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!

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Posted June 4, 2014 by C64hater in Uncategorized

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