Amstrad NC100 – computing for beginners

As you’ll have seen recently, I blogged about my newly-acquired Brother EP-44, and I wrote that using an Amstrad NC100. I realised I hadn’t actually blogged about this vintage computer, and as it’s become a go-to machine in my retro collection recently, I thought it was about time I sang its praises.

Amstrad NC100 works anywhere!

It belongs to the same class of computers as the Cambridge Z88 – the portable, battery-powered device with a full size keyboard and a small LCD display. In this case, it was released a few years after the Z88, in 1992, although the spec is quite similar (on paper at least), and you can largely do the same things with it. Like the Z88, it has a unique operating system, and has a word processor built in, along with calculator, address book, basic diary/alarm functions, and BBC Basic for programming. Unlike the Z88, which was aimed at power users and road warriors, the NC100 was specifically designed for computer novices, and much was made of how simple it is to use. The manual really hypes this up, assuming no previous knowledge of computing, and when you power the machine up, the menus presented on-screen are far simpler than those on the Z88. Coloured keys are used as shortcuts to various things. This gives the whole thing a slightly cheesy “My First Computer” vibe that gets a bit annoying, and it makes useful sub-menus and other functions a bit hard to find, but these are minor criticisms.

In a lot of ways, it’s what the Z88 should have been, but wasn’t. I’d argue the Z88 is a better machine in quite a lot of ways, but like everything Clive Sinclair was involved in, just about everything on the Z88 is totally non-standard. The OS is fantastic, and really looks the business, but the serial port is non-standard (not even in the same way as other Sinclair machines), and the transfer protocol needs special software on the receiving computer (unless you’re willing to crack the machine open and install a new ROM). This means that effectively the machine is very tricky to connect to anything else for data transfer these days, unless you’re willing to fork out quite a lot of money for specialist cables and software. Memory expansion is also proprietary and expensive.

The NC100, on the other hand, although limited and a bit annoying in some ways, has none of these problems. It has a PCMCIA slot for additional memory (up to 1MB, enough for a lot of stuff), and on the back are industry-standard RS-232 and Centronics ports for printing and transferring data to and from other computers. The data transfer protocol via RS-232 is XMODEM. These are all old standards and require old kit and uncommon cables to work, but they were all very well-supported in their day, and with a bit of effort, the NC100 will talk to just about every computer you can think of, from vintage 8- and 16-bit machines of the eighties, right up to modern laptops.

This makes the machine perfect for a portable writing device. The keyboard is really nice, not the strange rubber thing on the Z88, and the built-in word processor is Protext, a common multi-platform package of its time. It’s rather quirky by today’s standards, and doing various things with it is a bit fiddly and strange, but if you want to write just about anywhere without distraction, it’s fantastic!

I recently took over the Slow Tech column in The Idler magazine, and for my first piece, I compared various obsolete computers in terms of whether they’re useful today. The NC100 was one of them, and it really led me to appreciate the qualities of these things. Transferring data to a PC takes a bit of effort to set up, but once it’s done, it’s very easy. The default method of data transfer is plain text, so you’ll lose formatting, but I found a type-in BASIC program online that will convert files to Rich Text Format, which of course Word will open directly.

Back in the summer, I had some consultancy work, and I actually used the NC100 to type up some research for the client. I was a bit scared it would crash and lose everything, but it never did. It enabled me to sit myself down in Costa and bash away without any distraction, and it all worked a treat. It was minimal hassle to transfer everything onto my laptop and into Word when I got home.

I’d say that the word processor is about the only thing on the machine really worth using these days – the diary and contacts apps are laughably basic in this day and age, and effectively useless. You’re far better off sticking to a smartphone for that stuff. But…for writers, this thing really has potential. It’s interesting to compare it to my Alphasmart, the highly-revered machine beloved by many a writer. The Alphasmart is extremely basic, but benefits from longer battery life and easier connection to modern machines for text transfer. However, it’s really only suitable for drafting. The NC100 allows rather more editing and control over your work, and can even print finished documents if you have the right tech (which, of course, I do in the form of my EP-44).

It’s interesting that the Z88 has more enthusiast support, with new versions of the OS and a range of extra software, but it does strike me that this has happened because it’s necessary if you want to keep using them. The NC100 was good enough in the first place not to need any new bells and whistles, and did the job straight out of the box.

I got mine for a good price on eBay, although I did have some hassles with the seller when I initially couldn’t get the machine working properly. It soured my early NC100 user experience, but once I got all that resolved, I really took a shine to the thing. My Z88 is now gathering dust, and even my Alphasmart sees less use these days. If you like your vintage tech to earn its keep, you could do a lot worse than this!

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