Reviewer: Glyn Moody
Magazine: Your Computer
Date: October 1984
Glyn Moody investigates the latest member of the Commodore family and finds they mean business.
The Plus 4 IS is Commodore’s bid for micro respectability. It offers a 16-colour 64K 8-bit machine complete with Basic 3.5 and four integrated application packages on ROM, all for £300. When it hits the streets in October, its price and specification will make it a hot competitor with both the QL and the BBC Micro.
You can tell Commodore means business with the Plus 4 just by looking at it. Instead of the Commodore 64’s flimsy construction in off-brown, the Plus 4 offers a solid and elegantly-styled machine in a no-nonsense gun-metal coloured plastic. The unit is about 12in. by 8in. by 2.5in. The processor is the 7501, a close relative to the 6502.
A separate transformer
At the back there is the power socket which connects to a separate transformer, a serial bus port, cassette output, user port, memory expansion port which doubles as a cartridge port, two joystick sockets and a Din-type video output. Both the cassette and joystick ports are different in design from the Commodore 64. In other words Commodore is up to its naughty old tricks of incompatibility again. However, it does graciously allow you to use a 1541 disc drive and all Commodore printers with the new machine.
As well as the video output there is a standard UHF socket, situated on the left of the machine. On the opposite side is the on/off switch and a reset button.
The keyboard is basically the same as on the 64, and in design is very similar to the SX-64 portable executive version. Although the keys rock alarmingly as you type, and sound like a boxful of Lego bricks, the feel is surprisingly good.
One slight inconvenience is that the Shift, Return and Control keys lie next to each other in a diagonal line, so it is easy to strike the wrong one, with drastic effects. Four function keys above the keyboard are doubled up to eight using the Shift key.
One very noticeable innovation in keyboard design is the set of cursor controls. These are now moulded as arrows pointing in the appropriate compass direction. In practice they are much easier to use in this form. Clearly the Plus 4 owes something to the new MSX machines and, in fact, the new Commodore is built in Japan.
Otherwise, the keyboard functions in the same way as the 64. Most keys have two graphics characters inscribed on them, one produced by Shift, the other by the Commodore key. This is when the keyboard is in the upper case/graphics mode produced as default on powering-up. A normal typewriter mode of upper case/lower case is obtained by pressing Shift and the Commodore key simultaneously, as on the 64.
The Plus 4 has the same 16 basic colours as the earlier machine, and they are produced using the top row of keys together with Control or the Commodore key. There are seven levels of luminance. The colours are quite strong but you may need to turn the red level up to obtain clear differentiation between some of them. The image is rock steady.
Normal text mode
Normal text mode is 40 columns by 25 lines. As with the 64 there are two colour graphics modes: standard high-res graphics with 320 pixels by 200 pixels reolution but only two colours available within each 8 by 8 square, and the multi-colour mode where four colours are available in each 8 by 8 pixel character position, but the resolution is 160 pixels by 200. The big difference from the 64 is how you call up these modes.
In the bad old Commodore 64 days, you used the memorable:
POKE 53270, PEEK(53270) OR 16
toobtain multi-colour graphics mode. With the Plus 4 you simply type
The 3 signals that you have various options - multi-colour graphics over the entire screen in this case. You can also allow for five lines of text beneath the main graphics area using Graphics 4. Graphics 1 and 2 call up high-resolution mode with and without text lines respectively; these commands replace other Pokes and Peeks.
This is the biggest single area of improvement for the Plus 4 over the CBM-64. It is probably true to say that the earlier machine was one of the Pokiest around - in many senses. The main Basic commands were present, but for more abstruse activities it was a question of rolling up your shirt sleeves and getting in there with a Poke or two or 10.
Basic 3.5 has over 75 commands as standard. More details of some of these are given later. Suffice it to say that this is a clean Basic your mother would want you to use. Unfortunately, it is also incompatible with previous Commodore Basics.
Line editing is simple. Characters can be deleted to the left of the cursor using the Del key. By pressing Shift and Del you can insert a space. The cursor keys are used to place the cursor over characters to be changed which can then be deleted or overwritten. After a line of Basic has been altered, you enter it in its new form simply by pressing Return.
If running a program throws up syntax errors, Basic 3.5 has a neat Help facility. Pressing the function key marked Help highlights the offending part of a Basic line which speeds up program development enormously.
Another powerful feature available from Basic is the machine-code monitor, assembler and disassembler called Tedmon. A range of useful machine-code utilities are available frm within this. Taken together with the extensive Basic facilities, it provides the serious programmer with an enormous repertoire of commands.
No sprite option
One omission that fans of the 64 will notice is the lack of any sprite options. Obviously, Commodore thinks this would be inappropriate on its "serious" machine. In any case the machibe language facilities go some way to compensating for this. The Sound command is also more limited.
There are three voices available, two for music and one for noise; any two can be used at once. Volume is set by a command, called, appropriately enough, Volume. There is no internal speaker on the Plus 4, so the TV speaker is used instead.
A roomy 60K of RAM is available for running Basic programs; Basic 3.5 itself is slightly faster than the previous Commodore languages. In eight standard speed tests the Plus 4 showed an overall improvement of about 6 percent.
If that’s nothing to write home about, the bundled software in ROM probably is. The four integrated programs are a word processor, spreadsheet, database and graphics - hence its name, 3 Plus 1. Integrated is one of this year’s buzzwords. Here it means that you can transfer data from the spreadsheet or database to the word processor and incorporate it in a document. In fact, this is the only way you can print out spreadsheets and database files.
Commands are entered after a command prompt which you get when you hold down the Commodore key and C together. In the word processor it is W>, in the spreadsheet it is C> for calculator and, in the database, it is F> for file. Most commands consist of two letters. For example entering TC after W> takes you to the spreadsheet; pressing TF takes you to the database.
The word processor allows you to create a document 77 characters wide and 99 lines long. Only 32 characters and 22 lines are displayed on the screen. There is no visible wordwrap, that is words are broken anyhow across the end of the page. But when a document is printed the words are distributed so that only whole words appear.
Using two-letter commands you can insert and delete lines or search for words in a document and replace them. You can move whole blocks of text. You can also embed certain commands in a document using reversed characters. These do not print but affect the output in various ways.
For example, placing the word “justify” in reversed characters will ensure that the text is neatly levelled off at both right and left margins when it is printed. Using reversed-out commands you can change the position of the left and right margins. You can also link files together for printing to produce documents longer than 99 lines.
The spreadsheet displays the familiar rows and columns of cells - three columns and 12 rows normally out of a maximum total of 850 cells. Figures are entered directly, text by pressing the Commodore key and T together first.
Formulae can be set up in cells. For example 3;2 + 3;4 in a cell would add together the value in the cell at row 3, column 2 and row 3 column 4 and place it in the current cell. There is a command called Fit which allows you to replicate - that is repeat - a formula elsewhere, with the appropriate changes made automatically. Standard mathematical operators like Sum allow you to add up whole rows without having to spell out all the cells.
Perhaps the most interesting facility is the windowing which lets you display the spreadsheet and a word-processing document at the same time. To do this you have to halve the size of the spreadsheet and then call up the text using the TW command. You can then transfer figures from the sheet across to a document.
The Graph program is really only an extension of the spreadsheet. After you have set up some figures, you can use the command GR to convert them into a graph, row by row. The scaling is done automatically. The end result is rather crude and consists of stacked # symbols.
More powerful is the database facility. This is effectively a computerised card file. Up to 17 fields - that is entries on a card - may be created and up to 999 records, space permitting.
To use the database, you need a disc drive which is constantly accessed as records are created and searched. You can sort records and search through them for particular words.
One of the most impressive facilities on this database is the power to do a mailmerge - that is use a database of names and addresses, say, to fill in blanks on a standard letter, thus saving boring repetitive typing.
It would be unreasonable to expect miracles from four packages squeezed on to a 32K ROM. The pressure of space shows in some of the less user-friendly features and in the limitations of the applications. Nonetheless, for general home use, these programs offer the possibility of real word processing, detailed budgeting and accounts and a filing system.
- The Commodore Plus 4 is an excellent value quality home machine that barely puts a foot wrong. It has an elegant and powerful Basic, machine-code facilities and remarkable integrated software.
- One disappointment is Commodore’s wilful decision to make it incompatible with earlier products, as regards both hardware and software. However, it will not be long before the Plus 4 generates its own large library of games and serious software.
- The tremendous range of the machine’s capabilities means that it is suitable for beginners and old hands alike. The preliminary versions of the manuals were well-written, reasonably full and contained useful appendices.
- Anyone thinking about buying a QL or BBC should look closely at the Plus 4. The three machines are at their best in quite different sectors of the top-end market: enthusiast, education and home.