Flashback Friday: Microcomputers

A High Times guide to buying computers from 1979.
Flashback Friday: Microcomputers
Photo by Len DeLessio

From the October, 1979 issue of High Times comes Francis X. Kirby’s “How To Buy A Brain For $2,500 Or Less.”

Tiny computers are here to stay. These shiny little miracles of machine intelligence are the best, most impressive development yet to escape the sometimes murky backwaters of American high technology. Anyone can use them. Kids play with them like toys. Record keepers tout them as a fast-acting remedy for filing and organizational headaches.

Engineers turn to them as an efficient alternative to huge, bureaucratized, expensive time-sharing systems. Artists, writers and composers explore their seemingly limitless possibilities as a medium for creative expression. They can play a formidable game of chess, handicap a horse race with pinpoint accuracy, or effectively run a large greenhouse full of your favorite herbs and spices.

Microcomputers, capable of quick, easy storage and retrieval of up to 250,000 bits of information, of creating graphics and music, and even of speaking, are available for as little as $1,000. Slightly less sophisticated systems are priced as low as $300; supersystems start at about $2,500.

At these prices, small computers are well on the way to becoming as commonplace as televisions or stereos. Currently, some 200,000 enthusiasts attest to the fact that they are fun, useful and easy to operate. No sooner have they learned their ABCs than some schoolchildren are being taught to program in BASIC the simplest computer language. Adults can learn BASIC in about two hours.

The rest is up to the imagination. No computer will ever make anyone a genius. The machine will only mirror acquired skills and enthusiasm. Minimal effort yields minimal results. One of the few aphorisms of the computer establishment worth remembering is the motto “Garbage in, garbage out.” However, these little machines—while not up to the capabilities of their giant corporate cousins—are far more powerful than the “Giant brains” of 25 years ago, and with application the garbage factor can be all but eliminated.

Better still, novices plugging into the booming microcomputer market become part of a network of enthusiastic programmers who are more than willing to share their secrets for free or for a small fee and who are continually devising ever more ingenious uses for these little brains.

What Is a Computer?

To know what a computer is, it’s first essential to know what a computer isn’t. Pocket calculators, no matter how sophisticated, are not computers; nor are video games, though a small computer can both play video games and perform extraordinarily complex calculations.

A computer is an information handler, a processor of words and numbers, and a device that can control other electrical devices. Its components include: a means of entering information—usually a typewriterlike keyboard; a means of displaying information—most often a TV screen; and a means of retaining information.

Its memory takes the form of microscopic electronic circuits where information can be juggled, reorganized or erased, and a permanent memory storage center. Today, the latter is most often a standard audio tape cassette, but connoisseur computer freaks favor the “floppy disk,” a vinyl grooveless record (slightly smaller than a 45) capable of loading information 60 times faster than a cassette tape.

Finally, a computer has a way of processing all this information. Small computers accomplish this through microprocessors, the tiny silicon chips containing hundreds of thousands of electrical components, that are daily revolutionizing postindustrial-age America.

A computer’s memory, hence its capacity for work, is measured in thousands (abbreviated K, for kilo) of bytes, roughly equivalent to the number of characters it can store. A small computer with 8K of memory is one that can store approximately 8,000 characters. The more bytes, the more memory. The more memory, the more potentially powerful the machine is.

To communicate with a computer, you use a programming language. The most common language among small computers is BASIC (Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code), an easy-to-learn language consisting of English and English-like words. The capabilities of small household or office machines can be considerably boosted by programming them with improved, more complex versions of BASIC.

Applications

Like an amplifier in a stereo system, a small computer functions entirely on input. A clever operator will be able to demand considerably more from his machine than a beginner. With practice, however, the following uses are well within the range of most microcomputers:

Record keeping: Anyone dealing with money and property can use a small computer to organize books and files. Generalized filing systems are rapidly becoming available, as are general-ledger programs for small-business people. At home, you can keep track of record collections, book libraries, household data, insurance files, etc. A good, fast-acting record-keeping system, though, usually requires a floppy-disk drive, which means an additional expense of about $500 above the cost of the basic computer.

For those whose records might prove embarrassing—or incriminating—it is possible to encode information so that no one else can gain access to it, or understand it if they do. Sensitive data can also be erased from the memory bank in a matter of seconds.

Word processing: The latest hi-tech must-have in office and industry. In simple terms it means electronic typing. You can enter words, phrases and paragraphs, then edit the manuscript using a TV screen. Besides saving reams of paper, the computer enables you to instantaneously delete and reinsert items, switch the order of paragraphs, or chuck the whole thing and go back to the original.

Once everything reads right, the computer can print out the document on its own printer or on a cheaply converted typewriter. Business word-processing systems are sold for tens of thousands of dollars, but a microcomputer can do the job just as well for considerably less. Of the many programs written to do this, the best is one called the Electronic Pencil (cost in additional hardware: $100-$300). Word-processing programs work best with floppy disks and, of course, require the added expense of a printer.

Education: Computer-Aided Instruction (CAI)—regarded as a major educational breakthrough by researchers who have concluded that students learn more and better when they learn at their own speed—is no longer limited to educational systems with access to expensive computer hardware and programming.

Programs for small computers can take children through concepts in math and build their vocabularies. For adults, there are programs in foreign languages, law, auto mechanics, and even one to teach them how to use a small computer. Parents with programming knowledge can also create educational programs specifically for their children.

Art and music: Computer graphics, once possible only on specialized, expensive machines, can be easily executed on today’s small computers. New color-graphics systems can create graphs, dizzying designs, likenesses of reasonably high definition, and video special effects as complex as those seen in Star Wars or Battlestar Galactica.

Computer music ranges from simple R2D2 squeaks, squawks and pops to some very uncomputerlike sounds. Various music programs are available right now, and they are rapidly advancing to the point where computers may soon be favored over expensive, sophisticated synthesizers by both pop and modern classical musicians.

Fun and games: Virtually any video game ever invented can be played on a small computer, but of greater interest is the machine’s capacity to be a challenging opponent in games that require thought and strategy. Rigorous chess programs are available for most microcomputers, as are programs that play backgammon, Othello and other board games.

Then, too, there are computer classics like Hammurabi, in which players rule the ancient land of Sumer for a decade, trying to avoid starvation plagues and civil revolt; or Star Trek, in which they cruise the galaxies in search of Klingons.

Home control: A computer can’t be a chess partner and a housekeeper at the same time—an important fact to remember if you’re thinking of using one to control kitchen appliances, energy consumption, sprinkler systems or burglar alarms. Small computers, unlike industrial systems, are capable of only one activity at a time.

While it is technically possible to control up to 256 electrical devices using a small computer, sci-fi buffs with visions of totally automated living may first need a computer to figure out where the money is going to come from. The secondary hardware necessary to computerize a household could end up costing many times more than the computer itself. Nevertheless, the possibilities are exciting, and a number of amateur programmers are already living in a future world of their own creation.

Speech synthesis and recognition: It’s genuinely startling to hear a computer talk—even more so when what it says is meaningful. Technology has advanced to the point where computerized talking devices, such as spelling teachers, language tutors and translators, will soon appear on the market. Speech is relatively easy to generate with a small computer, and each of the currently available systems is equipped for it. Speech recognition, whereby a computer will respond to oral commands, is, unfortunately, more difficult to implement. Nonetheless, there are at least two voice-recognition systems available for tiny machines.

Telephony: A computer attached to a telephone line creates wide-ranging possibilities. Programmed with your Rolodex or little black book, it may be used as an automatic telephone dialer. You simply type the name of the party into it, and the machine does the rest.

Using a device known as a modem (for modulator/demodulator), computers can talk to each other over the telephone, swapping the latest programs and data. A modem also allows a tiny computer to interact with large institutional machines, so it’s theoretically possible to gain entry into any number of large computer systems. (Whether or not those systems want you there is another story.)

This was the method used by Stanley Rivkin, a brilliant California operator, whose arrest last year brought computer crime into the headlines. Using the modem, he was able to plug into the systems of several banks to create a fictitious account of $8 million, which he later used to buy diamonds and gold.

How to Buy a Computer

To buy groceries, you go to a grocery store. To buy a computer, you go to a computer store. This may have sounded facetious five years ago, but today thousands of computer stores have popped up in cities, suburbs and rural communities.

Most of them have names like Computerland, The Byte Shop or The Computer Store. They’re easy to spot in the Yellow Pages, but avoid anyplace that sounds like it’s part of the computer establishment (i.e., names with “data,’’ “com’’ or “general’’ in them, or with the initials IBM). People at these places will tell you that whatever you want to do will cost millions.

Likewise avoid discount or department stores, where consumer computers are beginning to show up alongside video games and video-cassette recorders. Prices may be better, but the characters who sell color TVs all day usually lack necessary specific information about the machine’s fine points and possible programming problems.

Someone at a computer store is likely to be of more assistance. Also, computer stores are centers of activity for small-computer owners, making them one of the best places to pick up on the latest developments on the programming front.

Consumer Computer Roundup

There are hundreds of small computers on the market, but only a handful that offer truly high capability at truly low cost. A rundown of what’s around in ’79:

TRS-80

The TRS-80, manufactured by the Tandy Corporation and sold through its Radio Shack stores, is the most popular small computer on the market. Unfortunately, most popular doesn’t mean best: high TRS sales are partially the result of a national advertising campaign budgeted higher than the cost of manufacturing the machine itself.

The basic TRS-80—including computer, typewriterlike keyboard, cassette recorder and black-and-white TV monitor—sells for $600. It comes with 4K of memory and what the company calls its Level I BASIC. This version is slow running, has limited graphics capabilities, and is restricted to integer (whole number) arithmetic.

For the most part, these shortcomings were remedied when Radio Shack introduced a Level II BASIC, which boosted the machine’s capabilities considerably but still left many computerists dissatisfied. It’s difficult to load information stored on cassette tapes, making the addition of floppy-disk drive almost a necessity at an additional cost of $500.

Upgrading the TRS-80 can be sticky. The basic machine is limited to uppercase letters, making word processing impossible. The modification to provide both upper- and lowercase is simple, but it reportedly voids Radio Shack’s warranty. Memory expansion is available cheaply from other manufacturers, but its installation also reportedly voids the warranty.

On the plus side, because of its popularity more programs have been written for the TRS-80 than any other small computer. Also, Radio Shack’s repair service is the only nationwide small-computer maintenance network.

The best bargain in the Radio Shack line is the Level II machine, with 16K of memory, priced at $988. This cost can be trimmed by furnishing your own cassette recorder and TV monitor or converted TV set.

Apple II

The Apple was the first microcomputer, and it is one of the very best. It’s a small, typewriter-size, portable unit that connects to a color-TV set and a cassette recorder or floppy-disk drive. It generates lovely color graphics, as well as sound and music through its own speaker.

Early models of the Apple were limited to uppercase alphabetic characters. Recently, this deficiency was solved by Eclectic Software in Dallas, who introduced a $100 integrated circuit called the superchip. This microchip gives the Apple upper- and lowercase alphabets, inverted video (upside down), inverse video (black on white), and allows its high-resolution graphics to be mixed with text on the same screen—a truly remarkable development.

Apple’s memory can be easily and cheaply upgraded without fear of voiding manufacturers’ warranties, and its plug-in modular design makes the addition of a printer, floppy-disk drive or speech-recognition hardware as simple as plugging in a lamp. One of the machine’s major drawbacks is the flea-powered BASIC it comes supplied with; but a second, more powerful version called Applesoft is available for permanent installation for an additional $100. Another drawback is expense.

The Apple is the most expensive of the microcomputers. Base price is about $1,200 for the computer, with 16K of memory. Apple’s floppy-disk drive is another $500, and users need to supply their own color-TV set and cassette recorder, an additional $400 expense. Total, including superchip and Applesoft: $2,300. But for many computer enthusiasts the Apple is a bargain at any price.

Commodore PET

The PET (Personal Electronic Transactor) has been plagued with problems since its introduction two years ago: late deliveries, quality-control deficiencies, and general lack of cooperation from the machine’s manufacturer.

Commodore has been slow in furnishing the written instructions and descriptions of the machine to stores and owners. As a result, PET programmers have had to find out everything about the machine on a trial-and-error basis. (Both the TRS-80 and the Apple II come with excellent printed materials.) Commodore has also been slow to introduce the additional hardware—printer, floppy disk—that could turn the PET into a valuable tool. These shortcomings are slowly being remedied, and despite the hassles the PET is an impressive machine.

It has a fast-running powerful BASIC, word-processing capabilities, a unique set of special graphics characters (which make drawing on the video screen simple), and the ability to easily animate graphics creations. The PET is especially excellent at making music. Using a device known as a digital-to-analog converter and some specially written programming, the PET can be turned into a multivoice synthesizer capable of playing musical compositions stored in its memory. Cost: $40 or less.

A stripped-down PET, with a small keyboard and 8K of memory, is available for $795. A better bet, though, is a $995 model with a full-size keyboard and double the memory capacity.

The Ohio Scientific Challenger IP

The Challenger is a late entry, and, unfortunately, one that looks as though it will receive less user support than the other major consumer computers. This is surprising, since the Challenger’s $350 price tag is the lowest on the market.

This price includes a fast-running BASIC, special graphics characters and 4K of memory. For $1,000, Ohio Scientific offers an expanded Challenger system with an upgraded version of BASIC and a floppy-disk drive. Both systems are real buys in computing power.

Unfortunately, the Challenger’s unique graphics system must be carefully used with normal black-and-white TV sets or else some of the information (top and bottom of the screen) will be lost. Of greater importance is the lack of owner-written programs, stemming from the Challenger’s so far disappointing sales record.

The Atari 400 and 800

Atari, well known as the originator and popularizer of arcade and home video games, announced, last January, that it would begin concentrating on small computers for home and business. This fall, it will introduce two models priced in the $500-$1000 range.

The Atari 400 will be a “simple’’ computer that will rely on preprogrammed tape cassettes and cartridges sold by the manufacturer. Even though it will be somewhat limited in its functions, it will have its own version of BASIC, a color-graphics system, and a sound-generation system. Memory (beyond the 8K supplied with the machine) will, apparently, not be expandable, nor can the system be used with a printer or floppy disk.

Atari, however, has outdone itself on the 800 model. The 800 will have the most advanced color-graphics system of any consumer computer. In addition to three different sizes of alphabetic and numeric characters, its memory (8K supplied) will be fully expandable.

Both machines will have multivoice music and sound-effects capabilities, and Atari is even planning for such future applications as digitized video special effects and speech synthesis and recognition. A floppy-disk drive and printer for the 800 will be available when the machine is introduced.

Where Is It All Heading?

Despite enormous advances in the field, microcomputers are still in their infancy. It’s estimated that advanced microprocessors and microchip memories will increase their capacities tenfold by 1990.

The impact these small computers will have on society’s information revolution cannot be overestimated. But perhaps the greatest role that the small computer is playing is as a teacher. These machines are teaching people that there is nothing mysterious about computers, and that people are still the machine’s ultimate masters.

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