NCD-16 X Terminal Reviewed (long)

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Tim Bray

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May 2, 1989, 11:10:34 PM5/2/89
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Have now been using my shiny new NCD-16 for a couple of weeks. A moderately
detailed review follows, but to make a long story short, it is a much much
nicer thing to have on your desktop than a Sun-3/50 (admittedly not
state-of-the-art competition).

1. Brief Description

The NCD16 has a 1024x1024 16 in. display, a moderately fast 68000, a non
optical mouse, a DEC-influenced keyboard, and an X11R3 server. The base config
comes with 1.5M memory; loading the server leaves you 600K or so to play with.
My not-too-complex startup (twm, 2 xterms, 1 gnumacs, 2 xloads, 1 xclock)
leaves about 400M free. Backing store is supported (but can be turned off).
You can get the server on ROM (boots itself) or on a tape (download via tftp).
It gets its fonts via tftp. To an X client, looks like another server out
there in TCP/IP-land. It plugs in via either direct thinwire, transceiver
plug, or (I think) SLP somehow. Along with the X there is a fixed-size window
you can bring up that does telnet. I paid $2,000; in Canada but those are US$,
quoted as a `University price.' The software is $500 whether ROM or tape; the
licensing structure makes the tape a better deal if there are lots of these
things around. MIPSco for sure and perhaps some other vendors are sticking
their label on the front and reselling. Delivery was about a month.

2. Good Stuff

There's no fan! It sounds... wonderful. The performance is faster than I have
seen X11 run on any Sun screen ever. The keyboard is infinitely better than a
Sun; as I said, rather LK201-ish. Nice crisp feel; I touchtype > 100wpm so I
notice such things. The ESC key is a little too far away to be comfy. It has
a ^H rather than a ^? where you'd like your `erase what I just typed', but X
lets you fix that. A nice thing about the keyboard is a little light that can
be set to flash for network traffic (gives the impression that performance is
limited by X not the ether). Because of the 16" screen, I changed all my
working fonts from 14 to 18 `point', so everything looks sharper, but the
screen is a bit crowded. The screen is non-glare; easier on the eyes. There
are brightness and contrast controls placed for easily twiddling (but the
detented default seems best). The xset options to change the bell are jerky in
their scaling but I successfully turned the annoying default beeeep to a
sotto-voce burp. The software is helpful; you can get a diagnostic screen that
displays memory fragmentation and usage, and a log of error messages from the
server (can't open font, no more memory, etc.). Nice small footprint and no
optical pad means more desk space. The mouse buttons are moderately nicer than
the Sun, the no-pad much nicer (all subjective). The screen wiggles around on
its pedestal with gratifying ease. The net config menus seem pretty easy. The
1.0 aspect ratio is (subjectively speaking of course) nice.

3. Bad Stuff

Well, 16" is not 19"; I can live with it. This will never run NeWS; ditto.
The single piece of obvious BRAIN DAMAGE is the Num Lock key, which alternately
generates KeyPressed and KeyRelease events (what say - you want to bind that
handy key to an emacs function? Give up). There may be a way to fix this that
I haven't found yet.

The paper documentation seems pretty stupid, nothing there you couldn't figure
out from the menus. Except for: READ THE INSTRUCTIONS when you attach screen
to pedestal! I just about broke it trying to do it the obvious (wrong) way.

For some people, memory will be a problem. On the OED project, we use lots of
fonts. One application opens 16 different ones. Well it would run; just
barely, but then you couldn't run another of our applications that loads 8
other fonts. (Backing store turned off to get this far). OK, that's a lot of
fonts; I think most people will get by with the 1.5 Mb. So we economized fonts
and now seem to be able to do our stuff; there seems a bit of memory leakage
and every couple of days we run out of memory. On the other hand, that could
be our fault; we are fairly new to X11R3 Xlib (like the rest of the world) and
it's possible we are wasting server memory. Once you start putting in add-on
memory, the price advantage over a cheap workstation erodes pretty fast.
Attractive full-screen background bitmaps (see xstatic(1) recently posted to
comp.sources.x) are right out.

The server has differences; a couple of our applications occasionally go subtly
weird in ways we haven't seen. Once again, that could well be our fault; all
the standard X clients seem to work. Working on it.

Note to Emacs users: the different Keysyms expose some problems in the way
Gnumacs 18.5? handles input keystrokes (at least #ifdef Sun), so you can't map
some function keys. I put in a huge simplification to x11term.c, posted a
couple days back to gnu.emacs, that fixes this.

You're supposed to use xdm to set up a login protocol on this thing, but we
couldn't make it reliable; we were testing the server to destruction, and every
time we rebooted the NCD, xdm refused to notice. Since we have a vanilla Sun
setup, (4/260 server) I wouldn't be surprised if the problem is general. No
big deal, we just shut down xdm, use the telnet screen to get to the host and
launch the x clients from there. In that screen, I wasn't able to get the
termcap right enough to vi(1) my X startup file; ed(1) to the rescue again.

How about network performance as a whole? Common sense suggests that this
thing puts more load on the host than a real diskful workstation, because you
have to run the window manager on the host and *all* the clients. On the other
hand, if the WKstation is diskless, it will page, swap, and nfs, so it's hard
to tell where the win is. If the wkstation was a 4Mb Sun 3/50, it wasn't up to
much once you got X and a window manager running anyhow, so probably all the
*working* clients ended up on the host anyhow. Somebody needs to quantify
this, because sure as anything, some management type is going to observe that
these are cheap and start firing 'em up by the dozens; is this smart, or is it
the same kind of thinking that used to increase the available computer
resources by putting another 16 ports on the VAX 750?

Cheers, Tim Bray, New OED Project, U of Waterloo

Mark Lawrence

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May 6, 1989, 9:15:19 AM5/6/89
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We purchased an NCD with 1.5M and got it within two weeks of order AND
at a discount because we are an ISV and signed up for their software
developers program which is VERY nice. Check into it if you qualify.

I bought the thing as a software development station for a mechanical
engineer working on my project who will be doing simulation model
development. I thought to myself, "Give him the x-terminal -- he won't
mind. He doesn't need a full fledged workstation." Well, I've got a 4M
3/50 that runs like a dog and a 3/260C that runs even doggier and he's
got this nifty compact terminal with ultra-sharp resolution and nimble
mouse (with NO PAD -- I'd like that...). TWM 5.0 screams on this
beastie (resizes, moves, etc.). Needless to say, I wouldn't mind having
the machine on my desk.

Setup was effortless (well, nearly so. Once I figured out the 30
decimal was 1D hex vice 1E ...duh 'TFTP error 1, file not found'. We're
using the downloadable server so that updates will be cheaper).

The mech engineer figured out the menus and the network setup stuff.
All I had to do was supply the internet numbers for font server, name
server and server server.

We haven't tried to make it work with xdm yet.

All in all (after two weeks of use), we're pretty happy with it.

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