Product: AMSTRAD PCW16
Publisher: Computers
Compatibility: Commerical Competitor To BBC Series
Reviewed by: Ross Little
Originally published in EUG #54

Some years ago, when I was checking out the high street stores before buying my PC, I stumbled across this curious looking beast in Dixons. Dubbed the Amstrad PcW16, this was quite unlike any of the tortuous PCWs I had avoided in the past. In fact, it wasn't even similar to any PCs, Macs or Acorns I had seen, despite its graphical user interface. This little creature, humbly referring to itself as a word-processor, was the simplest but most productive lump of silicon I had seen (excluding pocket calculators).

Virtually every step took me by surprise: when you pressed the on button, it actually took you straight to the program menu! Just when I had got used to the PC philosophy that to see a menu option within the first three minutes was an unreasonable request... (Of course, I totally disbelieved the salesman when he said it turned straight on. I assumed he had just turned the monitor off! How naive!)

When you saw the menu, you could select between the word processor, spreadsheet, address book, diary and alarm, calculator and the file manager tool. Excuse me? I was beginning to get the impression I could actually use this as a reference tool because of the way it turns on (and off) virtually instantly. So I could actually retrieve my phone numbers and bank statement without waiting for the PC's five minute down-time? And look up instantly all the letters I wrote in the past year without needing copious printouts?! Ok, sounds a bit unreal but it gets even more bizzare. The guy told me that if you set an alarm to go off, the machine would actually switch itself on before relentlessly beeping for a few minutes to remind you that its Laura's birthday today or whatever! I was left wondering what was wrong with the PC know, the one where you set the alarm and it tells you about the appointment the next time you turn the computer on. Normally a week late.

Oh, there was just one more thing. Pretty important though. With word processed files stored in almost pure ascii, a long file was only around 7k. It had about 1Mb of memory (small even then) but the 172k or so for files went a long way. But there was a big, big bonus. The backup option (just four clicks away from the startup screen) would save the entire system, complete with settings, to just a single floppy disk. Now do you ever remember a computer where you could backup the system to just one disk costing 59p from Argos? Having been brought up on a diet of Microsoft and Intel, I had to carefully consider whether to ditch my religious fervour for storing every file on a 1Gb disk and hoping Windows wouldn't And who knows, maybe once a year I could back up the system onto fifty floppy disks. Though I'd obviously lose every system setting I'd made over the past few years. Hmmm, now I'd be backing up data every three days, safe in the knowledge I simply couldn't lose a file.

But hey, there was a catch. There's always a catch. It cost £300. And it wasn't much use without a printer. That cost £100. And four big ones was just too much for me then. I needed a PC for the flexibility at college and the two would have set me back more than a grand. So I had to sell my sanity to Mr Gates and I left the shop with a wistful look in my eyes, knowing that one day that machine would be mine. Chances are it would have been someone else's first, but it would be mine in the end. And I would never part with it.

Eventually it was. I gladly paid £160 for a second hand PcW and Canon BJC 4100 in August 1999. At long last, I had a computer (to call it a word processor is patronising, I tell you!) which was fast and efficient. But the most noticeable thing was that it made no noise. Whatsoever. I was used to a fan and a hard drive. Apparently, they're for wimps. The PcW likes its chips served hot, and stores all its memory in battery backed RAM. You know that 1Mb I mentioned? Well, that's the lot. But it goes a long way. So does a mere 16 MHz of speed. Even the darling Electron ran at 4 MHz or so (correct me if I'm wrong) but this machine manages a full graphical interface and then some.

Taking the programs in turn, obviously I can make plenty of gripes. The main point to note, though, is that I use almost every function of the programs and so I know what the computer is doing, or trying to do. In other words, I am in control. It doesn't try to second guess me, or deluge me with options. It is up to you whether you are prepared to sacrifice the extra functionality - no internet, clip art, and only a few games or extra programs. But you get more than your money's worth in efficiency.

First the word processor. Just two fonts but it will do italics, bold, underline and plenty of sizes. Generally, the printouts are indistinguishable from a PC. They are just much easier to do. Sadly missed is the vertical scroll bar. This is purely down to a lack of computational speed, but using keyboard buttons to page up and page down does feel primitive and inflexible. It boasts a comprehensive spell checker (it doesn't bother with a grammar checker. As if I could understand them anyway). The machine can, of course, be turned off just by flicking the power button from inside the wp. It will go and save your file, sort out anything else automatically and then shut down. Nice and classy. And if you want, when you turn it on again it will go and enter the wp (or whatever program you were using) and load up the file you were working on ready to continue. So much more practical than a PC but a fraction of the price.

The only program where you will notice the lack of speed is the spreadsheet. You can opt to have the autorecalculate function on or off (one of the system settings never forgotten because of the good backup system). Either way, though, you won't be too happy. On the one hand, you can guess which values are rendered invalid by any changes until you update the spreadsheet with a simple button press, or you can let the spreadsheet update everything (slowly) after every entry.

The Start Up Menu - Appears Immediately The Machine Is Switched On!

Slow and laborious, as is the style of a 16 MHz cutie, but herein lies the paradox: it is so much quicker to switch on, load up a file and start editing or printing that you will find the overall process incalculably faster than on a PC. And even if you leave your other machine on constantly so that the sheets are always accessible, the PcW is simply robust enough to make it a nicer experience. I quite happily used it to keep track of my accounts for about a year whilst I have never once kept a serious spreadsheet on my PC because it has always been impractical. The only other niggle is the old fashioned printouts. Nowadays, a spreadsheet will print in its entirety. Not so here - every page has to be separately printed making it more useful as an on-screen reference tool.

A more practical program is the address book. Simply enter names and the other details (address, phone, fax, email and any notes) and then you get a nicely ordered list of names and numbers on the right hand side of the screen and further details on the left. Much more friendly than a personal organiser, the screen can (like any other) be printed out. Also any address can be incorporated into a word processor document. This is another program that greatly benefits from immediate start up times.

The diary allows you to keep track of your busy life. Regular appointments can be scheduled or individual ones can be entered. You have both a week in detail (on the right of the screen) and a month at a glance (on the left). Alarms can be attached to the appointments so that the computer will automatically switch on and alert you. I rarely used these and so, after four months, they went on strike. January the first I believe, due to the Millennium Bug. But that was as far as it went. I found this program a real boon when I first got the machine: no more bits of paper hanging around my desk, nor the risk of forgetting an appointment. Just flick the machine on before I go to bed and see what I have to do the next day. Such an elegant solution to my worries.

The calculator is, perhaps, a bit superfluous. It just means if the keyboard is within reach, there is no need to open your drawer to reach for the calculator. Either scientific or basic views are allowed, and the program is accessible from both the word processor and the spreadsheet. It was, perhaps, a bit of a waste of computer power, though: I would have been more impressed to have seen some kind of scratchpad on the scientific option showing all the previous calculations and answers, possibly with annotations. This is rarely available on low-tech calculators. Still the idea is, of course, that you shouldn't have to leave the computer to do a calculation, and it does its job well.

The final, and possibly most critical, program is the file manager. It is also very straightforward. Big buttons point out the copying, deleting and archiving functions and all others can be selected from the menus. Files can easily be transferred between the cabinet and floppy disks with some very nice conventions working behind the scenes: the disks are high density dos format, and the files have their own PcW index file to allow for extra long filenames including spaces and other 'illegal' DOS characters. The three character suffixes are invisible to the user but allow the machine to distinguish different file types. This all adds up to a user friendly system that probably beats even Windows 98 (which is still visibly dos based). What's more, PC files can be stored on the disk, files can be transferred between PC and PcW, and backups can (if you wish) be dumped onto a PC or duplicated without disk swapping.

As I mentioned earlier, it also includes a quick and easy backup option. Just pop your disk in the drive, select backup and make yourself a cup of tea. Before you've finished your scone, you'll have a complete system snapshot and that warm, fuzzy feeling in the pit of your belly that says come what may, your files are secure. This is safe computing instead of the quick and dirty approach Microsoft adopted. For the first time: a standard storage format allowing easy storage of all your files and every system setting. Just like Windows, it will crash every so often. Some stats now: I have used it most days for the past year; it has completely crashed around four times; three of those times I was just teasing it; I have lost a total of five (non-essential) files. So I have almost every file I have created, downloaded, edited and printed for the past year. And I have never once deleted a file. How much space has this wanton inefficiency consumed? On my PC I take things very easy but have several Gigs of data. On my PcW I have never once tried to save space and yet in a whole year I have filled just 50% of a single floppy disk. I must emphasise I have saved every byte of data I have produced. Every letter I have written (there are plenty), every envelope I've typed, every statistic I've collected and every penny taken from my account has been stored in minute detail. My entire life for the past year exists inside that machine in just 0.7 Mb. I challenge any PC to compete with that kind of efficiency. The last four Word documents I produced took up more room that that. People only laugh at the size of floppy disks because they don't comprehend how much room 1.44 Mb is. They included me.

So is it worth it? All I can say is that it depends on you. First, the cost. Compared to other systems, it is cheap and it does what a lot of people want so it is excellent value. For me at least, it has actually paid for itself several times over which my PCs have never done. Now I do need a PC for the internet and programming and so the Amstrad makes the perfect second computer. Virus free and a stable environment, I just have to make sure anything important goes on the PcW! To be fair, it was a first edition machine and it behaves like one. There were some improvements that could have been made and bugs that should have been eliminated but, in the overall balance, it beats the PC hands down. For people who are sceptical about Wintel systems, it makes for a good system. But is it better than the Electron? Well, that was my first computer. 'Nuff said.