Acorn; a tall oak in education. (evaluation) John J. Anderson.
You may have heard it said that big oaks from little acorns grow. In the case of the Acorn microcomputer, the proverb is most certainly true. The Acorn has already grown into a mighty oak on the far side of the Atlantic, where it is the most popular educational machine in the United Kingdom.
Certainly having been chosen as the official micro of the BBC (British Broadcasting System) helped it achieve this status. But it was not the fact of having been chosen that made the Acrorn grow. It was the quality of the Acorn that caused it to be chosen. Follow?
When you stop to think that the Acorn computer has been in production abroad since 1981, you might think to credit the excellent of its design. Though the original Apple II was shipped with more or less the same design for a record-setting seven years, it is out of production now. The Acorn is still selling well today with an original design dating from 1981. No other machine can make that impressive claim.
Why? Well, it isn't enough just to say the designers had foresight or that their commitment to quality was admirable, though both of those statements are indeed true. The heart of the matter is that the Acorn was designed with a calculated, highly specific goal in mind: to be an educational tool. On that account it succeeds masterfully.
The Acorn is, in fact, built like an oak. It is designed to withstand "institutional" punishment, to offer ease of use without sacrificing the goal of furthering computer literacy, and to present powerful ROM software tools to the beginning programmer. Quick Tour of the Hardware
The Acorn is built around a 6502 processor with 32K of RAM and 32K of ROM. In ROM you'll find a variation of Microsoft Basic and a powerful machine code assembler, along with other routines.
Graphics are superlative, with an RGB interface standard (the Acorn was among the first RGB color micros). It sports eight graphics modes: 16 simultaneous colors in 256 x 160 pixel resolution and 840 x 256 pixel resolution in two colors. Graphics housekeeping is handled by a custom LSI chip.
Sound capabilities include four channels: three for tones and one for noise. Sound quality rivals the Apple II series, with a small speaker internal to the machine. In fact many things about the Acorn will remind you of the Apple II, including its case. The designers of the Acorn certainly used the Apple as at least a partial prototype.
As opposed to the Apple, however, the Acorn presents a number of interfaces standard and has no need for internal card slots. Disk interface, parallel printer port, three types of video output (RF mod, composite, and RGB), RS-423 serial, and Econet interface are all standard on the Acorn, See Figure 1 and 2.
Also standard equipment are a ROM cartridge slot, a 1MHz bus, and another bust dubbed the "Tube." This bus makes the addition of a coprocessor possible -- putting the Acorn under control of a Z 80 running CP/M, for example. The idea is that the CPU of the Acorn should never really go out of date, as long as the Tube is around. Acorn is planning a 68000 coprocessor option now, we have heard.
Econet is a communications networking system that allow up to 254 machines to be linked using standard four-wire telephone cable. This low-cost capability is of great interest to educators.
The keyboard layout of the machine is standard QWERTY, though a few of the keys are placed eccentrically (Figure 3). One of the most annoying placements I have encountered is the backspace key on the lower right, and that is exactly where it appears on the Acorn. The layout is non-Selectric, placing the quote as a SHIFT-2 and the apostrophe as SHIFT-7. It takes a bit of getting used to, unless it is what you have been using. There are nine programmable function keys across the top of the machine.
As I mentioned earlier, the Acorn is built to withstand the abuse of the classroom. I cannot recall having seen a sturdier computer. If you are purchasing micros for elementary school use, your machines will be subject to extrmes of torture. The Acorn is ready to stand up to that for years. Quick Tour of Basic
why Basic in the Acorn, you ask? Why not Logo or Comal? Well, we must remember that the Acorn was originally designed back in 1981. Even then it was debated whether Basic was the best beginner's language, and there was much disagreement in British academic circles. Basic finally won out, probably because it was already in development for the machine (orginally called the Atom) when the BBC chose to back it.
Acorn Basic is much liek Microsoft Basic, with a few notble differences. Those diferences will not mean much to students learning Basic for the first time, but they make transporting programs somewhat difficult. On the other hand, Acorn Basic has some neat special commands, like REPEAT...UNTIL and a host of dedicated graphics and sound commands. The command ENVELOPE, for example, allows you to define the sahpes of sound envelopes for the three tone voices available. Other Software
Acorn software developed on these shores was scant up until the beginning of 1984, when many packages began to appear. Acorn has set up a qualified review panel to ensure that Acorn educational packages will conform to a high standard of quality. We made a random sampling of six Acorn/Shiva math packages, along with educational packages from Krell and Acorn itself, and found them quite satisfactory. Acorn tells us that hundreds of packages, including a powerful version of Logo, are not available. Documentation
But the Acorn is never a better learning machine than when it is teaching computer literacy. The two-volume User's Guide accompanying the machine is among the best Basic tutorials available. It is clear, unpatronizing, well-paced, thorough, and above all, logically consistent. If you want to learn Basic, or have a youngster who wants to, the Systems User Guide would be a very good place to start. Bottom Line
Things change very swiftly in the world of micros, and I have taken to calling six months a generation. The Acorn has been around for seven micro generations now and is still going strong.
I would have liked to have seen the introduction of the machine to the U.S. long before the beginning of this year--it might have pre-empted the inappropriate purchase of many machines less suited to use in education. Now that the Acorn is here, it has already found a niche among smart educational buyers.
The Acorn lists for $999 retail with built-in cassette storage port. A 5.25" disk drive unit iwth controller lists for $599.
Products: Acorn (computer)