Brother Super PowerNote PN-8500MDSe vintage word processor

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In my recent eBay adventure I purchased a Brother Super PowerNote PN-8500MDSe vintage word processor from a local seller. The machine is powered by a Z80 processor and supports basic word processing, spreadsheet data entries as well as going online (perhaps not in the modern context of the Internet, but by using an old bulletin board system) through an optional dialup modem.

The machine is still in good condition – the front, back and side connector panels seem to have suffered from very little physical damage:

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It also comes with a 9V DC adapter, which is of the negative tip variant (not the more common positive tip type) and runs off 110V AC. I also bought a mini 220V-110V power transformer and permanently attached a note to the adapter using sticky tapes to avoid confusion (and possible magic smokes!):

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The machine boots up perfectly fine, greeting me with “Good Evening!” – which is the correct time of the day! Does the RTC battery still work after all these years? We’ll come to that in a while, but here is the photo of the greeting screen:

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After a few seconds the main menu will now show up:

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The following applications are bundled with the machine:

  1. Word Processor
  2. Spreadsheet
  3. Address Book
  4. Line by Line – a type of printing application which prints each line as you type
  5. Communication – a terminal application
  6. Calculator
  7. Scheduler / Calendar
  8. To Do List
  9. Clock
  10. File Management – to explore files on the floppy disk
  11. Disk Application
  12. Set Up

The first thing that I check is the Clock application. Amazingly it still showed the correct time as the CR2032 battery is still working:

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Nevertheless I decided to replace the battery as it is quite straightforward without having to disassemble the machine – a small plastic panel at the bottom of the word processor provides direct access to this battery. The machine also has slot for the main battery, which was an option module to be purchased separately, and unfortunately mine came with no main battery:

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This is the word processor application. Notice how the ruler provides the default left margin, making the document ready to be printed at any time:

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To quit most applications, press the CANCEL button at the bottom row of the keyboard. If that doesn’t work, hold down the CODE key and press the MENU/FILE button, and you will be prompted to save any pending changes before quitting.

This is the calculator application, supporting only basic mathematical operations:

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The address book application:

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This is the spreadsheet application. On startup, if the Brother floppy disk is inserted, it will prompt you to select a template to be used from the floppy disk; otherwise it will just create an empty file:

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The numbers in brackets are the sizes of the spreadsheets. The figure at the top shows how much free space is available on the machine, in this case a mere 240.6KB. This is how the checkbook spreadsheet (CHECKS.SPR, 9.7KB) looks like:

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Interestingly, from the main menu, there is an option called “Disk Management” allowing users to launch Brother-specific applications on the bundled floppy disks. Only two games are provided on the floppy disk that came with my machine, Tetris and Turnabout (a Reversi clone):

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There is nothing particular about this floppy disk – it is just a normal 1.44MB high density disk without any floppy copy protection mechanism commonly used at the time. It can be cloned using any modern disk copy program such as RaWrite or even MS-DOS DISKCOPY command. You can download an image of the disk here. The disk contains the following files and has 240,640 bytes free:

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This is the list of the files on the disk:

  1. *.WPT: word processor templates
  2. *.SPT: spreadsheet templates
  3. *.APL: applications (tetris and turnabout games)
  4. BROTHER.001, SCONV. EXE, CONVERT.EXE, INSTALL.BAT, *.OVR and *.OVL – Brother document conversion utilities, see details at the end of this article

With the floppy disk inserted, you can select between Tetris and Turnabout game in Disk Management:

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This is the Tetris copyright screen and the main game:

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This is the Turnabout game:

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Last but not least is the Set Up application, It allows user to change, among other things, the system password (which is not set by default) and printer configuration:

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Common printers (at the time) such as Brother, HP, Canon, Epson and IBM are supported. If “Other” is selected, it allows you to set custom printer configuration such as print quality and interface type (serial or parallel port):

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Only transmission speeds up to 9600bps are supported if a serial printer is selected. Most likely only text output will be supported in the custom printer configuration. I am not sure where to find working serial printers, or even working parallel port printers supported by this machine, in this day and age of USB and wireless printers.

The last thing to explore is the Brother conversion utility pack found on the floppy disk. It contains the following executables:

  • SCONV.EXE: spreadsheet conversion utility
  • CONVERT.EXE: word processor conversion utility
  • INSTALL.BAT: batch installer utility

The batch installer utility will simply create a folder name BROTHER on the C: drive and copy all files except SCONV.EXE to that folder. Here is the screenshot of the installer running on DOSBox:

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Running CONVERT.EXE after the installation and you will be greeted with a fancy-looking user interface with many options for document conversions from PC to the Brother word processor and vice versa:

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SCONV.EXE, on the other hand, is just a simple command-line spreadsheet conversion utility with some simple options for file format selection:

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Interestingly, although it says “Press Ctrl-C to quit”, during my experiment, Ctrl-C does not work and will simply print the heart symbol (ASCII code 3 for ETX, which represents the end-of-text character generated by Ctrl-C). This may have been a bug, or something that was overlooked during the development of this tool. Anyway, not that I am going to use the conversion tool with Lotus 1-2-3 any time soon, so it is not a problem for me.

My next challenge would be to install a custom OS on this machine, for example CP/M. I have read somewhere that it is possible since the processor is a Z80 that can run CP/M. I am still in the processor of finding out more information on this. If you have any ideas, feel free to leave a suggestion here and I will be happy to try it out. :)

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ToughDev

ToughDev

A tough developer who likes to work on just about anything, from software development to electronics, and share his knowledge with the rest of the world.

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