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The following text is an article taken
CREATIVE COMPUTING VOL. 11, NO. 3 / MARCH 1985
/ PAGE 70
written by David H. Ahl.
NEC 8401A Portable Computer
The NEC 8401 A is the second generation NEC notebook portable computer.
It is significantly different from the 8201, and we expect it will appeal
to a different type of customer. Briefly, the 8401 has a 16-line by 80-column
fold-up LCD screen, 64K of RAM, and a built-in 300 baud modem, and can
be operated using batteries or an AC adapter. It uses the CP/M operating
system and has four built-in software packages including Wordstar-To-Go,
Calc-To-Go, Telcom (telecommunications utility), and Filer (personal card
The basic package includes the computer, phone cable, cassette recorder
cable, four manuals, quick reference guide, information about on-line
services, and license and warranty cards. The package does not include
either an AC adapter or batteries. Optional peripherals include a CRT/disk
adapter, micro floppy disk unit, 1200 baud modem, external 32K RAM cartridge,
and a wide assortment of cables. Compact Package
Somewhat larger and heavier than the 8201, the 8401 measures 11.8"
x 8.4" x2.8" and weighs 4.7 lbs. It uses a CMOS version of the
8-bit Z80 mpu operating at 4 MHz. Built in are three 32K ROMs (96K total)
which include the BIOS and applications software. The 64K of RAM is segmented
into two 32K blocks, one for storing user programs (called an internal
RAM disk) and the other for file creation and manipulation. With an optional
floppy disk drive attached, it is possible to allocate all 64K of the
computer to program execution.
A compartment in the top of the computer accepts four C-cells; alkaline
batteries are said to have a life of eight hours or longer. There is an
automatic power shutoff if no key has been pressed for ten minutes; this
time period may be reset by the user to 1 to 25 minutes.
Going around the outside of the case, we find a power switch, screen
contrast adjustment, rest switch, telephone and modem connectors, 300/1200
baud switch, and RS-232, parallel, cassette, and bus connectors. LED indicators
on the top indicate low battery condition and sleep mode. Franky, we couldn't
see much use for the sleep feature since when the machine "wakes
up" it simply displays the menu and cannot be instructed to execute
a program automatically (such as sending a file late at night to another
The keyboard has 59 regular keys, five function keys (which double to
ten with the Shift key), and four directional cursor keys (arranged in
a convenient diamond pattern). A numeric keypad can be toggled on and
off with the NUM key, while the ALT key toggles on an alternative keyboard
which includes 28 Greek letters, 17 math symbols, and 38 graphics symbols.
While it's nice to know that they're there, it is not at all clear how
these symbols can be used. Although a bit noisy, the keyboard has an excellent
feel and a sensible layout.
We are less enthusiastic about the display, however. It measures 7.5"
x 2.4", the same width and only 0.4" higher than the one on
the 8201 (and Tandy Model 100). This means that nearly four times as many
letters are packed into the same screen size as the previous machine.
Characters are formed in a 6 x 8 dot matrix; to enhance legibility, vertical
strokes are wider than horizontal ones. Nevertheless, one pixel vertical
and horizontal spacing coupled with one pixel descenders occasionally
makes for difficult reading. Far worse is the fact that the screen tilts
back only 30 degrees from the vertical. While this is plenty for a CRT
screen, an LCD screen requires reflected light. Thus if you are depending
upon overhead illumination you will be disappointed with the results and
may want to consider a table or desk lamp positioned to illuminate the
screen. The Big Four In Software
Wordstar-To-Go by MicroPro International is a scaled down version of
the full-blown Wordstar. The main features which have been left out include:
help menus, file directory (you use the 8401 menu), paragraph tab, hyphen
help, soft hyphen entry, column mode, decimal tab, and print control display
toggle. Beyond that, the 8401 runs standard Wordstar with all its facilities
and foibles. Because it automatically stores both a working copy and a
backup of every document created, it gobbles up memory faster than you
Like its big brother, Wordstar-To-Go is not particularly easy to learn
or easy to use but it has nearly every imaginable word processing feature,
allows embedded printer control instructions, takes advantage of the 8401
function keys, and comes with MicroPro's 200-page manual. Thus, it gets
our reluctant endorsement.
Calc-To-Go is a first class spreadsheet program that includes the most
frequently used features from spreadsheet programs for larger computers.
Expressions can use all the standard arithmetic and logic operations as
well as MAX, MIN, SUM, AVG, and COUNT. Limited logic functions, including
IF, AND, OR, NOT, TRUE, and FALSE are implemented. LOOKUP will search
a range for a value, and CHOOSE will return the value of the nth cell
in a range. Rows and columns can be inserted and deleted, but not moved.
Formats can be applied globally or to individual rows, columns, or cells.
Column widths can be set globally or individually--a feature lacking in
many larger spreadsheet programs.
A Calc-To-Go spreadsheet can theoretically contain as many as 16,384
cells (64 columns x 256 rows) although with only 32K of working memory,
it is unlikely that a spreadsheet with more than 4000 cells could be constructed
(which should be plenty large for most problems).
Filer is a card filing program that lets you design your own form for
a file card and then use it to store and retrieve data. A file card can
consist of up to 13 lines with a maximum of 80 characters per line. The
maximum size of a card file is 23K; this would be filled by 55 cards with
10 lines of 40 characters per line. Thus, it is important to design your
Once you have created a file, you can add data or cards; retrieve a card
(based on any rules you specify); delete, view, sort, or print cards;
and even have the computer dial a telephone number from a card. (As mentioned
earlier, in addition to an external modem, a connector is provided for
a standard voice telephone.)
The Telcom program has two main functions: connecting to an on-line data
service (Compuserve, The Source, Dow Jones, OAG, etc.) and connecting
to another computer. The manual provides specific instructions for communicating
with an NEC 8800, IBM PC, or Apple II, although the 8401 can easily by
connected to other computers as well. The Telcom program is completely
menu-driven and allows manual, partially automatic, or competely automatic
operation. Telcom can be used for voice operation as well as data transmission.
A 32K RAM cartridge, which plugs into the left side of the computer,
is available. This is similar to the one offered for the 8201, and at
7 oz. is the most portable type of add-on memory.
The micro floppy drive provides more memory (328K per 3-1/2" disk)
but requires the drive (7.7 lbs.) and CRT/Disk adapter (1.1 lbs.). On
the other hand, this latter component provides monochrome or RGB color
output to a monitor. Moreover, the computer provides true VT100 terminal
emulation should you need it.
Although a 300 baud direct connect modem is built in, a 1200 baud external
unit is also available. The Notebook Computer of Choice?
So is the NEC PC-8401A the notebook computer of choice? As we have said
so many times in the past, it depends upon your needs and expectations.
Our main criticisms are the limited screen angle (can be remedied with
a lamp), less than friendly Wordstar-To-Go, and--one thing we haven't
mentioned--the lack of a programming language. Perhaps we are just old-fashioned
in thinking that a computer ought to be programable.
"But," you're thinking, "the computer uses a Z80-type
mpu and runs CP/M; surely Basic is available as an option." No it
isn't. At least not yet. Presumably if there is sufficient hue and cry,
NEC could release it in the future. Nevertheless, if you are looking for
a machine on which to write Basic programs right now, look elsewhere.
On the other hand, if you want the big four in software--word processing,
spreadsheet, database, and communications--in a portable machine, you
can have them all at a surprisingly modest price. Moreover, with the options,
the 8401 offers close to real desktop computing power and, for some, may
meet the need for a true dual purpose computer (desktop and portable).
For the 8401 to be a big success for NEC, we think the company will have
to face up to two major issues: improving distribution and developing
vertical markets, but that's a story for another place and time.