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Upgrading PCs Isn’t Always Costly

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RICHARD O'REILLY <i> designs microcomputer applications for The Times</i>

Fast microprocessors and laser printers are two of the hotter items in personal computing these days--and two of the more expensive items. For the budget-conscious, however, there are ways to gain high performance at low cost.

Microsoft offers the Mach 20 board to upgrade older IBM PCs, XTs and truly compatible computers, including the Compaq portable, with an 80286 microprocessor and related circuitry for $495.

For its part, Hewlett-Packard has introduced the $995 Desk Jet, an ink jet printer that works just fine with plain copier paper. Its print quality is indistinguishable from the more expensive (and faster) Laser Jet II printer.

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Sooner or later many owners of PC and XT-style computers, which are based on Intel’s 8088 microprocessor, will be faced with deciding whether to replace or improve their machines.

Anyone who hopes to run the new OS/2 operating system, for instance, must do one or the other because the new software can’t run on a computer with an 8088 microprocessor, or computer “brain.”

IBM will give up to a $300 allowance on trade-ins of its old PCs and XTs for new PS/2 computers, but that is only 5% to 10% of what such computers cost when new. It won’t make much of a dent in the $3,500 or more that a new machine will cost.

Installing Microsoft’s Mach 20 board is a relatively inexpensive alternative to get performance equivalent to an IBM AT’s, if not that of some of the PS/2 models. The board plugs into an expansion slot inside a PC or XT case. In fact, even if you don’t have any free slots because of other expansion boards, the Mach 20 still can be installed.

The basic Mach 20 board contains the 80286 chip and a port for connecting a mouse, a hand-held device used to move the cursor on the screen and execute commands. The original 8088 chip is removed from the computer’s main system board and replaced with a plug and cable leading to the Mach 20.

The 80286 microprocessor runs almost twice as fast as the 8088 and handles data in chunks that are twice as big. The Mach 20 has room for, among other options, an 80287 math co-processor chip that speeds up programs such as spreadsheets, databases, desktop publishing and engineering and architectural design software.

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A skilled technician can install the Mach 20, complete with options, in about 15 minutes in an IBM chassis. You can do it yourself in less than an hour by following the excellent instructions, if the sight of a naked computer doesn’t scare you.

Installing Hewlett-Packard’s Desk Jet printer shouldn’t scare anyone, even if it is the first printer I’ve seen that has to be turned on its side to find the power cord and cable connections.

The printer is a thermal ink jet, an intriguing technology in which electronic circuitry boils a tiny droplet of ink in a nozzle so that the bursting bubble spews a precisely placed dot onto the paper. HP has perfected the process to the point that the dots dry instantly and don’t spread on most copier paper or letterhead stationery. Many other ink jet printers provide good results only when special hard-finished paper is used to keep the ink droplets from spreading before they dry.

Rated at about 120 characters per second for laser-quality text, the Desk Jet turns out two letter-size pages a minute in near silence. So-called draft quality printing is twice as fast.

It comes with three Courier typewriter-style typefaces. Two expansion ports let you install optional font cartridges and additional memory of up to 256 kilobytes. A paper tray holds up to 100 letter or legal-size sheets. Envelopes may be fed through manually.

Even though the Desk Jet acts like a less-expensive laser printer, it is not truly compatible with the lasers. The font cartridges are not interchangeable with HP’s laser printers.

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Programs that work with laser printers may not give quite the same results with the Desk Jet unless special printer “driver” software is available. HP supplies drivers for some popular programs. If no driver is available, you can instruct your program to treat the Desk Jet as if it were a Laser Jet and get good results as long as you aren’t trying to print proportionally spaced type, where narrow letters are given less room than wide ones.

For the maximum compatibility with your existing software, you might want to buy a special Desk Jet cartridge that makes the printer believe that it is an Epson FX-80 dot matrix printer. Virtually every software package for IBM and compatible computers works with the Epson printer.

Hewlett-Packard estimates that the cost of running the Desk Jet at about two cents a page, which is only slightly less than the Laser Jet and more than the cost of ribbons for typical dot matrix printers.

The printer I tested performed flawlessly for two months in an office environment where its compact size, light weight and silence were decided advantages.

THE PRODUCTS

Mach 20

A circuit board with the Intel 80286 microprocessor. It is used to upgrade older IBM PCs, XTs and compatible computers, including the Compaq portable.

Features: Intel 80286 microprocessor running at 8 megahertz replaces existing 8088 chip. $495. Optional 80287 math co-processor chip (price varies). Optional Memory Plus board plugs into Mach 20 and adds up to 3.5 megabytes of memory accessed on a fast 16-bit bus, $395 with 512 kilobytes of memory. Optional $99 floppy disk controller plugs into Mach 20 board and controls 360K and 1.2 megabyte 5-inch floppies and 720K and 1.44M 3 1/2-inch floppies.

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Manufacturer: Microsoft Corp., 16011 NE 36th Way, Redmond, WA 98073-9717, (206) 882-8080. Suggested retail price: $495.

Desk Jet

A compact, light-weight thermal ink jet printer that produces high-quality print on plain copier paper and works with any computer with a serial or parallel printer port.

Features: Prints at 120 characters per second in letter-quality mode (about two pages a minute) and 240 cps in draft mode. Letter quality mode is 300 by 300 dots per inch and draft mode is 300 by 150 dots per inch. Contains Courier and Courier bold type fonts at 5, 10, 17 and 20 characters per inch, with letter heights of 6 points or 12 points. Can imitate the Laser JetII printer in most modes. 16 kilobyte memory buffer. Many other font cartridges available. Epson FX-80 emulation cartridge available.

Manufacturer: Hewlett-Packard, Inquiries Manager, 1820 Embarcadero Road, Palo Alto, CA 94303. Suggested retail price: $999.

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