Sunday, October 01, 2017

RetroChallenge 2017/10: Part 1

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The NEC PC-8401 a Starlet in the Press?

NEC PC-8401A Review in Creative Computing Magazine
The NEC PC-8401, AKA the Starlet premiered at the November 1984 Comdex show, a year after the Tandy Model 100 made its splash. (As an aside, glimpse the Model 100 at the 1983 show in this remarkable footage). The rise of the portable computing has begun, and a new world order soon to be dominated by IBM compatibility is starting to play out. Where does our little NEC offering fit in?

Unfortunately for us, there are scant references to the PC-8401BM in its contemporary computer press, or so it would appear by the lack of articles available on the internet archive. This is a trend that continues, even against the current rise of 'retro' computing within the global consciousness. The 1984 Comex appearance of the PC-8401 is however noted in Infoworld 1984-12-17 magazine.

That the PC-8401 lacks a perceptible public success may not accurately indicate it market penetration, particularly considering its main reason for being was to serve a business oriented market. It is therefore not so unsurprising that hobbyists of the period may have ignored the PC-8401 as expensive business machine, with that the business positioning still limiting any appeal for today's retro collectors or enthusiast.

The only extensive review of the PC-8401 from the time period available over at the Internet Archive is a write up in the March 1985 issue of Creative Computing Magazine by David H Ahl's. The review is based around the model PC-8401A not the PC-8401BM which I'll be using over the course of the RetroChallenge.

Overall the Creative Computing review is a positive one, with the only major criticism levelled at the small display area on the Model 8401A, an issue addressed on the 8401BM. The included software, built into the machines ROMS is noted favourably, Wordstar-To-Go which is found to lacking in some of features available in the desktop version, a minor let down and scores only reluctant approval.

Interestingly what we could surmise as the reasons behind the failure of the 8401 to enter the popular consciousness are highlighted at the end of the Creative Computing article. Firstly NECs failure to include BASIC in ROM at once precludes the machine from hobbyist usage. While the lack of programming languages provided by default on computers today is a non-issue, in 1984 this was often the pathway for home hackers to explore a computers capacities. Secondly, and more interestingly it seems NEC had a less than stellar marketing division (at least outside of Japan).

In retrospect, NEC should possibly have paid close attention to Creative Computing closing summary, as now the trail and magazine reviews go cold. There are of course many gaps in the Internet Archives collection of 80s computer magazines, even so the range of coverage still available and the lack of NEC PC8401 mentions in them would seem to confirm David H Ahl's concerns.

Luckily the target business market did procure and use enough PC-8401s that they haven't all gone to landfill, and somehow a PC-8401BM even managed to keep it's manuals intact, make its way to me and so we'll have something more to examine for the month long RetroChallenge.

The rather colourful NEC PC-8401BM User Guides.

See RetroChallenge IntroPart 1Part_2Part 3Part 4, Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8
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