NEW PRODUCTS AT THE COMDEX/SPRING COMPUTER SHOW
Tom R. Halfhill, Features Editor
New products displayed at the Comdex/Spring conference, held in Atlanta during late April, show a trend toward still more home computers, lower-priced home peripherals, and increasing support for the popular home computers already on the market.
This year's Comdex/Spring show was more interesting than most for home computerists. Known officially as the "National Spring Conference Exposition for Independent Sales Organizations," Comdex is primarily a show for computer dealers, manufacturers, and businessmen. Consequently, almost all the wares on display at this large show are for the more expensive personal and business systems.
At the show this year, however, there seemed to be more than the usual number of exhibitors displaying products for lower-priced home computers. Two new home computers were shown – both imports; several low-cost printers and other peripherals made impressive appearances; and software started catching up with hardware (at least a little) as new programs were introduced for all the popular home computers. Most of these products should be on the market by the time this article appears. Here's a rundown:
It's hard to imagine how the low-end home computer market can absorb many more machines, especially with such leading contenders as Commodore, Texas Instruments, Atari, and Tandy engaged in runaway price wars. But the home market is expanding so fast that no one wants to be left out, least of all the Japanese and the British.
That's why you can expect to see more imports invading the U.S. market. The British success with the Timex/Sinclair isn't easily ignored.
The newest British entry is the Oric-1, manufactured by Oric Products International Ltd., of Berkshire, England. Reputedly the second best-selling micro in Britain and Europe (next to the Sinclair), the Oric-1 appears to be a good computer in search of a good U.S. distributor. An Oric representative said the company experimented with mail order sales, but quit in favor of setting up a more conventional distribution network. Oric hopes to have one in place by midsummer.
The standard Oric-1 includes: 16K of Random Access Memory (RAM); a 57-key keyboard, with moving keys arranged typewriter-style; full repeat on all keys; standard ASCII character set with upper/lowercase; 96 redefinable characters; 16 colors; 40-column by 28-row screen display in text mode; and a 240- by 200-pixel high-resolution graphics mode. For sound there is a three-channel sound synthesizer with a seven-octave range and programmable envelopes, similar to the Commodore 64, an internal speaker, and connections for external speakers.
A cassette interface works at 300 baud or a very fast 2400 baud, and interfaces include a builtin Centronics-standard parallel printer interface; an expansion port for RAM and Read Only Memory (ROM) cartridges; and a Red-Green-Blue (RGB) interface for high-resolution color video monitors. The built-in BASIC programming language includes such interesting commands as INK and PAPER (for color control), DOUBLE, FLASH, and INVERSE (for character control), DRAW, CIRCLE, and PLOT (for graphics), and even SOUND, MUSIC, PLAY, PING, SHOOT, EXPLODE, and ZAP (for sound control).
The Central Processing Unit (CPU) is the 6502A microprocessor, basically the same chip found in Apple, Atari, and Commodore computers. While this doesn't mean the Oric-1 is compatible with these computers, it does mean that machine language programmers could adjust to it fairly easily.
The standard Oric-1 will sell for about $120 in U.S. funds. For about $240, there's a 64K RAM version with 16K of overlaid ROM, similar in arrangement to the Commodore 64.
Oric also makes a full line of peripherals for the Oric-1. At Comdex, Oric was showing prototypes of a microfloppy disk drive using the Hitachi 3-inch disks. The microfloppy is expected to sell for about $240.
If Oric succeeds in setting up a good U.S. distribution network, the Oric-1 could prove competitive in this country, especially if its overseas software base is also brought to America.
The Japanese Sord
Of course, the Japanese aren't standing idly by, either. Their newest export to the U.S. is the Sord M5, a $199 computer with impressive graphics and three different plug-in BASICs. The M5 is made by Sord Computer Systems, the fastest-growing microcomputer company in Japan. Founded in 1970 with $2500 by 26-year-old Takayoshi Shiina, Sord now commands about 15 percent of the Japanese business microcomputer market. Sord is exporting a line of high-end personal and business computers to the U.S., and the M5 is its first home computer.
The M5 will be sold in two different configurations: the M5 Fun Computer and the M5 Multi-Computer. The basic specifications are the same: 20K of RAM expandable to 32K (although 16K is used for the screen); 8K of ROM with a machine language monitor; 16 colors; a 55-key keyboard with moving rubber keys; upper/lowercase and graphics characters; a flip-up top that conceals a cartridge slot for games, programming languages, and other plug-in "firmware"; built-in Centronics-standard parallel printer interface; cassette interface for standard tape recorders; sound generator; Z80A CPU; and a Texas Instruments video chip which allows up to 32 sprites (screen objects which can be created and animated by your own programs).
The two packages do vary, however, in terms of included accessories. The M5 can accept any of three BASIC language cartridges – BASIC-I (Introductory), BASIC-G (Graphics), and BASIC-F (Floating Point). BASIC-I is for beginners and children, BASIC-G is for general home use and graphics programming, and BASIC-F is a full-fledged floating-point BASIC for business, science, and math applications. The M5 Fun Computer comes with BASIC-I and a game cartridge. The M5 Multi-Computer comes with BASIC-G, an interesting dialect with special commands for the graphics and sprites. The Multi-Computer also has a carrying case and the FALC cartridge, a home data base program adapted from Sord's business software.
The M5 will be distributed through local dealers by Sord Computer of America, New York.
The Gorilla Banana
When personal computers cost $1000 or more, it seemed reasonable that printers sold for around $500 or $600. But now that full-featured home computers are widely available for under $100, the same printers can seem disproportionately expensive. That's why manufacturers are rushing to produce printers (and other peripherals) that are priced for the hundreds of thousands of people who are buying inexpensive mass-market computers.
The Gorilla Banana is the first in a new line of low-cost peripherals from Leading Edge.
Several new low-cost printers were seen at Comdex. Probably the one which attracted the most attention was the Gorilla Banana, the first in an upcoming line of low-cost peripherals from Leading Edge Products, Inc., of Canton, Massachusetts (best-known for Elephant Memory disks). Due this summer at $249.95, the Banana is an 80-column, tractor-feed, unidirectional, dot-matrix printer capable of 50 characters per second. It has four character sets (U.S., British, Swedish, and German), a double-width print mode, and upper/lowercase (although without true descenders). There's also a dot-addressable graphics mode with a density of 63 × 60 dots per inch.
The Banana attaches directly to any computer with a Centronics-standard parallel printer interface. Computers without a parallel port will need an interface at extra cost. An interface for Commodore 64 and VIC-20 computers will be available for $29.95, and an optional cartridge for the same price will allow the Banana to print the special Commodore graphics characters.
Another interesting 80-column dot-matrix printer is the STX-80 from Star Micronics, Inc., of Dallas, Texas. Suggested retail is $199. Although the STX-80 is a thermal printer – it uses a special print head and heat-sensitive paper to form its type instead of an inked ribbon – you wouldn't guess it from the printouts. The thermal paper looks and feels much like standard typing paper. Unlike most thermal paper, which is silver, this paper is white with crisp black lettering. The STX-80 is a unidirectional printer that works at 60 characters per second, has upper/lowercase with true descenders, a double-width text mode, block graphics characters, European characters, a dot-addressable graphics mode, and a Centronics parallel interface.
Star Micronics also offers a 40-column, inked ribbon, dot-matrix printer for $250. The DP-8240 prints at 50 characters per second, has friction or tractor feed, upper/lowercase without true descenders, graphics characters, scientific and European characters, and a dot-addressable graphics mode.
The lowest-priced printer exhibited was the $129.99 Impact Printer from Fidelity Electronics, Ltd., of Miami, Florida. The Impact Printer works with the VIC-20 and Commodore 64 with no additional interface. Printing at 30 characters per second, it has a 24-column line and uses standard adding machine roll paper. Other features include upper/lowercase, graphics characters, inverse characters, and dot-addressable graphics.
Since the "feel" of a joystick is highly subjective, many independent companies are introducing "custom" joysticks for those who dislike the standard models (for an overview of custom game controllers, see "The Joy Of Joysticks," COMPUTE!, February 1983). A few more new joysticks surfaced at Comdex.
Suncom, Inc., of Northbrook, Illinois, makers of the Slik Stik and Starfighter joysticks for Atari-compatible computers, came out with a Starfighter model for the Apple. The Starfighter is about the same size and shape as a standard Atari joystick, but with comfortably rounded edges. Overall, it's a luxurious controller with right- and left-handed fire buttons; an alternate fire button for games that require two buttons; a centering adjustment to fine-tune the stick's neutral position to each Apple; a switch to select either a long or short throw of the stick; and a high-low sensitivity switch to further tune the stick's response. Also, Suncom guarantees the Starfighter for two years. Suggested retail is $49.95 for the Apple He version (a $5.95 adapter is needed for the Apple II/II +).
Suncom also introduced two new controllers for Atari-compatible machines (Atari 400/800/1200XL, Commodore 64 and VIC-20, Atari VCS 2600, Sears Telegame). The most unique is the Joy-Sensor, a stickless joystick. The Joy-Sensor is a hand-holdable box with a flat disc where the stick should be. Instead of flexing a stick, you rock the disc. It lists for $34.95.
Suncom's other new joystick is the TAC-2 (Totally Accurate Controller). This looks like an adaptation of the Starfighter, with the addition of a longer, ball-tipped stick, and both right- and left-handed fire buttons. The TAC-2 is guaranteed for two years and lists for $19.95.
For users of Texas Instruments computers, Suncom introduced a $12.95 adapter so that Atari-style joysticks will work on the TI-99/4A, and a $13.95 dual cassette recorder adapter.
Two new joysticks were also introduced by the Kraft Systems Company of Vista, California. The Kraft Joystick is a lightweight Atari-compatible controller with an unusually short, flexible stick designed for fingertip action. It includes an extra-long eight-foot cord, a one-year warranty, and retails for $16.95. Another joystick, the Switch-Hitter, has two fire buttons for use by right- or left-handed players. Otherwise identical to the Kraft Joystick, it retails for $19.95.
Accessories And Peripherals
Numerous other add-ons were introduced at Comdex/Spring, too. Here are some which deserve special note:
•A low-cost modem for the Apple. The $119 Networker modem, by Zoom Telephonies, of Boston, Massachusetts, plugs into a single expansion slot and requires no other connections or external power source. It's a 300-baud direct-connect modem that hooks up to any modular phone jack. It has an originate/answer switch, a carrier detection LED, and is compatible with any standard telecommunications software. For $169, the Networker comes with Netmaster, a terminal program with upload/download, and a 40K text buffer (on a 64K system).
•Plug-in boards for Commodore and Texas Instruments computers. Microtek, Inc., of San Diego, California, introduced a $299 64K memory board for the TI-99/4A which fits into the expansion box. A 32K board also is planned. For the VIC-20, Microtek introduced VIGOR (VIC's Grand Old RAM-cage). This is a $39.95, three-slot expansion board. For both the VIC and Commodore 64, there's the CC-2064, a $70 interface cable which allows the computers to drive parallel printers.
•New disk drive for Atari. The Rana 1000 Atari-compatible disk drive, by Rana Systems, of Carson, California, also was shown at the West Coast Computer Faire in San Francisco a few weeks before Comdex/Spring. Due on the market this summer, the Rana 1000 is switchable single/double density and will retail for $449 ($49 extra for the double-density Disk Operating System). It has some unique features not found on other drives: a write-protect button, a unit ID button (which tells you the drive's position in the daisy chain if you have several), an error button (which returns an error code), and a button which lets you know which track the head is reading or writing. What's more, the drive runs very quietly and is only about a third the size of a standard Atari drive.
The Rana 1000 disk drive for Atari offers single and double density for $449.
•Network systems for Atari. These systems look like they'd be ideal for classrooms, computer camps, and even users groups. With the Quick Share, you can hook up to four Atari computers to a single disk drive, 850 Interface Module, and printer. The Quick Share continuously scans the four computers for input/output commands and lets them access the devices on a first-come, first-served basis. Four blinking LEDs let users know when the devices are busy. It costs $595 and is available from Wolsten's Computer Devices, Inc., of East Orange, New Jersey. The company also introduced a similar, but larger system primarily for classroom use. Called the Network 216 and Monitor 16, it allows up to 16 Ataris to connect to a single drive and printer. In addition, the master station hooks up to a TV so the operator can see what's happening on any one of the 16 computer monitors. A headset with a microphone plugs into the station so the operator can converse privately with any of the 16 students (the operator's voice comes through the TV speaker). This looks like a great way for teachers to make sure their students aren't playing Centipedes on the sly. It will sell for $1995, cables extra.
•Supermother for VIC-20. What's a Supermother? It appears to be the largest expansion board available for the VIC. This huge board has eight switch-selectable slots for memory and program cartridges, a system reset button, a pause button that freezes games or other programs, and a switch that lets you back up cartridges on tape or disk. It retails for $149.95, from Compuscope, Inc., of Tillamook, Oregon.
Now that more schools are acquiring computers for their students, and more parents are buying home computers for their children, the demand for good educational software is becoming almost unquenchable. Fortunately, some companies with background in other educational fields are starting to get involved in software.
Among these is Scholastic, Inc., of Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Remember the Weekly Reader? Scholastic is now introducing Wizware, a line of programs for Apple, VIC-20, Atari, and Texas Instruments computers. The first samples are entertaining and colorful and make good use of each computer's special features. Among the interesting programs at the show were Turtle Tracks, which uses turtle graphics to teach programming by creating drawings and songs; The Square Pairs, a memory game; and Your Computer, a how-to introduction to computers with a robot narrator.
Another line of educational software was displayed by Edu-Ware Services, Inc., of Agoura Hills, California. Most were for the Apple, with a few for the Atari. Ranging from preschool to college level, the programs cover basic math, algebra, spelling, reading, perception, and SAT/PSAT preparation. One of the most interesting packages was Hands On BASIC Programming, an introduction to Applesoft BASIC with additional instruction on more advanced BASICs. It includes a 185-page manual and two disks of sample programs.
More shots were fired during the show in the continuing microfloppy wars (see "Mass Memory Now And In The Future," COMPUTE!, March 1983). Since nobody has agreed yet whether to adopt the 3-inch, 3¼-inch, or 3½-inch standard, everyone seems to be going their own way.
Thus Verbatim Corp. of Sunnyvale, California, widely known for its larger diskettes, unveiled a prototype of a 3½-inch microfloppy disk. The 3½-inch size is backed by Sony, and Verbatim's microfloppy will be manufactured under license from Sony. However, Verbatim is varying a bit even from Sony's standard in order to conform with recommendations of the Microfloppy Industry Committee. Verbatim's microfloppy will have 80 tracks instead of 70, an automatic shutter which covers the head window when the disk is removed from a drive, and a thinner magnetic coating.
Meanwhile, across the convention hall, another company was introducing a 3¼-inch microfloppy drive while distributing photocopies of news articles about a rejection of the 3½-inch size. The 3¼-inch drive, hooked up to a Radio Shack TRS-80 Color Computer, was exhibited by Tabor Corp., of Westford, Massachusetts. It's based on the Dysan 3¼-inch microfloppy, a challenger to Sony's 3½-inch disk. Instead of selling directly to the public, Tabor plans to supply the drive to other companies for private labeling. The photocopied article was from Computer Systems News, reporting on the recent vote by the American National Standards Institute not to adopt a working paper submitted by Verbatim and Shugart pushing the 3½-inch size.
The decision was far from final, however, and all three sizes are still very much alive. And just to make things more interesting, IBM recently unveiled a 4-inch microfloppy disk drive. It appears it will be quite a while before the various factions within the microcomputer industry agree on how much to shrink disks.