Reviewer: Simon Beesley
Magazine: Your Computer
Date: October 1983
Japan is renowned for taking a good idea and producing a superior product from it quickly and at a lower selling price than its competitors. So far the computer field has withstood the threat but with each new Japanese machine that comes onto the British market that threat grows stronger.
The latest machine from Japan to come up for review is the Tomy Tutor. Tomy is one of Japan's leading toy manufacturers. In this country the computer will be sold by Adam Imports as the Grandstand Tutor for around £150 and should be in the shops by October.
Along with the TI 99/4A the Grandstand uses a 16 bit processor; a Texas 99/95 chip running at 3 MHz. It comes with 16K RAM - expandable to 64K - and 32K ROM.
Measuring 36 cm by 24 cm this micro has a more solid appearance and feel to it than most of its sub-£2OO rivals. It has 56 raised rubber keys like the Spectrum's but these are firmer and include a spacebar. Above the keyboard there is a cartridge slot and next to it a power- on light. An on/off switch sits at the side of the casing.
Alongside the cassette and joystick sockets at the back there are sockets for monitor and audio output. There is also an I/O port which will take the usual range of peripherals - disc drives, voice synthesiser and expansion units. These are promised to arrive next year.
When you power on you are greeted by a menu with three options - Graphics, Basic or Cartridge. The Tomy's pride is its graphics option. What this offers could be described as a built-in character generator-cum-drawing pad. Effectively it is a computerised paint box.
Once you enter it, in Graphic Composition Mode, you are presented with a 32 by 24 grid. Overlaying the bottom half are 16 colour bars each with the number or letter of its associated key. To the right of this colour menu is what Tomy calls the palette box.
This acts as an enlargement on the individual cells in the grid. Like a standard character generator it is an eight by eight square in which you can move the cursor to fill in any of its 64 pixels. Each pixel, morever, can be assigned one of the colours from the colour menu, although you are restricted to two colours per line.
While you draw in the palette box one of the cells on the grid is also drawn in. Pressing the space bar toggles the cursor between the grid and the palette. Once in the grid you can move the cursor to fill in further cells and then return to the palette box to redesign a new character.
There is no limit on the number of different characters you can design and if you are painstaking enough you can fill up each of the 768 cells in a different way. When you move the cursor down the colour menu and palette box switch to the top half of the screen leaving you free to fill out the bottom of the grid.
In this way a detailed picture can be built up over the whole grid. Press the Mode key and the Grandstand switches to Graphic Picture Viewing Mode where the colour menu and palette box fall away to reveal your finished work.
There are two additional graphic modes which allow you to design and view up to four sprites on the same grid as your initial picture. Again the palette box is used to define the sprite shape. In the final viewing mode which shows the sprites and cell picture together, the sprites can be moved smoothly around the screen using Grandstand's two joy controllers.
All in all the Grandstand's graphic modes supply a novel and enteraining drawing facility. There are, of course, character generator and drawing programs available for other micros but they are rarely as easy to use or as comprehensive as the Grandstand's built- in facility.
In fact, no other home computer under £200 permits you to compose pictures in such sharp detail. The machine's pixel resolution - 256 by 192 - is not much higher than the Spectrum's but its colour resolution is considerably superior. Whereas the pixels within a character space can only be assigned one colour on the Spectrum, each character on the Grandstand can contain 16 different colours. Only the BBC Micro offers the same scope for creating multicoloured characters.
If you feel your picture should be preserved you can Save it on tape. The loading and saving rate is 600 baud.
To handle the pictures created in the graphics modes there is a graphics Basic distinct from the enhanced Basic option offered in the initial menu. This is a highly stripped down version of the language designed solely to manipulate the cells and sprites on the grid.
It is integer only and lacks arrays and string variables. Its central command is
CELL(A) = CELL(B)
which copies the cell at position B to position A.
Beyond elementary Basic statements such as Goto, Gosub, For-Next and If-Then the set of available commands is small. There is a simple print statement which prints a string or a number at a given cell position; a key statement which reads the keyboard or joystick; a Time variable; Tone which issues a small range of notes; and commands to move the sprites.
To use GBasic you must first enter the Grandstand's monitor and type in GBasic. The monitor then prints the program on the bottom two lines of the graphics screen. To exit from GBasic is equally awkward and can only be done by typing in End as a program line.1
You cannot list or edit a program line although the Step command prints and executes the program a line at a time. Another limitation is that the error message simply informs you that an error has occurred without saying why or where.
As a programming tool GBasic is limited in the extreme. It would be sufficient, however, to create animated graphics or write simple games involving the pictures and sprites previously defined.
In its initial version the Grandstand computer contained only GBasic. When Adam Imports representatives first saw the computer early this year at the Earl's Court Toy Fair they felt that the machine would need a far more substantial version of the language if it were to compete in the home market. Tomy duly obliged by adding on another Basic.
The second enhanced Basic is indeed a more satisfactory version but it suffers from the fact that it exists as a separate option and has no link with the machine's graphic facilities. It is almost as if two computers were housed in the one casing.
It is not possible to access high resolution graphics from within the enhanced Basic, either to plot a point or to design and move sprites. Instead this option confines the user to a text only screen with 24 rows of 32 characters. in upper and lower case.
Sixteen colours are still available but only to set the foreground and background colours for the whole screen with the exception of defined characters. Up to 32 of these can be defined by the MCell command and can then be assigned different colours from the rest of the screen characters.
There is no Print Tab command but instead SCell will place one or more of the same character at a given position. GCell returns the code of a character at specified screen coordinates.
Auto, Trace and Renumber are usefully included and there is also a Sound command with parameters to set volume, time and pitch.
Although this Basic is an improvement on GBasic it is not an especially extensive version of the language. It does not accept multiple statement lines and - a strange omission this - lacks any string handling commands such as MID$. Compare Tomy's Basic with Sinclair or even Commodore Basic and it begins to look a little threadbare.
Two other commands which are notably absent are Peek and Poke or their equivalents. Both would have been particularly handy for this review since there is no information on the machine's memory organisation. Just how the graphics display is stored and how much RAM it takes up remains a mystery.
Adam Imports is as much in the dark on this as your reviewer - a stream of telexes to Japan requesting more gen on the machine has so far brought no illumination. 32K ROM is twice the normal quota for a machine of this size and one wonders what it is all used for. It may well be possible to bridge the gap between Basic and the graphics modes - for example, to harness the sprite generator.
Certainly, the cartridge games I looked at suggest that the Grandstand has considerable unexploited potential. The graphics on these games are probably superior to those on other machines in this price range and the action is fast. 30 cartridges have been produced so far in Japan and most of these will he available over here for around £13.
If enough software is forthcoming the Grandstand could well find a place as a games machine. But whether many people will be prepared to write programs for a relatively uncommon 16 bit processor is another matter. The machine's other possible role is indicated by its full name, the Tomy Tutor - in the UK, the Grandstand Tutor. This would be a highly suitable micro to introduce children to computing. The graphics option alone is interesting. You can plunge straight into drawing on the graphics grid without any knowledge of programming. And if this stimulates the desire to learn programming there is at least a limited facility for doing so.
However, in the under £200 market it is difficult to compete with a £130 48K computer like the Spectrum. Success breeds success and particularly in the home computer world. Once a micro starts to sell well more people are encourage to write software for it and the more available software the more attractive the micro.