Tekniikan Maailma 3/1985 Middle-priced Microcomputers

Tekniikan Maailma, a high quality Finnish magazine that focused on all kinds of technical things such as cars, televisions, videorecorders, microwave ovens, home computers, and so on, published a review about various middle-priced microcomputers. Here is a shot of the page 114 of the 3/1985 issue:

tekniikan maailma 3 1985 page 114 middle-priced microcomputers

They begin their article by stating that microcomputers for hobbyists can be roughly divived into three categories:

  1. The cheapest computers that cost under 1000 FIM. These are pretty primitive or outdated.
  2. The middle-priced computers costing between 1000-2000 FIM. These are suitable as first acquisitions for the aspiring hobbyist.
  3. The most expensive computers are suitable for advanced users or small companies.

The purpose of Tekniikan Maailma review is to investigate whether the middle of the road is indeed golden in this case.

Among the cheapest models are e.g. Aquarius I, Salora Fellow, Sinclair ZX81 and Commodore VIC-20. The reviewer goes on to say that all these models have been improved by subsequent models. Their successors are: Aquarius II, Commodore 16, Sinclair ZX Spectrum and Salora Manager. In addition to those improved models, they have tested Sega and Spectravideo.

By Sega they mean Sega SC-3000H and mention that two versions exists, but the only difference is regarding the keyboard, i.e. Sega SC-3000H has a proper typewriter style keyboard while the basic SC-3000 model has only pretty bad rubber keys. They have also tested Atari 800XL. As a side-note, Salora was a pretty famous electronics brand in Finland. Wikipedia has a very brief article on Salora. It says simply:

Salora Oy was a Finnish electronics company headquartered in Salo. Its main products were radio receivers and televisions. The company was founded under the name Nordell & Koskinen in 1928 by F.A. Nordell and Lauri Koskinen. In 1937, the company introduced its first product under the brand name Salora (from a combination of the words Salo and radio), and in 1945, the company changed its name to Salora Oy. In 1995, the company was merged into Nokia Oyj.

It is my understanding that Salora microcomputers were clones of other computers. In other words, Salora did not design or manufacture the components of Salora micros. They just repackaged existing machines and rebranded them as "Salora". This is confirmed by www.tietokonemuseo.net. They say:

Suomi/Hong Kong yhteistyötä parhaimillaan! (sic) Suomalaisen Saloran Hong Kongissa valmistettu Video Technology -yhtiön Laser 2000 koneen klooni. 1983 julkaistua Fellowia on myyty lähinnä Suomessa. Samaisena vuonna 1983 julkaisiin myös Saloran tehokkaampi Manager -malli (Laser 2001 klooni).

Translated into English, it means that Salora Fellow is a Video Technology Laser 2000 clone. The more advanced Salora Manager is a Video Technology Laser 2001 clone.

I remember that both of these computers suffered from the lack of commercial software. I also believe that the hardware features were not that great, either. Even though Salora televisions and radios sold well in Finland, their microcomputers were never that popular.

Okay, enough of that. Let us see now what Tekniikan Maailma says about the middle-priced computers.

Aquarius II

Most of the available software consists of games even though there exists some utility programs. The games are mostly in cartridge format. The cartridges are sold with good manuals and parts that you place over keyboard or game controllers. Many of the game ideas are unique and their implementations from average to good.

The downside of Aquarius II is the features it offers. The graphics and sound are outdated compared to the modern super machines that have hardware sprites and multi-voiced sound synthesizers. Using commercial programs is passable, but if you have to design your own programs, the possibilies are rather limited. Developing and fixing programs is difficult. There is not enough literature compared to other similar systems. BASIC is pretty much okay and it is fast, too, but the precision of mathematical operations is too limited, making it unsuitable for doing mathematical calculations.

Aquarius II is the cheapest computer that they tested, and the features reflect that fact. But for those who appreciate good quality games and peripherals, Aquarius II could still be a good choice.

Atari 800XL

Atari is a well-known and much appreciated computer brand all over the globe. It has been around for a long time, and lots of software, literature and peripherals are available. However, Atari has not fared well in Finland because of the pricing policy. Ataris have been too expensive, but the situation has now changed. This is due to the fact that Commodore's founder (Kalevi Kolttonen's note: Jack Tramiel) has bought Atari. The company is going to renew its pricing policy and sell their computers for lower prices.

In its price class, Atari 800XL offers the best bang for the buck. Its strongest features include good graphics and sound, high quality peripherals and software, proper keyboard and stylish outlook. A few programming books are available in Finnish, but there is plenty of literature in English. The downside of Atari is mostly the fact that the machine is unknown. There are no user clubs in Finland and Finnish magazines have no program source code for Atari. Atari BASIC is also different enough so that BASIC programs written for other computers are not directly portable to Atari.

Commodore 16

According to the reviewer, Commodore VIC-20 has been retired and C16 has replaced it. Commodore 16 brings on some sorely needed improvements to the BASIC language. You can now get rid of POKEs, because BASIC 3.5 contains commands for drawing lines, rectangles and circles. You can also fill areas with colours and move graphics areas. The graphics resolution matches that of Commodore 64. BASIC also contains commands for music, but hardware features have been downgraded and there are only two channels available.

Commands for floppy disk drive management have also been revamped and usage is now easy. Other improvements regarding BASIC include more advanced control structures, easier debugging and line renumbering. The reviewer is impressed with this development. However, he goes on to complain that C16 RAM is too small. I guess he was not aware of RAM expansion cartridges or maybe they were not available at the time of the article.

Your old Commodore floppy disk drive and printer will work with C16, so the transition from VIC-20 should be easy. Old joysticks and tape recorders, on the other hand, will not work with C16 because the connectors have been changed.

There is also the issue of software compatibility. C16 is very different compared to VIC-20, so old VIC-20 software cannot run on this machine. Tekniikan Maailma concludes its assessment of C16 by predicting that it will sell well based on the Commodore brand alone. Many VIC-20 users will probably make the transition. C16 is all right with respect to the technical features it offers and the BASIC has been improved, but due to a too small RAM, this machine is not suitable for serious use.

Well, for one thing, you could buy 64KB RAM expansion for C16. But their prediction about C16 selling well failed. C16 was a commercial failure and nowadays it is a pretty rare machine if you intend to find it as a collector.

Salora Manager

Salora Manager is often thought of as being a Finnish computer. "Finnish" in this case means that the manuals and utility programs should be available in Finnish language right from the beginning, even though their original language is something else. This is good enough as it is, because not all competing brand can achieve the same effect. The roots of this computer are in the Far East, but despite that, details such as special characters for Finnish language have been installed already in the factory - not as an afterthought.

There is not much to complain about Salora Manager. The only widely criticized feature is the slowness of the keyboard. The importer is working on fixing this timing related issue and the newer models are probably okay as we speak. You would hope to have separate cursor keys, but apart from that defect, the keyboard is quite good.

This machine is affordable and has features comparable to the more expensive computers. Because Salora Manager is a relatively new machine, it is understandable that the software availability and literature leave something to be desired compared to the machines that have been available for years. Nevertheless, there exist about twenty games. There are also utility programs such as a word processor and a database program. And best of all, those utility programs are available in Finnish.

As the importer seems to market this machine aggressively, it is easy to predict that this machine will have a large group of users. Hence Salora Manager seems like a safe choice for those who want an affordable machine that still has higher end features. It is also for those who appreciate its "domestic" nature.

Their prediction failed. Salora Manager never gained a big user base in Finland.

Sega SC-3000H

Sega arrived in Finland over a year ago, at the same time as Spectravideo. Sega is otherwise a pretty promising computer, but peripherals have been slow to show up. As a gaming machine, however, Sega shines. Graphics and sound features are excellent, there are loads of games available and the games are in easy-to-use cartridges. The games are fast-paced action games and their topics are interesting. Some educational programs are also available.

One negative thing about Sega is the lack of relevant literature. There should be more peripherals as well. Spectravideo, for instance, has surpassed Sega in this respect. Sega's manual is available in Finnish and it is comprehensive enough. But there is still something that is missing: program examples and applicable literature is needed.

With respect to the peripherals, the situation is better. You can have a tape recorder, four-colour plotter and game controllers for Sega. Sega has also promised to release a disk drive. But other systems have more hardware to offer: They have printers, drawing tablets, speech synthesizers, etc. As a whole Sega is a good and affordable machine for those who like gaming and do not need literature or rare peripherals.

Based on their photos in the article, it seems to me that Tekniikan Maailma reviewed Sega SC-3000H. That model has a proper typewriter-style keyboard, so the usual complaints about the bad SC-3000 rubber keys were not there this time.

Spectravideo 318

Spectravideo has been a success where many have failed. Its market entrance has been spectacular, and this brand has risen from obscurity to the group of well-known and leading manufacturers. They have offered two models that differ in the keyboard and the amount of memory. The machine is technically advanced and internally compatible with the much publicized MSX-standard (Kalevi Kolttonen note: As far as I know, that information is false. Spectravideo 318 and 328 served as the basis for MSX standards, but according to my recollections, they were not exactly MSX-compatible!). However, the cartridge port is different and if you want to use MSX cartridges, you need an adapter.

Spectravideo advertisements focus on the growth potential and large memory. But regarding memory, this is an instance of "hidden kilobytes", because BASIC programs can use only part of the memory. The vast majority goes to screen memory required by graphics programs. Sega has a similar arrangement, where the base computer's RAM goes to screen memory and for programs you must acquire a memory expansion.

Regarding growth, Spectravideo is exceptional in its price class. The possibilities for expansion are mostly useful for utility programs and they make this machine suitable for even company use. But the keyboard is not good. Spectravideo has support for CP/M Operating System so by buying an expansion, 80 character monitor and other accessories, you will get a system with good performance. That would, however, raise the overall price above middle-priced computers, but this proves that there is potential for expansion.

In conclusion, Spectravideo is suitable for a hobbyist who appreciates a versatile BASIC, potential for expansion and is content with a bad keyboard.

Sinclair ZX Spectrum

Spectrum is a computer that arouses mixed feelings. On the one hand it has fanatical admirers, and on the other hand it has haters. The attitude depends on which features you appreciate. The fact is that this machine has many good features, but to counterbalance them, it has deficiencies that even time has not healed. The keyboard is poor. There exists an improved model with a hard keyboard, but because of its price, it does not fit into this article. Spectrum is an old machine that is still going, and because the price has dropped, it is a surprisingly good choice. If you can ignore the lousy keyboard, you can gain a lot. There is lots of software and peripherals, even in Finnish. The amount of RAM is also large compared to the competing systems.

Spectrum is for those who appreciate an established computer. When you buy this computer, you know what you will get and you do not have to settle with empty promises of forthcoming peripherals, software and literature.

Comparing features

When making a choice between computers, you should evaluate your needs and consider how well the machines would satisfy them. To aid your decision, you can make use of a table that rates the crucial features by giving them numerical values.

Tekniikan Maailma 3/1985 page 116
Aquarius IIAtari 800XLCommodore 16Salora ManagerSega SC-3000HSinclair ZX SpectrumSpectravideo 318
Ease of use4555534

"Ease of use" here consists of the outlook of the machine, keyboard and ease of use. These are often matters of taste. However, Atari is the most stylish. The only drawback is a separate power supply, but that applies to other machines, too. Spectrum is the worst due to an impractical keyboard, and lack of a power switch or game controller ports.

Regarding keyboards, these computers are very varied in quality. Among the best are Atari, Salora and Sega. Salora even contains 'ä' and 'ö'. You can get them for Atari too, but for an extra price. Salora keyboard has cursor keys located in a weird place among the alphabetic keys. The lowest of lows is Spectrum, whose keyboard is confusing and difficult to use. Spectravideo deserves extra credit for having a game controller in the keyboard. (Kalevi Kolttonen's note: a joystick fixed in the keyboard? I think that is a horrible idea, but the reviewer seems to like it!). Aquarius II's keyboard is good apart from the fact that cursor and function keys are missing.

Having enough memory is necessary when writing your own programs. In this respect Atari 800XL and Sinclair ZX Spectrum are in the class of their own. Of the 32KB RAM that Spectravideo ads mention, only 13KB is available for BASIC programs. Commodore 16 has 12KB, but when you do drawing programs, you have only 2KB free, leaving you little room for any programming.

Sega SC-3000H and Spectravideo have the best BASIC language support. Everything can be done using their BASIC. The worst in this respect is Aquarius II even though it has good commands, but it lacks support for fixing and developing programs.

Regarding graphics, Atari, Sega and Spectravideo are among the top machines. They have the most complete features even including sprite graphics. The worst is Aquarius II, lacking high resolution graphics altogether.

With respect to sound, the crucial features are the number of channels, the ease of programming and the quality of the playback. Not counting Aquarius II and Spectrum, all of these machines have good sound features.

When it comes to manuals and relevant literature, Spectrum dominates. It has lots of literature, even in Finnish. The worst is Sega. It has only the Owner's Manual.

Peripherals are usually needed for mostly utility use. In that kind of use, you would need a floppy disk drive, printer, plotter, etc. On the other hand, if you need only a gaming machine, support for joysticks is sufficient. Joysticks are available for all of the machines reviewed here. Even for utility use, you can have enough peripherals for all machines, because Aquarius II and Sega are also going to get their floppy disk drives. (Kalevi Kolttonen's note: Sega never did get floppy drive support in any sane form. I read yesterday (May 2nd, 2018) that there exists some kind of a drive station, but it is super rare and was expensive. According to my recollections, it used rare 3 inch floppies, so it was not at all popular). Aquarius and Sega have the least peripherals available.

Regarding software, all these computers are in a pretty good situation. Spectrum probably has the largest software library, because there are hundreds of programs for it. Commodore 16 and Salora Manager are newcomers, so they do not have many programs. But C16 can make use of VIC-20 BASIC programs (Kalevi Kolttonen's note: Well, C16 can make use of only very simple VIC-20 BASIC programs. If you use POKEs in a VIC-20 program, the programs are not portable to C16!) and using a converter hardware, you can use Coleco and Atari cartridges in Salora. There are lots of games for Sega, but only a small amount of utility programs.

The total points have dictated the amount of stars awarded to each computer. Full five stars go to Atari 800XL and Spectravideo 318. The worst is Aquarius II, getting passable three stars. Other computers have small deficiencies, but deserve four stars for being good microcomputers.

Finally here are the prices of the reviewed computers in Finland. Tekniikan Maailma 3/1985 was published on February 19th, 1985.