Coleco's Adam: A Hands-On Report
Selby Bateman, Assistant Editor, Features Tom R. Halfhill, Features Editor
Coleco's long-awaited Adam, first promised for delivery early last fall, began appearing on retail shelves in limited quantities by mid-October. The company is counting on a combination of low price (initially $600, now $700) and attractively bundled hardware/software to capture a significant segment of the home computer market this year. Here's a hands-on look at Coleco's entry into this crowded field.
Since its first appearance at the 1983 Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago, Coleco's Adam has stirred great curiosity among consumers and has forced competitors to change some of their marketing strategies. Suddenly, bundled seemed better. The Adam's grouping of computer, detached keyboard, daisy wheel printer, high-speed cassette drive, joysticks, and software prompted announcements of similar packaging options from Commodore, Atari, and others almost overnight.
Coleco launched the Adam with a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign, including TV commercials and lavish color ads in leading magazines. Unfortunately, the Adam was never shipped in sufficient quantities to satisfy demand before Christmas. A few retail chains reportedly backed away from planned Christmas ads for the Adam because of the delayed deliveries.
Since then, Coleco has run up against quality-control problems and bugs in early production models. One major department store chain, J. C. Penney, announced in December it was not carrying the Adam because of problems with quality control. We'll get to this in a minute.
The System Approach
There are two functionally identical versions of the Adam. You can buy the whole system from scratch for about $700, or get an expansion package for about $500 that converts a Coleco Vision video-game machine into an Adam. Thousands of ColecoVision owners may be predisposed to buy an Adam instead of another home computer. The Adam even runs all the ColecoVision game cartridges.
When you buy an Adam, getting it home is a challenge because everything comes packed in one huge box that barely fits into today's economy cars. Inside the box is the Memory Console, a low, rectangular enclosure which contains the Central Processing Unit (CPU) and the Digital Data Drive (a high-speed cassette recorder); a 75-key, full-stroke, detachable, typewriter-style keyboard; a letter-quality daisy wheel printer; two joystick controllers with built-in numeric keypads and coiled cords; enough cables to hook everything together; three digital data packs (cassettes); plus three manuals and two reference guides.
Two of the data packs are prerecorded: One contains SmartBASIC, the Adam's standard programming language; and the other is Buck Rogers Planet of Zoom, an arcade game. The third data pack is a preformatted blank tape. Besides this software, the Adam itself contains a built-in word processing program, SmartWriter. Accompanying booklets include Getting Started: Adam Set-Up Manual (64 pages); Programming With Adam: A Simple Guide to SmartBASIC (222 pages); Typing With Adam: Using Easy-to-Learn SmartWriter Word Processing (101 pages); Adam SmartWriter Easy Reference Guide; and Adam Super Game Pack (instructions for the arcade game).
As the advertisements promise, you get a complete computer system that is ready to run and do something useful when you first get it home. That fact, plus the attractive package price, may well be Coleco's strongest selling point—competitors require you to add some extras separately.
The alternative "separate components" approach to building a home computer system would allow more freedom to choose certain peripherals and software, since you can buy compatible products from independent manufacturers. If assembled correctly, the resulting system may well outperform a comparable system made up of a single manufacturer's components. On the other hand, there are many products available, and compatibility can be hard to ascertain. Many people (especially beginners) feel more comfortable buying a prepackaged system. The Coleco Adam is aimed at the latter market.
The Coleco Adam comes with everything shown here, plus software and manuals. manuals.
For the money, the Adam's features look impressive. It comes with 80K of Random Access Memory (RAM), which Coleco says will be expandable to 144K in the future. A Texas Instruments sound chip and a TI graphics chip endow the Adam with three sound channels, 16 colors, and 32 sprites (programmable screen objects for animation). The Memory Console has three internal expansion slots and one external expansion connector (although no expansion modules are yet available); a topside slot for ROM cartridges and Coleco-Vision games; connectors for the joysticks, printer, keyboard, TV, a monitor, and auxiliary video; and room for a second Data Drive (not yet available).
The keyboard is impressive, particularly given the system's price. The keys are sculpted Selectric-style and have a nice feel. Many keys are specially labeled to work with the built-in word processor. For instance, when the computer is first switched on you can boot up SmartWriter simply by pressing the ESCAPE/WP key in the upper-left corner. Other dedicated keys include MOVE/COPY, STORE/GET, PRINT, UNDO, WILD CARD, CLEAR, INSERT, and DELETE. In addition, there are six special function keys with preprogrammed functions for SmartWriter. Four independent cursor keys are arranged in a convenient diamond pattern around a HOME key. Lightweight and fairly flat, the keyboard can rest in your lap while connected with its coiled phone cord to the Memory Module. A plastic attachment snaps onto the side of the keyboard to hold one of the joysticks.
The Coleco printer has been widely criticized as noisy and slow (ten characters per second is much faster than most people can type, but annoyingly tedious for a printer). However, you'll have to balance these debits against the much higher cost of buying a daisy wheel printer separately—most of them would cost as much as the whole Adam system.
The Adam's CPU is the widely used Z80A microprocessor chip. Z80-family chips (made by Zilog) are found in TRS-80, Epson, Timex/Sinclair, Osborne, Kaypro, and many other personal computers. An eight-bit chip, the Z80A cannot address more than 64K of memory at a time. Since the Adam has 80K (with room for another 64K), not all of this memory is contiguous. That is, anything above the maximum addressable 64K must be bank-switched, or flipped in and out as needed. Usually this is handled by the operating system for you. Other eight-bit computers overcome their 64K limits the same way (such as the Atari 1200XL and Commodore 64, which each have at least 80K of RAM and ROM).
One advantage of the Z80 over other chips is that it runs an operating system called CP/M (Control Program for Microcomputers), for which a large pool of mostly business-oriented software is available. This means the Adam may work with CP/M someday, although you would still need a way to obtain the software in a format the Adam could read (its data packs are not compatible with other storage media). A CP/M-compatible disk drive is in planning stages.
Faster Than Regular Tapes
The data packs appear to be ordinary cassettes, but the plastic shells lack capstan holes and will not fit into a standard cassette recorder. The tape itself is a gamma ferric oxide formulation, similar to the tape in some good-quality audio cassettes. However, Coleco says ordinary audio cassettes will not work, and that blank data packs must be purchased from Coleco dealers for about $10. Coleco explains that the data packs are specially engineered for high-speed use, and that tape path accuracy is ten times better than with ordinary cassettes. Also, the data packs must be preformatted at the factory—they won't work unformatted.
Coleco compares its Digital Data Drive to the floppy disk drives commonly used with other computers. The digital drive is much faster than an ordinary cassette recorder, but is not quite as fast as most disk drives. Then again, most disk drives cost at least half as much as the entire Adam system.
The file directories for the data packs—analogous to disk directories—are located in the center of the tape to help speed up the searching and loading process.
Each data pack stores 500K (half a megabyte), or the equivalent of about 250 typed pages of text. This does compare favorably with disks, since most mini-floppies store perhaps only 1/4 that amount.
Another interesting feature of the Adam is its SmartBASIC. Most home computers have BASIC built into ROM, so it's ready instantly after power-up. Application programs, such as word processors, must be loaded from disk or tape.
Coleco took exactly the opposite approach with the Adam. SmartWriter is built into ROM, accessible with a keystroke after power-up, but SmartBASIC must be loaded from tape. This takes a couple of minutes. Coleco evidently figured that more Adam users will be interested in word processing than programming.
Coleco says SmartBASIC is designed to be compatible with Applesoft, the Apple II/IIe's Microsoft BASIC. This will be welcomed by people who already are familiar with Applesoft. Most of the SmartBASIC commands are the same. Since many school systems have Apples, Coleco obviously decided that an Applesoft-compatible BASIC would be an added attraction for purchasers with school-age children.
However, this does not mean you can simply load up an Apple program into the Adam and type RUN. For one thing, you'd have to manually type in the Applesoft listing, since Applesoft programs are not available on Coleco data packs. Also, remember that the Apple has a 6502 CPU instead of the Z80A and an entirely different memory layout. Therefore, Applesoft programs with PEEK, POKE, and CALL statements will not work on the Adam without extensive modifications. (Most Applesoft programs use numerous PEEKs, POKEs, and CALLs.)
SmartBASIC's Applesoft compabibility has another drawback, too. The Adam has advanced features not found on the Apple—such as three-channel sound and 32 sprites. SmartBASIC, patterned after Applesoft, does not, however, effectively support all these special features. Conspicuously missing are the many commands needed to manipulate sprites and play music.
This version of the Adam converts the Coleco Vision videogame machine into the computer system. It is functionally identical to the regular Adam.
Coleco also adopted an Apple-type, line-oriented screen editor. The INSERT, DELETE and cursor keys that are so handy with SmartWriter are of little use with SmartBASIC. When you mistype a character in a program line, the manual recommends retyping the entire line. Although you can move the cursor up to the typo and fix it on the screen, hitting RETURN wipes out the rest of the line.
Software, Hardware To Come
Aside from the software which comes bundled with the Adam, there isn't much else available—at least not yet. However, Coleco says it is working hard to remedy the situation. A company spokesman said that by early December agreements had already been worked out with such software producers as Spinnaker, Brøderbund, Sierra On-Line, and Infocom. Coleco is encouraging other independent software publishers as well, and is preparing its own line of programs. Since all Coleco-Vision cartridges work on the Adam, of course, there is a good supply of game software.
The word processing software built into the Adam is menu-driven and easy to use, although a bit sluggish for fast touch-typists. Margins and column positions are shown at the top of the screen. The letters appear on a black line at the bottom of the screen as you type. They shift above that line when more words are typed. The word processor can also be used in an "electronic type-writer mode" (each keystroke triggers the printer to type one character).
Besides lining up additional software, Coleco also is readying some more hardware. A Coleco spokesman says that, with an expansion module costing about $70, the Adam will accept video-game cartridges designed for the Atari 2600 VCS game machine. To add a second Data Drive, it would cost about $150. Other planned options include a CP/M compatible disk drive (about $350), a memory expansion card (under $200), a ROM cartridge (about $30), a telephone modem (about $125), and an RS-232-C serial interface (approximately $50).
Quality And Availability
As mentioned, there has been considerable speculation about the quality of the Adam. Partly this is due to skepticism over how Coleco can assemble a complete system for such a low price. Coleco staunchly denies that the Adam's failure rates are greater than any other home computer's. The company maintains that initial failure rates were under ten percent, and that many of those were caused by customer misuse.
However, consistent problems have been reported, both by users and by the industry press. COMPUTE! encountered one of these problems, which reportedly afflicts thousands of new Adam owners (including other magazines doing test reports). After working with the system for several days, we suddenly found that the SmartBASIC tape would no longer load. It turns out that switching on the Adam generates a strong magnetic field, strong enough to erase a data pack sitting near the computer or even in the Data Drive. Since there is no way to back up SmartBASIC (or any other data pack) without two Data Drives, users can be left without a BASIC language.
To solve this problem, Coleco is making replacement tapes available to those who call the company's toll-free number (1-800-842-1225). Also, Coleco is adding a notice to the manual and a sticker to the computer warning new users about the hazard.
As for the Adam's printer, it's obviously not intended for heavy use. One unusual feature we noticed is that the power switch for the entire Adam system is on the printer, not the computer; if the printer does break down someday, the computer cannot be turned on until the printer returns from the repair shop.
Regarding availability, Coleco says it plans to increase shipments to 150,000 units a month during the first quarter of 1984. The Adam is being marketed through major retail chains and is still being heavily advertised. It's still too early to tell if the recent price increase will significantly affect sales. (The increase boosted the wholesale cost from $525 to $650; retailers are free to charge what they like since Coleco does not suggest a retail price.)
It's also too early to tell which competitor, if any, will be hurt most by the Adam. The Adam still costs less than a Commodore or Atari equipped with a disk drive and dot-matrix printer, and costs much less than a fully configured IBM PCjr or Apple IIe.
The Adam's main impact may well be to change the way manufacturers approach the home computer market. As more and more neophytes take the plunge into home computing, there could be greater demand for bundled packages which take the guesswork (and expense) out of piecing together a workable, useful, personal computer system.