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Leading Edge saga: A foreigner to PCs takes on an IBM clone

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

A foreigner to PCs takes on an IBM clone 

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1988, The Syracuse Newspapers

When I was growing up, my father always drove Buicks. He wouldn't even consider another kind of car. Then one day my mother went out and bought herself a car. It was a Ford.

A Ford? The rest of us were shocked. How could someone with good taste drive anything but a Buick?

We shamed her and badgered her. But she would not relent, and before the afternoon was out her chartreuse four-door Ford took its place at the side of the driveway, as far away from my father's Buick as possible.

That was in the ‘50s. Families don't feel that way about cars anymore. The Japanese have seen to that.

But another object of blind adoration has replaced the American automobile. It's the American computer. Rival affections have created armed camps devoted to one type or another.

There is an IBM camp, a Macintosh camp and an "other" camp. The first category is actually the IBM-compatibles-clones camp, and can be called the MS-DOS camp because of the Microsoft disc operating system used by all these computers. The second group is easy to categorize: It includes only the older Macintosh and the new whiz-kid Mac II, both made by Apple.

The third camp takes in all the computers that don't fit into the other two neat divisions. It's my camp.

I don't own an MS-DOS computer or a Macintosh, although I know how to use them.

The main reason I haven't bought MS-DOS models is their poor design. Although they are powerful, they are unreasonably difficult to use. In addition, MS-DOS itself is an unfinished operating system.

And although I would like to own a Macintosh, I can't justify the price against the computer's performance. Apple hasn't a chance of cajoling $2,300 from my Visa account for its cheapest Macintosh—the one with a toy screen—and the company isn't likely to persuade me to trade in my luxocar just to afford a normal-screen Mac II.

So, except for occasional run-ins with IBM types and Macs at the office, I spend most of my personal computing time at the keyboard of an "other." It has a brand name, of course, but that's not important here. What matters is that I find my "other" computer vastly easier to use than an MS-DOS model and almost as well designed as a Macintosh. It's also about one-third the price of a Mac.

I use my "other" computer three or four hours a day, for word processing, telecommunications and what could loosely be called entertainment. Horses could not pull me away from the "other" to use an MS-DOS computer on my own time.

This is a narrow view, of course, just like my father's belief in Buicks 35 years ago. MS-DOS computers are everywhere, and they do most of the work in the PC world. Whether I like them or not, they deserve to be acknowledged.

I took a step toward that goal by borrowing an MS-DOS computer for a few months to do the sort of things I normally do on my own computer. Leading Edge supplied its top model, a D2. It was equipped with a 30-megabyte internal hard-disc drive and a 1.2-megabyte 5 ¼ -inch floppy drive, and came with a Leading Edge amber monitor.

I used the D2 for word processing, BASIC programming and simple spread sheet work, and I tried out a few games. I also tried to get the D2 to connect with three different modems so I could use it for telecommunications (calling other computers and computer networks on the phone lines), but I couldn't get the D2 to recognize that a modem was hooked up. The problem may have been a bad cable.

In word processing, the D2 was a pleasure to use. Its keyboard had a delightful touch—firm and slightly "clicky"—and the monitor's picture was noticeably sharper than most other screens I have seen.

I tried the Leading Edge Word Processor, which comes free with the computer, and a few other word-processing programs. The LEWP (that's the company's acronym, not mine; I never did figure out how to pronounce it) turned out to be powerful and easy to use.

The computer's built-in hard drive worked flawlessly. A loud fan kept everything cool except my nerves; if I owned the D2 I would have the dealer replace the fan with a quieter version.

As soon as I tried to play a series of games on the D2, I discovered a fact of life of the MS-DOS world: Some programs made for these compatible computers don't work at all if you don't have the right monitor. I had a monochrome (single-color) monitor, and most of the games wanted me to have a color monitor.

So when another company offered to lend me a color monitor, I eagerly awaited the Federal Express shipment. It came the next day. I plugged it in and . . . well, I wasn't able to plug it in. The plug didn't match the connector on the D2. And when I checked out the circuitry, it was clear that even if I could get the plugs to match, I would have seen nothing but an interference pattern—and I could even have blown out the monitor.

The problem: The D2 was set up for an EGA monitor. The one that arrived was a VGA monitor.

I'm not even sure what those two terms mean ("graphic adaptor" is undoubtedly part of each term). The point is that something has to be added to an MS-DOS computer—or redesigned, or altered in some way—in order to get it to work with the best color monitors.

I can't blame Leading Edge for lacking the foresight to make the D2 work with VGA, since there was no such thing as VGA when the D2 was designed. But surely the entire issue of getting supposedly similar computers and peripherals to work with each other needs to be looked at again.

So much for compatibility.

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