What's it like today?
The Amstrad PCW-series of computers were introduced as easy to use dedicated word processor machines, bundled with a printer and word processing software (Locoscript). In 1985 the PCW8256 was launched with 256K of RAM, a 12" green-on-black screen, and a single 3" floppy disk drive to the top-right of the display (actually in PCW-speak, disks were sometimes spelled 'discs'). They were unique in the market with their integrated design - the main computer board, drive, and screen all in a single unit.
The PCW8256 was sold with a 9-pin dot matrix printer that provided both sheed feed for single sheets and tractor feed for continuous sheets. It could print at 90 cps (characters per second) in draft quality, or 20 cps in near-letter quality, although all 9-pin printers of the era produced nothing like to quality of 24-pin dot matrix printers). Owners could purchase a daisy-wheel printer or a graph plotter from Amstrad if they required better and faster printing.
The PCW8256 was supplied with two single-density master program discs: one for the operating system, for which the PCW8256 used a version of CP/M called CP/M Plus and the Locoscript 1 word processor, and the second containing more bundled software written by Locomotive software. This included Mallard BASIC, LocoMail, LocoFile, LocoSpell and Digital Research's LOGO programming language. Also bundled was a graphics program that could produce pie charts and bar graphs.
As with Amstrad's CPC-range of home computers, the PCW8256 units came with a single built-in 3" disk drive that used CF2 single-sided disks (180K on each side, able to store about 70 pages of text on each side).
Within two years the limitations of the PCW8256 were apparent with its limited 256 KB of RAM and disk capacity, so Amstrad released the PCW8512. This got two drives as standard, with the second drive below the first one mounted vertically to the right of the screen. This one however had two drive read/write heads and could handle double-density disks (360K on each side), thus allowing both sides of a disk to be readable without removing and turning it over while also doubling its overall storage capacity. Aside from these two upgrades (memory and 2nd drive), there was little difference between the two models.
Due to runaway sales success, various expansion options and peripherals became available. A PCW8256 owner could upgrade the RAM to 512K for £50, or add a second internal floppy drive for £100. Available accessories included external 3.5" floppy drives, light pens, mice, graphics tablets, and a serial interface (£50) for connecting a modem or non-Amstrad printer. These accessories typically plugged into the expansion slot at the back of the monitor.
In 1987, the PCW9512 (see top) was introduced for £499+VAT and came bundled with the better quality and faster daisywheel printer, a single 3" 720K floppy disk drive, and a black on white display. The cream-coloured PCW case was a redesign in order to be more stylish and up to date. Recognising that the supplied daisywheel printer may not be for everyone, Amstrad fitted the 9512 with a standard Centronics parallel printer port from the outset and the ensemble was bundled with an early version of LocoScript 2 which did support a limited range of external printers - it also added a spell checker and mail merge capabilities. Aside from these updates, the 9512 was the same as the PCW8512. The print quality of the daisywheel made it eminently suitable for many offices, notably solicitors and accountants for whom the lack of italic and variable type sizes was outweighed by the printer being able to take A4 paper sideways (landscape) for large spreadsheets. Many writers also found the PCW9512 a better tool than an electric typewriter.
These machines were succeeded in 1991 by the PCW9256 and the PCW9512+. The PCW9512+ was a rework of the PCW9512 but got the more standard 3.5" disk drive to replace the 3" Hitachi drives used by all other models, and a choice of either the Amstrad daisywheel printer or a new Canon Bubblejet printer (BJ10e initially, then later the BJ10ex and finally the BJ10sx).
The PCW9256 was similar but with half the RAM, no Centronics parallel port and only one printer choice - a restyled version of the same 9-pin dot-matrix printer that shipped with the earlier PCW8256 and PCW8512. Like the PCW9512 though it also transitioned to the 3.5" disk format. It also came with the older Locoscript v1. Its 256K of RAM made it too restrictive for those who wanted to upgrade to Loco 2 or later. Not surprisingly, most of the production went to the remaindered merchants and were sold at knock-down prices just as had the 8256's after the 8512 and 9512 came along.
In August 1993, all these models were replaced by the PcW-10, which looked like the PCW9256 but with 512K of RAM, came with a Centronics parallel port, and ran its Z80 at a faster 8 MHz. It came with the same keyboard and 9-pin dot matrix printer as the 9256, along with the platform for it that sat on top of the monitor. Software-wise, it still ran CP/M as the core operating system and Locoscript v1.5 as the word processor, but the boot disks of previous systems were no longer compatible. The PcWs now used "EMT" files rather than EMS (early morning start) files. Expansion possibilities were the same as for all prior PCWs - the expansion port on the PcW-10 is the same as the original PCW8256.
Unfortunately, the PcW-10 did not sell well in the market. This was primarily blamed on its poor print quality, lack of compatibility with MS-DOS systems, and slow CPU. As a result, production ceased early and few of these were produced.
The PcW-16, introduced in 1995 for £299+VAT, was the last "Personal Computer Word Processor" to roll out of Amstrad. Just as with the former PCWs, it was marketed at individuals who would otherwise buy a typewriter. It was, however, a major departure from what came before, sharing no hardware with previous PCW machines apart from still using a Zilog Z80 CPU at its heart. However, instead of having an internal hard disk drive, the Operating System and user files were stored on a 1 Mb flash memory chip, avoiding the need for boot disks. It ran a Zilog Z80A at 16 MHz, and came with a 1.44 Mb 3.5" floppy disk drive, 1 Mb of RAM, a monochrome 640 x 480 display, and a Mouse Systems-compatible mouse. The PCW-16 also had some software improvements, in the form of a brand new operating system, "Rosanne", which was written by Creative Technology (the same company that produced the PCW's "MicroDesign" desktop publishing package), and looked similar to Apple's Mac OS. The PCW-16 did not sell well, and suffered from complete incompatibility with previous PCW machines, although it did support the importing of older PCW documents. Neither Locoscript nor CP/M would run on it. Rather oddly, the PcW-16 did not come bundled with a printer.
The PCW machines were not designed for playing games, although some authors did manage to port several games to work on them. Of note, popular home computer titles including Batman, Head over Heels, and Bounder were able to run, albeit slowly.
A freeware multitasking operating system was available (and still is!) for the PCW range, called SymbOS. SymbOS runs on all Amstrad CPC and PCW machines as well as MSX2 computers, and comes bundled with a 'Windows'-like graphical user interface. It supports hard disks up to 128 GB, supporting CP/M, AMSDOS, FAT12, FAT16 and FAT32 file systems. Go across to the SymbOS home page for more information!