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Z88: Forerunner of modern notebook PCs

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Z88: Forerunner of modern notebook PCs 

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1988, The Syracuse Newspapers

I lost the new computer I was supposed to be reviewing the other day.

I searched the house for two days. I finally found it in a pile of mail that I had brought home from the office.

It was in a manila envelope. I had tucked it into a plain brown wrapper because it had started to rain, and then I had forgotten all about it.

That's the risk you take if you have a Cambridge Z88 computer. It's so small that you might have a hard time keeping track of it. In many other respects, the little Z88 has to rank as one of the most desirable small computers around.

The Z88, which lists for $549 but is likely to be discounted to around $499, comes from Great Britain and not, as you might have expected, Japan. It was designed by Sir Clive Sinclair, the man who introduced the world's first under-$100 home computer (the Sinclair ZX80) a decade ago.

The Z88 holds the honor of being the world's smallest laptop computer. It's the same size as a standard magazine, and not much fatter: 8 ½ by 11 inches and only an inch thick. And yet it is, in many ways, as powerful as a desktop computer.

I first noticed the Z88 at last June's Consumer Electronics Show, where representatives of Cambridge Computer Ltd. passed them out to anyone passing by their display. I knew right away I wouldn't like the Z88, and I found out just as fast that I was wrong.

What turned me off when I sat down with the Z88 at the electronics show was its incredibly dumb rubber keyboard. The keys don't move at all. You tap them or rap them and letters appear on the screen; you don't press the keys at all.

And what turned me back on in a few split nanoseconds was the realization that I was able to type faster and with fewer mistakes on the Z88's rubber-ducky keys than on the keyboards of any of the computers I use every day. Obviously, the tiny black laptop was no mere toy, so I asked the folks from Cambridge to lend me one for extensive use for a few months.

My judgment after a few hundred hours of use: It's great, I want one of my own, and I wouldn't dare use the Z88 as my only computer.

Why the caution? Because the Z88 is like a boxer in a cage, both powerful and penned in at the same time. It has a marvelous built-in software program that combines an excellent word processor with a decent spreadsheet, a diary, a calculator, multiple alarms, a calendar that goes a century or more in either direction—and no disc drive.

It has all these features and more, and yet its only way of storing anything is through electronic storage inside the computer or in plug-in memory modules.

Cambridge sells two kinds of data storage modules. The first are simple RAM (random access memory) cartridges. They're for temporary storage only; take them out of the computer and they lose everything they've ever learned.

The second type of memory module is semi-permanent. It takes the form of EPROM (eraseable, programmable read-only memory) cartridges. Once you tell the computer to store something in an EPROM, you can take the memory module out of the computer and stick it in a drawer. The EPROM keeps its memory until you erase it with a special device, which Cambridge also sells.

But if you do a lot of writing or other computing, saving your data that way could make you destitute in six months. The two available EPROM modules cost $45 for the 32-kilobyte cartridge or $110 for the 128-kilobyte version. By comparison, a floppy disc holding 360 kilobytes costs about 36 cents.

Listen, America: EPROM storage costs 1,000 times more than floppy disc storage. You'd have to be crazy to use EPROMs on a regular basis.

But Clive Sinclair knows that, too, and for an extra $75 Cambridge will throw in a cable and software program that hooks the Z88 up to any IBM compatible PC. You run the PC program and it automatically dumps the Z88's data into its own floppy discs.

The data you're dumping could be quite extensive. Unlike the workaday standard small laptops, the Radio Shack 100 and 200 series, which hold a few dozen kilobytes, the Z88 has the potential of 3 megabytes of internal storage. Extra-capacity RAM cartridges that Cambridge will be selling in the next year or so will capture 1 megabyte—equal to 1 million characters of text—in each of the Z88's three memory slots.

The Z88's screen is much smaller than the screens on other laptops, but it is sharp and clear. It is a non-lighted display 80 characters wide by eight lines deep. During regular word processing, at least one of the eight lines is used as a status line, but in the Z88's diary mode, the eighth line is clear for extra text.

But the screen is much wider than 80 columns. The area to the right of the text is used to display a miniature page map—an actual what-you-see-is-what-you-get depiction of the page that will be printed out, while you are typing it.

Words are shown as dark lines on the tiny auxiliary display, not as actual words (they would be too small to read anyway), but that's no drawback. The main use of the page map is to show you how paragraphs and tables fit on the page.

Tables? Yes, the Z88's main software program, called Pipedream, can be switched instantly from regular word processing to spreadsheet operation. A spreadsheet can be run inside a text document.

The word processor is file-compatible with Wordstar, and the spreadsheet is compatible with Lotus 1-2-3 data.

The Z88 is supposed to run about 20 hours on its four alkaline AA cells, but I never got close to that. The low-power warning light usually came on after two or three hours of use. (I had extra RAM installed, and that may have eaten up some of the power.)

In one test, I was able to keep typing for about 45 minutes until the screen went blank and the computer shut itself off. Nothing was lost; a protective circuit keeps all the memory circuits alive even while you are changing the batteries.

A minor drawback is the absence of an internal modem. Cambridge sells a cigarette-pack size external modem for $225. This is far too much for a 300/1200-baud modem, but there's no other way to get the special EPROM modem software needed for the Z88; the modem and software aren't sold separately.

With that small caution, I recommend the Z88 highly.

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