Crash Issue 50 March 1988
Crash Issue 61 February 1989
Your Sinclair Rage Hard articles, (Recovered) courtesy of the YS Rock 'n' Roll Years
Rage Hard! YS 39 Phil South - March 1989
Working For Uncle Sam At Last! As the release of the SAM computer from Miles Gordon Technology draws nearer, Phil South reports on the shape of things to come.
It's not every day that a new computer is launched. And a new computer which is not only state of the art, but also uses old Spectrum software to boot. But now the much publicised SAM is upon us. It's only been about a year since it was a just a gleam in Miles Gordon Technology's corporate eyes and to be perfectly honest I was sceptical about it ever surmounting its chip problems and getting the darn thing out the door. But in spite of me, MGT seems to be on the last lap, and running strongly for the tape.
SAM isn't a one off computer. The SAM range is to be a whole dynasty of computers, with the first one being the Coupe. The range has been designed by Bruce Gordon, the softly spoken Scot behind the Disciple and Plus D disk interfaces, and the wacky TwoFace we reviewed a few issues ago. Bruce has been working on the idea for about two years now, and hopefully in the next few months we'll all be able to benefit from the fruits of his labour. Japanese chip giant Fujitsu is producing the customised chips for the SAM. It started apparently with Bruce's prototype containing 138 chips and miniaturised it into a single custom ULA! Fiendishly clever, these Japanese. The casing has been designed by the Nick Holland Design Group recommended by the Design Council for the quality of its design skills. And as for the internal software, the guts of the SAM's operating system ROM, is being designed by Dr Andy Wright, the writer of BetaBasic. His job is "to spend 24 hours a day making the SAM a pleasure to use!" Beta him than me!
The SAM's specification was clearly defined from the outset. It had to be cheap to buy, around £150, and cheap to run so as to be affordable to you school bods who only get piddly pocket money. The technical spec had to be high, with MIDI, 80 column screen and industry standard hi-res multicoloured graphics. The sound chip had to be worthy of music and not just sound effects. It was also said that it should be possible to upgrade the machine, thus allowing the user to bolt on more devices as they become affordable or available. (This is generally called having an 'open architecture' ya?) Plus the design of the machine was aimed to appeal to kids and their parents alike, truly a computer for all people. The power of a business computer, but the ease of use and fun of a games console.
A pretty tall order in anyone's books, but improbably MGT seems to have drawn all these elements together in the prototype SAM and in the soon to be finished entry level, SAM Coupe.
The design MGT has ended up with is an entry level device, onto which other more advanced features can be added. The features are aimed at keeping the cost of ownership as low as the user wants it to be. So any prospective buyer of a SAM system can determine his own level of sophistication and how much money he wants to spend on it.
The external details first. The keyboard is a 71 key membrane type (Oh dear, why can't people put proper keyboards on things any more! Sob!) with ten function keys. The angle of the keyboard is 11 degrees, (port, slurp,) and is set back a bit from the front of the machine to provide a hand rest for the heels of your hands. Pity more firms don't think of this, 'cos if you're an enthusiastic user you can get serious wrist aggro.
The basic machine works from cassettes loaded from an ordinary cassette player, not unlike our chum the Speccy. But users will be able to slot one or two 3.5" disk drives into the machine. The drives have been described as the latest technology from Citizen, and are barely larger than the disk itself, allowing them to be slotted at the front of the machine under the keyboard. Now that I'd like to see! The DOS is of course very similar to that used in the Plus D. So this means that disks for the Plus D should work in the new machine!
For displays you have a choice of TV, or composite or RGB video outlets. A low cost colour monitor is also planned for launch around the same time as the computer.
The Coupe has ports for not only mouse and joystick, but also for a lightpen. This addition carries the implication of more serious uses for the machine other then home or small business. Graphics would seem to be a priority. Music seems to be high on the list too, as the MIDI IN and OUT ports make it good for musical applications, which ought to give the ST a run for its money in pro music production. The MIDI ports have a more routine use in the maintenance of the SAM networking capability.
Also on offer is a printer and a cable with an inbuilt interface. The interface will probably cost around £10 to allow connection to MGT's, and any other, Centronics compatible printer. Although there is a serial port, or RS232, it's one of the DIN plug type, like the MIDI ports, rather than the more common edge connector or 25 way D plug. But MGT isn't trying to edge out the standard peripherals however. The good news is that the ones that Sinclair users have will be attachable using special adapters.
Finally on the physical side, there's a pair of manuals, one for the new "plug'n'go" user and another one for more advanced programmers.
A peek under the hood reveals some startling new facilities, previously closed to eight bit computers. The rationale behind staying with eight rather than 16-bit is simple. The cost of developing 16-bit stuff, and staying faithful to the remaining eight bit users. The latter reason is most important from my point of view. At the heart of the Coupe is the custom SAM ULA. Because all the really hard work is done by this chip, there are only a total of seven other chips on the motherboard, making the SAM easy to produce and cheap to repair. The main processor is a standard Z80B, which means that people who know the Z80 aren't excluded from programming for the new machine. No new mnemonics to learn! The RAM in the basic machine is a hefty 256K, expandable by a slot-in cartridge to 512K, the current industry standard. The sound chip is a six channel job, meaning that sound effects and music can be played simultaneously, and speech synthesis wouldn't be out of the question either. The sound goes through the TV or monitor speaker. The operating language will like as not be BetaBasic, especially as Dr Wright is writing it!
But what everybody really wants to know is... what about resolution and colour? Well, there's a choice of four screen modes. Mode One allows most existing software to be run, allowing two colours per 8 x 8 pixel character block and bright and flash. Spectrum mode, in other words. So now let's change gear into Mode Two. This allows 8 x 1 colour res, letting you choose a new colour for every horizontal line. Like the effects in Hewson or Gremlin games of late. Both Modes One and Two limit you to the Spectrum standard 32 x 24 screen. But Mode Three kicks in the 80 column mode, suitable for business applications. The choice of paper colour auto-selects the ink colour. Finally, to move into top gear Mode Four, you have a 512 x 192 screen, with a different colour for EACH PIXEL on the screen! Think of·the art applications. (And all this for £150, we must be dreaming!) At all times the user will be able to select from a palette of 64 colours. Phew! Excuse me while I change my underpants.
When, when, when?
Okay, so like me you're slavering to get your hands on a Coupe. Let's take a look at the schedule. I should be getting a review copy of the machine some time this month, and happily you should only have to wait until May to actually buy one. That's pretty good eh? I trust you'll join with me in wishing MGT the very best of luck with the SAM, and let's hope there's no delays with this MAMMOTH project.
Rage Hard! YS 47 Phil South - November 1989
It's been a long time in the making, but soon we'll all be able to thrill to the delights of the new SAM Coupe computer from MGT. Phil South tools up to investigate the delay.
Hey, whatever happened to the SAM Coupe? It may only seem like yesterday, but in actual fact it was previewed in an edition of Rage Hard in March this year. Flicking back through the issues it appears that I said, "I should be getting a review copy of the machine sometime this month, and happily you should only have to wait for May to buy one." Well. Deary deary me, how wrong can you get? So what's been the hold-up, hmm? How much has the soon-to-be-finished product got in common with the design that I previewed? Well, the answer is actually quite a lot, but let's go into this in more Snout-like detail. Hang on, where's me magic screwdriver? Oh. Oi. Jackie. Stop cleaning Matt's ears out and bung it over here. Yeeurch!
U Got The Look
The 'designer' plastic casing of the SAM features a 71 key tilted full travel (proper) keyboard for typing purposes, which sits on top of a state-of-the-art rubber membrane. This ensures that no grot can enter the machine through the keyboard; but, please, don't go pouring your coffee over it just to test it! The drives, if you fit them, are hidden under the front of the machine out of the way, so the look is very clean. By the way, the colour of the rim-moulded casing has yet to be finalised, but the possibilities for changing colour are apparently endless. Pink? Lime green? Purple? P'raps we could see a gold special edition?
The basic SAM Coupe comes with a facility for tape loading so you can load all your Sinclair games right away. But the beauty of the SAM system is that you can bolt on more wazzy stuff as it becomes available. Underneath the raked keyboard there is space for two ultraslim 3.5' Citizen disk drives. MGT are the first people in the world to use these new drives, and they're only 0.75" thick! The drives come in two flavours, the normal IBM size and a whopping 2Mb. Because each drive has its own controller on board, you can run both drives at once. The drive mechanism is encapsulated in plastic, and can be slipped in and whipped out as many times as you like. (Honk!) This means that if you have a mate who's got a SAM with one drive you can pop yours in his machine for some twin drive computing! Coo. The disk operating system is so clever, it is actually faster than the likes of the Amiga and ST.
The printed circuit board inside the machine is T-shaped. This caused a great many problems, as the CAD program they used fell over when they fed in the board shape. So part of the hold-up with the machine has been due to Bruce Gordon designing the board by hand. The top of the T runs along the back of the machine and has the interfaces on it. The board runs down the centre of the two drives towards the front of the computer.
In the back of the machine are all the output and input ports. UHF (channel 39), composite video, digital and analogue RGB, standard Kempston type joystick port with 'dual' capability (with a splitter), mouse port, lightpen/lightgun port, Sinclair cassette port, MIDI IN/OUT/THRU, network port, RS232 and parallel printer port via a Smart cable. The joystick port will run normally if you just plug one joystick into it, but with a special splitter it'll run two. The reason for this is there wasn't room on the back for two with all the other ports on it. The MIDI ports have recently been redesigned by Keith Thrower to run independently of the main processor.
The centre of the machine is a normal Z80B running at 6Mhz, backed by the custom SAM ULA chip made by Fujitsu, a 32K ROM containing the BIOS, Basic and disk operating system, 256K of RAM (upgradable to 512K on the board) and the two Philips sound and video chips.
The graphics on the SAM are spankingly good. (Slap! Yow!) The chip responsible for most of this is the Philips TEA 2000 chip, giving you four basic modes of operation. Mode One is a 32 x 24 character screen, and can be thought of as the Spectrum mode. Each character square is capable of two colours from the Spectrum palette of 16 colours, but selectable from a bigger palette of 64. Mode Two is similar to Mode One, but with a 32 character x 192 pixel screen. Again each 'character' is capable of two colours, but as they're much, much closer together it looks like more. Again, 16 colours from a palette of 64. Mode Three is the 80 column text mode, with a 512 x 192 pixel screen. Each pixel can be a different colour, but only four colours from the 64 colour palette. Mode Four is a 256 x 192 pixel graphics mode, where each pixel can show any of the 16 colours from the 64 colour palette. This is the top end graphics mode.
To program the advanced graphics and sound you can use the built-in Basic, written by Andrew Wright (the author of Beta Basic), which features all the bells and whistles you expect from a modern Basic, like PROCedures, DO-UNTIL, WHILE and WEND. You can do calls to Z80 Machine Code and there's a whole load of new commands to take advantage of the new graphics. Bo Jangeborg, author of Artist II, is writing a special set of graphics utilities for the creation of SAM graphics, plus a new art program specially for the new machine.
Think of a sound. Now! Go on, think hard. Got one? Good. Well, now you can create that very sound with the SAM's amazing sound chip. The chiplet in question is the Philips SAA1099, and it features stereo sound generated from six oscillators and two noise generators. Yes, that's six, instead of the usual three. And using the amazing music and sound software designed by music 'wizard' and man of a thousand notes (all of them fivers) Dave 'Interesting' Whittaker you and your SAM can make bootiful music together. And it's true, 'cos the sound chippy is over eight octaves and has control over waveform, amplitude and envelope. The waveforms give you the basic shape of the sound, and the amplitude and envelope shape the sound thereafter giving it a slow attack for smooth, sleepy sounds or a sharp attack for percussive, snappy sounds.
When When When?
Yes, we know you'd like to have one. But you're going to have to wait. "Before Christmas" is all that MGT would say, and it's not messing about when it says that. The firm is relying on so many outside contractors that "committing to a firm date at this point would be a bit silly". Prices are yet to be confirmed, but the £150 mark for the basic cassette-based unit will be stuck to as far as possible. Software is no problem, as the unit on its own will run any Speccy software, but specific SAM stuff is being written right now, and PDS has written the SAM version of the PDS development system to help with this. A lot of effort is going into making the conversion of games to SAM graphics as easy as possible. Utilities exist to grab Spectrum graphics and convert them, but also an ST to SAM graphics utility is in preparation. Could the SAM be the ST of the 90s? In any case, interest in the machine is running high, and "several of the top software houses" are looking at doing software for it.