Vendex HeadStart: The 1987 Turbo XT PC Clone Experience

Vendex HeadStart: The 1987 Turbo XT PC Clone Experience

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[jazz music plays] [computer buzzing, beeping] Greetings and welcome to an LGR computer thing! Once again we’re taking a look back at a fantastically well-preserved machine: the Vendex HeadStart. In particular the Turbo 888-XT model from 1987, one that Popular Mechanics called "the true everyman’s PC, delivering a lot of computing clout for a rock-bottom price.” And that price in ‘87 was $1295 for this 8MHz system, complete with color graphics and a 14-inch RGB monitor. With a $995 version available with monochrome graphics and matching display. Rock-bottom pricing indeed at the time, falling in line with the competition performance wise, while also bundling plenty of software and features that made the HeadStart attractive to first time buyers. Vendex even offered a $50 on-site setup service, a fresh idea for home users, who were otherwise expected to set things up themselves.

And being that this was the time of the turbos, the so-called Super Clones, each company was doing their darndest to stand out from the crowd. Zenith, Epson, Vendex and more were all vying for market share, taking direct aim at IBM’s lower-end PS/2 offerings like the Model 30, which cost $2400 with a color display. And while most PC companies were based in the US or Japan, Vendex hailed from the Netherlands, making it one of the few Dutch computers we got in North America back then. In theory anyway. If you’ve watched enough LGR you may be having flashbacks to the Epson Apex I’ve covered previously that looks an awful lot like the Vendex HeadStart. And sure, many PC clones look alike from a distance, which...

yeah they’re clones, that’s how it goes. But the ties go deeper than that, take the monitors for example. Despite Epson hailing from Japan and Vendex being Dutch, they each used the same exact monitor, a generic OEM design sourced from Korea. Yeah, something I neglected to mention before is that a good number of these clones were made in Korea, many of them being built by Samsung. Not just the monitors either. It’s the cases, motherboards, power supplies, peripherals, expansion cards and more.

Effectively, they worked with OEMs like Samsung to build PCs to their specifications using their logos. And while each PC had small features that set them apart, underneath they all shared a common Korean ancestor. Which I think is fascinating, it’s something I actually picked up on while visiting the Computer Reset warehouse recently and had an “ah ha” moment while perusing their wares.

This Imtec 1010T stood out not only because it was sitting all by its lonesome, but because the design was strikingly similar to the HeadStart on my desk back home. Which looked a lot like the Epson Apex, which looks like the Packard Bell PB500, which looks like the Samsung SPC-3000V, which – oh crap are they all the same machine? Yeah, kind of! Certain vendors hid this fact a little more than others though, marketing it as their own design. And it kind of was in some cases. Emphasis on “cases.” Samsung designed and sold their own computers, but they were also happy to modify the case and sell the innards to companies worldwide. Resulting in an explosion of Turbo XT clones in the late 80s where everyone was racing to the bottom against themselves.

The biggest things separating one system from the next was bundled software and support, and of course, marketing. And that’s where Vendex had a notable foothold. Or, chokehold perhaps, with them scoring an endorsement deal with Chris Pallies. The late pro wrestling legend better known as King Kong Bundy.

The 468-pound (212 kg) Bundy was huge at the time, in more ways than one, with the so-called “walking condominium” facing off against Hulk Hogan in the now-famous steel cage match that was the main event of WrestleMania 2 in 1986. And yeah, King Kong Bundy was all over the marketing for the Vendex HeadStart. Magazines, newspapers, TV commercials, in-store displays.

Each one riffing on the idea that the HeadStart was so easy to use that even King Kong Bundy could learn the machine in minutes. And its software and documentation even makes you smarter! I guess! -"Y'know, the fully IBM compatible HeadStart computer made a genius outta me in only 23 minutes!" -“Thanks HeadStart, for releasing my hitherto unsuspected intellectual prowess.” -"The power, performance, and sophistication of the HeadStart computer..." "...can make a genius out of you, too!" -“HeadStart by Vendex." "Built to be compatible with you!” 1980s marketing, there’s nothing quite like it.

And it was successful too, Vendex sold gargantuan numbers of HeadStart machines. Numbers that snagged the attention of one Vince McMahon, controversial head of what was then the WWF. Allegedly the Vendex deal was never cleared with him, causing a feud between McMahon and Pallies over revenue sharing. Bundy argued that he was an independent contractor and shouldn’t have to pay crap, McMahon said nope, you’re endorsing products as a WWF wrestler so pay up. The rift was intense enough that Pallies quit and went into semi-retirement for half a decade, blaming it on the Vendex fallout. -I was working for a computer company which basically killed my career in the WWE.

When I got the deal I was told it was a little Dutch company called Vendex. Well it was a “little Dutch company” that does $6 billion in sales. So I do the commercial. All of a sudden, got full page ads in USA Today, full page ads in Time, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated. A full page ad! I had hoped Vince wouldn't find out about it. Needless to say he found out about it big time.

And ever since that day – and I've been told this and never revealed this, I mean people at the office, 'that was the kiss of death to your career there'. But y’know what, I say to hell with Vince McMahon.” The HeadStart brand managed to come out on top though, selling oodles of PCs primarily through US and Canadian retailers on into the nineties.

Though Vendex themselves were struggling with debt incurred by multiple acquisitions and a Dutch economic slowdown, eventually taking an offer by the Philips Corporation in 1991 to purchase the HeadStart brand. Vendex continued doing their thing in retail, owning significant stakes in chains like Barnes & Noble and Dillard’s, and managing over 1,600 retail outlets worldwide. And HeadStart ended up falling under Philips’ Magnavox brand for a couple of years, with the line slowly being phased out by 1993, with any remaining 286 and 386 inventory hitting bargain bins and clearance shelves before largely being forgotten to time. Except here on LGR! HeadStart PCs were the entry point for thousands of first time computer users back in the day, and despite its middle of the road status, I think it’s worth taking a look back at where it all started. And it’s thanks to LGR viewer Dallin, who sent this one in nearly complete in box.

It belonged to the brother of someone he knew that passed away, and it was slated for a sad demise at the local dump. So let’s take a look at this lovely example inside and out, test some games and software, and see if it releases our hitherto unsuspected intellectual prowess like King Kong Bundy. [power switches switch] [computer whirs to life] So! The HeadStart is a pretty typical turbo XT clone, meaning it runs the same software as an IBM PC XT just with a faster CPU. As is typical for machines of its ilk, the HeadStart doesn’t have a hard drive or any permanent storage. Everything relies on floppy disks, from saving files to booting software.

Which at the core here is a custom MS-DOS shell known as the Vendex Operating Environment! We’ll return to that shortly. But yeah, the machine came equipped with twin 5.25” 360K floppy drives, though my particular unit only had one on arrival. The previous owner had removed one of the floppies and installed a half-height RLL hard drive, an ST-238R from Seagate.

Sadly, and expectedly, this 33 megabyte beast was on its last legs, only briefly spinning up for a few seconds before it crapped itself and died. So I swapped it out for an XT-IDE CompactFlash solution instead, and sourced another 360K floppy drive with a matching aesthetic. Or, as close as I could get anyway, the LEDs are a different color.

The important thing is that it looks more like how it did when it left the factory, and yeah. I quite like how it looks! It’s the same basic layout as most Samsung variants, with two drive bays right of center, a power switch and LED in the top right, and a keyboard connector in a bottom corner. But Vendex went with a more rounded power button that’s quite satisfying to use. And these horizontal lines cut into the front plastic, instead of the vertical ones found on Samsung and Epson branded models. I really am a sucker for lines along the x-axis man, I can’t help it.

It’s those Ferrari side strake vibes, really adds to the whole “turbo” theme going on. Unfortunately it doesn’t have the handy front switches that Epson did for changing settings, you’ve gotta use software or open the case for that. So let’s go ahead and do the latter! There are five screws holding the machine together, two on each side and a smaller one around back.

The top half and front panel then slide off, revealing the chassis and internals. There’s a 5.25” drive cage, 135-watt Samsung power supply, and a compact motherboard which is more accurately described as an ISA backplane.

It boasts seven 8-bit expansion slots, one less than a full-sized XT. Though there are only 5 slots free from the factory and one is partially blocked by a dual game port bracket, so there’s really only 4 available. Thankfully the floppy controller is integrated into the backplane, so you don’t have to worry about that taking up space.

Along with two 25-pin ports for serial and parallel, again saving you an expansion slot. And the real time clock battery is also on-board, or at least it would’ve been had it not been removed before I got it. It was one of those Nickel-Cadmium barrel batteries anyway, so good riddance. As for the CPU, that’s found on this first expansion card, which has an 8088-2 running at 4.77 or 8MHz, depending on whether or not turbo’s engaged. And the 8087 math coprocessor would go below that, should you choose to install one.

This board is also where the Phoenix BIOS and peripheral interface chips are located. And on the end we find 256 kilobytes of RAM, half the system’s total in its base configuration. The other half is found on this funky thing, a graphics/memory/IO board built for Vendex by Infinity Technology. It contains either 256 or 512K RAM, with the latter being a $99 upgrade taking the total up to 768K. And it shares additional memory between the system and a small RAM disk. Along with a 16K print buffer, with its own buffer/spooler circuitry so there’s no need for memory on the printer itself.

As for the graphics portion, you get a chipset with support for MDA/Hercules and CGA video modes, switchable using this switchy switch around back. And lastly on the IO board is a header for connecting CRT light pens, along with a port for a Microsoft Bus mouse, neither of which came with the PC. What did come with it is the monitor, a 14-inch TTL color display that is once again a rebadged Samsung. It’s also really more of a 13-inch monitor, but y’know. Manufacturers fudged the numbers with internal picture tube size versus actual viewing area, but I digress. This is one solid little display, with sharp legible characters across all text and graphics modes I’ve tested.

And seeing as it’s the same display that came with my Epson Apex that’s no surprise. It even has the same mono mode switch around back, emulating a green phosphor monochrome display while still running CGA underneath. And nope, it doesn’t support Plantronics Colorplus mode, like some similar clones. I also find this pretty amusing, check out the power plug on the PC.

Typically you got something like this to plug in your monitor but not here. Here you’ve just got a straight up 115V wall jack instead. The keyboard was also a nice surprise, in the sense that it doesn’t totally suck. It uses a 5-pin DIN plug and a modified Model F AT-style layout, with a big L-shaped Enter key, backslash above that, with status LEDs showing through the related keycaps. And the build feels creaky and flimsy, with a lightweight plastic construction all-around, and hollow flip-down feet underneath.

However, this is a board from Hi-Tek, and the keyswitches? Yeah, they’re white linear Series 725 switches over metal contacts with return springs. They’re commonly known as space invader switches, and while this isn’t my favorite variant of them, they’re rather enjoyable to use. [typity-type-typing] Finally, there’s this bunch of software and manuals bundled with the HeadStart, one of the machine’s key selling points. The documentation is substantial, with five different paperback books and pamphlets packed into cardboard shelf sleeves.

In total you get nearly a thousand pages covering every square inch of the system and its software, from DOS commands to expansion cards, document creation to dip switches. You even get pinouts for every port and header on the HeadStart and each of its expansion cards, and plenty of configuration and troubleshooting information on top of that. Excellent. As well as a substantial set of instructions for learning and using GWBasic, complete with plentiful programming examples.

Yeah, this is awesome stuff, and absolutely not the kinda thing you see anymore with new computers. It also came with a nifty grabbag of software goodies across six colorful floppies, so let’s go through them in order of disk number. Starting with disk one, storing the Vendex Operating Environment alongside a bootable MS-DOS 3.2 installation. As mentioned earlier, this is simply a shell running on top of DOS. Not quite as involved as Tandy DeskMate or as useful as Norton Commander, it’s more of a shortcut menu than anything else.

It’s based on a version of ‘HOT’ from Executive Systems, the makers of XTree, and provides a menuing system letting you perform common tasks with hotkeyed applets. Including a file searcher, text editor, calendar, scheduler, a calculator, a display-blanking screensaver, and shortcuts for adjusting printers and system settings. Like changing the system speed between 4.77 and 8Mhz, yeah this is done via software instead

of a turbo switch. It also has shortcuts for file and disk management, basic copy/paste/move stuff like you’d normally do via command line. And of course there’s the much-hyped “Learn to Use Your PC” bit, we’ll jump back to that in a sec.

Next on disk two is an MS-DOS supplemental floppy, containing stuff that didn’t fit on disk one. Leaving the HOT environment drops you into this custom DOS prompt, with fancy colors and additional features and hotkeys. It’s a welcome change from the usual gray on black of regular MS-DOS, and I dig the additional info being displayed. Like showing free memory, date and time, and on-disk help menus for assistance with DOS commands, both common and obscure. Next up on disk three is ATI Skill Builder, the “Learn to Use Your PC” thing from earlier, which is a training program helping newbies learn how to use their HeadStart.

Apparently this won its developer, American Training International, multiple awards back in the day, and hey. I’d give it an award based on those text mode illustrations alone, how charming is that? Onto disks four and five then: Executive Writer and Filer. Each are pretty familiar if you’ve used other word processors or card filing databases from the 80s.

This duo of software alone cost nearly 300 bucks when it launched in 1985, so it’s a pretty solid inclusion here, especially for those without an existing library of software. Finally there’s disk six: MyCalc from The Software Toolworks. Previously known as ZenCalc, it’s your mandatory spreadsheet program for balancing budgets, tabulating taxes, and keeping all manner of books in digital form.

That’s enough of work junk though, how ‘bout some games?! Well, the HeadStart’s a turbo XT clone after all, with CGA display, 640K or less RAM, and no sound card. So y’know, maybe temper your expectations. Or embrace the limitations of the mid-80s DOS experience, with 4-color graphics and shrill PC speaker noise.

Yeah there’s a well-amplified 8 Ohm speaker in the bottom of the case, so if you’re into loud reverberant bloops and beeps, then you’re in the right place. [strikingly loud beeps and bloops] And if four colors is simply too much, there’s always that mono switch on the monitor that cranks things down a notch so it’s all green, all the time. Particularly practical with text applications for its potential eye strain reduction versus bright gray or white. Though of course it works with graphics too, keeping the ‘G’ in RGB and dropping red and blue entirely. This is also separate from the mono switch on the video adapter itself, which changes CGA output over to Hercules.

Provided you have a TTL monochrome display that is, you won’t get anything but out-of-sync nonsense otherwise. CGA or Hercules though, it’s still an 8088 variant under the hood, so gaming is rather limited even at top speed. Vendex made claims of it being 70% faster than an IBM PC XT though, so let’s check it out with TopBench.

The Epson Apex got a score of 7, and that was clocked at 10MHz. So it’s unsurprising to find that the 8MHz HeadStart here gets a 6. Around 64% faster than an XT, that ain’t bad. Certainly a welcome boost in situations where the standard PC XT speed leaves you waiting, literally, for things to play out in front of you. Not enough for full speed in LHX, but enough to get the CGA version of Commander Keen 4 going at a somewhat playable pace. For better or worse, it really is the most middling of middle-of-the-road systems of its type.

Not as slow as a stock XT, and not as fast as certain other turbo XTs either. The HeadStart computer provides just that: a head start in computing. But it was never going to win many races.

Instead it’s content in the middle lane, humming along doing its medium-effort tasks in the midst of the pack. And that’s about it for the Vendex HeadStart Turbo 888-XT! For a lower budget PC from 1987, I think it’s easy to see what made it so appealing, with or without any pro wrestler endorsements. It was right smack dab in the middle of the market, entirely by design.

Yet at the same time it included enough in the way of useful features, documentation, and software to ease new users into the exciting new world of computing. It’s not at the top of my list for favorite turbo clones or anything, but still. I’m happy this one came across my path some 35 years later, and that I was able to share the King Kong Bundy-approved experience here on LGR.

[PC speaker beeps, jazz music plays] And hey if you had a Vendex machine or related clones back in the day, please leave a comment sharing your story, I love reading that stuff! Or if you’d like to see more LGR check out my past work or stick around for new videos currently being made. And as always, thank you for watching!

2022-03-06 13:04

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