Computers I’ve Owned – Amstrad PCW

14 Nov

The Amstrad PCW. I know what you are saying “they are not computers but basic word processors” to which you have a point, however the PCW series machines i owned (as detailed here) were able to be loaded into DOS or CP/M type modes, allowing the use of bespoke software to be loaded so basic programs could be loaded.

I had 2 of these machines, let’s start with the 1st.

 The 1st machine i owned was the PCW 9512.  I acquired the machine in the early 90’s, given to me by someone who had no use for it as they had bought a PC from work & I kept the machine until it gave up the ghost a 6 or 7 years later.  I got the machine given to me so didn’t really have a lot with it, so no box, no manual etc but i had the software that came bundled with the machine on disks but that was about it, other than the monitor which housed the electronics (motherboard, CRT, floppy, power supply) & the bespoke keyboard that plugged into the front.  I didn’t have the original Amstrad PCW daisy-wheel printer that originally came packaged with the machine (shown in the image), but had to use an old Citizen 120e swift dot matrix printer, which i bought cheap from a local second hand shop & actually worked well with the machine & hooked quite easily to the parallel port on the back of the machine, so much so i had to replace the ribbon twice as i did so much on this machine!

The PCW 9512, was 1st introduced in 1987 & the bigger brother of the 8512 & the 9256, this model unlike earlier models which used green-screen displays had a white-on-black screen instead of green-on-black,  The software supplied with the machine was the more advanced version 2 of the Amstrad Locoscript word processor program which included spellchecker and mail merge facilities & was on similar lines to Wordstar & copied elements from Word Perfect which at the time of the later half of the 1980’s were the “Microsoft office” products of the day.  The original machine had the Amstrad 3 inch drive as used in the CPC664 / 6128. ZX Spectrum +3 & the older Amstrad word processors which did cause a few problems.  As i already had used word processing programmes such as Word Perfect & Wordstar & used CP/M, along with a couple of hours use of the PCW 8256 at a technical college i used to study at, I picked up the basic of operating the machine quite easily & it almost seemed 2nd nature, so the lack of a manual or having to trek to the library (no broadband internet in those days) to study a manual & photocopy critical pages from wasn’t an issue.  I taught myself much of the other features of the software as well as what the disk had, Also included with the machine on the floppy disks was a simple version of BASIC as a loadable program, so days of reliving with simple programming such as 10 PRINT “HELLO “; 20 GOTO 10 was a nice touch of retro computing, but making up graphical games or making the computer play a tune were not to be.

As the Amstrad disks got rare & damaged i heard about a mod for the machine to convert the system to 3½-inch standard floppy drive either, by using the 2nd bay (which was blanked off) or by replacement of the entire drive which i attempted both methods, however i think the drive i used wasn’t compatible & it was a failed project, which was a shame as i would of like to of saved some of my files & still been able to use some of the templates on later machines.  the later released PCW 9512+, was equipped with a single 3½-inch disk drive that could access 720 KB. The 9512+ was basically the same machine with just the use of the drive changed & the ability to use inkjet printers.

My machine was used on a regular basis for all sort of things like applying for jobs, writing CV’s etc & even some college projects which i had to do at home as the college computers were PC systems, although my 1st experience with PCW machines came earlier as i was at a training centre where in the other class rooms they used to teach office skills on the 8256 machines to students & i used them a few times & on occasion had to do basic repairs on them.  All the PCW systems used the Zilog Z80 processor & the memory was basically given away in the name, 512 or 256k options depending on the machine you owned.  The PCW never really had an impact on the computer market as it was after all not a computer in the conventional sense.. the IBM PC was very much the machine of the day for computing & the 16 bit market was in it’s infancy so at the time the days for the old 8-bit games machines or home computers (such as the Spectrum, Commodore, Amstrad CPC etc were already numbered but with costs of up to £1000 for an IBM PC system of the time back in the late 1980’s an affordable under £500 PCW seemed a good option if you just wanted a system for home word processing & not much else.

The main competition for the machine – although it is basically a stripped down low tech imitation of a PC system of the era – it wasn’t the IBM PC, but it was designed to replace the domestic or office typewriter in the small office as well as the typing classes.  The typewriter & the office typing pool was becoming outdated in the 1980s by computers & PC use, still very much reserved in the office for the rich business user. The PCW filled the gap nicely for those on a budget who wanted a machine to type business correspondence on & store their document records on a floppy rather which could be stored in a small box or tray, rather than papers taking up office space in a large, heavy filing cabinet..

Eventually my machine died a death when the CPU gave up the ghost, for some strange reason though the CPU in my machine was board mounted & not mounted in an IC cradle & the processor slotting into that to allow for easy replacement like most CPU’s in those days, so although i tried to replace my processor, doing so would of damaged the PCB so eventually the machine had to be scrapped.

After the demise of the earlier PCW machine i tried to get a replacement machine,  if only to keep using my old files so i wouldn’t have to replace them or start again.  Sadly i couldn’t find another machine so took the chance on an upgrade to the newest PCW machine, the Amstrad PcW16

I spotted this PCW for sale in Dixons for about £140 at the tail end of 1997 & thought i would take the plunge, obviously this was a lot lower price than 1st advertised of £290 when the machine was in there 12 months previously & i’m guessing Dixons had a load in stock they wanted rid of, so i took the plunge.  The machine impressed a few of my friends who liked the idea of a computer for £140, but the story isn’t quite so straight forward.  yes for the £140 i got the CRT monitor which like it’s predecessor was a black/white mono display which also housed the electronics for the machine, which the keyboard plugged into. the Keyboard was included & as was a mouse, but this time unlike previous models this was an IBM type PC keyboard & it had a serial mouse.   As with previous models software was included, but this time stored onto a flash drive within the machine so you didn’t have to load up the software to boot the machine before you could use it. Sounds good.. the 1st problem then came as i had the dot matrix from the older machine i assumed it still would work in this machine, so plugged the printer in & it did nothing only spat paper out for 20 minutes before i realised something wasn’t right.  Upon reading the manual (yes i am a bloke i don’t read manuals 1st like they suggest) i discovered this machine was compatible with only a few printers.. mostly expensive bubble jet machines, so £140 for the machine & the printer they recommend if you go to the one at the top of the list was a £600 high-end office printer, not so cheap this “cheap” computer that impressed my friends so far. Upon further inspection i discovered the Canon Bubble-jet series printers were on the list & the cheapest the BJC250 which also had the advantage of as the PCW was a mono / text printer, no need for expensive colour cartridges & a simple black only one was available, so off i went to PC world to get one along with another £150 kick in the wallet to get a BJC250.  However there is a funny story attached to when i went to buy the printer & the salesman offered me a Lexmark printer for £100 & insisted it would work with my machine, to which i said “can i bring it back & have the canon if this won’t work on my machine for the same money” & even got the manager to sign it in writing , so confident was the salesman this printer would work.. it didn’t so i returned it & got the £150 printer for £100.. less the cost of the call to Lexmark tech support on their premium tech support number to get them to confirm that this printer only worked with Windows systems & not the Rosanne GUI system included on the PCW of course, i was up about £45 on the deal, plus my Canon had both colour & mono carts in the box.. result.  However this lead to a sub-problem of slow printing which is probably why they were keen to say the machine liked the more expensive office printers rather than the good old fashioned low cost home variety.
Problem 2 was the drive, of course the older machine used Amsoft 3 inch compact drives where the PCW 16 which would read & import “some” older PCW files now (as the machines software systems were not fully compatible) it had a standard floppy drive installed. An upgrade pack for the machine so you could buy an Amsoft drive & connect it to the PCW was available.. at a cost of £120, which considering i was paying £5 a time for PC floppy drives at the time was a kick in the wallet, so i decided to abandon the idea of transferring my files from the 9512.
The PCW 16 is an upgrade to the PCW 10 model, which was an update of the previous 9512 system & labelled it as “PcW” instead of “PCW”,  it had its own bespoke GUI operating system, known as “Roseanne”. (hence why it wasn’t able to recognise Lexmark printers) which was an almost Windows 95 like system compared to the more CP/M system on the older models which i can best describe as a cross between Amiga Workbench & Windows 3.1 & ran one application at a time so no multi-tasking as you could with a Windows system.  The software included an updated Locosoft word processor package similar to their PC package, but also had spreadsheet software, address book for your contacts, an events diary, a basic calculator and even a Windows 3.1 type file manager.  There was also an easter egg on the included floppy drive (which was a back-up copy of the installed software) which if you typed in a word or a string of letters it would process the word & use the spell checker to find words in what you had typed.. very handy if you worked on Channel 4’s “Countdown” in dictionary corner, although it took more than 30 seconds for it to find a 3 letter word most times.

The display was a fairly  standard VGA 640×480 display but the words were clear on the screen & this time white-on-black.  As i said the  PcW16 used a flash memory (as opposed to a HDD) to store the GUI operating system & some files could be saved on it in the space that was left, but it was always handy to keep a floppy in the drive to save files on rather than using the internal memory other than for temp files, & the files were so small you could fit hundreds on the floppy & i never came close to filling just 1 disk with almost everything i ever did on the machine, so it must of used some really clever compression or stored the files in a small format.  the PcW16 used the 8-bit Zilog Z-80 CPU, but that seemed about it as the machine was completely different to it’s previous models on hardware, on everything else, although the spec list was similar to the 9512, although the machine could connect to the internet (again using very expensive hardware to do it, so cheaper to buy a Windows PC), plus you were limited to text only websites.
I had some concerns about the machine so wrote to Amstrad using the address in the manual.  I explained i know this machine is NOT a PC or intended as a PC system in any way, but if the hardware packed up, would i be able to use standard PC hardware (considering i had issues trying to install a standard floppy in the 9512 as a 2nd drive) among a few other technical issues. After about a month  i got a reply back from Viglen who had obviously acquired the Amstrad computing brand by that time, to say the keyboard was a fairly standard PC compatible keyboard, the mouse was able to use a standard serial mouse, but if not a simple wiring change was required – which i remember from using mouse ports on some older 8 bit machines, so all good so far. I was also told the machine was slow at printing because what the print function did was basically emulate the text into a graphic format & print the document as a graphic, so if you can imagine creating a document in MS word, then taking an A4 bitmap image of your document & then printing out the bitmap.  That explains why they liked expensive printers in the manual & the list of machines, why printing was slow & why the dot matrix printer wouldn’t work.  On the plus side, the files could be exported to PC as files could be saved / converted to .txt files. so formatting was an issue, but at least it meant an upgrade was possible without losing my older precious files all over again or having to start making templates as a few clicks of the mouse & you could get the formatting back to where you were before.

Even so this machine served me well for the couple of years i owned it, the machine sadly is no longer with us & is currently listed as “missing”. i bought a newer PC after owning the machine for a couple of years, so Windows 98 & MS Office 97 was around by then so the PCW series became a little surplus to requirements. I put the PcW machine to one side & i think my dad ended up giving it to someone else (most likely one of my friends who was impressed with my £140 computer) or probably just skipping the machine assuming it didn’t work, but at least i managed to keep the printer back for my PC & that colour cartridge i never needed to use eventually came in handy.  Even so, i think as a system it had promise, i often think i could of used this machine to teach the kids word processing & of course not have to worry about them installing viruses & malware on the PC from software borrowed from their mates or playing games while doing their homework, so if i had the machine today i would let the kids use it to do their homework & learn the basics of spreadsheets & working on word documents, before graduating them onto a PC with office software installed.  Even before the days i had laptops etc, this machine (as was it’s 1st incarnation) was easy enough to package up & take with you to a friends house or even a hotel if you wanted to catch up on your letter writing or continue working as it just needed a keyboard plugging in to the monitor case & plugging into the mains, so in some ways a very portable system.