Three new home computers that teach themselves – and teach you how to use them (May, 1980)

Remember: You haven’t lived until your home computer says “hello” and asks you to “please enter a number.”

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Three new home computers that teach themselves – and teach you how to use them

They’re smart, they come ready to work, and one of them even talks to you


Only two years ago, home computers were for the hobbyist: a jumble of wires, transistors, and circuit boards that came in a kit. And once the kit was assembled, there was complicated programming to master. Things have really changed since then.

Recently I’ve been trying three of the newest home units from APF, Atari, and Texas Instruments (first reported on in PS, Nov. ’79). They’re no more complicated to hook up than a video game. The programming can be learned in just a few evenings. External pieces, such as a printer for making permanent records, are as easy to plug in as a toaster. Best of all, the computers can teach themselves.

Basically, these new computers resemble each other. But with prices spread from $600 to well over $1000, there are important differences. Some of that is in what you get now. In other cases, your money goes for what you can add later. I found strengths and weaknesses in each machine.

Before getting into the specifics of these systems, it’s important first to know the basics of what these machines offer.

Minimum gear The brain of a computer is a tiny integrated circuit chip (microprocessor). But for that brain to do actual work, it needs more.

It needs a keyboard for entering information into the computer. To get info back out again so you can see it, the system requires a display. This can be its own (dedicated) video monitor or, as it is in most cases, a standard TV set.

And somewhere between putting data in and getting it out, the computer must have a memory—more integrated circuit chips that can hold bits of information for the system to use.

Conventional memories retain information only until you switch off the power. To save programs or raw data for future retrieval, these home computers include a cassette-tape storage system—usually a standard cassette recorder that’s either attached or built into the computer box.

Now the system has the hardware necessary to enter, retrieve, and save data. But computers are stupid. The final ingredient they need is intelligence—programming—to teach them what to do when asked to print out 2+2, for example.

Using their built-in language-called BASIC—these computers convert your English commands, from the keyboard, into binary numbers the microprocessor can use. Thus all you need to do is learn a few key words used by BASIC to make the system work.

Besides these minimum necessities the new computers offer color graphics—the ability to draw “computerized” color pictures on the screen—and sound effects for creating your owe electronic music.

Another plus is flexibility—extremely important to the future of any computer—both in hardware and software. If you want to add a printer later, for example, you not only need a place to attach it to the computer (hardware port), but the computer must also know how to use it (software control). In that respect, these systems become quite clever.

Each contains a monitor program.

When you first switch on the computer, the monitor takes over to give the microprocessor instructions—how to read the keyboard, how to put info on the TV screen, etc. But the monitor also “looks” at what’s attached to the computer. It runs a short test and, if you’ve connected a printer, for instance, it knows that all commands dealing with the printer are operable.

The same holds true when adding a disk system—a high-speed recording device. Data are saved on a record-like disk that’s actually a round, flat piece of magnetic recording tape. Normally, disks are very difficult to “bring up” in a computer system. But, because of these advanced monitors, it’s simply a matter of plugging in the new disk drive when you’re ready to use one. Now let’s take a closer look at the three computers.

APF The APF Imagination Machine is actually made of two separate components. The first is APFs MP-1000 programmable video game ($130 bought separately), which contains the microprocessor, memory, and video circuits (RF out to color TV). As a stand-alone unit, it can use APF’s game cartridges, but will not accept your custom programming. Place it atop the separate keyboard ($500) and connect them together (see photos), however, and the result is a full-scale computer that accepts your commands.

The keyboard box also contains a built-in stereo cassette deck and speaker. As one track of the cassette is played into the computer to give it machine instructions, the other track can contain conventional audio: human instructions (you record with a separate mike) or programming notes to yourself.

The keyboard is of good quality with conventional key placement—important for text-oriented programs and touch-typists. Also, standard BASIC commands such as PRINT or RUN needn’t be typed out each time you need them. Pressing a special control key, along with another key marked with the word you need, automatically spells the word on the screen—a clever, time-saving idea.

The Imagination Machine has the lowest price in this group, and the add-on approach is also economical if you want to start with just the video game. But it does have one drawback. APF has treated each part as totally separate: There are two on/off switches, two power supplies to plug in, two reset buttons, and too much confusion until you get used to it.

Atari Although the Atari 800 will play games with you, it is one of the most serious home computers I’ve seen. A printer, tape deck, and up to four disk drives simply plug in the side. The top swings up and off (see photos), giving you access to all its memory—including the monitor program saved in a permanent (ROM) memory module. (You may not have any reason to change it now, but it gives you added flexibility if Atari comes up with a better one later.) Normal programming memory (RAM) can be added, expanding the system up to 48,000 bytes (48K)— more than enough for most home applications.

Keyboard quality is excellent and special keys, such as INSERT and BACK SPACE, make text creation and editing a breeze with the right software.

Besides the conventional RF connection for attaching the system to a regular TV set, there is also a video jack for connecting it to a video monitor which, theoretically, should give you an even sharper picture.

It’s a good system, but expensive. Besides the cost of the basic system, add in the price of a new color TV.

Texas Instruments If you like bells and whistles, the TI-99/4 should please you. It accepts all the conventional add-ons, such as disk drives, a printer, and a cassette tape recorder, through a side connection. But there is one add-on unique to TI: a speaking module. With it, the computer talks through the speaker in the video monitor ($150 for the module plus $45 for the software necessary to use it).

The module comes with about 300 words (expandable to about 900), and any one or strings of them can be called in your program at any time. The module I tried was just a prototype, but the intelligibility of the voice was incredible. You haven’t lived until your home computer says “hello” and asks you to “please enter a number.” Add together the speech, graphics, and musical capability of this machine, and it could almost become another family member.

Cost of the system ($1150) isn’t bad, considering that it includes the color-TV monitor. There was one disappointment, however. I found the keyboard more difficult to use than the others. It is not standard, so a touch-typist may have a few problems with it.

  1. m says: October 29, 20081:56 pm

    Incredible! “48,000 bytes (48K)— more than enough for most home applications.” and now Vista alone is taking 500megs of my laptop (that slightly resembles those)… and I am considering buying LOW-end pda with like 64mb of it… But just how many bytes did fit on the standard tape? a megabyte? a doubt it, probably less…

    I remember that Atari, I used it once or twice when I was little. There was this long pause until anything loaded from the tape and you had to fast forward it to get to the next game… or maybe it was next gen?

  2. Myles says: October 29, 20082:58 pm

    Is the author referring to the BIOS when he refers to the monitor program? I remember the excitement about early computers and their marvels. I don’t think I would have called them “clever” though and they certainly did not teach themselves. My first computer was the Tandy CoCo. I even subscribed to the CoCo magazine which came with tapes so that I wouldn’t have to type in Basic programs by hand. Getting useful functions out of that computer other than word processing was hard work. The word processor program (commercial) was WYSIWYG, used 32K of memory and had all the necessary features and extras such as footnoting. The CoCo had a fast processor, and I was dissappointed when I got my first PC as I thought it would be faster, and it wasn’t.

    PS I couldn’t log on to this website directly today. Something on the front pages seems to be crashing windows IE.

  3. jayessell says: October 29, 20082:59 pm

    Re #2:
    The main page is broken somehow.

  4. Charlie says: October 29, 20083:52 pm

    It was the Youtube embed. I took it off. If anyone has any idea what I could have done to my page to cause that, I’d love to know.

  5. hwertz says: November 1, 20083:35 pm

    “But just how many bytes did fit on the standard tape?”
    I don’t know.. the floppy would hold 90K per side in low density, and newer double-density drives like the Atari 1050 did 180K per side. Use a disk-punch to cut out the write-protect notch, flip the disk over, and the other side of the disk could be used for 360K per floppy; other than the earliest IBM PCs which were also 180K, PC floppy drives have one head for the top of the disk and one for the bottom already.

    Tape? 600 baud, there was a bit of a header etc. so it’s about 60 characters per second. This would mean 216000 bytes for a 1 hour tape. There was quite the pause between blocks of data on tape though, I’d guess it was actually about 50% used. So 108000 bytes (105K) or so. Notes on this: 1) The tape player had a 0000 to 9999 counter on it, usually you’d write what number your program started at on the tape, and fast forward to that number. Since that’s not an exact process you’d likely leave a good-sized gap between programs so you don’t erase the end of one with the next one. 2) Keep in mind that most Atari 8-bits maxed at 64K of RAM (128K on the 130XE..) and apps were not all that big.. people really didn’t hurt for space even with the 90K floppies 3) You’d spend like 30-40 minutes to fill that 64K! The tape drive ran at regular tape speed!

  6. hwertz says: November 1, 20083:45 pm

    Oh the TI… yeah. Other than a few demos I don’t recall hearing about much being done with it. A few games used it, so the game would speak instead of showing on-screen text. I never had one, but from what I’ve heard/read the most fun people had with this voice synth was firing up the app that tried to read ANY text, put in like “lkjflksjlkjfldsa” and listen as your nice new computer basically starts burping and farting. Yeah these were not adults doing this 8-)

  7. Toronto says: November 1, 20084:20 pm

    The TI 99 4/A’s “terminal” cartridge gave you access to the phonemes library, so you could say pretty much anything – and tweak the pronunciation. But the Amiga’s “Stephen Hawking” voice was more practical.

  8. Computer Rental Company says: March 18, 20095:02 am

    Truly computers have evolved vastly in such a short time. The continuous development of computers only serves as a response to the increasing demands of computing power by users located all over the globe. Modern man wouldn’t survive a day without computers. We practically revolve in a world that is operated by computers. At home, at work even at social gatherings computers are used both for simple and complex tasks.

  9. sdfgsdfg says: August 2, 200912:26 am

    Those old TIs were great. They’re built like bricks, and use a really durable cartridge with a buil-in cover. The preschool I went to had a whole mess of them. They had a huge library of educational software, most of it able to use the speech synth, so a kid who couldn’t read could still use it. There were some progs that only needed the user to recognize numbers, like “Early Learning Fun”. My mother’s preschool used them past 2000.
    Parsec taught me to love side-scrolling shooters.

  10. Elwin says: June 15, 201010:21 am

    The first computer I ever owned was the TI99/4A. I tinkered with the included BASIC cartridge, which to this day, I still remember as being one of the easiest BASIC’s I have ever used. I also had a space invaders game which I played a lot. The video cable to the TV evenutally gave up the ghost and I never got it fixed.

    I also owned numerous Atari’s. I had a 400, a 1200XL, and the 800 mentioned above, the last one I owned was a 130XE. They were great computers.

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