|★ APPLICATIONS ★ BUREAUTIQUE ★ Amstrad WP ★
Ian Stobie finds it's a case of great software, shame about the printer, for the first serious application of the Amstrad micro.
AMSTRAD'S CPC-464 COMPUTER seems ideally suited for home word processing. It has an 80-column display, a good-quality keyboard and a reliable built-in cassette storage system. All it needs to become a low-cost cassette-based word-processing system is appropriate software and a suitable printer.
Amsoft's cassette-based WP program, Amsword, turns out to be excellent and Amstrad's DMP-1 printer turns out to be the opposite. The CPC-464 computer itself still seems to justify the rave review we gave it in our October issue, but the printer rather spoils Amstrad's record as the home-computer company that has managed to get everything right.
It took us some time to get the DMP-1 's unconventional ribbon cartridge working properly. It consists of a short, fabric loop which picks up ink from a saturated felt pad. At its best the system gave us printed output that was smudgy and unclear; at its worst the output was too faint to see.
But even with a more effective ribbon system the DMP-1's output would still be unpleasant to read. The machine's printhead mechanism is not up to producing characters like j, g and p with true descenders, as it forms it characters from a matrix of just five dots by seven, which is very limited by modern standards. At £199.95, the DMP-1 is poor value for money.
Since the Amstrad computer looks a very attractive system for low-cost home word-processing we tried it out with an alternative printer, the new Shinwa CPA-80. Although this is slightly more expensive than the dreadful DMP-1 it is much better value. We found it gave much better performance in every respect except when it came to printing graphics.
At least three word-processing packages are available for the Amstrad, or soon will be. Easy Amsword is a very simple cassette-based package which costs £9.95. It is not up to much more than demonstrating to a beginner what word processing is generally about. Amsword is the serious program for use with cassettes, price £19.95. It is written by Tasman software and is a development of Tasword Two, which is probably the best word processor running on the Sinclair Spectrum. It comes with a 45-page manual which describes clearly everything the package can do.
For Amstrad users with the CP/M disc system, which is just beginning to come on to the market, Amsoft will also be offering a disc-based word processor written by Intelligence (Ireland) Ltd. This will cost around £50 including VAT and will integrate with matching Calc and database packages. WordStar, the best known CP/M word-processing package, does not look like being available for the Amstrad disc system in the very near future, as no deal with Micropro has been struck.
According to Amsoft, Amsword will be upgradable to work with the Amstrad disc system. Amsoft will offer the upgrade for a nominal fee, and data files now stored on cassette should still be usable. Even so, Amsword is inevitably a more limited program than one written from the outset for disc. Discs not only allow faster and more convenient filing, but allow a word processor to have many more features, as the program itself can be many times longer than the available memory, with the
The word-processing setup we eventually arrived at would cost around £619 including VAT. This breaks down to roughly £359 for the computer itself with colour monitor, £240 for the Shinwa CPA-80 printer and cable, and £20 for the Amsword software. Using the cheaper £249 Amstrad with monochrome monitor, which might be a better choice if word processing is the only thing you want to do, the overall price works out at £509.
Loading Amsword from cassette takes about three minutes. Amsword then brings up a clear editing screen. At this point you can load in text from an existing file held on cassette or start typing in new text. Amsword allows you to create documents about 2,000 words long.
Most of the editing screen is taken up by a 16-line by 80-column area into which you type text or perform manipulations on text already there. You can scroll around the document you are editing using the ordinary Amstrad arrow keys in various combinations with the Shift and Control keys.
Most Amsoft commands take the form of a single-key combination with the Control key. The most common commands are shown in a seven-line Help display at the top of the screen. You can suppress this display to give a larger 23-line editing area. At the foot of the editing screen is a horizontal bar showing current tab and margin positions, and beneath it is a status line showing the current settings of various functions.
Amsword uses the full 80-column width of the CPC-464's screen. It is possible to prepare wider documents up to 128
columns across by scrolling horizontally. This is a bit tedious in practice but still a feature worth having.
Hitting the Escape key brings up a single Help screen, which shows most of Amsword's facilities. Compared to a disc-based word processor like WordStar, Amsword does not have many functions, but the ones it does have are well chosen.
Straightforward editing is carried out using combinations of the Delete, Shift and Control keys, and is very easy. You normally are in Overtype mode, if you want to insert you need to create space by hitting Control-I. To insert several characters you insert a new line and later reformat the paragraph with another command.
Text is automatically justified as you type it in, but you can opt for unjustified text, giving lines of uneven length. Reformatting a paragraph to fit changed margins is slow, but it works. A new command has to be issued for each paragraph; there is no global Reformat command. Individual lines can be automatically centred or moved right or left on the screen.
Amsoft's block operations are slow compared to a disc-based word processor. You mark a block with a visible control character at the beginning and end; the selected text is not highlighted in any other way, so the block is not too easily seen. Block operations work on complete lines, not on part lines, which is a fairly major limitation.
Limitations are also apparent in Amsword's Search and Replace function. You cannot search for phrases, just single words, and you cannot replace with null strings or spaces, so you cannot use the command to selectively delete. You have a stark choice between replacing once or globally; there is no equivalent of WordStar's useful Find/Replace Again command.
Despite its limitations, Amsword is really a very good package and only appears limited compared to disc-based products; few cassette-based word processors even reach a standard where it is worth making the comparison. For instance, Amsword lets you load text from tape into a document you are already editing. This merge facility is really an append, as the loaded text has to go on the end of the document in memory, but once there you can use the Block Move command to move it where you like.
In fact, Amsword possesses some useful functions that are missing from many disc-based word processors. It is possible to convert upper case to lower case and vice versa. So if you accidentally type a few lines with the Caps-Lock key on you do not have to retype them. Amsword gives you a word count as well as a character count, and has the ability to use a second character set which includes many foreign-language characters.
You can print an Amsword document without first saving the file. The word processor has a good range of print-time options, letting you print page numbers and text messages at the head and foot of every page, print multiple copies, and alter the line spacing and left-hand edge of the text on the paper.
What is more, Amsword allows you up to 40 different printer control codes, which can be up to five bytes long each. The program comes with these printer control codes pre-defined for the Epson FX-80, which is something of a standard in printers. We were able to get a good range of effects very simply from the Shinwa printer using these, included underlined, emphasised, enlarged and superscript print, and from the DMP-1 I was able to get expanded print. This feature is well documented in the Amsword manual, and the default printer control codes can be shown on-screen.
Amsword is a very well thought-out program. An unexpected but welcome touch is the Save Amsword option found on the main menu. This allows you to copy customised versions of Amsword to tape, incorporating your own printer control characters and other default settings of alterable features. The only feature regrettably missing is the facility to change the editing scren display to 40 columns,
which is much more readable than the 80-column mode on the colour version of the Amstrad.