Should the Elk have been a 'full' Beeb?

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Commie_User
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Should the Elk have been a 'full' Beeb?

Postby Commie_User » Sat Aug 27, 2016 12:01 pm

Maybe to sell better than it did, I think the Electron should have been fully BBC B compatible but without any fittings except AV out, tape in/out and joystick port. There is a view that not being a 'real' BBC crippled it.

Though putting as much as they did on the custom chip was a crown achievement, Acorn omitting vital graphic and sound modes must have kept it from being a home staple. Mind, if there was a true bridge, kids may have been dismayed to find parents buying more computers which really could be used to do your homework on for school next day.

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Re: Should the Elk have been a 'full' Beeb?

Postby davidb » Sat Aug 27, 2016 12:32 pm

Just having another sound channel and more than two volume levels, plus a teletext mode, would have really helped. I also think a built-in cartridge port would have been useful. It could be said that Acorn should have consolidated the technology in the Beeb and released the result at a lower cost, but perhaps that's only something they could have done if they had a newer high-end model to replace the original Beeb with. I think all the 8-bit manufacturers struggled with this a bit.

It happened again with the 32-bit machines. A&B Computing had the same idea about iterating on the original Archimedes machines in their Affordable Archie article. Instead, they released the A3000, which was cheaper than the A310 but not as much as people hoped.

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Re: Should the Elk have been a 'full' Beeb?

Postby Commie_User » Sat Aug 27, 2016 1:10 pm

It seems the Elk was neither one thing or another. If it was supposed to be this great games machine, then it could have had different archtecture altogether, yet still running BBC BASIC. If it wasn't properly compatible with its big brother anyway, they could have strived to reach for a better feel than that of the ZX Spectrum. People put up with the deficiencies of that machine because it filled the budget gap.

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Re: Should the Elk have been a 'full' Beeb?

Postby 1024MAK » Sat Aug 27, 2016 1:51 pm

When they came up with the concept, DRAM chips were still expensive. So to keep costs low, Acorn used four off, one bit x 64k bit chips giving it a 4 bit DRAM bus. The ULA has to read twice from the DRAM chips to read one 8 bit byte. The result of this, is that when a memory heavy screen mode is in use, there is little to no time for the ULA to supply the CPU with access to the DRAM :(

Sometime later, after it became available in large numbers, DRAM chip prices came down in price rather a lot. So you should take that into account.

My feeling is that having seen the ZX Spectrum, the Electron should have had, at the very least, the same sound chip as the Beeb, a built in Atari compatiable joystick port and maybe a cartridge port. I can understand why they did not include the Teletext mode (MODE 7). Even now, with hindsight, had I been setting the specification, or designing it, I would not have included the Teletext mode.

As soon as the cost of DRAM chips fell, I would liked to have seen it given a byte wide DRAM memory bus. But this would have increased the price and would at the same time made the 32k byte Model B look very outdated compared to the now 64k byte Electron...

So then you would have to produce a 128k byte Beeb model. But the Master 128 came much later.

But what really did not help, was none of the above. It was a lack of machines to sell at the busiest time of year for home computer sales in the UK. This was due to production problems. So potential buyers went elsewhere. Then after ramping up production, finding that the window of opportunity had passed and they were unable to sell the now large stock of Elections. This caused cash flow problems, as Acorn still had to pay it's suppliers. A company that has this problem is not going to be able to design and produce a new machine until it sorted itself out.

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Re: Should the Elk have been a 'full' Beeb?

Postby Commie_User » Sat Aug 27, 2016 2:10 pm

So it was a mistake to have even tried? Perhaps so, given how many more micros we don't remember from the old days. From the 90s too, there were just so many machines I only discovered when given them , seeing them in Cash Converters or watching Youtube. The Electron still sold OK but it was no true need, especially taking such a risk if you're someone other than Jack Tramiel.

That just suggests a glut anyway, never mind whether markets were caught. Sinclair made the same boob with the QL, in trying to grab a slice of someone else's established market with a rush job machine. Or at least one trying to fill a niche with only a vague idea of what was going on.

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Re: Should the Elk have been a 'full' Beeb?

Postby davidb » Sat Aug 27, 2016 2:48 pm

I think that making the Electron was a strategic move to counter Sinclair taking the low price market and taking mindshare from the BBC Micro. In hindsight that may not have been a real threat, but that's probably not how it seemed at the time.

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Re: Should the Elk have been a 'full' Beeb?

Postby paulb » Sat Aug 27, 2016 3:36 pm

davidb wrote:I think that making the Electron was a strategic move to counter Sinclair taking the low price market and taking mindshare from the BBC Micro. In hindsight that may not have been a real threat, but that's probably not how it seemed at the time.


Yes, I imagine that Sinclair was whining all the time about how the BBC had chosen the wrong machine. Even though the Spectrum ended up being incredibly successful, Sinclair didn't have anything to show that met the BBC's criteria at the time the BBC was making its decision. Nor would the Spectrum end up meeting those criteria, either. (The Beeb was really quite "overengineered".)

But, the way things went, Sinclair would have been arguing about the popularity of the Spectrum and that "it's what the kids use at home", advocating its use in schools, too. So, the Electron was an understandable response to that, as the advertising indicated. Later on, it was the whole "PC-compatibility" argument that made problems for Acorn, being a similar argument rooted in a different market.

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Re: Should the Elk have been a 'full' Beeb?

Postby jgharston » Sat Aug 27, 2016 3:44 pm

At least they learned from the Electron how to make a cut-down version of the main machine when they made the Master Compact - which was they right way to do it.

At the very minimum the Elk should have had MODE 7.

Code: Select all

$ bbcbasic
PDP11 BBC BASIC IV Version 0.25
(C) Copyright J.G.Harston 1989,2005-2015
>_

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Re: Should the Elk have been a 'full' Beeb?

Postby paulb » Sat Aug 27, 2016 3:59 pm

I think we're having similar discussions every month or so these days. :lol:

I agree with davidb that a built-in cartridge port would have helped out, regardless of whether the RAM bottlenecks were dealt with or not. Maybe not trying to integrate many of the different Beeb ICs into a single IC would have been wise, too. The Electron's board is certainly sparse compared to other machines of the era, and eliminating certain ICs might have been a good move, but things like the sound generator could arguably have been separate. (This kind of thing is why it's interesting to quantify the cost of such functionality in terms of price, board complexity and ULA complexity.)

Teletext was an interesting thing, perhaps incorporated into the Beeb's design to satisfy the BBC's notion that everyone would be using Viewdata services either over-the-air or over-the-phone, but we all know that it got used in the vast majority of situations for providing a very-low-memory mode that had embarrassingly-simple graphics and eight colours for things like title screens and mostly-textual programs. (It was almost retro itself back in the day.) For cost purposes, I could see Teletext being dropped because it's another chip that has to be integrated into the video system, and that probably then demands a separate "CRT controller", and then you're suddenly using all the discrete ICs again.

We did cover compatibility in another thread fairly recently. If the Electron hadn't been beholden to close Beeb compatibility, with the idea that some titles wouldn't even need porting (but in practice many titles, especially games, didn't run well, needed porting, were not ported well or were not ported at all), Acorn's "well-behaved" applications would have run with a modified OS on slightly different hardware that would have had better performance characteristics for things like graphical applications and games. The screen memory layout was the example given: make the low byte address a pixel row; make the high byte address 2/4/8-pixel columns. Some games would have been easier to write and probably quite a bit quicker.

But as 1024MAK says, the memory architecture probably did it for the Electron. Reviewers were disappointed from the beginning, and not until the turbo board came out (or arguably the E2P cartridge) was there any kind of architectural remedy. But, again, ROM-based software might have helped mitigate the problem (due to the RAM access limitations), and as I've surely said before, with a built-in cartridge slot, it might have made the Electron attractive for schools purely because messing around with tapes and disks wouldn't be necessary in various teaching situations.

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Re: Should the Elk have been a 'full' Beeb?

Postby Commie_User » Sat Aug 27, 2016 5:44 pm

paulb wrote:I think we're having similar discussions every month or so these days. :lol:



Sorry about that. Looks like Stardot really needs a subsystem for things like this. 'Ah, Electron not what it should've been? Click here. We've put it in the pile.'

Acorn may not have been in the position to have the DRAM situation they needed at any time. They maybe couldn't have done a Tramiel and gambled on future ubiquity. It's well known in our camp that 'Uncle Jack' gambled on 64K RAM tumbling in price by the time the C64 hit the shops, so got the ball rolling while it was still pricey and caught the tide later.

Though cartridges? Cartridges? If the Electron was fully BBC compatible, then yes, I suppose. A ZIF bed you could have plugged in. But as it was, it was a fine decision to leave off cartridge ports. Past VIC 20 times, cartridges hardly set the world on fire outside the console world, did they. Cartridges were costly, never really featured and I don't think many of us missed them. On a shakily-sold system like the Elk, who would have made many?
Last edited by Commie_User on Sat Aug 27, 2016 6:17 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Should the Elk have been a 'full' Beeb?

Postby paulb » Sat Aug 27, 2016 6:17 pm

Commie_User wrote:Though cartridges? Cartridges? If the Electron was fully BBC compatible, then yes, I suppose. A ZIF bed you could have plugged in. But as it was, it was a fine decision to leave off cartridge ports. Past VIC 20 times, cartridges hardly set the world on fire outside the console world, did they. Cartridges were costly, never really featured and I don't think many of us missed them. On a shakily-sold system like the Elk, who would have made many?


Why only if it were fully compatible with the Beeb? In any case, the Electron had cartridge support via the Plus 1 - the argument here is to put that support into the base model instead - and the Master 128 later reused that support, albeit in a less generously-sized socket and with some slight functionality differences.

The reason there weren't many cartridges sold is that demand was necessarily limited by the size of the audience. Most Electrons would have been unexpanded: I think the "tank serial number" thread indicates this. So, there was little incentive to make cartridge products even at Acorn. Obviously, cartridges are more expensive to make, too, but they would have permitted other functions to be added to products.

Another thing we've been looking into is the matter of making the cartridges themselves. Dave H has plenty of experience with that, but also the mundane matter of the boxes that the circuit boards go into will even have been an issue, too. Back in the day, should Acorn have been getting thousands of cases produced and then selling them on to third parties just above cost so as to enable a market? What about mass-producing boards that just needed a cheap ROM and be ready to go?

Acorn probably didn't have the appetite to empower third parties in this way, but I guess it could have happened if the conditions had been different.

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Re: Should the Elk have been a 'full' Beeb?

Postby Commie_User » Sat Aug 27, 2016 6:32 pm

paulb wrote:Why only if it were fully compatible with the Beeb?


Because at least the existing markets would have had the Elk rolling full speed from Day 1. As it was, it needed a whole new programming discipline which slowed the Electron's momentum down, I fancy. I'm not sure cartridges would have been the magic key if ZX Spectrum users also shunned them. Did market research at Acorn indicate that the sockets were especially wanted?

I'm also not clear utility cartridges would even have been made. No Action Replay, Romantic Robot or even equivalent of the Spec Drum made it to the BBC that I ever found. So who would make Elk ones? I think the old Catch 22 was too often at play with the Electron, where nobody made because nobody wanted because nobody bought, so nobody made.

I know it looks like I'm raining on the Electron but I'm getting a clearer picture that it may never have had equal opportunities. It was robbed of what little it could have been used for. I love many games and enjoy how, at least, you can actually use a joystick for more of them than games on the Beeb! And the Elk lacked a socket for that, too.

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Re: Should the Elk have been a 'full' Beeb?

Postby 1024MAK » Sat Aug 27, 2016 7:04 pm

Playing what if... I make one assumption- the ULA had not yet been designed.

Okay, so let's have a look at what could have been. For now, we will keep the memory arrangements as per the produced Elk design.
To add the Beeb's sound chip would have been easy, instead of having the ULA produce the sounds, use the ULA capacity released instead to decode the required small address range for the sound chip. At the same time, decode a single enable signal for the single 74LS input buffer chip needed for the Atari compatable joystick port. And the required decoding for a single cartridge slot. Now to complete the main parts of the hardware, you need the 9 way D plug (for the joystick) and a edge-connector for the cartridge socket. Design the case and you are just about done.

Would lots of games have been released on cartridges? No, of course not. But even though you had to buy a Plus 1 to get cartridge slots, Acorn did release some games and some serious software (including a word processor). I'm sure another member can point you to a list.

So, had the cartridge slot been built in from the start, it's likely more would have been released.

Of course, these features would have increased the cost. And Acorn were actually aiming at the home educational market rather than the games market. See the adverts from the time to see this.

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Re: Should the Elk have been a 'full' Beeb?

Postby danielj » Sat Aug 27, 2016 7:28 pm

The main issue with the electron was not that it was a hugely incapable machine (that becomes apparent if you stop comparing it to the beeb which was in a league of its own), but more that they missed the xmas '83 market due to the ULA not behaving on time...

There were enough in the wild to support a fairly active 3rd party software/peripherals market right up to about 1990 or so. And as Mark said, it was always aimed at the home education rather than games market. It gave BBC BASIC, the Acorn OS environment and a decent keyboard at half the price of a BBC B. If you wanted the "Full Beeb minus all the ports", you could get a model A and crank the memory up to 32k (and if you were desperate plug in the relevant electronics for the ADC) - which was a darn sight more expensive than an electron!

d.

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Re: Should the Elk have been a 'full' Beeb?

Postby paulb » Sat Aug 27, 2016 7:47 pm

danielj wrote:The main issue with the electron was not that it was a hugely incapable machine (that becomes apparent if you stop comparing it to the beeb which was in a league of its own), but more that they missed the xmas '83 market due to the ULA not behaving on time...


Indeed. There's an argument that Chris Curry shouldn't have been "trolled" by Clive Sinclair into making the Electron - that's the impression you get from some accounts - but Acorn would still have needed to deliver in the evolving business sector, and the ABC - fancy as it was (but also incoherent strategically) - didn't really excite people that much.

danielj wrote:There were enough in the wild to support a fairly active 3rd party software/peripherals market right up to about 1990 or so. And as Mark said, it was always aimed at the home education rather than games market. It gave BBC BASIC, the Acorn OS environment and a decent keyboard at half the price of a BBC B. If you wanted the "Full Beeb minus all the ports", you could get a model A and crank the memory up to 32k (and if you were desperate plug in the relevant electronics for the ADC) - which was a darn sight more expensive than an electron!


The Electron was more or less a replacement for both the Atom and the Model A, not necessarily in terms of what those other machines could do, but actually in terms of what Acorn was willing to keep selling. There's a news article (that surely surfaced here) more or less saying that Acorn had told people that the Atom had been phased out and to buy an Electron instead. And why pay £299 or so for a computer that only does modes 4 to 7 when you can pay £199 for one that does modes 0 to 6 and which has twice the memory? That's another way of looking at it!

Despite reviewers being disappointed by the speed, there was enthusiasm about the BBC BASIC, wealth of usable software, and the usable keyboard (which Sinclair never got the hang of). If you see it as complementary to the Beebs being used at school and that it's about serious things, the Electron was great value for money. We judge it too harshly perhaps because we were all corrupted by the games. :twisted:

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Re: Should the Elk have been a 'full' Beeb?

Postby Commie_User » Sat Aug 27, 2016 8:23 pm

There's nothing wrong with playing What If, surely.


1024MAK wrote:And Acorn were actually aiming at the home educational market rather than the games market. See the adverts from the time to see this.


A bit like Hitler when he zig-zagged his forces across Russia, Acorn seemed unable to decide the prime use for its 'PCjr' and so squandered any possibility. All accounts I've seen tell us the Elk was made to counter the Spectrum, yet it was too much only a BBC flavoured machine to hit the educational mark.

I like a game of Number Puzzler as much as any man. But that and most else are simply unreachable on the Electron. I hazard a guess the educational developers only had the resources for BBC B software only. Indeed, I'm sure of it.

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Re: Should the Elk have been a 'full' Beeb?

Postby Commie_User » Sat Aug 27, 2016 8:32 pm

paulb wrote:
danielj wrote:The main issue with the electron was not that it was a hugely incapable machine (that becomes apparent if you stop comparing it to the beeb which was in a league of its own), but more that they missed the xmas '83 market due to the ULA not behaving on time...


The Electron was more or less a replacement for both the Atom and the Model A, not necessarily in terms of what those other machines could do, but actually in terms of what Acorn was willing to keep selling. There's a news article (that surely surfaced here) more or less saying that Acorn had told people that the Atom had been phased out and to buy an Electron instead. And why pay £299 or so for a computer that only does modes 4 to 7 when you can pay £199 for one that does modes 0 to 6 and which has twice the memory? That's another way of looking at it!

Despite reviewers being disappointed by the speed, there was enthusiasm about the BBC BASIC, wealth of usable software, and the usable keyboard (which Sinclair never got the hang of). If you see it as complementary to the Beebs being used at school and that it's about serious things, the Electron was great value for money. We judge it too harshly perhaps because we were all corrupted by the games. :twisted:



I get ever more the impression that the Electron was an attractive, personable one-hit wonder which missed its best release date. It made number one anyway but should have lingered at the top a while longer. It didn't have enough to sustain it as a kind-of 'album chart' micro like the BBC or C64. Those and the Spectrum had the support and unique marketing points to get most out of them. The Electron, though, was just 'like a BBC but cheaper'. It's a great machine for its year, though, and the ULA chip is still amazing. Acorn had visionaries there.


And that whole BBC A replacement thing? Commodore made a similar mistake with the C16, made to replace the Vic 20. But by 1985, nobody wanted a new incarnation of obsolete technology anyway. The Electron had all that ballast and I think it should have flown away. It could have done. If it could have just run even most BBC games, momentum should have been there for anything else to be forgiven by fate. And we could have had that if BBC A machines were simply reinstated, amended and sold at the Elk's price point!

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Re: Should the Elk have been a 'full' Beeb?

Postby paulb » Sat Aug 27, 2016 9:37 pm

Commie_User wrote:And that whole BBC A replacement thing? Commodore made a similar mistake with the C16, made to replace the Vic 20. But by 1985, nobody wanted a new incarnation of obsolete technology anyway.


Nobody got the memo at Commodore that the low-end was the path to ruin, especially if you bring out something with early-80s amounts of RAM that isn't compatible with your most successful product and has no software, and especially since the low-end was already getting the "Commodore treatment" from the likes of Sinclair, Amstrad (if you wanted a bundle including tape/disk and display) and, of course, Commodore itself.

Even Acorn (or, rather, Dixons) managed to shift heavily-discounted Electrons late in its commercial life to the detriment of things like the C16: back in late 1986, the Spectrum was apparently briefly dislodged as the best-selling micro in the UK at the time. Yes, it's remarkable that even in 1986, the Spectrum was still the top seller.

Commie_User wrote:The Electron had all that ballast and I think it should have flown away. It could have done. If it could have just run even most BBC games, momentum should have been there for anything else to be forgiven by fate. And we could have had that if BBC A machines were simply reinstated, amended and sold at the Elk's price point!


It didn't even need to run Beeb games. If it had been available in quantity in 1983, things would have been very different: converting the pre-orders to actual shipments (the bane of the UK computing business in the early 1980s) would have got a lot of machines out there and driven demand for more; instead, the originally-ordered machines ended up unsold and being sold off much cheaper in the face of improved competition. (Consider that by Christmas 1984, the CPC464 was out, and the C64 and Spectrum were probably substantially discounted.)

And since I don't recall Acorn ever discounting the Beeb or the Master until maybe the very end of the life of those machines, I just can't see the Model A ever having being sold at Electron prices. Getting the Model A down to Electron pricing would have involved either a rationalisation of the design to reduce the chip count (which is what the Electron tried to achieve) or good old stock dumping.

Maybe the latter could have been a way of Acorn getting bottoms on seats, but there would have been quite a reaction when purchasers discovered that most of the software they wanted to run needed additional upgrades, which in the loss-leader strategy would have been profit-generating and thus unacceptably more expensive than those purchasers had in mind. Sorry, but I just can't square this particular circle, or whatever people say. :wink:

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Re: Should the Elk have been a 'full' Beeb?

Postby Commie_User » Sat Aug 27, 2016 10:27 pm

If these modded BBC A's still had ULA's to upgrade to very rudimentary B's, buyers could have had the best of both worlds. Electrons still would have been cut down machines but they really could have fulfilled whatever brief Chris Curry wanted to shove them.

But like you say, Acorn were very stubborn on prices. It wouldn't have helped them needing to be sold to Olivetti.

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Re: Should the Elk have been a 'full' Beeb?

Postby ThomasHarte » Wed Aug 31, 2016 8:50 pm

Springing from the observation that it was missing Christmas in volume that did it for the Electron, possibly the way to save it would have been to be an even more cut-down BBC, rather than something more functional? If you assume that a simpler ULA would have meant a quicker development process and therefore a greater buffer for deadlines, that's not an unreasonable assumption.

So, I'd propose:

Ditch modes 0–3 and 6. So it's 4 and 5 only. No need to implement 80-column mode or blank lines.

Just run the CPU at 1Mhz and be done with it. No complicated clock signal logic, but rather much the same process as the BBC: video accesses in phase 1, CPU accesses in phase 2. BASIC would have been the main thing that was slower but I think still more than competitive with the similarly-priced competition.

Assuming there was time for the software engineering, ditch the serial hardware running the tape interface and just throw in the one-bit DAC and ADC of other budget machines, letting the CPU do the work in between. Maybe do that instead of adding the FUNC keyword shortcuts?

If they affected even only QA time, get rid of all the video outputs other than UHF.

... and you'd still get a machine that could run 95% of the real-life Electron software indistinguishably from the real thing.

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Re: Should the Elk have been a 'full' Beeb?

Postby sydney » Thu Sep 01, 2016 8:27 am

ThomasHarte wrote:...
Ditch modes 0–3 and 6. So it's 4 and 5 only. No need to implement 80-column mode or blank lines.

Just run the CPU at 1Mhz and be done with it. No complicated clock signal logic, but rather much the same process as the BBC: video accesses in phase 1, CPU accesses in phase 2. BASIC would have been the main thing that was slower but I think still more than competitive with the similarly-priced competition.

Assuming there was time for the software engineering, ditch the serial hardware running the tape interface and just throw in the one-bit DAC and ADC of other budget machines, letting the CPU do the work in between. Maybe do that instead of adding the FUNC keyword shortcuts?

If they affected even only QA time, get rid of all the video outputs other than UHF.

... and you'd still get a machine that could run 95% of the real-life Electron software indistinguishably from the real thing.


Looking back this is probably the best way to go as that is how the machines were used but it probably doesn't meet what Acorn had in mind when designing it.
A change to the original design that I think could have made an improvement to the performace of the elk would be an optional 16k of sideways ram on the motherboard which would have given the elk 48k - the same as most speccy's - 16k of which would be running at 2mhz. You'd still have the slowdown when accessing the screen ram but that should only be at most half of the time. Don't know about the cost of this and it would need to be a common upgrade to have made a difference to the games market.

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Re: Should the Elk have been a 'full' Beeb?

Postby 1024MAK » Thu Sep 01, 2016 9:15 am

ThomasHarte wrote:Springing from the observation that it was missing Christmas in volume that did it for the Electron, possibly the way to save it would have been to be an even more cut-down BBC, rather than something more functional? If you assume that a simpler ULA would have meant a quicker development process and therefore a greater buffer for deadlines, that's not an unreasonable assumption.
You may be right, but at the time, Acorn thought their plan was achievable...
ThomasHarte wrote:Assuming there was time for the software engineering, ditch the serial hardware running the tape interface and just throw in the one-bit DAC and ADC of other budget machines, letting the CPU do the work in between. Maybe do that instead of adding the FUNC keyword shortcuts?

If they affected even only QA time, get rid of all the video outputs other than UHF.
The tape serial system (a hardware parallel load/read shift register) is a fairly simple bit of logic for a ULA (two or three 74 series logic chips could do this with just a little bit of logic in the ULA).

The ULA outputs digital "R", "G" and "B" digital "TTL" level video data. These lines then go to the RGB DIN socket output (via some resistors). The UHF video is encoded outside the ULA by circuitry on the main PCB. So I don't see any saving there. If you cut-out the RGB outputs from the ULA and instead want a composite output (suitable to feed to a modulator for an UHF output), that's not possible, as composite is an analogue signal. ULAs are for digital logic with some limited capacity for non-TTL input or output signals.

Apart from reducing the number of video modes, the next "big win" to reduce the complexity of the ULA, would be to remove the sound generator from the ULA and instead use the same sound chip found in a Beeb. With the (simple) address decoder and control circuitry still retained in the ULA, you would just need one 74 series latch chip to connect the sound chip to the CPU data bus.

The only trouble with having more external (to the ULA) support circuitry, is you need more control lines between the ULA and said support chips.

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Re: Should the Elk have been a 'full' Beeb?

Postby simonm » Thu Sep 01, 2016 10:34 am

Time to watch micro men again I think..
:)

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Re: Should the Elk have been a 'full' Beeb?

Postby paulb » Thu Sep 01, 2016 10:44 am

ThomasHarte wrote:Springing from the observation that it was missing Christmas in volume that did it for the Electron, possibly the way to save it would have been to be an even more cut-down BBC, rather than something more functional? If you assume that a simpler ULA would have meant a quicker development process and therefore a greater buffer for deadlines, that's not an unreasonable assumption.


I thought the actual fabrication was the problem. Steve Furber seemed to indicate that there was a lot of back and forth with Ferranti about things he had foreseen as problems, with power consumption and related reliability issues being major concerns. (The timezone and cultural differences between Cambridge and Oldham can't have made things easier, either. :^o :lol: )

ThomasHarte wrote:So, I'd propose:

Ditch modes 0–3 and 6. So it's 4 and 5 only. No need to implement 80-column mode or blank lines.

Just run the CPU at 1Mhz and be done with it. No complicated clock signal logic, but rather much the same process as the BBC: video accesses in phase 1, CPU accesses in phase 2. BASIC would have been the main thing that was slower but I think still more than competitive with the similarly-priced competition.


This is an elegant suggestion. After all, the C64 used a 1MHz 6502, too. And the Electron never accessed RAM faster than 1MHz anyway. I had thought that this was just a limitation of the ULA logic, but it actually isn't possible to squeeze in the accesses to the RAM within a 2MHz cycle using the ICs selected: the two round-trips to the ICs just add up to make it all too slow.

(The elephant in the room is the choice of RAM that effectively dominated the Electron's design which caused all these performance issues and functionality compromises. Another approach might have been to offer 16K of Beeb-style RAM that could have been upgraded, which may seem like doing a "Model A", but the component reduction exercise would still have been done.)

ThomasHarte wrote:Assuming there was time for the software engineering, ditch the serial hardware running the tape interface and just throw in the one-bit DAC and ADC of other budget machines, letting the CPU do the work in between. Maybe do that instead of adding the FUNC keyword shortcuts?

If they affected even only QA time, get rid of all the video outputs other than UHF.

... and you'd still get a machine that could run 95% of the real-life Electron software indistinguishably from the real thing.


Maybe, but there'd be some nice games that wouldn't work at all. Anything using mode 1 (Quest), mode 2 (Citadel, Magic Mushrooms), mode 6 (Firetrack :wink: , various adventure games).

Ultimately, if it didn't look like they could have made a machine to a decent-enough specification, the best decision would have been to not make the machine at all. Reviewers were already disappointed by the slower performance in BASIC. I think that cutting down the features even further would have given the impression that Acorn were trading even more on the Beeb's reputation than on the merits of the machine itself.

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Re: Should the Elk have been a 'full' Beeb?

Postby 1024MAK » Thu Sep 01, 2016 11:50 am

What would be interesting, would be if it was possible to compare prices of fast 64k bit DRAM chips and slower 32k bit DRAM chips (the "half-working" 64k bit chips like used by Sinclair and others). That is, how much price difference there was between four fast chips and eight slow chips.

Having the RAM data bus 8 bits wide instead of 4 bits wide would have made such a difference, both in terms of less ULA complexity and the possibility of a future faster machine.

But, as it's all being done with hindsight, maybe it would have just been better to use fully working 64k bit DRAM chips. Then the Elk could have had 32k bytes of sideways RAM :D

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Re: Should the Elk have been a 'full' Beeb?

Postby george.h » Thu Sep 01, 2016 12:54 pm

I actually owned a Elk before I bought my first Beeb, but had been using Beeb's for quite a while. What I really, really found the most limiting was, as others have described in eloquent technical detail, the RAM issue. The 4-bit wide RAM really crippled the performance. The rest I could live with, the crippled speed I found much harder.
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Re: Should the Elk have been a 'full' Beeb?

Postby ThomasHarte » Thu Sep 01, 2016 2:39 pm

1024MAK wrote:What would be interesting, would be if it was possible to compare prices of fast 64k bit DRAM chips and slower 32k bit DRAM chips (the "half-working" 64k bit chips like used by Sinclair and others). That is, how much price difference there was between four fast chips and eight slow chips.

Or just doing the turbo board thing of severing visibility of the low 8kb for video and making it CPU exclusive?

george.h wrote:I actually owned a Elk before I bought my first Beeb, but had been using Beeb's for quite a while. What I really, really found the most limiting was, as others have described in eloquent technical detail, the RAM issue. The 4-bit wide RAM really crippled the performance. The rest I could live with, the crippled speed I found much harder.

... or, saying that if the target machine is a Spectrum, then you need 48kb of RAM to be equivalent. So throw in 16kb of sideways RAM. Which could run at the full 2Mhz, since it's outside of the video purview. Which wouldn't have helped BASIC but would have been pounced upon by game programmers across the land.

(Or sell the 32kb as the base configuration with a 48kb machine a little more and an expansion cartridge easily available; the 16kb Spectrum was forgotten quickly enough — I think the market provided itself fine with updated base specs where an upgrade path existed)

Though, still, count me as somebody who doesn't think hardware improvements would have helped. Getting to market on time would have helped.

Also, per the other thread, about 50% as many Electrons were sold as BBC As and Bs combined. It's not what they were hoping for but it's a relative success, surely? Compared to the Orics and Dragons of the world.

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Re: Should the Elk have been a 'full' Beeb?

Postby SarahWalker » Thu Sep 01, 2016 4:55 pm

Depends on how you qualify 'success' - the Elk sold okay, but was a major financial loss for the company, and was one of the major contributors to Acorn's 1985 cash crisis and the subsequent acquisition by Olivetti.

I did used to think that the Electron could have been more of a long-term success with a few changes - faster RAM, proper sound chip, etc. But I'm increasingly coming to the view that the Electron and other BBC spinoffs (eg ABC, Communicator etc) were a misstep overall; rather than try to spread the BBC architecture into every market they could think of, it would have been best for Acorn to focus solely on the 'next big thing', whether that's what became the Archimedes, a 32016 (or more likely 68000) based machine, or something else. Maybe with a Master-like machine circa 1984 to keep sales going in the short term, but not the distracted proliferation of 8-bitters that we actually saw.

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Re: Should the Elk have been a 'full' Beeb?

Postby davidb » Thu Sep 01, 2016 5:32 pm

The Electron and other 8-bits were a technological dead end, but there's no reason why they couldn't have led to a successful, short-term product line. The ULA in the Electron and Communicator could have been used in a word processor solution like the Amstrad PCW - the key feature being the 80 column display mode. I suppose the Electron did see some success in its role as a communications terminal in the Merlin M2105, though maybe not much of a financial success. Who knows? :)

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Re: Should the Elk have been a 'full' Beeb?

Postby JonC » Thu Sep 01, 2016 5:41 pm

Missing a key sales period in a competative market is often suicide for smaller companies, I think Acorn were lucky to even partly recover from their failure to deliver after over-promising.
Of course by the time they got their act in gear, the market was saturated by their competitors, which essentially cost them market share until their eventual demise.
Had the Electron been on-time it could have been a very different story.
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