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Apricots Now in Season at Computer Stores

Lawrence J. Magid is executive vice president of Know How, a San Francisco-based microcomputer education company

It may be too late to find apricots at the grocery store this year, but you’re just in time to find a whole new crop at the computer store. Apricot, a computer company based in Fremont, Calif., has just announced the Apricot Collection, consisting of four new machines. All run the same (MS-DOS) operating system as the IBM PC and come with Digital Research’s GEM Collection, a software interface similar to that used on the Apple Macintosh. The machines are manufactured in Great Britain by ACT Ltd., Britain’s largest publicly held computer company. ACT owns 20% of Apricot, which serves as ACT’s exclusive United States distributor.

The new Apricot collection consists of a 13-pound “lap size” portable and three desk-top machines. Each member of the collection comes with 512 kilobytes of RAM, expandable to 760K. Each uses a central processing unit (the Intel 8086) that is a newer and somewhat faster cousin to the one used in the IBM PC (the Intel 8088). Each of the machines also has a parallel port for a printer and a serial port that can be used to connect the machine to a telephone modem, a printer or other device.

Programs and data are stored on double-sided 3 1/2-inch “microfloppy” disks that can store up to 760 kilobytes. These are the same disks that are used on the Macintosh and Hewlett-Packard micros. They have a hard shell cover and a metal sleeve that protects the disk from damage.

Because the Apricots use the same operating system as the IBM Personal Computer and a CPU that’s closely related, they are able to run many of the programs written for that machine. Apricot is not, however, IBM-compatible. Differences in the screen and keyboard require that IBM programs be modified to run on the Apricot. Apricot maintains a fairly long list of compatible programs, which includes such best sellers as Lotus 1-2-3, WordStar and dBase III and a host of specialized programs for various professions.

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Cable Machines Together

The Apricot disk drives are totally incompatible with those on the IBM PC. The IBM PC uses regular 5-inch floppies that store 360K. To transfer data, you must cable the two machines together or use a modem to send the data over phone lines. Computer Products International, a Milpitas, Calif., firm, manufactures a 5-inch drive (retailing for $595) for the Apricots that allows them to read or write IBM-format disks.

Although available in Great Britain, the U.S. version of the portable will not be available until the end of this month, according to Ian Wallace, Apricot vice president. It has one disk drive and features a liquid crystal display that can hold 25 lines by 80 columns. There is also a place to plug in Apricot’s color graphics monitor.

The Apricot F1, F2 and F10 are desk-top units but are so compact and lightweight that they could be dubbed transportable. The system unit that houses the disk drives, memory and other electronic components is about 9 inches wide, 16 1/2 inches long and 6 inches tall. The optional 10-inch Apricot color monitor, which sells for $495, sits neatly on top of the machine, creating an ideal setup for a crowded desk. It may be the most aesthetically pleasing computer on the market. Apricot also markets 9-inch and 12-inch monochrome monitors, retailing at $295 and $345, respectively.

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The keyboard can be connected to the main unit via a thin cable or it can communicate with the computer via an infrared transmitter, similar to a wireless TV remote control. The machines also come with a mouse that, like the keyboard, communicates with the computer via an infrared transmitter or cable.

The mouse is different from others that I’ve used. Rather than holding it in your hand and running it along a desk top, you leave it stationary and use your fingers to move its built-in “track ball.” If you have good manual dexterity, you can use it as a regular mouse by lifting it forward and dragging the ball on the desk top. I found it hard to get used to, but some people prefer the track ball. It is possible to plug the Microsoft Mouse into the Apricot’s serial port, but that requires buying the mouse and it ties up the machine’s one serial port.

Several Options

The F1 has a suggested retail price of $995 but comes without a monitor. It comes with one disk drive and has one built-in expansion slot that could be used for a hard disk or other expansion options.

The F2 (retailing for $1,495) comes with two disk drives and two expansion slots. The F10 ($1,995) has a built-in, 10-megabyte (10 million character) hard disk along with one floppy drive and one expansion slot. Prices do not include the required monitor.

Both the F1 and the portable come with what Apricot calls its “full-size, low-profile keyboard.”

It has 92 keys, including 10 function keys, a 10-key calculator-type key pad and the requisite arrow and cursor movement keys. The keyboard is flat, not slanted up like those on most typewriters and business computers. Though it’s not nearly as hard to use as a membrane keyboard or “chiclet” keys like those on the original IBM PCjr, experienced typists will find it unfamiliar.

Fortunately, Apricot also makes an excellent “sculpted” keyboard that comes with the F2 and F10. The sculpted keyboard can work with the F1 and portable and is available as an option for those machines.

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If I were buying a desk-top Apricot, I’d get the F2 or, possibly, the F10. The $500 difference between the F1 and the F2 buys you a second drive, a better keyboard and an additional expansion slot. If you can afford to spend $2,000, the hard disk makes life much more convenient. One option is to buy an F1 or F2 and add a hard disk later.

Each machine in the collection comes with the MS-DOS operating system, Microsoft BASIC and the GEM Collection, which includes Gem Write and Gem Paint. Gem Write is a simple-to-use word-processing program and Gem Paint is a graphics program. Graphics created in Gem Paint can be integrated with Gem Write documents. This is similar to MacWrite and MacPaint on the Apple Macintosh. But the GEM interface is new and it doesn’t support nearly as many software products as the Macintosh.

The nice thing about the Apricot is that you have a choice. You can use GEM or you can bypass it and use the standard MS-DOS operating environment. Some offices may do both.

The flexibility allows novices to use GEM, while more experienced users can run their Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheets or other programs under the regular MS-DOS environment.

If you want nearly 100% IBM compatibility, then don’t pick an Apricot. But if you’re looking for a reasonably priced, well-designed computer that combines ease of use with access to a large software library, then the Apricot may turn out to be a sweet deal.


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