ACT has really got its act together with its innovation, the apricot. User-friendliness, transportability, Sirius-compatibility and excellent value for money are star qualities which oughtto guarantee this 16-bit machine a leading role in the micro show. Peter Rodwell reports.
ACTis a large and well-established force in the British micro business. It has a surprising number of facets, ranging from its well-known role as importer and distributor of the Sirius 1 to a time-sharing bureau service, supplier of pre-printed continuous stationery and software house. It seems only logical, then, for it to go into microcomputer manufacturing, and to do so in a big way.
ACT now has its own factory in Scotland, capable of churning out one computer a minute. And those computers will be its very own machine, the Apricot. 'Apricot'as a name actually started as an in-house project code name rather than an attempt to exploit the popularity enjoyed by other machines with fruity names. It is in fact a very rough acronym for ACT's full name, APplled COmputer Techniques - geddit?
As a result of ACT's Sirius activities, and its close links with Victor, the Sirius manufacturer, the Apricot has been sub- jected to two important developments.
Firstly, it is software compatible with the Sirius, an important attribute as there is now a large amount of software available for the latter. This is a bold step at a time when almost everybody seems interested in making only IBM PC claim-alikes, and certainly must have caused a few surprises over in the US, where the industry seems to think of very little other than IBM compatibility. But thankfully, the IBM PC does not have the same strangle-hold on the European market, which is to our advantage as we have more variety, choice and innovation.
The links with Victor provided a second bonusfor the Apricot-Victor will sell itin the States and world-wide (apart from the UK, obviously) through its now well- established network. The agreement in fact allows Victor to build the Apricot in California and ACT to build the Sirius in Scotland, although it seems unlikely that this cross-manufacturing will take place at any significant level to begin with - I gather that ACT may make 500 or so Sirius machines in Scotland this year, but that seems to be as far as it's going at the moment.
The Apricot's basic concept was origin- ated within ACT and an outside company QED - was contracted to do much of the detailed design. This was then refined within ACT and the software all developed in-house too. Headquarters for Operation Apricot is ACT's Advanced Technology division, a group of white-hot technocrats housed in a splendidly luxurious mansion in Dudley, known throughout the rest of ACT as'the zoo'because of its proximity to Dudley Zoo rather than because of the behaviour of its occupants.
ACT has set up a slick manufacturing operation along very similar lines to that of Victor: the PCBs are made, stuffed and thoroughly tested in Japan and the keyboards and disk drive assemblies are also bought in. (I'm told they'll be taking delivery of two juggernauts 11 o is drives per day at the factory!) ACT's operation is thus a matter of assembling ready-made modules, putting them into a casing and giving the completed machine another thorough testing before it's packed and despatched.
Sensibly, ACT refrains from describing the Apricot as a portable computer, preferring the term 'transportable', which sums it up quite neatly, for while the main box and keyboard together weigh only 8kg, the monitor is of course separate, Here it is u'@nlike the supposedly portable '- but much heavier - Osborne-type of machine which has the screen built in.
The transportability is aided by a neat arrangement for clipping the keyboard to the underside of the main box, with small pegs to hold its coiled cable. A flap pulls down to cover the disk drives and a toughened polycarbonate carrying handle pulls out from the box just under the front edgefor easycarrying. Thisleavesyou with one hand free to carry the monitor (which also has a carrying handle moulded into its casing). However, ACT envisages that really keen Apricot transporters may want to buy two monitors - one for the home and one for the office, perhaps - and has therefore priced the monitor separately.
I think the Apricot design is a good compromise; truly portable computers won't appear until a reasonably-priced flat screen appears and the current 'portables' are really far too heavy to live up to their description. Interestingly, ACT investi- gated the possibility of using a flat plasma display on the Apricot, but went off the idea when the supplier quoted a price of something like 4000 per display - in quantity!
At the back of the main box is a row of sockets: power (with a fuse holder and illuminated on/off switch nearby), nioni. tor, serial port, parallel port and keyboard, Undoing three screws on the back panel opens up the entire case.
Inside, there's a main PCB - which can slide right out for easy servicing - under the power supply and disk drives. Every. thing is remarkably neat and tidy, to the point that ACT anticipates no trouble in passing any electrical safety standards with the Apricot.
The Sony microfloppy drives are beauti. ful pieces of engineering and, says ACT, very, very reliable indeed. Thev are virtually silent, apart from a soft click as the computer turns them on and accesses them. The disks themselves come in hard plastic cases with a spring-loaded metal shutter which protects the disk's surface from dust, fingers, etc, when it's not in use There's no door on the disk drive - you just push a disk in until it's fully borne and the drive automatically opens the shutter Retrieving a disk involves pushing a small button on the front panel, at which the disk, pops out, with the shutter automaticall ' closed. The disks are, of course, far more robust than 51/4in floppies and, because ot the hard case, you can write on the label with no danger of damaging the disk inside.
Currently the Apricot is supplied with one single-sided drive in its basic con- figuration. Disk capacity is 315 kbytes, but a double-sided option will be available i later in the year to give double this capacity. ACT is considering offering a hard disk Apricot: a 31/2in, 10Mbyte winchester disk drive, which will sit in 11 @ oils L'! the tloppies, .The machine is based on the 8086 CPU. Unlike the 8088 used in the Sirius, this has a true 16-bit data bus and requires its memory to be arranged in 16-bit words rather than 8-bit bytes. This proved rather an expensive arrangement when IBM was designing its PC over two years ago, hence I I,,, Jccisioii to go I ol LIIC0k)00, [)U L Luudy [lie price differential is very small. There is an empty socket next to the 8086 for an 8087 maths co-processor, available as a dealer- fitted option.
The Apricot comes with 256 kbytes of RAM as standard and two internal expan- sion sockets allow this to be expanded to IUOK. ine expansion bus is ACT's own design but full details are contained in the machine's documentation to allow outside companies to develop compatible cards - one company is already preparing a full IEEE-48 interface card. Two pop-out panels at the back allow sockets to be fitted for any add-on interface cards. Currently,
ACT plans to make only two cards - a memory expansion board and an auto-dial modem.
The machine comes with only two 1/0 ports - a Centronics parallel printer port and a software-prograrnmable serial port. See the 'Systems software' section for, details of how this port - and other svstem parameters - are set up.
The monitor offers exactly the same display as the Sirius: 25 lines X 80 characters and 800 X 400 dots graphics resolution. Despite its small size, I found it perfectly clear and readable and it even uses the Sirius character set, which I think is one of the best around. Unlike the Sirius, though, it has a hardxare brightness control (the Sirius display - brightness and contrast - is operated entirely from the keyboard). The monitor swivels and tilts and can also slide from side to side in a groove in the lid of the main box. You'd have to be a pretty peculiar shape to be unable to get the monitor in exactly the right position!
Regular PCW readers will know that I am very particular about keyboards, mainly because a lot of my time is spent processingwordsandakeyboardcanmake the difference between writing several thousand words in a day or spending hours correcting mistakes and swearing. Straight away, I'll say that the Apricot has a superb keyboard with exactly the right kind of feel to it - for me, that is, as it's always a personal matter.
It has 96 keys and, like the Sirius, almost every key can be programmed to produce whichever character you like or even whole character strings. Attributes such as whether a key repeats when held down and whether its code is sent to the program being run or is intercepted b.y the operating system as a display control code are similarly programmable. The Apricot comes with all the keys set to auto-repeat if held down for a short while. An electronic keyclick is emitted from a surprisingly large elliptical speaker within the main box. Interestingly, ACT found that the cheapest way of providing both keyclick and'bell'was with a Texas Instruments SN 76489 programmable sound generator chip,.As used in many home computers and ganies machines; as full details of the chip are included in the Apricot technical manual, you could add suitable sound- effects to an applications program - zapping noises as a word processor deletes characters, maybe?
After the width of the Sirius keyboard, it feels a little cramped at first but this is mainly because there is no spacing be- tween the main qwerty block, the editing keys and the numeric pad. The keyboard takes its power from the main unit and transmits and receives information via a serial link. The system reset key is recessed into the right hand edge of the keyboard and needs to be held in for a second before it takes effect. There's a power-on LED, neatly sited so it forms the dot in the 'i' in the Apricot logo.
If you think the idea of a keyboard receiving information is a little odd, then you have to realise that the Apricot keyboard is no ordinary keyboard. Firstly, it contains a clock/calendar chip (with a 9v battery to power it in a small compartment underneath); and it has its own processor and 'intelligence'. But its outstanding feature is the Microscreen. This is a two-line, 40-character LCD display mounted in the top right hand corner, with a row of six touch sensitive function keys along its lower edge, each of which has its own LED.
When the Apricot is first turned on, the Microscreen displays the date and time. To the left of the Microsereen is a row of pre-set function keys (although of course they can be programmed to produce whichever codes you like): 'help', 'undo', .repeat', 'calc', 'intr' (interrupt), 'menu' and 'finish'. Pressing the 'caic' key turns the Microscreen into a calculator, with each of the touch-sensitive keys labelled on the Microscreen. One, 'send'will transmit the result of your calculations to the computer so that it appears on the screen wherever the cursor happens to be, just as with the Sirius on-screen calculator. But unlike the Sirius, the calculator software is held in ROM; you can switch the Apricot on and calculate away without first putting in a disk and booting up the operating system.
The Microscreen would be pretty im- pressive if this was the total of its abilities. But the stroke of genius in its design is to make not only the keys programmable but to allow an application program to down- load text to the LCD. So you can set up labels of up to two lines of six characters for each of the six function keys and change them to reflect the changing role of each key as your program moves from level to level. The arrangement is much tidier than taking up the bottom row of the main display for function key labels and although it makes a program Apricot- specific, the chances are that a good programmer will already have made this aspect of his software easily modifiable to fit various machines anyway - with most business micros (and some home machines) now appearing with programm- able function keys, there's really no excuse for an applications package not using them. I will talk more about programming the Microscreen in the 'Systems software' section.
One problem with LCD displays is that you need to be at the right viewing angle to see them properly. Like Epson with the HX-20, ACT thought of this and there's a viewing-angle control - actually a small thumbwheel - on the right hand edge of the Overboard next to the reset button. (And because the reset button is recessed, there's no danger of hitting it accidentally as you grope for the thumbwheel.)
Apart from the 'calc' key, the only other pre-set function key which is set up to do anything is the 'print' key; this simply dumps whatever's on the screen to the printer, although this is done in text mode, not graphics. Incidentally, all the function keys produce different key codes to the Sirius, although of course they can be re-programmed; as anyone writing a program which uses fancy display attri- butes (underlining, reverse video, etc) will know, this is the sort of thing which varies wildly between terminals and computers anyway and the appropriate handling routines have to be made easily alterable.
Naturally, there are full cursor control keys, five editing keys, a caps lock with a LED indicator, and a 'stop' key (which generates CTROL-S to stop text scrolling up the screen and which also has a LED). The only omissions I could think of are the, screen attributes keys a la Sirius; these are actually a nuisance if you hit them accidentally so I re-programmed mine to produce bold and underline on/off toggle codes for WordStar, which is very handy and which I immediately missed when using WordStar on the Apricot.
The keyboard also has a small socket along its back edge for a mouse, although at the moment no suitable rodent had been captured. I get the impression that the ACT people are as unenthusiastic about mice as I am but just in case the beast isn't merely another manifestation of Califor- nian trendiness, the interface is there.
That just about wraps up the hardware side of things; the machine is well designed ergonomically as well as from the produc- tion and maintenance points of view and incorporates features - particularly the Microscreen - which can truly be de- scribed as innovative. 5'ygtems
Of Concurrent CP/M-86 I can say very little at the moment as time has not allowed me to get to know it much. It allows you to run several programs simultaneously and you switch from one @o the other using ,virtual screens'. A more detailed explana- tion of this follows in next month's PCW with a fully-blown review of Concurrent CP/M-86.
But it would be inaccurate to dismiss all three operating systems on the Apricot with the above couple of paragraphs, for ACT has put a lot of time and effort into tailoring them to work with the Apricot and to make all of its features easily accessible to user and programmer. All three operating systems share a basic principle in the way in which they can be implemented on a computer. A large part of the operating system code is written so that it will work with any 8088/8086 computer - the part with handles the disk drives, for instance, falls into this category. However, there is always some informa- tion which is specific to the hardware and which changes from machine to machine. This could be as simple a matter as the 1/0 port addresses or it can be extremely complicated because the computer has unusual or unique hardware facilities - like the Apricot's Microscreen. All of this machine-specific information is confined to one area of the operating system called the BIOS (Basic Input/Output Section) and it is left to the computer manufacturer to write his own, custoni-tailored BIOS according to the requirements of his machine.
By micro standards, the Apricot BIOS is enormous: look at the MS-DOS memory map and you'll see what I mean. In fact the operating system takes up a bumper 128k or half the basic machine's RAM but it contains some interesting features in the area between 08OOH and EOOOH on the map.
To allow the display's character set to be changed under software control, it is held in RAM. Obviously, there must always be at least one character font in RAM but immediately above this is an area of memory into which an extra two fonts can be loaded, with the machine switching under program control between the two. The keyboard tables are also held in RAM. To explain, the keyboard (like that of the Sirius) doesn't generate ASCII codes but 'logical key codes'; these are trapped by the operating system which looks up a table in RAM containing the autorepeat, etc, attributes and ASCII codes assigned to each key. This is what makes it so easy to reprogram the keyboards on both machines.
A 40 kbyte block of RAM is provided within the BIOS area for use in several ways. Firstly, it can be used as a disk cache, an extra-large buffer which can hold large chunks of files or even entire files, thus speeding up disk operations tremendous- ly. It isn't quite the same thing as a RAM disk (which can also be implemented on the Apricot) as it becomes in effect an extension to a disk drive rather than appearing as a separate, conventional disk drive. This area of RAM can also be used to hold the second and third character sets, or it can be used as a bit-mapped graphics area to provide 800 X 400 graphics resolution display. Just how these choices are made will be explained in a moment.
The primary purpose of an operating system is to provide a standard interface between an applications program and the hardware. Thus, the applications prog- rammer needs to know nothing about how the computer works, what port addresses to use for I/0 and all the gory details of the disk system- he simply uses a standard set of subroutines within the operating system to perform these functions, with the result that the program will work on any computer equipped with the same operat- ing system.
When handling 1/0 to the disk, the operating system uses files - the things you see listed when you ask for a display of the disk directory - and this same method is used for other I/0 channels such as the printer and console, usually with the names "PRN" and "CON" respectively. ACT has built another 1/0 file into its BIOS, called "MSCREEN" for sending text to the Microscreen, as mentioned earlier. For example, from Microsoft Basic you would do something like:
10 OPEN "O", 1, "MSCREEN" 20 PRINT #1,"A MESSAGE TO THE WORLD" 30CLOSE1to get the text A MESSAGE TO THE WORLD onto the Microscreen; the mes- sage appears when the file is CLOSED, not when you actually print it, so you can send a screenful of key labels, etc, and have them appear instantaneously as soon as the file is closed. Using the Microscreen as a calcula- tor erases the display temporarily but it is restored when you turn the calculator off. A whole range of escape codes is available to scroll text, move the cursor around, etc, on the LCD. A simple escape code will restore the time/date display for neatness at the end of the program.
The clock/calendar in the keyboard is, incidentally, fully interfaced to MS-DOS so that when the system is first booted up it gets the correct time and date from the calendar and you don't need to type these in afterevery reset, unless of course they're wrong for some reason, in which case, resetting them from MS-DOS also resets the clock/calendar chip and - if it's displaying the date and time - alters the Microscreen display too.
The main display driver uses the same escape codes as does the Sirius, and the two machines are..virtually 100 per cent soft- ware compatible - I transferred a couple of packages from the Sirius and they ran perfectly with no trouble at all. In fact the only area of incompatibility I discovered was with the codes generated by the function keys.
ACT has, however, added a few rather neat tricks to the Apricot which aren't - sadly- available on the Sirius. By sending ESC "," to the screen, you can define a screen window by following up with the top line, bottom line, left column and right column numbers. This is almost - but not quite -full windowing, as what it actually does is to confine all further activities on the screen to the area you have defined and you can only set up one such area at a time. Escape ". " restores the'window'to the full screen size. There is also a group of escape codes which allow you to scroll the display up, down, left or right by a specified number of characters. Like the Sirius, it can display underlined, bright and reverse video characters, although not many applications packages can be configured to use these - I'm still looking for a word processor which I can set up to display underlined or bold characters on the Sirius screen using the display's underline and bold capabilities.
ACT has done a great deal more than 'throw in' a few utilities to take advantage of the Apricot's facilities. Recognising that most of the users in today's business micro market have neither the time nor the inclination to learn about computers - they just want to use them - ACT has provided what must be the friendliest and easiest-to-use set of utilities on the market.
Firstly, there's a program called the ,system manager' which really is rather more than a utility. The idea is that the user should never have to see the 'A>' prompt of the operating system, unless he deliber- ately chooses to. Instead, almost every- thing can be handled from the manager, a friendly, menu-style 'front end' specifically designed for ease of use by a 'computer- naive' user.
The system configuration package is the best I have ever seen and makes beautifully easy the whole- usually messy- business of programming the serial port baud rates and framing, choosing the normal charac- ter set and keyboard table and setting things like the keyclick and bell volumes, the length of the delay for which a key must be depressed before it starts to auto-repeat and the speed at which it repeats. The click and bleep volumes, for instance, are depicted graphically rather than as num- bers (see photo).
The configurator also allows you to choose how that big block of memory in the BIOS is used. No technical questions are involved, simply a choice of using the Apricot for software development (no disk cache) or for applications (big disk cache) or for graphics.
All this information is kept on disk and the configurator displays the current settings as you work through each item. Once you've finished, the new configura- tion is written to disk and can be transferred to other disks, too, along with the operating system, or you can set up different configurations to suit different applications. Although you can set up these configurations on the Sirius, you have to rebuild the entire operating system to use theni, which is not really satisfac- tory.
Like the rest of ACT's utilities, it uses a graphical device, called the ladder, to act as a menu, and choices are made by flicking this up or down with simple keystrokes (or with a mouse, even). It also incorporates a help facility which provides on-screen descriptions of each operation and each choice. A most impressive piece of soft- ware, which could act as a lesson to many other manufacturers.
Other ACT-generated utilities include editors for character sets and keyboard tables which allow you to generate your own very easily and simply; these can be saved on disk too, again a better arrange- ment than on the Sirius. There are utilities which allow you to change the character font for another on disk, and restore the original afterwards, and there's one which does the same for the keyboard tables. At the moment, an applications program could only take advantage of these if the appropriate commands were inserted in a batch or submit file, but a later release of the BIOS will allow this to be done within an applications program. ACT has also written its own print spooler (currently for MS-DOS only) which will print out text while you carry on with something else and there's an asynchronous communications package which comes with the machine.
Unfortunately, DR's Personal Basic was not available by the time this Bench- test went to press so I can't comment on it; in any case it deserves an article of its own . . . The same applies to the Digital Research graphics module GSX, which will run under all three operating systems. This frees the graphics programmer from hardware considerations in the same way as operating systems do for more mundane tasks and DR plans to incorporate it into its operating systems eventually. The idea is simple: as details like screen resolution and available colours vary widely between machines, it's a real pain trying to write a graphics program to run on more than one specific computer. GSX provides a stan- dard interface to an applications program so that as far as the programmer is concerned, he is writing for just one machine. When a manufacturer installs GSX on his computer, he gives it details of his machine's actual capabilities just as he configures an operating system BIOS and GSX then translates the program's graphics instructions into the nearest actual operation possible on the machine.
ACT is also producing its own relational database program, 3D, for the Apricot and this will also have to await a future Database Benchtest as it was not ready for the Benchtest time (early August). This, too, will come free with the machine.
An impressively hefty range of extra- cost software will be lined up for the Apricot by launch time. On the languages side, there will be Microsoft's Basic, Fortran, Pascal and Cobol compilers as well as its Macro86 assembler. From Digital Research comes the CBasic86 interpreter and compiler, C, PL/I, Pascal MT+ and CIS Cobol Lll compilers and the ASM86 assembler, plus DR's DR-Graph, DR-PLOT and DR-4010 graphics pack- ages. Naturally, ACT's Pulsar range of business software is being transferred and is said to run very fast, and two word processors, three spreadsheets and dBaseII will also be available.
Given the Apricot's superb facilities and the production target of 75,000 machines next year, you can expect plenty of other software houses to put their products onto the machine pretty quickly. In fact a number of software houses have already taken delivery of pre-production models sporting plywood cases instead of the final plastic versions!
Double-sided disk drives are in the pipeline, as I also mentioned earlier. With over 600 kbytes available on each Sirius disk (yes, I have the cheapo single-sided version), I have become rather spoilt on disk capacity and was at first surprised at the speed with which I filled up,an Apricot disk; the double-sided drives would be a very cost-effective extra. As to when the 10 Mbyte hard disk will be available, well, no decision had been taken at Benchtest time, either on time or cost.
Certainly other companies will be adding to the range of options with suitable plug-in.boards - expect at least one Z80 board with CPIM-80 option. With only two expansion slots inside the machine, though, you'll have to limit your choices severely as continually taking the lid off to swap boards is a bit silly. Looking at the PCB, there's no way that another slot or two could have been added without making the whole machine bigger and by its very small 'footprint' is an obvious selling point in the battle for space on the office desk top.
With Concurrent CP/M-86, you would probably need extra RAM if you wanted to run numerous applications simultaneous- ly. Memory is get! ing cheaper all the time and it certainly pays - with any machine - to buy as much of it as you can afford. I think, though, that if you need lots of extra I/0 ports or all sorts of esoteric extras, the Apricot probably isn't the machine for you - it certainly wasn't designed with this type of user in mind - and you'd be better off with a Sirius or some other machine with greater expansion possibilities.
Networking is the way that office systems are going and some type of networking will be available on the Apricot. As the rest pf the machine is so Sirius-compatible, I expect this to be compatible with the Omninet-based Sirius networking, too.
|CPU||8086,5MHz, optional 8087 maths co-processor|
|RAM||256k expendable to 768 kbytes|
|Rom||?k bootstrap ROM (also contains calculator software)|
|Display||25 lines X 80 characters, 800 X 400 graphics 2 line X 40 character LCD Microscreen display on keyboard|
|Keyboard||96 keys inc 8 pre-set function keys, 6 programmable touch-sensitive function keys, cursor control, numeric pad|
|Disks||One 31/2in microfloppy drive, capacity 315 kbytes, optional second drive, optional double-sided 31/2in drives|
|I/0||One RS232, one Centronics parallel interface, mouse interface, optional audo-dial modem card|
|System||CP/M-86, Concurrent CP/M-86, MS-DOS II, utilities|
|Languages||Microsoft & Digital Research Basic interpreters, Microsoft Basic & Cobol compilers run-time support; large range of optional languages|
|Applications||3D relational database, communications package, large range of optional packages inc business, word processing, spreadsheet & database|
ACT isn't making this mistake with the Apricot. Full technical details, hardware and software, will be available so there'll be no excuse for programmers pleading ignorance as a reason for not using the machine to the full. As is so often the case, the Benchtest machine came with draft documentation but talking with the lads from ACT revealed that they have the matter very well in hand and plan to cater for all users, from the businessman who's never seen a computer before to the programmer who wants to dig deep into the system.
|All timings in seconds. For an explana- tion and listing of the Benchmark tests, see PCW Vol 5 No 11, November 1982.|
I think ACT has hit the nail right on the head with the Apricot. In fact I will confidently state that the Apricot is the best micro I have yet seen in terms of its facilities and user interface. There are faster machines around and there are machines with more powerful processors and what some regard as more'profession- al' (ie, a sod to use) operating systems, but none combine ease of use and relative power into as neat a package as does this machine.
What we have here is a machine precisely and expertly designed for the modern micro market; it incorporates no barely-tried leading edge technology, just careful, clever and well-proven software and hardware techniques and a good deal of original thinking. And it provides these at a price which is going to cause a few people something of a shock. Other manufacturers are going to have to run hard to catch up.
Published in Personal Computer World in issue 10 of volume 6 (October 1983).
Written by Peter Rodwell . Reproduced with his kind permission.