BBC Micro Show
A visit to a massive show devoted solely to this innovative micro, and a look at some of the hardware and software on display there.
David Ellis braves winter and endless video game programs to bring back details of expandable Micros, the Clef Computer Music System and more.
I have to admit that going to yet another computer show in the Westminster Exhibition Centre (the old Royal Horticultural Hall), on a cold and windy Friday afternoon at the beginning of December, after a long, hard day on interminable ward rounds, to be bombarded by hundreds of BBC Micros doing their various things, is more like my notion of purgatory than paradise. Still, I'm always told that going to these things is the way of finding out what's going on, and so off I jolly well went - camera, notepad, and hip-flask in hand...
In fact, there was a touch of the Heaven and Hell throughout the exhibition. To start with, there was the physical arrangement of the stands: at ground level, in the maelstrom of human vs. machine/invader/pacman encounters, chaos generally ruled. Looking down on all this was the Acorn stand, placed on high on a convenient split-level end of the hall, with its futuristic tubular construction and serried ranks of BBC Micros giving the air of a quiescent Big Brother keeping an eye on the masses. Not that I have anything against Acorn Computers per se, perish the thought, I just wish they'd stop vying for the Queen's Award to Industry and concentrate on supporting sales at home. I mean, where's the fairness in knocking up six special second processors as gifts to the Indian government (along with six complete Econet systems) whilst maintaining a position of obstinate intransigence when it comes to supplying cheap updates of the operating system ROM or fixing the bugs in View? How about beginning some charity at home in 1984, you lot at Acorn?
One of the bugbears any BBC Micro owner has to contend with is the fact that 32K of RAM doesn't go very far if you insist on using disks and high-resolution screen modes. In fact, with Acorn's DFS and Mode 0 graphics doing their best to whittle away at the less than well-endowed BBC Micro, you're down to a paltry 5.5K for text storage with a word processor program like View. I just wish that Acorn had had the foresight to go for the 64K of RAM that's standard for the Commodore 64 at half the price of the BBC. Still, two companies have come up with different ways around the problem. First, there's the BBC Sideways RAM System, from Solidisk Technology Ltd., that puts an 'upgradable to 128K' RAM board in the rightmost ROM socket. The software that's supplied with this board includes routines to move the DFS workspace into the sideways RAM, thus giving 3K extra memory to BASIC, plus the use of the board as a 'silicon disk'. VAT-inclusive prices range from £34.95 for the 16K sideways RAM to £119.95 for the 128K solidisk board. (Contact Details)
The second solution is the Aries-B20 (note the clever astrological pun - 'Aries' the Ram...), from Cambridge Computer Consultants, who describe their product as 'unquestionably the most important add-on ever produced for the BBC Micro'. Well, it's also unquestionable that that soupcon of Oxbridge arrogance doesn't impress this reviewer, but the promise of being able to transform the 32K BBC Micro into a 52K machine with just a few twists of a screwdriver can't really be ignored. What Aries-B20 actually does is to use a cunning bankswitching technique that effectively gives back to BASIC, machine-code, or WP text whatever memory is used up by the various screen modes. This means that there's a four-fold increase in text capacity (to 25K) on a disk-equipped machine working View in Mode 0. The Aries-B20 is actually a spin-off from Hybrid Technology's music project, where the idea was to implement a multitasking music language by using automatic switching between parellel banks of RAM for different tasks. For just 20K of extra RAM, the Aries-B20 seems a bit over-priced at £99.95 (inc. VAT and P&P), but I'm told this is because the board uses exclusive CMOS 6116 ASP chips, which, being a mere 1/3" wide, allow slimline construction of the board and a rather special custom-made connector to the micro.
If there's any negative point about the Aries-B20, it's that it won't fit inside the BBC Micro together with one of the various ROM boards being produced by other manufacturers. In fact, an Aries-B8 sideways ROM board is destined for release early this year (at around £45), but that's obviously not going to help those that already have one of the physically non-compatible ROM boards. (Contact Details)
What was hard to avoid (but extremely easy to resist) at the show was the mind-numbing atmosphere of beeps and other sonic effluents aimed at the unsuspecting ear. It's all very well beeping when you're switched-on, but multiple Xmas carols of the square-wave variety, where no programmer seemed sure of the original key or even the notes themselves, made me feel I was being subjected to a new and most unsubtle brain-washing technique. Loudest and brashest of all these culprits was System Software's Music Editor, which was a shame because this is a rarity amongst the BBC's musical offerings, in that it displays notes on staves and then allows the user graphically to follow the amplitude, duration, and pitch of each note on playback. And for just £9, it's also good value. (Contact Details)
So, it was quite a pleasant shock to the system when, going down an avenue of stands which were increasingly taking on the appearance of side-shows at a fair, I realised that a sound of unmistakably musical quality was starting to permeate my consciousness. Not a square-wave in sight, no quantisation of durations according to the 'D' parameter of the SOUND statement, and, what's more, if my eyes weren't fooling me, there was a real, honest-to-goodness music keyboard involved. It transpired that the object of all this intrigue was the prototype of the Clef Computer Music System, designed by Alan Boothman (the man behind the Bandbox et al.), and ear-marked to go on sale at the end of February for 'under £400'.
Actually, the prototype as exhibited was running on an Apple II (no small hilarity in the context of the staunchly British BBC Micro show!), but Clef's intention is to concentrate on getting software up and running on the BBC Micro, with other versions to follow. I'm sure this makes good sense considering the faster 6502 in the BBC and its superior graphics. Also, it's very apparent that BBC Micro owners are getting fed up with the limitations of its rather basic sound capability. In fact, Alan Boothman tells me that the 3-day show generated more than 140 addresses of people interested in putting down a deposit for the system.
To cut a long story short, E&MM have decided to back this system, and the April issue will include a Computer Musician project series starting with the heart of the system, the 32-channel Programmable Digital Sound Generator, which'll be available as a ready-built module for around £150. The aim of all this is to provide good quality digital synthesis hardware for the BBC and other micros that will encourage the development of musical software. I guess we're fortunate in that we've the alphaSyntauri and Soundchaser systems for models, and the initial software may well reflect a distillation of what's good and bad about these. However, the musical guts of the matter will ultimately be up to feedback as to what's required in this wholly British computer music system. So, keep on thinking of all those opportunities for its uses in music education, MIDI interfacing, pulse-time sequencing and the like.
If there's one good thing to have come out of Acorn's poor delivery record for promised extensions to the BBC Micro, it's that independent companies have taken the initiative to produce their own versions of Acorn's overdangled carrots. For instance, there's the Amcon DFS and disk interface kit, which was being exhibited by Pace Software. At a VAT-inclusive price of £95, this amounts to roughly the same dent in the wallet as Acorn's version, but, in this case, the disk interface really can be fitted by anyone with a modicum of grey matter, the interface doesn't use the difficult-to-get-hold-of 8271 disk controller chip, and the DFS is notably superior to Acorn's. (Contact Details)
Watford Electronics are another company that have really swung into action in a big way in the BBC Micro marketplace. Apart from their own DFS ROM (£44.85) and disk interface kit (£97.95), they've also developed a wide range of utility ROMs, including new ones such as Beebfont (£51.75), which allows the user to develop customer character sets, and Disk-Fix (£21.85), a set of disk maintenance facilities. I only wish I'd had the latter last week, when the disk controller chip in my BBC Micro went bananas and scrubbed the catalogue from four very important disks.
However, what was really pulling the crowds was Watford's own second processor add-on. Housed in a twin disk drive case, this contains a 4 MHz X80A processor board with 64K RAM, 4K monitor EPROM, parallel printer interface, and a double density disk drive interface. Whereas Acorn's second processor isn't expected before the end of March, and will cost about £400, Watford's is expected by the end of January at a cost of £345. What isn't clear is whether either of these will include the sort of package deal of CP/M software that will make such a relatively expensive option attractive to the business fraternity. (Contact Details)
On the subject of twin disk drives, Advanced Memory Systems were showing their range of 3" disk drives, starting off with the single 3" drive, complete with DFS EPROM and utilities disk, at £225, and going up to the twin drive at £399. These drives use the double-sided 'turn over like a cassette' plastic-cased Hitachi disks, and though each side has only 100K capacity with the normal disk interface, adding the double density interface of Watford's second processor add-on would boost the total storage capacity to a very respectable 400K. Mind you, these 3" disks don't come cheap at £46 for a pack of ten. There's also the problem that Sony are using a different 3" standard, so exchangeability of software is likely to be a thorn in the flesh unless you've got friends, colleagues, etc. with exactly the same type of drive. Still, don't be deterred; the good thing about these disks is that they're impervious to sweaty fingers, cat hairs, and being run over by a ten-ton truck (or so it's claimed). (Contact Details)
Putting together BBC graphics with the long-winded MOVE, PLOT, and DRAW commands is enough to exhaust the patience of Job, let alone the average member of the human rat-race, so any product offering side-steps to pixel perfection is of considerable interest. Computer Concepts were showing off with their new Graphics ROM, which includes over 28 new graphics-related commands for doing some of the design dirty work. These include the tools for constructing sprites and animating them, the manipulation of LOGO 'turtle' graphics, and sundry other joys such as fast circle drawing, filling in, and some 3D graphics routines. (Contact Details)
To cater for the more artistic punter, a couple of companies had graphic tablets on offer. First, there was 'Beebplotter' from Watford Electronics, which connects to the BBC Micro via the analogue port. At £80 (+VAT), this is hardly cheap, but it has a nice large drawing area (32cm x 23cm) and a good range of drawing routines. Secondly, there was 'Grafpad' from British Micro. This is more expensive at £125 (+VAT), but it's a better-made product - even taking into account the fact that the drawing area is smaller (24cm X 19cm), the resolution (0.75cm, translating to 320 x 256 pixels) less than that required for serious design work, and the software somewhat simplistic. For more details, contact British Micro, Penfold Works, Imperial Way, Watford, Herts. WD2 4YY (tel: 0923-48222). Actually, Acorn themselves were previewing the BBC Micro version of the Bit-Stik CAD system originally developed for the Apple II, but no firm price or release date has so far been decided upon.
Finally, a run-down of some of the more unusual bits and pieces for the BBC Micro, without which no micro show would be worth its salt. First off is the BBC Buggy from Economantics. This 3-wheeled robot sells for £189 (inc. VAT) in the form of a supposedly simple-to-build FisherTechnik construction kit, complete with the software required to get it moving. And if you get fed up trying to make it into a K9, there's always the Beeb option of using it as an expensive (very) dumb waiter. (Contact Details)
Commotion were showing their 'Beasty' interface, which enables the BBC Micro to control up to four servo motors in whatever robotic situations that take you fancy. The Beasty module is available for £49.95, and a standard type of servo for £13. Commotion's address is 241 Green Street, Enfield, Middlesex EN3 7SJ (tel: 01-804 1378). The big question is: what the hell do you do with this sort of mini-robot apart from picking up (and usually dropping) cups of coffee? Any ideas for turning the Beasty into a musical maestro? Micro-controlled baton-waving, perhaps...
On the video side, there was the R.H. Electronics 'Video Digitiser' doing its best to digitise against all the odds (too many people wanting their mugs immortalised in dot-matrix format and a recalcitrant prototype PCB that keep on forgetting it was on show). In fact, each time I went back to see whether they'd got their problems ironed out, they hadn't, so here endeth the report on that front. (Contact Details)
More tangibly successful were the products of Video Electronics Ltd. Their 'Beeb-Lock' is a box of tricks that synchronises the interlaced RGB output of the BBC Micro to a standard 625-line composite video signal from a camera, studio, video, or whatever. The idea behind this is that you can then use the BBC as a low-cost alternative to expensive TV caption and graphics generators. VEL also offer a 'Micro-Mixer', a two-channel vision mixer with a computer interface so that it can be controlled by programs running on the BBC. Unfortunately, these units aren't cheap (in fact, I was sufficiently phased by the prices that I promptly forgot them), but that's quality video stuff for you. (Contact Details)
Well, that concludes my look at the BBC Micro User Show - I flatly refuse to apologise for not including any mention of games! Till next year, then...