Maker of educational toys aims new home computer at children

Personal computers

May 20, 1991|By Michael J. Himowitz | Michael J. Himowitz,Evening Sun Staff

In the early 1980s, a lot of big manufacturers lost a bundle trying to sell the American public cheap home computers that wound up in closets because they were too hard to use or too underpowered to be useful.

But a Midwestern educational toymaker thinks it can succeed today where the giants failed with a feature-packed $200 home computer aimed squarely at kids.

Like its ancestors, the IQ Unlimited from V-Tech of Wheeling, Ill., hooks up to a home TV. But unlike the older machines, the IQ comes with a useful, built-in software package that includes a word processor, spreadsheet, database, graphing program, paint program, calendar and a couple of educational games.

To keep the package cheap and simple, V-Tech has eliminated the frills. You can't even buy a disk drive for the machine, which stores documents in battery-backed memory. The only add-on is a 64K memory cartridge for extra storage.

For hard copy, you can buy a $200 IQ printer, or hook it to any Epson-compatible dot matrix machine. These are available in discount houses for as little as $160.

V-Tech officials, who will put the machine on sale in mass market outlets in September, are aiming squarely at the 84 percent of American homes that don't have computers. Their research indicates that many buyers resist computers because they're too expensive and hard to use.

The IQ Unlimited is neither. It might best be described as a business computer for kids. No game cartridges, no joystick. It's designed to give youngsters the ability to do their schoolwork and have a little fun while they learn computing skills they can apply to more powerful machines as they grow older.

In fact, the keyboard on the preproduction IQ unit I tested mimics the standard IBM-AT keyboard layout. The programs built into the computer's read-only memory (ROM) also use a simplified version the Common User Interface popular with publishers of software for IBM-compatibles.

The interface uses pull-down menus that make it easy to learn a variety of programs, all of which use the same basic command structure.

Under the hood of the compact desktop unit is a venerable eight-bit, Z80 processor, souped up to run at 5 mHz to accommodate the IQ's graphical interface.

The machine has 128K of memory, split between the IQ's built-in programs and a storage area for documents. There are two battery compartments. One takes four "AA" cells that keep the machine's memory alive even when the computer is turned off.

The second holds four "C" cells that will power the computer for several hours if you don't want to plug in the AC adapter.

The non-volatile memory allows the machine to function without a disk drive, although I don't know that I'd want to trust weeks of work on a term paper to a handful of drugstore batteries. If they die, so does everything you've stored. Fortunately, the machine warns you when the batteries need replacement.

The IQ greets you with a colorful screen containing pictures, or icons, representing the computer's 12 application programs. Just use your cursor keys to highlight the program you want and hit the enter key to start it up.

Evaluating the IQ's software is like a doing a ballet review of a dog walking on its hind legs. The point isn't how well the dog walks, but the fact that it walks at all.

While none of the applications comes close to the standards of a business PC, the IQ's programmers have crammed an amazing amount of functionality into a tiny chunk of memory.

Most youngsters will probably want to use the IQ's word processor first. Unfortunately, it may be the weakest of the applications.

The biggest problem is the screen display. The IQ offers two displays, one with 80 small characters across and another with 40 larger characters. Only a very good TV or composite monitor will provide a legible 80-character display.

Apple II programmers solved this problem years ago by displaying text in 40-column mode while printing it at 80 columns. Unfortunately, the only way to get the IQ to wrap text within the confines of the 40-character screen is to change the margins. That means you get a 40-character wide printout, too. Reformatting the text for 80 columns is a tedious manual job.

Still, the word processor allows simple headers and footers an lets you move, copy or delete blocks of text. It also has a spelling checker, if you have a lot of patience. It's slow.

The spreadsheet performs basic math functions on rows an columns of numbers, while the database will handle simple mailing lists and other chores. A youngster who learns how to use these will have no trouble moving on to similar applications on standard PC's.

The perpetual calendar allows you to enter up to three lines o information about appointments or other items for any date (not a bad way to keep track of homework as signments), while the calculator includes a nifty set of routines that will convert various units of measurement between their English and metric counterparts.

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