A staff member approached me recently and asked what computer she should buy. The trouble with being a so-called expert is that people look to you for quick answers. My stock reply is to ask: What do you want to be able to do with a computer?
Further questioning revealed that this teacher wanted to be able to create documents of various kinds and use a database and spreadsheet. The Acorn Pocket Book, a palmtop computer, was deemed too small, a fully fledged desktop computer too large, and a laptop too expensive. I was stuck, until I discovered dedicated word-processor computers in a high-street shop.
Vaguely resembling the portable electric typewriters of yesteryear, these machines offer an all-in-one solution with built-in software, LCD screen and printer. All are able to save text to floppy disc for transfer to a desktop computer.
Priced between Pounds 350 and Pounds 500, they seemed to be just the ticket for teachers who want to have the benefits of information technology without undue cost or inconvenience. But are they the answer for the busy person? I decided to take a closer look at two popular machines.
The Canon Starwriter 550C is very compact and light. Its clamshell design means you simply plug it in, open it up and you're ready to write. It uses a reflective LCD display of 80 characters, 16 lines deep, and has a built-in colour bubblejet printer. It includes six applications: word-processor, greeting cards, clip art (some in colour), spreadsheet, label program (Avery) and address book. With it you can produce virtually everything you may ever need. All applications are menu-driven and all features are applied in combination key presses using either the CODE or MODE keys.
The word-processor has a wide range of features with up to five fonts, five styles, seven colours and five sizes. There's ability to add clip art, too. The speed and quality of the final print is all you would expect from Canon and is certainly well above the competition. The only disadvantage on this otherwise excellent machine is the lack of a large, backlit LCD screen and the fact that the modus operandi is not particularly intuitive, which meant that on more than one occasion I was thumbing through the large manual in order to learn how to do something. With perseverance and familiarity, you can get some excellent results.
The Sharp FontWriter FW-760 is a neat, portable solution. Although larger than the StarWriter, it is nevertheless compact and weighs no more than 5.5kg. It neatly combines an easy-to-read backlit (114 by 35mm) LCD display and built-in mono printer. It offers eight applications: word processor, spreadsheet, address book, label printing, utilities, multilingual translator, card printing, and clip art, and also has a DOS- compatible floppy disc drive for unlimited document storage. A novel feature of the FW-760 is the multilingual document generator, which converts from a series of document templates into French, German, Italian or Spanish.
The WordPerfect-compatible word processor works with WYSIWYG text, pull-down menus, an on-screen help guide and comprehensive spell-check and thesaurus. There's a choice of five fonts in up to 20 sizes and five shading patterns and character outline with a wide range of graphic symbols. A Lotus 1-2-3-compatible spreadsheet has a choice of three file formats and incorporates an automatic chartgraph drawing function.
My nine-year-old son started using the word processor as soon as it arrived which testifies to the machine's ease of use. The disadvantage is the monochrome output and slow print speed.
Like every all-in-one solution, there have to be compromises, and personal word processors are no exception. There's not one that I would call a perfect writing machine, yet each has some excellent features. Once again it's a case of trying them and deciding which compromise best suits you.
Most of these machines are not suited to children of primary age, who would gain more from a simpler machine such as the Tandy DreamWriter 200 (see below).