Commodore's port; preview of the Plus 4, the Amiga, and Alphacom printers. John J. Anderson.
Howdy do once again, Commodorians. Things are sure hopping around the old Port lately. I hardly know where to begin. As the holiday season descends upon us, it is probably fair to say that this Christmas belongs to Commodore. The 64 is still selling well, and C-64 consumer titles are moving better than any others in the industry right now. Prices are at an all time low, and quality at an all time high. And that's not all. Plus 4 Preview
A mysterious box showed up at the lab the other day, and it contained a mysterious machine--the Commodore Plus 4 computer. Commodore had been talking about shipping that machine in some form or another since the very early part of this year. Regular readers of this column will know that I have been rather critical of the Plus 4 and of its earlier incarnations, the models 264 and 364, in previous issues. Its lack of compatibility with the 64 and lack of sprite graphics and multivoice sound, have mystified me to say the least.
So I disliked it, right? Wrong, byte breath. Much to my own surprise, the Plus 4 is a much nicer machine than I had imagined. It comes with a word processor, spreadsheet, file manager, Basic, and a machine language monitor in ROM. It has windowing capability, a Help key, and eight pre-programmed but reprogrammable function keys, and it is compatible with most existing Commodore peripherals.
Though it does not have sprite graphics, it sports five graphics modes, including a bit-mapped hi-res mode with a resolution of 320 x 200 pixels. It can generate 121 colors and handle split text and hi-res graphics screens, and its two-tone sound generator is serviceable (a third channel handles white noise).
The Plus 4 is compact and rather neat looking, and its directional cursor keys are fun. It makes available a whopping 60K from Basic--amazing for a 64K machine--and that Basic is very powerful.
How powerful, you ask? Good question. Plus 4 Basic is the best implementation ever to be offered as standard on a Commodore computer. It offers more than 75 commands. Some of the more interesting commands are listed below:
* AUTO--automatic line numbering feature.
* BACKUP--copies all the files from one disk to another on a dual drive system. Formatting also takes place automatically when this command is invoked.
* COLLECT--frees up space allocated to improperly closed files and deletes directory references to them.
* DELETE--deletes specified blocks of Basic text.
* DIRECTORY--allows a disk directory to be called up from Basic without distubing the program in current memory.
* DLOAD--load a file from disk. This replaces the parameter 8 that must be typed to load disk files on earlier Commodore machines. However the line LOAD "PROGRAM NAME", 8 will still load a file from disk in the usual manner.
* DSAVE--does the same for the SAVE function.
* HEADER--formats a disk. Replaces cryptic multiple commands necessary to format a disk on earlier Commodore machines.
* HELP--flashes the characters in a listing line that triggered an error during a program run.
* KEY--allows definition of macro strings to be associated with the eight available function keys (four unshifted and four shifted). Similar to the KEY command in Simon's Basic.
* RENUMBER--renumbers Basic lines according to specified parameters. Updates internal line number references as well.
* SCRATCH--deletes a file from disk.
Plus 4 Basic also includes hi-res graphics, sound, and structured programming commands similar to those found in Simon's Basic. These make programming in Basic much more pleasant than it has ever been on the Pet, Vic, or standard 64. Graphics commands like BOX, CHAR, CIRCLE, COLOR, DRAW, and PAINT simplify graphics applications enormously.
Other high level programming commands are the following.
Other high level programming commands are the following:
* DEF FN--allows a complex calculation to be defined as a function. Then you can call the function, inserting new values to be calculated at each call.
DO/LOOP/WHILE/UNTIL/EXIT--These commands work individually or in concert to simplify program logic.
* PUDEF--lets you redefine up to four symbols in a PRINT USING statement. You can change blanks, commas, decimal points, and dollar signs into other characters by placing the new character in a PUDEF control string.
* TRAP/RESUME--error interceptor and means of returning to program execution after an error has been trapped.
* TRON/TROFF--trace mode for program debugging.
As you can see, this Basic implementation is chock full of more goodies than any Commodore programmer has ever had. That is what, to my mind, makes it even more unfortunate that the Plus Four is so incompatible. It is a promising machine with some real problems. The Plus 4 will meet resistance in the marketplace from consumers and from software developers--especially as it is slated to cost $100 more than the 64, which has finally accumulated an excellent software library. Why, even the Plus 4 joystick, cassette, and ROM cartridge ports are incompatible with the current line. Why, why, why?
Then there is the question of the built-in software. In brief, from my perusal of the offerings, I would guess that the applications were whipped up in a great hurry. I would hate to pay for ROM applications I was never going to use. And believe me, I would never use the software built into the Plus 4 we received.
So, Commodore, what to do? I well tell you, okay? Take the C64, slap another 64K of bank-switched memory into it and squeeze it into a sexy case. Improve the keyboard by arranging it into a Selectric-style layout and bettering its feel. Take the excellent Basic from the Plus 4 and build it into the new "C128," adding special sprite and SID commands as in Simon's Basic. Keep the directional cursor keys and function keys across the top, as well as the built-in machine language monitor. Return to the port configurations of the past. Make sure all the machine language disks and ROM cartridges designed for the 64 run beautifully on the C128. And price it at $400 list.
And oh yeah, one more thing. Have the design experts work whatever overtime it takes to give the C128 an extremely low return rate. Design it to work. That will give it an image that the C64, for all its features, has as yet failed to attain: one of true quality. The Commodore Amiga
If you are the broadminded type of Commodorian who takes time out to read "Outpost: Atari" in this magazine (as I hope you do), you may already be familiar with the Amiga prototype codenamed Lorraine. I suggested in the October "Outpost" that Atari should put 100% of its effort behind development of the Amiga machine.
In what can only be described as a surprising development, the Amiga project was acquired by Commodore--only days after that "Outpost" went to press. Atari's loss is Commodorehs gain, as the Amiga Lorraine is the most impressive consumer graphics and sound machine I have ever seen.
In a nutshell, the Lorraine is the following: a 68000 processor running at 8 MHz--backed up by three custom VLSI chips to handle graphics, sound, and I/O. It comes with 128K expandable to at least 1 meg. A 5.25" internal floppy capable of storing 320K is also standard.
Using bit-plane animation, the Lorraine creates fluid real-time animation in multicolor hi-res. It sports four channels of stereo sound with speech capability.
It would seem that Commodre does realize the importance of the Lorraine, and one can only hope that they will nurture the development team to the realization of a true next-generation consumer machine. The same statement I made about the still-imaginary C128 applies doubly here: Commodore must assert a true commitment to total quality in the final design and assembly of the Amiga. To do otherwise would be utter execration, not to mention desecration. Vic 20--End of an Era?
With the introduction of the Commodore 16, a downwardly compatible machine with 16K for $99, Commodore has ended production of the Vic 20, the first computer to sell more than one million units. Vic software is now selling at record low prices, and Electronic News reports that this liquidation mentality has led to breisk sales.
Though I will bid a fond farewell to the Vic, I do feel reports of its death are greatly exaggerated. Sure, many of them are in closets--mine currently is, so I'll be the first to admit it. But I am quite sure that the majority of Vics are still hooked up and being used regularly. The Vic can still do plenty, and vic users should rest assured that Creative Computing has not forgotten them. More applications are on the way, folks. Alphacom Printers
Although we reviewed the Alphacom 42 many moons ago in Print About Printers, it is still on the market, and still represents an excellent buy. The Alphacom thermal printers come in both 40- and 80-column versions. We finally got a C64 interface for our Alphacom 42 (the 40-column version) so we will talk about it; most of our comments apply to the 80-column version as well.
The printer is a lightweight, compact thermal unit that uses continuous roll paper. Both black and blue paper are available. There are only two controls on the printer, off/on and paper advance. There is no indication whether the printer is off or on. The printer has a self-test mode that prints out complete character sets.
The machine has a small external power supply. An interface card in a plastic housing plugs into the base of the printer; it has a cord that plugs into the serial port on the back of the C64 or disk drive.
The printer is activated from Basic with a command of the format, OPEN fn, dn, sa (e.g., OPEN 1,4,8) in which "fn" is the file number, "dn" is the device number, and "sa" is the secondary address. This last address is actually a code that instructs the printer to print data as received, print with condensed height, use the ASCII character set, use upper and lowercase, or use the "bit map" mode. Print commands are sent to the printer with a PRINT #fn statement.
As mentioned, the printer can print C64 graphics characters and lowercase (see Figure 1). It can also print reverse printing (light on dark), but quality suffers (see Figure 2). Bit mapped graphics are interesting, but will take many hours to master. We wrote a short program to print the bit configurations from 0 to 255 (see Figure 3 and Listing 1).
The printer is whisper quiet in operation and produces acceptable copy. With interface, the 40-column unit generally sells for about $150, a real bargain.