8-Bit Product Reviews
Covox Voice Master Jr, SSI Shiloh, Panasonic KX-1091i Printer
COVOX VOICE MASTER JR.
The inexpensive ($39.95) Covox Voice Master Junior is a hardware addition to your 8-bit Atari that's not only an interesting diversion, but also a useful and educational addition to your programming tools. It lets you record and digitize any sound as well as "train" your computer to recognize certain words, which can then be responded to in a program.
The Voice Master Junior consists of a small box that plugs into a joystick port and a disk full of software. The box contains a microphone for recording sounds, either for playback or recognition. (Covox is no longer making its regular $89.95 Voice Master for the Atari. The junior model reviewed bere has a few less features, at a savings of $50. -ANTIC ED)
The most important piece of software is the BASIC wedge, which essentially adds new commands to Atari BASIC. When the Covox BASIC wedge is installed, you can use commands such as SPEAK, LEARN, RECOG and SPEED to make use of the Voice Master junior.
Voice Master junior can record as many as 64 words or phrases in memory, but since speech can be loaded from disk, the available vocabulary is virtually unlimited. To record a word, you type (in BASIC: LEARN 1. The computer then waits for you to start speaking and records until you stop, or until the section of memory for recording that word is exhausted.
To play a LEARNed phrase, type SPEAK. There are other commands for saving and loading speech files, clearing memory, turning off the screen (which improves speech reproduction) and varying the speed of playback. Further, any of these commands can be used in a BASIC program, subject to certain syntax constraints.
Using the command TRAIN, you can teach the computer to recognize 31 words. (Each word must be less than two seconds long.) Upon using the RECOG command, the number of the word that was recognized is placed into a PEEKable memory location. You can then respond to each TRAINed word in a different way, effectively giving voice control of the computer.
There are commands to narrow the choices and make recognition of the spoken word more reliable, and the TRAINed words are also saved when you save a speech file. Some sample programs in the well-written documentation and several programs on disk illustrate how to use TRAIN and RECOG in your own programs. Also included is a program for fine tuning the digitized data to try to make the voice sound better.
If you couldn't include speech generated with Voice Master Junior in your own programs, then this device would merely be an interesting oddity. Fortunately, you can. Including a small subroutine (provided on the disk) in your program lets you load speech files and SPEAK words. You cannot LEARN new words or use the recognition features, but you couldn't without the hardware anyway. Creating a standalone program that speaks in your voice is a lot of fun and extraordinarily simple.
The sound reproduction quality is decent, considering that reproducing the human voice is difficult. The results tend to be a bit harsh and fuzzy, but not hard to understand. The documentation includes sections on memory usage and tips for improving performance. This is a well thought-out product that is worth the money. Can you see the look on a friend's face when your Atari speaks with your voice, or responds to a spoken command?-DAVID PLOTKIN
$39.95, 48K disk. Covox, 675-D Conger Street, Eugene, Oregon 97402. (503) 342-1271.
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The Panasonic KX-P1091i, Model II printer is a steady little performer for a 10-inch carriage, 9-pin dot-matrix printer. It has the usual feed switches and a slide switch for selecting draft quality, near letter quality (NLQ) Courier, near print quality, bold proportional spacing and compressed print.
This compact printer (15 1/2 x 11 1/4 x 4 1/2 inches) prints 10, 12, 15, or 17 characters per inch (cpi), allows downloading of 40 custom characters, produces elongated, italic and bold text, as well as half-size sub-scripts and superscripts. The 1091i emulates the Epson RX-80 or the IBM Proprinter. It has seven bit-image graphics modes (ranging from 60 dots per inch to 240), a two-year warranty and a retail list price of $299.
The ribbon cartridge simply pops in. It has a hole you can poke to darken the ribbon after it becomes light. The manual provides all the technical information you need for customizing printer drivers, designing character sets or writing screen dumps-even beginners can experiment with the sample BASIC programs provided. The KX-P1091i readily works with Atari 8-bit computers if you supply a parallel interface (such as the P:R: Connection or Atari 850) and set DIP switch SW3 (line feed switch) to ON.
The KX-P1091i does quite well in terms of speed, print quality and noise level. This Panasonic took only 19 seconds to print out a double-spaced page in pica draft mode and 61 seconds in NLQ mode.
The draft print passes the practical test-it is quite readable in all pitches, from pica to condensed. While the NLQ printing won't pass for daisy-wheel printing, it's good.
The KX-P1091i does have a few drawbacks. The parallel port is located in the rear, encouraging fanfold paper to snag on the edge of the ribbon cable. And the design of the tractor is too simple. The paper pinholes hook on only the front of the tractor instead of both front and the back. If the paper is not precisely positioned, it tends to pull off the tractor. This sometimes happens with even more expensive printers, but the simplistic construction of this tractor compounds the problem.
The cover must be snapped off or on. it is bothersome to line up the paper since you cannot easily see its top edge through the smoke-tinted lid. But none of the printer's faults are fatal. The Panasonic KX-PI091i Model II packs a lot of punch for the price.-JARED LUM
$299. Panasonic Corp., 2 Panasonic Way, Seacaucus, NJ 07094. (800) 222-058A.
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Shiloh: Grant's Trial in the West is SSI's new Civil War game for one, two or no human players and it requires meticulous attention to detail. The costly two-day struggle was characterized more by inexperience and incompetence than by skill and courage. And in the game, a talented Confederate commander can easily "change history."
Shiloh's three levels of complexity each have multiple options for difficulty, visibility, reinforcements, ammunition, unit efficiency and scenario length. Both commanders have infantry, artillery and cavalry units. The North also has gunboats for fire support.
At the Intermediate level, forces must be kept organized to avoid penalties from poor command control. Brigades must be broken down into more effective "demi-brigades," and units can be placed in different formations for more efficient movement or combat. The Advanced game limits ammunition, but lets you fortify positions.
The graphics are fairly good. Shiloh can be played on either a large-scale "strategic" map or a more detailed tactical map of 200-yard squares in a 30 x 30 grid.
The fine manual contains tutorials on movement and information gathering, and SSI provides a battlefield map card with game data on the back. It should have contained a list of commands, since the "online command help" doesn't help much. The Order of Battle listings in the manual must be kept at hand during the game to maintain command control.
Shiloh plays fairly well at the Basic level, and there's also a nice joystick option here (though you can't move diagonally). You cannot play the Intermediate and Advanced levels with a joystick-unless you install your own driver (SSI Jojwtick Commander, Antic, January 1988).
At the more complex levels, the addition of greater detail slows Shiloh down. Much more time must be spent planning the operations and combat phases of each turn. When you're done with your move, the computer takes several minutes to make its moves.
If you have plenty of time, Shiloh is challenging and entertaining. Keeping your forces organized will bring far greater success than the historical commanders had.-RICH MOORE
$39.95, 48K Disk. Strategic Simulations, Inc., 1046 N. Rengstorff Avenue, Moun- tain View, CA 94043. (A15) 96A-1353.
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Thunder Mountain's Batty Builders is supposed to be designed for ages 8 and up-up to about 13, I'd say. A joystick-controlled little stick figure runs across the bottom of the screen, trying to catch one of four different kinds of falling blocks and then tossing them into the right row so that all the blocks are aligned at the end.
You get points for catching the blocks and even more for putting them in the proper rows. You also get bored real quick from the simplicity of the challenge and the 1970s feel of the graphics. To Thunder Mountain's credit, they do give an exact idea of what the game sceen looks like on the package. So what you see is what you get, but what you get won't provide much entertainment for anyone older than 13.-RICK TEVERBAUGH
$9.95. Thunder Mountain, P.O. Box 1167, Northbrook, IL 60065-1167. (800) 221-9884.
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