Remembering: The Amstrad PCW8256

Amstrad PCW8256After the ZX81 and BBC Micro, the last non-PC computer in my house growing up was Amstrad’s PCW8256. That’s somewhat appropriate given my recent review of Micro Men, which ended with ZX81 maker Clive Sinclair and BBC Micro maker Chris Currie bemoaning the way the market had been taken over by Amstrad’s Alan Sugar.

The PCW8256 was not a particularly fun or fashionable machine, but aside from that it was arguably the Apple Mac of its day. Its most notable feature was that, other than peripherals such as the keyboard and printer, everything was built into the monitor, which also housed the disk drive.

Said monitor was a green-screen monochrome affair, which looks ridiculous now but, at the time, had something of a mystical power as a sign of true futuristic style. As a pre-teen, my understanding was that black and white screens were for playing games, while green screens were for playing the same games against the United States nuclear command computer. Sadly this proved not to be the case.

The primary purpose of the 8256 was as a word processor; indeed PCW stood for Personal Computer Wordprocessor. (There are stories it was originally planned to be WPC but that this was rejected as, at the time, that acronym was more commonly used for a Woman Police Constable.) And it has to be said that it did this well, via the built-in Locoscript system. It also had a remarkable reputation for virtually never crashing, which was of course a major benefit of simplicity.

Another notable characteristic of the PCW8256, which it certainly didn’t share with the Mac, was its price. Launched in 1985 for £399 (equivalent to just under £1,000 or $1,600 today) it was around a sixth of the price of the cheapest PC at the time and at one point had a 60% share of the British home computing market.

Perhaps the most noteworthy quirk of the machine, however, was that it used 3” floppy disks rather than the 3.5” versions which became established as the standard. In 1995 when I began my journalism training, we were instructed to bring two of these disks with us. By this stage they were virtually impossible to find and my coursemates and I were unimpressed when we rolled up to start our courses and discovered that the university’s PCW fleet was long retired and that finding the disks had simply been a test of our resourcefulness.

emailerAs for Sugar, he went on to make money from selling satellite dishes and then lose some of it producing the utterly bizarre E-m@iler, a telephone with a built-in keyboard which could send and receive e-mails. By the time it was released in 2000, the market had already reached the point where anyone who desperately wanted e-mail access would simply buy a computer. Throw in the fact that checking e-mail on the device involved calling a premium-rate line and the device was a classic example of producing a technology because it was possible, not because it was needed.

Still, Sugar had the last laugh when he took the Donald Trump role in the British version of The Apprentice, which is still going strong after five years.