The Challenger 1P
W. Keith Russell
Santa Fe, NM
The Ohio Scientific Challenger 1P, relatively new on the horizon of lower-priced, full-feature BASIC-in-ROM computers, deserves serious consideration by anyone who is interested in convenient programming in BASIC with an all-in-one, ready-to-run, plug-in microcomputer, but who has limited funds.
In this article I will summarize some of my experiences with OSI (that's Ohio Scientific Instruments) and the C1P, along with comments on the relative merits or demerits of the unit. It should be noted that the C1P, which sells for $349, is also available as the Superboard II for $279; the Superboard comes without a case and requires the addition of a power supply, but is otherwise identical to the C1P. Most of my comments should apply to it as well.
I ordered my computer with some trepidation because of all the depressing stories I had heard about delivery of other systems. Delivery took nine days.
I called my mail order dealer collect several times, both before and after buying my computer, and had long conversations, at his expense, asking what must have seemed to him to be trivial questions. I don't know if OSI and its dealers always provide that kind of service, but if they do, one shouldn't be hesitant to invest in their products by mail if they aren't available locally.
The C1P is a "single-board" computer, with CPU, BASIC-in-ROM, RAM, video display, cassette interface and keyboard all on one board. The C1P must be expanded externally, while the C2-4P (at $598) can be expanded internally; the C1P expands to 32K of RAM memory, the C2-4P to 40K. Finally, the screen display on the C1P is limited to 24 rows × 24 columns, as compared to the C2-4P’s 32 × 64.
Benchmark test applied by Rugg and Feldman ("BASIC Timing Comparisons ... revised and updated," Kilobaud, Oct. 1977, pp. 20-25) show that (at least at that time and on the specific tasks tested) the Challenger 2P had the fastest floating point BASIC of all stock 8-bit microcomputers tested, including the PET and most other popular models. My CIP uses the same version of BASIC, and my own tests confirm the reported times. The Challengers require approximately 42 seconds for the longest task, as compared to as much as 320 seconds for some other systems. The PET took 51 seconds; part of the reason that it is slower is that it has 10-digit BASIC, compared to the Challenger's 6½. Unfortunately, the TRS-80 was not included in the comparison, but the authors point out that the 6502 microprocessor of the Challenger and PET is inherently faster than the Z-80, which the TRS-80 uses. Although speed is not generally considered to be a major concern, there are cases in which it makes a difference — even with my fast BASIC, a simple game of War I programmed for my kids from Creative Computing's Basic Computer Games takes a full minute to shuffle the cards before every game. Any slower and the kids would switch to a regular TV channel!
The character generator ROM can display 256 different characters, including upper case, lower case, alpha, numeric, special punctuation, graphics characters, and gaming characters. Included are such things as arrows, tanks, men, houses, and airplanes. Using the POKE command (in BASIC), these can be displayed in any desired position on the screen, or made to move in various directions across the screen. They are fun to use and make interactive graphics feasible.
A C1P system complete with direct-wired monitor and tape recorder, ready to plug in and use, is available from OSI (for around $500, I believe), but the real saving comes in buying the C1P alone at $349 and adding your own tape recorder and standard TV. With the 24 × 24 display this provides a perfectly usable system.
A working C1P system can be developed for about $450; this includes the C1P, a low-priced TV and tape recorder, and a $10 RF modulator (available from most dealers) to feed the computer signal to the TV.
While the TRS-80 has its Level I BASIC, the standard PET its nonstandard keyboard, the C1P has its 24 × 24 screen display. Twenty-four lines are okay — after all, many popular units have only 16. However, 24 characters per line is a big limitation. Almost all published programs assume at least 32, and some are written for a 64- or even 80-character width. The result is that many PRINT statements have to be rewritten, and some tables are impossible to display. Admittedly, this is not a serious, problem, but it is a highly frustrating one. On the other hand, this is one of the main factors in the original low price of the C1P, and helps make it possible to use a standard TV. You'll have to weigh the advantages against the disadvantages. As previously noted, OSI does well with graphics.
While the 8K BASIC-in-ROM you receive with the C1P is more powerful and flexible than the TRS-80's Level I 4K BASIC, it is less powerful than either Level II or the standard PET BASIC. The only way to upgrade it is with disk BASIC. It is powerful enough for most "personal" applications.
Finally, there's a problem not with the computer itself, but with the aids for using it. Although OSI provides a looseleaf binder full of information about the C1P, the quality of the documentation is not the best. (Editor's note: They're not alone ... more next issue.) One example is the omission of information such as how to save a machine code program on tape (we're told how to load one from tape!).
WILL THE C1P ACHIEVE FAME?
There has not seemed to be a great deal of interest in OSI's Challengers in the past, at least among personal users. One reason is that they have not been readily available in local outlets. Many buyers will more readily invest in a machine they've tried out at a local store, rather than buy sight unseen a C1P which they know little about.
I addition, users' groups, from which a novice can learn about his or her system, have been hard to find. The only relevant publication I'm aware of is the Challenger Times (formerly Independent OSI Users Newsletter,) published by Newton Software Exchange, P.O. Box 518, Newton Corner, MA 02158. This is typically a 4-page, 8½ × 11 publication which publishes readers' questions and problems along with an occasional short program, and may be too technical for many owners.
Software has also been hard to come by. My experience has been slow delivery and disappointing results. This software deficit cannot readily be overcome by ordering elsewhere; while ads for independently-produced TRS-80 and PET programs fill the pages of the micro magazines, little has been available for the Challengers.
Similarly, additional hardware and peripherals such as disk drives and printers have generally been available only through OSI. On the positive side, OSI's prices for peripherals seem quite reasonable, and because the C1P is compatible with many peripherals previously developed for OSI's business systems, they are available now; there should be little waiting around for new equipment to be developed, such as owners of other micros have often had to endure.
Prospects seem to be improving in other areas as well. Articles on OSI and the Challengers are appearing more regularly in the computer magazines now, OSI is stepping up its advertising, and the company is reportedly looking for more retail outlets, including department stores. More sales will stimulate the development of more software and compatible hardware. And that in turn should help the current owners.
For some of us, C1P may be the only complete computer system within reach of a limited budget. You will have to learn BASIC on your own (unless you already know it, in which case you have a good head start); you will at times have to struggle through less-than-adequate documentation; and you may have to write most of your programs yourself for a time. On the bright side, the C1P is not just a cheap substitute. While it may not be as flexible a some more high-priced systems, it does compare favorable with many selling for several hundred dollars more.
Aim 65 users now have a newsletter called The Target. The Target contains articles on using the printer, display, keyboard, basic programs as well as machine language and product reviews. Contact The Target c/o Donald Clem RR#2 Spencerville, OH 45887. The cost is $5 in the US and Canada ($12 elsewhere) for six bimonthly issues. Please include payment with order.