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New Software for PCs Revitalizes Old Clunkers

September 14, 1987|Richard O'Reilly | Richard O'Reilly designs microcomputer applications for The Times

A year or so ago William H. Gates, the whiz-kid chairman of software giant Microsoft Corp., was on a swing around the country, hosting invitation-only seminars for the computer managers of corporate America.

Gates had taken to the hustings to tell corporations to stop buying standard IBM PCs, PC XTs or compatible computers. Instead, he urged, buy IBM PC ATs or equivalent machines.

His reasoning was that future software--including Microsoft's OS/2 operating system announced earlier this year--would require the extra power of the faster Intel microprocessor in the AT-style machines. They had Intel's 80286 chip, which can use 16 times as much memory as the microprocessor in the other computers. (Computers with an even-newer chip, the yet more powerful 80386, weren't available then, but by Gates' reasoning are even better.)

You could have walked out of one of those meetings thinking that your old PCs were so hopelessly outdated you'd be lucky to give them away.

Nothing seems to turn out the way it's promised, however, and now it happens that Gates has made his own advice obsolete. Next Monday, Microsoft is scheduled to roll out equipment that it calls the "MACH 20 performance enhancement system" for IBM PCs, XTs and compatibles.

It upgrades the old clunkers with an 80286 microprocessor and up to 3.5 megabytes of random access memory, which would be 5 1/2 times more operating memory than a standard PC has. The package also has a controller that handles all four types of floppy disks, including 1.44-megabyte 3 1/2-inch drives, and adds a plug for a mouse, a hand-held device used to move a cursor or pointer on the computer screen.

The equipment does all this using only one expansion slot in the old PC. And that slot can be the one occupied by the PC's floppy disk controller card, meaning that you can add the equipment even if all the regular expansion slots already are full.

Many other manufacturers offer similar products. Microsoft's equipment is unique, however, because it works with all four types of floppy disks now used in PCs and does not require one of the regular expansion slots.

Another advantage is that Microsoft promises to create a special version of its new OS/2 software to run on PCs with MACH 20. The suggested retail price is $495 for the basic board, $395 for the basic extended memory option with 512 kilobytes of RAM and $99 for the disk controller option or $989 for all three. The mouse would cost extra. Overall, it is a lot cheaper than replacing a computer with an AT-style machine.

The mouse got its first big boost as a computer peripheral when Apple made it standard equipment on the Macintosh computer. Now IBM is fitting each of its new PS/2 family of computers with a socket for a mouse.

The expectation is that someday there will be plenty of software for IBM computers and compatible machines enabling users to select operations with a mouse. Some PC software--notably desktop publishing, drawing and painting programs--already need a mouse for proper operation.

Computer users will find that even though all mouses do the same thing, not all are created equal. They come with two or three buttons and differing internal designs.

I tried out three: the Microsoft Mouse ($150), the Mouse Systems Mouse ($159) and the Logitech LogiMouse C7 ($99).

Any mouse is simple to use. You simply slide it across your desk top or across a special pad and the cursor or pointer on your screen moves accordingly. The buttons are pressed to send commands to the computer.

But internally, each works differently. Microsoft's is a purely mechanical design, while Logitech combines mechanical with optical sensing. Mouse Systems puts no mechanical parts in its mouse, relying solely on optical sensing.

Logitech's manual says its mouse has proven reliable for 1,000 miles of use. Considering it only takes a two-inch movement of the mouse to shift the cursor from one side of the screen to the other, 1,000 miles is a lot of use.

Microsoft this month announced a redesigned mouse, still with two buttons, but smaller and with the ball placed more forward to make it easier to use. I tried out the older version but saw pictures of the new one, which has a pleasing, sculpted look. Microsoft also has added a lifetime warranty, but there is a "small handling charge" for repairs after the first two years.

The new mouse has the same precision as the old, which Microsoft measures in units called "mickeys" (I kid you not). Both Microsoft and Logitech mouses measure 200 mickeys for each inch they roll.

Unlike the other two, the Mouse System's mouse must be moved across a special metal plate imprinted with a grid pattern, about nine inches wide and nearly eight inches tall. And this mouse isn't as sensitive as the others, getting only 100 mickeys to the inch. Now that's really a "Mickey Mouse" standard.

Picking a mouse has become even more complicated with the announcement of a higher-precision device (320 mickeys per inch) that will move the cursor across your screen with even less movement. It will be sold for $249 by Moniterm Corp. of Minnetonka, Minn.

Before you go out and buy a mouse, make sure your software can make use of it. Not all programs can.

One very nice use of the mouse is with Lotus 1-2-3 or VP-Planner spreadsheets where the mouse takes over cursor movement. That way you can easily use the numerical keypad on your computer to type in the numbers.

Choosing which mouse to buy is highly subjective. Mouse System's rigid pad can be an advantage in cramped quarters by letting you prop it on the edge of the desk or even in your lap. But the bigger movements it requires are inconvenient. I liked the feel of the Logitech mouse slightly better than the other two, but I haven't tried the new Microsoft model.

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