Reviewer: Lee Paddon
Magazine: Your Computer
Date: June 1985
AMSTRAD IS ONE of the few success stories in the computer scene at the moment. With no overstocking problems, it has remained aloof from the recent vicious price war. So it is in confident mood that Amstrad has revealed its follow-up to the CPC-464: the 664.
The new machine is hardly a radical departure from the 464. The most obvious difference is the replacement of the built-in cassette by a disc drive. The keyboard has also been revised, and the Rom upgraded.
The disc drive is a single-sided 3in.drive with 150K capacity per side. A few commands are available as Basic extensions, all the tape commands operate the drive, other utilities - backup, format and so on - are available from within the CP/M operating system, which can be used instead of AMSDOS.
Cassette interface retained
There is a slot in the back for a second drive - either 3in. or 5.25. The cassette interface is retained, which now uses an external domestic tape deck via a Dragon-style lead.
The keyboard has a new grey and blue livery, but more importantly, it has been redesigned so that the keys are in steps, which will do much to endear it to typists. The cursor keys have also changed to an MSX style cluster, which helps when editing and playing games which often use these keys.
Some useful information on ink colours and key numbers has been printed on top of the drive housing. The new Rom, which proudly announces itself as version 1.1 of Locomotive Basic, has a few extra commands. Perhaps most significant of these is the Fill command. This simply fills the area around the graphics cursor bounded by any series of lines, with the current ink colour. The Frame command synchronises updating screen graphics with the sync pulse. This produces smoother graphics, and simply replaces the widely used system call which did the same job on the 464.
Further improvements in graphics come in the form of the Mask command. This allows the user to draw either the traditional solid line or a series of dots. From this idea stems the need for a graphics paper command to determine the colour of the dots missed out by the Mask command. A new optional parameter determines the way that lines drawn on the screen interact with lines already there.
The machine's error handling system is completed with the Derr statement. This is because, unlike tape errors, disc errors are not always fatal. This variable holds the number of the last disc error which occurred so the program can take appropriate action.
You can also now use the Auto function with Edit; this allows you to edit a whole block of code without having to call up each line individually. How useful this will prove in practice is open to doubt. How many of your programs have regular line numbers? It might have been handy had a renumber command been included.
All of these additional commands might leave the 464 owner asking where he stands. All programs that use legal system calls, and don't use up the Ram taken by AMSDOS will run on the new machine. However, software written for the 664 won't necessarily work with the 464, although it seems unlikely that anyone would go out of their way to use the extra commands for a commercial program. It is not planned to offer the new Rom as an upgrade to 464 owners.
All this information is a lot to cram into a manual. Not only do you need a Basic primer, but a guide to AMSDOS, CP/M, and Logo, the language supplied free with the system disc. Amstrad has proved equal to the task. The manual kicks off with a foundation course explaining some of the basics to the novice; after that is a detailed alphabetical list of the keywords, with details on syntax and program examples. Next come some notes on handling data on cassette and disc.
Although there are many good things in the 664, the new machine is perhaps chiefly remarkable for what it doesn't offer. It doesn't offer more Ram, despite the low cost of the chips today. It doesn't offer sideways Roms - the facility is there in the hardware, but extra circuitry is required, you don't just plug them in. There is still no warm reset, except in CP/M, so if you get yourself tied up in knots with ink colours, sounds and graphics, it's just too bad.
- The machine in many ways represents yesterday's technology. The hoary old Z-80, and CP/M. The choice of the 3in. disc format is rather suspect, it now looks as if the 3.5in. format, which offers nearly twice the capacity, will dominate the budget drive market with Apple and Hewlett-Packard adopting it.
- All that said, at £339 for black and white or £449 for the colour version, there is little doubt that the system offers unrivalled value for money.
- Unlike the much vaunted 16-bit invasion, this machine is here today, debugged, and with a rising tide of commercial software support. Many companies see the machine as the natural next conversion after Spectrum and Commodore releases.
- The clean Basic, simple DOS and clear manual offer computing without tears for the beginner while giving the expert plenty to play with.