Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 47 / APRIL 1984 / PAGE 10

The Shakeout Begins: A Watershed Winter CES

Tom R. Halfhill, Features Editor


Commodore's New Computers In Doubt

After this CES report was written, Commodore's top management underwent a radical shake-up which casts doubt on the new products announced at CES.

In a surprise move, Commodore founder Jack Tramiel resigned as president and chief executive officer. Two weeks later, four more top executives resigned. Commodore is now reorganizing its entire management structure.

As a result, the new Commodore 264 computer is being delayed indefinitely. General Manager Sol Davidson told The Wall Street Journal that Commodore is reexamining the computer and will introduce it "when there's a need for it… [the 264] could come before the end of 1984, we'll just have to watch carefully." Davidson also was quoted as saying, "I think our zeal [in announcing the computer] was greater than our determi-nation in [bringing it to] the marketplace."

At this year's Winter Consumer Electronics Show, held in January in Las Vegas, there was more of almost everything— more attendees (an estimated 90,000), more reporters, more buildings, more exhibits, more aisles, more video, more audio, more computer-related products. But for the first time, there were not more home computers.

No doubt about it—the personal computer industry speeds through life in the fast lane. Evolutionary changes which would take years or even decades to develop in other industries transform the personal computer industry in months. The sides of the computer turnpike are littered with stalled and broken-down companies which ran out of gas or couldn't afford the tolls. And in the face of fierce competitive realities, the laid-back camaraderie which once symbolized the jeans-clad hobby industry is rapidly becoming excess baggage, something to be flung out the window to reduce weight.

All of this was visible at the most recent Consumer Electronics Show.

CES is a great place for industry-watchers. For one thing, it's the biggest trade show in the world, a fantastic extravaganza for anyone who is into gadgets. It's the show where consumer electronics manufacturers gather en masse twice a year (Las Vegas in January and Chicago in June) to exhibit their newest wares.

Despite the show's name, consumers are barred. The 80,000–90,000 attendees are all exhibitors, dealers, celebrities, or journalists. Exhibitors come to entice dealers. Celebrities come at the expense of exhibitors to help lure the dealers and journalists. And journalists come to interview exhibitors and skip from press party to press party hosted by celebrities.

Besides all that, for industry observers and journalists CES is also a crystal ball. Sometimes a cloudy crystal ball, but nonetheless invaluable for divining the near future. It's like peering into the windows of the cars flashing by on the computer turnpike. This year's Winter CES was an indication that the heavy traffic building up for the last couple of shows is turning into a demolition derby.

Computer Wars Among The Wares

Most noticeable was the glaring lack of new home computers introduced. This was a significant change from the Summer CES, where no less than 17 new computers were on display (see "The Fall Computer Collection At The Summer Con-sumer Electronics Show," COMPUTE!, August 1983). In fact, a few companies which introduced new machines at the Summer CES were empty-handed at the Winter CES, having decided to cut their losses early and abandon the market. Other companies were absent altogether. This doesn't mean that home computing is fizzling out. Sales are still healthy and growing. Instead, it's a sure sign that the market is tightening and the long-predicted "shakeout" has begun.

The big news at the latest CES was Commodore, which attracted the most attention by far with its new 264/364 series. The large Commodore exhibit was crowded all four days of the show.

But aside from Commodore, almost nobody else was displaying new home computers. A newly formed British company had a few prototypes. Atari was there with its XL series announced at the Summer CES—minus the now officially canceled 1400XL, and with vague speculations concerning the future of the top-line 1450XLD. Apple was at CES for the first time in about three years—minus its new computer, the Macintosh, which Apple preferred to introduce at its stockholders meeting later in January. IBM—which created a stir when it exhibited at the Sum-mer CES for the first time in history—didn't show up at this CES at all. Instead, IBM preferred to display its new PCjr at the Comdex trade show a month earlier in Las Vegas. Texas Instruments was stuck with a large exhibit at CES, reserved long before the TI-99/4A was dropped. Not a single TI-99/4A was in evidence, and the TI booth looked forlornly deserted since it just happened to be directly across the aisle from the busy Commodore exhibit.

Another odd juxtaposition of booths in the Convention Center revealed just how fierce the competition is getting. Coleco's large exhibit, humming with activity around dozens of Adams and ColecoVisions, happened to face the Spectra-Video exhibit right across the aisle. Spectra Video has been at the last couple of CES shows with its heavily advertised but unavailable SV-318 and SV-328 computers. At this CES, Spectra Video said the SV-318 has been dropped in favor of an upgraded SV-328 Mark II and a new model, the SVI-728 MSX. To promote its new computers—and, one suspects, to wage psychological warfare against the Coleco representatives across the aisle—Spectra Video continuously staged a little presentation during the show.

The woman conducting the presentation compared the Spectra Video computers against the Commodore 64 and especially the Coleco Adam. At one point, she prepared to demonstrate how much louder the Adam's (letter-quality) printer is than the Spectra Video's (dot-matrix) printer. "But first," she smiled, "union rules require that I wear these." Then she donned a pair of industrial-duty ear protectors.

Later in the presentation, when asserting that the Spectra Video is a better buy than the Adam, she asked rhetorically, "Just how much of a Coleco Adam could you buy for the price of a Spectra Video? Let's find out." Then she switched on a screaming circular saw and disappeared for a few seconds behind a counter. She emerged hold-ing an Adam presawed in half, spilling out chips and wires. Finally she dropped the mangled computer into a large trash can while the sound of a flushing toilet echoed through a PA system aimed at the Coleco booth.

Meanwhile, the Coleco people tried their best to ignore the psychological attack. "The first day of the show, they were using an actual toilet instead of a trash can," said Coleco press representative Barbara Wruck, "but the show management made them take it down."

Somehow this typifies what a dog-eat-dog battle for survival the home computer market has become.

Commodore's Built-in Software

Yet this CES clearly belonged to Commodore. The company announced a new series of personal computers accompanied by a line of peripherals, plus more software for all its machines.

To set the record straight, Commodore flatly denied rumors that it plans to drop the VIC-20 and Commodore 64 to make room for the new products. Commodore officials said it would be crazy to discontinue the 64 at a time when sales are booming, and that the VIC—whose sales are slackening—will be carried as long as demand warrants. Although some trade papers have been predicting the quick demise of the VIC, its life may have been prolonged by recent changes in the low-end market. Now that Atari has dropped the 400 and Texas Instruments has left the market altogether, the VIC is the only widely available home computer for under $100 (except for the small Timex/Sinclair TS-1000 and Radio Shack Micro Color Computer).

The Commodore 264. Note the unusual arrow-shaped cursor keys. The Commodore 364V is similar, but has a numeric keypad to the right of the keyboard.

Two new computers head up Commodore's latest product line: the Commodore 264 and the Commodore 364V. No prices were announced, but Commodore says the 264 will retail for under $500 and the 364V for slightly more. Commodore says the 264 will be available by April 1 and the 364V a few months later, but based on past experience, these target dates may well be optimistic. We were told privately that most likely the 264 will hit the stores in quantity this summer (see box).

The new computers' main features over current machines include built-in application software, more usable memory, and a more powerful BASIC. The 264 and 364V are almost identical except the 364V has a numeric keypad and built-in speech synthesizer. New peripherals include a faster, parallel disk drive, a redesigned serial disk drive, a redesigned color monitor, a plug-in speech module, a daisy wheel printer, an inexpensive dot-matrix printer, and a color dot-matrix printer. Most of these peripherals will work with the Commodore 64 and VIC-20 as well.

The most significant new feature is probably the built-in software. Commodore says it will work like this: When you buy a 264 or 364V, you get to choose from a selection of application software on ROM chips. If you want a computer with a built-in word processor, for example, the dealer either sells you one with that option already installed or plugs in the proper chip himself. The chips are internal and not designed to be installed by average users. It's like ordering a car with various options.

When you first switch on a 264 or 364V, a message at the top of the screen tells what type of software is installed. You can run this program at the touch of a key. In effect, it's a permanently plugged-in ROM cartridge. There's still a cartridge slot behind the computer if you want to plug in something else. And, of course, you can always load in programs from disk or tape as usual. The built-in software does not interfere with anything or deprive other applications of memory.

The selection of ROM software will be limited to whatever Commodore offers. At CES, various prototype 264s were running Superscript 264, a word processor; EasyCalc 264, an electronic spreadsheet; Commodore 3-Plus-l, an integrated package which includes a word processor, file manager, spreadsheet, and business graphics; Logo; PILOT; and Magic Desk II, an integrated package with Lisa-like icons, a text editor, spread-sheet, file manager, and calculator. One 264 was even running an educational game. All of these programs will be available on cartridge as well as installed ROM chips.

A Step Sideways?

Although Commodore's new computers were generally well-received at CES, there were some questions raised about software compatibility and how the 264/364V will fit into Commodore's existing product line. Compared to the Commodore 64, they offer intriguing new features, but they're also missing a few. If, as expected, the 264 and 364V retail in the $400–$600 range, more than one observer noted that it may be advantageous to buy a 64 and upgrade it instead. But as usual, there will be tradeoffs involved both ways.

The Commodore 264 has 64K RAM (Random Access Memory); 32K ROM (Read Only Memory); a 40-column by 25-line screen display in text mode; a high-resolution graphics mode of 320 by 200 screen dots; 128 colors; a 67-key full-stroke key-board; four programmed (and reprogrammable) function keys; all the standard PET graphics characters; a 7501 microprocessor chip for the central processing unit (CPU); two tone generators with eight volume levels; and your choice of a built-in application program, such as a word processor or electronic spreadsheet. The 364V has all the above plus the numeric keypad and voice synthesizer.

Notice the similarities to and differences from the Commodore 64. Both have 64K RAM, 40×25 text modes, 320×200 graphics modes, PET graphics characters, and four function keys. But while the 64 leaves only about 39K out of 64K free for BASIC programming, the 264/364V leaves a whopping 60K. This was accomplished by a more advanced system of bank-selection (sharing memory in the same address space).

The Commodore 64 is limited to 16 colors, while the 264/364V have 128 colors. This is because each of the 264/364V's 16 standard colors has eight luminances (shades). This is very much like the color graphics on Atari computers. Early Ataris also had 128 colors (16 colors × 8 luminances), and current Ataris have 256 colors (16 colors × 16 luminances).

The Commodore 64 and 264/364V each have four function keys, but the 264/364V's keys are more advanced. For one thing, they are preprogrammed. Frequently used commands such as LIST, RUN, LOAD, and SAVE are only a keystroke away. For another thing, the keys are easier to reprogram by average users. One line of BASIC does the trick.

Another welcome addition to the 264/364V keyboard is the four separate cursor keys. These arrow-shaped keys are conveniently arranged in a diamond pattern at the lower-right corner of the keyboard (see photo). There are also two CONTROL keys. The extra one is where the RESTORE key used to be on the VIC and 64. However, this means the RUN/STOP–RESTORE combination to reset the computer no longer is available. There's a reset button on the right side of the 264/364V, next to the power switch, but it's a cold start reset—pressing it wipes out your BASIC program (not true of RUN/STOP–RESTORE).

You'll also notice that the 264/364V have a few other things missing, too, compared to the Commodore 64. There are no sprite graphics and no synthesizer chip. Two of the 64's strongest features are its multicolored sprites—which make computer animation a lot easier—and its SID chip (Sound Interface Device), the most advanced sound chip in any home computer. Instead of a SID, the 264/364V have a two-channel sound generator. This is similar to the VIC's sound generator, but with two channels instead of three.

More Powerful BASIC

Perhaps to make up for these drawbacks, the 264/364V have the most powerful version of BASIC ever built into a Commodore computer. Oddly, it's named BASIC 3.5. This would seem to imply that in terms of power it is halfway between the BASIC 2.0 (Upgrade BASIC) found in the VIC and 64 and the BASIC 4.0 found in the Commodore 8032 and SuperPET machines. Yet BASIC 3.5 includes the disk commands of 4.0 and adds dozens of other instructions.

We weren't able to get a list of all the new 3.5 commands by press time, but we did manage to ferret out most of them by exploring the ROMs with the 264/364V's built-in machine language monitor. Disk commands include DLOAD and DSAVE, DIRECTORY, HEADER, SCRATCH, COLLECT, COPY, RENAME, BACKUP, and DELETE. Sound and graphics commands include SOUND, VOL, RLUM, RDOT, GRAPHIC, PAINT, BOX, CIRCLE, GSHAPE, SSHAPE, DRAW, COLOR, SCNCLR, and SCALE. There's also a JOY command for the joysticks. Programmers will appreciate commands such as DEC and HEX$ (for converting decimal and hexadecimal numbers), MONITOR (to enter the built-in machine language monitor), ERR$ (read error message), TRAP (to divert the program to a specified line number on an error), TRON and TROFF (trace on/trace off for debugging), AUTO (auto line-numbering), LOCATE, HELP, DOLOOP, EXIT, WHILE-UNTIL, PRINT USING, and KEY (for reprogramming the function keys).

Most of the graphics commands are self-explanatory. GRAPHIC instantly switches the screen into the specified graphics mode. SCNCLR clears the graphics screen. We aren't sure about GSHAPE, SSHAPE, and SCALE, but one Commodore representative mentioned something about shape tables for animation, so these commands may be a replacement of sorts for the missing sprites.

For Productivity-Minded Users

As you can see, the new computers do offer interesting features beyond those found in the Commodore 64. Commodore says the 264/364V will not be aimed at the same market as the 64, so the higher prices, missing sprites, and simple sound will not be a handicap. Commodore envisions the 264/364V as computers for "productivity-minded" users who prefer the convenience of built-in application software. They see the 64 as a general-purpose home computer for entertainment as well as more practical applications. Yet the 264/364V's luxurious graphics commands suggest there may be some overlap in this area.

Critics of the new computers point out that you could put together the virtual equivalent of a 264 by starting with a Commodore 64 and adding the extra features. You could buy a 64 for under $200, add a Simon's BASIC cartridge to get a similar array of advanced commands, and get one or more application programs on cartridge for $100 or so. That way you'd have the sprites and SID chip, and if the 264 sells for $400 to $500, the 64 system might even be cheaper. Add a voice synthesizer, and the 64 system would resemble a 364V.

You still wouldn't have as much usable memory, however—remember the new computers leave 60K free for BASIC. Your programs wouldn't be as transportable to other machines, because not every one would have Simon's BASIC. The application software on cartridge would be marginally less convenient than the new computer's built-in software. But otherwise, the beefed-up 64 system would be quite similar to the 264/364V. Which is the better buy? We cannot presume to know what's best for every user. As always, it depends on individual tradeoffs—like whether to buy a Commodore or an Atari versus a Coleco or a Radio Shack. The question will be resolved in the marketplace.

Software Compatibility

There was some confusion at CES over how much Commodore 64 software will be compatible with the new 264/364V. Generally speaking, not much.

About the only programs that will work without modification are those written in straight BASIC without PEEKs or POKEs. BASIC 3.5 appears to be upward-compatible from BASIC 2.0, which means that BASIC programs written on a VIC or 64 might work on a 264/364V, but not necessarily vice versa. PEEKs and POKEs are important because they directly access memory, and the 264/364V's internal memory maps are not the same as those in the older computers. For instance, the cassette buffer in the new computers starts at address 819 instead of 828—a small difference, but one which could affect some programs using the buffer for storing machine language subroutines.

Because of the memory differences, nearly all machine language programs will have to be modified or rewritten (which includes the vast majority of commercial software). Fortunately, at least the machine language itself is compatible. Don't let the 7501 CPU chip in the 264/364V throw you; it's still fundamentally identical to the 6502/6510 chips in the VIC and 64. The instruction set is the same. The differences are in the hardware. The 7501 has extra lines to control a more advanced bank-selection system. This makes it possible to have 60K free RAM in an eight-bit computer which also includes 32K ROM (normally eight-bit computers are limited to 64K total memory).

Commodore says its most popular software for the 64 will be converted to the 264/364V as soon as possible. Intermediate home programmers probably could convert many BASIC programs. Programs with extensive machine language probably will require the talents of advanced programmers.

The sleek Elan Enterprise from Britain. Notice the built-in joystick. Two more sticks can also be plugged in.

Superfast New Commodore Disk

Commodore also announced a complete line of charcoal gray peripherals designed to match the 264/364V. No prices or availability dates were released by press time. Most of these peripherals are also compatible with the VIC and 64.

One which isn't directly compatible is the SFS 481 parallel disk drive. This hooks up to the new computers via a rear parallel port and is markedly faster than the current 1541 serial disk drive. (Parallel peripherals are faster than serial devices because they exchange data with the computer in bundles of eight bits, rather than one bit at a time.) The SFS 481 stores up to 170K of data on one side of a 5¼-inch floppy disk, a format compatible with the older 1541, 4040, and 2031 drives, as well as the new 1542 disk drive. Although there is no way to plug the SFS 481 into a VIC or 64, it's possible that an independent company could design an adapter.

The new 1542 drive is a slightly redesigned 1541. Colored charcoal gray to match the 264/364V, it works with the VIC and 64, too. Disks are compatible with the 1541, SFS 481, 4040, and 2031.

The DPS 1101 daisy wheel printer works at 18 characters per second, uses friction feed, is bidirectional, and has spacing modes of 10, 12, and 15 characters per inch, plus proportional. Although no price was released, it is expected to be relatively inexpensive for a daisy wheel printer (probably well under $1000).

The MPS 802 dot-matrix printer uses an 8×8 matrix, has all the PET graphics characters, dot-addressable graphics, prints at 60 characters per second, and prints up to 80 columns. It is bidirectional and has tractor feed only.

The MCS 801 color dot-matrix printer can produce dot-addressable graphics in black, yellow, purple, cyan, green, red, and blue. It can reproduce all the PET graphics characters. It is unidirectional only, prints at 38 characters per second, and has both friction and tractor feed.

Commodore has redesigned its popular 1701/ 1702 color monitor, now called the 1703. Specifications are virtually identical: 13-inch screen; built-in speaker; audio/video inputs on the front; separate chrominance, luminance, and audio inputs on the rear; and compatibility with video cassette recorders.

Peripherals That Talk And Feel

One of the more interesting Commodore peripherals at CES was the C64850 Magic Voice Speech Module for the Commodore 64. It has a built-in vocabulary of 235 words, and more can be loaded from optional cartridges or disks. The voice is pleasant and female, a relief from the usual robotized computer voices. You can vary the voice's speed from .65 to 1.4 times normal. It is programmable in BASIC or machine language so you can write your own talking programs. The module plugs into the cartridge slot, and has an additional slot so you can piggyback a program cartridge at the same time. There's also an audio output jack so you can hook it up to a TV or sound system.

Since the voice module doesn't monopolize the 64's SID chip, you can program voice and music simultaneously. Talking can even be synchronized with graphics. A special line of software designed to work with the module is on its way, including talking versions of Gorf, Wizard of Wor, A Bee C's, and Counting Bee. The module will sell for only $59.95.

Another fascinating peripheral is still on the drawing boards, but an experimental prototype was demonstrated at CES. It's a clear plastic touch-sensitive mat that overlays your TV or monitor screen. When perfected, this would bring touch-screen technology to existing home computers. The mat is wired so you can simply touch your finger to the screen to pick an option, select an answer, or whatever the program calls for. One problem to be overcome is designing different-sized mats to work with TV screens of varying sizes. It will probably be at least a year before the touch-screen is ready for sale.

One long-awaited peripheral we won't see for a while is the add-on synthesizer keyboard for the Commodore 64. First shown a year ago at the last Winter CES, it was supposed to include three additional SID chips and sophisticated music software, all for under $100. Unfortunately, a Commodore spokesperson said this project is on a back burner. We heard that Commodore is thinking about reworking it as a stand-alone synthesizer, possibly in addition to the Commodore 64 add-on version.

Another new product announced at the Winter CES a year ago is just now becoming available: the transportable version of the Commodore 64. It showed up at this CES renamed again as the SX64 (previously known as the SX-100 and Executive 64). Specifications are the same—basically it's a Commodore 64 built into a carrying case. It has a built-in 5-inch color monitor and 1541-type disk drive. The detachable keyboard (which forms the top of the carrying case) has all the same keys as the 64. The SX64 works with all Commodore 64 software and peripherals. Retail price is $995.

More Commodore Software

Here's a summary of the new Commodore software at CES. Most was developed for Commodore by outside software companies and will be sold under Commodore's name:

  • Commodore Logo. Designed for the Commodore 64 and 264 by Terrapin, this Logo has all the features of Terrapin's Apple Logo plus more commands, seven programmable sprites, music, and 30 percent more usable memory. It's available on disk for $80.
  • Micro Illustrator. Designed by Island Graphics for the 64 and 264, this drawing program works with a joystick or light pen and has a magnification mode for fine details. Commodore says the 64 version will be available by the time you're reading this. The 264 version will use all 128 colors and be available when the computer reaches the market. No price yet.
  • Micro Cookbook. Developed by Virtual Combinatics for the Commodore 64, this program helps plan meals (including leftovers), comes up with recipes using odds and ends in an understocked kitchen, suggests how to combine supermarket specials into recipes, and supplies calorie and nutritional information. Available immediately for about $40.
  • International Soccer. We played this on a 64 at CES and it's great. Three-dimensional graphics, realistic animation, and options for one or two players. The winning team even gets a trophy to the cheers of a crowd. Available immediately for $34.95.
  • Viduzzles, jack Attack, and Solar Fox. There will be versions of these games for the 64 and 264. Viduzzles is a video jigsaw puzzle—great for kids— and the other two are action games. Available in the spring; no prices yet.
  • Vidtex. This terminal program, developed by the CompuServe Information Service, lets you download files into a 32K buffer with the Commodore 64. There's also a printer option, ten programmable function keys, and color graphics support. No price yet.
  • Ten educational programs on disk and cartridge for the VIC and 64, including the Milliken Edufun! series developed under National Science Foundation grants, and the Kinder Koncepts series.

Atari's Revised Line-Up

Instead of introducing loads of new products, at this CES Atari seemed to be retrenching from recent losses and concentrating on getting previously announced products to market.

The new XL line of home computers, introduced at last summer's CES, has been revised slightly. Originally composed of the 600XL, 800XL, 1400XL, and 1450XLD, the line now consists of only the 600XL and 800XL. The 1400XL has been quietly dropped, and the 1450XLD sounds iffy. The 1400XL, remember, was the successor to the ill-fated 1200XL and included 64K RAM; four special function keys in addition to START, SELECT, and OPTION; a HELP key; and a built-in modem and speech synthesizer. Atari officials had little to say about why the 1400XL was dropped before it reached the marketplace, but the company's recent financial and production troubles probably had something to do with it. Atari seems to be scaling down its ambitions somewhat in an effort to recover its fiscal health.

The 1450XLD was displayed at CES, but Atari officials would not say when it would go into production or how much it would cost. Said one official, "The fact that we're displaying the computer here indicates our intentions to eventually produce such a product. But we cannot give any details at this time."

Atari fans eagerly await the 1450XLD because it's the flagship of the XL series and luxuriously equipped. Besides all the features of the 1400XL—including the on board modem and speech synthesizer—the 1450XLD also has a built-in, double-sided, double-density disk drive with direct memory access for high speed. Retail prices in the $1000 range have been kicked around. The deciding factor in whether the 1450XLD survives its gestation period may be whether Atari wants to enter the high-end home/low-end personal market. And that might depend on how the competition fares-such as the IBM PCjr and the Apple IIe.

Pascal And Super PILOT

Instead of new computers, Atari showed up at CES with some new accessories and software. Almost everything works with original-model Atari computers as well as the XL series.

The Atari 1064 Memory Module plugs into the rear expansion port of the 600XL to up-grade its memory from 16K to 64K RAM. No price was announced, but it should be in the $100 range.

The Atari Translator is a two-sided disk with an operating system more like the old one instead of the XL operating system. This allows a greater percentage of software written for older Ataris to work on the XLs. It requires 64K RAM. It's available from Atari Customer Service and the Atari Program Exchange for $9.95. Atari also released DOS 3, which supports the new double-density 1050 disk drives, and announced that copies of DOS 3 will be free to those who'd already bought 1050 drives. It will be packed with all future 1050s.

The Atari light pen plugs into a joystick port.

A perfected version of the long-awaited Atari light pen was shown, along with its new Atari-Graphics software. At CES, an artist was using the pen to draw very nice impromptu portraits of showgoers. It requires only 16K and retails for $99.95, including software.

AtariLab, the first in a series of electronic science kits, is aimed at students aged 9 to 18 and adults. The AtariLab is a module that plugs into the computer, allowing you to add various sensors and probes. The idea is to turn the computer into a science station. Accompanying software demonstrates science theories and lets you run experiments. The AtariLab Starter Set with temperature sensor retails for $89.95. The add-on light module will cost $49.95.

AtariLab is the first product from Atari Learning Systems, a newly formed group within Atari which will concentrate on educational software. Other new products from the group include Atari Pascal 2.0, a programming language available on disk for $69.95; Atari Super PILOT, another language with extended sound and graphics commands, $39.95; Player Maker, a utility for creating player-missile graphics, $39.95; and Screen Maker, a utility for mixing text, graphics, and combining up to 15 different graphics modes on the screen simultaneously, $39.95. All require 48K RAM.

More Atari Software

Here are highlights of the new Atari software introduced at CES. Most is compatible with both the XL and older computers:

  • AtariMusic I and AtariMusic II, music instruction programs which combine tutorials, simulations, drills, and tests with a videogame. Both were developed by a university computer music professor. AtariMusic I covers note-reading and whole and half steps; AtariMusic II covers major scales and keys. Each is available on disk for $39.95 and requires 24K.
  • Captain Hook's Revenge, a two-part game that is the result of a joint venture between Atari and Walt Disney Productions. The game is designed to teach map, math, and strategy skills. Available on disk for $44.95; 32K required.
  • SynFile, SynCalc, and SynTrend, three integrated programs for home management. Not only are they compatible with each other, but the last two also work with AtariWriter. For example, spreadsheets created with SynCalc and mailing lists compiled on SynFile can be combined with documents on AtariWriter. SynTrend is a two-part graphics and statistics package. All were developed for Atari by Synapse Corp. They are available on disk for $99.95 each and require 48K.
  • New videogames include The Legacy, placed in a world decimated by nuclear war; Mario Bros., a sequel to Donkey Kong; Donkey Kong Jr.; and Millipede (all for $49.95 each).

AtariSoft, Atari's third-party software division, also announced seven new games for the Commodore 64, VIC-20, IBM PC, Apple II, and TI-99/4A. These are Joust, Battlezone, Pole Position, Ms. Pac-Man, Moon Patrol, Galaxian, and Jungle Hunt. (Battlezone and Galaxian are not available on the TI.) Each game costs $34.95 on disk or $44.95 on cartridge.

IBM Emulator For Adam?

Coleco, which stole the show at the Summer CES with its introduction of the Adam, announced several new peripherals for its all-in-one system—including hints that some sort of IBM PC emulator might be on the way.

Coleco officials were rather vague about this device. They said only that an accessory which would allow the Adam to run PC programs was in planning stages, and that it probably wouldn't be ready until later this year. They gave no indication of how it would work or how much it would cost.

Since the Adam and PC are completely different computers, right down to their CPUs, a PC emulator would be quite a trick. Basically it would require shrinking down a PC to an add-on board or box. This could easily end up costing more than the Adam itself. Observers greeted Coleco's announcement with skepticism.

More Than 170 Programs

The more conventional peripherals announced were a second Digital Data Drive for installation in the Adam's Memory Console (under $150); a 5¼-inch double-sided, double-density disk drive which stores up to 360K per disk (under $350); the AdamLink 1200 direct-connect modem, which has automatic 300/1200 baud switching and its own telecommunications software (under $175); the 64K Memory Expander, which upgrades the Adam from 80K to 144K RAM (under $150); the SmartWriter Printer Tractor Feed, which snaps onto the Adam's printer (under $100); and the Adam Accessory Kit, which includes three extra daisy wheels and a carbon ribbon cartridge for the printer, plus a blank data pack and tape head cleaner (under $35).

Coleco and CompuServe jointly announced a new information service for Adam users—Adam On-Line. It will contain new product developments, the latest news on the Adam, hints and tips on use and maintenance, a message center/bulletin board, a CB radio simulation for conversing with other users, a software exchange for uploading and downloading programs, a Consumer Feedback Forum, and an Adam Electronic Mail Hotline. Two hours of free use come with the purchase of the AdamLink 1200 modem.

Coleco and Honeywell Information Systems, Inc., jointly announced a new service arrangement for the Adam. Honeywell already has six service centers operating, and 35 are planned to be opened by this spring. Adam owners can locate the nearest one by calling Coleco's toll-free information number.

Coleco and Digital Research announced that Digital's Personal CP/M operating system will be available for the Adam for under $75. This is an easy-to-use version of the standard CP/M (Control Program for Microcomputers) operating system. It will be sold on data packs and disks. As CP/M programs are transferred to the Adam's disk format and data packs, a large pool of software will become available.

Coleco also announced more than 170 new programs for the Adam. Only a few were ready for CES. They fall into four categories: Family Learning, Languages/Programming Aids, Home Information Management, and Entertainment. Examples are Dr. Seuss' Word Factory, Smurf Paint 'N' Play Theatre, Presidential Campaign, Electronic Flashcards, SmartLogo, SmartBASIC II, SmartPicture Processor, SmartWriting Checker, SmartFiler, SmartSheet, SuperCalc, Dragon's Lair, Star Trek, Donkey Kong, Mr. Do's Castle, Omega Race, Gorf, The Official Zaxxon, Rocky Super Action Boxing, The Dukes of Hazzard, Password, Jeopardy, and Cabbage Patch Kids.

SpectraVideo Joins MSX Movement

Besides the absence of new home computers in general, something else missing from this CES was the expected Japanese invasion of MSX-standard machines. What is MSX? It's a hardware/software configuration developed by Microsoft which several Japanese companies have adopted for their forthcoming home computers. The idea is to introduce into the U.S. market a number of Japanese computers using MSX as their standard. The companies hope MSX will become the standard for home computers in the same way that the MS-DOS (PC-DOS) operating system seems to be taking over the business-computer market. MSX backers believe a home computer standard will simplify choices for consumers and help create a pool of software compatible with several different machines. Among the Japanese companies reportedly supporting MSX are Fujitsu, Hitachi, Mitsubishi, Pioneer, Sony, and Yamaha.

Some people were expecting a Japanese invasion of MSX computers at this CES, but it looks like we'll have to wait until the Summer CES in Chicago. The only company exhibiting an MSX computer was SpectraVideo, which had prototypes of the SVI-728 MSX. Billed as "the first American MSX computer," the SVI-728 is designed around the eight-bit Z80A CPU and contains 80K RAM expandable to 144K, 32K ROM expandable to 96K, MSX BASIC in ROM, and CP/M capability. Other features include a full-stroke, 87-key keyboard with numeric keypad, ten programmable special function keys, and a topside cartridge slot. SpectraVideo announced no definite price or release date.

The company did confirm that its SV-318 home computer, widely advertised since it was announced at the last Winter CES, will no longer be sold in the U.S. Only a few of these computers actually reached the marketplace. A higher model, the also-unavailable SV-328, has been redesigned as the SVI-328 Mark II to replace both models. Again, no definite price or release date. The Mark II is similar to SpectraVideo's MSX computer but has Microsoft BASIC instead of MSX BASIC. The Mark II also has 32 sprites and a three-channel sound chip with an eight-octave range and programmable sound envelopes. Since the Mark II does not adhere to the MSX standard, it won't be compatible with the SVI-728.

SpectraVideo is offering the Mark II in two bundled packages with peripherals and software: the Family Pak and the Pro System.

The Family Pak ($599) includes the Mark II computer; the Single Slot Expander (a peripheral interface); a fast 1800-baud cassette recorder; an 80-column dot-matrix printer with graphics capability; a parallel printer interface; two SpectraVideo Quickshot joysticks; the Spectra Word cartridge (a word processor); the arcade game Spectron; and another program called Spectra Diary.

The Pro System (no price announced) includes the Mark II; a six-slot expansion box with two 5¼-inch disk drives, disk controller card, 80-column video card, and parallel printer interface; an 80-column dot-matrix printer; a 12-inch green-screen monitor; Microsoft Business BASIC on disk; CP/M 2.2 disk; and four programs from Perfect Software—Perfect Writer, Perfect Speller, Perfect Filer, and Perfect Calc.

A Sleek Computer From Britain

If nothing else, the new Elan Enterprise computer ought to win a prize for sleek design. Elan Computers Ltd., a new British company, showed prototypes of the Enterprise at CES. It is enclosed in a low-profile black case with black, red, green, and blue keys, plus a built-in joystick.

But most interesting are the specs. How about stereo sound? The four-channel, eight-octave sound chip is wired to a stereo output port that connects to your sound system or headphones. It also has low/high-pass filtering and ring modulation like the Commodore 64. Then there's a text mode which can display up to 84 columns by 56 lines on the screen at once—plus smooth scrolling.

Do you need lots of memory? The Enterprise comes with 64K or 128K of RAM, and Elan says a sophisticated bank-selection system allows expansion up to 4000K (four megabytes). The 64K model leaves 58K free for BASIC. There's a built-in word processor, and a level meter to help you adjust settings when loading cassettes. Both parallel and serial interfaces are standard. For educational applications, 32 Enterprises can be wired together to talk to each other and share peripherals.

Are you into graphics? The Enterprise has a hi-res mode of 672 by 512 screen dots, more than twice the resolution of an Atari or Commodore 64. Like the Atari, the Enterprise has 256 colors, but unlike the Atari, all 256 colors can be displayed at once. And the BASIC includes graphics commands like PLOT, CIRCLE, PAINT, DESK, PAPER, INK, and PALETTE—plus turtle graphics. There are sound commands like PITCH, PLAY, TUNE, RELEASE, BEEP, BOOM, and SPLAT. And how about these examples of fascinating BASIC commands: CAUSE EXCEPTION, CHAIN, HELP, IMAGE, LOOP, MERGE, TOGGLE, TRACE, FKEY, TAPE SOUND, CHARSET FROM, CAPTURE, ECHO, XOR, TRUNCATE, and ZAP.

Elan says the Enterprise will debut in the U.K. this April, and will be available in the U.S. this fall. U.S. prices are expected to be about $290 for 64K, $435 for 128K. A dual microfloppy disk drive (Sony 3½-inch standard) should cost around $450.

Is it all too good to be true? So many computers we've seen at previous CES shows, especially those from start-up companies, never make it on the market. Maybe Elan—and its refreshingly different machine—will have better luck.