The Japanese Invasion: Sord Points The Way?

The first of the new Japanese micros has penetrated the UK. Richard King duels with the Sord.

The Sord M5 is the first real sign of the storm that's bound to break when the Japanese finally enter the UK market. Actually, the same storm is going to come down around the ears of the Americans too, though perhaps not at the same time.

Of course, Japanese machines have been on sale before, so it's not as if there's been no warning, but apart from Sharp, until now they have limited themselves either to the full-blown business machines on the one hand, or odd little pocket-machines on the other.

The Sord M5 is the first machine which genuinely embodies the kind of production engineering and marketing we have become accustomed to in the photographic and hi-fi fields.

Presentation

At first sight the M5 looks rather like a Sinclair Spectrum. It measures a little over 10" by 7", and is about 1.5" deep. The colours are two shades of a greenish grey, with yellow details and white lettering, which gives it a faintly military look.

The packaging consists of a cardboard box in a slip-over cover, which contains some expanded foam to hold everything in place. It is quite adequate for the job it's supposed to do, but would hardly be tough enough to be used on a daily basis.

Documentation

In most respects the documentation is quite superb. It consists of the Basic-I manual and a thin users' guide, which thankfully avoids those revoltingly self-congratulatory lapses which all too often disfigure otherwise satisfactory manuals. You know the sort of thing... "Press RETURN and your super-powerful ZJ9m/2 computer, running DSU - Disgustingly Small Unix - in .05K, will immediately solve your problem." This usually means that it will take a long time to work out the sum of two small whole numbers. Big deal.

Thankfully, the Sord manuals restrict themselves to the job, which is that of explaining how the machine works, rather than in congratulating you in your hard-earned shekels for the machine.

There are also no great slabs of text telling you how to use some add-on thingie which has not yet been produced, and which flees backward down the corridor of time every time people ask about it. Sord simply says there are plans to produce additional hardware and programs, and leaves it at that.

The only quibble I have, and it's not a major one, is that in the Basic-I manual there are passages which could be hard for a novice to understand, especially where error-messages are concerned.

For example, Error 13 means 'conflicting data types', and the suggested remedy is to 'Resolve the conflict' - that's all. Now many people will know exactlwhat that means, but it isn't at all obvious without prior experience. Error 16. 'Variable error', is even less helpful, since it actually means that you've got something in the wrong order. The solution is to 'Correct the order', but there's nothing to tell you what might be wrong with it.

But there is one really major omission. It's obvious if you have any solid experience, it's absolutely essential for full understanding of the machine, and it is simply ignored except for frequent references in the program listings.

Memory addresses, that's what. They are alluded to in the listing of Basic keywords and functions, and it is evidence that preceding any number with an ampersand sign will cause it to be treated as a hexadecimal quantity. But little more can be gleaned without spending a whole lot of hours with pencil and paper, poking about in the memory, recording what happens, and trying to decipher the results.

Associated with this is a lack of hard information on the subject of graphics. Much is suggested, but there isn't a real exposition to be found, which is a pity, since it is evidence from what is present that there is a wide range of possibilities open to an imaginative programmer. He'd better have a few months spare, too, because I suspect there's fun to be had there.

Construction

The general construction is of a very high quality. It feels solid, almost rugged, and would doubtless stand up to considerable rough treatment.

Naturally, this isn't exactly recommended, but any machine which is aimed at the younger user must be designed with such considerations in mind.

The only point which might cause some concern is the lid, which lifts up to reveal the cartridge socket. It might be thought that this could break, but it is designed to come off it excess pressure is applied to it... very clever.

The rest of the construction is of an equally high standard. There are proper connectors for everything, so no more problems with power supplies which spent most of their time delivering 5.5 volts to the carpet.

Keyboard

As is usual for machines of this type, the keyboard is of the membrane variety, a la Sinclair Spectrum. There is a noticeable difference in the feel, which is much lighter in touch than the Spectrum. The most obvious feature is the shape of the keys, which are square, but have the bottom right corner cut off, for some reason.

Apart from this oddity, the layout is much as one has come to expect, except that there are two shift keys. There's no space bar, just a slightly larger than normal key on the right hand side.

As might be expected, each key has multiple functions, including both upper and lower case, single-key Basic entry, control functions and graphics. In fact, each key does even more than is suggested by the legends on the keys, since there are two sets of graphics symbols and only one is shown.

There's an "editing keypad" built around the @ ; : and / keys, so you can imagine there's plenty going on!

Screen

The quality of the display was frankly impeccable - steady and clear, with good definition and well-separated colours. Compared to the tatty output so often associated with lower-end/home machines, it was a pleasure to use.

In fact, I didn't even have to retune my TV, which is casually set to channel 36. Supposedly all computers and VTRs put out their signal on this channel, but they seldom hit it exactly. The Sord does, dead on.

On examining the character set, I couldn't help feeling that Sord either went a bit over the top, or passed up an opportunity when they decided which symbols to include.

In total there are 224 displayable symbols; the complete ASCII set, extending from 32 (space) to 126 (tilde), followed by the first set of graphics, which goes up to 159. There's another set from 225 to 255, but the bit in the middle (from 160 to 223) is used for a whole bunch of oddballs. Among these are a few useful ones like the £-sign (as well as the Yen), a collection of those little marks used to mark footnotes and just about every single vowel/accent combination used in any language anywhere!

I rather felt that these latter, in particular, would be so seldom used that they are wasted... would it not have been better to include a wider selection of graphics? After all, who needs an i with a Rumanian accent?

The so-called 'sprite graphics' are the most interesting feature of the display, which can be moved around a screen. The VIC and ANTIC chips in Commodore and Atari machines produce very similar effects, but the generator in the M5 is exactly the same as that in the TI99/4A.

There are four separate graphic modes: 32 by 24 or 8 by 8 areas, which is defined as Graphic mode 1; 40 by 24 of 6 by 8 blocks, generally used for text; 64 by 48 of 4 by 4 blocks which is called Multicolour mode, and at the very top end you can have up to 32 sprites moving against a 16-colour picture with 256 by 192 dots, and still have a backdrop in one of sixteen colours! This last is called Graphic 2 mode, and is the one which attracted me most.

Unfortunately, organising and looking after the substantial data-areas necessary to use it effectively is far from easy, and really needs some special functions to do it properly. I imagine that these are in Basic-G, since it wasn't really practical to try in Basic-I because of lack of information and memory.

Although it can't really be described as part of the display, it is worth mentioning the sound capabilities, largely because this is also controlled by a special processor. In this three sound channels are provided, toegher with one noise channel, and by programming with verve and panache some pretty amazing sounds can be made.

Storage

Program and data-storage are on cassette. In this respect the M5 is on a par with any other machine which uses this method, which is slow, clumsy, and awkward at best, and impossible at worst.

The most that can be said for it is that at least it's cheap and available, and that the M5 saves and loads tape with some degree of consistency.

Expansion

Full details of the expansion capabilities of the M5 are not yet available, but appear to be impressive. As it stands, the machine comes with one ROM cartridge which contains Basic-I. This plugs into the slot at the back, and by this means the M5 eliminates the worst limitation on machines at this level, which is that they tend to be stuck with whatever language is provided by the management. Extra language (if available) invariably take up valuable RAM, limiting their usefulness.

There is a built-in Centronics printer interface, as well as ports for the 'joypads', cassette and TV. This is a bit different, since there are three separate sockets. It transpires that one puts out a modulated TV-type signal, and the other two put out unmodulated picture and sound signals which can be put directly into the newer type of TV, which is designed to be used with VTRs and other stuff.

Sord has plans which will definitely make a big difference to its new baby. The company is working on a 32K memory upgrade, a disk drive and a printer, as well as several application programs in ROM cartridges. Adding that lot to this machine will transform it into something quite serious, I feel. Look for these in the autumn.

Operation

People who test machines tend to get a bit jaundiced after a while. All too often the new miracle machine spends a lot of its time masquerading as a pile of useless junk which has as its outstanding characteristic the ability to produce nothing at all which even the most charitable person could call useful (or even intelligible).

Happily, the Sord M5 does much to dispel such glums. It works first time, doesn't need a lot of mollycoddling and jiggery-pokery to persuade it to continue doing so, and what's even better, it continues to work well. You don't have to balance cold cartons of milk on top, shove matches in the back to keep the plugs in, or press the keys with several pounds' force to make them respond.

In fact, the nicest thing you can say about the M5 is that in operation it is almost invisible, and this is exactly as it should be. Far too many machines force the user into unnatural habits instead of getting on with the job of responding to the user's commands.

The supplied Basic-I is pretty much a standard Microsoft type, though there are certain minor differences, notably in the keywords. ASC() because ASCII(), STR$() is changed to NUM$(), and there are a number of new commands which deal with the manipulation of sprites. There is also a new word in HEX$(), which converts the string in the brackets into its HEX (base 16) equivalent. This has been seen before, but only in the larger Basics, and it sheer convenience makes it well worthwhile here, especially for manipulating the memory.

Verdict

Even though the Sord M5 has a rather small memory and is almost double the price of its competitors, I feel that it is definitely worth the difference, since the savings which will be found in programming with the sprite-graphics as against doing it the hard way will be considerable.

In fact, the memory is not as small as it might be thought, since the M5 has a completely separate area of RAM dedicated to this. The Spectrum purports to have 48K, but of that a good 7K is used for the screen, so there's only 40K or so left. This isn't as big as you might think, since you would ahve to put in a lot of code to handle the graphics.

On the M5, most of the work is done for you, and all that is left is the need to work out what to do next, rather than how to do it. My only reservation is over the documentation, which suggests that there is considerable untapped potential in this machine, but then fails to provide the keys. I wanted to know much more about the beast.

Quality costs a little more, but it's usually worth paying for. I feel that the Sord M5 is a quality machine, and would strongly recommend it to anyone considering buying a small micro for experience.

Technical Specification

Price: £189.95
Processor: Z-80A running at 3.58MHz
RAM Memory: 4K user memory, 16K video memory, expandable to 32K
ROM Memory: 8K, expandable to 16K with ROM cartridge
Screen: 16 colours, 265 letters, numbers and symbols, 4 display modes
Keyboard: Membrane type with 55 keys
Sound: 3 voice channels, 1 white noise, 7 'special sounds'
Interfaces: Tape (with remote control), Centronics parallel printer, TV to channel 36, Composite video and sound
Storage: Tape
Distributor: High street stores