Mattel's New Home Computer
Tom R. Halfhill, Features Editor
Judging from the inquiries we've been receiving at COMPUTE!, people are having a tough time choosing between the current crop of low-end home computers: the Atari 400, Commodore VIC-20, Radio Shack Color Computer, Sinclair/Timex, and Texas Instruments TI-99/4A.
Well, it's about to get even tougher.
Mattel Electronics has announced a home computer aimed squarely at the low-end market. It is not to be confused with the long-delayed Intellivision keyboard attachment — which has been redesigned again, incidentally. Mattel says the new computer, dubbed the Aquarius, is due "very early in 1983."
The Aquarius will sell for under $200 retail. The price is expected to vary because the machine will be sold through mass consumer outlets. This means it will be available at a wide range of TV-electronics stores, audio/video shops, department stores, discount stores, and catalog showrooms. As we've seen with the other low-end home computers being marketed this way, prices are greatly discounted because competition is so fierce.
Expands To 52K RAM And CP/M
The Aquarius will come with 4K of Random Access Memory (RAM), expandable to 52K RAM in 4K and 16K steps with plug-in cartridges. Microsoft BASIC is built-in. There is one voice for sound effects or music, and an expansion option (described below) provides three voices. The maximum graphics resolution is 320 by 200 pixels (screen dots) in 16 colors.
The Aquarius can display 256 characters. This includes a 128-character ASCII set with upper-and lowercase, and 128 user-programmable characters, similar to the redefinable character sets on the Atari, Commodore 64, VIC-20, and TI-99/4A computers.
For the Central Processing Unit, the central "brain" of the computer, Mattel chose the Z-80A, an eight-bit microprocessor chip. The use of this chip allowed Mattel to give the Aquarius CP/M capability. CP/M (Control Program for Microcomputers) is an operating system primarily used for business applications. The Aquarius can run CP/M with the addition of a disk drive and disk controller card. It is very unusual that a low-end home computer would have CP/M capability, but a Mattel official explained, "Some home users will be professionals who will prefer to work at home." With CP/M, a huge library of existing business programs will work on the Aquarius.
The keyboard has 49 keys. It's more than the membrane keyboard found on the Atari 400, but is not quite a full-stroke typewriter keyboard like the VIC-20' s. The keystroke travel is 1.5 to 2 millimeters, and the keys are made of a rubber-like material instead of hard plastic, similar to the keys on Sinclair's new ZX Spectrum (see COMPUTE!, August 1982). The keyboard accepts overlays for special applications. For example, an overlay for BASIC programming allows one-key entry of BASIC commands.
While all of these features are standard in the under-$200 Aquarius, Mattel says it will offer a complete system "in the $500 range" which will include a data recorder (tape drive), a printer, and the Aquarius Mini-Expander. The Mini-Expander is an attachment which adds three-voice sound, two game controllers on eight-foot cords, and two slots for plug-in cartridges. One slot is for memory expansion and the other accepts cartridge programs.
All of the software initially released for the Aquarius will be on cartridges. Mattel promises that eight to ten cartridges will be available when the Aquarius is introduced. This will include education, home management, personal improvement, and entertainment software.
One cartridge will be a low-cost Logo with turtle graphics, the acclaimed learning language for children. Mattel says its Logo is designed to work on a minimum system without extra accessories. Another cartridge will be FileForm, a word processor. Mattel says more cartridges will be released monthly after the computer is introduced, and that additional software may be available on cassette in the future. All the software has been developed at Mattel, although the company is now talking to outside developers.
Other expected add-ons include a disk drive and a 40-column thermal printer. No prices have been disclosed for these extras, but a Mattel official did say that the memory expansion boards would be "extremely price-competitive."
Apparently, the Aquarius will lack special function keys, sprite graphics, and full-screen editing. Reportedly, it will have 8K of ROM (Read Only Memory), a 40 by 24 screen display, dimensions of 13 by 6 by 2 inches, and weigh four pounds. It will come with simplified instruction cards so beginners can get the machine working without reading the manual.