Keep your faithful Amstrad alive with a little TLC

Should you soldier on with your PCW or trade it in? Sue Gee checks out the options

When the Amstrad PCW was launched in 1985 it caused a sensation among the typewriting classes. Up to then, word-processors were limited strictly to offices - with a printer, they would cost at least pounds 2,500. Yet here was a word-processor with all the software you needed and a printer. It cost pounds 399.

But with the unstoppable rise of the PC, the non-PC compatible PCW was laid to rest just over a year ago. Many of the 1.5 million PCWs built are still in use, but their owners at some stage will have to face up to a choice. Should they trade it in for the latest in whizzbang hardware, or should they soldier on? One encouraging fact for the stick-with-it brigade is that there is a flourishing PCW back-up industry, and there are many ways to extend the life of a faithful machine.

It is easy to understand why the PCW was popular when it was introduced. It was conveniently packaged and represented remarkable value. As important - and this is why so many users are reluctant to move on - it did the job it was designed for. The PCW was never intended as an all-purpose machine, but its LocoScript software made it an admirable word-processor. Slow perhaps, but admirable.

The PCW's in-built dot-matrix printer was one of its key advantages: it took a long while for other computers to provide the instant printing service that PCW users took for granted. But, being mechanical, it is also the item likely to fail first.

The most common problem is that one of the pins in the print head sticks (resulting in characters having a line through them) or not firing (resulting in a gap within characters). This is often caused by ink having clogged the pins that form the characters, and can be remedied simply by the use of WD40 - a squirt dissolves the old ink and lubricates the pins.

Many of the PCW's problems are like this: they look big and serious but are easy to fix if you know how. For example, users of elderly dot-matrix printers often encounter inconsistent print that gets worse until finally the unit won't print. This is due to a cracked or broken armature, an all-important plastic piece that transmits power. A replacement is obtainable from Luxsoft, a company dedicated to keeping PCWs alive. Luxsoft supplies the spare part complete with instructions and hints and tips for pounds 4.55 plus an optional donation to its local branch of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

Another problem can come from an even more insignificant part: a spring that holds the paper in tension. Luxsoft will sell you the part for pounds 2.

Sometimes the margins shift or the text is bunched in one place. This is due to lack of lubrication and can be cured by a drop of light machine oil on the silver bar along which the ribbon carriage runs. Even better, remove the ribbon and squirt the oil at a fibre washer that straddles the bar. Prompt attention to this problem can save money. If it goes unattended, the printer's mainboard is likely to fai, and will cost at least pounds 50 to replace.

It is not the end of the PCW when its own printer fails, as it can work with many alternative models. Locomotive Software now supports more than 750 printers. It also sells selected printers (currently the Canon BJ- 30, Canon BJ-200ex and Citizen ABC) together with LocoScript 3 and all the ancillary hardware and software required to make the combination work. Another advantage is that you can then produce documents with fancy fonts.

One of the disadvantages of the original PCW is that it used a 3in disk - a decision Amstrad took just before the 3.5in disk became the standard for the PC world. The situation was further complicated by the existence of two types of PCW 3in disk drive - a single-sided, low-capacity and a double-sided, high-capacity model - and the fact that later models of PCW were built using the more modern 3.5in disks. Compatibility and Amstrad are not words that go well together.

The disk drive, being mechanical, suffers the problems of old age, but again these need not result in a terminal breakdown. A common weakness is a slipping drive belt. This might be caused by the centre bearing drying up - its lubrication was intended to last three to five years. If the belt has broken or stretched, you can fix it with a kit from SD Microsystems. This includes a head-cleaning disk that can cure problems that are due to dust, dirt and other pollutants. In extreme cases drives can be disassembled for head cleaning, though this should be left to an expert.

There are no longer any new 3in disks, but a number of firms supply or fit reconditioned drives - for the moment at least. Or you can fit a new 3.5in drive. Locomotive Software supplies a kit, complete with the software needed to format and work with the new diskettes.

If your original 3in disk drive is still working, you may be suffering from a shortage of diskettes. Locomotive Software does have stocks of genuine Maxell disks at pounds 29.95 for 10. They are expensive, but beware of counterfeit disks: they may fail suddenly.

It may be that you decide it is time to move on: the grainy green script, the slowness, the inability to connect to anything else are undeniable disadvantages of the PCW. But that does not mean you have to leave your data behind. If you want to continue using a version of LocoScript there is a Dos version of the program plus a utility, LocoLink, to transfer your existing files. If you are upgrading to Windows, then LocoLink for Windows enables you to convert your files to work with most popular word- processors. You have to have a working PCW to make the switch, but companies such as Luxsoft also provide a file transfer service.

It is worth bearing in mind that, working or not, your old PCW has second- hand value. Even if it can not be resuscitated, it is a valuable source of spare parts and can be used to keep other PCWs alive.

Luxsoft can be contacted on 01726 850820, and SD Microsystems on 01953 483750. For their 16-page catalogue send an SAE to PO Box 24, Attleborough, Norfolk NR17 1HL.

Locomotive Software is available on 01306 740606, fax 01396 885529. For a free copy of its new catalogue, which will be out soon, write to Freepost, Dorking, Surrey RH4 1ZB.

For those enthusiasts whose PCWs are still going strong and want more contacts than we have space for, the monthly magazine 'PCW Plus' is now in its 10th year. Contact Future Publishing (Subscriptions and Mail Order), Freepost (BS4900), Somerton TA11 6BR, tel 01225 442244.

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