All-Purpose PC Search Narrows

Richard O'Reilly designs microcomputer applications for The Times

If you could own only one personal computer, what kind of computer should it be?

There may be some of you who wonder why anyone would want to own even one computer, and a lot of you who think that buying more than one is needlessly squandering money. But how often do those of you who have a machine at home wish that it was something other than what you’ve got?

The perfect personal computer is as elusive as the perfect boat, the perfect house, and the perfect car and for much the same reasons; whereas you might want a limousine at night, a pickup truck might be handier the next morning.

If you have a personal computer at work, chances are it’s an IBM PC variant or one of the compatibles. So, if you’re ever going to bring some of your work home, it would be best if you had the same kind of computer at home. But what if you travel? Don’t you need a lightweight portable that works like the one at the office and uses the same disks?

There may be a solution, or actually two. Morrow, the small and stable San Leandro, Calif. computer manufacturer, working in conjunction with industrial giant Zenith Data Systems, has produced what may be the closest thing yet to the perfect, all-purpose business computer.


Morrow, the firm founded by industry pioneer George Morrow, calls it the Pivot II, puts it in a black case and gives it a white screen. Zenith calls its version the Z-171 PC, colors it beige and provides a pale blue screen.

Except for the cosmetics, the Morrow and Zenith models are the same computer. It’s a very compatible, very portable IBM PC work-alike with twin 5-inch floppy disk drives, 256 to 640 kilobytes of random access memory (RAM), an odd but practical keyboard and an unusually good flat panel display screen.

Even though it is not a briefcase model, it really is portable. Equipped with a stout strap, its 15 pounds of self-contained processing power swings easily enough from your shoulder that you could routinely carry it to and from the office and on all your trips.

Flip-Down Keyboard

Unlike the smaller, lighter briefcase portables, most of which now sport flip-up screens, the Pivot II/Z-171 PC has a flip-down keyboard, while the 9 1/2-inch-wide by 4 1/2-inch-deep screen remains in its near-vertical position at a comfortable eye level a couple of inches above the keyboard.

The screen combines a liquid crystal display (LCD) of 80 columns by 25 lines, back lit with an electroluminescent panel that glows light blue or white, depending on whether you buy the Zenith or the Morrow version. The result is a screen that can be read easily in any light level, unlike standard LCD screens, which are all but invisible unless you have good light falling on them from over your shoulder.

Visible as it may be, however, it is still an LCD screen with LCD characters scrunched into a space one-third shorter than the screen on a standard desktop PC. It’s fatiguing for lengthy sessions at the keyboard. Fortunately, one of Zenith’s contributions is an accessory video display board that can be added inside the computer so that you can connect it to a standard color or monochrome monitor.

When you turn on the machine--allow me to dub it the “PZ” to save you from having to read both its names each time--you are presented with a calendar of the current month, the time given in a.m. or p.m. and a map of the world. Across the bottom of the screen are a series of labels such as “schedule,” “here/now” and “zone”.

Beneath them, across the top of the keyboard, lie 10 programmable function keys. (They are membrane-style keys.) Push the F1 key, labeled “schedule” and you have a day’s schedule before you in which you can make as many entries as you like, and edit the hours shown to correspond to the minute with your appointments. Then you can set an alarm to remind you.

The world map is used to display time zones moving either west with the F7 key or east with F8. Each zone is graphically indicated on the map; several large cities within it are listed and the current time and date are shown.

Below the function keys are four special keys marked by symbols--a clock, telephone, diskette and math symbols. They are used, respectively, to bring to the screen the clock-calendar-map display, a telephone directory, contents of a disk, and a calculator.

Optional Built-In Modem

The telephone directory can be used with an optional 300/1200 baud built-in modem to have the computer place both your voice calls and computer calls, and it will record the time spent on each.

The calculator allows you to add, subtract, multiply and divide numbers of up to 16 digits. It uses a group of keys on the right side of the keyboard that are dedicated to the purpose with the press of a special key.

By combining the functions of some separate IBM PC keys onto single keys, the PZ does away with the numeric/cursor keypad of the IBM keyboard and makes 63 keys do the work that IBM assigns to 73 keys, (not counting the 14 membrane keys above the PZ’s regular keyboard). It takes a little getting used to, but not much, and it can mimic every key of the IBM board.

There are even some advantages. You can invoke the embedded numeric keypad keys without disturbing the cursor keys, which are stretched out in a row at the right side of the space bar. That makes it much easier to make spreadsheet entries than is possible on the standard IBM keyboard where you either have number keys or cursor keys but not both.

Once past these enhancements and differences, the PZ is operationally just like any standard PC. Put your standard PC disks into the narrow drives mounted vertically on the right end of the computer and they run just fine, graphics and all.

Power comes from an external plug-in transformer, or an optional slide-in rechargeable battery pack that is good for four hours per charge. It recharges while you’re hooked up to the transformer. About 4,000 bytes of non-volatile memory retains your schedule and telephone directory entries while the computer is turned off.

Zenith and Morrow not only differ in color preferences, they also disagree on how to price the PZ. Zenith set a base price of $2,699 for a Z-171 PC with 256K of RAM and two floppy drives. The battery pack sells for $69, the modem for $379 and the video card for $229.

Morrow sells the Pivot II in three versions. The basic computer with 320K of RAM and two drives lists for $1,995. A mid-range version equipped with modem, video card and battery pack goes for $2,995. The top-of-the-line model, which has 640K of RAM instead of 320K, sells for $3,795. Dealer discounts may narrow the gap between the two companies’ prices.

Zenith Data Systems is headquartered at 1000 Milwaukee Ave., Glenview, Ill. 60025, and will give you the name of its nearest dealer by calling (800) 842-9000, ext. 1. Morrow is located at 600 McCormick St., San Leandro, Calif. 94577. Callers inside California may get dealers’ names by calling (415) 568-8599. Out-of-state callers can reach Morrow at (800) 521-3493.