a fairly early stage and can produce quite remarkable results from the PCWs' larger memory.
  For yet another example, a customer of mine still uses a PCW-only program to calculate the costs for the quotations and billing in her framing business and she sees no reason to upgrade now or in the future.
  "Just because the latest date it will show is 31st December 1999, that's no reason to dump a quick and easy program," she says. The same argument could equally be applied to the PcW version of RoutePlanner.
  Having written a few plays, books and articles myself and edited 20 editions of a magazine that was largely text, I can't see how Amstrad got away with the PCW/ Locoscript concept for so long when the CPC series did it just as well, and faster, running either Protext or Brunword.

Runt of the litter

Just before we leave the PCW series, I must make mention of the PcW16. It is a curious (I was going to use another word, but 'curious' won't frighten the horses) hybrid of 8-bit and PC technology that runs slower than any computer has a right to do - despite the fact it has a Z80 processor five times as fast ast the CPC's - and crashes more often than I used to when I was an eager young sales rep.
  It has its own suite of supplied programs, none of which are derived from any of those on a CPC, and it uses PC-format 3.5" disks. Cable it up to your CPC if you like, but a file conversion program on your CPC will do a better job of reading a PcW16's data froma disk. As to a PcW16 reading in data from a CPC program, it's a beast of a job, but it can be done. More on the "how" of it next time.

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Lap dancing

In September 1992, Amstrad launched the NC series of portable computers, a precursor to today's nifty PC and Mac laptops. Because it was Amstrad, they did things differently to what might at first appear most logical - but they did things well.
  The NC100 (pictured right) was launched with 64k of RAM, a built-in word processor based on Protext, a spreadsheet program, a database address book, a clock (with alarm functions), a calculator and the Acorn BBC version of BASIC. Access to the main programs is via coloured 'hot' keys - a great idea that has since been used elsewhere. For those who want to work with a larger memory storage area, the NCs will accept PCMCIA cards. (The NC100 was very similar to Clive Sinclair's earlier Cambridge Z88 - Richard)
  Apart from the immediate familiarity of its word processor, what interests the CPC user is the fact that, at the back, it has both RS232 serial and Centronics parallel ports to communicate with the outside world. The outside world includes CPCs.

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Oooh la la

In April 1993, Amstrad launched an NC150, but only in Italy and France. Like the CPC 664 in its day it was a halfway house on the way to what followed as a general release shortly after. In October of 1993, Amstrad released the NC200.
  The new model had 128k of memory, a double-height screen and (praise be!) a 720k 3.5" disk drive. At last the NC could easily transfer information in and out without the need to mess about with cables, but only if your computer had a 3.5" drive too and could read the NC200's disks. (They were PC-format, though, so most could - Richard)
  Still, I had one of the NC200s and found it a great little computer if you could keep up with its battery consumption. A mains electricity adapter is a must!

Occasionally innovating

Also in 1993, Amstrad released what was probably the world's first computer that would recognise real handwriting on its screen. This was the PDA600, with 128k of RAM, and compatibility with the same PCMCIA cards that the NC series could use. A PDA700 (pictured) followed afterwards.
  As this is straying into the same sort of PC-compatible territory that is occupied by Amstrad's 1512 and 1640, I'll leave that brief mention of them as it stands for now, but will cover connectivity (briefly, I promise!) with all three in the next issue.

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Germany calling

Well, that just about covers - albeit in brief - all of the immediate family of the CPC. But most families have 'black sheep' and the CPC series is no exception.
  There exists a computer called a KC Compact that was made in the old East Germany by a company called VEB Mikroelectronik. It's a clone copy of the CPC that uses at its heart a Zilog Z8536 chip with a patched CPC 6128 operating system chip and a Locomotive Basic v1.1 chip. Apparently, the KC is 95% compatible with an Amstrad CPC's programs. East European knock-offs of Spectrums were two a penny, but the KC was the only known CPC clone. More on that oddity some other time, perhaps.
  Shall I cover here the (formerly Sinclair) Spectrum itself, which Amstrad took over towards the end of its life? No, I think I'll save that for an article all to itself.
  But let me say as I close that I am immensely indebted to Emmanuel Roussin and all those other fine fellows who compiled the comp.sys.amstrad.8bit FAQ (frequently asked questions) file for much of the information I have included in this article.


There's one oddity that Brian has, understandably, not mentioned: ANT, or Arnold Number Two.
  At the same time as Amstrad were designing the PCW, they came up with a replacement for the (still youthful) CPC. It shared many features with the PCW, such as its larger memory and its exceptionally elegant screen-handling hardware, but boasted colour, sound and CPC compatibility in addition. The aim was to see off the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga, next-generation games machines already on the horizon.
  A few of the PCW's design features which don't appear to make any sense on their own stem from this shared ancestry. But the project was dropped at a fairly early stage, and the CPC Classic lived on before eventually succumbing to the Plus.
  The period around the CPC's launch wasn't an auspicious time for 8-bit computer manufacturers. Sinclair's next-generation QL ('Quantum Leap') bombed, partly due to non-existent quality control, buggy firmware, and the daft decision to use high-speed tape Microdrives rather than discs.
  They then started work on a direct successor to the Spectrum, codenamed Loki (after the crafty Norse god); and a less ambitious SuperSpectrum project was proposed. Neither of them saw the light of day.
  The Amiga proved a profitable buy-in for Commodore after their replacements for the C64 and entry-level Vic-20, the Plus/4 and C16 respectively, also flopped. Perhaps it was just as well Amstrad stuck with what they knew.
  Or perhaps not. The first results of Amstrad buying Sinclair were the Spectrum Plus 2 and Plus 3. The former was a bit like a 464, with a good keyboard to replace Sinclair's heroic failure and a built-in tape recorder; the latter was like a 6128, with a built-in 3in disc drive. But then they launched an entry-level PC, the Sinclair PC200, to compete head-on with the ST and Amiga. As with other PCs of the time, it had 4 colours and beepy sound. Oddly enough; it tanked. Richard

01 - Thanx & Stuff 02 - Fair Comment 03 - A to Z of the CPC 04 - From the Archives
05 - Twenty Questions 06 - Keyboard Scanning 07 - Meet the Relatives 08 - Programmers' Patch
09 - Genesis 10 - Famous Last Words

WACCI 138 Index - Home Page www.wacci.org.uk