Your Spectrum
Issue 2, March 1984 - QL User supplement
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On Balance
QL may not stand for Curate's Egg, but whatever the 'media- speak' surrounding Sir Clive's professional offering, naturally the new machine has its pros and cons. Quentin Lowe gives us some first impressions.
The Pros

Professional keyboard

Like many of the cheap machines these days, the QL's keyboard is based on a membrane system - in some ways a glorified version of the one we eye dubiously on the Spectrum. Yet when YS tried it, it felt nothing like it! The keys are solid and have full travel, making it easy to type quickly and accurately. The membrane system is also, of course, a great protector against the likes of fag- ash and coffee.
The keyboard comes well equipped with a total of 65 keys, providing access to a full ASCII set. This includes characters such as {, }, | and \, which may seem unusual now, but will ultimately prove essential when Sinclair Research implements its version of the C programming language on the QL.


The biggest advantage of the 68008 chip is memory. The QL starts with 128K, and Sinclair Research has promised expansions of up to half a megabyte - 512K. Lots of memory is a good substitute for fast mass storage. Although the QL Microdrives are relatively slow compared to floppies, it will be possible to switch your QL on and read a big program and all its data into memory, all with access times way ahead of many CP/M business machines with their meagre offering of 64K RAM.

Not so Basic

The QL comes with the modestly named SuperBasic - a brand new programming language that has little to do with previous Sinclair Basics. In fact, it's got very little to do with Basic (as we know it) at all - and, if truth be told, the name is probably only there so that newcomers will recognise it as a programming language. Still, it does have such traditional statements as GO TO and GO SUB, so it won't be impossible to convert existing Basic programs for the QL.
It's a heavily structured language with named procedures and functions. It handles a unique range of numbers, from -10-615 to 10615 with an effectively unlimited number of significant figures. Strings can be up to 32K long, and Sinclair Research
even claims that the language will have facilities for multi- tasking, allowing you to run several processes at the same time. In keeping with the quality keyboard, Sinclair Research has dropped the keyword system altogether. Only time will tell if SuperBasic is as good as it looks.

The free software

The QL comes with four of the most popular business applications packages for micros. There's a word processor, a database, a spreadsheet and a business graphics package. This is the first time that any home computer has been sold with its own set of serious 'built-in' software. The applications are written by Psion (as in Vu-file and so on) and if first glances are anything to go by, the packages are likely to be very well received indeed. They are not your run- of- the- mill home- based software, but serious business packages in their own right.
Psion claims the spreadsheet QL Abacus has most of the features and speed of Microsoft Multiplan - the top- selling spreadsheet from the CP/M and MS-DOS world. Similarly, the database QL Archive offers facilities previously unavailable on home machines. It's programmable, so not only do you drive it step-by-step from the keyboard using a handful of simple commands, but you can also write programs in its own built-in language. In this way, you can evolve a database using special customised commands and facilities, and whole complex operations (such as making a calculation on each entry in the database) can be made at a single command.
The word processor QL Quill is very fast and offers a full range of formatting facilities. This lets you see justified text and page breaks on the screen - exactly as it will be when printed. Even underlining actually appears below the words underlined! And a real luxury - there's a continuous word-count on the screen that's kept up-to-date as you type.
Psion has not only achieved very capable programs, it's made them very easy to use. The programs carefully lead the user through each operation, showing what's been done so far, what's happening on-screen and just what can be accomplished if you stick at it. And just like any modern business package, there's a Help key that provides a short manual on-screen whenever you need it. By
using a special 'prompt panel' at the top of each screen, Psion has made it so that you almost don't need a manual! The programs would do well on any computer - even as CP/M or MS-DOS programs. Communications The QL's interfacing allows it to be connected to most peripherals. It should be no trouble to get the QL to talk to Prestel and Micronet, or any other telephone service you care to name. In fact, with its proper keyboard, 80 column display and twin Microdrives, the QL is actually good value just as a data terminal for business use. The question is, who will be the first to write the software to do it?
The Cons

The 32-bit chip

Well, actually it isn't. The QL uses a 68008, which is a special version of Motorola's popular 16-bit 68000 processor. The 68008 is mostly 16-bit inside but has the ability to operate on 32-bit words. As far as the outside world goes, however, it is an 8-bit chip - so what you actually call it depends on your own preference. (The same problem arose when IBM and Sirius used an 8088 in their machines rather than the 'true' 16-bit 8086 that now turns up in many of the newer machines.)
But anyway, setting aside the arguments, let's consider the advantages
of the 68008. It's fast, allows you to use lots of memory directly and is software compatible with its big brother, the 68000. If you're into machine code, the 68000 has a super instruction set and is much easier to learn than chips from Intel's 8086 family.
In short, who cares how many 'bits' it's got?

No Centronics port

Even the Oric's got one of these! A Centronics parallel port would allow you to plug many professional printers straight in to the back of the QL, using a standard lead. Most popular printers (Epsons, Stars, etc) have Centronics interfaces as standard and you may have to pay
extra to get an RS232 version. The other problem with using RS232 for printers is that you need to mess around setting baud rates and so on, and may even need a special cable made up with the appropriate plug and wiring for the printer.
Sinclair Research is, of course, working on an add-on Centronics port. But although Spectrum users are quite used to any number of extra boxes plugged (and often Sellotaped) together, your average QL buyer is going to find the bits and pieces cascading out of the back of the new machine a bit of a pain.

No disks

It surprised a lot of people to find Microdrives on the QL, even though
they upgrade their ZX equivalents. They are an obvious cost cut, but relative to the rest of the machine they slow the whole show down. The QL will never run an existing 68000 DOS such as a UNIX, or the newer CP/M- 68K, while stuck with Microdrives. And, at present, there's also no way of adding floppies - even if you don't mind paying another £300 for the privilege.
Sinclair Research is thinking about a hard disk for the QL that would give it the potential to run UNIX, but it still seems a silly thing to do without first investigating the use of floppies. How do you back it up? A 5Mb winchester is 5000K of data and there's 100K on each Microdrive. That's um ... 50 cartridges to back up the whole disk!

It's a colour machine

The QL may only have four colours in its normal operating mode, but it's obvious that you're supposed to use it with a colour screen. There isn't even a socket to connect a black-and-white monitor, although you could use it with a black and white TV. The only problem is that a lot of users may find it hard to distinguish between red and green on a black- and- white screen. This is not to say you can't do it, just that you'll probably be better off with colour.

Locked in its own architecture

This isn't the sort of phrase you hear very often down the home end of the market - because more or less every home computer is. It simply means that the computer uses its own Basic and DOS, and can't swap programs and add-ons with other machines. In the business world this can count for everything. Manufacturers ensure that there is software for their machine by making it to a specific standard - either CP/M or IBM compatible, or whatever. Non-standard machines often give up in the end and bow down to the industry standards.
Sinclair Research doesn't really care. The only way it can continue to offer shockingly innovative products is by behaving in a non- standard fashion. And the products are invariably successful enough to carry this off. There's no doubt that the QL will be a popular target for new add- ons and software, and that a million existing 'Sinclair people' will want to move on to a QL. Going his own way has never stoped Uncle Clive and never will. In fact, it's quite surprising that other micro manufacturers haven't started to copy him and offer Spectrum compatibles.
Besides, the C language will do the QL a lot of favours in this respect. It's very portable and many major software houses are now using it for all their work. So, you can expect all kinds of programs - from CP/M machines up to minicomputers - to find their way onto the QL.

inside the QL

Click here for the BIG picture


Abacus screenshot Abacus screenshot
This spreadsheet allows the use of the existing text, rather than a complex system of numbers and letters, as a reference for the manipulation of rows, columns or individual cells. There are also a number of built-in functions which allow the user to: join worksheets together; use multiple windows; vary the widths and justify text; use different units, including monetary, integer, percentage, decimal and exponential formats; and input data as part of the worksheet. The package is self-documented, and has a comprehensive 'Help' facility should you find yourself in difficulties. Claimed to be an 'intelligent' worksheet, QL Abacus always prompts with the most likely parameters you'll need for the job and through on-screen instructions guides the user on how best to enter the data.
Quill screenshot Archive screenshot
Incorporating a comprehensive command and control panel on-screen, QL Quill is fully interactive, with real-time margin variation, page formatting, justification, etc, so it's a case of "what you see on the screen is what you'll end up with on the page". Many popular word processing features are included, as well as new commands such as View, which allows overall checking of a wide document; and Glossary, which saves or recalls text. This database package is a language- based filing system utilising some 80 commands to allow you to make use of flexible searching, selecting and matching facilities to retrieve data from any angle. Fields and records can be defined with variable lengths, displayed in any format and output to a printer in a specified style. It is also possible to import data from QL Abacus, or export data back to QL Abacus, or on to QL Quill and QL Easel.
Easel screenshot Easel screenshot
This is an interactive package leading the user straight into graph creation without having to format the display before entering the data; thus, the program can automatically design and scale the display to suit the parameters of the information input. There are eight pre-set formats (which can be called with a single key-stroke), allowing the formation of stacked bars, overlapped bars plus line graphs, and pie charts - shading and use of colour can be employed to highlight the displays. Text can be input anywhere on-screen using cross-wires for positioning. The package is also capable of receiving data from QL Abacus and QL Archive, or sending graphics to QL Quill for inclusion in a written document.
Sinclair's Specification for the QL
138 x 46 x 472mm (5½" x 1¾" x 18¾")
1388gms (3.055lbs)
£399 including VAT
128K, 32K of which is used for the screen bit map. (Expandable externally to 640K.)
32K, and contains Sinclair SuperBasic and the Sinclair QDOS operating system. (Expandable via a ROM cartridge to 64K.)
Motorola 68008 (running at 7.5MHz) for all principal functions. (Architecturally, the 68008 is a 32-bit processor with an eight- bit data bus. One megabyte of non- segmented address space is available.)
QDOS (developed by Sinclair Research) features: single- user multiple tasking; time slice priority job scheduler; display handling for multiple screen windows; and device- independent input- output.
Sinclair SuperBasic, with the advantages of:
procedure structuring; extendability (including syntax); interpretation speed independent of program size; clean machine code interface; operating system facilities accessible from SuperBasic; equal capability for strings and arrays; full- screen Basic editor; and full error handling facilities.
High resolution graphics capability with colour or monochrome monitor (or TV) in two modes - 512 x 256 pixels (four colours available) and 256 x 256 pixels (eight colours available). Normal character display format of up to 85 x 25 with choice of character sets available (TV format of up to 40 to 60 columns depending on the software).
Full size, 65-key QWERTY keyboard featuring a space bar, left- and right- hand Shift keys, five function keys and four cursor control keys.
The QL incorporates twin QL Microdrives, each with a minimum 100K capacity, 3.5 seconds average access time, and loading of programs or data into internal RAM at up to 15K per second.
9V DC at 1.8A,
15.6V AC at 0.2A
Excluding RGB monitor, power sockets and TV port, nine peripheral/ expansion ports are provided - internal expansion (1), Microdrive expansion (1), ROM cartridge (1), serial (2), local area network (2), joysticks (2).
One megabyte of address space is available for expansion.
A further six QL Microdrives can be attached. Four blank cartridges are supplied with each QL.
One QL ROM cartridge of up to 32K can be accepted.
Two standard RS232C communications interfaces for printers, modems, etc. Transmission at rates from 75-19200 baud or full duplex transmit/ receive at seven rates up to 9600 baud.
For up to 64 QL or Spectrum computers, data transmission over the net can be achieved at 100K baud.
Provision for one or two devices for games or cursor control.
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