Home Computer: Plain talk brings sound response: Cliff Joseph finds a few firm words is the way to get the best out of the new Macintoshes

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The Independent Online
ALL THE fuss that has been made about Apple Computer's Newton personal digital assistant has overshadowed two other computers that it is launching this month. The Centris 660AV and Quadra 840AV are the latest additions to its Macintosh range and are the first personal computers of any type to include a voice recognition system as standard.

Instead of entering commands through the keyboard, you simply tell the computer what to do and - unlike the handwriting recognition in the Newton - it works. Most of the time.

The AV stands for audiovisual and the new computers include several features designed to extend the capabilities of ordinary personal computers and turn them into what Apple calls 'personal communications centres'. These features include a built-in CD-rom drive, CD-quality sound recording and playback, the ability to play video signals on the Mac's monitor and even to capture the video signal and store it on the Mac's hard disk.

There is also a new feature called GeoPort which allows the computer to connect to a telephone line without needing a modem.

But it is the voice recognition system, called PlainTalk, that has attracted most attention. PlainTalk is designed to work best with north American accents, but after I adjusted its control settings I found that it was able to accept most of my East End-accented commands, as long as I stuck to simple commands such as 'Open window', 'Save', 'Shutdown' and so on.

That may not sound like much, but even this drastically changes the experience of working with the computer. Instead of being a dumb machine that makes you do all the work, PlainTalk makes the computer seem intelligent and vastly more responsive than an ordinary keyboard-driven machine.

Apple does provide software that allows you to program the machine to understand longer sentences, but like the handwriting recognition in the Newton, it takes a bit of time to get it working properly. It is frustrating when a command is misinterpreted, but a new version that is better adapted to British accents should not be far off. It is probably worth waiting for this, especially since the US version of PlainTalk is still an optional extra in Europe.

The ability to play video on the computer screen might seem like a bit of a gimmick, but companies such as British Telecom have been investing millions of pounds in developing video conferencing systems and the AV Macs make this a practical proposition for the first time. Just plug a video camera into your Mac and then connect the Mac to the telephone line and you have a video and sound link to whoever is on the other end.

Big businesses could save a fortune in executive travel expenses with this system, but it could also be useful for homeworkers who need to link up with clients or their head office occasionally. Failing that, you could just use it to edit your home videos.

Apple's video software is sophisticated enough to store large chunks of video on the hard disk and the CD player accepts ordinary audio CDs as well, so you can even dub a soundtrack onto the video.

Less glamorous, but just as innovative, is GeoPort. This is a socket at the back of the Mac, similar to the sockets used for connecting printers and modems to any computer, which allows the Mac to be directly connected to a telephone line and to handle telephone communications.

With GeoPort you no longer need a modem to connect to bulletin boards such as Cix or CompuServe. All you need is a piece of software to handle the modem commands that transfer data between you and the bulletin board's computer.

That might make GeoPort sound like just a built-in modem, but there is more to it than that. Add another bit of software and the Mac can also act as a fax or telephone answering machine. If you use one of Apple's new AudioVision monitors which have built-in speakers and microphone, you can route telephone calls through the monitor, freeing your hands completely so that you can conduct a telephone conversation through the computer at the same time as typing away at the keyboard. Anyone who has ever tried to perch a telephone on their shoulder while they type will love this feature.

GeoPort and all the other sound and video functions are controlled by a special computer chip called a DSP - digital signal processor. This leaves the computer's main processor free to run programs such as word processors or spreadsheets so that you can carry on working even while the computer is controlling the telephone line. The only fly in the ointment is that GeoPort and Apple's telephone answering software are still waiting for BT approval - expected by next month, according to Apple.

Apple's expertise has always been in making computers easier to use. The Mac's graphical interface was an advance on the PC's text-based Dos operating system and by adding even limited voice control and telecommunications links, Apple genuinely makes its personal computers seem more a personal.

It has also combined those features well. Just connecting a CD drive to a PC-compatible is a nightmare, let alone adding video capture and features such as GeoPort. Yet Apple has integrated all these features so that they work together with little effort needed by the user to set the machine up.

In effect the AV Mac machines are a complete office in a single box. At more than pounds 3,000 the Quadra 840AV that I tested is most likely to appeal to businesses. Home users should go for the cheaper Centris 660AV at under pounds 2,000 - a bargain when you consider the cost of the built-in CD, modem and fax functions.

The Quadra is faster and its larger case provides more room for expansion options such as graphic accelerators, but the Centris is still more than adequate for the home or small business user. As a freelance writer who works from home, I would be more than happy with the Centris.

However, I think I will wait a while for BT approval and a UK version of PlainTalk, but once those ingredients are in place I will be first in the queue.

VITAL STATISTICS:

System: Apple Macintosh

QUADRA 840AV

Hardware: 40 megahertz

Motorola 68040 processor, 8 megabytes main memory, 500-megabyte hard disk, CD-rom drive, microphone, video input.

Software: System 7.1 operating system, PlainTalk voice recognition system (optional)

Street Price: from pounds 3,250

CENTRIS 660AV

Hardware: 25-megahertz Motorola 68040 processor, 8 megabytes main memory, 230-megabyte hard disk, CD-rom drive, microphone, video input.

Software: System 7, PlainTalk (optional)

Street Price: pounds 1,900

Availability: Apple authorised dealers and selected high street electronics retailers

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