Leading Edge Rates High Among IBM Clones

Richard O'Reilly designs microcomputer applications for The Times

Isuspect that IBM is less than joyous about all those other companies that imitate its personal computers and siphon away potential sales, despite the saying about imitation being the most sincere form of flattery.

But the situation certainly should bring a little cheer to computer shoppers who find cheaper alternatives to Big Blue's products.

A welcome recent entrant to the world of IBM clones is the Leading Edge Model D, a South Korean-built unit of exceptionally clean design and bargain price.

Leading Edge Products, Inc. of Canton, Mass., (800-343-6833) has been around the computer scene for several years. It used to market Japanese printers. It publishes the Leading Edge Word Processor and Nutshell database programs, both bargain-priced for the features they offer. And for several years it has sold an IBM clone made for it by Mitsubishi.

The new Model D computer is quite different from the older design. It is physically smaller, has a wonderful keyboard and is more versatile than a standard IBM in its video display technology. It also may be the lowest priced, nationally distributed PC clone on the market.

For a list price of $1,495, the Leading Edge Model D comes with 256 kilobytes of operating memory (RAM), two floppy disk drives, a battery-powered clock-calendar so the computer always knows what day it is, a high-resolution monochrome monitor that also can display monochrome graphics, connection ports for both a parallel-type printer and a modem, and MS-DOS operating system software.

A comparably equipped IBM PC with two floppy disk drives, monochrome display, printer and modem ports and PC-DOS currently sells for $2,800 at IBM Product Centers. It would lack the monochrome and color graphics capability and the battery-operated clock calendar of the Leading Edge Model D.

You can expand the memory of the Model D to 640K and still have four expansion slots left inside the chassis for adding standard IBM-compatible circuit boards. If you want to use a color monitor, the connection port to do so is already there. All you have to do is plug the monitor in and flip a switch on the back of the machine.

For $1,995, the Model D comes with a 10-megabyte hard disk in place of one of the floppy disk drives. Substituting a color monitor for the monochrome one raises the price of the dual floppy disk Model D to $1,895; the hard-disk version goes for $2,395 with color monitor. All of them come with a 15-month warranty, compared to the 90-day warranty that you-know-who (and most everybody else) offers.

Many Accessories Included

Many computers are marketed a lot like American cars: Many of the features needed to make the machine useful--such as monitors, circuit boards to send a video signal to the monitor, a modem port or a printer port--are sold as accessories.

With the Leading Edge Model D, however, there's no need to worry about what's not included: That $1,495 sticker price buys a complete computer.

Touch typists should love the keyboard. It has wide keys for the most frequently used functions such as Return, Shift, Insert and Delete and no poorly placed keys--unlike the IBM PC keyboard and its infamous back-slash key.

My only real quibble with the Leading Edge is its noisy cooling fan.

My tests of the Model D's compatibility with the IBM model revealed how tricky compatibility can be:

It ran my color version of Microsoft's Flight Simulator and it ran both Lotus 1-2-3's color graphics and also monochrome graphics using special circuitry that imitates the popular Hercules monochrome graphics video card for the IBM.

But glitches occurred when I tried to run a new outlining program called Ready! and in trying to get my favorite business graphics program, Picture Perfect, to make use of the monochrome graphics display capability.

Because of my problems with Ready!, Leading Edge ended up revising its compatibility software, which is provided by Phoenix Compatibility and is contained on a microchip that plugs into the machine.

If you think of the computer as a large building with many entrances, Ready! was trying to enter the building through a seldom used door, according to David Dougher, Leading Edge's manager for software evaluation.

Leading Edge's compatibility software was programmed to deliver an error message when that door was used. The revision removes the error message and allows the door to be used. The new microchip will be made available to current owners who experience compatibility problems, he said.

The problem with Picture Perfect was different and points up a matter that software publishers are going to have to cope with so that computers can offer several modes of video display from the same circuit card, Dougher said.

Picture Perfect allows the user to tell the program what kind of video display is being used. But when the program then tests to see if that is true, it apparently tests first to see if the standard IBM color graphics display circuitry is present. If it finds that--which exists in the Leading Edge because of its optional use with a color monitor--the program is satisfied and doesn't even look for other circuitry or try to use the monochrome graphics circuitry that the computer also contains, Dougher said.

These are the kinds of problems that drive computer manufacturers, software publishers and even columnists crazy. The message for the buyer is obvious--if you have existing software that you want to use on a computer, run it in the dealer showroom before you buy. If you buy software for a computer, get a written money-back guarantee that it will run on your computer.

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