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Top 12 computers of 1984.

 CREATIVE COMPUTING VOL. 10, NO. 12 / DECEMBER 1984 / PAGE 10

Top 12 computers of 1984. David H. Ahl.

The title of this piece probably should have been, "Our Pick For the Best Computer in Each of 12 Categories From Those Computers Available in Late 1984." However, that title didn't exactly roll off the tonque. Nevertheless, we probably should specify the ground rules of this competition.

Our criteria for choosing the best computer in a category were very similar to those a prospective purchaser might have. We did not just look at the number of bits in the processor, computational speed, graphics resolution, and other easily measured variables. Rather, we tried to consider how well a computer was likely to meet the needs of a user.

As a result, we looked at the machine itself including the internal and external specifications, quality of assembly, and expected reliability. We considered the ease of use, ease of set-up and interconnection, and clarity of the documentation. We also considered how widely the machine was, or is likely to be, available and where it could be serviced. We took software into account: how much is available both from the manufacturer and from third party vendors, and how easy it is to write your own. Finally, we considered the manufacturer: do they provide appropriate support, does their marketing make sense, and are they likely to be around for the next five years?

We asked the editors-in-chief of the Ziff-Davis computer magazines to vote along with our own editor in each of the 12 categories for the best computer and runner-up. We also asked for each one's choice of the best all-around system regardless of category or price. Hence, we had 13 very knowledgeable people selecting the winners. In the case of ties or close contests, the final decision was made by us at Creative Computing and, in two cases, by me personally.

What the voting indicated is that the choice of a personal computer is, indeed, a very personal thing. To some people, the technology is the important thing (a Porsche over a Buick any day of the week); to others, memory and disk capacity is crucial (Vanwagon over a Civic); while to others, software and support come first (Chevy over a Fiat). However, when the dust settled, one machine emerged at the top--sometimes just barely--in each category. In the individual writeups, we will mention the close contenders and near winners. Notebook Portables--Under $1000

This category emerged with a very clear winner, but nearly everyone commented, "IF such-and-such had only done this," or "I really like the XYZ, except for . . ."

The clear winner is the Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 100. Current list price is $599 for the 8K version and $799 for the 24K version. We feel that the 8K version is practically useless, and that 24K is needed for any serious word processing or computing.

Closest runner-up was the NEC PC-8201, very nearly a twin brother of the Model 100. The 8201 has some advantages over the Model 100 (cursor control keys laid out in a logical diamond pattern, more memory, direct on-screen editing of Basic programs, and optional plug-in memory cartridges). Nevertheless, the Model 100 emerged as the leader because of its built in modem, slightly more compact size, more support by third-party software manufacturers, and considerably better retail distribution.

Other notable contenders in this category included the Sord IS-11 and Epson PX-8. We liked the built-in software and microcassette recorder of the Sord, but we haven't seen much evidence of widespread availability. The Epson PX-8 could be a future winner with its "real" operating system (CP/M) and software packages scaled down from desktop machines, assuming it does not suffer from the lackluster marketing lavished by Epson on the HX-20. Notebook Portable--$1000 to $2500

Except for a few enthusiasts who thought the Apple IIc belonged in this category (maybe it will when the LCD display is available), our editors were remarkably consistent in choosing the Sharp PC-5000 as the winner in the $1000 to $2500 range. Actually, there was a bit of grumbling because while most thought that the Sharp computer was a wonderful piece of hardware, they were equally disappointed with the lack of retail availability and questionable support from both the manufacturer and third part vendors.

At Sharp, positions with the computer group seem to be connected with a revolving door; as a result, the company has never quite gotten its act together. On the other hand, Sharp has just reduced the price of the PC-5000 to $1995 including the printer, thus making it an even more attractive buy. Notebook Portable--Price is no Object

Althoughin in this category we say, "price is no object," that does not mean that we didn't consider price in our overall judgment in arriving at a winner. In some cases, the highest priced computer is truly the best. On the other hand, sometimes a doubling of the price buys features that are only marginally better. Consider: if you are looking for a speedy car, is the Ruf Porsche 930 Turbo (186 mph, $58,780) worth nearly twice as much as the Porsche 928S (162 mph, $33.395)? To some people it is: to others it isn't.

In judging computers in the "price is no object" categories, we considered features; however, in the end, we ranked value per dollar more highly than features alone.

This category (and one other) had the highest unanimity in the voting. The overwhelming winner was the Hewlett Packard Portable. It has nearly everything you could wish for: true 16-bit CMOS 8086 mpu, 272K of RAM 384K of ROM with Lotus 1-2-3 and MemoMaker built in, gobs of software, excellent HP support, and a surprisingly modest price ($2995).

Oh sure, we had some holdouts voting for the Gavilan and Grid Compass. There is no question that the Gavilan looks good on paper, but we worry when a company refuses to lend us a computer for in-depth testing. In the case of the Grid, a price tag in the $7000-8000 range doesn't make much sense considering that for the same money you can buy an HP Portable plus an outstanding desktop system plus a home system. Desktop System--Under $2000

We expected the voting in the three desktop categories to be all over the ballpark. After all, there are more desktop computers than everything else put together, and one or more are available to meet the needs of practically anyone. Imagine our surprise then, when we tallied up the votes and came up with a clear winner in the under $2000 category. And imagine our added surprise upon finding the winner was an update of a computer first introduced in August 1977. Yes, the Apple II was introduced in 1977 (but in April, not August); our winner is the Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 4.

Actually, believe it or not, the Model III got just as many votes as the Model 4 (we "upgraded" the votes to the Model 4). At the current closeout prices of the Model III, noted several editors, nothing can touch it. However, at the closeout prices, the few remaining machines didn't last long. Anyway, the price of the Model 4 has been reduced to a real bargain level ($1299 with two disk drives).

We can attest to the durability of the Model III having used it for years for word processing and typesetting. The Model 4 is practically the same machine with several enhancements: faster processor, more memory, higher screen resolution, function keys, improved operating system, job control language, and prettier packaging.

The Apple II (e and c) was the runner up in this category. It had no major detractions--in fact, its color graphics run rings around the monochrome graphics of the Model 4--and is an excellent buy. The Morrow Micro Decision also received several votes; with similar capabilities to the Model 4 plus a stack of seven bundled software packages for just $1599, it, too, is an excellent buy. The new, improved IBM PCjr even had a supporter, but what the heck, if you are the editor of PCjr magazine, what else can you do? Desktop Systems--$2000 to $4000

Wow! Talk about muddy water! No fewer than six computers received first place votes in this category, and three more were mentioned as runners up. Moreover, they weren't even all IBM clones as one might have expected--MS-DOS, CP/M, and several proprietary operating systems were represented.

Rising through the muddy water to emerge victorious was the--can you believe it?--IBM PC. The PC is the most copied and "improved upon" computer of all time and it is not an innovative or state-of-the-art design, yet we chose the original PC as the best in this category. Why?

First, the PC was the original. Compatibility of the clones is always measured against the original; with the PC, there are no such questions. There are more peripherals and software packages for the PC than practically any computer in history. Support is ubiquitous. Resale value is good. And it is the standard. A configuration with 256K, two floppy disk drives, and monochrome monitor will cost in the neighborhood of $2300.

Ironically, neither of the two machines that tied for first runner up was a PC clone. They were: the Epson QX-10 and the Apple Macintosh. The Valdocs operating system on the QX-10 is one of the friendliest in the world--also one of the slowest. Had it not been for that, it probably would have received more votes. The new Valdocs 2.0 is said to be considerably faster; for Epson's sake, we hope it is.

The Apple Macintosh is state-of-the-art in black and white. A small foot-print, fabulous graphics, 3-1/2" disk, mouse, but unfortunately, a paucity of software so far. Yes, we have all seen the Apple ads picturing many wonderful software packages for the Mac; the only trouble is, dealers don't have them--at least not yet.

Another non-IBM clone that attracted some attention was the ACT Apricot. The ACT Apricot family of seven machines is the first completely upward-compatible line of machines ranging from a low-end educational system to a 32-user local areas network.

The top-ranked MS-DOS machine in this group was the TIProfessional. Although the TI Pro has a relatively lwo level of compatibility with the IBM PC, it offers many significant advantages: improved color and graphics, faster performance, and better keyboard. Also receiving votes were several other IBM compatibles: Compaq, Columbia, Eagle, and NEC. Desktop System--Price is no Object

As in the previous category, Big Blue came out on top--this time with the newest machine in the stable, the PC AT. IBM need make no apologies about the AT; it is an innovative, state-of-the-art computer that has the competition gasping for breath. It is fast, expandable to 3Mb of RAM, has eight expansion slots, 1.2Mb high-capacity disk drives, optional 20Mb hard disk, excellent keyboard, and much more. The enhanced model--why get any other?--will set you back $5795 (with 512K, one floppy drive, 20Mb Winchester, and serial/parallel board, but no monitor). If you want a state-of-the-art machine at a top-of-the-line price, this is it.

First runner up in this category is the Apple Lisa 2/10. The big advantage of the Lisa over the Macintosh is its ability to load software on a hard disk. Also, Apple's new integrated software package for the Lisa is a beauty; people struggling with Symphony and Framework will really be envious of this. Apple has lowered the price of the Lisa systems; nevertheless, street prices are still in excess of $6000.

Other systems receving votes included the DEC Pro/380, AT&T 3B2, Dimension, and Compaq Deskpro. Transportable--Under $2500

We had some interesting voting in both transportable categories and also some abstentions, accompanied by comments such as, "With the amount of capability in notebook portables, I can't see the value in a transportable anymore," and "I can't stand these machines." As we looked into the situation further, we were confronted with the view that the main reason that the Osborne was a success was not that it was transportable, but that it came with a pile of bundled software.

Today, a typical transportable takes up almost as much space on a desk as a desktop system. The screen size is generally smaller than a desktop system and, at a typical weight of 30 pounds, it really isn't very portable. So we have an in between category--neither fish nor fowl--that has a curious mixture of advantages and disadvantages.

Popping to the top in the lower price category is a machine that follows in the Osborne tradition of bundled software, the Kaypro 2. Its 9" monitor is two steps up from the original 5" monitor on the Osborne 01. A dual drive unit with an incredible array of software (MBasic, WordStar, CalcStar, DataStar, SuperSort, MailMerge, Profit Plan and Multi-format) goes for an astounding $1295.

It is too bad that Actrix is in Chapter 11, because the Actrix Computer tied for runner up. The Actrix has a built-in Epson printer and several other innovations. They took nearly a year to change their name from Access Matrix to Actrix and in the process lost critical momentum. Too bad.

The Compaq Portable tied with the Actrix, but the votes were based on some low street prices rather than on the list price ($2695). On the other hand, the Panasonic Sr. Partner and Seequa Cheleon each garnered a few votes and, when the Actrix and Compaq, are disqualified, they share second place. Transportable--Over $2500

Despite a few abstentions, there was no question as to the winner here, the Compaq Plus. It was almost as though there were no other machines. In fact, there was little question as to the most desirable configuration: 256K, 10Mb hard disk, and one floppy drive at a street price of around $5000.

The runner up is an interesting one. It is not even a computer normally thoughth of as a transportable, the Apple Macintosh. Want a description" Read on ahead. Home Computer--Under $500

The overwhelming winner in this category was the Commodore 64. Everyone had comments (complaints) about it--slow disk drive, only two cursor directional keys, zero manufacturer support, non-standard interfaces, etc.--but still felt it was by far the best. For the price (generally under $200), you can't get another system with the same features: 64K, color, sprite graphics, and barrels of available software.

Even the new Commodore Plus 4 is not expcted by our editors to be a real contender against the C64. Although it has built-in "integrated" software and good directional keys, it lacks the sprite graphics and will not run much of the software developed for the C64. Thus, we think it will be quite a while, if ever, before it catches up.

Runner up in the under $500 home computer category was the Radio Shack Color Computer. The machine uses the somewhat unfamiliar 6809 mpu, thus software has been a bit slow in coming. Of course, Radio Shack doesn't exactly encourage third-party developers either.

Several editors commented that the Spectra Video 328 and 728 are really the machines of choice in this category; it's just too bad that Spectra Video has experienced some rather severe financial problems.

Although Atari fans were discouraged by the recent turn of events in Sunnyvale, various Atari systems received votes in both home categories. At the current under $200 price, the 800XL is an excellent buy, but people said they would have a warmer feeling about recommending the machine if they were sure the company would be around two years from now.

Oh yes, one editor voted for the TI 99/4A, commenting that you could buy five of them for the price of a C64. But who needs five home computers? Home Computer--Over $500

In the voting for this category, the old, familiar question came to the fore, "What are you going to do with it?" Those people who considered a home system an extension of the one at the office leaned toward a duplicate (or compatible) of whatever they had at the office. People with young kids wanted a machine to run educational software, while those with older children leaned toward a machine with word processing capabilities.

Despite these sometimes conflicting requirements, the winner turned out quite clearly to be the Apple II. Perhaps we said "quite clearly" too soon since the Apple II votes were split nearly in half for the IIe and IIc. The IIe got one more vote than the IIc, but either one is a good choice. The IIe, because of its ability to accept plug in boards, will have greater appeal for the experimenter. The IIc is designed for use as is. we would probably lean to a IIe for color graphics, educational applications, and games, while the IIc would get our nod for word processing and business related applications. An Apple IIe with 80-column card and monochrome monitor runs around $1000; a IIc goes for $1200 or so.

First runner up was the IBM PCjr--new, enhanced version only--for its ability to run IBM PC applications at home. Although there are some nice home and educational software packages for the PCjr, we think that if those are your primary reasons for buying a system, the Apple is a better bet. Be sure to check out the application you want to run on the PCjr; we understand that some of the applications that are supposed to run don't seem to.

The Apple Macintosh garnered a few votes in this category and there was one lone voted for the Coleco Adam. Despite offering excellent price/performance, we do not have warm feelings about Coleco's marketing approach for the Adam: mass merchandisers, TV promotion, promise 'em anything. It takes a different approach to market computers than to hawk Cabbage Patch dolls and big wheels. Educational System--Under $1000

No wonder educators are having so much trouble figuring out which computers to get. The choice is not at all clear; furthermore, manufacturers are offering educational discounts, multi-unit purchase contracts, free software, and all kinds of deals to muddy the water. In our voting, we stuck to the list prices and tried to skirt the special deal quagmire.

Incidentally, we feel that an educational system must have a disk drive and monitor (or TV set), preferably color. Hence, we are including these elements in the system price. As a result, many computers for which the basic machine price is under $1000 wound up in the over $1000 category.

Even so, we had problems. Edging into first place by a hiar was the Radio Shack Color Computer. While not as much educational software exists for the Color Computer as for the Commodore 64, it is generally of better qaulity. Furthermore, Radio Shack has a substantial corporate commitment to support the education market compared to virtually none at Commodore.

Not many other systems are priced under $1000 (list price) complete with disk drive and display. The Atari 600XL and 800XL got a few votes, but the same comments apply here--even more so--as in the home market. Educational System--Over $1000

In this category, we had three major contenders and three lesser contenders. All six have a great deal to offer to educators, and, depending upon the circumstances, any one of the six could be the "right" choice. However, in our poll, one system emerged as the winner, the Apple IIe.

Apple has had a major commitment to the education market almost since the founding of the company. Moreover, the "open architecture" of the Apply family of machines has attracted many peripheral manufacturers and software publishers to produce educational applications for it. As a result, there is a tremendous body of intereting and innovative educational material available for the Apple ranging from real-time science experiments to special keyboards for preschoolers. In our minds, there is no question about which Apple to choose; for schools, the IIe offers greater flexibility and a lower price. Coupled with one or two disk drives, an 80-column board (not vital), and a color monitor, it is the configuration of choice.

The two other major contenders were the IBM PC (and new PCjr) and the Radio Shack Model 4. Both companies are committed to the education market and provide appropriate handholding. Close behind was the Acorn BBC computer, far and away the number one educational system in England, but one which has had a rough time getting off the ground in the U.S.

Another British entry in this race was the Memotech, an innovative, capable machine, but one with spotty support in the U.S. And we can't overlook the Apple Macintosh which is coming on strong in the college market. As more software becomes available, it should be a major contender at lower educational levels and in the home. All-Around System--Any price

With 13 people each casting a vote for a winner and runner up, you would think there would be a clear overall winner. Not so. Not only is there no clear winner, but there is no winner at all. All told, 12 computers were mentioned, and no single one got more than two first on one or two votes, we think the sensible thing to do is to simply let you make up your own mind. Any one of these systems--and probably a dozen others--would make a fine choice although, as always, it is vital for you to define your application(s) first, then choose the software, and finally, the hardware.

Although there was no single best all-around system, we noted that one system stood out because it was mentioned in so many categories. Although many systems were mentioned in two categories, just two systems were mentioned in three categories, and only one in four categories--the Apple Macintosh. It received votes in the desktop, transportable, educational, home categories. That may not make it the best all-around system, but it certainly is worthy of mention and at least a silver medal.

So there you have it, the 12 best computers on the market today. Stay tuned to Creative Computing for our continuing reviews of the latest systems and, next December, for our annual 12 best awards.