Unsung Heroes of the Computing World

The history of home computing is filled with glittering stars like the Spectrum, BBC, Commodore 64, Atari ST and the Amiga, but not every micro of yesteryear is equally well celebrated. Let’s take a look at ten of computing’s under-rated and under-valued machines.

When the conversation turns to classic computers, what machines spring to mind? The Spectrum? Commodore 64? Amiga? Early PCs? Of course they do. These are the all-time greats, the ancestors of today’s multimedia behemoths. But not every classic computer reached these lofty heights. Some machines looked promising on the drawing board, but failed to make their mark. Maybe they were badly marketed. Perhaps they were ill conceived. It could be that they failed to break the stranglehold enjoyed by a technically inferior machine. But whatever the reason, these unsung heroes of the computing age are frequently underrated. Let’s take a look at ten near-forgotten classic micros, and celebrate their contribution to computing’s rich history.

The Dragon 32/64

A child of the early Eighties British computer boom, the Dragon 32 and its successor, the 64, were produced from 1982 to 1984 when its parent company, Dragon Data, went the way of all flesh (and considerable quantities of silicon). Based on a robust motherboard and boasting spacious architecture, it was the ideal machine for the home modder. Much more so than its more successful contemporaries, the Spectrum and the Commodore 64, which crammed their innards into as small a space as possible, making home modifications problematic.

Unfortunately, serious drawbacks severely limited its chances of success. Its graphics weren’t as good as its rivals, limiting its scope in all-important home games scene. Also – and bizarrely – it couldn’t handle lower-case letters. There were ways of fudging the issue, but this out-of-the-box limitation locked it out of the lucrative education market, where its robust design, standard keyboard and low price point would’ve made it a worthy competitor for the then-dominant BBC Micro. If that wasn’t enough, when a third-party manufacturer produced a disk drive for the machine, Dragon Data declined to market it, and instead produced a rival, incompatible drive. Confusion reigned as software produced for one disk system failed to work on the other.

To be fair, mistakes are always easy to spot in hindsight, and this was the dawn of the home computing era when things were less obvious. Even so, the Dragon deserved better.

Oric1/Oric Atmos

The Orics were a big successes in France, and the Atmos was legally licensed for release in Yugoslavia as the Nova 64 and Bulgaria as the Pravetz 8D. Yet the Spectrum’s lead proved an insurmountable obstacle, despite being the Oric being a superior machine in more ways than one.

Released in 1983, a year after the Speccy, the Oric 1 boasted a one MHz 6502A CPU and 16 KB or 48 KB of RAM for £129 and £169, respectively. This meant the 16k model matched the Spectrum’s price point, and the 48k model was actually cheaper. Its chiclet keyboard design was far from perfect, but it was better than the Speccy’s ‘dead flesh’ rubber keys. The Oric also enjoyed a dedicated sound chip and fewer attribute clashes than its competitor.

The Oric got a redesign with the Atmos, which offered a full keyboard and a new release of Oric OS. A clever attribute handling method meant the Atmos lost little of its memory space to operating functions. Even with its colour printer and disc drive unit attached, the 48k Atmos always left the user at least 37K of usable memory. Compare this to the Commodore 64, which sacrificed 26k to system operations, leaving the user only a single kilobyte more than the Atmos, despite offering an extra 16k on paper. Yet although the Oric was an improvement on the Spectrum and C64, it was not a massive leap forward. Its competitors’ massive range of games and software more than outweighed any technical advantages offered by its rival, turning the Oric into the Betamax of the mid-Eighties computing scene.

Jupiter ACE

As mentioned earlier, the first half of the 1980s was the dawn of the home and hobbyist computing age. Silly mistakes which look incredibly obvious now weren’t so clear at the time. Hindsight is always 20-20. One such incredibly-obvious-in-hindsight mistake was to use release the Jupiter ACE with Forth as its built-in programming language at a time when all the kids were learning BASIC.

To be fair, the ACE was never intended for the mass market. Its designers, two former Sinclair Research employees who had previously worked on the Spectrum, were aiming squarely at the programmer and hobbyist scene. Thus Forth was favoured over BASIC due to the massive increase in speed it offered. Yet the ACE was underpowered even by the standards of the day, offering (for example) only monochrome graphics, despite being released in 1983. And although Forth offered three to ten times the speed of BASIC, serious hobbyist programmers were already learning Assembly language.

Even though it stiffed badly at the tills, the Jupiter Ace deserves its place in an ‘underrated classics’ feature for being brave enough to try something different. It’s a relic of an age when computing was an uncharted frontier, wild and untamed. Perhaps that’s why it commands high prices on eBay as a collector’s item.

SAM Coupé

It was arguably the best eight-bit machine ever. It boasted power and features commonly found in 16-bit machines, and could well have been the saviour of the then-ailing Spectrum. The SAM Coupé was based around the same Z80 chip as the Speccy, and was even backwards-compatible with its games. And cost a fraction of the price of its 16-bit rivals such as the Amiga and the Atari ST. The SAM displayed 128 colours in hi-res mode, equalling if not bettering the graphical output of the Atari ST. It had eight sound channels to the ST’s three too, which is no bad achievement considering in the late Eighties the Atari was the computer of choice for musicians. But could an eight-bit launched at the tail end of 1989 ever succeed, whatever it boasted under the hood?

Its designer and manufacturer, Miles Gordon Technology, thought it could. The thinking was simple. Spectrum fans could upgrade their machines without throwing away their software collection. By investing in a SAM, they could enjoy 16-bit power at an eight-bit price, and still play their old Speccy games. So why didn’t it work out? In a nutshell, no one outside the Spectrum scene noticed it. Miles Gordon Technology was no Amstrad, Commodore or Atari. It simply didn’t have the budget to invest in advertising across the board, so what little marketing spend it had was spent on ads in the Speccy mags. Since current Spectrum owners were the SAM’s target market this might have been a wise move, but severely limited its chances of building brand recognition. As one wag joked, “Q: What’s the difference between the SAM Coupé and the Loch Ness Monster? A: Some people claim to have seen the Loch Ness Monster”. And naturally, slow take-up on the machine meant software companies were equally slow to release games for it, despite the fact that conversions could be simplified by combining Spectrum code with Atari ST graphics.

It was the wrong machine at the wrong time and released by the wrong company, but it squeezed an incredible amount out of an ageing eight-bit CPU. A design classic that no one wanted.

Xerox Alto/Star

If ever there was an unsung classic of computing, an underrated machine which deserved to do better, it was the Xerox Alto. Born at the famous Xerox PARC research centre, the Alto boasted an amazing array of firsts. It was the first computer to use a ball mouse, the first to boast Ethernet connectivity and, of course, the first computer with a graphical user interface, or GUI for short.

The Alto’s GUI boasted some surprisingly modern features. It had a desktop environment with individual windows contained by a graphical boarder. These windows could overlap on the screen, and clicking on a window brought it to the top of the stack. Programs and documents were represented by icons which could be opened or run by clicking on them, and contextual menus could be accessed through a mouse click too. Other notable innovations included scroll bars, dialogue boxes and ratio buttons.

Bizarrely, the Alto was never released onto the mass market, though a few were given to universities. It was another Xerox computer, the Star, that brought the GUI to the public – or at least a very small section of it. The Star was designed to offer a ‘virtual office’ environment on a computer, with metaphors gleaned from the physical office space used throughout to make the desktop environment as user-friendly as possible. Documents were stored in folders, and depicted with an icon representing the application that created it. Sound familiar?
The Xerox Star was released in 1981, the same year as the PC, but appalling marketing meant it never got off the ground. It sold for a ridiculous $16,000 a unit, and Xerox only sold them as bundles with two or three machines and with a file server and a print server, pushing the total purchase price to between $50,000 and $100,000. In the GUI, Xerox had a feature would eventually revolutionise computing, but they did next to nothing with it. Thankfully Apple licensed the concept, and brought it to the masses with the Mac.

Amstrad PCW

The Amstrad PCW was a classic in every sense of the word. The right machine at the right time, and it sold extremely well. Instead of taking on the general-purpose computers of the day such as the Amiga or Atari ST, the Amstrad PCW was sold solely as a word processor. Its main competitors were not other computers, but electric typewriters. The first machine in the PCW series was released in the Summer of 1985 and the last in 1993, a decent lifespan for any computer. And although no longer commercially exploited, there are thousands still in working condition, and some are still being used by people who have no need for a computer outside word processing and therefore no wish to upgrade.

The Amstrad PCW brought word processing within the reach of people who would normally have been limited to a typewriter. But like the LP record, the Iomega Zip Drive and the cassette-based personal stereo, it reached the end of its useful life and died a peaceful death.

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Konix Games Console

It could’ve been a contender, but the company behind it ran out of money and it was never commercially released. The Konix Multisystem was meant to be the most versatile console ever seen. With a 16-bit 8086 processor, an ASIC 12MHz co-processor and a 4096 colour palette, it offered a similar degree of power to the 16-bit Amiga, but it could handle 3D polygons using the co-processor while Commodore’s machine needed to run such maths-heavy routines through the main CPU. The racing car-like steering wheel could be reconfigured to resemble the handlebars of a motorbike or an aircraft’s control column, and it offered force feedback long before the feature became standard.

The plan was to release the console in 1989, for around £200. A range of peripheral hardware such as a hydraulic chair, a light pen, a light gun and additional controllers would follow. Yet the system was never released. Konix never seemed satisfied with the device, making constant modifications to the case design and adding a floppy disc drive for data storage late in the day. Endless delays were caused, and the company eventually folded.

Apricot

You know it’s a classic when the brand gets resurrected and used to sell products that ill deserve the history the name implies. For example, French games publisher Infogrames rebranded itself Atari after buying the remains of Nolan Bushnell’s groundbreaking company, despite having no connection to the legend that brought gaming to the masses. Another brand exhumed from computing’s graveyard and patched onto a completely unrelated product is Apricot, whose name was once seen on Mitsubishi laptops that had nothing to do with the British computing company from the Eighties and Nineties.

First released in 1983, the Apricot was a credible alternative to the IBM. Based on an Intel 8086 microprocessor running at 4.77MHz, the Apricot ran MS-DOS or CP/M but was not compatible with the IBM PC at a hardware level. There followed a series of machines, culminating in the Apricot XEN in October 1985. Alas, although successful in the UK, the PC came to dominate the American market before Apricot could get a foothold. After 1985, the company switched to making IBM-compatible PCs, until being bought out by Mitsubishi and closed.

Epson Geneva PX-8

This mobile machine, released in 1984, was the epitome of mid-Eighties computing cool. Incredibly stylish for a ‘serious’ machine, it featured a built-in micro cassette recorder (a disk drive was optional), a modified version of the CP/M operating system and plug-in ROMs which contained the machine’s major apps.

The Geneva used an 80-column by eight-line screen, a form factor which was more common than you might expect in the laptops of the day. It had a built-in modem and its own version of WordStar supplied as a ROM, but it’s the cassette recorder which set it apart from other mid-Eighties luggables. Not only could you save data and store applications on Geneva’s micro cassettes, but you could also play back audio tapes too. Use your Dictaphone to record a meeting or an interview, then play it back on your Epson while typing it up in WordStar. A classic indeed.

Iasis Computer in a Book

As a computer it was nothing special, but it’s the concept that makes the Iasis Computer in a Book an underrated classic. Also known as the ia-7301, Computer in a Book was a training tool for those wishing to learn the Intel 8080 microprocessor.

Released in 1976, the computer itself sat in a three-ring binder, along with a 250-page computer programming course. The basic version featured 1k of ROM holding the monitor, 1k of RAM and two I/O ports. You could save your programs onto a standard tape recorder. An optional expander board allowed to increase memory size and connect extension cards. Bizarrely, a power supply was not bundled with the machine and had to be bought separately.

Given the vast increase in power of computers since its mid-Seventies release, the concept could never have survived into the early Eighties computer boom. But this doesn’t stop it being a classic of its time. Go on, admit it – you want one.

Ian Osborne

Ian has worked on computer and video games magazines since the legendary Crash and Zzap! 64 in the early Nineties, so he’s seen many changes over the years (including an expanding waistline and receding hairline). A lifelong Mac user, he bought his first Mac in the year 2000. It’s a testament to the resilience of the Mac that his mother is still using that computer to this very day.

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