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COMPUTER PRICES BEFORE THE COMMODORE 64   Leave a comment

COMPUTER PRICES BEFORE THE COMMODORE 64

BYTEDec1981The cover of BYTE magazine December 1981 issue

Thanks to ThumpNuggett, who uploaded a nearly complete archive of BYTE magazine, I was able to read the prices of various computers in the USA from the December 1981 issue, published not long before the Commodore 64 made its début at the CES. Well done, ThumpNuggett! http://atariage.com/forums/topic/167235-byte-magazine/

atari-400-advertAn ad for the Atari 400 and 800 computers, which could both have their RAM upgraded

I found the prices for various computers listed, but from what I could see the cheapest computers available at that time were the Atari 400, and the Sinclair ZX81, before it was licensed as the Timex Sinclair 1000. People could have got off to a good start with either of these computers, widely advertised at $349 for the Atari 400 with 16K (sometimes as low as $329), while the Sinclair ZX81 with 1K was the cheapest computer available at $99.95 in kit form, or either $149 or perhaps $149.95 already assembled.

ZX81BYTEadThe type of Sinclair ZX81 ad which appeared in BYTE magazine’s December 1981 issue

Both these computers were widely criticised for having only touch sensitive, flat keyboards, not even with calculator type keys, but various people managed to type on these keyboards, which were similar to the keyboards used in fast food restaurants. Later on, dealers such as Silica Shop managed to fit replacement keyboards to the Atari 800, giving a similar feel and quality to the Atari 800, and third parties managed to upgrade its RAM beyond 16K as mentioned on http://www.myoldcomputers.com/museum/comp/atari_400.htm , but I’m not sure what the maximum amount of RAM was, but I seem to remember reading recently that 48K was possible. It’s widely known that the Sinclair ZX81 could be upgraded to 16K with an externally fitted RAM pack.

ZX81$99Another Sinclair ZX81 $99.95 ad from the USA before they marketed it as the Timex Sinclair 1000

So much for the Commodore 64 with its original price of $595 making computers cheap enough for more people to buy!

AtariNOTgeniusadAtari computers. You don’t have to be a genius to use one, unlike the Commodore 64!

Posted June 25, 2014 by C64hater in Uncategorized

BUYERS’ GUIDE LIARS!!! (PART 7)   3 comments

BUYERS’ GUIDE LIARS!!! (PART 7)

CoverI’m still talking about this book of fairy stories!

I think that TMR with his site http://www.c64crapdebunk.wordpress.com is hypocritical by saying that it’s not important for computer owners to be INTERESTED in, let alone ABLE to program their computers, because he’s obviously a programmer himself, but he seems to want to make it as difficult as possible for other people to program! I think this is because it makes him feel superior. I also think that TMR and various other Commodore 64 owners liked and still like to try and overcome or fix the deficiencies of the Commodore 64, a bit like my Dad buying and repairing, or just playing with, used cars, or “old bangers”, or various characters on the soap opera “Coronation Street” constantly repairing or restoring old motor bikes!

“The A-Z of Computers” lied about how good or bad the computers in the section under £500 were, but the main way they did this was by being economical with the truth, or even twisting the facts, or not checking them properly. Their Acorn Atom review points out that this computer had already been discontinued, but their BBC Micro review claims that the Acorn Atom is somehow competition for the BBC Micro, and that the BBC Micro was released in 1980, not in 1981.

AtaroidFire3A screenshot from the Atari 8 bit game “Ataroids” showing how colourful the Atari 8 bit computers are

According to Issue No. 1 in the Atari reviews on the right hand page under “STANDARD PACKAGE”, the Atari 400 and 800 computers had “16 colours; each with 8 intensities”, or in other words 8×16=128 colours, but it seems they didn’t want to draw too much attention to this. This issue went to press in August 1983, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the upgrade chips with 256 colours had been released by then. The full review of the Atari 400 on the left hand page even says “16 colours (with provision for 16 levels of brightness)”, so they couldn’t even get their facts straight! In Issue No. 2 they said about the Atari 600XL and 800XL “16 colours; each with 16 intensities”, or in other words 256 colours! These statements, as well as the lack of a multicoloured rainbow effect or a “screen on fire with colours” like in the game “Ataroids” on the cover of Issue No. 2 obviously played down the Atari’s 256 colour palette, so that lots of people wouldn’t notice this feature at all. Atari computers had more colours than any 8 bit “home computer”, until the release of the Elan Enterprise with 256 colours in 1985 and weren’t surpassed by a 8 bit computer until MSX2 with 512 colours in 1986. Of course, these details apply to the standard computer configurations, without any upgrades. I’ve got a dim memory of an amazing graphics card upgrade for the Apple ][ (which some people considered a “home computer”) featured on the BBC TV series “Micro Live”. I remember clearly that it was capable of a resolution greater than 512×512, but I don’t know how many colours it had.

I should remind people that Commodore released the Commodore 64 in August 1982, with only the crappy BASIC V2 built in, which had no commands for colour, graphics or sound. I was unlucky enough to buy a C64 in about April 1984, so there had been plenty of time since the January 1982 CES to fix the crappy BASIC on this computer if Commodore had wanted to, but they just didn’t care! I think the C64 BASIC should have been upgraded before it was even released onto the market!! In this blog, I’m only concerned with any easy ways, available to users without disk drives, to program the Commodore 64 during or even before 1984. I’m not interested in any software that was released after 1984 which may have made this possible. In 1984 the only BASIC compiler I heard about was the PETspeed Compiler, which I think was disk only, and could only compile the commands present in Commodore BASIC V2, so that was no use to me, because even if I’d had a disk drive, it had no commands for colour, graphics or sound! I had lost interest in my C64 before 1985 and didn’t use it much after that. I stopped reading Commodore specific magazines, but read general computer magazines, as well as Amstrad CPC magazines and MSX magazines.

GameMaker_Activision_DisquetteAn ad for Garry Kitchen’s “Game Maker” published by Activision

Not long before I sold my Commodore 64, I read the big 1-2 page ads in various general computer magazines for Garry Kitchen’s “Game Maker” by Activision, a package available on cassette, not just on disk, which the ads explained would enable Commodore 64 owners to design and create games without programming! Unfortunately, it also cut the amount of RAM right down to only about 4K!! I had already lost interest in the C64 anyway, but I decided I didn’t like the sound of not programming or being left with only 4K, so I didn’t take this software seriously.

Game_MakerProgThe Game Maker Editor screen

I’ve actually only recently found out from reading “Compute! Gazette” Issue No. 38 that this software contains an Editor which is really some kind of programming language, so I’m not sure what to make of that. It was also available for the Apple ][ and later on the IBM PC, but on those platforms it was obviously a totally different proposition, because both those computers came with decent versions of BASIC, which gave their users a good introduction to programming. The Apple ][ had started out way back in 1977 with the primitive Integer BASIC, without commands for colour, graphics, or sound, but at that time there were few, if any, colour computers and people were amazed by having a computer at all. Apple soon progressed to Floating Point BASIC, then to the much better Applesoft BASIC by Microsoft.

AtoZSpectrumThe Sinclair Spectrum review left hand top of page

Here’s what “The A-Z of Personal Computers” had to say about the Sinclair ZX Spectrum with all spelling and punctuation left intact…

SINCLAIR ZX SPECTRUM
UK Distributor: Sinclair Research Ltd. Type: Desk top
Date of UK Release: 1982 Price: £99 (16K), £125 (48K)
Country of Origin: UK A-Z Overall Rating ****

GENERAL

Price cuts across the Sinclair range have resulted in the availability of this colour capable model at under £1000 (for the 16K version). This by anyone’s standards is a remarkable achievement. The ZX Spectrum is available in two different guises, 16K or 48K RAM, the second of which is slightly more expensive. With the addition of the ZX Microdrive (each holding up to 100K) the Spectrum has access to very useful storage capacity.

Unlike the ZX-81 from which it derives, the Spectrum features calculator type keys, which project through the black metal cashing. It also has eight colours and sound. Although the software for ZX-81 is not directly compatible with the Spectrum, both software catalogues contain virtually identical programming options since only a minor amount of rewriting was necessary.

FEATURES

The Spectrum has eight colours (black, white, blue, red, cyan, magenta, green and yellow) and sound generation with over 130 semitones (equivalent to over ten octaves). The package includes two manuals which give a comprehensive introduction to Basic programming, and represent probably the best standard of documentation at this level. At the heart of this unit is a Z80A Microprocessor which runs at 3.5Mhz.

The Spectrum’s memory-mapped display comprises 256×176 pixels addressable by Plot, Draw and Circle commands. Alternatively, text display is 24 lines of 32 characters, the bottom two lines being reserved for entries and messages.

Its Expansion Port is used to interface to the ZX Printer, the RS232 interface and the ZX Microdrives.

The calculator type keyboard is a typical Sinclair innovation with its 40 keys allowing for no fewer the 180 functions. The unit weighs a mere 520 grams (excluding Power Supply and cables).

COMMENTS

The Spectrum has, not surprisingly, sold in vast quantities since its launch in 1982. By March ’83 it had sold over 300,000 units worldwide, with sales in the USA being handled by the Timex Corporation.

With the introduction of models such the ORIC 1, and price cutting along the whole micro gamut (Spectrum?), competition at the lower end of the market is hotting up. But one of Sinclair’s strengths is the capacity to undercut opponents before they can establish a firm foothold. It would be interesting to find out exactly what Sinclair’s profit margin is per unit on either of the P.C.’s.

All in all, the Spectrum is a remarkable achievement. It is a fillip for British industry and a boon to the price-conscious beginner. Even local libraries are starting to issue Spectrums for a nominal ‘rental’ fee, which implies some kind of official recognition perhaps.”

dktronics_soundgenAn amazing Spectrum 3 channel sound chip upgrade I had no idea existed when I bought a Commodore 64!

Armed with the only above selective information, potential Spectrum buyers needed the following facts. The Sinclair ZX Spectrum was designed to be inexpensive, but came with a BASIC that totally supported its hardware, including two levels of brightness for all its colours except black, totalling 15 colours. Due to the system of entering whole commands with single key presses or by combinations of keystrokes instead of typing them out letter by letter, all the commands were printed on its keyboard. This meant that potential buyers who had been told this could go into a shop and count the number of commands, but this isn’t mentioned in the review above. Hardly any other computers had this facility except for relatively obscure models, such as the Tandy MC-10, while the Acorn Electron, which had the option of entering commands by pressing the Fn key plus one of various other keys, didn’t have all its BBC BASIC commands printed on its keys. As supplied, the Spectrum only had a rubber, calculator type keyboard and a sound chip with just one channel, which could only produce beeps of different pitches and lengths. In spite of this, the Sinclair ZX Spectrum was so popular that it had massive software support, as well as a cottage industry that grew up around it, offering various peripherals and upgrades not made by Sinclair Research themselves, but this isn’t mentioned in the review. It only says under “OPTIONS & EXPANSIONS Other Add-ons Massive amount of Non-Sinclair Add-ons available”. The readers would have had to do who knows how much additional research to find out that these “add-ons” included upgrades such as proper keyboards set into new, much larger cases, as well as a proper 3 channel synthesiser chip! I was shocked when I read about these upgrades in non Sinclair specific computer magazines! There was a DK’tronics 3 channel sound interface containing a General Instruments AY-3-8912 synthesiser chip which removed my main objection to the Spectrum for only £29.95 according to a defaced pic I recently found on an auction site! The replacement keyboards by various companies were suitable to carry out my Dad’s goal of me doing “Word processing! Word PROCESSING!!” AFAIK no such upgrades were available for other computers such as the Oric 1, because they weren’t nearly as popular, although the Oric 1 keyboard was criticised. The Sinclair Spectrum came without a joystick port, but there were various adaptors which provided joystick ports of different types, not just Atari style. If only I’d been told about these things in “The A-Z of Personal Computers” I may have bought a Sinclair Spectrum instead of a Commodore 64, but of course they failed to mention them! This is another example of “The A-Z of Personal Computers” lying by being economical with the truth!

Memotech was an innovative company, who may even have been the first to make the Texas Instruments 9918/9928/9929 video chips possible to program in BASIC, with their dedicated MTX BASIC commands, including GENPAT. Memotech even accused the MSX Consortium of copying their design. Later versions of MSX could even access 512K, like the Memotech MTX512. According to the “Memotech BASIC Tutor, Reference and Operator’s Manual”, which I found on http://www.primrosebank.net , it confirms that these computers actually did have FOUR LANGUAGES built in!!!! These were MTX BASIC, GRAPHICS/LOGO, NODDY, and Z80 ASSEMBLER!!!! MTX BASIC has some Sinclair type commands, such as PAPER and INK, as well as the more general INKEY$, not forgetting LPRINT and LLIST for printers, instead of the very complicated Commodore OPEN and CLOSE commands. It also has AUTO for automatic line numbering, and a CLOCK command, which can even set the clock to real time, instead of messing around with “Jiffies”, as well as TIME$ instead of Commodore’s TI$. No other “home computer” of the time seemed to have a real time clock built in! Of course the text cursor could easily be positioned vertically as well as horizontally. This was done by CSR x,y before a PRINT command. Other MTX BASIC commands include PAUSE, COLOUR, PLOT, LINE and CIRCLE. Sprites can be defined by GENPAT, then controlled with the CTLSPR, MVSPR, ADJSPR and SPRITE commands. There’s also VS and CRVS for switching between “virtual screens” or windows and even defining your own windows. NODDY is a language dedicated to designing and formatting text screens, such as for instructions or tutorials. This is much more difficult in BASIC, requiring lots of PRINT or PRINT TAB commands, even in non Commodore BASIC dialects. It can even create simple databases. It could also be described as a bit like HTML, but without any links. Memotech had a glossy, full colour ad on the back of Issues No. 1 AND 2 of “The A-Z of Personal Computers”, but the review doesn’t mention any MTX BASIC commands and even includes the words “The resident languages, although initially difficult to come to grips with for a novice, will be after short practice very convenient”! How can anyone apply any single comment to FOUR languages?! Readers could easily have got the impression from this sentence that Memotech MTX computers weren’t suitable for beginners! Filth and lies is what I say!!!! A comment such as at the very least “The resident BASIC is difficult to come to grips with for a novice” is what was needed in the Commodore 64 review!

SovietMSXA Russian style Yamaha MSX computer which the USSR Government bought instead of Memotech computers

Memotech were eventually bankrupted after the USSR government backed out of a deal with them to supply lots of computers for schools, then they couldn’t pay back the loans they’d taken out to finance the deal. Mrs Thatcher’s government refused to step in to save Memotech, in spite of their amazing, innovative computer systems and good reviews in the USA!! This was typical of Mrs Thatcher!!!!

Unfortunately, it seems there was a serious lull, or even “near collapse” in the computer market not long after Christmas 1983, then I got a Commodore 64 about 4-5 months later. Dragon Data Ltd went bankrupt very soon after this, but the Dragon computers were never on my shortlist, due to their lack of at least a 3 note polyphonic synthesiser chip. The conman who sold my family the Commodore 64 had even suggested “How about a cheap Dragon?”, but the lack of a synthesiser chip was why I rejected it. I had no idea at the time of its advanced Microsoft Extended BASIC, because “The A-Z of Personal Computers” failed to point this out!

As for the Sharp MZ-700 computer, the review says it came with “Basic”, but fails to point out that this actually had to be loaded from cassette each time the user turned the machine on! Issue No. 1 of “The A-Z of Personal Computers” even had a competition to win one of these computers, with a list of features including “ ‘Clean Machine’ (Accepts many languages)”, but the term “Clean Machine”, meaning without any language built in, isn’t explained in the Glossary or anywhere else in this magazine! The Atari 400 and 800 computers were also clean machines, but were usually supplied with Atari BASIC on cartridge. This was the standard BASIC for Atari 8 bit computers, although Atari Microsoft BASIC was also available from Atari themselves. Books about programming the Atari computers in BASIC usually used Atari BASIC. I think that Atari Microsoft BASIC was mainly used for typing in listings that were supposed to be compatible with all computers that ran Microsoft BASIC, or to help people who had already learnt Microsoft BASIC on some other computer.

I think the best thing to do would have been not to buy or read “The A-Z of Personal Computers” at all. Issue No. 2 which I bought, had a pic of an Atari 600XL or 800XL on the cover. I think the Atari 800XL is the computer I should have got, because it has 256 colours, more than 38K accessible just by pressing a certain key combination before loading software, as well as a 4 voice synthesiser chip, instead of just a “tone generator” which some computers had. It ended up on my shortlist just because of the synthesiser chip. I was amazed that some computers came with built in synthesisers because I’d wanted one for some time, so I thought I should kill two birds with one stone. If they hadn’t mentioned the sound chips, then my shortlist would’ve been different. It could have included the Acorn Electron, Dragon 32, and Tandy Colour Computer. The specs of other synthesiser chips such as those built in to the BBC Micro and Atari computers were similar, so I wouldn’t have lost out on this if I’d bought one of those computers instead of the Commodore 64. The BBC Micro had a lovely clear built in speaker, pointing up at the user from the keyboard, which could produce a racket so loud with a type in BASIC demo called “Nightmare” that I often pressed the Escape key after a few seconds in shops to avoid complaints. The BBC Micro also had an add on called the Music 500, which could produce even better sounds than the BBC had already. An Apple ][ owning organiser of my local computer club, who could even crack some games, just said “If you’re gonna play MUSIC…”, or in other words I should get a proper synthesiser, but I had no idea of the nightmare I was in for with the Commodore 64. It turned out I had given up most of the things other computers could be programmed to do from BASIC in exchange for a synthesiser I couldn’t program either! I was even unlucky enough to find that I had problems getting a decent picture at the same time as clear sound from my Commodore 64 through a TV. I thought this was because the TVs I was using were fairly old and crap. I only found out in 2013 or 2014 from reading a letter in a magazine published before I even bought the Commodore 64 that this meant my Commodore 64 needed to be retuned! I didn’t see this information in my Commodore 64 User Manual or Programmers’ Reference Guide! Of course, my Commodore 64 had already been “sent back for checking” so I had no reason to think there was a fault!

Unfortunately, distribution and availability of various computers played a big part. A limited range of computers was widely available at shops such as the newsagent WH Smith, Boots the chemist, and the record shop HMV. They tended to stock only computers by Acorn, Amstrad, Commodore, and Sinclair. This meant that going round those shops, buyers were usually faced with the same few computers, such as the Acorn Electron, BBC Micro, Commodore VIC-20, Commodore 64, Sinclair ZX-81, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, and Sinclair QL. The Sinclair ZX-81 and Commodore VIC-20 later disappeared from this line up, to be replaced by the Amstrad CPC464, my own short lived CPC664, and the CPC6128, the short lived Commodore 16, and Commodore Plus 4, and the Commodore 128. Some department stores stocked a few other computers, such as MSX computers, and the Elan Enterprise. Atari had limited distribution at specialist dealers and some consumer electronics shops. Some TV rental shops stocked the Sinclair QL and MSX computers. I read that in the very early days of “home computers”, most of them were bought by mail order, but I’m fairly sure things had changed by late 1983, when Issue No. 1 of “The A-Z of Personal Computers” was published.

I’m looking forward to someone scanning and uploading a copy of “The A-Z of Personal Computers” No. 2, featuring the Atari 600XL or 800XL on the front cover, but I’m afraid it may be lost forever in the mists of time!

That’s enough about “The A-Z of Personal Computers” for now. I feel fairly sure I could write some more articles about them in the future, but I’m not sure how soon this will be. You can also look forward to more articles in the “DRAWING THE LINE” series, as well as about how the Commodore 64 was designed!

Posted June 17, 2014 by C64hater in Uncategorized

BUYERS’ GUIDE LIARS!!!! (PART 6)   Leave a comment

BUYERS’ GUIDE LIARS!!!! (PART 6)

CoverI’m still talking about this magazine!

I feel I should take this opportunity to remind everyone that I speak from experience when writing about the Commodore 64. I don’t just look it all up on the Internet! My experience was gained first hand from being an unlucky, breadbox brown/beige function keys model, third party datasette, Commodore 64 owner from April or May 1984 to March or April 1985, wondering if I should buy the game Eureka to try and win £50,000, as well as reading some pre 1984 computer magazines at the launderette. By 1985 I was sick to death of trying to program the Commodore 64 and facing one obstacle after another preventing me from doing that! I knew there were much more user friendly computers out there, so I thought “Why make life more difficult for myself?” In September 2013, I bought a Commodore 128 because it’s a “fixed and upgraded” Commodore 64, which can also emulate a real Commodore 64, so that I can try out some techniques I never even heard of while I owned a Commodore 64. I wanted to find out for myself how the Hell some people could program the Commodore 64, so that’s what I’ve been finding out to try and repair the psychological damage done to me by Jack Tramiel and Commodore. I plan to type in the C64 monitor program Supermon, from a “Compute!” book using the MLX checksummer, in the near future, because the C128 MONITOR doesn’t like certain memory locations and I have no other way to get Supermon onto my C128 so far!

C64beigekeysThe model of Commodore 64 I used to own

I feel I should quote the entire review of the Commodore 64 from “The A-Z of Personal Computers” with all original punctuation and spelling intact. It goes as follows…

COMMODORE 64
UK Distributor: Commodore Business Machines Ltd. Type: Desk top
Date of UK Release: 1982
Price £229
Country of Origin: USA/W. Germany
A-Z Overall rating ****

GENERAL

The Commodore 64 is an up-market version of the VIC 20. A wide range of software packages and programming languages is available for this machine which is itself available practically anywhere from a toyshop to a business supplier. Superficially, the 64 closely resembles the VIC 20. It has the same casing, an identical keyboard configuration and virtually the same interfaces and sockets. But the apparent similarity belies some fundamental differences. The 64 is a much more powerful and professional model. It will play games, but much of its potential would be wasted if this was the user’s principal interest.

FEATURES

Internally, the 64 is considerably more powerful than the VIC 20. A MOS 6510 Microprocessor lies at the heart of the system and there is an option for a second processor (a Z80 in plug-in cartridge form) which allows for running of programmes written under CP/M and additional Z80 codes.

A standard 64K RAM memory is quite unusually large for a model in this price range, and represents a substantial improvement upon the 5K standard of the VIC 20. Colour display on the Commodore 64 is 25 lines by 40 columns, and its bit mapped screen resolution is 320 x 200 pixels. The 64 has the ability to recognise user-established priorities by which ‘sprites’ (or moveable blocks) can move independently of displayed text/graphics, thus enabling the creation of three-dimensional graphics (with up to eight layers). Music synthesis is performed by a special sound interface chip. The 64 model comes with facilities for modem connection (for telephone network based data transfer), Prestel and Commodore Network. The wide range of standard peripherals is available from the manufacturer.

COMMENTS

The Commodore 64 represents a home or small size business system at a very attractive price. As their sales literature points out, the 64 will do as much, if not more, than several big-name models from specialists in business micro-computing. The range of Commodore peripherals and accessories is more likely to be of use to 64 owners than to VIC 20 users, if only because its in-core memory capacity is that much greater. Both graphics and audio are well suited to games and more serious applications. The 64’s audio output can be amplified through a domestic Hi-Fi system and, since the 64 can control the sound envelope on all three voices (i.e. the tone quality from trumpet-like to string-like) it approaches something like music synthesiser’s capability. This could therefore be a great machine for the potentially serious composer/musician. It has ‘only’ three voices but a full nine octaves on each.

The 64, like the VIC 20, has a firm UK connection, and production ought to be well under way by now at a new plant in Corby”.

MydatasetteThe type of datasette I owned

Obviously, there are various things which could have been pointed out or clarified. Why should computer buyers care what kinds of shops the Commodore 64 was or wasn’t available at? Why should someone buy a computer at a toy shop? How is it an advantage or even relevant that the C64 casing and keyboard at that time were the same construction as the pathetic VIC 20? I recently read that Commodore only used the same design to make it easy to switch production from the VIC 20 to the C64. The review says that the C64 isn’t just a games machine. The C64 contains a 6510 processor, which is almost identical to the 6502. No details of any improvements are given, but it’s only to do with RAM locations 0 and 1 to manage the memory map, as well as bank switching, and something about a tristate bus to help it work with the VIC-II video chip. Of course, the VIC-II chip isn’t named or compared to the 6845 video chip used in the BBC Micro, or the 6847 video chip used in the Dragon, Tandy “Coco”, and Acorn Atom computers. The Z80 CP/M cartridge they mention was not only plagued by being incompatible with some versions of the C64, but wasn’t much good unless you added an 80 column card, because CP/M uses 80 column displays as standard. Apart from this, there were big problems getting CP/M software onto Commodore 64 formatted disks, due to the encoding format that Commodore 1541 drives used. This was called GCR instead of MFM, which CP/M software was usually distributed on. Commodore just used the CP/M cartridge to try and boost sales of the C64 to innocent victims who thought this would make a load of CP/M software instantly available to them. The “totally irrelevant” (TMR) 64’er magazine did some articles about this, saying that when asked specific questions about problems with CP/M compatibility, Commodore 64 dealers were left just shrugging their shoulders.

The Commodore 64 claimed to have 64K RAM, but there were serious problems using all this RAM. No mention is made of these problems in this review, though. The Sinclair Spectrum didn’t seem to suffer from a lack of RAM, although it was declared as 48K. The C64 officially has 8 sprites, but the review doesn’t bother to mention that some other computers, such as Memotech MTX, and Texas Instruments TI99/4A have 32 sprites. Of course, I found out years later that raster interrupts could enable the 8 sprites to be reused elsewhere on the screen, various times, but this is possible on other computers as well. The TI99/4A and Memotech sprites aren’t mentioned in their own reviews, either. No mention is made of Atari computers’ sprites, either in this review, or in the reviews of the Atari 400 or 800 computers themselves.

Of course, without an 80 column display and software compatible with it, as well as compatible RAM expansion, the Commodore 64 was outclassed for business use by various computers listed in this magazine, such as the BBC Micro with Z80 second processor, or computers which cost over £500 as standard without upgrades, or even more than £1,601. There were even computers by Commodore themselves which had 80 column displays and more RAM than 64K. One of them reviewed in this same magazine is the Commodore 700 for £1,144, running KERNAL, CP/M, and the option of MS-DOS, with 128K RAM and an 80 column display, while the Commodore 500 was similar, but cost £695, and only had a 40 column display. Both were based round a 6509 CPU, with the option of a second processor, which could be either a Z80 or 8088. There was also the fairly crappy Commodore 4016 and 4032, for £632, with only 16K or 32K, “PET DOS” and a 40 column display. I used this or a very similar model at college running the “Wordcraft” word processor. Of course, the description of the C64 SID sound chip facilities also leaves a lot to be desired. The review says it can control the sound envelope on all three voices, but fails to point out which other computers can or can’t do the same. The description of the sound capabilities of the BBC Micro is limited to just the brief text under Standard Package, saying simply “3 independent sound synthesizers (ADSR control)”, but without an explanation of ADSR. As I later found out from Commodore manuals, Amstrad CPC manuals and books, and Yamaha CX5M books, this means Attack Decay Sustain and Release, which is a sound envelope making various sounds different from each other. Yamaha FM synthesisers actually have ADSDR to make things more realistic. The C64 review fails to point out that the “facilities for modem connection” are just an edge connector which you could slide a compatible modem onto, or that Commodore limited users’ choice of printers to those with a Commodore interface, unless they bought an adaptor.

I recently noticed that the Sinclair ZX Spectrum review in this same magazine says the following under the heading “FEATURES”…

“The Spectrum’s memory mapped display comprises 256 x 176 pixels addressable by Plot, Draw and Circle commands”.

Of course, the review says a lot more than that, so I may have to quote the whole thing. It’s obvious to me that a similar statement about every computer reviewed in this magazine should have been made. I think the Commodore 64 version should have gone something like the following…

“The Commodore 64 has a memory mapped display of 320 x 200 pixels in maximum resolution and a synthesizer chip as capable as the ones in any other computer with a synthesizer chip reviewed in this magazine. However, buyers should beware that the Commodore 64 has no dedicated commands as found on the vast majority of other colour computers, such as PLOT, DRAW, LINE, CIRCLE, SOUND, ENVELOPE, or PLAY to make use of the colour, graphics or sound. Programmers wanting to write software which uses these facilities will have to learn an extremely complicated system of PEEK and POKE commands, each usually followed by a 5 figure memory address, followed by a comma and any number from 0-255, as well as sometimes by the logic operators AND, or OR each in turn followed by a number. The alternatives are to learn Machine Code (see Glossary) or to use an Extended BASIC. Buyers should be warned that to produce commercial software that will run on another Commodore 64, they will have to write in either the built in BASIC, or somehow produce Machine Code, because all the Extended BASICs are Copyright, so even if they come on cassette or disk, instead of a plug in cartridge, copies of these can’t be included with your finished programs for distribution! ”

Camputers_Lynx_48k_(white_background)The amazing Camputers Lynx computer

There were various companies, such as Camputers with their Lynx, Memotech with their MTX series, and Oric with their Oric 1, as well as the later Oric Atmos, who all made big efforts to produce decent computers with reasonable dialects of BASIC, but they were let down by lack of distribution and/or software support.

After reading the book “Lynx Computing” by Ian Sinclair, as well as the Lynx User Manual, I can tell you that Lynx BASIC is similar to BBC BASIC, including DEF PROC, END PROC and PROC for procedures, GET$, KEY$, GETN, and KEYN, all to read the keyboard in different ways, MOVE, PLOT and DRAW for graphics, REPEAT…UNTIL, VDU [number] can be used instead of PRINT CHR$(N), IF…THEN…ELSE with a maximum line length of 240 characters, but has some commands that even BBC BASIC doesn’t have! These commands include PAUSE [number], UPC$, which predated Amstrad’s/Locomotive’s UPPER$ for converting strings to upper case, WINDOW [x1, x2, y1, y2], WHILE…WEND, ERROR [number], ROUND [ON or OFF] and TRAIL [ON or OFF] to round up numbers or not, or add trailing zeros, PROTECT [colour] to protect certain colours against being erased from the screen, CCHAR [definition] to redefine the cursor, SWAP to exchange the values of 2 variables, while LINK [ON or OFF] causes anything appearing on the screen to be printed out. The Camputers Lynx even had a built in Machine Code Monitor called up by typing MON!!!! Unfortunately, there was never much software available for the Lynx, although I’ve read reviews mentioning the software houses Camsoft, Gem Software, and Sian Software. Some Level 9 adventures were also made available for it. Camputers was a company which started making upgrades for other computers, mainly the BBC Micro. They probably thought that they could have more success by actually designing and making their own computer, but they hadn’t been in business all that long, although Commodore, Sinclair, Acorn, and Tangerine/Oric had been in business for much longer, starting out by making more simple devices and computers, so this was probably a deciding factor. Camputers were really dedicated to the Lynx BASIC and hardware, but didn’t produce enough software by themselves to help make it popular. It seems that Amstrad learnt from this mistake which also affected Memotech, another company which started by producing upgrades. Amstrad had been running for years producing various consumer electronics, then had lots of software available at or soon after the launch of their CPC464 computer in June 1984, a couple of months after I bought a Commodore 64. After Camputers went bust, users were left with a computer that more or less spoke BBC BASIC, as well as some Sinclair BASIC commands, and could even run CP/M if they had a Camputers disk drive, or possibly even a custom homebrew adaptor and a third party disk drive. The Lynx User Group eventually bought up all the bankrupt stock and continued to support Lynx owners. I often wondered how CP/M PD software libraries could supply their software to me on Amstrad type CF2 (3 inch/7.5cm) floppy disks, although a CP/M PD librarian told me over the phone that he’d never used an Amstrad. Perhaps they used a custom homebrew adaptor. Who knows? Of course, I never found out what makes or models of CP/M computer they were using.

That’s all for this part. More details about “The A-Z of Personal Computers” soon!

Posted June 4, 2014 by C64hater in Uncategorized

BUYERS’ GUIDE LIARS!!!! (PART 5)   Leave a comment

BUYERS’ GUIDE LIARS!!!! (PART 5)

CoverThe A-Z of Personal Computers, Issue No. 2, which I read in 1984

Don’t forget that Commodore BASIC V2 on the Commodore 64 wasn’t just lacking commands for colour, graphics, and sound, but also popular commands such as CLS to clear the screen, INSTR to search a string for an occurrence of another string, INKEY$ to read the keyboard more easily than GET$, KEY to define its function keys, and PRINT AT x,y/PRINT TAB(x,y). It didn’t have an ELSE option for IF…THEN statements either!

The first edition of “The A-Z of Personal Computers” went to press in August 1983, before that conman Jack Tramiel left the company and the Commodore 64 review in this edition is roughly the same as I remember it in the 2nd edition, or even identical. I wrote letters to this magazine asking for compensation or a refund, but they refused to accept responsibility for what they’d done or to give me my money back, then they had the cheek to send me a Solicitor’s letter saying they weren’t going to do anything about the situation they’d landed me in! If I or my family had had more money then it wouldn’t have mattered so much. I could just have written it off or chalked it up to experience. I would never even have bought a Commodore 64 in the first place, but a BBC Micro Model B, so that I could have taken full advantage of the BBC Computer Literacy Project, based around BBC BASIC. That’s why it did matter. When I heard that people were CELEBRATING the 30th anniversary of the Commodore 64, it was as bad as celebrating the anniversary of a big disaster such as me getting mugged, failing an exam, or being kicked off a training course due to discrimination, so that’s what pushed me into speaking out by starting this blog.

Commodore-64-2Translation: You won’t get massive stress and anguish coming back to haunt you years later if you buy a computer that costs twice as much as the Commodore 64, or a computer not by Commodore! Ask any Apple ][ buyer and they’ll confirm it!!

I eventually lost my copy of the magazine, but managed to get pics of the cover and three pages more recently from a friendly seller on eBay who said she felt sorry for me. Comparing the Commodore 64 page with lists of Standard Package, Options & Expansions, Selected Software, and Star Ratings, these are IDENTICAL in the two editions of this magazine which I’ve read. I can’t find any pics or scans of Issue No. 2 online. I hope some copies appear somewhere soon. There were also pics and reviews of each computer, taking up at least one page, but I haven’t managed to get any copies of these. I assume they’re the same as in the first edition, though. Of course, the Commodore 64 review failed to point out that its built in BASIC was crap, 5 years behind the BBC Micro, Sinclair Spectrum, Acorn Electron, Dragon 32, Oric, Memotech MTX, Camputers Lynx, etc, otherwise I wouldn’t have bought it. They didn’t bother to mention that some so called 48K computers, including the Sinclair Spectrum, had more RAM free to BASIC than the Commodore 64 either. Another thing they covered up was that some computers (e.g. Commodore 64, Sinclair Spectrum, Oric) used a system of attribute modes, dot creep, or colour bleed, which meant that any pixels plotted in the same 8×8 character mapped cell would cause any pixels already plotted in the same cell in a different colour to change colour to the same colour as the latest pixels to be plotted. The Texas Instruments 9918/9928/9929 chip also suffered from this, but only horizontally, not vertically, so only one eighth as much. They didn’t point out that other computers (e.g. BBC Micro, Acorn Electron, Atari) used a different system called “individual pixel clarity”, meaning that in any of their display modes. which had higher resolutions with fewer colours, or lower resolutions with more colours, the user could plot any points or lines in any colours available, followed by some more points or lines in a different colour, but the latest points or lines plotted wouldn’t cause the colours of any points or lines plotted to change, unlike on the Commodore 64! I was shocked to find out about this months later when I first managed to draw some lines and squares on my Commodore 64 using Aztec Software’s Turbo Extended BASIC!!!!

Embroidery2An example of attributes/colour bleed on a Commodore VIC-II video chip

Issue 1 of “The A-Z of Personal Computers” even has a two page interview with the then Marketing Manager of Commodore UK, that probably didn’t appear in Issue 2, which I read in 1984. This interview is spread over two pages, but about 50% of the space is taken up by photos of the Marketing Manager himself, or actually the same photo twice, but with one copy flipped horizontally! I suppose that at least the conned Commodore 64 buyers would have known from the pictures that here was someone partly responsible for their plight, who they could mug for at least £300 if they saw him walking through places where Commodore UK had offices, such as Slough, Maidenhead, Corby, or at a computer show. What’s left of the space is taken up with fairly irrelevant questions for potential C64 buyers, about deficits or profits, vertical integration, advertising, the future of the Commodore 500 and 700 business computer models, the availability and price of the SX-64, domestic and small business markets, and asking him to try and predict the future. Nowhere in this interview is there any mention of the crappy BASIC supplied with Commodore computers, or its lack of hardware support on Commodore 64 in particular, OR any mention of colour bleed/attribute mode either! Of course, the same things also apply to the Commodore SX-64. Imagine how potential buyers could have used the information in this interview. Going into a shop, an assistant offers to help and is faced with the question “I’d like to buy a computer, but I think I need one with vertical integration. Which one would you recommend?” You may have forgotten or never knew that “vertical integration” means the manufacturer makes some or all of the components themselves. This applied to Commodore and Texas Instruments, for example, but is nothing a computer buyer needed to know about. They only needed to worry about the price and if they were getting what they paid for. The term isn’t even explained in the glossary at the back!

That’s all for now! Look forward to the next installment in this series, coming soon!

Posted June 3, 2014 by C64hater in Uncategorized

BUYERS’ GUIDE LIARS!!!! (PART 4)   Leave a comment

BUYERS’ GUIDE LIARS!!!! (PART 4)

CoverIssue No. 2 of “The A-Z of Personal Computers”, which I actually read in 1984

Unfortunately, various Commodore peripherals, such as disk drives and printers, were compatible with the Commodore 64, as well as with other Commodore computers, so the Commodore 64 got credit for that on the front cover of Issue 1, saying “every peripheral you’ll ever need”. There was no mention of the lack of a proper BASIC or DOS commands to manage printers or disks, though.

These grossly inaccurate or biased reviews are what doomed me to several months of mind numbing stress trying to program the Commodore 64. It was without any warning or what’s known as “informed consent”, so it was like rape! I think it was similar to what happened to the character T’Pol in the Star Trek: Enterprise season 1 episode “Fusion”, when she was subjected to a then illegal and invasive mind meld.

spartan_commodore_fixAn expensive fix for the Commodore 64! (Scan downloaded from http://www.vintagecomputing.com who claim no rights over this image but would appreciate a mention)

It’s mainly the fault of the staff of that magazine, especially the Editors! Companies could produce crappy computers, but they could have warned people not to buy them. This magazine had a total of FOUR Editors, as well as THREE “Technical Consultants”! Editors are supposed to delete or insert text as they feel appropriate, as well as make sure that everything fits into the same vein. I don’t think all the computers were reviewed by the same person, so they must have required editing for that reason alone. I don’t know what knowledge the staff of this magazine had. It was published by a company called VIDEOPRESS, which had previously only published a video recorder buyers’ guide called “Video A-Z”, so there was no real comparison, because lots of video recorders were quite similar and compatible, unlike most computers of the time (i.e. 1981-1983). There were about 17-20 different computer types or formats reviewed in the under £500 section, if you consider that the Tandy Colour Computer isn’t quite compatible with the Dragon, or that not all BBC/Acorn Electron software is compatible, while there are further formats such as Apple DOS, CP/M 80, CP/M 86, MS-DOS, PC-DOS, and UCSD-P for computers over £500 and even over £1,601. AFAIK video recorders (VCRs) came in only three different tape formats, which were VHS, Betamax, and Philips Video 2000. As you may have guessed, the winning format VHS was inferior to both Betamax and Video 2000. Betamax tapes were smaller than VHS and had better picture quality, while Video 2000 tapes were bigger than VHS, but could be recorded on both sides, show steady freeze frames, and had a movable switch for write protection, instead of a tab which had to be broken off, then have a piece of sticky tape stuck over it to re record. Some Video 2000 machines had a real time tape counter. I remember once practically breaking a thumbnail off while frantically trying to peel off some Sellotape to stick over a VHS cassette’s broken off tab hole before an episode of Doctor Who started! When my family got a VHS VCR in December 1979 the TV equipment rental store only supplied VHS machines. I think people actually had to buy Betamax OR Video 2000 VCRs outright. Philips had started with their “VCR” format in 1972, then modified it into the incompatible new Video 2000 format in 1979, while VHS was introduced in 1977. Apart from these 3 formats, there was just the question of which video recorders had a timer record function, or how many events they could be programmed for. Another format called Video 8 didn’t come out until 1985, was much smaller than and higher picture quality to VHS, as well as having FM audio, but was mainly limited to camcorders.

A-ZPersonalComputersNo1Issue No. 1 of  “The A-Z of Personal Computers”, which I only got hold of in 2014

 

I think most of the staff had previously worked on “Video A-Z”, especially as the review of the TRS80 Model 1 said it had been in their office for four years. It may have been that the company decided to cash in on the new market for computers, then told some of their staff to work on this new magazine and just get on with it, or else! I should just mention at this point, to avoid any confusion, that the Managing Editor was a woman. Her miserable face and lank light brown or blonde hair in a small B&W pic on one of the pages near the front will haunt me forever. I wonder whatever happened to her? I personally hope that by now she’s “come to a sticky end”, as my Mum used to say. Obviously a suitable fate would have been to be repeatedly mugged for at least £300 (including compensation) by various Commodore 64 owners, one after the other, who bought a Commodore 64 because of reading “The A-Z of Personal Computers”. Some misguided people might think that she shouldn’t be mugged because she’s a woman. To them I say that with equal rights comes equal responsibilities. If she didn’t want to be mugged or sued, then she shouldn’t had edited this crap! In any case, I wrote to that magazine asking for compensation, but these bastards just sent me a Solicitor’s letter in return. I’ve only just noticed the legal disclaimer at the bottom of page 3, because the text is so small. It includes the words “While every care has been taken in the preparation of The A-Z of Personal Computers we cannot be held responsible for the accuracy of any information given and any consequences arising thereof”, but to that I say don’t make me laugh! I don’t think that much care had been taken by this magazine at all! They relied on that legal disclaimer to get them out of trouble! I think mine is a totally understandable reaction to being lumbered with a BASIC written 5 years before my computer was released, which doesn’t support its graphics or sound chips. I can’t help thinking how much Commodore paid them to write this crap. I think that Jane Ashton of the TV series Database and “4 Computer Buffs” would have made a much better editor. She reminded me of Michelle of the French Resistance in the BBC sitcom “Allo Allo”, even sometimes looking from side to side before she spoke. Unfortunately, after co presenting these series she only seemed to do some acting in the series “My Husband and I”, but I think she should have co presented the BBC TV series “Micro Live”, or worked on the magazine “Amiga Format”. Here she is interviewing graphics artist David Thorpe, who says he often programmed his screens using coordinates and in BASIC, although TMR claimed some time ago that the only sensible way to to this was to draw or paint them using a graphics package http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ULGDTtGZcN0 . A collection of David’s title screens for the Sinclair Spectrum can be viewed on http://www.binaryzone.org/thezone/davidthorpe.php .

That’s all for this installment! More details about “The A-Z of Personal Computers” soon.

Posted June 2, 2014 by C64hater in Uncategorized