Just another 6502 system? We think not. Microtan’s expandability is almost second to none and it could be a winner.
By Henry Budgett
The ideal system in most people’s minds is one that is as cheap as possible, provides the most facilities, is expandable to the limits of its design and can be obtained piece by piece as the money is saved. Up to now there have been several systems that have sought to achieve these varied aims, and the results have been many and varied.
The machine reviewed here is another contender in this field and certainly seems to be set for success where others have not. Based on the 6502 CPU, the same chip as used in PET and Apple among others, it has several very interesting items to offer.
Concept of A System
The usefulness of a computer on a board is limited, the usefulness of a system with attendant peripherals is much greater. The ideal balance is struck when the single board can become part of a system and thus have the capability of fulfilling the needs of both markets.
Microtan has been designed in this way, the complete system has been planned and is then offered board by board. This review is only going to cover the basic board but mention will be made of the available expansion to construct the system. Table 1 gives details of the various stages that are available, in their various configured forms.
Assembly Or Assembled?
I built the Microtan from a kit, something that I believe is worth doing as you not only save money but you do get an insight into how the hardware is strung together.
Presentation is superb and to anyone who is competent with a soldering iron this should represent no more than an evening’s work. Please note that the PCB is double sided and through-hole-plated so you must use a fine tip on the iron and fine solder otherwise you will have problems.
The manual that is supplied covers all the areas needed to construct the kit and get it up and running. It covers other areas that I will mention later. The only serious omission is the lack of a circuit diagram, but this is being rectified I gather. You will need a power supply, the 5 volt supply that we published in CT serves admirably or you can buy one from Tangerine.
The true test of any kit is whether it works, it did in its basic format and with the graphics option in place but it died when I tried to add the lower case option. Immediate thoughts of dead ROMs were not correct, the eventual culprit was a tri-state device that was permanently tri-stated. Quick work by Tangerine meant that I was back on the screen before the postman had called twice.
The old question of “How much can you fit into a pint pot?” rears its ugly head with Tanbug, the 1K monitor supplied as standard. The answer in this case is “Enough!”. At this stage you have a system that can only deal with machine code and a glance at Table 2 will show that there is only one possible omission from the monitor, that of cassette handling. Well, you don’t have a cassette interface yet so what are you worrying about? If you are going to expand to Tanex, which has that necessary interface, you get the routine for handling named files which you can either load up yourself or get in an EPROM that plugs in to a socket and is called through Tanbug. The cassette handling is at a choice of 300 or 4800 Baud so you can’t even boil the kettle let alone drink a cup of coffee while loading programs.
What does Tanbug have that sets it apart from other monitors? Two things really, you get a full listing of the firmware with notes and explanations and you don’t get any bugs, at least I haven’t found any yet. It does all that the Microtan user will require and if you ever get big enough to warrant it there is a bigger version called XBUG lurking in a dark corner.
Manual Means Handy?
The little orange covered book that is supplied is worthy of a mention in its own right. OK, it’s not perfect but it is detailed and concise. One or two errors have escaped correction but nothing that will cause the crashing of programs or other damage. The book fits into a ring binder and will be joined by the manuals for Tanex and the other family members, a neat concept in its own way.
For a change the manual is logical, it explains the concept of the board, then the system, then the details of the 6502 with the complete instruction set and then a very detailed chapter on the monitor and its uses – complete with the listing and finally it gives you a couple of games. It is essential to read the whole thing through from cover to cover before starting to play, the unit is complex and should be understood before anything is attempted.
What You Get
Once the board is built and the manual read you are ready to go. All you need now is a black and white TV and a 5 volt power supply at about 1 amp. Connect up, turn on and hit reset. The screen is covered in a pretty pattern with the words TANBUG at the bottom followed by a prompt character. At this point we find the only serious problem with the system. You have a ? on the screen but you are told that you should have a square blob, have you blown it up? No, you haven’t got the lower case option. It is explained in the manual but it is very unclear and has caused much confusion and alarm both in the office and outside.
So, you have a working system. Machine code programmers can now go and have a ball, the rest of us start learning. If you are a dedicated BASIC person Tanex is a must, throw away the Hex keypad (superb thought it is), plug in the full ASCII, the system works out which you are using, and let yourself go with a 10K Microsoft BASIC.
Points worth of note, and praise, are the rock steady display on your TV, the VDU RAM is only accessed when the system RAM is not so you don’t get the usual flicker, the excellent Hex keypad and the almost unbelievable packing density. Because the system is based around the 6502 comparisons with the Acorn, reviewed in August 79, are almost inevitable. With Microtan you get a proper VDU as opposed to an LED display, a decent keypad that is separate and a slightly more powerful monitor but you do lose the cassette (at this stage).
The Guts Of The Matter
Fig.1. Microtan’s architecture, all on one board to!
Because of a lack of space on the board certain apparently ignored features are implemented at other points in the system. Figure 1 shows the architecture of the board, the keyboard interface is intelligent in that it detects what type is being used. The memory map of the system, see Fig.2, appears to be rather limited, full decoding is done on the Tanex board and gives the map shown in Figure 3. This is not the disadvantage that it might appear to be, it allows the contents of RAM on Microtan to be protected against DMA as are the I/O ports and the ROM area. Whilst on the subject of I/O it is worth noting that you get a 1K area that is addressable as I/O, this compares with a maximum of 256 on devices using the Z80 or 8080.
Fig.2. The simple memory map produced by Microtan
Fig.3. Once you’ve added Tanex you get a proper memory map, which is fairly impressive.
The system expansion is shown in Figure 4, full details of the bus structure are given along with notes for DIY people. The address bus buffer chips are supplied as part of the Tanex unit, so don’t worry about the empty sockets.
Fig.4. How you expand through Tanbus
On Board Options
Despite the fact that the basic Microtan packs in a 6502, keyboard interface, VDU, 1K of RAM and 1K of monitor ROM there is more to come! As seen from the previously mentioned Fig.4 the address bus buffers fit on, but that’s not the end. You can have lower case alphabetics, not essential at this stage, and pixel type graphics, sometimes called “high resolution” but really made up of little squares not dots. Tangerine are quite honest about them and call them “Chunky” which is a very apt description, they are good enough for Teletext simulations and games etc.
Because of the ingenious VDU design it is quite possible to run a program that actually resides in the screen memory without bombing everything, try that on your system.
Glancing back to Table 1 you can see the basis of your system emerging. The rest is coming shortly and completes the story. Tanram will be the next board to go on sale and offers 40K of memory on a single board and this will have the capability of bank selection so RAM freaks can have the odd megabyte or six if they want. You may have realised that the system is now full, see Fig.3. Next on the stocks is Tandisc, offering you the floppies that you dream of, up to four double density units are planned.
The Microtan board installed in the mini-rack
Tanex fits on top in the mini-rack system, along with the power supply and Hex keyboard.
Housing all this exotic hardware need not be a problem either, the case that Tangerine supply will hold Microtan and Tanex complete with power supply. The other style that you could use is a card frame, I am building my system in a Vero unit, assembled from System KM4C parts which also offer such goodies as front panels and modules. However you could design your system to fit into a VDU case and have a self-contained system, it’s up to you.
The author’s system growing inside a Vero rack.
Microtan, and its attendant extras, offer the first time buyer a low cost entry point into computing. Taking a boxed two-board system with all the options, power supply and key board you have a more powerful unit than a PET, it has more I/O capability and at £350 it is a lot cheaper!
The product appears to have been launched with a great deal of thought and planning, in itself a change from some rivals, and seems to have found a niche in the market almost overnight. The only thing it hasn’t got is a “second generation” CPU such as a Z80 or 6809 but that doesn’t seem to be too much of a handicap, the dedicated machine code programmers among you might disagree but no-one else has!
|Table 1. The various system configurations for Microtan|
|Features||6502, 1K RAM, 1K ROM, 6 I/O ports|
|Options||Pixel graphics, lower case alphas, address bus buffers|
|Need to run||TV, Hex keypad, 5V PSU @ 1A|
|Features||1K RAM, 16 parallel I/O, TTL serial I/O, cassette I/O, 2 by 16 bit counter timers, full memory map, data bus buffers|
|Options||6K RAM, 4K ROM, 10K Microsoft BASIC, double above I/O plus RS232/20 mA serial with full modem control|
|Features||40K mixed static and dynamic RAM|
|Features||Control of four drives|
|Extras||Motherboard, case, power supply, Hex keypad, ASCII keyboard|
|Table. 2 The available monitor commands on Tanbug|
|M(add)(term)||Modify memory locations, terminator type allows step through, cancel or jump out.|
|L(add),(numb)(term)||Lists the contents of specified memory locations in tabular form.|
|G(add)(term)||Sets internal registers and executes program at address given. NB cursor disappears.|
|R||Sets memory modify command to register mode. Allows the 6502s internal registers to be altered.|
|S||Sets single step mode, see P & N|
|N||Resets to normal mode from single step|
|P||Causes monitor to execute next instruction, can be set to execute n instructions. Gives display of all registers and returns to monitor.|
|B(add),(numb)(term)||Sets breakpoint at specified address, up to eight are allowed. All registers are displayed and P command may be sued to continue.|
|O(branch add)(dest add)(term)||Calculates offsets between specified addresses for use in branch arguments.|
|C(start add)(end add)(start add dest)(term) NB (term) can be CR, LF or SP||Copies memory locations and blocks.|
First published in Computing Today magazine, June 1980