PEOPLES ★ Fox Report by Barry Fox ★

No Amstrad Appraisal (Everyday with Practical Electronics)
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I have been following the notes and correspondence on Amstrad's fax machines with great interest, because I too have had some troubles and can add quite a lot of background. I suspect it all adds up to a good explanation of why Amstrad is now in its much publicised financial difficulty.

People who buy domestic audio and video equipment may get angry if it goes wrong, but their voice is seldom heard. For many years Amstrad has made a point of not providing this equipment for magazine review. So it is seldom appraised. The press are told when new models are launched, but not when old models disappear.

Amstrad is also cagey about supplying computer gear to the press, I have many times filled in the "request for loan" forms which Amstrad gives the press when new PCs are launched, but the only One I ever got to try was the low cost portable which Amstrad obviously felt safer in supplying. When I specifically asked for the loan of a satellite receiver (with MAC decoder) I asked for help getting it to work, but never got any before the loan was very quickly called in.

In December 1989 Amstrad launched the FX9600T fax machine. It broke new ground with large memory store for numbers, Mercury button, and socket for direct connection to the parallel printer port of a PC. So the unit worked as a photocopier or computer printer and sent text direct from a PC.

It also worked as a scanner, reading and memorising a signature for adding to the end of PC-sourced text. Amstrad also provided an output socket so that the machine could scan documents for a PC. Amstrad left it to third parties to sell control software for this. But none did because the machine soon disappeared without ceremony.

I got to try the FX9600T because I planned to buy one as well as write about it. I wanted to check it with Mercury, and with a computer. It worked well, but only after I had given up on the instruction manual and found by trial and error that the secret Mercury authorisation code must be entered twice instead of once as indicated in the instruction manual. I also had to find by trial and error that an unmentioned switch on the fax machine must be set to "on line" before it will accept text from a computer. This is not what business users want from a manual.

Worse still, just as I was on the point of paying to keep the machine, the LCD screen suddenly displayed garbage. The machine then locked up and refused to operate. The only cure was to unplug from the mains and remove the memory
back-up batteries, to "cold start" the machine. This did the trick, but lost all stored numbers and codes that I had spent half a day entering.

Amstrad later said they traced the fault to static electricity generated by some brands of paper on the plastic sheet feeder. The fix, said Amstrad, was an anti-static strip to be provided on the feeder tray in all future machines. I never saw any modification. I did not believe the excuse then, and I do not believe it now. I just counted myself lucky that I had not yet paid for it.


Last year, I decided to give Amstrad one more try, buying the ubiquitous FX-6000AT when my local Rymans was offering it on a good deal. The answer machine speech level is too low and the paper cutter soon failed, so it went back for repair. After repair, the paper cutter still did not work. Then the machine started giving error messages when it received more than a few lines of black. The LCD said it was "overheating" and the instruction book told me to "remove the machine from direct sunlight", even though it was mid-winter.

After quite a few phone calls, during which I had to describe the fault to a succession of different people, an engineer arrived believing that he had come to repair a different fault seen on another machine, over-heating of the mains transformer. On test the machine refused to over-heat on black and the engineer explained that there was no adjustment he could make anyway.

At this stage I called it a day and just have to hope that people do not send me faxes with too much black in them. I shall keep the FX-6000AT until it expires, then junk it and buy a fax from someone other than Amstrad. The bottom line is that I would rather spend a bit more and have less hassle.

I suspect a lot of other businesses now feel exactly the same way. And Amstrad will find that although it was easy to win a healthy share of the business market, with low cost PCs, it will be much harder, verging on impossible, to win back the share lost through tales of poor reliability. When business equipment lets someone down, whole company orders are lost and the word spreads like wildfire.

For the record, I would not now buy another fax that uses thermal paper. It is expensive and fades, apart from being horrid to write on. We shall soon be seeing a revolution in plain paper faxes which use bubble jet technology. Canon has already launched a first model, and lower cost units will follow. More on BJs later.


Although I have no sympathy for Amstrad's problems, because they are surely self-inflicted, I still have to hand it to the company for coming up with clever ideas, ahead of the game. A recent British patent application (2 257 557) from Amstrad tells an interesting story.

More and more satellite broadcasts are now scrambled or encrypted, usually using the Videocrypt system, and viewers must pay a subscription to watch them. A smartcard controls a decoder which unscrambles the signal. But as more and more channels scramble, and ask for a subscription, viewers find they are paying heavily for services they have not got time to watch.

This is creating the right market climate for "pay-per-view" TV. Videocrypt decoders are already designed to "suck" payment credits from a smartcard when the viewer presses an "accept" button to watch a selected programme. But Amstrad has smartly spotted that video recorders will not be able to tape PPV programmes when viewers are out. The video recorder can turn itself on under the control of a timer, but there will be no-one to press the accept button.

So Amstrad is patenting a video recorder for a combined satellite receiver, decoder and video recorder with an extra function in the timer. This lets the viewer pre-programme the VCR to generate a control signal which mimics the accept command. So the VCR will switch itself on, start taping a PPV programme and authorise the payment needed to unscramble it. Neat.


Talking above about junking a fax machine prompts an important warning. Before junking any telephone or fax machine, or even returning one for repair, be sure to wipe clear the Mercury memory.

If you have a Mercury authorisation number, to use the Mercury network for long distance calls, then that number will be good for any location in the same phone code area, e.g. 071, 081, 061 etc. The advantage of this is that it lets Mercury subscribers use one authorisation number on several lines, with different exchange numbers, and at several locations. So the same authorisation covers phone line, fax line, home phone and office phone, with all calls charged to a single bill.

The disadvantage is that if anyone else gets hold of the authorisation number they will often be able to use it to make calls on your bill, from their phone. They can even sell the number to any number of other people. They will all then be able to make calls at someone else's expense.

Barry Fox , Everyday with Practical Electronics, July 1993

★ YEAR: 1993

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L'Amstrad CPC est une machine 8 bits à base d'un Z80 à 4MHz. Le premier de la gamme fut le CPC 464 en 1984, équipé d'un lecteur de cassettes intégré il se plaçait en concurrent  du Commodore C64 beaucoup plus compliqué à utiliser et plus cher. Ce fut un réel succès et sorti cette même années le CPC 664 équipé d'un lecteur de disquettes trois pouces intégré. Sa vie fut de courte durée puisqu'en 1985 il fut remplacé par le CPC 6128 qui était plus compact, plus soigné et surtout qui avait 128Ko de RAM au lieu de 64Ko.