Reviewer: David Scobie
Magazine: Your Computer
Date: March 1984
Its looks may have changed but the soul of the machine remains the same. David Scobie uncovers the Oric lurking under the Atmos' keys.
ORIC-1 is officially dead and has been replaced by the Oric Atmos. Unlike all the advance blowing of trumpets that heralded the original Oric, Atmos has crept up on us and was not launched until it was actually in production. The official launch was at an exhibition of predominantly business computers where it seemed a little out of place.
The Oric-1 was aimed at the cheap home computer end of the market. A cynical definition of the Oric-1 was "prototype of the Oric-2". The faults were compounded by the non-appearance of many promised additions and peripherals; a disc drive, a communications Modem with a teletext decoder, a ROM cartridge with "super extended Basic as powerful as the BBC's."
It has to be admitted that even in the final version there were some bugs in the ROM-based operating system, but on the whole these were chiefly academic faults as the computer could be used successfully.
The Atmos is exactly the same shape and size as the Oric-1. Internally, the pcb is identical to its predecessor and is still marked "Oric-1". Instead of the rather insipid pale grey appearance the new computer now sports a dashing black and red livery. The little calculator keys of the former machine have been replaced with full typewriter-style keys which are very touch-sensitive and offer full touch-typing facilities. On test, the keyboard was found to be very good with only one minor criticism; the cursor-control keys are very near the shift keys.
The only other difference between the Oric-1 and the Atmos is the new version of the ROM operating system which has, according to Oric, not only ironed out the Oric bugs but also some others inherent in the Microsoft software. A number of additional commands have been added; especially to the cassette routines so that programs can now be verified after they have been saved. Arrays can now be stored and recalled without recourse to machine code.
As for cassette handling, the computer still seems to be over-particular as to the correct volume level set on the recorder playback. I have been using a cassette player which works very successfully with other computers but found it necessary to make several attempts at loading on the Atmos before. I found the exact level. This level seemed to vary from tape to tape so that it often took several attempts to load each program.
Built in to the loading routine is an error-spotting facility which, after the program has loaded, will come up with the message "errors found" - if any were. When a long program is loaded it is very frustrating to get this message after a long wait. There should have been a method of aborting the loading first time, includes a machine-code routine to overcome this. This routine ignores errors in the header and leading part of the tape which are not relevant to the content of the program.
The Basic is adequate and most of the commands that you would expect to find are there. I was surprised to note that there has been no attempt to improve the abysmal line editing facility. In this respect many other computers also claiming to use extended Microsoft Basic are much better - for example the Dragon and the Tandy Colour Computer.
Additional commands include the logic operators
CLoad"program name",V allows
the verification of a program just saved, and
CLoad"program name",J allows another program
to be joined to one already in memory. It is important that the
second program in this case should have different line numbers
so that there is no confusion between the programs.
Remote switching of the cassette is provided through the seven-pin DIN socket, though it is not made use of as a three-pin DIN-to-DIN lead is supplied. To take advantage of this facility it is possible to use the same cassette lead made for the Acorn/BBC Micro and available through most computer shops; many suppliers advertise in this journal.
As for the use of colour; serial attributes, to change colour or style of characters on the screen, take some getting used to, but they do have the advantage of taking up less memory space. They involve remembering a number of control codes and escape codes if you want to take full advantage of them. They are also compatible with teletext, if you were to get a teletext Modem to receive, say, Prestel.
One considerable improvement over the old Oric is the operating manual. It is important that a new user gets the best possible guide on how to put the machine to work. The Oric-1 manual was, frankly, terrible. All has now been put right. A 300-page book has been commissioned by Oric from outside authors, led by Ian Adamson and published by Pan Books for distribution by Oric.
It includes a step-by-step tutorial on getting the Oric working, an introduction to Basic with a section that has detailed descriptions of all the Basic keywords and appropriate short programs to illustrate how they work; sections on cassette handling, sound commands, graphics and very useful introduction to machinecode.
The machine-code section lists the error-ignoring routine included on the "Welcome" tape. There are appendices listing all that you would ever want to know about the internal workings of the operating system, and many other details. It is a pity that there are not a few longer programs but this does not detract from the value of the book. Oric must now go near the top of the league for documentation.
Also provided is a cassette which has a graphics program showing how good the display facilities can be. Included is an animated cartoon of a flying duck which is very impressive, especially as it is written in Basic. The program may be broken into and listed to show how a particular effect is achieved.
The specification for the Atmos include a 6502A processor running at 1MHz, 48K RAM, 16K ROM containing the Basic and the operating system. The keyboard has 57 "real typewriter" keys, including a programmable "function" key for which I can find no reference in the literature or any indication of how it is used; and a concealed reset button for a warm start, i.e., one that does not lose any program or data.
One of its main selling points is that it offers a minimum of 37K of free memory, a lot more than many other computers claiming to have bigger RAMs. This may be increased in the Atmos by grabbing some of the memory reserved for high-resolution graphics. The screen format offers eight foreground and the same eight background colours for a text screen of 40 columns of 28 lines and a character set very similar to teletext - and BBC Mode 7 - with standard ASCII upper and lower-case characters, double-height and flashing characters and up to 80 user-definable characters.
It is a pity that there is not a text screen with even more characters; the new keyboard, disc interface and monitor output provided suggest that the system would be very good for word processing. But this would really need a 60- or 80-column screen format to be useful.
High-resolution graphics offer 240 by 200 pixels in eight colours and there are line, circle and point facilities. Areas of the screen may be filled with a chosen colour, and the Fill command allows the mixing of colours to produce many more than the nominal eight.
The graphics screen has three lines for text at the bottom of the screen which may be used to display system commands and to act as a window on the program. Direct commands may be entered without having to switch to a text screen when their effect may be seen instantly. Text can be easily added to high-resolution graphics so that labels can be added to a chart, for example.
Three channels of sound over eight octaves with additional white noise and envelope control are played through a powerful internal speaker or may output to a hi-fi system. Sounds of musical instruments may be synthesised. On our review model, the sound was much quieter than on the Oric-1 but that might have been a peculiarity of that particular machine and, in any case, it was loud enough.
There is an expansion port for the addition of peripheral equipment, such as disc drives or analogue to digital converters; cartridge ROMs can also be used here. The standard Centronics printer port allows the use of a wide range of different printers, from simple thermal types to word-processor daisywheels as well as the Oric printer.
A modulated TV output as well as an RGB output for a colour monitor is provided and, of course, there is the cassette port. There is no joystick port, though plug-in modules are available from other manufacturers.
The Oric printer/plotter using four coloured ball-point pens as been restyled to match the Atmos colour scheme as has the long-promised 3in. disc drive with 160Kbytes per side and a transfer rate of 250Kbits/s.
In conclusion I think that Oric has got it right this time; the Atmos is what the Oric-1 should have been and, at £170 it is very good value when you compare the facilities with those available on other low-cost computers. Unfortunately, we cannot leave it at that. There is the problem of software availability. Other computers, with the massive support that they have acquired, may be preferable purely because of the quantity and quality of their software support.
Perhaps the qualities of the new Oric will inspire confidence in some of the software houses and the Atmos will then take off - into the Atmosphere? A low-cost Atmos 16K machine is also promised, but I think that the extra memory of the 48K machine is well worth having.
Those who already have an Oric-1 need not despair or throw it in the bin. Oric is looking seriously at the possibility of providing an upgrade kit to turn an Oric-1 into an Atmos. This could cost about £50. 160,000 Oric-1s were sold so this could be a major operation. I would advise those who do have an Oric-1 to shower Oric International with letters demanding that such an upgrade be made available.
It would be worth it as there is a fantastic difference between the feel of the two machines. The difference is that Atmos is a real computer, while Oric felt like a toy.
- The Atmos is a considerable improvement on the Oric-1.
- Real keys and an improved Basic that really works makes a tremendous difference.
- At £170 it offers fair value for money. But its price takes it out of direct competition with the Spectrum and into battle with the Dragon and Atari 600XL.
- If it gets the software support it could take its place alongside the Spectrum and the Dragon - its capabilities and specification are equal to both and in some respects superior.