Psion Organiser

Psion_001

Kathleen Peel tests the pocket computer that fills the same space as £100.

Psion the software company that produces much of the Sinclair Spectrum official software and the bundled software – Quill, Archive, Abacus and Easel – for the new Sinclair QL, has branched out into the computer hardware business, an area that has seen many recent failings by both large and small companies.

The excursion into the apparently risky hardware manufacturing side of the business comes about by the desire to produce what Psion describe as a new type of computer product called the Psion Organiser.

The Psion Organiser is a calculator-sized pocket computer featuring a 16-character LCD display, a 36-key keyboard and an 8K plug-in Eprom memory pack or datapak. The calculator-type keys are protected while in the pocket by a sliding cover which, when withdrawn, exposes the plug-in memory underneath the keyboard and the display contrast adjuster control on the right-hand side of the display. Complete withdrawal of the cover gives access to the PP3 9 volt battery compartment.

Psion_002

The computer is based on the Hitachi 6301X CMOS 8-bit processor, which contains 4K of on-chip ROM. This is supported by 2K of RAM for the calculator working registers, system variables and an 8K Eprom for program and/or data storage.

For £100 the user gets a bare bones calculator with a 16-character alpha-numeric LCD display – no scientific functions with parenthesis limited to a depth of two – and a built in database facility, capable of searching the 10K of character storage – 8K Eprom – for a specific number or character string within five seconds.

The Organiser is activated by using the On/Clear key and powers up with the display showing the time, date and month. The time may readily be adjusted as indeed it needed to be. The machine provided for review stopped the real-time clock from running when the machine was switched off, the replacement machine had no such problems.

The Mode key selects the current operating mode, that is:

  • Enter for general purpose free format database entries and editing.
  • Call for performing calculations.
  • Off which the user Executes to switch off.

Each individual process is performed by use of the Execute key – calculations are entered in the normal manner and the Execute key pressed instead of the more usual calculator = or Enter key.

Data is simply typed while in the Enter mode using the alphanumeric keyboard, each file being saved using the Save key with the display indicating whether the data is saved in datapak 1, or 2 if two datapaks are installed, according to the user’s choice.

The database needs to be fairly static, data changes simply overwrite the existing data in memory to make it unreadable and the new file is written into a clean area of memory. Fast changing databases will become extremely wasteful of memory.

The database in each datapak must be consistent; the user can store telephone numbers, train timetables and appointments together within one datapak but there is no way of restricting a search to a specific segment or groups of files in an individual datapak.

Find2 string$ will find every occurrence of string$ within all the databases in datapak 2. Therefore as an electronic notepad, the user is required to keep with the Organiser all the necessary databases separately which could become expensive in terms of datapak cost, and add considerably to the amount the user has to carry around.

The 8K Eprom can store about 200 names, addresses and telephone numbers. A search may be conducted using the Findn string$ function, every record containing string$ will be displayed, otherwise the computer keeps searching for a match. If there is no match, the message “not found” is displayed. If a string$ is not given for the search, the computer will step through every file within the database.

By adding a program pack – £30 Finance, Mathematics or Science Paks are available – the Organiser is provided with further modes of operation:

  • Copy for copying between datapaks.
  • Cat used to access programs.

The Organiser is also capable of performing the same trigonometrical and scientific functions as found in the more comprehensive calculators.

And lastly a procedural language POPL is added. Each procedure is limited to a length of 200 characters, with an individual line not exceeding 100 characters. POPL supports 26 variables and can pass parameters between procedures – there is Goto a label and looping facilities.

Under normal conditions, rewriting code is not a problem as the program storage media is reusable. With the Eproms it is not and once written to, that space cannot be re-used until the datapak is re-formatted which clears the whole of the datapak ready for a fresh start.

The Organiser may be expanded to incorporate two 16K Eprom datapaks, these cost £20 each but increases the in memory storage capacity up to 40,000 characters. The user may install 8K Eprom datapaks which cost £13, but either way strikes me as being pretty expensive for storing data.

The datapaks may be reused up to 100 times by reformatting – wiping clean all of the Eprom; remember you cannot selectively erase. This will cost £3.50 if done by your local stockist or the large user may purchase a Formatter for £45 which can reformat two datapaks in 30 minutes.

The manual supplied is 1/4 A4 size of about 50 pages of text and diagrams. Most details are explained twice but for those who so far have shown no interest in computing, the documentation will be difficult to understand. The average computer user will find no problems other than the programming requirement of learning yet another language, POPL, which can hardly be of use in any other context.

The RS-232 expansion unit, which costs £25, permits the user with a modem to downline load data via a telephone line to a remote computer. Computer to computer data transfer is also possible.

Conclusions

  • Although very simple to operate as a database with a single integrated data file, the Organiser cannot handle separate databases residing on the same datapak.
  • The database being searched needs to be fairly static, if it is going to change daily as a stores inventory might do, then the necessary changes to the database are going to use up the available memory space extremely quickly.
  • Program development is likely to suffer the same fate. It is not possible for a user to write and enter a program without faults, and the Organiser will allow the user to work on only one procedure in RAM at any one time.
  • The Organiser is going to be very expensive to run as a computer. The development of software which is
    always subject to change and revision does not lend itself to the type of storage media employed in this computer design.
  • The use of Eproms as the storage media imposes restraints on the programmer, a requirement for a local Eprom formatting service and fairly substantial power requirements on the hardware designer.
  • The Organiser appears to fit those types of market where data security is essential and, of course, using
    Eproms gives a very high level of security, but logistically I’m not sure. The data typed in is secure, but whether it can be entered correctly using the calculator-type keyboard and very small screen display without a lot of careful checking at the time of data entry, which the average person is unlikely to perform, is doubtful.

First published in Your Computer magazine, September 1984

Advertisements

Review – Tatung Einstein

Einstein

Single 3in. disc, 64K, colour and sound: Bill Bennett meets Einstein and talks relativity.

You would never guess it from the name, but the Tatung Einstein is a British micro. Made by a Taiwanese company based in Shropshire and named after a German, Jewish, American scientist, the Einstein is the usual electronic cocktail of exotic components from around the world. Disc drives from Japan, Basic from Torquay and chips from all over the shop.

I opened the box with some apprehension. Here was a mid-priced, mid-range computer complete with a disc-drive. The last time I looked at a cheap system with integral discs I had to spend three days soldering wires before it would work. The Einstein presented absolutely no problems. I timed myself and it took me less than two minutes to unpack the micro, plug it in, connect it to my TV and get a picture.

It took slightly longer to retune the TV to optimise the display but, before three minutes were up, I had managed to insert the system disc that comes with the machine, and load the directory. A number of things helped. For a start the plug was already connected. Many micros come without plugs so you have to hunt around for one to “borrow” for the computer. But, most of all, the integral disc saves worrying about cables, interfacing and the like.

Albert Einstein would never have won a beauty competition and neither would his computer namesake. However, the design of the machine is elegantly utilitarian. It is moulded out of a fairly tough-gauge plastic so you can comfortably sit a monitor or TV on top. I would not recommend this though as you would have to sit much nearer to the screen than is good for you.

Above the keyboard are two LEDs that do little more than tell you that the computer is working and what mode the keyboard is in. Next to this is the disc unit. It accepts the little 3 in. Hitachi-style microfloppies which are posted into the slot like letters into a pillar box. A button below the slot unposts the discs for you when you need to swap them.

There is a space on the right-hand side of the machine to add an extra disc unit. This would be almost essential if you were using the Tatung as a workaday business computer but a bit excessive for the home user. Between the disc and the potential disc is a grill which I thought was probably there to help aircool the insides. It turned out to be a loudspeaker, loud being the operative word.

I thought that the Oric was a touch strident with its built-in speaker but the Einstein is positively in the Motorhead class. In front of this is the keyboard. Topped by a row of seven function keys, the keyboard contains no surprises. I don’t like to see the graphics characters printed on the front of the keys, it looks messy, and most people only use them occasionally anyway. However, it does seem to be de rigueur in micro circles. I doubt if anyone will miss the Tab key, which the Einstein doesn’t have.

Along the rear of the micro are a number of interfaces. If you are going to make use of them I would suggest that you find a permanent home for the micro. They are not the sort of things that take kindly to being constantly plugged in and unplugged. There is, of course, a printer port, an interface for more disc units, up to a total of four drives and a user input output port. Just what you need to run a power
station or a cruise missile launcher.

Right in the middle of all these ports is something called the Tatung “pipe”. It sounds like a copy of the Acorn “tube”, but is much nearer in concept to the port on the back of the humble Spectrum. Like Sinclair’s port, the pipe is not much more than a simple extension lines from the Z-80.

Down the tight-hand side of the machine are two more ports. Ostensibly these are for joysticks, but are actually analogue to digital converters. If the Tatung Einstein has one obvious application, it is in the science laboratory. With all these ports around the machine it would be excellent for the control and monitoring of experiments. It is a pity the micro is named after a theoretical scientist, when it has so many practical features.

Next to the analogue ports is the almost obligatory RS232 port, though it uses a DIN socket so you will have to worry about soldering your own cables to make use of it. And, best of all, a volume control knob. Until I found this, I actually had a neighbour come round and complain about the noise.

Nobody will be surprised to discover the TV output on the right-hand side of the micro’s case, but I was disappointed to find that there is no monitor output. A computer with as many user ports as the Tatung Einstein could do with a simple RGB output as well. There is a special Tatung colour monitor to go with the Einstein, costing £240, but because there is no RGB output you cannot easily use any other manufacturer’s monitor.

The Einstein is a “soft machine”, that is its resident language and operating system are not actually resident at all. They come on disc and are loaded into the machine in a ritual the user must perform each time he or she uses the micro. Yet there is an 8K ROM which includes the machine-code monitor system. This makes the Einstein an attractive micro for the enthusiast but hardly ideal for the beginner.

Should you want to develop machine-code software, you could do so without ever entering the disc operating system. But most people will want to use Basic at some time and it has to be loaded from disc. To do this you must first load the disc operating system or DOS.

XtalDos is the operating system used by the Einstein. Because it comes supplied on disc, there is no reason why you couldn’t use another operating system. No others are available at the moment, but should XtalDos mark II appear, or should some enterprising programmer devise a version of CP/M for the micro, you will only have to pay for that disc.

XtalDos is remarkably similar to CP/M, so much so that I managed to get started knowing only CP/M and not XtalDos. But XtalDos – pronounced crystaldos – is not CP/M and will not run all CP/M software. This is a bit naughty because on the computer’s box is the boast: “Ability to run CP/M software”. There are more than 5,000 CP/M software packages available so you could be forgiven for thinking that buying an Einstein gives you access to a huge back catalogue of programs.

The Einstein does have the ability to run some CP/M software, it is just that you cannot buy genuine CP/M for it yet. What is more, it will not be cheap when it is available – CP/M system discs generally cost around the £50 mark. Further to this is the fact that, as yet, there is no CP/M standard for 3 in. discs. This means that even if there was a true implementation of CP/M for the Einstein, you would not be able to stroll down to your neighbourhood store and buy a software package off the shelf with any confidence that it will run on your micro.

I hope that someone does implement CP/M just as soon as the 3 in. standard is decided because, quite frankly, XtalDos is a minority operating system. There will never be enough XtalDos systems in circulation to justify a large software base.

There is one other possibility. The Einstein is physically able to run MSXDos. The micro has most of the right hardware and it would be a logical direction for Tatung to move in.

Despite my severe reservations about minority operating systems, XtalDos is jolly neat. So is Xtal Basic, the native language of the Einstein. It has met with a degree of acclaim from programmers but is not a good language for beginners. I found that it contained a lot of commands that could be found elsewhere but are not standard.

Xtal Basic may be better than other Basics but there will be precious few games listings published in it and there will be hardly any good books about it. But, again, because Xtal Basic comes on disc and not ROM, it is an option. There is no reason why standard Microsoft Basic could not be implemented on the Einstein or, for that matter, Forth, Pascal, Prolog or Logo. Any versions of these languages developed for CP/M could be adapted fairly easily, though it might not be an economic proposal.

The system disc comes with a few example programs which don’t show the Einstein off to its best advantage. I realise that Tatung must have bent over backwards to trim the costs to achieve the sub-£500 price tag, yet it would have been so much better if the supplied software was more imaginative. The Othello game was easy to beat and the snakes game downright boring.

I may be asking a lot but for this price I would like to have a second disc containing a word processor and a spreadsheet. This way you would be able to buy a complete system, ready to work on and for a good price.

Xtal Basic is not new, I remember seeing a version ages ago on the Sharp MZ-80K. It has a lot more commands than common or garden Basic, complete with things like Deek and Doke which are two-byte versions of Peek and Poke, strictly for the enthusiast. However, Xtal Basic is very good at handling the sound and graphics of the Einstein.

Sound is often the Cinderella feature on a computer, so my heart naturally warms to Tatung’s serious treatment of it. The Basic commands and the sheer volume and the flexibility of the hardware are all plus point for Tatung. Unfortunately, the other half of the sound and vision equation is not so good.

For a start, the colours are dingy. The red is more like a washed out pinky orange than the colour of the people’s flag and the blue just isn’t true blue at all, but a weedy purple tint.

The Basic commands controlling graphics are extensive and flexible enough and 32 sprites should keep most zappers in aliens for days. Apparently, the Einstein uses the same video chip as MSX machines. If that is the case then the Japanese invasion will be nothing to fear because the high resolution isn’t all that high, the colour not very colourful and the sprites none too spritely.

Maximum resolution on the screen gives 192 by 256 pixels – hardly high resolution for a £500 micro. There are 16 colours but, because they are so dull, it is difficult to tell some of them apart. Although they are easy to control from Basic it isn’t enough for 1984’s model.

While the graphics might be a little disappointing from the point of view of the games player, they are not all that useful for the business user either. You can select either 40 or 32 columns across the width of the screen, but both sets of characters do not look as attractive as those to be found on other micros. More importantly, I found my eyes were feeling the strain after about an hour’s use. So word processing – which anyway should really have 80 columns – on the Einstein might not be a serious proposition.

The colour resolution of the Einstein is only to the nearest character position. That is colours are defined on a 32 by 24 or 40 by 24 grid. This is about the same as on the Spectrum – hardly impressive. Drawing a diagonal line results in the chunkiest graphics you have ever seen because the lit pixels fill the whole of their row within a character space.

The manuals don’t help much either. They are so unbelievably boring that I thought they must have been written by Jeffrey Archer.

The “DOSMOS” booklet, now there’s a name to conjure with, is much more useful than the introduction book yet every bit as dull. It contains information about the machine-code monitor and how to use the disc operating system. A third book is supplied with the machine called the Basic Reference Manual. It is the programmer’s bible, yet suffers from the same shortcomings as the other two books; it is dull, contains no index, and no sensible appendices. It should at least contain a section full of memory map diagrams, screen address diagrams and the like.

I was impressed by the inclusion of a quick reference card, similar to that sent out with the Dragon 32. However, it turned out to be not as useful as I expected with no adequate description of the Basic keywords. This would be especially useful as certain Xtal Basic keywords are slightly exotic.

Although I have reservations about this micro, it does compare favourably with other systems in the same price range. The machine sits uncomfortably between computers like the BBC Micro, which is definitely a home computer with business possibilities, and the £700 ACT F1 which is a business computer with home possibilities. You can now buy a BBC for around £350 or less. It has better graphics than the Einstein, similar sound, better Basic and better manuals. But it doesn’t have discs, nor does it have as much memory as the Einstein which comes with a full 64K plus 16K of video RAM. In practice this means a 64K memory, because the video RAM lies parallel to the main RAM.

Although the BBC has a wide user base and all the advantages that brings, add-ons are expensive. The Einstein will be able to use standard add-ons thus reducing costs considerably. If you want compatibility with educational users the BBC would be a better buy, but hackers might choose the disc-based system.

Compared with the Sinclair QL, the Einstein is not very racy, but its 3 in. discs are a sight more standard than Sinclair’s Microdrives. They are also more useful, more likely to last and can hold more – 190K per side as opposed to 100K per cartridge. If you want to play games the QL will be a better bet but for serious use the Tatung should win.

Conclusions

  • The Einstein does not fit into the current spectrum of available micros very well being neither a good enough games machine nor a powerful enough business system. The cop-out answer is that it is an educational computer but that is one role it is particularly unsuited to fill.
  • Anyone purchasing the Einstein may have to reconcile themselves to owning a ghetto machine. I cannot see the dedicated software base ever getting large enough to be anything else. And as for CP/M compatibility, someone is going to have to copy each package across into the Einstein disc format and, in many cases, rewrite the software for the 40- or 32-column screen.
  • In my opinion there is a serious design fault. Had the disc drive been a standard 5.25 unit, then users would have immediate access to all the available CP/M software. I realise that this would have added to the cost but it would also add greatly to the utility of the machine.
  • There is one other problem that will be familiar to owners of the Sharp micros which have a lot in common with the Einstein, thanks to versions of Basic not stored in ROM. Should Tatung ever be tempted to make changes to Xtal Basic – the installed version is 1.11 – then software may no longer be transferable between machines.
  • All these reservations aside, the Einstein is a very low-cost way of buying a disc-based system. It is built from reliable tested technology and is unlikely to have the teething troubles of the QL. It is especially suited for control purposes and will thrill the hacker with its Xtal Basic and extensive machine-code monitor.

First published in Your Computer magazine, September 1984.

Toshiba HX-10 Review

ToshibaHX10_001

Graham Bland looks at what the vanguard of the MSX invasion has to offer.

In a bid to repeat their success in Japan, a number of manufacturers recently announced their intention to launch MSX systems in the U.K. Toshiba has emerged as the pace setter in the race to customise a micro for the more sophisticated British market. The HX-10 Home Computer seems likely to beat Sanyo’s Wavy 10 and Sony’s Hit-Bit to a place on the MSX shelves this month, albeit by a narrow margin.

Toshiba’s machine is unexciting when, compared with other systems from the land of the rising sun. The HX-10 does not have any of the goodies promised with some other MSX micros such as video interfacing, robot arms, and music synthesisers. But what it will have is a more competitive price tag.

Cosmetically, the HX-10 appears functional rather than glamorous – a slab-like dark-brown box, not exactly ugly, but it is hardly inspiring either. The overall construction is very workmanlike, a solid heavy micro that looks as if it could take a good bashing and has the endearing habit of staying put while you are typing.

Interfacing made easy

Communication with the outside world is relatively simple. At the back of the machine are phono socket connections for output to TV set or monitor, and a DIN socket to hook up a cassette recorder. Also hidden round the back is the bus connector which is ominously marked “For Only Toshiba Use”. This expansion bus connector will come into use when disc interfaces become available, as well as RS-232 drivers and the like. On the side of the machine are two D-type joystick sockets and a Centronics printer socket.

The all-important cartridge slot is accessed from above. How often this slot is used will depend on how many U.K. software houses opt for cartridge media in favour of cheaper and more popular cassettes.

As keyboards go, the HX-10’s is a long way ahead of those found on the Sord M-5 and the Spectrum, but not quite in the league of the BBC model B or Electron. As such, it represents a reasonable compromise between low-cost and usability. Of the 73 keys, five are programmable function keys – or soft keys as they are sometimes known.

A rich set of foreign characters are available from the keyboard using the Code key, including French, Spanish and Greek, as well as graphics characters which are produced using the bright-green Graph key. The minor points which annoyed me while using the HX-10’s keyboard were the tiny backspace key, the cramped cursor keys and the absurd colour scheme adopted, green, blue, brown and white.

In Japan, Toshiba was one of the few companies to offer a 64K machine. Seemingly, Tokyo’s man-on-the-street is quite happy with a measly 16K computer. Of the two systems that Toshiba had available in Japan, they wisely adapted the 64K version instead of the 32K model.

If the promise of 64K seems mouth-watering, prepare for a sudden loss of appetite when you switch on the HX-10. After the copyright message you are informed that there is only about 28K available to MSX-Basic programs. Graphics support immediately claims 16K and the rest of the missing memory is squirrelled away for some undisclosed purpose – perhaps lying dormant awaiting the arrival of a disc operating system.

Displayed at the bottom of the screen are the values of the first five function keys. The second five values may be displayed simply by holding down the Shift key. To remove this display, the command Key Off will do the trick. You can assign your own character strings to any of the function keys. For example:

KEY 1,“? FRE(0)” + CHR (13)

will print out the amount of free memory every time function key number 1 is pressed.

MSX-Basic is very nearly an 8-bit IBM PC Basic, offering a nice spread of arithmetic functions, good graphics and sound and a few other elegant touches which must make it one of the best home micro Basics around.

All arithmetic is calculated to double precision – up to 14 decimal places – which does tend to slow programs down a bit, but this trade-off is acceptable if accuracy is the most important consideration. Data types can be declared as binary, hexadecimal and octal as well as the standard characters, integers etc.

Entering programs displays both a weakness and strength in the Basic. Unfortunately, the interpreter does not check lines as they are entered. To compensate, there is an excellent full-screen editor. It is a shame that the designers could not combine both these features in the way Atari has on the 800XL.

As mentioned earlier, the HX-10’s character set is fairly complete. There is a full range of scientific symbols, a music note, signs for integration and differentiation and so forth. These characters, plus the foreign ones, point to the possible educational uses that MSX systems might have.

Program output can be formatted using the Print Using statement. This is a fairly flexible and powerful statement which is particularly useful for making numeric output look nice. If, for example, the results of a tax calculation are to be displayed to two decimal places, the following statement will ensure a uniform output:

10 PRINT USING “# # # .# # ”,TAX

Other options allow field fillers, + or – signs, and the insertion of a string variable into a constant string.

Powerful sound chip

The sound available from MSX Basic is also quite impressive. At the heart of every MSX micro lies a dedicated sound chip – General Instruments AY-3-8910 – the same chip used by the Oric Atmos and Memotech MTX series, in fact. It is capable of producing three notes simultaneously over a range of eight octaves with an optional noise channel to produce helicopter and explosion noises. To kick this chip into life, you can use one of two Basic commands: Sound or Play.

Sound is the most flexible of the two but much harder to use. It is little more than a specialised Poke instruction; values are sent to one of the sound chips’ 13 registers accessible from the Basic. Not having a manual available you will have to study the sound chip quite fully.

The Play command is much more straightforward. You are restricted to musical notes in this case, with instructions being given to the sound chip via the Music Macro Language. Music is set out in a character string, with letters like C, F and G# corresponding to the same notes as musical notation.

Note length, octave, tempo and other features will, with practice, allow most tunes to be played. All music played using this command is placed in a music queue for summary execution. So once told what it is to play, the HX-10 can continue to perform some other task. There are no equivalents of the Oric’s Zap and other sound commands.

With 16K of your precious memory dedicated to graphics support, you get the feeling that the graphics capabilities of this machine ought to be quite good. Though not in possession of an ultra-high resolution screen like the Beeb’s, the HX-10 can squeeze quite a lot from its fairly moderate 256 by 192 resolution screen. The nicest thing about MSX Basic’s graphics statements is that they are very easy to use, and due to the allocated video RAM, reasonably quick too. I can only hope that this feature is well documented.

There are commands to draw circles, lines and boxes, a Paint command, and 16 colours available. Best of all, you can declare up to 32 sprites. Fortunately, there are no Poke instructions required to set up a sprite thanks to the provision of a special variable called Sprite$. Sprites are placed on the screen using the Put Sprite command. A number of these graphics statements such as PSet, Circle, and Put Sprite have the option to specify absolute or relative co-ordinates.

By putting the word Step in front of a set of co-ordinates, the shape or point is placed relative to the last point addressed on the graphics screen. This speeds up the movement of sprites etc. across the screen as there is no need to waste time calculating the object’s next position.

Text and graphics

There is, however, no easy way to put text into a graphics screen. What you have to do is: open the graphics screen as a named file (GRP:) and use a Print# statement to send a character string to the screen. This is hardly convenient particularly as the character string will be placed at the last point addressed on the screen.

Possibly the best feature of this Basic is its interrupt statements. Rather than polling for an event such as the spacebar being pressed, you can set an interrupt which will cause a branch to a subroutine when the event occurs. The following short program will print out the product of 100 by 100 repeatedly until the spacebar is pressed, when it will print out

“HELLO”: 10 strig(0) on
20 on strig gosub 40
30 print 100 * 100 : goto 30
40 print “HELLO” : return

Interrupts may be set up to monitor the function keys, sprite collision, time intervals, and trap events such as errors and the production of a Ctrl-Stop signal. This feature of the language makes up for the omission of a While-Wend statement.

Conclusions

  • Overall, the Toshiba HX-10 is a pleasurable system to use. It does have its drawbacks but these are generally too few to worry about. It is much better than the ill-fated Spectravideo – almost an MSX computer but not quite – being curiously faster with the obvious advantage of a full-pitch keyboard.
  • It will be a long time before the full impact of MSX is realised in the U.K. The standard promises cheaper and plentiful software, lower-cost systems and peripherals, every micro owner’s dream in fact. It will probably be next year at the earliest before software houses have the courage to reduce MSX software prices, depending, of course, on whether MSX takes off in the U.K.
  • Judging by the Toshiba MSX system, the decision to purchase one manufacturer’s system against another may well rest on a single factor – price.

First published in Your Computer magazine, September 1984

An Impressive List of Features from Facit

The 4510 dot matrix printer allows you to keep your options open, says Andrew Tollyfield

Facit4510_001

The Facit 4510 – not aimed at any one user, but it avoids being a jack of all trades and master of none.

As the microcomputer market expands, companies which formerly made peripherals for larger computers are being forced to come ‘down-market’.

The Swedish-made Facit 4510 printer is a mid-range, high quality dot matrix printer. It is not cheap, but it offers a lot for the price.

The advertising literature for the Facit 4510 claims all the ‘extras’ come as standard. This is only a slight exaggeration.

The only feature lacking appears to be a software-definable character set, and the only disappointment is that it comes with no connecting lead. But since several different leads would be needed to cover the range of requirements, this is understandable.

Various leads are available at about £15 each.

The Facit is versatile, and has both parallel and serial interfaces, standard and high resolution text printing with proportional spacing if required, and block or high-resolution graphics.

This versatility and good print quality make the 4510 an attractive proposition, even at £498.

Setting it up

Beneath the printer’s adequate packaging is a reasonably compact machine with a smart two-tone plastic cover on a rigid metal base.

Most of the components, including the small DIP setting switches and interface connectors, which protrude at the rear, are on a single horizontal printed-circuit board mounted on the baseplate. The whole construction is fairly sturdy and weighs 5.5kg. The dimensions are 17 x 13 x 4.5 in. There is good access to the print head and large ribbon cartridge, and paper-loading is easy for either friction or tractor feed. Both options can be adjusted to take paper widths from 4in to 11in. An unusual and welcome feature is the inclusion of a paper-roll holder.

The documentation is exhaustive, but clearly aimed at the experienced user – explanations are too terse and occasionally confusing. The detail given is greater than average but a more logical presentation of sections would have helped.

Facit4510_002

With typefaces created under software control, this is just a small selection of the output available from the Facit. This printout shows extended, normal and condensed sans serif, and normal and extended serif faces, and block graphics.

Facilities

The printer has two LEDs, one of which indicates power-on, and the other on-line error. The latter flashes when an error occurs, such as displacement of the print-head.

The controls include a mains switch on the left-hand side and suitably recessed, an on/off line switch, line/form switch and a top-of-form/error override switch. The rotary mode switch sets the default printing mode.

By holding the error-override while switching on one can ‘self-test’ the printer.

The Facit has a 2K buffer, a parallel interface providing both Centronics and Epson protocols, and a serial interface which operates at between 110 and 9600 baud using 7-bit ASCII code.

The now-standard feature of several language sets is available here (including Swedish, Danish, German, Italian, French, Spanish), selectable by switches or software. A programmable ROM containing custom character sets can be inserted on the PCB and one can move between the main or auxiliary character sets under software control.

Any character set can be printed in elongated or underlined mode and the character sizes themselves can be 10, 12 or 17 characters per inch.

Block graphics symbols are printed at 7.5, 9 and 12 per inch, while high-resolution graphics have densities of 60, 72 and 100 dots per inch. The latter can also be double printed.

Forward or reverse full- and half-line feeds are useful for subscripts and superscripts, but reverse linefeeds can be used only with friction feed.

The left-hand margin has to be set manually, but the right-hand margin can be set by software. A special space code can be set at any size from 0 to 94.5 dot columns and backspace allows for overprinting a previous character.

This is an impressive list of features.

Facit claims 120 characters per second but linefeed time reduces this to around 80 CPS for full 80-character lines. The noise level is reasonably low and the quality of print is very good, particularly in the high-resolution modes.

The printer uses bi-directional printing in the text and block-graphic modes but automatically reverts to unidirectional printing in the high resolution mode in order to produce the best vertical alignment.

Overview

The 4510 is obtainable from Access Data Communications, Uxbridge, which is the distributor in the country. Service is also available from them on a contract basis but at £100 per year it should be more economical to return the machine for repair.

If faults occur during the six-month warranty period the printer will be replaced.

The Facit’s price is high compared with similar printers, but it offers a larger number of options.

In applications where a wide variety of printing requirements exist this printer would be an ideal choice.

Print for the finish

Picking a printer is an exercise in picking a horse for a course. There are four printer variables – price, speed, quality and flexibility.

You generally can’t get advantages in one area without losing out in others.

In striving to mix variables to suit different needs, manufacturers have developed a variety of ways to get words on paper.

Punching a raised metal cast through a ribbon is the most popular way of achieving ‘letter quality’. This daisywheel system makes a mess of the other printer variables, especially flexibility and price.

If, like most personal computer users, you are prepared to sacrifice a couple of variables you can get the all-important price down to pocket-size.

At the bottom end of the scale you find the thermal and electrostatic printers which ‘singe’ characters onto specially coated paper.

These cost less but only at a great sacrifice of all the other variables.

Although rudimentary graphics are possible, speed is bad and quality is offensive (correspondence is not to be entered into).

The matrix printer is a close cousin of the daisywheel but instead of fixed type it uses a row of pins which are programmed to punch dots to form characters or graphics.

Matrix printers are the most popular type and fill a wide range of user requirements from high-quality/expensive to low-quality/cheap.

First published in Personal Computer News magazine, 1st April 1983

Say it again SAM

SAM001

Nigel Cross lends an ear to a Shakespeare-quoting speech synthesiser for the 48K Apple II.

Despite its dubious acronym – Software Automatic Mouth – and its origins with a Californian company named Don’t Ask Computer Software, SAM turns out to be a pleasant kind of character.

In fact, this combined hardware and software package for the 48K Apple II is far better than its trite packaging (awful cartoon character on silver box) and slender instruction booklet indicate.

Setting it up

Once the box is discarded SAM manifests itself as a disk and a small PCB. The board has to be located in slot 4 of the Apple, then two pieces of wire are connected to the internal speaker pin and loudspeaker.

For best results a medium size speaker of four to eight inches is recommended to give an acceptably ‘rounded’ voice. A volume adjustment is also included so that if you don’t like your neighbours you can really give them a hard time.

For more volume you could wire the output to an amplifier – but be careful. The internal speaker is disabled and all sound output is passed through SAM.

Having got this far the disk can be loaded and the demo programs run. These programs include a short story about SAM and its capabilities. Another program is a small selection of famous speeches – Hamlet’s soliloquy was definitely interesting but SAM is certainly no Olivier.

The other two should be avoided if only for the content – Allegiance to the Flag and Gettysburg Address.

Up and Running

By this time most people would be falling about in fits of laughter, but don’t let this put you off. The real part of the package is very good and easy to use.

To make things easy a subroutine ‘reciter’ is included so that by encoding an alphanumeric string and performing a call. Reciter decodes English into phonetics, then SAM utters them through the speaker.

This method is very fast and its efficiency is something to marvel at. The English is decoded according to about 450 rules of English pronunciation and copes very well with all sorts of combinations of letters – even absolute gibberish.

An interesting note on this function is that ‘goodnight’ is pronounced correctly whereas ‘goodnite’ becomes ‘goodnit’.

This use of SAM is obviously limited by the nature of direct translation and does not incorporate much capability for stress, inflection and intonation – not to mention dialect.

However, strings of invective and expletives are wonderfully effective and, in fact, woke up someone in the next room.

Having decided to pass on to SAM itself, the booklet comes into its own. Data passed to SAM can be structured according to the dictionary and by the simple expedient of encoding a phonetic string then issuing a call.

SAM uses about 60 phonetic units, which are noted on a quick reference card, to produce its sounds.

By analysing the words, phrases and sense of what you wish your computer to say using the phonetic reference chart and the dictionary, comprehensive structures can be compounded.

A word of warning – SAM has a ‘breath’ capacity of only 2.5 seconds, so be sure to encode a pause within the time limit. Unexpected pauses ruin the overall effect.

Once the data has been encoded phonetically it is then possible to add emphasis on a scale of 0 to 9 to every part by including a digit of appropriate value at correct places in the data.

The phonetic writing of compound statements is not easy to start with, but after a little practice it almost becomes second nature (depending on your own accent) and the results turn out to be very pleasing.

As regards the ‘voice’ of SAM, the first impressions are very reminiscent of a tired and emotional Mexican speaking with his mouth full of chilli, but a bit of effort and thought makes it clearer.

Verdict

This package is very impressive with great scope available to the user for personalisation of program prompts or actual enunciation of data.

The ‘voice’ becomes clearer with use, but even using just the Reciter function all speech is understandable.

Within its capabilities this is one of the best-implemented speech synthesisers available.

  • Name: SAM (Software Automatic Mouth)
  • Machine: Apple II 48K
  • Manufacturer: Don’t Ask Computer Software
  • Price: £102.35 inc vat
  • Outlet: Pete & Pam Computers

First published in Personal Computer News magazine, 1st April 1983

Professional Standards

TIProfessional001

Philippe Michiels delivers the verdict on the latest Texas micro.

Increasing concern about industry-wide standards has meant that big manufacturers – including IBM and Digital – have begun producing hardware running on systems like MS-DOS and CP/M-86. Texas Instruments has now joined the drive for standardised software with the TI Professional.

Texas Instruments selected the Intel 8088 processor in favour of its own 9900 for this very reason, and the result is the Professional – a hardware package that will run much of the industry’s bestselling software.

Documentation

The unit is supplied with all the necessary hardware and documentation, right down to the plug, but since it is capable of running more than one operating system, the latter is not included in the basic price. This leaves users with the choice of running their favourite software.

The operating instructions are well laid out in five sections, with a particularly clear guide to setting up the system.

Adequate information is provided for adjusting the display and positioning the separate units for comfortable use.

Diskette handling instructions are well explained, and the use of each key on the keyboard is well documented.

Once the system is set up the diagnostic diskette (which is supplied as standard) runs a comprehensive diagnostic test right down to testing each key.

Construction

The Professional itself comes in three parts – the system unit. the keyboard and the monitor. The system unit is large for a desk-top, measuring 48 x 43 x 14.5cm. It is metal-cased, and feels heavy and solid.

There is a large illuminated power switch at the side of the case, but there are no other controls, and there is no external fuse or reset switch.

The unit is fan-cooled, but the fan is excessively noisy.

TIProfessional003

Inside the Professional: the huge PSU dwarfs the disk drives at the top. On the right are the expansion slots.

Removing the top cover – by means of two screws – reveals a sealed power supply, two 5.25in disk drives and the motherboard. The motherboard has a video controller card installed in one of the expansion slots. The review machine also had an expansion RAM card installed. The construction was of a high standard, and all interconnecting cables were neatly tucked away. All connections are made at the rear.

The motherboard contains the Intel 8088 microprocessor running at 5MHz the floppy disk controller, capable of controlling four drives; 64K of single bit parity checked memory; the keyboard
interface; a parallel Centronics printer interface and the expansion interface.

Expansion

TIProfessional004

To the rear – on the right are blanked off slots for interface cables/ Video output is the only one present here.

Although there are six expansion slots on the motherboard only five may be used for peripheral expansion. The sixth slot may only be used for RAM expansion.

The review machine was installed with a 192K card, but a 512K card is planned.

One of the expansion slots is required for the video interface card, and this is available in a number of configurations. The minimum configuration is a text card and contains no graphics capability. This card may be expanded to full colour graphics by means of a ‘piggyback’ card.

The review machine also had the full colour graphics option and with this in place the TI Professional still has room for four expansion cards.

Our machine Screen also had a National Panasonic colour monitor. When the monitor was placed on top of the system unit, which is the most desirable position, the display was unsteady. When it was placed away from the system it gave a perfectly acceptable display.

Texas Instruments says this was because it was a US monitor, and that production units certainly will not suffer from this problem.

Controls are provided for brightness and horizontal centring and the screen had good anti-glare properties.

The graphics resolution is 720 pixels horizontally and 300 vertically, with a maximum of eight colours, or eight grey levels on a black and white monitor.

Keyboard

TIProfessional002

The keyboard is connected at the rear of the system unit by a rather thick coiled cable. It has a tilt adjustment but when used on smooth surfaces tended to slip.

The keys themselves have a positive action and are pleasant to use, although I thought their travel was too great. The keys are switchless and should provide trouble-free operation for a long time.

The machine has a low-profile sculptured keyboard, well laid out with 12 programmable function keys, and separate numeric and cursor control cluster.

Software

The MS-Basic supplied with the review machine had some interesting features. When Basic is started the function keys are loaded with reserved words allowing single key program entry. The ALT key allowed single-key reserved word entry.

Program editing was relatively easy since Basic allows you to place the cursor on any visible portion of text for rapid re-entry using the ENTER key.

The function keys INSERT and DELETE may also be used to edit text lines. The Basic has powerful inbuilt graphic commands. PALETTE allows any of the eight colours to be instantly redefined.

The commands CIRCLE and LINE allow circles, lines and blocks to be drawn by one command. Circle drawing is not as fast as one would expect from an 8088, but pie-charts can be drawn at acceptable speeds.

The commands GET and PUT allow the program to fetch a graphics object from the screen memory and then redisplay it at any other location on the screen.

The command PAINT is used to fill in graphic objects with a particular colour.

Basic allows the keyboard to be redefined using the KEY function and can be used to program the function keys with user information.

MS-DOS, CP/M-86, Concurrent CP/M-86 and UCSD P-system all run on the TI Professional. Hardware options include CP/M-80, additional floppy disk drives and the TI Winchester drive offering up to five megabytes of storage space. A speech input/output card will be available later.

Overview

The TI Professional is a good looking, albeit slightly bulky, desktop machine with impressive colour graphics at a reasonable price. The choice of two of the most popular operating systems means that many software packages will be available for it, and it already has Easy Writer and MultiPlan implemented for MS-DOS.

The documentation for the system and software is well presented and the inclusion of section tabs and clear indexing makes it easy to use.

Overall, I would say this robust machine is well worth the price.

Specification

  • Price: £2,075
  • Processor: 8088, 5MHz
  • RAM memory: 64-256K
  • ROM memory: 8-16K
  • Text screen: 80 x 25
  • Graphics screen: 720 x 300
  • Keyboard: full travel, 97 keys, 16 function keys
  • Interfaces: Centronics, others optional
  • Storage: 320K double-density. double-sided disks
  • OS/Language: MS-DOS and MS-Basic
  • Others: Cobol, Fortran, Pascal
  • Distributor: Texas Instruments
  • Software supplied: none (user selected)

First published in Personal Computer News, 1st April 1983

The Basics in Splitting the Atom

BBCROM001

BBC Basic on an Atom? Reg Parsons finds the BBC ROM card a bit of a spanner in the works.

When Acorn advertised a ROM card for RUNning BBC Basic on the Atom I quickly placed my order.

I’d taken delivery of the 8K+2K Atom with floating-point ROM a few months earlier, and during the period of learning to drive it became aware of its limitations. I soon fitted a power utility ROM and expanded the RAM via the full Atom complement to an additional 32K offboard Timedata Dynamic RAM card, fitted inside the Atom case.

This was configured to occupy the whole of the lower text space, and provided 38K of continuous RAM. Then I added the 6522 Versatile Interface Adaptor and a printer buffer set.

The Atom ROM card seemed an attractive proposition, even though I knew that less than half the available RAM would be free for use in BBC mode.

When the board eventually turned up I immediately discovered two snags. First, there was no way in which it would fit in its intended slot inside the case while the Timedata RAM card was there. And although the ‘Comprehensive BBC-type Basic Manual’ gave detailed fitting instructions, it didn’t live up to its description – it was inadequate in providing working information on the BBC dialect. Nor was a circuit diagram supplied.

I had to remove the internally fitted memory board and house it externally, with a ribbon cable and socket connection to the external Atom bus. Meanwhile, I ordered a copy of the BBC Basic User’s Guide.

When the manual turned up I got down to the business of installing the board and evaluating it from the point of view of – by now – a seasoned Atom user.

When the board was fitted, all the internal lower text-space RAM was removed, including Zero Page, together with IC6, and the connection to pin 12 of IC5 was disabled in order to configure the Atom to use the external board.

These modifications remained, so the IC9 position on the BBC Board was left unoccupied, and in addition, the extra RAM supplied on the BBC board by ICs 5-8 was removed.

I chose to use the keyboard selection option for switching between BBC Basic and Atom Basic. I won’t tolerate the incongruity presented by making additional soldered connections to plug-in modules, so I fitted miniature single-pole sockets to the Atom board in appropriate positions, and mating plugs to the flying leads from the board.

BBCROM005

The BBC Basic conversion card sits piggyback-style on the main PCB of the Atom. In front of it is the back of the keyboard, so the entire assembly is actually upside-down in the case. A few jumper connections are necessary.

Power-up

BBCROM002

On power-up followed by BREAK, the BBC Basic banner was displayed. BREAK/CONTROL produced the Acorn Atom banner. To switch back, BREAK/SHIFT at first produced no result, but a second attempt returned to BBC Basic.

So – after the initialisation. BREAK/ SHIFT has to be executed twice to attain the desired result; no problem – but nobody said so. BREAK/CONTROL needs only one execution to operate. After executing BREAK only, no change takes place in the operating mode.

My first major discovery was that Mode 7 is not Teletext; it is Atom Mode 0. Similarly, Mode 6 = Atom ,Mode 1, 5 = Atom 2, 4 = Atom 3, and 3 – 0 are Atom 4. Characters per line remain at 32.

Mode 7 is the only text mode. There is no facility for defining text windows in graphics modes. The cursor remains the Atom cursor, and, although nobody says so, it can be turned off by the command ?&E1=0, and on again by ?&E1=&80 – equivalent to the Atom commands.

The mode equivalents are listed in the supplementary manual, which also says that the graphics screens are scaled, so that PLOT statements refer to the same screen location in all graphics modes. In this context, the screen size is 1280 x 1024.

The Atom character font is used, but the production of inverse characters, representing lower-case letters, is inhibited and they are printed to the screen as normal capitals. This means that a printer will not print lower-case characters. This seems to be due to the fact that inverse characters and block graphics characters are used as key-word tokens in BBC Basic. Acorn says this is because the Atom OS is used by the board.

The number of characters permitted per line when input from the keyboard considerably exceeds the Atom limitation, and appears to be a maximum of 128 characters (four screen lines). After this, entry is allowed to continue up to 240 characters or more, although editing is no longer possible.

A strange feature is that certain shifted characters seem to cause a notional but not physical CR, so that entry again becomes valid.

No statement of the maximum number of characters permitted can be found anywhere, and Acorn will not commit itself to one. The company says that the shifted character anomaly results from the fact that the Atom OS is used.

Mixing modes

BBCROM003

When I tried to LOAD an existing program in Atom mode, it failed. A memory test indicated that, in this mode, memory was accessible only up to #4000. This was totally unacceptable, and again I turned to Acorn and also to Timedata.

Acorn told me that the presence of the BBC board in the Atom inhibited the addressing of any off-board Eurocard, even in Atom mode. Not one word to this effect appears in any of its advertisements for the board, and no such limitation is mentioned in the instructions that accompany it.

Timedata carried out a thorough investigation and eventually produced a comprehensive set of notes concerning the use of its boards in conjunction with the BBC board.

The connection to pin 11 of IC14 on the BBC board must be disabled, and that pin must be connected to pin 12 of IC12, also on the BBC board. There is a conveniently located plated-through hole on the BBC board, connected to pin 12 of IC12, and a short wire was soldered from there and terminated on a single IC socket removed from a DIL unit, which was clipped to the bent-up pin on BBC IC14.

Full Atom memory was now available from 0 to #97FF but. of course, the maximum memory location normally available in BBC mode remained at &4000.

However, by raising HIMEM to &57FF, continuous memory is accessible up to that location. When I asked whether the screen section could be used for Basic programs, as in the Atom, Acorn refused to comment.

I have tried it; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s impossible to say why, because when it fails it produces the diabolical BAD PROGRAM error and all is lost. At least it should be possible to store data and/or machine code in this area, but this has not yet been tried.

I am aware that criticism of that error message – or rather of its consequence – is more a criticism of BBC Basic than of its implementation on the Atom, but I still think the action taken is ridiculous, and I cannot think of any logical reason for it.

I suspect that the error occurs on the BBC board for reasons over and above the one defined in the User’s Guide. For instance, tidying up a program by adding an END statement will sometimes allow it to make one more run, and then report BAD PROGRAM, and that’s your lot. Acorn attributes this to the use of the Atom OS.

The Atom utility ROM has to be transferred to the BBC board and occupies memory space from &6000 to &6FFF. Because of the address contents- if for no other reason – the ROM is unusable and inaccessible in BBC mode, and the valuable address space is wasted. Worse still. Atom COS, which runs at 300 baud, is the only one available in BBC mode.

Since for the last eight months or so I have been *LOADing and *SAVEing all Basic programs as unnamed files at 1,200 baud with absolute reliability, I do not take kindly to returning to the tedious 300baud.

It has been reported that, by careful manipulation of addresses, it is possible to save programs in Atom mode, using the utility ROM fast COS. To date. I have not been able to do so; this could be due to some unexpected effect of the use of off-board memory.

Acorn’s advice is again that this is due to the use of Atom OS. The lack of FAST COS will ensure that very little use is made of the board by me.

Hex numbers could not be INPUT from the keyboard direct to a variable. The answer is to INPUT to a string variable, and make the variable = EVAL (string variable). It seems that this is a standard feature of BBC Basic; nobody says so anywhere.

Command control

BBCROM004

None of the BBC *FX commands is available, and the only VDU commands available are those corresponding to the Atom control codes, plus one which places the cursor in a specified position on the screen, and one which mimics the command MODE 3, VDU31 and VDU16 respectively.

If there are others, I have not found them. A nice feature is that VDU can be abbreviated to V.; V.00 is much easier and quicker to type than P.$00.

Other commands not implemented are ADVAL (understandable because there is no analog to digital converter), COLOUR. ENVELOPE (resulting in severe limitations to the SOUND command), EOF, EXT#, PTR (all because there is no provision for DOS). GCOL, POINT and POS.

Commands only partially implemented are VDU (already discussed), INKEY, INKEY$ (input of negative numbers not supported), SOUND (only one channel and no Envelope parameter).

As has already been implied, the hex operator is ‘&’ instead of ‘#’. The latter is used in the assembler to denote immediate addressing mode instead of ‘@’.

The following OS routines do not exist: OSGBPB and OSARGS. OSRDCH and OSASCI appear to be implemented by Atom’s OSWRCH. OSNEWL has also disappeared, but its limited functions are obviously absorbed elsewhere.

VDU21, besides its normal function (P.$21), deletes the whole of the current line up to 128 characters in length, during program entry only.

Most keywords can be abbreviated on entry, but these are printed in full when listing; this makes them less readable, as does the use of variable names – which is not only permitted but positively encouraged by BBC Basic. Variable names are extremely wasteful of memory space, and I cannot understand why they should be so encouraged.

Long before computers existed I was taught to allocate letters or alpha-numeric combinations to variables. While I concede that variable names may have a limited use, I shall continue to use alpha and alpha-numeric variables.

In general, BBC error codes, except for the BAD PROGRAM abomination, seem to be more helpful than their Atom equivalents, but there is one message that is not only useless but a nuisance. When LISTing in BBC mode, Atom OS as usual is used, and exit from the List is by ESCAPE. BBC Basic prints out the unnecessary message ESCAPE AT LINE 00, and in doing so, it scrolls the listing up, by up to three lines – not disastrous but irritating and time-wasting. Acorn says that the message cannot be inhibited and that it is due to the use – you’ve guessed it – of the Atom OS.

There is a ‘bug’ in versions of the ROM that pre-date December ’82, which causes a LINE FEED to be sent to the printer. This results in undesired double-line spacing in some printers. Line feed to the printer, says Acorn’s technical department, can be inhibited by the command ?&FE=0.

Acorn says that user-accessible vector addresses are the same as Atom equivalents. They refuse to supply information on Zero Page addresses, which they say is not available.

Positive points

Despite all my criticisms, however, there are desirable features.

Print formatting is a pleasant feature after the Atom’s almost total lack of any such facility, as is the implementation of ‘proper’ string handling, and the total independence of string variables on integer variables. The freedom of choice in selecting both integer and FP variables is a welcome innovation, as is the freedom
from the need to dimension strings before, use.

Many of the more useful commands, such as DEL, ELSE and ON ERROR already appear on most of the utility ROMs and will not be new to Atom users.

DEF and the associated FN and PROC are potentially useful, but as yet I have not experimented with them, and because they open up a totally new programming concept I am reluctant to do so.

No doubt, though, that reluctance will be overcome given time.

PAGE is a welcome simplification of the ?18=#00 routine.

CHAIN, which will accept an empty string as its argument, and which is equivalent to ATOM’S *RUN without the hassle, is a potentially useful command, but it is restricted in its usefulness by the lack of FAST COS.

Overview

BBCROM006

The BBC board for the Acorn Atom is an excellent idea, potentially of great value and interest to Atom owners. But the project has brought forth a half-baked product.

I accept that the Atom can never be a BBC micro. Nevertheless, with a little more dedication on Acorn’s part it could have been much closer to it than it actually is.

There is room in the memory map, and even a socket for an extension OS ROM. Also the space occupied by introducing the Atom utility ROM into the BBC memory could have been usefully employed in extending the OS.

Acorn says it has no plans for any extension at the moment.

In the final analysis, everything depends on the view one takes of ‘BBC Basic’. Acorn appears to consider that it should be a minimum implementation of the dialect within the limits of Atom’s existing hardware, and indeed the company virtually says so.

I believe it should be the maximum possible implementation of the dialect within the physical limitations of the Atom – a very different thing. The crunch question is if I had known then what I now know, would I have bought the board?’ The answer must be No.

If you are considering buying it you must form your own conclusions. If you have a fully expanded Atom (12K+12K with VIA) and no intention to expand further than the BBC board, then it may be just what you are looking for. Otherwise, be warned.

There’s life in the Atom yet

Acorn’s Atom has more recently been overshadowed by its grander TV-star relation the BBC micro, but it’s a fine little micro in its own right.

For only £174 you get a full-travel keyboard, between 2 and 12K of RAM and a 6502-based processor. You also get one of the fastest (but most idiosyncratic) Basics around, and enough programmable I/O to satisfy anyone.

Of course, it isn’t all milk and honey. For example, there isn’t enough space inside the case to take any more than a couple of the available expansion boards, and one in particular, the colour card, generates too much heat for the rather inadequate ventilation.

That said, the Atom is a very ‘open’ machine, meaning that (provided you can get the information) there are no tricks preventing you from programming it to do anything you want.

The lack of memory will limit how much code can be squeezed into the little box, but tight programming can make it fit. The system has also been available to run Acorn’s Econet since last year, but since the development of the BBC it isn’t much used for that purpose.

The Atom was in many ways a test vehicle for a lot of the facilities now offered on the BBC micro. For instance, Econet was first configured on the Atom more than a year and a half ago, using much the same system available for the BBC. In fact, the Atom is still used as a control keyboard for the System 5 file server system on a large BBC micro Econeted system.

Although the Atom is likely to become obsolete with the development of the Acorn Electron – the company’s next under-£200 micro – it will remain until then one of the better-equipped machines in that price range.

Looking much like an anonymous Commodore Vic-20, the Atom has only 60 keys and those used for the cursor. It is not equipped with quite the range of graphics keys available on a more modern machine such as the Vic.

Colour problems

The Atom has also suffered from problems in implementation of colour. Atom colour card’s VDU driver chip, 6847, was originally designed to be used on an American colour system and has proved difficult to use on PAL systems. Unless modifications are made, it is also frustrating for use with RGB-type monitors.

The BBC micro has solved this colour problem by offering RGB, PAL and composite video signals as standard outputs.

Although it is not expected to be used with disks as often as the BBC micro, the Atom can accommodate a disk drive. An Atom disk drive pack from Acorn will give you 92K of storage on a standard 5.25in single-sided 40-track floppy disk using an Olivetti disk drive with its own separate power supply.

Unfortunately, the disk pack costs almost twice the price of the micro, which is likely to keep most Atom owners from using such a drive.

Images by Kieren Phelps

First published in Personal Computer News magazine, 1st April 1983