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back to article Sord drawn: The story of the M5 micro

It took Japanese micro maker Sord more than six months to launch its M5 home computer in the UK, but in April 1983, the company said the Z80A-based machine would finally go on sale during the following month - half a year after it was originally scheduled to arrive over here. It was a bold move. Even in November 1982, when the …

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Bronze badge

4KB RAM ?

Stingy.

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Boffin

Re: 4KB RAM ?

"Stingy" - yes, when machines with 16K, 32K or 48K were relatively common, but...

"the machine had been on sale in Japan for less than a month but had already notched up a software library of 60-odd applications and games"....

Back then we could be genuinely creative with such "stingy" amounts of resource. A lot of developers these days would probably struggle to achieve much more than a simple "Hello World" if restricted to comparable resources.

Kids these days...don't know they're born....etc...etc...

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DJO
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Unhappy

Re: 4KB RAM ?

Back then we could be genuinely creative with such "stingy" amounts of resource. A lot of developers these days would probably struggle to achieve much more than a simple "Hello World" if restricted to comparable resources.

As much as I want to agree with you the main problem is the compilers not the programmers.

With the ancient Borland Turbo C (for DOS) a simple "Hello World" would compile to a few k at the most but now with the current crop of Windows compilers the same code would compile to several hundred k if you were lucky.

A better comparison would be to people who are writing for Linux and I'm afraid the "kids today blah blah blah" remark does not always hold water - curses!

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Anonymous Coward

Re: 4KB RAM ?

"A lot of developers these days would probably struggle to achieve much more than a simple "Hello World" if restricted to comparable resources."

Most of them wouldn't even get that far - they'd just whine about how Java won't fit, let alone leaving any resources spare for their program.

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Re: 4KB RAM ?

Agreed...

Actually one of the lecturer's on my degree thought the same.. Even though this was the mid nineties and the average PC had at least a couple of meg of Ram, he set us one of our first programming tests on a "Flight" board. Can't find a link ATM, but these were basic 68000 powered motherboards that had a grand total of 32K of usable RAM. We had to write a few programs in 68K Assembler. These programs were designed for specific tasks.

His reason for teaching us this? That the 68K processor had a nice assembler syntax that was similar enough to Intel x86 to make x86 assembler easier to learn, but different enough that we would have to work to learn it. Also, the 32k of RAM required us to code efficiently. Code efficiently in Assembler and you'll be surprised at what you can achieve with very few resources, even in the bloated world of modern GUIs.

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Silver badge

Re: 4KB RAM ?

Somewhat tangential but someone managed to produce a gcc / nasm / hand edited "Hello World" for Linux in 142 bytes.

http://timelessname.com/elfbin/

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Go

Re: 4KB RAM ?

Run, don't walk, to TI's web site and order one of these.

https://estore.ti.com/MSP-EXP430G2-MSP430-LaunchPad-Value-Line-Development-kit-P2031.aspx

$10 gets you a programming/prototyping PCB, two MSP430 microcontrollers, an optional external clock crystal, and a USB cable (international airmail postage included). The MSP430 is an elegant little 16-bit processor with about 8kB of program space and 1/2 kB of RAM (the two microcontrollerrs you get are of different specs). Linux support is impeccable, with a port of gcc and the programmer-debugger both in Debian; or you can use TI's own IDE for Windows.

The MSP430 runs at up to 16MHz and has a bajillion different integrated peripherals. (Including a built in temperature sensor!) It consumes basically no power. Unlike the PIC the architecture is simple and is a joy to use --- writing machine code for it is surprisingly fun.

Downsides are that it's a 3.3V device, which means interfacing the Arduino's 5V peripherals to it can be a pain, but it's not *that* hard and there's enough 3.3V stuff around that you don't need to. Plus they've just put the price up --- it used to be $4.30.

I have most of a CP/M emulator written for one, using external serial RAM for working storage. It's a really nice feeling using a machine small enough to be comprehensible again.

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(Written by Reg staff)

Re: Re: 4KB RAM ?

I used to code the 6809-based VELA, developed by one of my profs in Leeds University's Physics dept. It had only 4KB of Ram for data-logging code.

Thanks to my Dragon 32 background, I was the only student in the department who could code the darn thing as soon as I got my hands on it.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Versatile_Laboratory_Aid

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Trollface

Re: 4KB RAM ?

4KB ram was a luxury not available for the first console gamers. Long live multiple switches on the front, wood veneer (lmao@the late 1970s appliance fashion) and the paddle controller that went dodgy after a few months.

Atari 2600 specs

CPU MOS 6507 @ 1.19 MHz

Memory 128 bytes RAM, 4 kB ROM

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FAIL

Re: 4KB RAM ?

"..Somewhat tangential but someone managed to produce a gcc / nasm / hand edited "Hello World" for Linux in 142 bytes..."

Except s/he wrote with those 142 bytes a programme which says "Hi World", which is kinda cheating, seeing as the whole point of a "Hello Worl!d" programme is that it prints er... "Hello World!" to the screen, not "Hi World". What next? "Hello World in 78 bytes" that actually writes "HW" to the screen?

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Trollface

Re: 4KB RAM ?

'cept of course the basic was interpreted.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: 4KB RAM ?

"...even in the bloated world of modern GUIs." MenuetOS FTW!!!

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Re: 4KB RAM ?

Ah yes, back in the ole days everything was better and made out of wood.

I wrote software "back in the days" (Commercial since 1987, hobby since 1983) and I am happy that those days are gone even for most microcontrollers. Using the oh so bad modern frameworks, languages etc. is more productive and efficient if you have to maintain/change/extend a program. Back in the early 1990s one of my bosses put this to a point "How many days will you shave of the project if we get a OS/2 unit with 4MB of memory and do it in C instead of DOS and MASM?" The answer was 10+ days at 500+ mark/day. The next day the OS/2 box (an Escom IIRC) was unboxed...

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Bronze badge

Not to hate on it, but the Kid in the Ad looks like some kind of Jim Jones Jr. Its really creepy if you ask me.

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I've always had a 1983 Hamley's toy shop catalogue kicking around my house, and this machine is listed simply as the 'M5 Computer' with no mention of Sord- someone has kindly scanned and uploaded the whole catalogue - sorry for the Facebook link: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=286058214747254&set=a.286052674747808.73189.273368722682870&type=3&theater

If you click to get the next pages, you'll see such delights as the Vectrex, Coleco and Sinclair Spectrum.

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Happy

I remember Sord! (Nostalgia is great!)

I had an M68 and used the CP/M68 to hack together a CP/M80 BIOS for the "smaller" of the two computers in the box. Happy days (and nights..).

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30th anniversary of every man and his dog releasing a Spectrum-basher

There seem to be a *lot* of these "30th anniversary" look backs at microcomputers just now. That's not surprising though, because it was around this point that the home computer market exploded (due to their becoming cheap enough for the man on the street and not just the rich hobbyist). Everyone saw the money to be made and started jumping on the bandwagon.

There were a frankly ludicrous number of home microcomputers being released back then. I have a load of my Dad's old "Your Computer" magazines circa early 1982 to late 1984, and each month there's a review of at least one new computer, frequently two and sometimes three.

Almost all these machines were incompatible, and even then people cared about having a machine that had good software and peripheral support. It would have been obvious to anyone that the market couldn't and wouldn't support them all and that the vast majority would fail- and they did.

In the UK, the ZX Spectrum dominated mainly because Sinclair was the first to release a colour/sound/hi-res computer at that price point. The network effect made its success self-reinforcing and made it harder for the "me too" competitors like the Oric-1 (and countless lesser-known machines) to break its stranglehold, even after it was outspecced.

The C64 did well at a higher price point, and Amstrad's CPC was surprisingly successful for a late-era entry, but aside from a few lesser-supported and/or niche formats (like the Atari 8-bit and BBC), the vast majority of those other computers had disappeared without trace by the mid-80s, never having gone anywhere.

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Silver badge

Re: 30th anniversary of every man and his dog releasing a Spectrum-basher

But the interesting point is that *the UK had a consumer computer industry.*

The machines were designed and (usually) built in the UK, by British talent.

With the possible exception of the RaspPI, kind of, and a few app developers, there's no equivalent British consumer tech today.

Admittedly the sector turned into a classic bubble - first in, first out, blood on the dance floor.

But it's pretty much unthinkable now that we could field a market-leading British mobe, tablet, games console, 3D printer, laser cutter, toy robot. etc, etc.

What went wrong?

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Go

Re: 30th anniversary of every man and his dog releasing a Spectrum-basher

It is also interesting to note the recent explosion in RasPI-like boards (some of which pre-date the RasPI, but are only now being marketed at that sector). It may be like re-living the old days all over again yet! I'm just reading about the new BeagleBone Black over on Ars Technica with interest as the RasPI isn't quite the spec I need for some of my own projects.

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Re: 30th anniversary of every man and his dog releasing a Spectrum-basher

"Amstrad's CPC was surprisingly successful for a late-era entry"

Very true - I'm actually looking forward to the 30th anniversary look-back on the CPC. By all logic, it should have gone the same way as the other "Me Too!" also-rans.

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Re: 30th anniversary of every man and his dog releasing a Spectrum-basher

The CPC had the advantage of having its own display, so no fighting over the (usually) single shared TV in the house. Having said that, I now wish I'd hung on to my Speccy for another year or two and bought an ST or Amiga instead of the 6128. Still, I recently picked up an Amiga 600 at the local dump^H^H^H^Hrecycling centre for a fiver, so I got there in the end.

I was allowed access to the M5 in a local computer shop by the owner, on the pretext that I'd write some demos for it, but I wasn't really inspired by it.

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Holmes

Re: 30th anniversary of every man and his dog releasing a Spectrum-basher

Apart from ARM - the most successful technology company in the history of the world....

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Re: 30th anniversary of every man and his dog releasing a Spectrum-basher

ARM, which started life as a project at Acorn, the manufacturers of the Atom, BBC Micro and Electron.

Acorn didn't die, it evolved by designing a chip they wanted instead of compromising on an existing processor.

And didn't it work out well!

Funny the think the low power consumption was actually an accident of design!

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JQW
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Re: 30th anniversary of every man and his dog releasing a Spectrum-basher

I can remember actually seeing a Sord M5 in the flesh, running in the newly established electronics section in the back of a nearby toyshop. The same shop also tried to sell the equally poor Mattel Aquarius.

There were, though, several other really appalling home systems that appeared around the same time that probably won't make such articles, due to the complete lack of UK sales, and really poor specifications.

One was the COMX-35, a Hong Kong produced machine with a couple of notable features. One was the choice of processor, an obscure RCA produced one that was commonly used in space hardware at the time, but was really too slow for a machine of this nature. The other was the really buggy in-house written BASIC interpreter, which would often hang instead of producing error messages.

Another was the Laser 200, again from Hong Kong. This looked like a cheap ZX Spectrum knock-off, but with even poorer graphical capabilities. It was somewhat successful in Australia, when sold under another name.

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Re: 30th anniversary of every man and his dog releasing a Spectrum-basher

"What went wrong?"

I think you've got to look back to the 1960s to find the most probably cause. Asset Stripping. Profitable, viable manufacturing companies were bought up and shut down simply because their premises were in an area where property values were high. By the time the 1980s came around, Britain no longer had a "middle-strand" of engineering and manufacturing companies: it was a choice of two-man businesses, or nationwide behemoths crippled by inflexible union agreements.

So, into this environment, you've got a small, IP-led startup. They know how to build computers, but can't make them themselves. Had this happened in Germany (the most similar economy to the UK, historically), the answer would be simple: go to your small, local radio/TV factory, and ask them to knock out 10,000 of them for you. In the UK, those businesses had been destroyed by the likes of "Lord" Hanson, or forcibly merged into quasi-nationalised conglomerates by equally idelogical Labour governments; and investment money was moving into financial serivices and media, as these were seen to be the "future".

In hindsight, the whole process was like losing weight by cutting off your left arm.

The crash of 1983 put the last nail in the coffin of these small manufacturers. Many that were left in the hole by the now-bankrupt micro makers were bought by asset strippers, split up, sold off and shut down.

Amstrad's success in the market was down to having the computers made in Taiwan, at lower costs than any UK maker could manage, and bundling them with a monitor. The offshoring was a revolutionary idea back then, but it was the only way that a UK-based company could make things: the domestic capacity had gone. I had one - it was my first computer.

(Disclaimer: this is just my theory - it's not researched, and I'm not an economist)

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Paris Hilton

I've never even heard of this one!

Next April 1st you could run a 30 year look back at some totally made up machine and everyone under 30 would probably fall for it as there were so many genuinely obscure machines knocking about in the early 80s!

Paris because it's the 30 year anniversary of the launch of the Z80 based PARiS StD-6900

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Joke

StD-6900

Would that be the one which came with Business Oriented Object Browsing Solution and the deep, round port on the back - you know, the Advanced RAM Socket (External)?

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M222

My dad used to import Sord machines in the late 70's. I had several of them in my bedroom from 1978 onwards. I had an M222. I can't find any info about this, but it was very like an M223 except it had a monochrome screen single, 5 1/2" floppy and was housed in a grey case. I played Othello on it. I also had an M100 Ace and an M223.

I believe he had a contract to supply Sord M223's to Admiralty House for use in automated lighthouses.

We also had a BCL Molecular 18 in our front room (no really) We had to have the windows taken out to get it in.

http://www.bcl-computers.org.uk/molecular.htm

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Meh

"an impressive (for the time) 3.6MHz"

Didn't most Z80A based home computers in the UK around that time run at between 3 and 4MHz ?

I believe the ZX80/81 were 3.25, the Spectrum was 3.5 and the Newbrain was 4MHz.

If it had used a 6MHz Z80B then it might have been more impressive!

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Silver badge

Re: "an impressive (for the time) 3.6MHz"

3ish Mhz was the norm but I guess you can claim some credit for the Sord based on its video chip.

The ZX80/81 famously use the processor for screen painting — if memory serves then to paint the display it runs through a series of NOP instructions, which gives a reliable deterministic rate for the z80-generated refresh signal and when the video circuits spot a NOP in ROM they make a note to use the next thing on the bus, which is the value the RAM kicks out on account of the refresh cycle, for video output. The RAM doesn't actually need a real refresh cycle because it's static. But the net effect is that the CPU is occupied for the entire pixel region, doing work that otherwise produces nothing.

The Spectrum has a ULA that can generate addressed and read cycles all of its own volition but shares the same memory (at least, the lower 16kb) between CPU and ULA so the CPU has to wait if accessing that area when the ULA needs it. It's also a fully bitmapped display so the CPU has to write every byte of a graphic for it to appear or move.

Conversely the TMS9929A has 16kb all of its own that operates entirely separately from the CPU's memory pool. You write to it via port IO and there are still some wait cycles involved but the whole setup is designed around the idea that most of the time you don't write much data. It's sprites and a tile map, so for text and most games you spend time uploading the block graphic set and then the drawing isn't much more than updating the map and possibly a few sprite registers, so you get almost all of that 3.6Mhz free.

Games are still likely to work better on the Spectrum though as the TMS9929A completely overlooks scrolling. You can do the block scroll alluded to in the article by rewriting the entire map but that's almost the end of it as you don't have time to rewrite every pixel. The MSX 1 and the ColecoVision have the same chip and the same problem.

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I had one ..

Some classic games on that console. Guttang Gottong was one of the best .. a railway game that had tiles that slid around. It was so addictive.

There was an advanced basic cartridge that you could use for writing some quite decent stuff.

I wrote a version of Othello for it; I used some pseudo-code from David Levy's book on computer games programming .. wrote the first part of the heuristic for it - the first pass algorithm before going on to do a full minimax and I couldn't beat it. I never wrote any more of the code.

And Pong .. I used the sprites for the ball, bats and for the scores on the screen. One of my first major programming errors with it was to reverse the ball direction when it collided with a sprite, which meant it bounced off the scores ...

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Anonymous Coward

Bouncing off the scores.

That's not an error. That's a feature!

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Anonymous Coward

I had one too...my first computer. I've no idea what it cost but I believe it was bought in Debenhams.

Zac Banic is the game I recall.

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cue sepia tone and hovis music

brings back memories - i had one of these in the cgl branded form as a nipper

enjoyed it immensely

the thing that sticks in my mind the most though was the tapedeck, when the tape needed swapped/turned over or the data ended before it should have, it often spoke in the sexiest female voice telling you what the issue was and what to do. a most pleasurable experience after sitting through 25 minutes of modem type noise

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