By Graeme Philipson
“New generation” peripheral cards
New computers now being released (we won’t mention any names) have made the Apple II obsolete in many ways. The newer machines are bigger and faster, they have an 80 column screen as standard, they have more standardisation, they have larger capacity disk drives.
But the Apple II is still, in its IIe form, one of the world’s most popular machines. Why? Because of its truly amazing adaptability. When he designed the Apple II six years ago, Steve Wozniak had the extremely good sense to include eight expansion slots, which have since been used by Apple themselves and a host of other manufacturers to design a million and one peripheral cards. It is these cards which have enabled the Apple II to keep up with the competition.
It is still easy to boost an Apple II so its performance stands beside the newer breed of microcomputer. This is usually not the best option for someone starting out in computing, particularly business users, but it represents a definite option to those already using an Apple II and who are thinking of trading up to a larger or more sophisticated machine.
Sydney computer dealer CompuMusic (who import the AlphaSyntauri music system reviewed in this magazine last issue) have recently begun to import four of these “new generation” peripheral cards which truly increase the power of the Apple II. They are the APPLICARD, a Z-80 computer-on-a-card which allows the Apple II to run CP/M software, the Videx UltraTerm 160 column (that’s right, one hundred and sixty- coun t ’em) card, the 88CARD, and the EPS keyboard.
For a long time now Microsoft have made a card for the Apple II which allows it to run CP/M software. CP/M is a very common microcomputer operating system, similar to but very different from Apple DOS. By using this Z-80 card you were able to run a large number of CP/M programs not normally available on the Apple.
Microsoft’s card was enormously popular. At one stage Apple/Microsoft Z-80 hybrid machines actually constituted the majority of CP/M computers in the world, truly a case of the cart leading the horse. But the Microsoft card has one major disadvantage; its speed. It was, and still is, terribly slow. It connected into all the normal Apple systems: memory, I/O, screen, and had to spend a lot of time just performing these functions.
The APPLICARD is a different beast altogether. It is not a slave card, it is a full Z-80 computer in its own right. If you connected up the power to it, you could actually use it as a computer. It uses the Apple as a slave: it has its own RAM, its own video drivers, its own I/O. It makes the Microsoft card look very slow, even obsolete. The normal non-CP/ M Apple runs at 1 MHz or one million cycles a second. The Microsoft card runs at twice that speed. The APPLICARD runs four to six times faster.
To make matters even more interesting, the APPLICARD is available withan EXTRA 1 28K of RAM, still on the board. This is done by attaching a secondary board to the front of the APPLICARD (who said peripheral cards can’t have their own peripheral peripheral cards?) packed with 1 6K RAM chips. With this option, and this is how they are being imported into Australia, the APPLICARD is capable of some truly amazing feats. When this extra memory is used as a RAM disk, the increase in speed becomes even more phenomenal.
This vastly increased speed is especially apparent when using the APPLICARD with a program like Wordstar, which is constantly accessing its disk. Now those of you who have read previous columns of mine (hands up who was paying attention) will know that I am no fan of Wordstar’s, but it is a very popular and very powerful word processing program. I never liked it on the Apple because it was very slow, and because the Apple’s keyboard was too limited. The APPLICARD solves the first problem, and for the second see the review of the EPL keyboard below.
The more you delve into the APPLlCARD’s secrets, the better it seems to become. You don’t need to use an 80 column card, as the APPLlCARD’s “SoftVideo” provides a 70 column screen using the Apple’s high resolution capabilities, which is all you need for word processing. It also provides for horizontal scrolling in forty columns, allowing you to view a 255 character screen through a forty column window. If you do have an eighty column card, the card supports all the popular makes (including the Vision-80, it seems, though this is not documented).
All pretty amazing, huh? I can’t fault it, it does everything it claims it does and does it well. I once thought I would change to CP/M, but gave up in disgust at the slow speed. I’m still no fan of CP/M, but that’s just a personal thing. If I had an Apple (which I do) and I wanted to run CP/M (which I don’t), I would be looking no further than the PCPI APPLICARD.
Where will it all end. Also available, from Videx (the people who brought you VideoTerm), is the display card to end all display cards. Would you believe 160 columns of text on an Apple? Neither did I till I tried it.
The UltraTerm is an innocent enough thing to look at. It looks much the same as any other 80 column card, and connects in a similar fashion: one lead to monitor, one lead to the Apple’s normal video output. It will go into most slots, but slot 3 is best, because that’s where Pascal expects such cards.
I unplugged my Vision-80, plugged in the UltraTerm, did a PR#3, and there I was in 80 columns. Videx claim that in normal 80 column mode the card completely emulates their successful (though not terribly popular in Australia) VideoTerm 80 column card, and I see no reason to doubt this. The character set seemed quite good, better than I remember VideoTerm having, but not quite as good as my beloved Vision-80.
So far it’s just another 80 column card but now the fun begins. There are nine different display formats available:
- Normal Apple (40 columns x 24 lines)
- VideoTerm emulation (80 x 24)
- 96 x 24
- 132 x24
- 160 x24
- 80 x 24 using Hi-Res characters (with little serifs, like an IBM)
- 80 x 48
- 128 x 32
Now to my mind that is pretty amazing. In 160 x 24 mode, you get a maximum of 3,840 characters on the screen, in 128 x 32 you get 4,096. That’s 4K onscreen.
So how does it look? Surprisingly good. l have a Kaga Denshi greenscreen video monitor, of the type very popular with Apples over the past few years, and it was quite readable in all modes. The only problem was a shimmering in those modes which use the Apple high resolution screen, ie the last four of the modes described above.
The excellent manual explains this problem. Because of something called “interlacing”, those modes that use the high-res screen need a monitor with high-persistence phosphor, such as the Apple Monitor lll. In the past I have always found this monitor a little disconcerting to use, because the characters stay on the screen for a moment after they are supposed to have disappeared.
There are two possible problems with certain monitors when using the Ultra Term. One is this shimmering, the other is that of “overscan”, of not getting all the characters on the screen when in 160 column mode. Curiously, the manual says that the Apple monitor /I/ is guilty of this, though it is still the monitor they recommend. My own Kaga was quite legible, if a little small in 160 columns, so I can only surmise that it is a better monitor than the more expensive Apple monitor /// in this regard.
So what can you actually do with all this extra screen space? The characters are very small, there’s no doubt about that. You would get very small eyes looking at some of the more compressed modes for long. Eighty columns is now an industry standard, and it’s unlikely that you’ll ever want to go far beyond that. But you might for some purposes.
One big use I can see for this card is with Visicalc. It is often a big advantage to view a lot of your worksheet, so you can easily see the results of calculations. The makers realise this and you can purchase a separate Visicalc preboot disk which uses the 128 x 32 mode, giving you twice as much onscreen as with any other Apple spreadsheet program, including those which use a conventional 80 column card. The extra columns may also be useful for some word processing applications, such as in some legal work, when your page width exceeds the conventional maximum of 80 columns.
I am as unqualified in my praise of this card as I am for the APPLICARD and the EPS keyboard.
The EPS Keyboard
There are a lot of us who get frustrated with the standard Apple keyboard because our parents were stupid enough to see that we were born minus the essential three arms and hands with seven fingers and two thumbs on each. This can be a distinct disadvantage when you want to perform some little trick like CTRL Z Shift C CTRL I Shift and CTRLT which is, please believe us the series that you go through when you are transferring data through Harry Harper’s Vision 80 card, than which there is no better. Several solutions have been suggested and attempted with varying degrees of success.
Now,from CompuMusic (they of the AlphaSyntauri) comes a professional keyboard which is better than that on the IBM PC. It has 12 special function keys and a dedicated numeric pad plus four arrows for zapping the cursor around. But more than this, it has a set of EPS Promware models (that’s a complicated trade name for an encased EMROM) which, when plugged in, transforms the keyboard into precisely the right configuration for a given program. For example you can plug in VisiCalc, Applewriter l l, Screenwriter l l, Wordstar and several others. Once you have plugged in your Prom you have a command template, a sort of plastic overlay, which tells you what each key represents.
This small genius of an idea plugs directly into your motherboard and if you like you can have both your original keyboard and your EPS keyboard working at the same time just in case you want to play duets. Are there any problems? None. There is a decision you have to make as to where you will place your computer. But that is not a problem. It’s a decision.
We wish that Apple had the intelligence to provide such a keyboard. As they didn’t, Executive Peripheral Systems did and CompuMusic brought it to Australia.
To sum up our attitude: we are buying one. With money.
Another card imported by CompuMusic which we have not had a chance to test is the 88-CARD, also from PCPI. This card contains the 16 bit Intel 8088 microchip and allows you to run MS-DOS and CP/ M-86 16 bit operating systems. While you can’t put an IBM PC disk straight into your Apple, you can download software from that machine and run it on your Apple. This obviously opens a whole new world to the Apple II, and with some extra memory and a larger disk drive (and a better keyboard, etc) the Apple II is in every way the equivalent of an IBM PC.
We look forward to the opportunity of testing this card, which we will as soon as they become available. In the meantime we are left to ponder just what this new generation of peripheral cards means for the Apple II.
Where’s it all going?
There are over one million Apple II and Apple IIe computers in the world. That’s a lot of computers in anybody’s language. A lot of people who have Apple II’s are aware of the advances in computing technology since that machine was designed, but they are also aware that in the Apple II they have the best small computer ever designed. Many of them will be so attached to their Apples that they will never get rid of them, no matter what.
If you’re one of these people, as am 1, who want to keep their Apple while not missing out on the advances that are happening in computer technology, it seems that the types of cards that we are reviewing here are the answer. It is fortunate indeed for Apple that the massive number of Apple lls in the world today means that there will always be designers who will come up with new cards and peripherals to keep the machine abreast of technology. It matters not that the Apple uses a different keyboard, different RAM, a different microprocessor, different disk drives, different whatever. Somehow it’s still an Apple.