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Friday
Dec052014

Celebrating the Ambra PC – the computer that so nearly broke the mould

Take Your Mind For A Run

I cut my first computer teeth on an Amstrad PCW9512, a machine that in the late 1980s introduced me to the world of word-processing, cut and paste, pagination, file management and printing thanks to the marvellous Locoscript Software.

In 1992 along came Ambra, an IBM-compatible PC made by an offshoot of IBM themselves, called ICPI (Individual Computer Products Ltd.).   That IBM marketed its own clone was something of a conundrum, as the Ambra was pitching itself against the IBM PS/VP (Personal System ValuePoint) entry-level PC and others, where price was everything. Maybe the close competition and rivalry would keep each on their toes.

The original Ambra Hurdla (1992) with stylish monitor and fascia mouldingsAmbras were smart and sharply priced and unlike every other PC on the market they had unique German styling that made them an attractive-looking machine. The first batch of Ambras was built by Wearnes, but the second tranche would be assembled in Scotland by IBM (Greenock) and I just HAD to buy one!

Ambra had three machines, the Sprinta slimline desktop, the Hurdla full size desktop PC and the Treka notebook.They started life with DOS 5.x and Windows 3.1.

My Ambra Hurdla had 4MB of RAM, a 100MB disk, a floppy drive, no less than six ISA expansion slots and room for a 487SX Intel Overdrive maths co-processor. You could choose 386 or 486 processors. It was a fast machine and trounced the opposition in some magazine reviews; no-one ever called it slow or ugly.

 Intel Overdrive Maths co-processor (1993)I upgraded my Hurdla 486SX to DOS 6.22 in due course, also adding a DX co-processor,  more memory and a second hard disk as my confidence and knowledge grew on a need-to-know basis. It also had splendid printed manuals (which I still have). I recall that adding a sound card and parallel card to add a second printer (no USB then) was a pig of a job, all those IRQs to juggle with.

It would be some time before I ventured out onto the web (as far as there was one), installing a 14.4k Trust ISA internal modem, and battling against the mysteries of the Trumpet Winsock, Compu$erve, Pegasus Mail, Demon Internet and KA9Q. A parallel port Trust single-pass scanner was a total disaster. But it happily drove an HP LaserJet IIIP and HP Deskjet  when inkjet printers became more sensible. Overall, the expandable Ambra took in its stride everything that I threw at it over many years.

The handsome Ambra product range also benefited from some stylish marketing to some degree and everything bore Ambra’s corporate branding. The Ambra’s colour scheme was battleship grey and off-white. Its 14” SVGA monitor had a large smooth futuristic off-white bezel and was crowned by a weird grey plastic platform stuck on top.  It pivoted on a cross-shaped moulding fitted onto the base unit.  The stylish base unit was well made, having a smooth curved grey front. Problem was, if you wanted to add a (single or twin speed) CDROM drive, you were stuck with a standard beige drive stuffed into the curvaceous fascia, as that’s all there was.

Ambra PS2 mouse (1992)Probably its most controversial feature was the Ambra PS2 mouse, a half-round dome that you didn’t so much click downwards as click the buttons towards you, as if curling your fingers up. I didn’t mind it but others were affronted by the sheer weirdness, designed by designers not users, and many quickly chose an ordinary Logitech mouse instead. It was redesigned in due course.

Ambra also included their own slim keyboard and it wasn’t a bad thing. Software bundled with mine included Lotus Ami Pro, great word processing software that launched much of my work in the 1990’s.

 

Later (1993/ 94 ) came the Ambra Hurdla mT mini tower and the Ambra Sprinta II; it looks like the full size desktop was dropped in favour of the mini tower. The marketing was looking a bit cheap and frayed at the edges by then. The ‘less is more’ arty style was waning, which was maybe a sign of desperation or perhaps the writing was already on the wall.

Overall I enjoyed many years ownership of my first Ambra PC before passing it over to my Mum to teach her basic word processing: which she did, using the same Lotus Ami Pro. It was a sad day when the Ambra Hurdla finally went to the rubbish tip, but the Intel Pentium, Windows 95 and Dell PCs came along and I was hungry for more speed by then.

It was a crying shame when IBM suddenly axed Ambra, the stylish and powerful IBM clone that probably proved to be a thorn in the side for IBM.

Legacy Ambra literature (PDFs)

Ambra Sprinta Mk. I slimline desktop, 1992

Ambra Hurdla Mk. I  full size desktop, 1992

Ambra Treka  notebook, 1992

December 1993 brochure extracts, showing the Ambra Sprinta II  486 and Ambra Hurdla mT mini tower which replaced the full size Hurdla desktop. Note the redesigned mouse.

 

Reader Comments (14)

Damn, that was my first computer. I still remember its specs, from when I got it to when I upgraded it. It was back in 2001 but as a poor teen (I was 13), it was the best christmas gift ever.

If you're curious:
80486 DX2 66mhz, 21mb ram, 250mb hard disk, floppy disk drive.
I upgraded it with two 1gb scsi hard disks, a yamaha opl3 sound card and a 1x cd-rom drive by the time I got something better.

It's gonna sound silly to you but ever since I've been trying to find back one of these guys, but they seem really rare and I guess I'll just never have another unless a gigantic stroke of luck happens.

Still, thanks for the memories c:

September 24, 2015 at 14:50 | Unregistered CommenterSammy

I have only seen one Ambra on ebay, that was last year and it was a sorry state in someone's garage. The ABS housings tended to yellow and fade, especially the monitor, but I too was sad to see mine go. Glad you liked the blog.

September 25, 2015 at 21:11 | Registered CommenterAlan W

Yeah... when I got mine, its colors weren't yet tarnished. I didn't have the screen or mouse (the screen died out and the mouse had been replaced for what I assume are obvious reasons) but I had this spiffy screen with a button on its side that simulated CGA colour palettes. The good times I had with that computer <3

but then when I was given another computer, I was told to throw this one out because they didn't want me to keep two computers in the same room. It was when I noticed how much it yellowed in the sun.

September 27, 2015 at 16:51 | Unregistered CommenterSammy

ABS plastic tends to go yellow after a few years, not even in direct sun but near a window is enough to make it go mouldy-looking. My expensive Microtex 8700 flatbed scanner and Brother printer have all done the same. More noticeable on the Ambra monitor as it was white.

Retro computer restorers play around with hydrogen peroxide and UV lamps to reverse the yellowing, with some success. Have a look for RetroBright.

September 27, 2015 at 22:45 | Registered CommenterAlan W

You say Ambra computers were built by Wearnes and then by IBM Greenock, but in 1990-1993 I was working for IBM International Distribution Center in Holland, and in 1992 and 1993 we were actually building them on behalf of ICPI for all of Europe. The hardware came from Asia and we assembled the configurations as ordered by the national computer store chains or the individual customers*, preloaded the latest software versions and shipped them off.
*) We were a sort of a Dell as well: in selected countries, customers could get their Ambra computer shipped to their doorstep, straight from our distribution center. The boxes for a full desktop set were huge, while the Tekla notebooks came in a very cute cardboard 'suitcase'.

February 8, 2016 at 21:00 | Unregistered CommenterEric

I've just found the receipt for my Ambra Sprinta II, from Wilding Office Equipment in 1993 - can you believe £1,056? That's the penalty for wanting to be in early, I suppose. The machine itself went years ago, but I'm still using the Ambra mouse-mat!

March 9, 2016 at 7:32 | Unregistered CommenterBill

Great to read something about these machines, so many years on. My first PC (at 8 years old) was an Ambra Hurdla 386, 25MHz with an 80 MB HDD. No sound card. If I recall correctly, ours came bundled with Microsoft Works, Lemmings, and an Ambra-branded sliding puzzle game.

May 22, 2016 at 23:36 | Unregistered CommenterTaras

I have an Ambra that I got in 1992. We use it to play "How Things Work in Busy Town" and to play with WordPerfect 5.0. It has never been upgraded so it is all original.
Would anyone be interested in it?

July 20, 2016 at 1:29 | Unregistered CommenterCathy Bowman

You were kidding with this article, right? I was one of the first dozen Ambra employees. I did the monthly sales and marketing spreadsheets. The Ambra machine was pure junk. They were intentionally designed to be a low-end machine for the low-end of the PC market. All internal components were the latest "bargain of the day" off the weekly boat from China. That's why no two runs of machines consisted of the same components. Failure rate after sale was phenomenal. Many refused to boot straight out of the box. But shoddy components wasn't the reason Ambra closed its doors after only a year. It was because management spent their days jockeying for power rather than trying to get a startup off the ground. I can't emphasize this enough. Week after week of all-day meetings behind closed doors and nothing accomplished but bloodletting. The reason being that the management team consisted solely of IBM middle managers who saw Ambra as their one shot at the lofty heights of corporate glory. Within four months most of the original staffers had quit due to the intensely acrimonious work environment. I stuck it out the entire year. Then took a month long vacation to recover fro it.

July 24, 2016 at 18:17 | Unregistered CommenterR. Clark email add supplied

Sorry to hear the dismal picture painted behind the scenes, but my view was from the UK/ Europe perspective and Ambra always won hands down in reviews (speed, spec, value for money) and was well liked over here. They lost their way over time and the rest is history. My machine always performed well, the only thing going wrong was the FDD.

July 25, 2016 at 11:40 | Registered CommenterAlan W

I can vouch for the Hurdla being a good computer. It was low-end and by the time I got mine (in 2001, it was my first computer and a Christmas gift) it was severely outdated but I got to play lots of games on it, even some quake though I did realize the cpu wouldn't cut it.

It was a perfectly fine little machine and I never once had any problems with it.

November 1, 2016 at 1:56 | Unregistered CommenterSammy

Also, Cathy Bowman if you happen to read this could you toss me an email at kitanosammy@yahoo.co.jp and tell me your computer's model? I might be interested in it.

November 1, 2016 at 1:58 | Unregistered CommenterSammy

My first real PC! After the C64 and the Amiga I could buy one of these with a project from my employer. Back in those days the government stimulated the sales of PC's so you could buy one and pay it back from your salary and get a huge tax cut. I opted for the 486Dx33, it was an awesome machine. It had a Cirrus Logic 512Kb videochip and ran Wing Commander like there was no tomorrow. I equipped it with a Pro Audio Spectrum soundcard, which wasn't very smart, because the Soundblaster was the standard, but I didn't know that back then. Still, it supported quite a few games.

Not only I bought the PC but most of the people who worked at the same employer did as well and since I was the computer guy I also had a nice thing on the side helping other people configure their computers, building in soundcards, etcetera. Not one of them broke down, so I find it very hard to believe that they were "junk". After a while I could sell it for a good price and bought a 486DX50 in a bigtower. Those were the days.

November 3, 2016 at 20:29 | Unregistered CommenterFrans

I was in at the beginning, the launch and the distribution for both the European and USA - for AMBRA. I was asked by IBM to Project Manage the outsourcing of all the bill of materials (except the CPU and Monitor). I worked with Frog Design and other suppliers and created the first PC Language Pack for the European Market. We drove the project from design to delivery. We then launched it in the USA.

The project was a major breakthrough that led to IBM discovering that their PC company cost base was indeed way too high, leading them to outsource more and more components and eventually their entire PC business. This - combined with digitisation and increasing competition from Asia - led to IBM closing their PC Operations and eventually selling their technology to Levono.

The challenges were vast - the timeline to market was one third of what IBM were achieving with their own brands at the time, the language pack allowed us to serve multi-language markets at the same time - for the first time. IBM proved to be fabulous partners, skilled, knowledgable and honest to a fault.

It was perhaps the most important period in the history personal computing, it was the beginning of the end of hardware and the realisation that software would in future be king. IBM's appetite for winning the PC race (that they had led from the beginning) was rendered obsolete - such is progress - AMBRA showed IBM that they were paying too much for their components, software and distribution. AMBRA never had the full support of the IBM PC company, that was never it's purpose.

December 27, 2016 at 22:25 | Unregistered CommenterAlex

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