From the archives: Olivetti Quaderno review

Portable computers were still relatively exotic beasts when Olivetti launched the Quaderno – an XT machine in an A5 form factor. The netbook fad was still some time off. Putting a label on this machine wasn’t that easy. ‘Palmtop’ is, I think, how Olivetti chose to classify it, but it was a bit big for a palm.

But just look at those specifications – 1MB of RAM, a 20MB hard disk and voice processing! It ran on the NEC V30 HL processor at 16MHz.

I was commissioned to write this review for What PC? in 1992.

I still remember parts of the launch trip, when Olivetti took a bunch of UK IT journalists to some part of Italy whose exact location escapes me. (The parts of the trip I can’t remember … well, let’s gloss over that.) I had strict instructions from Mick, the editor of What PC?, to do everything in my power to actually get my hands on a machine and run his favourite set of benchmarks. Mick was a real fan of portable devices. I badgered the PR woman relentlessly. Just after the main presentation, as most of the journos were swilling down champagne (ah, those were the days), I was hooking up a 3.5in floppy drive to the machine, running programs and making frantic notes. Just after I was finished, our hosts announced that we would each be given one of the machines to keep. I could have done all that benchmarking at home.

Mick was insanely jealous that I actually had one of the machines. Less than a week later, so did he. I don’t know how many times he phoned that PR woman but she obviously gave in. It didn’t last long. The screen on Mick’s machine developed large dark patches that made it unusable. The screen on my machine later cracked and so I just threw the Quaderno away.

It’s a lot smaller than it looks in pictures – don’t be fooled by its vague similarity to modern-day laptops, or the fact that it has a numeric keypad. It was only 210mm wide and weighed just over one kilogram.

I liked the Quaderno. You could take it anywhere and it had just enough computing power to do useful work. But, while I was originally impressed by its build quality, it soon became apparent that Olivetti had manufactured it down to a price and that made it too fragile.

 


OLIVETTI QUADERNO

Quaderno is the Italian word for note book, the paper kind, and Olivetti couldn’t have chosen a better name for its new palmtop machine. The firm has managed to squeeze an XT plus some extras into a slim, A5 box weighing around 1kg. The result is an excellent and very portable electronic notebook and organiser capable of running standard PC software with surprisingly few compromises.

The design is remarkably conventional. It’s a clamshell notebook with a normal qwerty keyboard, 10 function keys (F1 and F2 doubling up as F11 and F12), and a numeric keypad above the keyboard. The one obvious addition is a small LCD panel just below the screen: this is visible both when the machine’s open and when it’s closed.

This is the second A5 machine to come our way. The first was the Booklet PC from Vortec, which is rather better specified – 2Mb of RAM rather than the Quaderno’s 1Mb, 40-80Mb hard disks rather than 20Mb. But at £680 plus VAT the Quaderno is around half the price of the Vortec. It is also better built, having a real quality feel (it’s designed by an Italian but built in Japan) and boasts a better keyboard. And it has one extremely novel feature you wouldn’t expect in a machine this small and this cheap – voice processing.

You know that something special is going on without opening the machine. There’s a row of six buttons on the top of the casing carrying symbols familiar to us from tape recorders and VCRs (play, stop, rewind, fast wind, record and pause). These functions are duplicated on the function keys. On the front of the machine is a microphone and on the side a volume control and mic and headphone sockets.

The machine uses the hard disk as a recording medium. You use a built-in pop-up program to record notes and dictation, for replaying through the machine’s speaker. The program lists the recorded messages with time, date and other details, and you may assign unique names to each message plus a short note on its contents. It’s possible to split one message into two at any point and to re-arrange messages. Recordings are grouped in ‘cassettes’ – in fact, these are disk files.

The small LCD panel acts as a tape counter, and it’s possible to get a readout of how much recording time is left (based on the amount of free disk space). Normally, 1Mb of disk space gets you two minutes of recording time. The Quaderno also offers two levels of file compression, however. At medium compression the same amount of disk space contains four minutes of sound, and that goes up to 10 minutes at high compression. For normal dictation the loss in quality is negligible.

You can annotate any of the other built-in software modules with voice messages. This is best handled by the Notes program where you can insert a symbol for a voice message or cassette anywhere in the text. It’s indicated by a smiley symbol: put the cursor on this, select voice from the menu and you’re dropped into the voice module with the relevant cassette loaded and – if you’ve annotated with just a single message – the appropriate message highlighted. Just hit Return to hear it. This is an excellent way of making notes and reminders that you don’t necessarily want to type up.

It all works remarkably well. The sound quality is as good as a dictation machine. And as you can use the voice facilities without opening the machine, thanks to the buttons on the lid, this facility makes the Quaderno doubly useful as a note-taking tool.

Strangely, Olivetti says it’s not going to push this as a major feature of the product. It wants to sell the Quaderno as a PC first, with the voice recording as a bonus. So how does its shape up as a PC?

Speed isn’t its strong point. The V30HL processor is run at 16MHz, making it roughly equivalent to a 286 at 10MHz. So it’s no powerhouse: on the other hand, it’s a lot better than the average organiser and you shouldn’t find yourself hampered by lack of performance if you’re running ordinary, undemanding Dos programs on it. Of course, if you want to run WordPerfect or dBase, that’s your business, though anyone trying to use the Quaderno as a Windows machine is going to need an especially perverse sense of humour.

The operating system is MS-Dos 5.0. COMMAND.COM and some drivers and utilities are kept in a battery-backed RAM disk, configured as drive D. The manual calls this a 512K ROM and says you can’t write to this drive but it’s wrong – just as well as you’re likely to want to change the AUTOEXEC.BAT and CONFIG.SYS files from time to time.

There are a couple of extensions to Dos, including the InterLnk (sic) file transfer facility that gives the Quaderno access to a remote PC (your desktop machine, for example). The drives on the remote machine are seen as local drives so that you can use standard Dos commands like COPY to transfer files. A cable for this is included.

The hard disk is a 2.5in 20Mb unit with an average access time of 23ms. Some users might find 20Mb a tight fit for their software, especially if you’re using a lot of voice recording. However, there is a slot for memory cards. This conforms to the PCMCIA/JEIDA standard and you could use it for boosting memory or you could have data or applications software on the cards. The slot is seen by the system as a normal drive, its letter depending on how you partition it and the hard drive.

The LCD display is actually rather good, given that it isn’t backlit. It is “Double CGA” with a standard PC text display of 80 columns by 25 lines and a graphics resolution of 640×400. The characters are sharply defined and very readable on the 7in screen, though you’ll start to squint when the light gets low. One of the advantages of backlit screens in that you can literally use them anywhere. With the Quaderno you’re going to need a reasonable light source. Inverse video is available via a hot key and there’s a contrast control wheel next to the display.

Decent battery life is critical to a machine like this. An A5 notebook is useful only if it’s truly portable because you want to be able to be able to whip it out and type a few notes or look up an address without having to hunt for a mains supply. After all, that’s one reason you’re prepared to revert to ancient XT technology.

Olivetti claims a battery life of eight hours for the machine. The manual is more cautious and is prepared to admit to only four hours, and perhaps even just half that if you’re using the voice facilities extensively. The review machine was used for around five hours on battery power, which included recording and playing back a couple of voice messages. That’s pretty good.

The Quaderno comes with a rechargeable NiCad battery, but if you’re stuck without your AC charger you can replace it with six AA alkalines. A car adapter, for running and recharging from a car cigarette lighter, is available as an optional extra. The NiCad battery pack is small, too, so carrying a spare doesn’t involve a great weight penalty. Like most portables, the Quaderno uses battery saving techniques like switching off the hard disk, screen and processor if the machine isn’t being used. There are four levels of increasing idleness which eventually put the machine completely to sleep but retaining the contents of memory. The main power switch doesn’t actually turn the machine off (though you can configure it to do this) but puts it into standby mode. That saves you having to boot the machine each time you need it.

The fact that the Quaderno is trying to muscle in on electronic organiser territory is illustrated best by the built-in software. There are several modules stored on ROM but loaded into RAM when you boot the machine. They grab an area of memory for themselves, which is then unavailable to Dos programs, the advantage of this being that you can always call them up, over the top of whatever else you’re doing.

One of the most useful of the modules is the word processor – Note. It’s a simple text editor with word wrap, block editing features, search and replace and so on. You can load and save files in its native format or as Ascii. If you manage to get up to a decent typing speed you may find the program lagging behind a little, but I wasn’t able to fill any buffers and no characters were ever lost.

The phone list is pretty basic (name, address, two telephone numbers, a keyword and three short lines of notes), though the search facility is good and it will auto-dial if a modem is attached. There’s a diary function with alarms, a calculator, a file utility for searching directories, moving renaming and generally fiddling with files and a card index system. All the modules are typical of average electronic organiser software – no better, no worse. And you don’t have to have them. If you opt not to load this software you’ll free up a fair bit of memory for your standard Dos programs – around 300K.

Olivetti has had a good stab at reproducing an AT keyboard in such a small space. There is very little doubling-up of keys – the only example of this being extra functions attached to the function keys – they’re used in conjunction with a custom ‘multi-function’ shift key to access the Quaderno’s organiser-like software.

Standard typing method is to peck at the keys, and you probably won’t want to write extensive reports, but it’s very usable and significantly better than most electronic organisers. The addition of a numeric keypad is a brilliant idea.

The Quaderno’s connections to the outside world claim to be standard but aren’t entirely so. You get serial and parallel ports, but they use small, non-standard sockets. If you want to connect to a modem or printer you’ll have to buy adapter cables. These really should have been included with the machine. The parallel port is also used for the optional external 3.5in disk drive, so you can’t use a printer and drive at the same time.

The Quaderno rather stylishly bridges the gap between A4 notebook PCs and electronic organisers. It has the familiarity and ability to run MS-Dos software of the former, with the lightness and facility of an organiser. It will appeal most, perhaps, to someone considering an organiser but who wants greater power and flexibility: the increase in size is a small price to pay. Whatever you needs, though, this is a cute and handy tool.

VERDICT: An intriguing machine that offers many of the best features of both notebook PCs and electronic organisers. Lots of functionality in a small box.

OLIVETTI QUADERNO £680

Features: 5

Performance: 3

Build quality: 5

Value for money: 5

 

 

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