Coleco's Adam; four machines in one. (evaluation) Stephen B. Gray.
Of all the personal computers introduced in 1983, two got much more pre-announcement attention than all the rest. A combination of computer and printer, officially known as Adam, The ColecoVision Family Computer System, caused almost as much commotion as the IBM PCjr. Adam's release date was moved up several times; the list price went up from $600 to $700 to (as of January 1984) $725; there were rumors of mechanical problems and predictions that a toy manufacturer couldn't make or sell a computer. Adam
How you feel about Adam will depend largely on how much you know about personal computers. If you have had your hands on several, you may find the Basic lacking in comparison with the Basics of some other machines. You will also note that word processing is the best feature of the Adam. But the vast majority of Adam purchasers won't be making such judgments.
Adams is selling like hotcakes at stores such as Toys 'R' Us, mainly to people who have never touched a computer before. For less than $700, they are getting an electronic typewriter, word processor, computer, and game machine, all in one big box. Most will never ever try programming in Basic. The few who do will never have seen a Basic manual before, and won't know how much is missing from the Adam Basic manual--even in its second edition.
For those buying an Adam, its main selling points are that it is the latest rage, it is scarce, and it combines four machines for less than the price of many office typewriters.
Positioned as "the first, complete, single-package family computer that includes all necessary hardware and software," Adam is very competitively priced. The system includes an 80K memory console with tape drive, a detached keyboard, and a "letter-quality" daisywheel printer.
Adam has word processing firmware in ROM. Why not Basic also in ROM? As a Coleco salesman put it, "Which will the average person use more often, Basic or word processing?" Also, supplying Basic on tape helps keep the system price down; in ROM it could add $40-50 to the price.
When Adam is first turned on, it is an electronic typewriter, although without any correction facilities. Press the ESCAPE/WP key, and it becomes a word processor. Basic takes less than 70 seconds to load, into about 30K of RAM memory. The Two Faces Of Adam
Adam is available in two models: the self-contained Family Computer system; and as an add-on expansion module for the ColecoVision video game system. In a pre-Christmas full-page New York Times ad, Macy's described Adam at $600 as "the most complete family package ever offered," and priced the add-on module at $500.
The self-contained system (Figure 1) has three components: a memory console with built-in tape drive, a detached keyboard, and a daisywheel printer. The overall exterior design of all three is superior; Adam looks great.
The memory console contains a Z80A microprocessor, and 80K of RAM, expandable to 144K with an optional 64K RAM module. At the right front top is a slot for a ColecoVision game cartridge. The "digital data" cassette tape drive has room beside it for a second tape drive. An RF modulator is built-in for connecting Adam to a TV set; there is also a composite video output for driving a monitor.
The detached keyboard looks better than the IBM PCjr keyboard (the jr was minimized to keep it from eroding sales of its big brother, the IBM PC). The keyboard lends itself to touch typing: the 75 full-travel keys have a slight tactile feedback. When one of the two supplied joystick controllers is placed in its slot at the right of the keyboard, it serves as a numeric keypad, and the joystick can be used to control the cursor.
The keys (Figure 2) include 54 typewriter keys, six multifunction "Smart Keys" numbered 1 to VI for use in typewriter and word processing modes, five cursor-control keys, eight word processing keys (INSERT, DELETE, STORE/GET, MOVE/COPY, UNDO, etc.) a CONTROL key, and a WILD CARD key (for future expansion).
As an indication of what Coleco thinks users will do with Adam, the key that is called ENTER on many personal computers is called, on the Adam keyboard, RETURN, as on most electric typewriters.
The bidirectional daisywheel printer performs fairly well, at the slow speed of 10.5 characters per second (Coleco prefers to say it prints 120 words a minute), and can even print superscripts and subscripts. The carriage is 9-1/2 inches wide, for single sheets or fanfold paper. The 96-character removable printwheel includes greater-than, less-than, and other Basic programming characters, and can be replaced with other standard 10-pitch printwheels.
The printer uses a one-shot multistrike film ribbon cartridge that doesn't print characters as sharply defined as with a single-strike ribbon, which provides a fresh ribbon area for each character. However, single-strike ribbons cost more.
A problem with the ribbon cartridge: it is held in place with a latch. In some Adams, the latch doesn't hold the cartridge down firmly enough. In others, it holds too well, and won't move enough to allow the cartridge to be removed, without having to use something to lever up the latch, and pry out the cartridge. Some Adam owners may find they have pried off the top of the ribbon cartridge instead. Expansion-Module Adam
For those who already have ColecoVision, Coleco offers Expansion Module 3, which turns the game system into an Adam with keyboard, printer, and memory console (figure 3). The differences are all in the memory console: the expansion version, with 64K of RAM, plugs into ColecoVision, which has its own 16K, for a total of 80K, just like the self-contained version. No game controllers (joysticks) are supplied with the expansion module, since they are part of ColecoVision.
The expansion module memory console has no game cartridge slot, since ColecoVision already has this slot. There is no composite video output, either. Tape
Adam is supplied with three tapes, called "digital data packs." One is the SmartBasic tape, another is "The Official Buck Rogers Plant of Zoom arcade-quality video game," and the third is a blank tape.
The "digital data pack" looks almost exactly like a Philips audio cassette. The two main differences are: 1) the Adam cassette has two more holes in its clear-plastic shell, to provide what Coleco says is a more exact positioning of the cassette (on steel pins) in the drive; 2) the cassette shell is made of Lexan, which is much stronger than the polystyrene shell used in audio cassettes.
The blank tape isn't really blank; it is a formatted data tape, and is list priced at $6. It stores about 1/4 million 256K) bytes, or the equivalent of about 180 double-spaced pages of typed text.
The tape includes a File Directory, which you can call up to see what is stored in the tape.
Could you bore a couple of extra holes in the shell of a regular audio cassette, and use it in the Adam tape drive? Coleco claims their formatted data tape can't be copied. Coleco also says the "digital data pack" is made to their specifications, which have to be much tighter, for the 20-inch-per-second forward and 80-ips rewind speeds, than for standard 1-7/8-ips audio cassettes. Trying to use a standard cassette at such high speeds might pull the tape off the hubs, or stretch or break the tape. Besides, boring the two extra holes in an audio cassette could drop plastic shavings or dust into its innards, which could make it quite ill. So pay the $6 that the store charges for "blank" tape. Electronic Typewriter
Turn Adam on, and it is an electronic typewriter. The display (Figure 4) includes a horizontal scale with margin indicators at the top. The vertical margin scale shown in the figure is actually only in the word processing display.
Just above the Smart Key labels is what looks like a typewriter platen. As you type, words appear on this, and eventually move up into the space above this "roller," as it is called.
The Adam electronic typewriter takes a while to get used to. You can't watch the paper as you type, because the characters are concealed behind the ribbon. So you have to watch the screen, which is difficult at first. And you have to be careful, near the end of a line, not to start a word that won't fit, just as with a manual typewriter.
The print quality is fairly good, although on most Adam printers the characters are tilted a few degrees clockwise (Figure 5). Apparently the typewheel isn't held perfectly perpendicular when the solenoid hits the character "petal." This isn't all that bad for most typing, although you might not want to type a resume or an important letter with this printer. However, for under $700 for the whole shootin' match, would you expect perfect printing? Word Processor
Press the ESCAPE/WP key at the top left of the keyboard to put Adam into SmartWriter word processing mode. Most of the screen remains the same, except that the vertical margin scale appears, and now all six Smart Key labels turn on, for MARGIN/TAB/ETC, SCREEN OPTIONS, SEARCH, HI-LITE, HI-LITE ERASE, and SUPER/SUBSCRIPT (Figure 6).
As before, when you type, the characters appear on the black roller, and the lines move up into the center area. But now you don't have to worry about the end of the lines, because you don't have to press the RETURN key until you get to the end of the paragraph. As the manual says, "Did you notice that the computer automatically moved words that didn't fit at the end of one line to the beginning of the next line? This 'wrap-around' feature makes typing easy and fast."
SmartWriter has got to be the most user-friendly word processing program in town. It is interactive, completely menu-driven, and uses both vertical and horizontal indicators to show the line and column locations of the cursor. Thirteen keys are dedicated to the word processing function (the six WP keys, the six Smart Keys, and the UNDO key).
A total of more than 80 Smart Key labels, on three levels of menus, is displayed at the bottom of the screen. Some are accompanied by messages, of which there are nearly two dozen.
For example, Smart Key label I on the screen is for MARGIN/TAB, ETC. Press the I at the top of the keyboard, and you get a new menu line, with six new Smart Key labels: TYPE OF PAPER, HORIZ MARGIN, VERT MARGIN, TAB, LINE SPACING, END PAGE.
Press the I key, and a third menu appears with four more labels: LETTER 11, LEGAL 14, to: VERT MARGIN, DONE. Press key III to let Adam know you will be using 11-inch paper, and the message at the lower left of the screen says
Pressing key VI when you are DONE gets you back to the main menu.
What with all these menus and messages, you barely need the manual. Using only the six Smart Keys, I to VI, you can enter the paper length, set horizontal and vertical margins, set tabs, set line spacing, select the background color, turn off (or set at half-volume) the beeps that indicate various events (such as nearing the end of the workspace), search for text to be inspected or changed, replace text found as a result of the search, "hi-lite" text (with an underline in red) if you want to copy or move or delete or print it, and specify subscripts or superscripts.
Using the six dedicated keys at the top right of the keyboard, you can MOVE text from one location to another, STORE text or tape, or GET it from tape, CLEAR all or part of the screen, INSERT new text, PRINT text, or DELETE a letter or word or line or paragraph from the text. Each of the six keys calls up one or more levels of menus at the bottom of the screen.
If the user changes his mind, the UNDO key automatically returns the text to its original state.
The word processing manual is fairly good, with many drawings and photos to show the correspondence between individual keys and what functions they perform. However, my copy has quite a few paste-overs, which indicate the manual was being written while Adam was still being designed. Even with the pasteover, the manual still doesn't reflect the final design, which perhaps will be delineated in a later edition of the manual.
The heavy-paper SmartWriter Easy Reference Guide is excellent, written for a fast lookup of features and functions.
The biggest appeal of Adam to users is likely to be its word processing capabilities. It is easier to use than the electronic typewriter, since you can type as fast as you want, and then make your corrections, without having to worry about hitting the right key every time. This will be the first exposure to word processing for the majority of users, and if it succeeds at nothing else, Adam may eventually bring many people into the commercial WP world. Basic
Turn Adam off, put the SmartBasic tape into the drive, turn Adam back on, and the computer automatically reads the tape (at 20 inches per second), rewinds a couple of times (at 80 ips), and within 70 seconds puts this on the screen
Coleco SmartBASIC V1.0 although several tries are often required before the Basic loads.
SmartBasic is similar to Apple Basic, and has most of the usual Basic commands, statements, and functions. There are some differences; those who like the ease of PRINT At will have to make do with a combination of HTAB and VTAB, for example. However, you can write a simple program that converts HTAB/VTAB to the equivalent of PRINT AT, if you prefer the latter.
Like Apple Basic, SmartBasic looks at each line as you enter it, and displays error messages right away, rather than when you try to run the program. Type
100 PRINT "HELLO press the RETURN key, ans the screen shows
'"'EXPECTED with an up-arrow pointing to the space after HELLO.
Programs stores on tape are listed out by CATALOG command. SAVE a program twice on tape under the same name, and one will be kept in a backup file. So if you erase the first by mistake, you still have the backup copy, which you can access with RECOVER.
SmartBasic has no edit mode as in TRS-80 Basic, with various single-letter commands for changing, inserting, or deleting characters, etc. You edit with the left and right arrow keys, as in Apple Basic: backspace to the wrong character, retype it, space to the end of the line, hit RETURN. It is not as elegant nor as powerful as an edit mode, but it doesn't require learning any edit commands.
The graphics are similar to Apple graphics. In lo-res mode, the graphics area is 40 pixels wide, 40 high. Horizontal and vertical lines are created with HLIN and VLIN. One of 16 colors is selected with COLOR=, individual pixels are turned on with PLOT, and SCRN identifies the color of a pixel at a particular location.
In hi-res graphics, the graphics area is 256 x 160, or 256 x192 pixels, depending on whether you chose HGR or HGR2 mode. Hi-res also has 16 colors, but some are different from the lo-res colors. HPLOT in hi-res permits not only turning on individual pixels, but also drawing a line between any two pixel locations. Several lines can be drawn with only one HPLOT statement, such as
130 HPLOT 0,0 to 255,0 to
255,159 to 0,159 to 0,0 which outlines the HGR graphics area.
Hi-res graphics shapes can be rotated with ROT and made larger or smaller with SCALE. Several "default" shapes can be called up from memory with DRAW, for examining the effects of ROT and SCALE, although the manual says practically nothing about this. Actually, using ROT and SCALE, you can create animated graphics, and if you photograph each screen with a movie camera frame or two, you have an animated cartoon.
The manual also says nothing about the existence of trig functions SIN, COS, TAN, and ATN,as well as LOG, EXP, RIGHT$, AND, OR, NOT, and several other functions. Nor is there a word about shape tables.
The second edition of the "Simple Guide to SmartBasic" is almost as bad as the first. A few corrections are made to the original text, and the missing functions and statements are added. However, there are still many problems. The manual is poorly designed, with headings in the same typeface as the text, so it is difficult to look up anything quickly. Several functions (such as USR and CALL) have no examples of usage; there is no Test Program or Sample Run for these. Many little problem areas haven't been cleaned up; for example, there is still no differentiation between DEL (with deletes program lines) and DELETE (which deletes stored programs from tape).
The biggest difference is the addition of new material at the end of the second edition. The Advanced Reference Section includes the trig functions, HIMEM (with the note WARNING: FOR EXPERTS ONLY!), POKE (same warning), PEEK (same warning, even though the text says that with PEEK you are "just looking"), etc.
An added Compendium of Useful Programming Information provides error messages, backups (under "Guarding Against Apoplexy"), text files, and ASCII character codes. But not all of the Adam ASCII characters are given, such as the inverse characters, playing-card suits, musical notes, game shapes, etc.
Also added are a simplified memory map, glossary, and five pages on shape tables. This last item is especially complicated. Not only is the information scanty; some of it is wrong. Although maybe only one out of a hundred Adam users will get into Basic, and only one out of a thousand will get as far as shape tables, when he gets there; he will give up after an hour or two, if not sooner.
The manual concentrates on the basics of Basic, with 97 of its 131 tutorial pages (in the first edition) devoted to nothing more strenuous than DATA/READ and FOR/NEXT. Perhaps that is as it should be, since it does provide a taste of Basic, which is no more than what the majority of Adam users are interested in anyway. However, a great deal of space is taken up with PRINT, using mostly trivial examples, and with silliness such as "10 GOTO 10-- This program tortures the computer." There is nothing to show how to use Basic for anything useful, beyond translating a few words from English into French, creating some guessing games and a simple checkbook balancing program, and converting Fahrenheit to centigrade.
A third edition (which I have not yet seen) is said to be a completely rewritten SmartBasic manual.
Incidentally, according to Coleco, SuperBasic is AppleSoft source code compatible; Adam will run Apple Basic programs as long as they don't contain PEEK, POKE, or CONTROL/D. Memory Console
The memory console has room inside for adding another tape drive, and there are three connectors for expansion modules. A trapdoor at the right end, marked
EXPANSION MODULE INTERFACE conceals the end of a PC board, waiting for an edge connector to be pushed onto it. According to the literature, up to 13 additional peripherals can be connected via the expansion port.
At the rear are two RCA-type plugs, for connecting to a TV set and to a monitor, and a DIN plug for AUX VIDEO. Printer
To manufacture a combination of computer and printer for a list price around $700, Coleco had to cut a few corners, such as:
* The printer uses a stepping motor to spin the daisywheel, rather than a servo. With a servo, the petals spin at high speed, and one is struck almost in flight, as the daisywheel stops momentarily. There is nothing wrong with using a stepping motor, which seems to be spinning the daisywheel, but it is actually turning it a petal at a time.
* The printer uses a solenoid to move the printhead mechanism across the paper, rather than a stepping motor. Again, tehre is nothing wrong with this, but it is slower.
By stepping down a notch in printer technology, Coleco saved money. Stepping motors are cheaper than servos, and solenoids are cheaper than stepping motors.
Another cut corner: instead of a commom bus to which the major components are connected, Adam daisychains them. They keyboard connects to the memory console, which connects to the printer, which is plugged into the wall. Which means that if any component has a glitch, the whole system can go down.
The printer houses the power supply. After some users reporterd that tapes left on top of the printer wouldn't load any more, Coleco is said to be putting a sticker on the printer, warning against leaving anything at all on it other than paper. A similar sticker warns against leaving a tape in the drive when turning Adam off.
The connectors between the computer and printer are non-standard; the printer can't be used with any other computer, nor can the computer drive any other printer; Coleco calls it a "dedicated system." Service
An 800 number in the Adam manuals is for Coleco's toll-free service hotline. It is almost always busy; one reason is that the same number is given to the one and a half million Coleco Vision owners. Not only do they call with questions about their game system, but they (and others) call to ask questions like these: What is Adam? What can Adam do for me? Where can I get one?
Not only that, but the "Adam computer operators," as Coleco calls them, were just beginning to learn the Adam when I was able to get through to them some months ago. When I asked one of the operators how to use the three sound channels mentioned in one of the Adam brochures ("five-octave range, plus a white-noise source"), I was tol do tuse PEEK and POKE. Another operator said "that feature hasn't been implemented yet." By now I'm sure they know about sound, but it will certainly be a while before they understand all about shape tables.
By the way, the brochure also says Adam has 32 sprites for graphics, but nobody at the 800 number knew anything about sprites when I called. But give them time, and they will compile a list of answers to the most common questions. Right now I have several the "Adam computer operators" can't answer, and so far Coleco hasn't designated an official question-answerer for authors of books or articles on Adam. For one thing, they are up to their eyeballs with questions and problems concerning another hit Coleco product, the Cabbage Patch dolls. Game Playing
ColecoVision's Expansion Module 1 permits playing Atari 2600 VCS-compatible game cartridges, including games by Atari, Activision, Imagic, Parker Brothers, and others. Expansion Module 2 provides a steering wheel, floor-operated accelerator pedal, and a Turbo game cartridge. Future Expansion
According to Coleco, these will be available in 1984: an additional digital data drive; a combination 80-column display, disk controller, and floppy disk drive; RS-232 serial interface; tractor feed for fanfold paper; clock/calendar card; electronic sketchpad; telephone modem. The Bottom Line
The price of Adam is low enough so Coleco should capture a good share of the low-end market--if they can make enough of them and supply enough follow-on software. Atari and Commodore are both rumored to be planning computer/printer combinations, and others will join in if Adam even begins to look successful.
The hardware looks as good as the IBM PCjr; the keyboard looks even better. The printer, although slow and loud, is more than adequate for most home applications.
This combination of computer, printer, and arcade game machine is unique and, along with its under-$700 price, should make Adam a real winner, if Coleco can keep up with the demand.
Products: Coleco Adam (computer)