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NEC and Tandy Revamp Portables

Richard O'Reilly designs microcomputer applications for The Times.

The lap-top portable computer was introduced two years ago by a pair of well-known companies--Tandy’s Radio Shack and NEC--with remarkably similar products.

NEC, which had made a good name for itself in office automation products with its Spinwriter printers, actually showed its portable first and offered some features that the Tandy Model 100 didn’t. Its machine had better placement of the cursor keys, greater memory expansion and a better line of peripheral attachments, including a slick, one-pound, battery-powered printer that no one else has yet matched.

But Tandy seemed to have a Radio Shack store in every shopping center and an advertising flyer in every mailbox. Its Model 100 became the undisputed king of briefcase portables while NEC fumbled around with distribution so weak that it bordered on the pathetic.

What the two shared was a flat, liquid crystal display screen that is 7 5/8 inches wide and 2 1/8 inches high, displaying 40 characters across eight lines of large type. How easily it could be read depended on the light (diffuse natural light was best) and the user’s tolerance for seeing only a few short lines of text at a time.

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Identical Prices

They came with built-in text editing, telecommunications and a simple filing system for telephone numbers and schedules.

Tandy clinched its position by putting a modem inside its portable while NEC made you buy it as an accessory, a decision that gave Tandy the journalism market without a fight.

Now both companies have introduced identically priced successors. These $999 portables are no longer near twins, however. About the only things the new Tandy 200 and the new NEC 8401A have in common are similar exterior measurements. They don’t even use the same kind of batteries.

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Where they most differ is in screens. Both still use LCD technology, and both are the flip-up type that cover the keyboard when the computers are stored for travel. But NEC made its screen a mere three-eighths inch deeper while quadrupling the number of characters it can display.

Yes, you read that right, quadrupled. It now displays 16 lines, 80 characters across. Simple arithmetic dictates that each of those characters be only one-fourth as large as those displayed on the computer’s predecessor.

The characters on the NEC screen are well formed, but I found them very difficult to read because they are so small. You ought to spend a good half-hour with it in a showroom before you plunk down your credit card.

External Disk Drive

There is a $249 adapter available that lets you plug in a full-size monitor, but, if your briefcase is like mine, there’s no room to carry around a full-size monitor.

Tandy was smart. It doubled the size of its screen, making it 4 inches deep, and doubled the number of lines displayed to 16, each with 40 characters. The characters are still three-sixteenths of an inch tall and are easy to read. The Model 200 comes with 24 kilobytes of random access memory and can be expanded to 72K.

(Tandy offers an external disk drive unit that also allows a full-size monitor to be used to make it easier to read the characters, but it is bulky and expensive.)

The text editor in the new Tandy is slightly better than that in the original Model 100 because it now includes some page-formatting commands, but it is still difficult to use with some non-Tandy printers because, unlike most computers, the Tandy does not send line feeds when it sends carriage returns to the printer.

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There is now a spreadsheet, which is a mini version of Microsoft’s Multiplan. The old filing programs are still there, as is the modem. It also still has nearly the same flat keyboard, but the position and size of cursor and function keys have been much improved.

More Sophisticated

The Tandy still includes the BASIC programming language, while the NEC has dropped BASIC in its new model. Considering the large number of worthwhile BASIC programs that have been published for portables, NEC seems to have cut itself off from many potential users.

If, however, tiny characters don’t bother you and you have no need for BASIC, the NEC is more sophisticated than the Tandy. It has a superior, tiered keyboard and now, like the Tandy, has a built-in 300-baud modem.

The NEC now runs the CP/M operating system (the Tandy has no discernible operating system) and uses mini versions of WordStar and CalcStar as its word-processing and spreadsheet programs. That gives the NEC instant compatibility with older desk-top systems owned by hundreds of thousands of businesses and individuals that still get plenty of performance out of eight-bit microprocessors.

There is also a “personal filer” in which you create free-form index-style entry cards on the screen. It is simple and effective.

Misleading Claim The NEC is superior in other ways as well. It can be expanded to 96K of RAM, and there is a nice, $599 accessory component that contains a 3 1/2-inch disk drive with room to install a second.

The base-price machine is advertised as having 64K of RAM, but that is misleading since only 32K of RAM is available for file storage, which is only 8K more than available on the base model of the similarly priced Tandy.

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The market for briefcase portables has grown much more complex since Tandy and NEC first launched it. The IBM PC has become the de facto microcomputer standard, for one thing, and neither of these new machines is IBM-compatible.

Nonetheless, my hunch is that Tandy has introduced another winner and that the new NEC will do no better than the original.


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