From the archives: Cambridge Computer Z88 review

It’s a mystery as to why I was commissioned to write a review of the Cambridge Computer Z88 around a year after it was released. The Z88 came out in 1987 and I wrote this piece for Practical Computing in 1988.

The Z88 was typical of the products of Clive Sinclair. It provided a tantalising glimpse of what technology might achieve – in this case a truly portable computer. And then it dashed our hopes by being fatally compromised. The compromises were always a result of Sinclair overreaching – attempting to achieve something that the technology of the time just couldn’t deliver.

In the review I mention the poor reputation the Z88 had for reliability. I suggest that this isn’t altogether fair. But then, about a month after this piece was published, my own Z88 died, never to recover.

By an odd coincidence, just as I was converting the file containing this review I was reacquainted with the Z88’s most important application, Pipedream.

Pipedream was always an oddball bit of software. Billed as being multi-function, it was essentially a spreadsheet that also got pressed into service as a word processor and sort-of database. Or to put it another way, it was a spreadsheet.

The program was written by Mark Colton who also wrote View for the BBC Micro and who died young in a motor-racing accident. He also created a version of Pipedream for the BBC Micro known as View Professional, and the program would live on after him. If you have a Raspberry Pi to hand, you can enjoy it for yourself. It’s part of the standard distribution of RiscOS – the operating system created originally for the Acorn Archimedes ARM-based series of computers.

Pipedream running under RiscOS on a Raspberry Pi. Click on the image to see it larger.

There’s still a lot of enthusiasm for the Z88. I just wish mine had worked a little longer.

 


THE Z88 REVISITED

The Z88 has taken more than a few 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 or forgotten. Yet this thin, black laptop micro can now be found lurking in the briefcases and desk drawers of people who – as conventional wisdom would have it – ‘ought to know better’.

Those cynics who smirked at the launch are having the smiles wiped from their faces. The Z88 is finding favour with a wide range of users, from corporate managers to hard-bitten computer hacks.

Although for some it was love at first sight, when Sir Clive first started talking about a laptop micro, few people took much notice. The thought of a battery-powered Spectrum hooked to a pocket TV was too savage a vision for anyone to feel totally comfortable.

Anyone responsible for the C5 electric trike and the QL computer is likely to suffer a few credibil- ity problems. Even when Sinclair gets it right – and the ZX series has been a phenomenal success – it’s because he has sold an innovative product into budget-price, enthusiast market.

The corporate world is rather different. Some business users want power, others want flexibility, but most want what the other person has got. 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 wonder- ing what we did to deserve MS-DOS?

So up pops Sir Clive with his long-promised laptop micro, the first product of his new company, Cam- bridge Computer. And once again it’s out on its own, incompatible with everything, flying in the face of much conventional wisdom. Yet, strangely, he seems to have got it right this time.

You really have to handle a Z88 to appreciate just how small and light it is. I was once treated to the spectacle of a well-known computer journalist counting the micros on his desk; later the total had to be revised when he found a Z88 lurking underneath some press releases. It’s A4 in area and around an inch thick, which makes it about the size of one of those student notepads. 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. Given Sinclair’s track record, it’s not surprising he went for a rubber- topped membrane keyboard, and it may even have been for reasons other than economy. Claims have been made – not least by Sir Clive himself – that it has the inestimable advantage of being virtually silent.

However, the lack of response means that it is often difficult to tell if you have correctly hit a key – especially the space bar – and that will lead most users to turn on the key click, which is software selectable. It’s not loud, true, but like those tiny hand-held computer games, it has the ability to annoy fellow travellers on buses, trains and aeroplanes. The only other oddity is that the keys which, on any normal machine, would have been called ‘Alt’ and ‘Ctrl’ are represented by square and diamond symbols. This must be a real boon to someone.

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 extra goodies. 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, which we’ll meet again in a minute.

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 and profit margins, but it would have helped a lot. Failing that, I would almost rather have a 40-column display with larger characters.

Assuming you can live with the keyboard and the display, you have to get used to the software. This machine doesn’t run MS-DOS, and in any case there’s no disk 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. Being portable and small it naturally has a diary and calendar, complete with alarm. They work. Enough said.

The main application, however, is Pipedream. I first used Pipedream on the BBC Micro, when it was disguised as View Professional. At first I was enthusiastic (when you are a BBC Micro user, you tend to be easily impressed). Since then I’ve grown to dislike it.

Pipedream is a combined word processor and spread- sheet. Indeed, it’s 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.

I can live with having to use Ctrl-N to insert a new line above existing text (although I’d rather just hit Enter), but having to type Ctrl-E-S-L to split lines seems a bit over the top. To balance that, the spreadsheet approach does give the software some unusual features, such as a strange but useful multi-column facility and, of course, the ability to mix text and calculations – ideal for invoices and reports.

There are even some database capabilities, with sorting and searching available on columns and rows. I’m sure there is a use for those features, and one day hope to find it.

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

Brochures for the Z88 hint at possible graphics applications, using illustrations of drawing implements to suggest … What? … Computer aided design? Desktop publishing? I have a hard time believing that.

This machine’s strength lies in its abilities 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, on site … whatever. Then, when you’re back in the .pacosy environs of your office, the data can be downloaded to your PC for refinement or consolidation with other files.

Cambridge Computer is well aware of all that, which is why it 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 which it therefore shares with the Acorn micro. That gives Cambridge Computer at least 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 (below the normal character set) were vandalised.

Transferring files between the machines is dead 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 .paconvert Pipedream files into or from WordStar and Lotus 1-2-3 formats. Alternatively, Pipedream is now available on the PC.

There was a time when the Z88 looked as though it would acquire a reputation for unreliability rivalled only by the Amstrad PC1512. And like the Amstrad scare, it would have been unfair, being based largely on gossip, paranoia and a few over- documented cases. True, I do know of one erstwhile magazine editor who managed to get through three of the machines before giving up. But he was an unusual case, who only had to walk past a micro for it to start smoking and outputting incoherently. Still, it was enough to make me think that I would- n’t entrust my crucial data to this computer.

I did have the machine hang up once – while changing cartridges, necessitating a press of the reset button. But having since spoken to several long- term users, it seems that the problems are largely in the mind. The machine is trustworthy, they tell me, providing you keep an eye on the battery life and back-up your files regularly – preferably by downloading them to a PC.

Is this machine really good enough for writing my Great Unfinished Novel? Well, maybe. But I’d want to be sure that it isn’t likely to lose all its data with a battery failure. The manufacturer claims a useful life of 20 hours operation for each set of four AA alkaline cells. That works out to about 12p an hour … it’s up to you how reasonable you think that is. But it does mean you’ll need some way of safely storing data.

Typically, Sinclair dispensed with the existing methods – integral 3.5inch disk drives and micro- cassette tapes, and went instead for Eproms. Rather than save a file to memory – the default method – it can be written to a chip, where it remains safely ensconced until the chip is placed into an Eprom eraser (available separately). It does mean that the medium fills up quickly, especially if you frequently update a file. But you’re 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 will cost you £49.95. A 512K RAM pack is already available at £199.95, while a similar size Eprom cartridge, and 1Mb 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 hasn’t the room internally for that kind of thing, but the modem supplied with the review 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 coping with 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 .pamodem, although it’s 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! I expected the viewdata screen to be split into three – which is indeed what happens. What I didn’t expect was that 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.

I found I was the using 300 baud speed more – not just for greater reliability, but because the damn text didn’t scroll by so fast. And if this speed is fine for you, and the Z88 isn’t your principle comms machine, then why not get an acoustic coupler which you can use in phone boxes… indeed, with any phone that has a sensible handset. Just a thought.

The next product from Wordmongers will be a data- base called zBase which, it is claimed, will ‘look familiar to users of dBase II’. It’s currently out at 40 beta test sites, and is planned for an August/September launch, at a price of £69.

Both interactive and command file modes are avail- able, 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 comfortable niche in the business market. Sales teams, peripatetic managers, warehouse supervisors… all sorts of people could find the portability of the machine extremely useful.

[ENDS]

 

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