Reviewer: Simon Beesley
Magazine: Your Computer
Date: September 1982
Two years have elapsed between the NewBrain's announcement and its appearance on the micro scene. For its £233 home-computer price, it seems to offer many business facilities. Simon Beesley finds out whether Grundy's micro will be happier in the home or in the office.
Advertisements for the NewBrain suggest that after using its graphics to impress the board of directors, a businessman can pop the machine into his briefcase and take it home to entertain or instruct the family: Junior can learn a foreign language while mum can ... You are probably familiar with this rather unconvincing scenario. Despite those claims, it seems clear that the NewBrain has been designed primarily for business applications. Its role as a personal or home computer is only at best a secondary one.
However, since the machine costs little more than a Vic or a Spectrum it is not unfair to consider it in the same light. Could the NewBrain compete with pure and simple personal computers on their own ground?
Model A costs £233 and Model AD, which has a single-line fluorescent display on board as an extra feature, costs £267.50. The line display is 16 characters wide and can act as a window on the screen or separately. Both models come with 32K RAM and 29K ROM.
An unusual feature, more appropriate to the NewBrain’s business role, is its very large memory expandability. Each expansion module supplies up to 512K RAM. Connecting up to a maximum of four models would make 2Mbytes of memory available.
Despite the unit’s compact size, the keyboard has almost a full typewriter span and the keys allow fast typing speeds. At the back there are sockets for two cassettes, TV and monitor, ports for a printer, Modem and expansion board but no power switch. This is an irritating omission as it is not difficult to crash the system.
Graphic range, no colour
The NewBrain does not offer colour or sound - probably its major failing as an alternative to other similarly-priced home computers. In compensation, it provides a wider range of text characters and graphic symbols than any other micro at this price. By using the control key you can choose one of four character sets, drawn from a total of 512 characters, including more than 150 graphic symbols and the Greek alphabet. A single-statement entry can change the display from a 40-character by 24-line format to 80 by 30.
Although NewBrain’s Basic is compiled and conforms to the ANSI standard, its set of terms and functions is more or less the same as that of the more common Microsoft interpreted Basics. The command Put, for example, has a similar but wider function to the BBC’s VDU statement: not only can it send cursor-control codes to determine the display output but it can also send control codes or data to any other device such as the line display or printer.
String handling is supplemented by INSTR, which searches a string for a selected character and returns its position, and a facility for defining string functions. A function FNF$(A$), for instance, could be defined to insert the string A$ in a given sentence.
The screen editor is one of the most effective available and compares very well with its Spectrum or Vic counterparts. You can readily delete any part of a program line in front or after the cursor, insert code and split a line into two, using a combination of the Insert, Repeat, Shift and Cursor keys.
So far, straightforward enough. But if you wish to take full advantage of the machine’s capability you will need a certain amount of patience and perseverance. The Open statement allows you to open and define, through a list of parameters, an input or output data "stream" to a particular device such as a TV or monitor, or the printer.
Thus, the console stream which links keyboard and display can be redefined to give the display a width of 80 characters and a depth of 100 lines. Only 24 lines will be visible but by using the cursor keys 100 lines of text can be scrolled up and down the screen window.
Alternatively, a separate stream can be opened to write to the line display alone.
In effect this brings a number of input and output routines, which are more commonly submerged in the operating system, under the programmer’s control. But given the novelty of this feature, its uses and applications are explained in the manual in too sketchy a fashion.
Not so user-friendly
Far from being "friendly" at times the system appears to be downright hostile, as one of a total of 120 error codes sends the user scurrying to the error appendix. Much of the blame here can be ascribed to poor documentation.
The procedure for obtaining high-resolution graphics is somewhat cumbersome. First you have to open an area memory for a text screen, which can then be made available for high-resolution graphics by linking a graphics data stream to the text stream. Once you have accomplished this, you will have a relatively powerful graphics capability at your disposal.
Defining the width and depth of the screen, and as a consequence its resolution, gives a choice of 256, 320, 512 or 640 pixels horizontally and up to 250 pixels vertically. The statements Range and Centre permit you to choose the scale of the x and y pixel co-ordinates and position the origin, while Axes draws and marks off the two axes.
The command Fill fills in an area and Arc draws an arc through a given angle. Other commands allow lines to be plotted either relative to the pen position or in terms of the screen co-ordinates; the pen can be moved or rotated without drawing, and mixing graphics and text is possible.
In common with the Atari and the Dragon, the NewBrain does not hold its screen data in a fixed area of memory. This makes it possible to create multiple screen memories in RAM and switch between them. You could set up a screen page 200 lines deep; scroll it up or down the screen window and then jump to any other page of text or high-resolution graphics.
This facility has obvious potential for educational applications, graphic games and animation effects. Naturally enough it consumes a good deal of memory: creating a screen page 40 characters wide by 200 lines deep takes up more than 10K.
None of these techniques is, however, covered in sufficient detail by the manual, which bears all the marks of rushed preparation. The released version of the NewBrain Handbook contains an errata slip, listing some 35 errors and it was no surprise to find a small error among the slip’s corrections.
Those commands that will be relatively new to anyone reared on, say, a Sinclair or Commodore micro are only briefly, and sometimes obscurely, explained. The Software Technical Manual, seen in a pre-draft version, describes the various operating system modules and does not enlarge on the Handbook.
What is needed is something like the Programmer's Reference Guide for the Vic-20, which expands on the manual’s explanations before gently initiating the user into the higher mysteries of the operating system.
Admittedly, most manuals leave something to be desired and compared with the BBC’s manual - still provisional after all these months - the NewBrain’s is a model of thoroughness. Perhaps the NewBrain Beginners’ Guide, promised for the near future, will make life easier for the newcomer.
- As a business machine, the NewBrain should do well: its highly adaptable operating system and large potential memory makes it suitable for applications which were hitherto only within the scope of machines several times as expensive.
- The low quality of its documentation will not matter here since its memory capacity - 4Mbytes of ROM can be accessed through a ROM Buffer expansion module - should encourage the production of easy-to-run, tailor-made software.
- It will also shortly be possible to attach a communications interface enabling 32 NewBrains to share the same peripherals. This could well earn it a place in the micro education market.
- It is unlikely that these features will appeal to the bulk of personal computer buyers, most of whom will be deterred by the lack of colour and sound.
- On the credit side, no other computer under £300 offers such an extensive character set or such high-resolution graphics.
- It could not be recommended to a beginner but could prove attractive to an experienced user who is prepared to explore some of the possibilities only hinted at in the manual.