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back to article You’re NOT fired: The story of Amstrad’s amazing CPC 464

It was a home computer that embodied so many contradictions. It was launched months after the British microcomputer boom of the early 1980s had peaked. It was a rush job: the machine that was revealed to the press in the Spring of 1984 hadn’t even existed nine months previously. It was one of the best-produced British micros of …

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Anonymous Coward

Launch

The launch event with all the namesakes was masterminded by Nick Hewer, now of course better known as the host of Countdown.

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Paris Hilton

Re: Launch

"The Host of Countdown", eh?

Either a hacker handle or a song by Europe.

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Re: Launch

And of course one of the two 'helpers' on The Apprentice.

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Anonymous Coward

Talk about re-writing history?

The Amstrad was pretty terrible. The colours were nice and bright, not that you could tell given most families went for the green screen. I certainly wasn't green (screen) with envy when my school mate showed me his running a very flickery Harrier Attack. His mum asked me what I thought and I said "It's crap".

The 464 also suffered from cost cutting which limited its graphic performance. The C64 and Oric machines used RAM that was clocked 2x the speed of the CPU to allow the CPU and graphics chips to both read the RAM without slowing down the machine, not the Amstrad. Look at the "lets compare" video on Youtube for R-Type to see how crap slow the Amstrad version is compared to the C64.

Even if you did decide to use the external modulator/PSU combo (the PSU was built into the monitor), the signal would drift.

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Anonymous Coward

Amusing that you bring up R-Type in an attempt to slag off the CPC's performance. It's now documented that the programmer was given 2 weeks to port it from the Spectrum. He was so pushed for time that the only way he could do it was to get the CPC to emulate the Spectrum code. For every frame displayed the CPC has to translate the Spectrum code slowing it down considerably.

25 years later some coders have done the job properly:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kHH1V-zOlZk

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So he couldn't port a game in 2 weeks but he could write a Spectrum emulator? Maybe it was just a badly executed rush job?

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I must admit myself and my friends (all Spectrum/C64 owners) viewed the 464 machines with suspicion. Even back then Amstrad was known for corner cutting (we knew Sinclair was too but they were more known for tech products than cheap hi-fi) and after all the flurry of promotion the shortcomings became all too apparent and none of us felt like switching. I can't recall anyone at high school having one.

I think the thing that frustrated all of us most were the appalling screen res modes machines were still coming out with. It was all "Oh yes you can have 16 colours but we'll only let you have Duplo brick graphics with them!" We hungered for better.

The later machines improved but by then we were older and so was the tech. The stuff coming over from the US was looking far more interesting once again.

However, looking back it was all good fun.

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Anonymous Coward

Perhaps I didn't explain myself clearly enough. The CPC version had to emulate the Spectrums display.

Both are Z80 machines so much of the base code can remain the same. It's the displays that are different.

Which is pretty much what's happened with the remake. They went back to the base code of the Spectrum version (with the original coders blessing) and started again from there.

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Is there anything actually factually accurate in this post, apart from possibly the assertion that most families bought the green screen version? And indeed, being able to use the computer when mum or dad were watching the TV was invaluable.

The CPC did suffer from Spectrum ports, that's true. But the games that made use of the hardware were far superior and prettier.

The C64 was smoother for games, especially when scrolling was involved, that's true. But it looked crap, and the graphics looked like mud.

The CPC 464 suffered minor slowdown due to the screen display, the C64 did too and managed half the resolution.

The external modulator was rubbish. But as soon as SCART came out you could have a direct RGB signal to your TV very easily. And vice-versa, if you had the colour monitor, you could add an external TV tuner and gain a cheap second TV. I bet even today someone is watching Freeview on a CPC monitor somewhere!

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Gav
Coat

Time you went home

"most families went for the green screen"

This sounds suspiciously like a "fact I made up". I don't think I even ever saw a 464 with a green screen.

"His mum asked me what I thought and I said "It's crap"."

I hope that was the last time you were invited around, as you were a rude little oik.

I loved my 464. It was a step up from the Spectrum in all regards. In hindsight maybe not as big a step up as it could/should have been, but it was great having a proper keyboard and a tape deck that wasn't constantly needing the volume and audio out cable fiddled with. And not having to always work around attribute clash was a dream.

Yes, it had nothing new that you couldn't find on other computers. But the overall package and price was spot on. Sugar was a business man who knew what he was doing, while Sir Clive was still fumbling around failing to deliver.

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Anonymous Coward

The modulator was certainly no worse than anything Sinclair were including with their machines. The C64 had a better modulator.

Thanks to Amstrad including RGB output, you can hook a CPC up to any SCART equipped TV including modern LCD's with no hassle. In fact the GX4000 is the only games console that I can think of that came with a standard SCART socket on it. Forget paying Nintendo or Sony for fancy proprietary leads, you had a fully wired SCART right there. Having a large collection of old consoles I wish that approach had been used by other manufacturers! Would save a lot of digging around to find the right cables.

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(Written by Reg staff)

Me and my chums were suspicious of Amstrad too - entirely because its hi-fi kit was sounded so bad. But the micros turned out to be actually rather good. Numerous contemporary reviews confirm this.

I unfortunately never spent any serious length of time with a CPC beyond fiddling with one in (IIRC) Rumbelows, but my PCW 8256 - later upgraded to 512KB by pushing eight RAM chips into slots on the PCB - was a very solid bit of work both as a working machine and, thanks to a Head Over Heels port, a gaming box too. It was a darn sight more interesting to use and program than the Vax we Computer Dept made available to us first-year Physics undergrads.

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Re: R-Type

Although if you look closely at that version of R-Type, you'll see it's still running in a smaller Speccy-sized screen window as it's still running Bob Pape's Speccy code. What they've done is re-write the graphics routines to draw 16-colour lo-res characters directly to the screen, rather than writing to a fake Spectrum screen buffer, then translating that to med-res (which is what slowed it all down originally). And then gone through and redefined all the 8x8 two-colour characters that make up the sprites and scenery into 4x8 16-colour lo-res characters.

If you look very closely you'll see it still has the whole-character-block occlusion when sprites are overlaid, that was used on the Speccy to avoid attribute clash. And sprites get occluded by the scenery in jumping character-sized chunks before they get anywhere near it.

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Anonymous Coward

When you come to do a PCW article next year, I do hope you mention the games.

The PCW had a 23k bitmapped display that was arranged in a very specific fashion to facilitate the fast display of text at the expense of graphics capabilities. Even drawing something as simple as a pie chart was a programming chore.

When the first game turned up (Batman) the designers at Amstrad were said to be amazed as they didn't believe it was possible due to the complex nature of the display.

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All Hail Tony Smith!

Thanks for that. You really got my nostalgia flowing. Ah happy days of youth. The tape machine was incredibly reliable on the old CPC464, compared with my friends with Speccies and the like. It wasn't often that it let you down. Although on about level 87 of Gauntlet it did just that to me. I still remember that game really fondly - but never got past 50 again.

Also played a rather good wargame about Operation Market Garden, the parachute landings around Arnhem. Roland on the Ropes, something with Grand Prix in the title and Ace of Aces. That last one was good because if you didn't shoot the enemy down fast enough, but managed to survive air-to-air combat, it did you no good as they'd bombed your runways. So you just had to fly around until you ran out of fuel and crashed. Don't remember much else now.

Now I have to work for a living. Booo! But computer games start almost insantly, and I can play things on my iPad that make the CPC464 look like a pocket calculator.

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Re: Time you went home

Correct. I got one for my 7th birthday and it was bloody brilliant. It didn't need to use the telly or an old tape deck and it lived in my bedroom, where i could sit and play Joe Blade, Dizzy and Chuckie Egg 'till the cows came home.

It may not have been the best, but it provided enough entertainment at the time.

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Anonymous Coward

That's the only game I've seen a lets compare of that involved the Amstrad to be honest.

I've seen plenty of other 464 games and they were all pretty damn slow.

Then there's the awful sound, the C64's SID is legendary and no other 8-bit home computer can beat it for sound capabilities.

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Anonymous Coward

The C64 was a much earlier computer developed under a very dysfunctional leadership team (read about Jack Tramiel, he was crazy).

Amstrad just took off the shelf parts and threw them together.

Given longer to develop the C64 and a more agreeable management culture the C64 would have been much better.

But anyway, the Atari 800's graphic capabilities blow both the Amstrad and c64 away. I think a C64/800 combi would be perfect.

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Even with a green screen you could always get a SCART cable and enjoy glorious colours on the telly, of course. And even thirty years down the road my modulators still don't drift...

So you found Harrier Attack flickery => the machine is crap. Boy, so much hate inside you :D

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Get educated before you get so opinionated. Read this: http://www.cpcwiki.eu/index.php/Speccy_Port . He didn't write an emulator, things were (sadly) much simpler.

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I have an MP3 tuner for my CPC. To test it I streamed a Game of Thrones episode - looked bloody brill!

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Time you went home

>"This sounds suspiciously like a "fact I made up". I don't think I even ever saw a 464 with a green >screen."

Given the choice between the cheaper green screen and a colour version it's obvious what many budget constrained parents would have done.

If you remember the Amiga 500 and Atari 520 ST wars you'll remember there was only about £20 or so difference in price between the two and that was enough for most parents to go for the ST.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: R-Type

Amstrad GX4000. Says all you need to know about Alan Sugar.

Releasing an 8-bit console in a 16-bit era.

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Re: Time you went home

"If you remember the Amiga 500 and Atari 520 ST wars you'll remember there was only about £20 or so difference in price between the two and that was enough for most parents to go for the ST."

Try £100, fella. It was the reason I had an ST for a year.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Time you went home

For quite a long period the ST was £299 and the Amiga £399. + Atari were throwing in an ever increasing bundle of games. The games alone swayed some people.

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Pint

off the shelf parts?

"Amstrad just took off the shelf parts and threw them together."

i.e. they had an idea for a product, thought about the market, and then used readily available, well understood technology to deliver the package, taking care to ensure that there would actually be software to buy - I loved that detail about using batteries to keep the ROM images operative instead of burning EPROMS. And, according to the article, they did have a few production problems on the way which were overcome.

Waiting for the green screen PCW article. Monster machine that, I produced loads of stuff on it.

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Re: R-Type

It may be like that... But, it's not.

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The Atari 800 blew the C64 away in all hardware specs

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Re: C64's SID is legendary

The Oric-1 would give the C64 a run for it's money anyday. Plus, having commands in Oric Basic that directly addresses the sound chip ("zap" anyone?) made creating your own noisy games that little bit easier.

Of course, having to produce your own games because there was bloody near nothing available for it was a bit of a downer.

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Gosh I'm late to the party, but:

The C64 and the Oric both use a 6502. The 6502 runs internally on a two-phase clock, like most chips from immediately before it, but is advanced enough to require only a single-phase clock input, which it doubles. As a result, e.g. the stated clock speed of a C64's 6502 is 1Mhz but if you compare access cycles and wait times, the work it's doing is broadly similar to a 2Mhz purely single-phase CPU like the Z80. Check out the memory access timing diagrams on a 6502 data sheet, then check them out on a Z80 data sheet. Check out the cycle timings for things like an 8bit add.

So, what can you do with 4Mhz RAM? You could connect it to the Oric or the C64's CPU and it would be running at four times the speed. You could connect it to the CPC's CPU and it would be running at the same speed. What you're getting in the CPC versus the other two machines is better described as: RAM that's twice as fast plus a CPU that's twice as fast (but a little more haphazard in its access patterns).

If we're citing game examples, look on YouTube for C64 Chase HQ versus CPC Chase HQ. Look at Hard Drivin'. Look at Carrier Command. Even if you just want to see how the C64 cut corners on the processor, compare the BBC Revs to the C64.

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Sky's the limit

Anyone here remember the sugary con[f]ection boxes Amstrad supplied for the Sky aeriahem satellite dishes?

Sugar should have called it Toffee after what it didn't work for. How about a real article on the duds that the famous got rich palming off on us?

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Great article

It has taken me 2 days to read every painstaking line of this great article, which I have enjoyed as much as the other 464'ers. Reg, you really shouldn't be giving this stuff away for free. Anyway, says Tony Smith:

I unfortunately never spent any serious length of time with a CPC....

I did. Using the 464 was a delight, like strolling around a splendid garden. Every part of it was bang on. The price was accessible. It was pleasant to handle. Even tiny details like the volume control were done well. Its abilities - programming in 80 cols, playing many games, doing serious word processing, using CP/M business apps - made it useful to the whole family and it became a true realization of what the 8 bit home computer had promised at the start.

My family went on to acquire green and colour 6128s, a 1640 PC and a PCW 8256, which, using Sage Accounts, ran the family engineering firm for circa 10 years. About that: staff would say how great the 8256 was, how quick it was to start and how bullet proof the hardware was. How often do you hear people in an office actually praise the server ?

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Troll

His mum asked me what I thought and I said "It's crap".

Troll.

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Re: Time you went home

As I recall, colour screens sold far more than green, but Google draws a blank.

I hope that was the last time you were invited around, as you were a rude little oik.

No, he wasn't a rude little oik, he probably wasn't even alive at the time. Don't feed the trolls!

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Re: R-Type

Yeah that's right @AC. Alan Sugar was so useless, he took ownership of the 8 bit home computer boom, bought out his competitors, dominated the PC market, bought a football team, became a Sir, became a Lord. Now where is he ? Eh ? Well er, lounging round on his yacht in France, piloting his private jet, going on telly, being very fit on his bike, a top Twitterer, driving around his wife of 46 years in their Rolls Royce collection oh Alan where did it all go so terrible terribly wrong, if only you had -

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@Jaybee

The external modulator was rubbish.

Non! Nein!

The colour monitor was great. And it looked superb next the rented REDIFUSION telly that other home micros had to be plugged into. While you sat on the floor. Hey nice graphics Amiga, how they lookin' on the old FINLANDIA ?

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Re: Sky's the limit

@ I. Aproveofitspendingonspecificprojects

Hey bot shouldn't you be off ingesting Ulysses or something ?

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"I think the thing that frustrated all of us most were the appalling screen res modes machines were still coming out with. It was all "Oh yes you can have 16 colours but we'll only let you have Duplo brick graphics with them!" We hungered for better."

Something I never understood about the graphics of the day was why was there always a border around the "live" area? Ok, so most computers could only do sub VGA resolution but the pixels weren't directly mapped to the CRT pixels anyway so why not just make them larger instead of wasting 20-30% of the screen space which only occasionally got used for pointless video noise when loading from a cassette.

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I think the large borders were to accommodate the amount of overscan on some cheaper TVs.

Some programmers were able to use nonstandard resolutions though; the Amstrad version of Arkanoid used a full-screen mode for its intro (albeit only displaying a starfield and some scrolly text) and portrait mode for the game.

http://youtu.be/y_aD7gfomQo

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Anonymous Coward

The first time I saw the new R-Type's title screen display, my jaw was on the floor. Full screen, no border. I've seen overscan before but not done that well.

Most of the micros of that era had a massive border. Partly due to distortion at the edge of the CRT displays but also to save memory. Some CPC games increased the border size to save RAM.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: @Jaybee

They are decent monitors and many a ST and Amiga owner carried on using them when they had upgraded from their CPC.

While they are just standard TV tubes rather than the higher dot pitch displays found on high end PC's, Orion went to effort to get them to look as good as possible. In fact the reason the CPC boots to a royal blue background with yellow text was because Orion told Amstrad that this combination would yield the best possible quality display on initial start-up thus giving a good impression.

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The PCW had a 23k bitmapped display that was arranged in a very specific fashion to facilitate the fast display of text at the expense of graphics capabilities. Even drawing something as simple as a pie chart was a programming chore.

When the first game turned up (Batman) the designers at Amstrad were said to be amazed as they didn't believe it was possible due to the complex nature of the display.

I don't see why that would be. The display was optimised for very fast vertical scrolling - not text per se since as far as the hardware was concerned everything was graphics - the PCW lacked a hardware character generator. The top-level graphics structure was an array of pointers to screen lines so lines could be moved up and down the screen simply by moving their references. OTOH there was nothing at all to stop you simply allocating each line to a contiguous memory region and dealing withe the screen as a two dimensional bitmap array.

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@boltar

There's no such thing as CRT pixels in general; per the original back and white spec scan lines are entirely analogue, as is the display mechanism, and even with colour it's more complicated than that as there's the dot pitch and the type of separation to take into account: a low pass responds differently to a comb, etc.

Given that, why not just use the full screen at any old number of pixels? To comply with the PAL standard, the vertical sync pulse needs to be between 4.6 and 4.8 microseconds. So you need a clock speed that aligns well with that. But you also don't want to use too much RAM and you possibly want to hit a standard column count, like 80 in the case of the CPC. If you're a machine that shares memory but semi-intelligently like the Spectrum then more pixels would mean slower processing in the affected areas. You possibly also want a sufficiently trivial way to determine the start addresses for a line of pixels. And I'm pretty sure the Spectrum at least used video fetch as RAM refresh, so there were additional timing requirements there about hitting certain rows of RAM.

But the CPC, like the BBC and at least EGA and VGA video cards, uses a Motorola 6845 CRTC — cathode ray tube controller. It's programmer configurable to provide any line timings and pixel areas you want. So it's the developer's choice, subject to the comstraint that if they're not careful while developing then they might ruin a screen or two. The CPC also switches some of the address lines around to give linear memory along scan lines, rather than a BBC-style character centric layout, which introduced additional considerations.

Aside: in classic micro style, values you write to it take effect immediately so it's the mechanism by which later special effects were achieved: tell it to start horizontal sync and it'll reload the start address, but jump in at the last minute and tell it not to do so and it'll start doing pixels again in the same frame from a different address. So that's good for panels, split screen scrolling, etc. Stuff they'd eventually call 'Mode X' when someone else eventually spotted it on the VGA cards.

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Re: R-Type may be like that... But, it's not.

Yes, I'm afraid it is. Look at the giant worms at the end of Level 2 and throughout Level 5, or how the explosions are clipped around the giant ship of Level 3. It's all done with the same character-blocks of the Speccy version, and there are only 32 of them across the width of the playing area, not 40.

The only addition is the fake 'parallax scrolling' effect achieved by a scattering of extra sprites that move slightly slower than the scenery. In fact, since it's all now done with fat pixels, the scrolling is half as smooth as it was originally.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kHH1V-zOlZk

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Anonymous Coward

Re: @Jaybee

Used my cpc monitor for my amiga 500, then 1200, looked great! Much better than friends naff tv,s.

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What?

What are you talking about? The Amstrad CPC 464 was a fantastic computer! I'd still rank it for the time as the best computer I have ever had the honour to own. I became one with my inner geek on that machine!

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Anonymous Coward

Happy birthday CPC

I have a very soft spot for the CPC, in fact I've just acquired a 464 and a 6128 (including buying an SD card floppy drive emulator for the 6128).

It's a very well designed machine, a decent keyboard and was excellent value for money (for much of the 80's a colour 6128 was less than a BBC Micro without a monitor or any storage).

3 million units sold, 1 million of which went to France and where it was the top selling micro for years.

And still great new software coming out today such as this very impressive remake of R-Type:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kHH1V-zOlZk

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History often comes with rose-tinted specs

"Not because it wasn’t any good, but because he didn’t think the ordinary folk who comprised Amstrad’s customer base wanted or needed it."

Oh, not that it had to wait until stuff could be sourced cheap enough?

Or until it was a bit late in the day - so box 'em and flog 'em?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: History often comes with rose-tinted specs

From reading the excellent "Amstrad Story" by David Thomas, the reason appears to be that producing a computer was so far outside the sphere that Amstrad operated in, they didn't even consider it at first. Then Sugar saw all these computers literally flooding onto the market and decided to investigate.

Indeed the impetus for the CPC's design appears to be that Sugar had purchased a number of early 80's micros for himself and had found all of them fiddly and hard to use. So he wanted an all in one design.

While it's easy to knock Amstrad's late entry to the market, they were far more professional than their competitors. Sugar ensured there was a large software library provided by his in house publishing company Amsoft, and sourced peripherals such as printers and disk drives that users wanted. Other companies relied on 3rd parties to supply software and hardware and ended up being starved to death (e.g. the Dragon).

Indeed Amstrad were totally immune to the home computer crash that badly damaged both Acorn and Sinclair. While both those companies had warehouses full of unsold inventory purchased on overdrafts, Amstrad had sold all their kit to retailers. In the aforementioned 'Amstrad Story' Sugar describes how he had incredulous retailers on the phone demanding discounted inventory as they believed he was in the same situation as Sinclair and Acorn. He wasn't, he'd sold all his machines and eventually also ended up buying Sinclair!

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Re: History often comes with rose-tinted specs

He may be a git on the Apprentice. And I don't think Tottenham fans recall him all that fondly either. But Alan Sugar did a lot of good stuff back then.

I know people were sniffy about the sound quality of his Hi-Fi kit. But I don't think my parents could have afforded anything better. So the kit I got to use as kid with twin tape decks, radio and record player in glass cabinet was good enough. My brothers could buy a cheap-ish CPC464 that I got to play with. It would have got a lot less use if it had needed to use the main TV. I never did any proper programming on it, but I learned to like computers, and not be worried by them.

Then I got my first computer. A PCW. With CP/M, Locoscript and Mallard Basic. Plus Locosoft Logo and Graham Gooch's Test Cricket. Weirdly if ever you brought Gooch on to bowl, he always got a wicket...

Anyway this was great for school work, and probably set me on the road to being decent at computer-y stuff. No internets, and it didn't even occur to me to see if there was a weekly PCW user magazine to subscribe to - so I had to learn to use it myself. But that was OK because they shipped it with a really good, spiral bound, manual. This is the first machine where I gave tech support to a mate.

I even had an Amstrad NC100 - a little AA battery powered PDA thing, that was a mostly full-sized keyboard with a 3 line LCD screen. Rather neat actually.

All this stuff came with really good manuals, decent amounts of software, and all the required peripherals and cables. Plus upgrades available if you needed them. At a time when the industry was full of cowboys, who'd sling any old thing out - finished or not.

Plus I've heard a few stories that YouView was a nightmarish competitive-vendor-argue-fest of backstabbing and horrifically complicated ideas that was still many years from market when Sugar was brought in. And he did a lot of pruning, and by all accounts quite a bit of arse-kicking, in order to come out with something that both works - and seems to have a decent user interface.

He also gave us the Emailer and The Apprentice. Ahem! But despite that, I've still got a soft-spot for the old beardy git.

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