Techno Bore Section

This is a bit of an experiment. I am typing this section on the new Siggins toy, a Cambridge Computers Z88 portable. Stop giggling at the back. I bought it recently, having eliminated most of the competition, so that I could type on the move and it seems to work well in that respect. The nicest thing is that I can work anywhere in the house now and am not forced to sit upstairs all the time. Whether this will mean a lot more written output or a chance to catch up with those letters, I can't say, but there won't be any less.

It certainly means I won't feel put off of typing because of not wishing to sit at the Amiga keyboard. Sometimes, it would be nice to sit downstairs, in the garden or chat with my dad, something that I can't do now as Commodore seem to have abandoned the portable Amiga concept - not a bad move given the crying need for a mouse. Either way, this one is a true laptop. At this moment I am laying on the bed typing and apart from my arm going to sleep very quickly, it seems to be the height of computing luxury.

The system is quite neat. It has 'organiser' stuff like a diary, alarms and so on that I don't use, a good WP and a passable spreadsheet, though both of these and the filing system are definitely a little quirky at times. Not the least of these irritations is that the Z88 doesn't ask for confirmation before saving over an existing file. And we all know what happens then don't we? The other failing is that it won't word wrap properly - a return doesn't cause a line split and carriage return if you are with me. Having typed and successfully saved your stuff, you simply plug the Z88 into the link cable and whizz the ascii data over to the Amiga for formatting and printing out. Actually, you could do the formatting and printing in situ, but I like to keep the files in one place (and backed up as I don't yet trust the batteries). Word Perfect is also rather stronger on print controls.

The Z88 is a pretty weird machine. No floppy disks, a tiny but just about useable LCD screen (8 lines x 96 characters) and a much improved Spectrum-like keyboard. It has 160k Ram expandable to 2Mb (!), loads of onboard software features including BBC Basic and is surprisingly light at 2 pounds. Although it runs on the 'humble' 8-bit Z80, there are no problems with speed. It runs on batteries or mains and seems to last for a good while when in 'portable' mode. The keyboard is odd to start with, but allows good four finger speed, is very positive and can be set to beep or be virtually silent in operation. For something designed by Clive Sinclair, I have to say it is pretty impressive. It certainly beats these little personal organisers that are springing up for anything up to £250. For a little more, you get a proper keyboard, a machine that weighs just a couple of pounds and is not much bigger than an A4 notepad.

Ahhh, I've just found the first small fault with the Z88. While typing the above paragraph, I suddenly found I had dropped out into the operating system. The Z88 is like a pseudo-multitasking job that lets you open other windows or tasks while others remain exactly where you left 'em. This isn't quite multi-tasking as the other job stops completely, but you get the picture. The other tasks are accessed by a little button in the bottom corner and it is possible to accidentally knock it while reaching down for the shift key or resting one's left hand. A small gripe, but it's a bummer to be typing merrily away, only to find you are in the filing system.

A few weeks on, the initial fascination has worn off, but I still rate the Z88 highly even if there are compromises. Most frustrating is the screen, which you don't seem to be able to see perfectly unless you are looking down on it at 90 degrees in the 'right' lighting conditions. This is a bit difficult to do at the same time as typing, so you tend to type looking at the keyboard or the TV and make corrections later. A spell checker may have to come into play for the first time in Sumo!

What the Z88 effectively gives me, as far as word processing goes, is a portable Amiga. Being as the real thing will probably never appear, that is quite a useful item. With the availability of Z88 comms programs for PCs, Macs, Ataris, Beebs, Archies, QLs, Spectrums and so on, there aren't many machines that can't benefit from this roving data terminal. I must say I'm impressed overall, we'll see what I think (or if I'm still using it) in a year's time.

It is a long, long time since I've been excited about a program on the Amiga. Sure, Word Perfect has become an intuitive extension of my brain, I've played Kick Off 2 to distraction (five complete World Cups so far!) and I've got Railroad Tycoon to look forward to but AMOS is different. For a start it isn't a game; it's a programming language, but one that gives a semi-literate programmer as myself a shot at matching the big boys. Well alright, the middle sized ones.

AMOS is a direct descendant of STOS, the equivalent program on the Atari, but adds several new powerful commands to really make the Amiga hum. All those formerly difficult assembler-only tasks like windows, graphics effects, rapid animation and screen scrolling are handled with just one simple command. The buzzwords 'enabling technology' are often misapplied, but I'm sure this is a justified term for AMOS. This is a remarkable piece of coding and for about £35 discounted is ridiculously good value. I don't believe comparisons with Turbo Pascal are out of order in this respect.

But why exactly am I getting so excited? Well, AMOS gives anyone with an ability to program in Basic (and do some decent graphics) pretty much all the tools needed to write decent to high quality arcade games. On the surface, not too exciting, unless Siggins intends writing the next Tetris. This couldn't be farther from the truth. The point is, and what gets my mind racing, is that if the language is quick enough to do Space Invaders and it supplies standard basic commands for stuff like drop down menus, you can write rather good strategy games and Game Assistance Programs with it as well.

My problem in the past has been a surfeit of ideas (and dissatisfaction with commercial games) way beyond my ability to program them myself. I believe, even at this early stage, AMOS gives me everything I need (apart from artistic ability) to get some of these ideas onto the screen and all this before the forthcoming compiler and 3D module even appear. Now all I need is the time.

Back to the Books or on to the Letters.

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