Made in Japan, but can Sord’s £100 colour and sound micro make it over here. Tim Langdell tests its mettle.
Hard on the heels of The Sanyo PHC range we reviewed in October comes this new micro from Sord – Japan’s fastest growing computer manufacture. The M-5 is a Z-80A based micro with 3K of internal ROM, 4K of user RAM, and 16K of video RAM. It can product up to 32 different colours on the screen at once, with a variety of resolutions from 32 by 24 up to 256 by 196. All this for £100 sounds almost too good to be true.
Externally the M-5 is beautifully designed and made to the high standards expected of Japanese electronics. It measures 10.5in. wide, 7.25in. deep, and 1.5in. high, which makes it slightly bigger all round than the Spectrum. The two-tone grey plastic casing opens to reveal a bright yellow back, which houses the ROM cartridge slot.
Stable and portable
The M-5 is heavier than it looks which makes it extremely stable whilst still being very portable. The keyboard is similar to the rubber matting of the Spectrum, but feels better. The keys are dark-grey with the letters and numbers sharply contrasted in white. Graphic characters are in bright yellow on each key, and have been designed to be easily visible without making the keyboard seem too cluttered.
There are two shift keys – one on each side – and these, along with a space and return key, are all larger than the other keys on the board.
The keyboard also boasts a control key, a function key and a reset key. Looking more closely it becomes apparent that most keys have a Basic keyword on them in small light-grey letters. These are difficult to see, which might be a problem for the first-time user bur the keyboard is easy to use once learnt.
On the negative side, the keys are not placed at typewriter pitch as the Spectrum’s are – but are about three-quarters typewriter size. This undoubtedly makes typing harder – although considerably easier than on the calculator-style keyboards of pocket computers. The keys also do not have very much travel, making key presses a little less positive than they might be. An automatic keyboard beep partly makes up for this, but does, nothing to remedy the lack of a full-size space¬bar.
The Sord M-5 has single-key entry like the Sinclair. However, this is not its usual mode of operation, and far from all the keywords it recognises are on the keys. The M-5 responds like most micros, putting the letter or number on the key on to the screen rather than a keyword with the first key press. But single-key entry is quite easy by holding down the function key as the other key is pressed. The M-5 thus offers the best of both worlds.
What is puzzling, though, is why Sord has failed to put some keywords on the keyboard. FOR is there but TO is not. Little-used keywords such as Auto, Renumber and Call are there, but IF and THEN have to be typed in.
The M-5 has 32 graphics symbols in ROM which speeds up games programming particularly.
The Sord’s Basic is reasonably powerful supporting all the major keywords, as well as READ, DATA and RESTORE, RENUMBER, Auto line numbering, JOY to read the joysticks, and HEX$ which converts decimal numbers to Hex. The Basic is supplied on a ROM cartridge rather than being resident inside the machine. This has the advantage that future enhancements can he sold in the form of a new Basic cartridge, but has the disadvantage that the unit is useless without a cartridge plugged in.
The Basic is more fussy than in Sinclair or Microsoft-based computers such as the Dragon. Syntax checking is not done until the program is Run, and the error reports are very brief and hard to understand at first. They are of the form
ERROR 2 IN LINE 1
The keywords usually need a space after them, when Sord could have made the Basic automatically put them there. LET is understood but not necessary. However, it is added when a LIST is pulled. If you omit a space in a crucial spot the M-5 may assume it is dealing with a LET statement and insert LET in the program. This could be rather confusing for a beginner.
Minor criticisms aside, the Sord performed very well, being one of the fastest Z-80A-based micros I have seen in anything like this price range. The screen handling seems considerably faster than the Spectrum’s for instance, and the demonstration ROM’s fast-moving graphics confirmed this impression. One program showed an entire screen, full of information being smoothly scrolled at a fair rate, and large spacecraft being moved fast and smoothly across the screen which is not easy on many computers – even in machine code.
The Sord has at least two screens which can be written to independently. Up to 32 graphic shapes or sprites can also be defined and called at will to create cartoon effects and very smooth graphic movement. The M-5 has four modes of operation in addition to the sprite mode. The sprite mode allows the super imposition of screens so that one is seen through another. In this manner the demonstration program showed a constant background of Mount Fuji with the letters comprising Sord moving smoothly around the screen.
The other four modes are:
- Text-only mode with no colours and a 40 by 24 screen display, each character made up of eight by eight character squares. This mode appears to be teletext-compatible in its format but not in its availability of colour.
- Graphics 1 mode in which the screen is mapped in eight by eight pixel character squares on a 32 by 24 grid with a possible 32 colours available.
- Resolution of 64 by 48 with 16 colours available. Each character square is a four by four dot matrix.
- Graphics 2 mode in which one has full graphics with a resolution of 256 by 192 and up to 32 colours. However, only two colours are available in any given character square.
There is only 4K of internal RAM, while the memory map is labelled in the Japanese manual with most of the remaining area as extra external RAM/ROM – which implies that Sord has extension RAM cartridges in mind. Certainly other languages such as Pips, Sord’s equivalent of VisiCalc, are available on ROM.
The M-5 seems well equipped for the games player with joysticks and plug-in ROM games, but also well suited to the more serious user if the memory can be expanded, it has both a television output at the rear and a video and sound output. The joysticks simply plug into tiny DIN sockets, and there is a port for a Centronics printer. The power supply is external and rather cumbersome.
The M-5′s sound capabilities are better than those on, say, the Dragon or the Spectrum. The Sord has three independent sound channels which can produce a variety of music and synthesised sounds. Again the demonstration cartridge showed off by depicting three animals on screen playing tunes in three voices complete with the striking of piano keys and bowing of a violin. The sound benefits from being sent via the TV or video system rather than from an internal speaker.
The M-5 supports Inp and Out in Basic to control Z-80A ports, but has no obvious connector to the external world other than the ROM cartridge slot into which the Basic must be inserted. This makes it unlikely that it could support a disc-drive or control equipment via I/O ports unless a custom-made unit will be made available to sit in the ROM socket.
- For £99.99 the Sord M-5 will be a strong contender in the home computer market when it becomes available next month.
- Stylish appearance and compact design could make it look attractive on the High Street.
- Games players will be attracted by plug-in software, joysticks, and definable sprites.
- The more serious user may be attracted by a fast Basic which has many useful characteristics such as RENUMBER and AUTO, and by the presence of a Centronics interface and video outputs.
- 4K of internal RAM is inadequate. Sord would be well advised to consider a RAM upgrade cartridge to compete with the bigger memories of the Spectrum, Oric and the other colour micros in the £100 range.