Microcomputing, British Style (Jan, 1983)

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Microcomputing, British Style

The Fifth Personal Computer World Show

by Gregg Williams, Senior Editor

Quick: what’s the most microcomputer-hungry country in the world? The United States, of course, right? We’ve got Silicon Valley and Route 128 (recently dubbed Technology Highway) near Boston. We’ve got BYTE, Apple, Atari, and IBM. True enough, but Britain has the people and it has a lot more than we do.

There’s ample evidence that, compared to the U.S., proportionally more of Britain’s population is interested in microcomputers. The Fifth Personal Computer World Show, a business and hobby microcomputer show hosted by one of Britain’s leading computer magazines, Personal Computer World, is a case in point. From September 9 to 12, 1982, 47,461 people attended the show—12,000 more than visited this year’s West Coast Computer Faire, which also lasted four days and was—until now—the world’s largest microcomputer show. If that’s not enough evidence, consider that the Personal Computer World Show held at the Barbican Center in London had far fewer exhibitors and less exhibition space than the Computer Faire, yet drew roughly one-third more people. A quick check in an almanac confirms that the population of the United States is almost four times that of the United Kingdom, which makes the attendance figures even more impressive. Something rather important is happening over there.

Last September, I attended the show to observe the state of microcomputing in Britain firsthand. And if the crowds I saw in London were any indication, more Britons from a wider range of ages (still almost exclusively men and boys, though) are clamoring for microcomputers than Americans are on the basis of any American convention I’ve ever attended. On the weekend, I saw a line—er, excuse me, queue—of people several blocks long waiting to buy tickets. It must have taken hours to reach the window, and once inside you couldn’t move or see anything.

Why are the British so enthusiastic about microcomputers? Part of the answer lies in the official support of the British government, which decided that microcomputers are important enough to warrant government-sponsored public education on the subject. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) sponsored a tutorial series on computers and commissioned an official microcomputer to be used in conjunction with the programs. I’m told that the television programs have been augmented by books and materials to be used in the public school system. A BBC series on programming is planned, and the National Extension College, a home-study institute, already has a course on BASIC programming using a generalized version of the language.

Jack Schofield, editor of another leading British microcomputer magazine, Practical Computing, has his own hypothesis for the popularity of microcomputers in Britain. The past decade has not been kind, economically or socially, to Britain, and as a result most people have learned to accept long lines and high prices as part of daily life. Fearful that high technology may put him out of a job someday, the average Briton has accepted the computer as a potential influence, but one that he has some control over. This, Schofield says, may explain the strong interest in microcomputers that transcends British class and economic boundaries.

Whether or not Schofield’s hypothesis is correct, the British appetite for microcomputers owes a good deal to the pivotal work of one man: Clive Sinclair. As head of Sinclair Research, the company that makes the ZX80, the ZX81, and the Spectrum microcomputers, Clive Sinclair is to the British small computer what Adam Osborne is to the American business computer: the creator of a product whose price is so low that the competition finally accepted it as the price to beat. Before Sinclair brought out the ZX80 at about £100 (less than $200), the British had only expensive American imports. Discounted Commodore VIC-20s and Atari 400s, for example, sell for around £200 and £300 respectively, almost twice their American prices. Because it is so expensive abroad, the Apple II is known primarily in Britain and Europe as a business machine, believe it or not. American microcomputers have always been just too expensive for the average person. You can then imagine the exultation when Sinclair Research brought out the ZX80 for under £100—one-half to one-third the price of the imports. Granted, it wasn’t as good a computer, but more people could afford it, and that made the difference. Now more than half the microcomputers in Britain are ZX80s and ZX81s. The ZX81 now sells for £50, and British manufacturers are interested in creating a full-featured computer for less than £300.

My first observation at the Personal Computer World Show was that people were insatiably curious about microcomputers. After that, I was impressed by the diversity of inexpensive machines. I’ve written short descriptions of the six machines most worthy of note—the Acorn BBC Model B, the Dragon 32, the EACA Genie III, the Camputers Lynx, the Grundy Newbrain AD, and the Sinclair Spectrum. (All but the Genie III are low-cost machines.) I’ve included a chart that compares those computers, a collection of photos from the show, and a list of addresses for all the products mentioned in this article. So lean back and enjoy the show—at least you don’t have to fight the crowds.

The Sinclair Spectrum

If Clive Sinclair’s black-and-white ZX80 and ZX81 have become the most popular microcomputers in Britain (and, for that matter, in the rest of the world), is it any wonder that his company’s new color microcomputer, the Spectrum, is doing just as well?

The success of the Spectrum is a source of great comfort to Clive Sinclair, especially since the BBC chose Acorn’s design over his for use in its computer-literacy program. (Incidentally, Sinclair could be accused of the same tactic for which he had berated Acorn: advertising the product long before he was able to deliver it.) As the British ad for the Spectrum points out, the Spectrum is markedly simpler and more elegant than the Acorn BBC Microcomputer when measured by the number of chips on its main circuit board. However, the Spectrum shows a quirkiness that is the price we pay for its circuit board elegance and low cost. And Clive Sinclair’s statement that the Spectrum is “less than half the price of its nearest competitor—and more powerful” is only half right: half the price, yes, but definitely not more powerful.

First of all, you have to consider the keyboard. For £125, we can’t quite demand the full keyboards offered by machines that are considerably more expensive than the basic Spectrum. Given the price differential, we can make allowances for the Spectrum’s unique keyboard, which is basically a pressure-sensitive membrane (like those of the ZX80 and ZX81) mounted under a piece of molded gray rubber that protrudes above the plastic cover to make “keys.” This interesting scheme works surprisingly well, but the cramped 9.3-inch-wide keyboard has other faults that are harder to excuse.

Inexpensive or not, the keyboard layout is impossible to justify. It may be innovative, but it’s also poorly designed in several respects. The layout is clever in that you can use it to enter letters, numbers, one-stroke BASIC keywords, graphics symbols, and the like. But that scheme makes the keyboard busy. Most keys have five legends: three printed on the key and one each immediately above and below the key. This design may be necessary, but it also causes eyestrain and confusion. I’d be willing to forgive all this, but I can’t excuse such thoughtless “innovations” as providing only one Caps Shift key (in the lower left-hand corner; the one on the right is used as a Symbol Shift key) and placing the space key in the lower right-hand corner of the keyboard.

The Spectrum’s BASIC is a superset of the Sinclair BASIC used in the ZX80 and ZX81, and it has some valuable features, most of them having to do with the rather clever way graphics are implemented. ZX81 cassette tapes will not load on a Spectrum, and most ZX81 BASIC programs will require some modification to work.

Sinclair used his earlier computers as a testing ground for several original features. Some of these (like the “intelligent” cursor that prevents you from entering syntactically incorrect BASIC statements) have remained in the Spectrum, while others (like the nonstandard character code used in the ZX80 and ZX81, abandoned for the ASCII code in the Spectrum) are mercifully absent.

The character-oriented video image is 24 lines of 32 characters each. Each character has a separate attribute byte (each one of eight colors, chosen independently) that determines its foreground and background colors, brightness, and flashing/steady status. The screen is always in the bit-mapped graphics mode (192 by 256 pixels), and characters are “painted” onto the video display in a pixel pattern. (This makes possible unrestricted mixing of text and graphics as well as an OVER command that merges a character string with whatever image is already on the screen.) Actually, it’s easiest to think of the video screen in terms of monochrome pixel graphics (i.e., each pixel is either on or off), with each 8- by 8-pixel square (character) having its own foreground and background color. Using the metaphor of images being “printed” on video “paper,” the BASIC commands INK and PAPER set the foreground and background, respectively, of the next character to be printed. Unfortunately, this scheme restricts the color combinations of two adjacent pixels (unlike most high-resolution graphics schemes, which allow two adjacent pixels to be almost any color pair). The Spectrum also has 21 user-defined characters, each of which can be defined via special BASIC commands (thus simplifying the process more than other microcomputers).

Like the ZX81, the Spectrum has a rear-edge connector that contains a full set of address, control, and data lines. The Spectrum will accept the same ZX printer that the ZX81 uses, but, unlike the ZX81, it is upgraded to its maximum 48K bytes of memory via an internal 32K-byte board and won’t work with the ZX81 16K-byte memory pack. Other peripherals in the works from Sinclair are a £20 RS-232C/network interface board and a £50 3-inch disk drive. The company’s Microdrive (as it is called) is noteworthy because it costs well under $100. Each 3-inch floppy disk can hold up to 100K bytes of data; its average access time is 3.5 seconds, and its data-transfer rate is 128K bits per second.

How will the Spectrum fare in the American market? That depends. Timex Corporation has the rights to market the Spectrum (it already markets a modified ZX81 as the Timex/Sinclair 1000). If the Spectrum were to sell for the equivalent of £125, its price in Britain, it would cost roughly $220 in the United States—hardly competitive with comparable low-cost American units. My guess is that Timex will market an American version of the Spectrum for somewhere between $125 and $175 within the next six months.

In any case, the Spectrum is a promising machine. I’ll reserve further judgment until it becomes available here in the United States.

The Acorn BBC Model B Microcomputer

The BBC Microcomputer enjoys a colorful reputation because of its history. (See “The BBC Computer,” Popular Computing, October 1982.) More than two years ago, the BBC decided to start a computer literacy television series. The network realized that, with more powerful and increasingly inexpensive microcomputers, it would soon be possible to create them with enough computing power to offer their owners personal hands-on experience with microcomputers at an affordable price. The BBC considered the Newbrain computer and rejected it. Acorn and Sinclair Research, along with other companies, then submitted designs, and the Acorn won. (Sinclair went on to market its design as the Sinclair Spectrum.) Clive Sinclair has been quick to point out problems with the Acorn unit, and the interaction between the two companies has been a source of entertainment for the British computer community.

Although the BBC Model B is more expensive than some units (see page 49), it has an advantage over most of the very-low-cost ones: it is a no-compromise computer that has many uses beyond self-instruction in computer technology. I will confine my remarks to the Model B unit instead of the less expensive Model A (at £299) because the latter lacks most of the features that make the BBC Microcomputer competitive with other similarly priced units.

The BBC Model B has eight video-display modes, five pixel-graphics modes in which you can display text, and three text-only modes. The highest graphics mode (640 by 256 pixels, 2 colors) requires a video monitor, while the lowest one (160 by 256 pixels, 4 or 16 colors) offers roughly the same resolution, practically speaking (i.e., once the image is displayed on a standard color television) as the Apple and Atari computers, but it also offers additional colors.

The most innovative feature of both BBC computers is the Tube, a special interface built into the computer that enables the main computer (which uses a 6502 board) to communicate with any suitably designed auxiliary microprocessor board. This is, not coincidentally, a way for Acorn to provide a Z80 board so that the BBC computer can run business software available through Digital Research’s popular CP/M operating system. At first, the Tube sounds like the Microsoft Consumer Products’ Softcard for the Apple II, but the connection it uses is different. The Softcard and similar boards share the address and data lines with the main microprocessor. The Tube, however, uses a dedicated 2-MHz serial link with memory buffers on each side of the link and interrupt-driven software. This scheme allows true coprocessing with both processors running at full speed. Acorn has plans to offer 6502 and Z80 auxiliary boards and is experimenting with a board containing National Semiconductor’s 16-bit 16032 chip.

Acorn is offering an interface to its Econet local network system that will make it possible to hook up as many as 254 microcomputers using inexpensive 4-wire telephone cable. Orbis, a subsidiary of Acorn, supports the Cambridge Ring (developed at the Cambridge University Computer Laboratory), a high-speed local network in a ring configuration that can connect to anything from mainframes to microcomputers.

BBC BASIC is closely modeled after the de facto standard Microsoft versions, but it adds several good extensions. The most important of these are local variables, subroutines that pass parameters, and recursion. BASIC has always been severely handicapped because it lacks these features (especially the first two), and I applaud the BBC’s inclusion of them in the language. (Language designers, especially Microsoft, take note.) Another fascinating feature is a built-in 6502 assembler that allows 6502 assembly-language code in a BASIC program—bravo again! How Acorn got these and many other features into a 16K-byte BASIC, I’ll never know.

The BBC Model B includes an RS423 serial port, which is said to be an RS-232C-compatible interface that facilitates a higher data-transfer rate and a longer maximum cable length than the RS-232C. In addition, the Model B includes an 8-bit Centronics-type parallel port, an 8-bit input/output (I/O) port, an RGB (red-green-blue) color-monitor output, and four 12-bit analog-to-digital ports.

Although some other British microcomputers offer more features for a given price, none of them surpasses the BBC Model B microcomputer in terms of versatility and expansion capability. Acorn has plans to produce a version of its computer for American use but has not yet set an availability date.

The Dragon 32

The Dragon 32 is named for its standard 32K bytes of memory—quite a selling point in a country accustomed to microcomputers with memories as small as 1K bytes. And because the Dragon 32 is one of the newest British microcomputers, it offers more features for the money than most of its competitors (see table 1).

The Dragon 32 seems to be a very adequate machine, but there’s nothing exceptional about it. In fact, I can sum it up in one sentence: it looks like a Radio Shack TRS-80 Color Computer with 32K bytes of memory. (I’ve found that some Color Computer cartridges will run on the Dragon 32, but they must be taken out of their plastic shells to fit in the Dragon 32 cartridge slot.) Its similarities to the TRS-80 Color Computer include use of the 6809E microprocessor and Microsoft’s Extended Color BASIC (right down to command names—PMODE, HEX$, and DEFUSR, for example), nine colors for color graphics display, five graphics modes, joysticks, and cartridge software.

The Dragon 32, however, does have several advantages over the TRS-80 Color Computer. First, in Britain it is considerably cheaper than the Color Computer. Second, the Dragon 32 can be expanded to a full 64K-byte workspace (unlike the Color Computer, which can only be expanded from 16K to 32K bytes of memory). Third, the Dragon 32 has a typewriter-style keyboard that is somewhat better than the TRS-80 Color Computer’s adequate but calculator-like keys. Finally, the Dragon 32 includes a Centronics-type parallel-printer port.

Dragon Data Ltd. plans to market its computer in America but hasn’t decided on a date. You can be sure the company will take care of its home market before expanding internationally. When that happens, American buyers will have a choice of low-cost color computers.

The EACA Genie III

The Genie III is the only one of the six microcomputers profiled here that doesn’t fall in the low-cost category. I included it because, of all the business machines at the show, it’s the one that caught my eye. Like the IBM Personal Computer, it is newsworthy not because it’s innovative but because it carefully combines the best features of other computers. It is manufactured by EACA International and distributed in Britain by Lowe Electronics.

The Genie III is housed in two units. The main one contains the computer itself, a 12-inch green-phosphor video display, and two 5-1/4-inch double-sided 80-track floppy-disk drives. (These can be augmented by either two 5-1/4-inch or two 8-inch floppy disks.) The other unit is a detachable 86-key keyboard, which includes a numeric keypad around whose two edges eight function keys are wrapped.

Emulation capabilities are the Genie Ill’s main claim to fame. It is supplied with two operating systems, NEWDOS-80 version 2.0 and CP/M 2.2. If you load NEWDOS-80, the BASIC loaded is a RAM (random-access read/write memory) version of Radio Shack TRS-80 Model I BASIC supplied (legally) by Microsoft; the video display shows 16 lines of 64 characters each, and the machine emulates a TRS-80 Model I. If you load CP/M, the video display shows 24 lines of 80 characters each, and the machine emulates a CP/M system with a standard screen size. (Under software control, NEWDOS can also use the 24 by 80 video format.) Table 1 lists some of the Genie Ill’s features. Its built-in real-time clock, optional high-resolution graphics (288- by 640-pixel) board, and optional programmable-character interface board are also of interest. With additional hardware, the Genie III can support multiple users and run Digital Research’s MP/M operating system. You can also add an external 5-megabyte hard disk.

The Grundy Newbrain AD

In the July 1982 issue of Personal Computer World, managing editor Dick Pountain writes, “When the Newbrain was announced to the world two years ago, the design concept was significantly in advance of anything that had been seen in the field of handheld computing.” And so it was—even though problems plagued the design. In fact, the company that created it, Newbury Labs, sold the design to its current owner, Grundy Business Systems Ltd. At one time, the Newbrain was in line to be the BBC computer, but design problems and the change in ownership caused the BBC to look elsewhere.

The machine is now being advertised as a compact but powerful microcomputer, and the number of hardware and software features and options it offers supports this point of view. The Newbrain AD, which contains a 16-character fluorescent display, is complemented by a cheaper version, the Newbrain A, which sells for £199. The Newbrain M, a third model that includes a battery-backup option, is scheduled to be released soon.

The basic unit includes a Z80A microprocessor that runs at 4 MHz, a National Semiconductor COP 420M microprocessor dedicated to handling input and output, 32K bytes of RAM, and 29K bytes of ROM (readonly memory). Through an external expansion box, you can increase this to a staggering 2 megabytes of RAM and 4 megabytes of ROM. Grundy plans to market the CP/M operating system and popular applications-software packages in ROM, which will convert the Newbrain to a “crashproof,” stand-alone computer dedicated to one task. The keyboard has calculator-type keys in a standard configuration; the spaces between keys are just slightly smaller than those on a standard typewriter keyboard. The Newbrain video-display character set contains 512 letters, numbers, and graphics as well as videotex symbols. The character set is divided into two 256-character banks, only one of which can be selected at a time.

A Multiple Communication/Network Module adds 8, 16, or 24 (depending on the model) RS-232/V24 bidirectional serial ports. According to the manufacturer, Newbrains connected through this module constitute a de facto network that can share floppy or hard disks, printers, and other peripherals.

An optional Videotex Module enables Newbrain owners to access British Teletext and Prestel services.

The Newbrain produces a monochrome text or graphics video image. The machine offers a choice of several pixel densities: 256, 320, 512, or 640 pixels per row. In addition, you can split the video display into separate graphics and scrolling-text areas (with text above graphics); a graphics-only display has 250 rows of pixels.

The Newbrain software is equally versatile, if confusing on occasion. The 29K bytes of ROM contain the Newbrain operating system as well as its BASIC, mathematics package, screen editor, graphics package, and device-driver software. The BASIC conforms to the ANSI (American National Standards Institute) x3.2/78 standard instead of the more common de facto Microsoft BASIC standard. The Newbrain’s graphics package combines traditional point-to-point drawing with Logo-like “turtle” commands (e.g., move-forward-drawing-a-line and rotate-pen-to-new-facing-angle). In addition, commands that draw arcs and fill areas with color are available.

The most useful commands relate to data streams, which are the “pipeline” through which all data transfer occurs. As with the Atari 400 and 800 computers, all input and output is handled through the operating system. This procedure accomplishes two things: first, it allows I/O to be handled in a standard way, regardless of the language or hardware involved; second, it is an open-ended approach that lets you write software interfaces that will work with any hardware you connect the machine to. Up to 255 data streams can be open at one time. For example, multiple data streams opened to the Newbrain screen editor give you multiple graphics “pages” that can be written to and displayed independently.

The Newbrain is obviously a complex, capable machine designed with open-ended expansion in mind. I personally do not like its small size, and its design is sometimes too complex. I would, however, want to examine it more carefully before making a final decision on it.

The Camputers Lynx

The Lynx, from Camputers Ltd., is one of the newest machines I saw in England. “Previewed,” not announced, at the Personal Computer World Show, it offers more computing power for the money than any other machine I saw there.

The unit itself is almost Spartan in appearance and size, but it has some rather attractive features. The keyboard, which houses the entire computer, is full-sized and conventionally laid out. Unfortunately, the Delete key is where the Return key usually is, and the Return key is, oddly enough, to the right of the right Shift key. The Lynx comes with 48K bytes of memory, but it can be expanded to an impressive maximum of 192K bytes. The computer runs a Z80A microprocessor and can optionally run CP/M. It has a good 40-character, 24-line video display that converts to an 8-color, 248- by 256-pixel graphics display. With additional memory, video resolution doubles to 80 characters per line and 248- by 512-pixel graphics. I was told that the unit allows user-defined characters. Representatives from Lynx say a 5Vi-inch disk drive will be available for the unit and that the company will eventually market an adapted version of the machine in the United States.

  1. sweavo says: May 20, 20081:06 am

    I STILL covet a DK’tronics keyboard! Phwooar!

  2. Bob says: May 20, 20082:31 pm

    There is a FPGA recreation of the Ace on the web, as well as an original type hardware recreation with the original ROMs downloadable.

    And, you can still buy the Dragon 32 from California Digital
    http://www.cadigital.co… $35

  3. Al Bear says: May 22, 20086:55 am

    Ohhhhh! Micro computing. Would a PDA count as a nano computer?

  4. MrG says: September 14, 20084:35 pm

    There’s a old joke that asks: why didn’t the British ever get very successful in computer

    Because they couldn’t build a PC that would leak oil. This joke mostly circulates among
    collectors of MGs or other classic British cars.

  5. Toronto says: September 14, 20086:43 pm

    Having to do math in pounds and shillings and ounces (as Pooh would say) probably hurt set them back somewhat. And even after decimalization, British tech stuff tended to cost the same numeric value as US things – only in sterling instead of dollars.

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