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Those who braved the tropical heat of the Personal Computer World Show, held at the Barbican in early September, stood a fair chance of temptation beyond endurance when in close vicinity of the stand of the British firm, Elan Enterprises Ltd. Very pretty graphics (on video) and a seductive commentary heralded an extremely interesting new micro - the Elan Enterprise - earmarked with an equally interesting price of £200.
Like other British firms (Sinclair and Acorn in particular), Elan's ploy has been to pre-announce their product so that software houses, marketing executives, and others of that ilk can be persuaded to gird up their loins in the direction of their micro rather than any other sort. Watch out for (or avoid) the pre-Christmas TV advertising that's due to hit our screens shortly. Seems a bit thick, really, considering that the projected release date is quoted as April '84. Superficially, all this sounds like just another clever marketing concept to get yet another Z-80 micro off the ground, but there are plenty of reasons for keeping a close watch on Elan's activities.
First, the machine will address up to 4Mbytes of memory (though only 64K is provided with the basic machine). Secondly, it has an expansion option ('The Stack') which allows more memory to be added together with 3.25" microfloppy disk drives. Thirdly, the machine has a quite superb ergonomically and aesthetically pleasing design, and comes with a built-in quad joystick which can be used either for games or as a mouse input device.
Aside from those goodies, what makes the Elan Enterprise really stand out are the promised graphics and sound capabilities. On the graphics front, we're promised a special chip (called 'Nick') that pumps out 256 colours (phew!) with a resolution of 672 x 512 pixels. What's more, those dots of phospher can be switched around at a pretty impressive rate. In fact, the Elan Enterprise looks to be the strongest contender so far in the Tron-on-a-micro stakes.
Of course, it's the sound side that's of particular interest to us computer musicians, and, for once, a new micro intended for the consumer marketplace looks like being considerably more inventive than the competition - British or otherwise (MSX, take heed!). Again, there's a dedicated ULA chip for this aspect of the micro's activities (called 'Dave' this time - no relation, I hasten to add), which is said to give 4 channels of stereo sound (a nice touch is that Walkman-type headphones will probably be provided with the micro), with user-programmability of envelopes, filtering, and ring modulation over 8 octaves. In a future 'Chip Chat', we'll have a detailed expose of what goes on inside 'Dave'...
Though the MIDI interface itself is pretty much standard for all new polysynths these days, it's still somewhat difficult to appreciate just how effective Sequential Circuits brainchild will be in the long term. What's really needed is some decent sequencing software that pushes the interface to its limit.
A German firm called Music Centre have announced both a MIDI interface for use with any micro and sequencing software for the Commodore 64. The software includes a composer program (CPM 1.1) which provides six channels, each with a 1500-note capacity, instrument changing, velocity programming, and easy editing. In addition, there's also a real-time sequencer program (RSQ 1.1). The MIDI interface is available for around £77. and the Commodore 64 software (on disk) for £46. Music Centre can be found at (Contact Details). We'll be reviewing this interesting-sounding combination in a few issues' time...
Anybody who's tried writing for a stringed instrument without actually being able to play it will appreciate the trials and tribulations of the composer who's asked to write a guitar concerto. The usual technique is to sit down with pen and paper, fret diagrams, some knowledge of the anatomical limitations of finger placings, and, if you're lucky, a friendly guitarist who's prepared to be a guinea pig. Patrick Gowers, on the other hand, elected to use a BBC micro to guide him towards playable chords when writing his 'Stevie Concerto for Guitar', commissioned by John Williams for performance at the Royal Festival Hall on September 23. Gowers says his micro indicated that there were between 250 and 300 conceivable D chords!
One of the biggest complaints levelled at the Apple IIe is its price. Even with fairly generous discounts, the basic machine is still going to cost in excess of £600, and that seems a bit steep in comparison to what you can get for under £200 these days (the Commodore 64 is a case in point). But the beauty of the Apple is its versatility and expandability, and those features are sure to keep it running for a good few years yet.
So, what we need is a micro that's Apple-compatible but half the cost. Well, a number of Apple 'lookalikes' have at last appeared on the scene that offer all or more of the features on the original machine for less than half the price, and seem to have got around Apple ROM copyright problems. The cheapest is the RAM II, an Apple II-compatible machine that includes a numeric keypad and also has lower case characters. This is available for the fairly unbelievable price of £250. The only catch is that at present it has to be ordered direct from Saudi Arabia, though the quoted price includes freight charges and a money-back guarantee. For more info on this sheep in sheik's clothing (groan), try contacting Autoram, (Contact Details), or their UK information centre ((Contact Details)).
Two other lookalikes with more definite British connections are the BASE 64A and the Computer 'X', though both are apparently made in Taiwan. The BASE 64A costs £349 (+ VAT), comes with 64K of RAM that's expandable to 192K, has a Mini-Writer word processor in ROM, and has a superior keyboard with upper/lower case, function keys, and a numeric/cursor keypad. More info on this can be had from Wolfcrown Ltd., (Contact Details).
The Computer 'X', on the other hand, comes in two flavours, first, as a 48K Apple II-type machine (£295 + VAT), and secondly as a 64K Apple IIe-type machine (£455 + VAT). Both of these are available from C.I. Cayman Ltd., (Contact Details).
All three of these firms also sell cheap disk drives (£160 or thereabouts) and lots of reasonably-priced expansion cards. Bearing in mind that a BBC Micro with disk interface and single disk drive would cost around £650, these cheap Apple alternatives are worth thinking about if you're counting pennies. How Apple is likely to react to this infiltration of their jealously guarded territory is difficult to say, though the fact that Apple now has 28 law suits pending against Far Eastern companies selling Apple copies is a pretty strong hint of what can be expected.
Personally, I think that Apple should adopt the more realistic attitude taken by IBM over copies, ie. licensing other companies to use their software rather than fighting endless and tedious legal battles. Watch out for a comparative review of some of these Apple look-alikes coming up in 'Computer Musician' shortly...