Reviewer: Meirion Jones
Magazine: Your Computer
Date: February 1983
What goes zap and ping, is red and yellow and green and blue all over, runs at millions of cycles a second, can remember 16,000 bytes of information and costs only £99? Now there is an answer - the Oric. It is still only three years since Sinclair produced the world's first ever £100 computer - the 1K, silent black and white ZX-80, and only 18 months since Commodore produced the first £200 colour computer. Meirion Jones looks for the catch.
Oric is everything you hoped it would be. Alive with colour, and zapping with built-in and effects, the Oric looks like a match for any machine now selling for less than £200. Oric is also everything you feared it might be just when you thought it might be safe to go back into home computing.
The £99 16K colour computer is the first to break the £100 barrier. Outwardly there is thing to distinguish it from the £169 48K version. Both are grey plastic wedges measuring 11in. by 7in., designed to present the keyboard at the same angle of attack as a typewriter. Height is 0.75in. at the front rising 2in. at the back. Overall the Oric is half as big again as the Spectrum and 50 percent heavier.
This slope coupled with the design of the keys makes the Oric an easy machine to touch-type on. Although the keyboard uses a rubber sheet pressing directly on to a Sinclair-style keyboard, like the Spectrum, typing feel is much improved by capping each key with plastic. Not only does this remove the "dead flesh" feel but it also gives the impression of positive click keys. A note sounds every time you depress a key, with a lower note distinguishing return and control keys - but if you do not want to sound like the telegraph operator in a bad western Control F turns off this keyboard bleep.
Layout of the keys is relatively standard and as the Oric does not have single-key entry it has been possible to label them clearly. The white on black lettering is not pretty but it is unambiguous. Although the keys are quite small except for an oversize return key and a full-size space bar, overall the Oric emulates the feel of a portable typewriter. All keys have auto-repeat and there are four keys dedicated specifically to cursor control. It is certainly easier to type on than any of Sinclair's offerings.
Switching on the Oric produces a screen display of a white screen with a black back-ground. Black lettering informs you that you are in Oric extended Basic O 1.0 (c) 1983 Tangerine, followed by the number of bytes free and a ready message. If you Control T into capitals the message Caps appears in white just above the top right-hand corner of the white box. Likewise if you are loading a program from cassette by CLoading "Name" the message Searching appears in white just above the top left-hand corner.
When you want to break out of dreary monochrome the Ink and Paper commands allow you to choose your own foreground and background colours. Numbers 0 to 7 offer you black, red, green, yellow, blue, magenta, cyan and white. Colours are comparable in quality with the Spectrum but there is no facility to change the border colour. The control key gives access to double height and flashing characters.
Drawing on the Oric is not difficult. Typing Hires gives access to the 240 by 200 maximum resolution of the Oric. You can work in two colours at a time in Hires but you have the bonus of three lines of 40 characters outside the main Hires screen. Curset X,Y,Z sets the cursor to an X,Y co-ordinate on the screen while Z specifies the foreground or background colour. Curmov is like Curset except that X and Y are relative to the last position of the cursor. Draw X,Y,Z draws a straight line from the current cursor position to a point X across from it and Y down. The circle command takes the form Circle R,Z where R is the radius and Z is again the foreground/background colour. The Fill command operates over 40 cells in 200 rows, but there is no Paint command as on the Dragon. A Pattern command allows you to draw dotted lines of any sort.
Char A,S,Z allows you to type text on to screen in Hires somewhat painfully. A is the ASCII code of any letter you want to print and Z again the foreground/background colour. S can be either 0 for standard character set or 1 for the alternative teletext-style character set which the Oric carries in readiness for the £79 Modem which will connect it with Prestel and the outside world.
The Oric normally saves at 2,400 baud but it also allows you to save at 300 baud for extra security. Machine-code subroutines can be saved by specifying start and end addresses. You can also Auto-save so that your programs will run as soon as they have loaded.
What marks the Oric out from some of the older machines is that it has been designed with an awareness that 1983 will see computers being used increasingly for practical purposes. The built-in Centronics interface will make it easy to plug in a printer or other peripherals. Oric will soon be selling a Modem so that Prestel will become available. Owners will be able to accept telesoftware - programs loaded straight down the phone line - eventually electronic mail could come into the home by the same route, and with the addition of a tape recorder the Oric with its Modem could become a telephone answerer and message taker.
Forth on the way
An RGB output allows you to power a monitor if the television display does not meet your exacting standards. An expansion socket accepts plug-in ROM cartridges for games or for other languages such as Forth, which is being written for the Oric at the moment. There is some confusion as to whether the Oric will accept joysticks but the four cursor keys and space bar all in a line are ideal for games which pit one human at a time against the computer.
The Oric is based around the 6502 processor so the internal workings should not frighten anyone used to conversing in hex with an Acorn Atom or BBC or for that matter a Vic-20. Unfortunately it may dissuade Z-80 machine-code enthusiasts from moving up from their ZX-80s and ZX-81s.
The Basic is a relatively standard Microsoft but the lack of single-key entry should not deter beginners. Editing is made easier because the delete key does not require a shift. Control X deletes the line you are entering and entering Edit puts you in editing mode. Edit line number sends the cursor to that line where it can be controlled with the arrow and delete keys. Escape allows you to insert characters into the edited line. List only lists specified lines or the whole program but can be controlled with Control S.
A good speaker and built-in noises get the Oric's sound off to a good start. Typing Zap, Ping, Shoot or Explode produces convincing arcade game noises which can easily be incorporated into any program. Control G produces a continuous ringing sound. Instead of the mumblings of the Spectrum the Oric delights in Sound, Music and Play commands. Sound and Music define the type of sound while Play shapes them. Sound consists of noise channel which can be mixed with any of three tone channels at any of 15 fixed volume levels - or a variable volume level to be defined by Play. It also defines the period of the sound. Music gives a choice of notes across six octaves. Play enables noise and tone while offering seven choices of envelope to shape the sound.
One of Oric's backers is British Car Auctions but, if they thought they were moving into an area of business with a better reputation with consumers than selling second-hand cars, computing may not have been the best choice. It would be unfair to single out Oric Products International because many of the people who have now waited three months for the Orics they ordered on 28 days' delivery only ordered one because they had given up on ever receiving the Spectrum they had ordered when Acorn failed to deliver the BBC on time.
Not enough thought has gone into the simple things. Detail changes to the design could have made the Oric look far more up to date. The mains lead from the built-in transformer in the plug is annoyingly short and the plug into the back of the machine is so shaky that unless it is taped into place you could lose whole programs that you have painstakingly typed in. Doubtless Oric will soon put these details right and produce a proper manual. It would be a pity if a good machine at a bargain price were to be spoiled for a ha'porth of tar.
- With 16K for £99 and 48K for £189, Oric 1 remembers more for less money than any other colour computer.
- Oric offers six true colours in addition to black and white. Any two can be used in high resolution.
- Sound is loud and clear - not just a muddy bleep. Channel, octave, note, period and envelope can all be controlled. Built-in sound effects will be useful for games.
- The keyboard is an improvement on the Spectrum's but a real typewriter keyboard would have been much better and would, perhaps, only have added another £10 to the price.
- The Oric has been designed for the real world. A built-in Centronics interface makes it easy to plug in printers and peripherals
- Whereas Spectrum buyers will have to pay £20 for an RS-232. Oric's Modem should also be available months before Sinclair's.
- Oric's first manual was disastrous - it was clear that the writer had never laid eyes on an Oric. The manual has been corrected, and is now merely inadequate. The full manual should be available in the near future.
- The 6502 CPU is already familiar to Acorn and Commodore specialists so there should be no shortage of software.
- Once teething troubles have been overcome the £99 Oric will become the ideal beginner's machine.
- Oric lacks singe-key entry but this is a mixed blessing, and the Basic is conventional.
- Problems with fluctuating modulators may cause production delays. Sinclair cannot hope to bring out the ZX-83 much before autumn this year - but if the Oric becomes a threat he might alter the specification of the Spectrum or cut its price. Potential Oric buyers should also remember that the Electron and the Binatone may appear soon.