New Micro Guide Part 2

Published in Computer & Video Games #39

All that Christmas money still burning a hole in your pocket? Has that micro that you were promised still not arrived?

New Micro Guide Part 2

This month, we present part two of our guide to the best new micros of 1984. Last time we mentioned the QL, Amstrad, MSX and Enterprise. Now here's everything you need to know about Commodore's two new machines.

Commodore 16

Commodore launched the C16 at the same time as the Plus 4.

Learning the lessons from the way that the Vic was sold during the last few months of its life, Commodore is selling the C16 as a starter park which is aimed at someone buying their first micro. For £139.99, you get the computer, a Commodore soap-shaped cassette recorder, an introduction to programming in Basic and four free programs. Good value for money if ever I saw it. And you wonder why they've stopped making the Vic?

The C16 has, not surprisingly, 16K of RAM. From the outside, it looks like a C64 or a Vic, as it uses the same case. The inside is different though. It uses a new version of Commodore Basic with over 75 commands. Like the Plus 4, there's a choice of 121 colours and standard text display is 25 lines of 40 characters.

Output connectors include connection for a standard monitor. Also, there's a link for 22 joysticks, ROM cartridges and a cassette interface is also included. A serial port is provided, but note that Commodore's idea of a serial port doesn't mean that it's a normal RS232. So don't think that a modem will plug straight in.

Sound is provided, with two voices. A connection on the back of the machine allows you to take out the sound and play it through your hi-fi. There's a choice of nine volume levels.

A useful thought by Commodore's designers is the provision of a "Help" key. If you get an error on a Basic line when you're programming, a touch of the Help key will tell you where you're going wrong.

Included in the starter kit are four programs. One is called the Rolf Harris Picture Builder and is a building block approach to art.

The idea is that you guide a cursor over a selection of predefined graphic shapes. Then use the same method to choose a colour and its shade and just position it on the screen wherever you want. You can have a paint option, which lets you draw lines using any of those shapes.

There's very little connection with Rolf Harris in this program. In fact, it was written by Paul Jay who has written a few games for C&VG in his time.

Also included in the package deal is Starter Chess which will teach you to play the game, even if you can't tell a knight from a bishop.

Punchy is an arcade game based on Punch & Judy. You have to guide the Policeman across a stage to rescue Judge while avoiding such things as custard pies and rotten tomatoes.

Last of the free gifts is ZXA which is a 140-screen shoot-'em-up.

Commodore Plus 4

Launched as a direct competitor to the QL, the Commodore Plus 4 is one of the newest micros.

For £299.99, you get a machine with 64K of RAM. 4K of this is used by the machine, though, so the largest Basic program that it can hold is 60K, which should be more than enough.

There are four built-in programs which are stored in ROM and are called at the touch of a button. These handle word processing, graphs, data filing and a spreadsheet. The four programs are held together in a 32K ROM which means that, at an average of just 8K each, they are nowhere near as powerful as their QL counterparts.

One excellent feature though is that you can split the screen into two sections and run two of the built-in programs at the same time on different parts of the screen!

All four programs can exchange data between them, so once you have entered the figures on your spreadsheet, for example, you can load them into the graph drawing program.

Screen display is 25 lines of 40 characters which just isn't enough for a word processor.

The text scrolls across the screen as you write it and, if you use the cursor keys, you can see everything you've written. But this is tedious if you need to refer to previous paragraphs in a letter or essay, for example.

Unlike the QL, the keyboard of the Plus 4 is quite good. Cursor control is by a cluster of four arrow-shaped keys which point in the appropriate direction.

Text resolution is 40 characters and 25 lines, the same as the Commodore 64. There's a choice of fifteen colours which can be in any of eight levels of brightness. Add a "black" colour to the list and you have 121 different shades or colours to choose from. And they can all be on screen at once. I saw this demonstrated at the launch of the micro and it looked like a colour chart from a paint brochure.

The Plus 4 has two joystick sockets which will take Commodore's new "advanced" controllers. There's also a connection there for ROM software cartridges.

There's a user port for connecting extra peripherals like, I suspect, a CompuNet modem and a serial port for Commodore's newer version of the extremely slow 1541 disc drive.

A cassette interface is included. The micro has two sound voices and, in addition to running software specially written for it, the Plus 4 will also run any software written for the Commodore's other new baby, the Commodore 16.

So What Shall I Buy?

This is the hardest question of all.

The first thing you must ask yourself if you're after a micro is whether you're sure you want one. If you do, decide how much you want to pay. It's not worth spending a fortune for one of the best machines available if you're new to computing.

Best start with something cheap like a Spectrum or even a second hand ZX81. If you decide that computing is not for you, then you've not wasted too much money and you can write it off to experience.

Next, decide what you're going to use the computer for. If you just want a games machine, try to find one which has lots of games available for it. If you'd rather program it yourself, find a computer which there are lots of books about. And call the company to check if there's a Programmer's Technical Guide. There should be one for the QL shortly which will cost around £25.

If your friend has an MSX micro, you may also consider buying one. You can then lend each other games and peripherals.

If you don't have a spare TV to use with your computer then get something like the Amstrad which comes with its own monitor.

So you see, every micro has its good and bad points. Think very carefully and look through all the micro magazines first. Then you're bound to make the right choice.