Written by David Tebbutt, Personal Computer World 11/81 item 02 - scanned
When we heard that Adam Osborne was in town and that he had his Osborne 1 computer with him we tracked him down to a party near the embankment. Hearing that we were prepared to work all night and most of the next day on the evaluation, he kindly handed it over.
Well, after years of telling everyone else what to do and handing out White elephant Awards to those who satisfied his idea of what is excellent in the microcomputer industry. Adam Osborne has put his neck on the block and come up with an interesting hardware/software package which, with typical modesty, he calls the Osborne 1. It is a portable microcomputer comprising a keyboard, a built-in video monitor, two floppy disk drives and a whole bunch of useful software. In fact, in America, the cost of the software if purchased separately would be around $1500. The Osborne 1 including all the software sells over there for $1795, a theoretical hardware cost of just $295. Nor is the software gratuitous rubbish - it comprises CP/M, MBasic, CBasic, Wordstar, Mailmerge and Supercalc, CP/M is just about the industry standard operating system which means that a wide range of existing and new software products will be quickly made available for the Osborne 1. MBasic and CBasic must be the most widely used Basic implementations; one is interpreted, the other compiled. At the risk of over simplification, this means that MBasic is easier to use whereas CBasic programs run faster. Wordstar must be one of the best word processing packages around, although my personal preference (bias?) is for Spellbinder, and it comes with Mailmerge, which enables you to maintain and use mailing lists and merge details from the lists into standard letters and the like. Finally, Supercalc is what the Americans would call an electronic spreadsheet. It allows you to enter numbers, formulae or descriptions on a large matrix of rows and columns. Any cell on the grid displays a fresh result every time that one of its component values is changed. It is similar to Visicalc but, according to people who've used both, it's also better.
So there you have it; at £1200 the Osborne 1 appears to be the answer to every would-be computerist's prayer. It does have one major drawback though - the screen is very small - 5in - and that's its diagonal measurement. To overcome this, those who really need one can buy a separate 12in monitor. In America this costs $250. Of course the machine is then less convenient to carry around. Perhaps the answer is to have the large screen situated wherever you use the machine most.
Adam Osborne neither makes nor sells the Osborne 1. He assembles it and tests it from supplied components and he puts most of the selling emphasis on the software available. In other words he's selling solutions to problems and he couples this with the sinister suggestion that you won't be able to compete in your profession without an Osborne 1. Of course such comments apply to all computers, but to read the sales literature you'd think that the Osborne was the only route to salvation. He even claims that the Osborne 1 marks the advent of the Personal Business Computer. If that's the case I wonder how he would describe machines like the SuperBrain and Apple.
If you think you'd like one, a number of UK dealers will be getting demonstration machines in October but orders will take from three to six months to fulfil. This is expected to come down to a month or less by next summer. Adam is only authorising dealers who can demonstrate a willingness and ability to support their customers. This means that you're unlikely to find these machines in discount stores or with flaky dealers.
The Osborne 1, comes in a cream vacuum-formed plastic case with a carrying handle at the back and a keyboard clipped on the front. A groove runs along each side of the case rather like that along the side of some Rover cars. Unlike the cars, this groove makes the Osborne easy to pick up. It's a bit of an odd shape when the keyboard is clamped in place. In fact when you stand it on end the whole thing tilts alarmingly due to the fact that the keyboard unit is designed to slope down towards the user. Although the present case is vacuum-formed, there are plans afoot for a new design, using injection-moulded plastic foam. I'll be mentioning that later in the review.
When the machine is opened, you find a black bezel (front) and grey keyboard set in a black keyplate. The machine weighs in at 26.5lbs according to my bathroom scales, but Adam tells me it should weigh 24. If he's right then my scales are wrong and I'm actually my ideal weight. (Hysterical laughter - Ed). With the keyboard clipped in place the effect is not unlike my wife's sewing machine except of course the 0-1 is much lighter.
A disk drive is located on either side of the small 5in monitor and beneath each drive is a pocket capable of holding up to 15 disks. I had a nasty moment when I thought I'd lost all the disks. I searched high and low for them and after 10 minutes of sheer panic I glanced at the machine and there they were, nicely tucked up in one of the pockets!
Along the bezel and below the monitor and disk pockets are a numbers of sockets and controls. Working from right to left this is what you'll find: battery socket, reset button, external video socket, contrast and brightness controls, keyboard socket, IEEE-488/Centronic parallel socket and a modem socket. I quite like the idea of being able to see what you've got plugged into the machine without having to grovel round the back. Quite how it looks when all the various leads are in place I can't imagine. The keyboard lead is a flat cable enclosed in a plastic braid. I presume this is to prevent the wires getting pinched when the keyboard is clamped on the front. I didn't have anything connected anywhere else. The brightness and contrast controls I found essential for getting the display just right; unless it is right it can be very tiring to use. The reset button wipes out the memory and returns you to a monitor command telling you to insert a disk and type RETURN. This then drops you into a master menu or CP/M, depending which disk you've loaded.
The review machine had almost silent Siemen's disk drives. They worked perfectly and I could only really hear them when the house went quiet in the early hours. Around three o'clock in the morning I thought I heard a budgie hopping around - it was the disk drives. I decided that I'd had enough and grabbed a couple of hours sleep. MPI drives are installed on some Osbornes and these are just as reliable - the doors are slightly more robust but according to Osborne they sound like a 'sack of marbles'!
The screen is interesting because it allows two display intensities plus optional underlining. If you're technical you might be wondering how Adam manages this with just eight bits per character. The answer is he doesn't - he uses nine for the characters to be displayed. Bits 0-6 are used for the ASCII code, bit 7 for underline and bit 8 for intensity. The matrix is an unusual 8x10 which gives true descenders, 32 graphics characters plus the underlining mentioned just now. Another fascinating feature of the display is the lateral and vertical scrolling. The vertical didn't work on the review machine incidentally, so I don't know whether it would be smooth or not. One thing's certain, the lateral scrolling was perfectly smooth. The screen can display 24 lines of 52 characters at a time. The screen memory can hold 32 lines of 128 characters so, using the 'window' to any part of the screen memory. If, for example, you had completely filled the screen memory and you decided to scroll sideways, the effect would be rather like watching a cylinder revolving, because the whole screen scrolls not just the current line.
The major disadvantage of the screen is that it's too darned small. Adam tells me that he uses it for hours on end without any trouble. I knew then just how Mandy Rice-Davies came to utter those immortal words when the judge told her that Lord Astor had denied any 'goings-on' between them: 'Well, he would, wouldn't he?' said Mandy. I digress. I did ask Adam if he'd considered putting a fresnel lens in front of the screen. He had, and the result was so much distortion, that he felt it better to forget it. Here's a money-spinning opportunity for someone - invent a device that fits into one of the diskette pockets when not in use and which magnifies the screen without unacceptable distortion. Of course, if you'd like to make me rich too for tipping you off then that's just fine by me!
The keyboard is nicely laid out, with both typewriter and calculator-style keypads. A few things are on the Osborne that you perhaps wouldn't expect on a budget machine- a caps lock, a '#' sign on British versions and a pimple on the 5 on the numeric keypad so you know where you are without looking. The keys automatically repeat after being held down for a second or so. My only criticism of the layout is that you need two hands to scroll the screen - one hand to hold the control key and the other to operate the 'arrow' key. I mentioned this to Adam and he told me that he was faced with the choice of giving the user single-handed cursor movement when creating text or single-handed operation when scrolling (reading) text. At least Adam's way means you can keep your place on an input document with one hand while operating the cursor controls with the other. I wish I'd thought of asking him why the control key wasn't placed next to the arrow keys. Another way of scrolling the screen is to use the control key in conjunction with the 1,2 or 3 keys, CTRL-1 displays columns 1 to 52, CTRL-2 columns 53 to 104 and CTRL-3 columns 105 back round to 28.
Moving round the back, there's a little recess which contains the on/off switch and circuit breaker reset button. This is where you stow the cable and plug when carting the machine around. A plastic cover is 'velcroed' over the recess to hold everything in place. The review machine didn't have appropriate slots for the UK type of plug so I had to disconnect it to make the photos look okay. Adam tells me that this won't be a problem on the UK versions of the O-1. Also at the back is the quaintest carrying handle you ever did see. It's like those leather handles you get on the old-fashioned cardboard suitcases. Adam is a firm believer that if something does a job adequately then that's just fine. To risk boring you with another quote, he says 'Better is the enemy of good, adequacy is sufficient and everything else is irrelevant'. This maybe explains the 5in screen too and it certainly explains his approach to software authorisation, which you'll be reading about later on.
To get inside the machine it is necessary to remove the bezel, which is attached by four screws, and the brightness and contrast knobs. The screws were easy but the knobs needed a very small Allen key. Once inside, you can only see the first inch or two of the various components since they all disappear into the depths of the case. I felt as if I was peering into a rather full bucket. What I could see looked clean and well made. The only noticeable thing out of place was a jumper wire from one part of the single board computer to another. Adams tells me that there were design faults on some of the earlier boards and that this must have been one of them. The front edge of the board contained all the ports and controls mentioned earlier. Ah, yes that reminds me, the serial port connection should have protruded from the bezel. As it was on the review machine it would have been difficult to attach a printer connector, for example. Once again Adam says that is being attended to. A closer examination would have involved a lot of time literally pulling the machine apart and, really, it just wasn't worth it. I had a peek inside the keyboard unit and it, too, was well made, comprising a metal keyplate in a vacuum-formed plastic shelf. The keyboard itself was quite firm and I noticed that a couple of metal channels ran from end to end underneath. I presume that these were attached for rigidity.
Everything connected with the Osborne 1 has got 'Osborne' plastered all over it, even the disk sleeves. I'm not sure whether this is simply sound publicity or an ego trip by Adam. I must say I find the private man far more pleasant than the public version.
Each disk can hold up to 102,400 bytes of information. That's the equivalent of about three times the length of this Benchtest. The disks are soft sectored with 40 tracks, each comprising 10 sectors. A sector on this machine is 256 bytes. I suspect there must be some sort of software fudge to make CP/M think that the tracks are 20 sectors of 128 bytes. Adam tells me that double-density drives will be available soon, which must be good news for those with high volumes of data to process. Although Adam gets his disks from several sources, he tells me that Dysan is the major supplier. Since I use them exclusively, I was pleased to hear this, I have heard that the oxide coating is less stable on some other disks, the 'no-name' ones being the worst offenders.
Adam Osborne has collected together a very good range of software which he supplies with the machine at no extra cost. This is sometimes referred to in the trade as 'bundled' software. Adam knew what the most popular applications were and he that it would be wise to stick to industry standard system software so he went ahead and wrapped up an entire package which would satisfy most people's immediate requirements and still give them the opportunity to buy other programs as their needs developed. In my view a decent database package would have rounded everything off just nicely but Adam is sticking to a few 'authorised' databases for which the customers pays extra.
Let's comment on each piece of software in turn. If you're an old hand at this game, you'll be able to skip the next four paragraphs without losing too much information.
First of all, CP/M: the name is on everyone's lips, but how many people actually know what it is? The initials stand for Control Program for Microprocessors and it was designed to facilitate the writing of programs for Z80, 8080 and 8085 processors. Although the processors in different microcomputers are the same, the bits and pieces that surround them are very different. Keyboards use different keys, printers vary, disks come in an alarming number of shapes and sizes and I/O ports have different addresses. CP/M comes between devices and it handles transfers of information between them and the memory. Since CP/M takes care of the information transfer beyond the program and the memory, all the program has to do is to pass the information to CP/M together with some instruction on what it wants done with it. The program then just sits back and waits for CP/M to tell it that the job's been done. This all means that a program written for use with CP/M rather than for a specific machine will be widely used, provided it's worth using in the first place. All that has to be done to ensure that this will happen is that the machine supplier usually 'configures' CP/M to suit the peculiarities of your piece of equipment. By providing CP/M with the Osborne, a whole world of software opens up immediately.
You also get a few other things with CP/M. You get a whole pile of disk utilities which enable you to format, examine, copy, and generally mess around with information on your disks. The most common uses are to initialise new disks - this means writing the tracks and sectors on them and encoding a certain amount of control information for use by CP/M - and to make back-up copies of files so that you can recover from spilling beer on your master disk, for example. Another useful facility allows you to find out how much space is left on a disk. CP/M is often called an operating system and there are lots of manufacturers around who claim that their operating system is better than CP/M. Better they may be, but the fact is that on 8-bit machines, CP/M is the de facto standard and you'd be wise to check the availability of the packages you need before going for a different operating system.
And I've not finished yet. CP/M also includes a couple of programs of great interest to keen programmers, or programmers who want to make their programs run faster. The programs provided are an editor (ED), an assembler (ASM) and a debugging tool (DDT). The editor is an absolute dog and should only be used if you have to create programs in assembler language prior to assembling them into machine code using the assembler. ASM checks your program as it tries to translate it into machine code and if it finds anything wrong it tells you so. It can't detect errors in your program design, only in your coding. Finally, if your program doesn't work as planned then you can use the Dynamic Debugging Tool to examine the contents of various parts of memory and the registers as you step through the program. The assembler and DDT are absolutely fine, but most word processing packages will allow you to edit program files a darned sight more easily than using ED.
Sticking with system software for the moment, you get CBasic and MBasic with the O-1. There are pretty much the same language except that you can execute one as soon as you've finished typing the program and, if it doesn't work, quickly amend it and have another go. The current buzz-phrase for this approach is 'quick and dirty'. If you write a Basic program using the other version then you have to compile the program using a Basic compiler. This takes longer and you can't really change the code generated by the compiler. You have to go back to your Basic code, change that and then recompile the program. The compilation process is similar to, but not the same as, the assembly process mentioned earlier. Why, you might ask, should you go to all that trouble? The answer is that the resulting program will run faster than an interpreted version and you can also embed identifying information which could trap a copyist because (s)he is most unlikely to find it. I ran the Benchmark programs on MBasic (interpreted) and they were faster than most machines we've tested. CBasic of course would have been faster still. Don't get too excited by these findings unless you are heavily into number crunching. The fact is that, in normal processing, the speed of the machine is completely nullified by the enormous time it takes for the operator to respond to the machine's promptings.
There is another tiny system program tucked in the disk which allows you to enter certain constants from time to time. The first is the speed at which you set the serial port - 300 or 1200 baud. The second allows you to change the screen size - 52, 128 or user-defined. The third allows you to enter the date and time. The time is accurate to within a few minutes per day.
That's taken care of the system programs provided, now lets look at the application programs. First of all, Wordstar and Mailmerge. Wordstar is one of the best word processing packages on the market. On the Osborne it is a little strange to use, mainly because of the small screen - see my earlier comments. Adam has wisely had the package modified so that it automatically scrolls sideways as you type text in. He has yet to do that with the Basic packages but he promises me that he will. If you're unfamiliar with word processing there's not a lot I can say here except that it will either increase your throughput of typed material or it will improve the quality of what you write, simply because it is so easy to 'craft' your words until you get them right. If you really want to get into word processing, I suggest you read the April 1981 PCW where we ran an introductory article on the subject.
Associated with most of the good word processors is a mailing list facility which enables you to create and maintain a mailing list. Wordstar is no exception to this and it allows you to incorporate names and addresses in documents and letters so that they look as if they were prepared especially for the person receiving them. Lists can be sorted and names and addresses extracted according to your own chosen criteria. This is all done using the Mailmerge facilities.
Finally we come to Supercalc. You've probably heard of Visicalc, which is one of the biggest-selling microcomputer packages. Well, Adam couldn't get hold of Visicalc for the Osborne 1 so he decided to plump for Supercalc instead. the program makes good use of the O-1's 'shadow' mode, in which the screen characters can be displayed at half intensity. the spreadsheet grid is displayed in shadow while the entries are all in full intensity. It looks very good. Anyone who messes around with 'what-if' calculations will find this product an absolute boon. Also, are you one of those people who makes lots of calculations and at the end realise that somewhere, way back, you'd got something wrong which messed up every figure derived since? Using Supercalc, you don't have to worry, you just change the offending number and all the others come right instantly. An interesting bonus is that the data file generated by Supercalc can be edited using Wordstar. I'm sure that's useful but I'm not too sure how useful.
Now on to the ones you pay money for, I mentioned earlier that a database would be my next choice of product. Well, Adam thinks it important too and he recommends three: DBMS, Condor and Datastar. Condor and Datastar are on his approved software list which means that Osborne will be packaging and selling them. DBMS you will have to get direct from your supplier.
Talking of Osborne-approved products, the company will be maintaining three lists: one for the USA, one for the UK and an international one. If you're a software writer and you think you'd like to get your product on to the Osborne 1 then Adam would like to receive your documentation first; then, if he approves, you send him four disks with the program on. It will be carefully examined and any comments made. You will then have to bring it up to the required standard and Osborne will then take over the entire production and marketing effort for the Osborne 1 version. You just sit back and wait for the royalty cheques to drop through the letterbox. Adam tells me that the royalties start high and reduce as sales increase. His justification for this approach is that the higher the sales the more it is due to the efforts of the Osborne Corporation. In general, Adam is not too interested in 'better' versions of what he's already selling because, apart from anything else, it dissipated the marketing effort and, if the first one was adequate for the job, is it really worth the extra hassle? I'm not sure how he equates that attitude with the fact that he'll be handling two data-base packages, unless they're very different.
I used almost all of the programs supplied and most of them worked just fine for the limited time I could try them. I did run into trouble once or twice when I keyed something in; it was echoed on the screen but then the most odd things occurred. The only example that I reproduced was that I'd get into MBasic, type AUTO in order to get automatic line numbering and it would give me SYNTAX ERROR. I'd try for the third time and it would do what it should have done all along and type 10 on the screen. The problem may be in the MBasic implementation or, more likely, I'd got myself a hardware fault. Adam did say that there were a few problems with the review machine's keyboard. Another problem I had, and this time I think it was the MBasic, was that I couldn't read programs which I'd previously saved using the 'A' suffix. It behaved as if I'd saved a null file. Even CP/M's TYPE command couldn't throw any light on this one. Adam thought I must have had a duff version of the software.
Since Adam Osborne started to make his way in the world with books, you should expect a high standard of documentation. And indeed the manuals are very well presented. Unfortunately the almost obligatory glitches had appeared in the books he supplied me. I don't think I encountered a really serious error - they were things like leaving out the key symbols when describing the various key functions or saying that k=1024 when claiming that the disks were 102k - they're not, they're 100k. When I pointed this out, Adam told me that 'all the manuals are undergoing scrutiny and finalisation right now'. All the books will be in a large paperback format with a glossy cover and very neat, readable typesetting inside. True to from, Adam couldn't resist the occasional homily which I found very refreshing. On the first page of his Users Reference Guide he talked about the incompatibility of the various machines on the market. He then goes on in brackets - well he printed the first bracket anyway - 'This is a deliberate marketing strategy on the part of the manufacturers. It is designed to prevent you shopping around for programs, accessories or additional computers once you've made an initial commitment to one of these products'. Later on he mentions the CP/M editor that I dislike so much - 'This editor is primitive and should not be used. Wordstar is capable of performing the same task and is easier to use. If you really must use the editor, consult one of the books now available on CP/M'. Dead right squire.
Adam has tried to pitch the documentation at the first-time user. In one place he gave the very sensible advice. 'Do not try to get the plastic disk out of the cardboard envelope or you will destroy the disk'. Don't laugh, I've heard of people doing it. Here's another one : 'The door on the drive is closed and opened in the same way as you would open and close an overhead garage door'. Isn't that nice? He's actually remembered his most likely audience, the person who's never used a machine before.
Every package is fully documented, sometimes in the User Reference Guide, other wise in its own separate manual. The only thing that was missing that interested me was a full technical specification of the Osborne 1. You don't need it to use the machine but it would be of interest to the curious, or to Benchtesters like me. The CP/M overview section of the User Reference book is clearer than most books on the subject although it doesn't try to go too deep with some of the more obscure facilities. I picked up a tip that I suppose I should have realised but didn't - you shouldn't use SAVE more than once since memory contents can be changed as a result of SAVEing.
The MBasic manual has simply been reset because Adam is obliged to retain the original wording until the end of this year. He'll then look at it and change it where necessary. This manual is not at all bad, though, so it shouldn't be a problem. In general, all the documentation will be brought up to the company's house style before publication.
Incidentally, I should give you the address of Osborne Computers: Osborne Computer Corporation, 26500 Corporate Avenue, Hayward, California 94545, telephone (415) 887 8080.
Who'd use it? My guess is anyone who is taking computing seriously and who either doesn't mind a small screen or who is prepared to forgo a little portability in favour of a separate monitor. The price is good, the facilities offered are more than adequate and, because he's plumped for CP/M, plenty of packages will be quickly available. The sort of dealers that Adam is encouraging are the sort who traditionally sell to the professionals and these are exactly the sort of people that the machine is aimed at. In fact, Adam defines the users as 'professional people using it in the course of their daily work'. It certainly isn't a fun and games machine, although I'm sure a lot of games will sneak their way into O-1's. The easiest way for me to describe the market is anyone other than the fun and games, colour and hi-res graphics brigades. I must admit I'm not too sure about number crunching, speed and accuracy either. You'll have to check this out for yourself.
PRICES AND DELIVERY
The only price we have in the UK is 'not more than £1200@ (excluding VAT) for the Osborne 1 with all its standard software (CP/M, CBasic, MBasic, Wordstar, Mailmerge and Supercalc). The price will be reviewed every three months to take account of the exchange rate between the pound and the dollar. With a bit of luck the price should go down.
In the USA the monitor costs $250 and the Osborne $1795. If the same ratios pertains this would make the monitor £170 in the UK. Delivery at present is between three and six months; Adam says this should improve to between off-the-shelf and 30 days by next summer. I'd say this rather depends on demand.
At the moment a 90-day warranty is offered but Osborne realises that this will have to be a year for the UK market, so it will be changed. In the USA, 90 is standard.
The UK dealerships that I know of are: Rank Xerox, Datron, Crystal Electronics, Cambridge Computer Store, Comart/Xitan/Byte Shop/Computerland, Adda Computers, Lion House and Microdigital. Other decisions are pending and we'll let you know as soon as we're told.
Adam plans to open a UK office with a UK person in charge. I know one of the people being considered and, if he's anything to go by, it will be a very professional organisation. The staff will be mainly British and they'll be given a lot of autonomy. We'll keep you posted on these developments as well.
In early 1982 we should be seeing a new case. This time it will be made of injection-moulded plastic foam in a 'clam-shell' arrangement. This means that the inside will be much more accessible for engineers and nosey users. The quaint carrying handle will disappear to be replaced by one moulded into the case. The machine will be lower as a result of having a thinner keyboard unit and it's expected to weigh about a pound less. The bezel is expected to be prettier.
A battery pack is currently under development and the most likely arrangement will be a large flat unit which forms a false bottom to the Osborne 1. Adam expects this to be available by January or February 1982.
Dual-density disk drives should be announced in November or December and communication facilities in six months or so for the UK. An 80-column screen with user defined graphics and a 52-column option is also likely to appear in the near future.
Finally, don't just expect upgrades to be up. Adam is well aware of the potential mass market opportunities for small domestic machines. He hinted at smaller Osbornes as well as bigger ones.
I suppose I've said it all in the Users' section. The machine is well made, offers more facilities than any other machine at the price and suffers one enormous drawback: the screen measures just 5in diagonally. This isn't a problem for occasional use - an hour or two even - but I'd hate to use it continuously. To overcome this problem, a 12in monitor is available and I would suggest that you keep this where you'd use the machine most. Making such a sophisticated machine portable was a really neat idea. I think, though, that there will be a lot of wives up and down the country who'll roundly curse Adam Osborne for what he's done.
Getting the thing going is a doddle - easier than filling a kettle and plugging it in. you'll need a printer - most people I know use the Epson MX80 and it offers excellent value at far less than £500. Adam Osborne also uses the same printer on his machine, so it would seem ideal. You'll also need disks and stationery to get under way. And then you're in business. I recommend that you consider this machine very seriously among the options.