It Was Nineteen Years Ago Today

In the continuing look back at old PC magazines, twelve months on from the last piece we’re up to Issue 49 of PC Plus from October 1990. The £2.30 cover price was the same as in October 1989, but the page count was up from 170 to 234, a fair chunk of it in additional advertising from 189 companies, up from 112 the previous year. PCs were starting to take off in the UK with many more companies offering their own systems, mostly 286 and 386s with the odd 8086 or 8088 box at the low end (I still had my Amstrad 1512 at the time). £1000 would *almost* get you a colour VGA 16Mhz 386SX system with 1MB of RAM and 20MB hard disk (£1093, excluding VAT, from Dan Technology); the 33Mhz 386DX was the flagship of most ranges, with Mesh offering a 386-33 with 4MB of memory and a 150MB hard disk for £3595 (if you wanted to install every program in the world, you could even step up to a 766MB hard drive if you had £5475 kicking around.) For upgrading your existing system, a Soundblaster card (“Makes all Sierra games sound like epics!”) could be had for £199, while a 16 bit DFI VGA card with a massive 512K of RAM offered the frankly insane resolution of 1024×758 for £169. A Compact Disk ROM drive was available for £399, though needed a £129 SCSI interface kit if you didn’t already have one of those.

The main reviews were for a couple of new systems. Amstrad, having had major problems with their PC2000 range including having to recall the models with hard drives to replace them, were launching the PC3000 range aiming at more of a business market, with fairly standard components and expansion options and no bundled items (no mouse, no Windows). PC Plus were impressed, giving it 4/5. IBM, meanwhile, were heading in the other direction, trying to branch out into the home market with the PS/1, hoping everyone had forgotten the PC Junior of a few years previous. Though well packaged (“the whole system does come in a single box, and the first thing you see when you unpack it is a booklet already open at the page that says ‘start here’ (…) We had our test machine up and running within six minutes of cutting the parcel tape”) and including IBM DOS 4 on ROM and a copy of Microsoft Works, the PS/1 had negligible expansion capability (it required a whole extra system unit to add any expansion cards, and another system unit for a 5.25″ disk drive) and wasn’t a great performer, with a 10Mhz 286 processor and only 512K of memory in the single floppy versions. Illustrating the difference in take-up of online services, the UK version of the PS/1 came with an RS232 serial port instead of the modem built in to the US version. The PS/1 got 3/5 as an excellent package for the first-time user prepared to pay for the brand name and convenience, though power users and businesses would probably find it somewhat lacking. Though neither range would turn out to be a total disaster, they were never wildly successful. IBM never established itself in the UK home market, and as the PC3000 review pointed out: “the days when Amstrad could open up a huge price gap between itself and the rest of the field are long gone. The PC3000s are undoubtedly very keenly priced but they are not the cheapest on the market”. Extremely price sensitive consumers (like me!) would switch to smaller more agile box-builders, and Amstrad never really gained a significant foothold in businesses, the PC2000 débâcle doubtless not helping.

Also reviewed was Wingz from Informix, a brand new spreadsheet running under either Windows 3.0 or OS/2 Presentation Manager (impressive graphical capabilities, but as a result had heft hardware requirements), and Lotus Magellan 2.0, a file management program that allowed you to search a disk for both file names and strings within files, view several popular file formats without having to fire up seperate applications and backup, restore, undelete, zip and unzip files for £132 (no mouse support, though.) “On The Write Track” was the final instalment in a survey of optical storage technology covering erasable optical disks, not as common as CD ROMs or WORM (Write Once Read Many) drives, possibly because a drive cost £3885, with each 600Mb disc costing a further £285. In the book section, “Alan Sugar – The Amstrad Story” could probably do with an update now to reflect that he’s better known for his role in The Apprentice than cheap consumer electronics.

News announcements included Lotus being sued for patent infringement over sorting sequence routines, WordPerfect introducing LetterPerfect, a cut down word processor that would run on only 330K of memory from a single 720K floppy, and Microsoft releasing version 1.1 of Word for Windows. It was a mixed month for Microsoft. On the plus side, celebrating its 15th anniversary, following the launch of Windows 3 in May they’d already shipped more than 500,000 copies, and reported revenues of $1.18 billion, making them the very first PC software supplier to achieve annual sales of more than £1 billion. It wasn’t all good news, though; C J Gaskell of Preston vowed to never buy any of their products again on the letters page after having great difficulty obtaining disk 8 of Microsoft’s Basic Compiler Verison 7.

The games section is a bit of a disappointment with reviews of Global Dilemma, Breach 2 and King’s Quest IV, none of which I recall playing, though a growing interest in PC games was possibly reflected in several shiny full page colour adverts for Team Yankee (the definitive action simulation of modern tank warfare), Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles (“Cowabunga!! The heroes in a half shell (TM) are coming”) and Kick Off 2.