Reviewer: Tim Hartnell
Magazine: Your Computer
Date: June 1984
Has Sinclair done it again? Will the QL turn out to be another amazing success story like the Spectrum or has Sinclair’s fertile brain finally spawned a real turkey? Tim Hartnell takes a close look at the QL to find out.
Sinclair’s QL raises a number of questions. Why was it announced so prematurely? Is it worth £399? Is the “free” software of any real value? And so on. The 128K QL has been surrounded by misinformation since the beginning. And Uncle Clive - no stranger to criticism - has come in for more than his usual share during the first four months of this year since the announcement of the machine in January.
In this review, I will attempt to provide answers to some of the questions I’ve raised. Most computer reviews concentrate on the machinery, the hardware, and leave the ideas which lie behind the machine, the concepts the designers tried to embody in it, for other, later commentators to examine. But the concept of the QL, and the ideas which lie behind its resident language SuperBasic are fundamental to understanding the machine, so they must be discussed, along with the hardware.
“Those who operate at the cutting edge of technology shall be sacrificed upon it,” observed Adam Osborne, and Clive and his staff have been proving the truth of that pronouncement since QL launch day - extraordinary delays in delivery; strange rumours that, perhaps, the machine might never even appear - the QL attracted a lot of flak. I was amused to see that internal Sinclair documents on the QL referred to it as the ZX-83. We all thought of the Spectrum, before its launch, as the ZX-82, and I guess now that that was also its working designation within Sinclair Research. As a way of compensating for delivery delays, and lost interest on money forwarded for the computers, Sinclair are sending out the RS-232 lead - normally £14.95 - as a “free gift” with all QLs which have taken longer than 28 days to deliver. This will happen even if your QL was ordered via credit card, and the amount was not deducted from your card until the computer was sent out. If you had, in fact, ordered the RS-232 lead, Sinclair will send you £14.95 back.
One of the reasons for the delivery delays will be evident if you get one of the first several thousand machines sent out. The QL does not fit within its natty dark-grey case. “We can’t get all of the operating system in,” a spokesman confided. So sticking out of the ROM socket at the back of the QL is a blob of metal, slightly larger than a matchbox, which contains the bits of the computer which Sinclair could not squeeze into the case.
Eventually, QLs will be going out without the extra blob at the back, but Sinclair felt it was more important to quiet the clamour over protracted delivery delays - even if it meant sending out cobbled together machines - than it was to delay the whole thing until they got it right.
Sinclair Research intimated - without ever saying it straight out - that if the QL without compulsory blob of metal is significantly better than the first edition deliveries, there would be some facility for exchange. No hints as to how this would occur were volunteered.
It seems that the QLs shown at the tumultuous press conference in January did not contain all of the computer. It has been no particular secret within the industry that Psion - the company which developed the four software packs supplied “free” with the QL - did not have access to anything like the final version of QDOS when they were writing the programs. QDOS is the QL Operating System, which looks after such things as task scheduling and resource allocation. And if conversations taking place while I was at Sinclair Research in late April were any indication, it seems that QDOS was far from being finalised even then, only 10 days before the first machines on the greatly delayed delivery schedule were due to go out.
For example, Nigel Searle, managing director of Sinclair Research, told me they were thinking of radically changing the way the Microdrives accessed programs. At present, the QL finds the first block of data which makes up the program, then keeps the tape spinning until it comes to block two, then once it has digested that, looks for block three, and so on. The modification would allow the computer to accept the blocks out of order, thus greatly minimising the time it takes a program to load.
I timed the loading of Quill, the word-processing program provided with the computer, and found it took 70 seconds from the time loading began until the program was ready to use. This may not seem very long if you’re used to cassettes, but it is an age compared to discs.
There are now three different editions of the Spectrum around. It seems obvious that there will be at least two editions of the QL. There may well be more than two of the software packs. I found two spelling errors in the help menu for Quill when I was reviewing the software - although I knew, and it is only fair to point it out, that I was only using a late development version of the software, rather than the final version - and was given the impression that correcting these errors would be incredibly easy. This was, as I’ve said, just 10 days before the first product was due to leave the warehouse.
Now that we have looked at the fun and games concerning the first QLs which will be released to the market, let’s see what sort of a computer it really is. Many early “reviews” of the machine were based on the press release, plus two minutes “hands on” at the press conference. I spent many, many hours with a QL trying to assess it completely.
Wet towel test
You know what the QL looks like. The photographs with this review show you the by-now-familiar long, blackish case, with the Microdrives occupying the right-hand six inches, and the rest of the 19-inch length being occupied by the keyboard. The machine is light, but does not appear particularly fragile.
I tried to “wring” the computer - as one would a wet towel - and there was very little give, and no ominous cracking sounds. The horror of losing the 16K RAM pack off the back of the ZX-81 - which meant you treated the machine with great care - does not seem necessary with the QL. Even shaking it fairly violently failed to dislodge the ROM pack, or to disturb the image on the TV screen.
Sinclair keyboards were one of the main sources of complaint on earlier machines. You use the keyboard nearly all the time when interacting with the computer, and any design failure at this point becomes a constant irritation. The QL is about 1½ inches thick, which means when it is lying flat on the table, the keyboard is not particularly easy to use.
However, the machine is supplied with three little plastic square feet which stick on the bottom of the QL and allow it to be tilted forward, to an angle which I found extremely convenient.
The keyboard itself was a surprise, and a very pleasant one. As I spend a lot of my waking hours working with keyboards - generally word-processing on an IBM PC, or writing with an electric typewriter - I am accustomed to keyboards which work with, rather than against, me. I have become boringly impatient with crummy keyboards, or with design faults which mean the keyboard cannot keep up with me when I type quickly. The QL is surprisingly satisfactory to use.
The keys are made up of separate keytops, sitting on a membrane keypad below. The membrane construction is not evident from using the keys. Although there is a slight need to press the keytops down rather than just tap them as would be the case with an electric typewriter, only the slightest push is needed to get them to work. The keytops are moulded, so that fast, accurate program entry is easy.
The keys auto-repeat after about a third of a second. The space-bar rattles a bit, but this is not particularly important. The Enter key is a large, L-shaped key on the left, there are two Shift keys, and Escape is up near the top right-hand corner of the keyboard. A Reset key is hidden down the side, next to the Microdrives. It is easy to press without looking for it, but is unlikely to be pressed by accident which is just as well, as it performs a total RAM wipeout.
My only criticism of the keyboard lies in the position of the cursor keys. To the left of the space-bar are the left and right arrows, while the up and down arrow keys are to the right of the bar. I’m sure you will get used to them in that position, but I found their initial use far from intuitive.
No such criticism can be aimed at the position of the five function keys, which form a straight line down the left-hand edge of the keyboard. They are easy to use in this position and are used frequently in the four software packs such as function key 4 being used in Quill to change the typeface.
Sinclair has abandoned the single-touch key-word entry system which, to date, has been a hallmark of his designs. You type the relevant word in full. You can do this in upper, or lower case, and the computer will automatically render the word upper case in the listing. I’ll have more to say about this in a moment, but for now, let’s turn the machine on, and see what you’ll experience when you first plug it in.
There is no on/off switch. The QL comes with an external power supply, slightly taller than that provided with the Spectrum, with the power supply unit sitting in about the middle of this lead. When you turn the power on, the screen fills very briefly with parallel vertical green and red strips, then this is replaced with hi-res rubbish while the QL does a little internal checking. The screen clears to black, and then the following message appears at the bottom of the screen:
© 1983 Sinclair Research.
The reference to F1 and F2 is printed in red on a white oblong, surrounded by a green border, while the copyright message is in white on a long, red strip. If you press function key 1 to indicate you have a monitor connected to the socket marked RGB, the screen clears to show a rectangular area which fills about two-thirds of the screen.
The left half of this rectangle is white, the right half is red. If you press function key 2 - to tell the QL you have a TV attached to the UHF socket - the screen clears completely to white.
The graphics modes
There are two graphics modes, Mode 256 which is the lowest resolution mode with, as expected, 256 pixels across and Mode 512, which is double the 256 resolution. The QL falls into 256 if you press TV - with a square, purple, flashing cursor - and into 512 if you press for the monitor - with a thin rectangular cursor, flashing red. You can display eight colours - blue, red, magenta, green, cyan, yellow, white and black - on the 256 by 256 screen, while only four are available - black, red, green and white - in the 512 by 256 mode.
Many other colours can be created using the various stipple combinations. There are four stipple patterns - vertical bars, horizontal bars, big foreground dots, small foreground dots - which allow an enormous range of colours to be created. I worked out a program which combined use of the Contrast, Foreground and Stipple commands, which appeared to generate 255 different coloured screens.
Back with our opening frame when you first turn the QL on. If you work with a monitor, or with the QL sending out the monitor hi-res signal, there is a real delight awaiting you when you enter your first program. As you type on the keys, the program you are entering appears in green on the black area below the white half of the coloured rectangle. But each time you press Enter, the program line reappears in red, on the white above you.
There is room for four lines of program below the white area. Once these four are filled, the top one scrolls up under the white area, and vanishes. Similarly, commands like Run stay in place in the black area, even after they have been executed.
Now, when you enter the program, it appears line by line in red on the white square above you. If you decide to enter a new line with the same line number as one already in place, the new line automatically takes the place of the original line, in position within the program automatically.
The real magic is to come. Remember, you are in the high-resolution mode, with half the rectangle in white - with the program printed on it in red - and the other half of the rectangle in red. Type in Run, and the program runs on the right-hand side of the screen, appearing - unless other colours are specified - in white on the red background. Your program listing stays in place. So you can see the listing on one side, and the effect of running that listing on the other side, at the same time.
If you are in Mode 256, when the screen clears to a white rectangle, the program listing appears in red on the white as before but with each character stretched twice as wide as in the higher-resolution mode.
However, when you enter Run and press Enter, the program starts running at the top of the white area, overwriting the program listing, and printing in white on little red squares of “paper” as it goes. The screen does not clear, unless you have CLS within your program. If you do include CLS, the screen will clear - unless you specify another Paper colour, just like the Spectrum - to red, and the Ink defaults to white.
A clue to one of the features of SuperBasic is given if you examine the program listing carefully. Certain programming words are spelt in full within the listing, even if you only entered them as three letters. For example, if you include REM in your program, the QL will change it in the listing which appears at the top of the screen as REMark. This happens with many other commands, such as DIMension and DEFine PROCedure.
This leads neatly into a discussion of SuperBasic, the language supplied with the QL. The production models will have, as an extra added since the launch of the computer, what was described to me as turtle graphics, but no clues were given as how to access or implement these graphics.
Turtle graphics aside, the main thrust of SuperBasic is to encourage more structured programming than is usually the case with Basic. Although Goto and Gosub are provided in SuperBasic, the manual claims this is only to give some Kind of compatibility with existing Basics. “They are not needed,” we are told sternly.
The QL can be used more or less like a Spectrum, programming in Spectrum Basic, and getting roughly similar results. But to work in this way ignores the power of SuperBasic. For example, repetition - controlled by either a For/Next loop, or an endless loop which ends with a Goto back to the beginning, in “standard” Basic - can be controlled in SuperBasic by two “constructs” as follows each construct has to be indentified:
END REPEAT identifier
FOR identifier = range
END FOR identifier
These two sections of code are used together with another two words from SuperBasic’s vocabulary.
NEXT identifier EXIT identifier
Processing a Next statement will either pass control to the statement following the appropriate For or Repeat statement, or if a For range has been exhausted, to the statement following the next. A table outlining the complete SuperBasic vocabulary is given in figure 1.
After I’d been using the QL for a couple of hours - and I have no way of knowing how many hours it had been in use before I started on it - the plastic area above the Microdrives became very hot indeed. “A slight increase in warmth above the Microdrives is normal, and should not be cause for alarm,” the manual reassures. However, the Microdrives continued to work happily, even in their tropical environment.
You will see that colour generated by the QL is crisp and clear on a monitor, and significantly better on a TV than that produced by Spectrum. Even stippled areas and lines did not show the dot crawl which became a trademark of Spectrum graphics. You have much more control of the screen than is the case with the Spectrum.
The QL allows you to specify the colour of the border, and its width. Windows can be created, with Lisa-like things happening apparently independently in different areas of the screen at the same time.
According to the published specifications, I thought the QL would in certain cases run about twice as fast in Basic than does the Spectrum, but it did not seem significantly quicker to me when doing such things as running through loops and printing on the screen. I did not, however, have long enough with the QL to write any moving graphics games in Basic to see how such a program compared with its Spectrum counterpart.
The looseleaf manual is an enormous improvement on the manuals provided in the past with Sinclair products, and shows that Sinclair - probably under prompting from Psion - has at last recognised that it is almost impossible to give people too much information about the product they are buying.
The manual is divided into eight major sections - Beginner’s Guide, Keywords, Concepts, QL Quill, QL Abacus, QL Archive, QL Easel and QL Information. The sections on Quill, Abacus, Archive and Easel contain comprehensive instructions for running the software.
Reading the manuals shows many areas where the designers of SuperBasic have been very clever. For example, SuperBasic embodies an action called “coercion”. If the QL is expecting a string, and you give it a number, it will automatically turn it into a string. Similarly, if you try to add two numbers, and one of them is in the form of a string, it will convert the string to its numerical equivalent - in effect, Val the string - rather than crash with an error message.
This means the QL needs to know when you are dealing with strings, and when you mean numbers, so it uses the plus sign for adding numbers and the ampersand for adding strings. The following are valid in SuperBasic.
LET A = “3” + 4 (sets A equal to 7)
LET A$ = 6 & “32” (sets A$ to “632”)
The use of Let, as in nearly every Basic in the world except the first three Sinclair Basics, is optional.
There are a number of other ways the designers of SuperBasic have worked to produce a better language for you. If you ask the QL to print a variable which has not been assigned, it does not respond by crashing or by assigning the value 0 - or the empty string - to this unknown variable. Instead, the QL prints an asterisk as a sign that you have requested an undefined variable. If you fail to specify a Next command, the computer will continue to process quite happily, but will ignore the For which is not followed by a Next.
Those who decried the faint Beep on the Spectrum will be pleased to hear the QL gives out a very healthy tone, much louder than that produced by the BBC Micro. The command Scroll is followed by two numbers. The scrolling can be positive or negative, and single display line - that is, pixel - scrolling is possible.
The QL contains a real-time clock - accessed as Dates - which is set to a random time and date on switch on. Despite the claims of the manual that Dates could be manipulated like any other string in Sinclair Basic the only effect of a slice was to change the time set on the clock, rather than to extract a section of it.
The QL comes with four software packs supplied on Microdrive, a word-processor - Quill; a spread-sheet calculator - Abacus; an intelligent database - Archive and one to produce business graphics such as bar charts - Easel.
I suspect that for many non-business owners of the QL, Quill will be the most popular program of the four. While many of us have little need to draw bar charts of such things as our steadily-increasing personal wealth, all of us tend to write letters, school essays or reports.
When you start with Quill, you have a red frame on the screen, on which you are typing in green. The start of each paragraph is automatically indented, without you doing anything. Above the red frame are printed many operation instructions, such as the one telling you to press function key 4 to change the typeface.
You do not need to worry about a word being split at the end of a line, as the QL automatically starts a new line when needed, and spaces out the words on the line which you’ve just completed so that the right- and left-hand margins both form straight lines. This happens without you needing to know anything. The system responds rapidly to typing. There is no appreciable delay when typing in on “clean paper”.
If, however, you wish to overwrite, the system slows down to an annoying extent. Despite this, the program really does live up to its claim that it can be used without reading the manual. Function key 1 is permanently assigned to help, so pressing it leads you into a series of sections designed to get you out of trouble. Once you exit the help mode, you will find yourself exactly where you were before you called for help, so you can continue from that point.
There are five kinds of typeface available with this program - normal; bold; high which produces superscripts; low - subscripts, and underline. They can be mixed, so “bold, underlined, high script” is a valid mixture.
- You’re going to like the QL. As with all Sinclair products, it may display quirks and annoyances which are not immediately obvious, and the slow access times of the Microdrives may annoy you, but overall it is a fascinating package.
- The colours are bright and clear and the multiple-colour, multiple-width border and windows will get a lot of exposure in coming games packages.
- Despite all its flashiness, the QL is an unproven machine. The Microdrives are unproven mass storage devices. I suggest it would be a brave business which would entrust essential data to Microdrives.
- It is hard to imagine it being adopted as a “business machine” by any but the smallest of companies. It makes a great home machine, and there is no doubt that many of the 750,000 Spectrum owners will upgrade.
- There is a slightly tacky feel to the machine, and I would hesitate to recommend it to someone who could be buying a BBC Micro - admittedly without mass storage, and without software packs - for the same price.
- The QL is certain to be a commercial success. Some brilliant software will be written. Lots of people will have lots of fun with the machine ... and yet I sense that the time for foisting unproven products on the marketplace has gone.
- The QL may have been announced six months too soon to try and get the BBC to turn their favoured glance away from Acorn. The QL has, predictably, stretched the definition of “28 days” beyond the recognition of mortal men.