Sinclair QL; Sir Clive enters the business market. (evaluation) David H. Ahl.
For Sinclair Research, the QL is a major departure from the low-end ZX computers and is the company's first attempt to enter the business market. On the other hand, the QL is like no other business computer.
The sleekly styled machine houses a 32-bit 68008 microprocessor with 128K of memory. Rather than floppy disks or memory cartridges, the QL has two built-in microdrives (about which, more later). The keyboard has 65 almost-full-stroke keys including five function keys at the left side, IBM-style. The QL also boasts multitasking, windows, and four nifty software packages written by Psion, a company who fancy themselves Britain's answer to Microsoft. Couple all these features with an under $500 price tag and you have a winner, right? Let's see. All-in-One Design
The entire QL computer is about the same size as the detachable keyboards on desktop machines like the IBM PC and Epson QX-10. The layout is extremely tight, but neat. Indeed, earlier prototypes had a ROM cartridge hanging out the back and there seemed to be some question whether everything would fit inside. We had one of the first production machines, and we are happy to report that everything fits.
The QL uses a 68008 mpu running at 7.5MHz which makes it quite fast. The machine uses many custom chips for I/O, graphics, and the operating system. Three 16K ROMs (EPROMs at the moment) contain the QDOS operating system and Sinclair's version of Basic, called SuperBasic. The QL has 128K of RAM which cannot be expanded further internally, although a 512K external memory add-on is promised in the future.
A slot on the back of the QL can accept a ROM cartridge with up to 32K of memory. Presumably, software packages from Sinclair or third party vendors could be put on such cartridges.
The QL has two RS-232 serial ports, two "QL Net" ports (to talk to other QL computers), and two joystick ports, but no parallel printer port. As with the Apple IIc, Sinclair believes that a serial printer will meet the needs of most users.
The power supply for the QL is an external unit with one cable to the computer and another to the wall outlet. Curiously, there is no off/on switch; hence, a switchable power strip or protection box is recommended. There is, however, a reset switch on the right side of the machine, and a yellow LED on the keyboard indicates when the QL is on. Not Quite Full Stroke
Following what seems to be an emerging European tradition, the QL employs a keyboard that has square keys each of which has a rounded depression in the top. As with the keyboard on the German-designed NCR Decision Mate V, we found it took several hours to get used to it. However, if this is your only computer, the keyboard will probably feel as natural as any other within a few days.
The keyboard lies relatively flat on the work surface. To compensate for this, three small plastic feet are furnished to prop up the back of the macine. We found that they slipped around quite a bit and suspect that users will want to attach the feet permanently or leave them off altogether.
Unlike previous Sinclair computers, the QL offers no single stroke keyword entry. Indeed, the keyboard looks rather conventional with its ESC, CTRL, ALT, and function keys. The first three function keys are used the same way in each of the furnished Psion programs. F1 requests help, F2 toggles the upper screen prompt area on and off, and F3 selects the command menu.
Unfortunately, the cursor directional keys are located on either side of the spacebar, left/right to the left, and up/down to the right. We prefer a logical diamond arrangement. the left and right arrows in conjunction with the CTRL key act as delete keys. In fact, the keyboard editor is quite powerful. By using various combinations of SHIFT, ALT, and CTRL with the cursor keys, you can delete words or lines and quickly move the cursor around the text. Like so many low end computers, the QL offers no indication as to whether CAPS LOCK is on or off; this is annoying, especially since you can so easily hit the key by mistake and find yourself with everything in capitals. Microdrives
A microdrive uses a tiny (1.5" x 1.8") continuous loop tape similar to the ill-fated Exatron stringy floppy. Sinclair has put a great deal of effort into the development of these drives and began to deliver them in substantial quantities for the Spectrum a bit over a year ago. The QL tapes are formatted differently, but the mechanism is the same, so it should be reliable.
Each cartridge contains 200 inches of tape with a theoretical capacity of 255 sectors of 512 bytes each for a total of 128K; in actual use, less than this will probably be stored on a cartridge. Cartridges must be formatted before use; this can be done with a single command from Basic.
All of the applications programs are furnished on microdrive tape cartridges. The program cartridge always occupies the left (1) slot, and a data cartridge, if required, occupies the right (2) slot. Up to six additional microdrives may be connected through an expansion port on the side of the machine.
The microdrive moves the tape at a speedy 28 inches per second; thus the tape completes one circuit every 7-1/2 seconds. This would suggest 7-1/2 seconds is the maximum access time for data or programs. Not so. In practice, loading a large program or data file took about 70 seconds. Even requesting the help screen in an application program took upwards of a minute.
Like standard tape cassettes, each microdrive cartridge has a write protect tab on its right side. We found it a bit unfriendly that the QL will repeatedly attempt to write to a protected cartridge and will not halt until the cartridge is removed.
Perhaps the biggest question is whether the microdrive will handle serious business applications adequately. You can argue that a cartridge holds about 65% as much as a single-density floppy disk and the access time is two or three times as long, but still quite tolerable. Also, in their little binders, four microdrive cartridges take very little space on the shelf. Nevertheless, we don't think that the majority of business users will find the microdrive an acceptable alternative to floppy disks. Windows and Screens
When the QL is turned on or the reset button pressed, on the screen is displayed the message "F1 for monitor; F2 for television." If you press F2, you get a 64-column display. We had no trouble viewing 64 columns on a standard 13" Sanyo TV set. Indeed, we found we could "push" it to 80 columns. However, to allow the use of older or lower quality TV sets, the character width can be set to 40. Oddly, with the width set to 40, Basic writes only 37 characters across the screen.
While a TV set is a satisfactory display device, it is much more interesting to use a monitor. The QL provides output signals for both RGB and NTSC (composite video) monitors. In monitor mode, an 80-character width screen is automatically split into two vertical windows. The left window shows the program listing while the execution takes place in the right window.
Although the default windows are half the width of the display, you can specify any size window you wish. The BORDER command allows you to add a border to a window. PAPER allows you to specify the background (paper) color, and INK specifies the type color. Within a window you can scroll vertically with the SCROLL command and horizontally with the PAN command. Interestingly, these commands work in two directions (up and down, and right and left). We found these commands did not work quite as we expected; after information was scrolled out of a window it seemed to be gone and we couldn't get it back without re-generating it.
As implied earlier, text resolution can be 40, 64, or 80 characters by 25 lines while graphics resolution is 512 x 256 pixels with four colors or 256 x 256 with eight colors. Colors can be either a solid color or a "stipple." A stipple is a mixture of two colors in one of four specified patterns (see Figure 1). Stipples will be reproduced correctly only on a monitor and will shimmer on a TV set.
The graphics system implemented in SuperBasic is quite powerful and automatically compensates for the rectangular shape of screen pixels when drawing circles and other shapes. A thoughtful touch is the placement of the origin for graphics figures at the lower left (as you are taught in geometry) rather than the upper left (as on most computers). The vertical (y) direction has a default dimension of 100 while the dimension of the x direction depends upon the size of the window. If a figure exceeds the output window, then it is correctly cropped. The SCALE command allows the scale to be changed and the origin moved. Other graphics commands include CIRCLE, ARC, LINE, POINT, and FILL. SuperBasic
SuperBasic is a refreshing departure from previous Sinclair Basic implementations as it is very close to Microsoft Basic with the addition of several nifty turtle graphics commands and the window commands mentioned above.
In addition to the graphics commands discussed in the previous section, the QL has a MODE command which lets you switch between 512- and 256-pixel screen widths.
For ease of program editing, SuperBasic has automatic line numbering, renumbering, and on-screen editing; although to use this latter facility, you must invoke the EDIT command. Immediate mode commands can also be edited with the last one being held in memory until the next one is entered.
Five turtle graphics commands (from Logo) are implemented in SuperBasic. They include PENUP, PENDOWN, MOVE, TURN, and TURNTO angle (which turns the turtle to a specific heading).
Most of the other facilities will be familiar to users of Microsoft Basic, although the command syntax is occasionally different.
In addition, there are some confusing inconsistencies. For example, in some cases spaces are needed between commands and their arguments, but not in others; similarly, procedures are defined with the arguments in parentheses and then used without them. There are some other strangenesses, all of which contribute to potential confusion for both novice and experienced users. Operating System
SuperBasic and the various applications software packages all run under QDOS. For the most part, QDOS is transparent to the user as it schedules tasks, allocates resources, performs I/O, polls the keyboard and other ports, and manages memory.
QDOS supports a multitasking environment; therefore, a file can be accessed by more than one process at a time. The QDOS file system can handle both files that have been opened for exclusive use by one program or for shared use.
All I/O is device independent. You simply specify a channel (not a device) with an OPEN statement and direct data and files to that channel. Obviously, you must have an appropriate device connected to that channel if you expect to capture the output. Word Processing
Furnished with the QL is a package produced by Psion, QL Quill. This is a "what you see is what you get" word processing system which even allows underlining, superscripts, and subscripts.
The screen is divided into three areas (see Figure 2). The top is a control area and shows the meaning of the function keys, current mode (overstrike or insert), and current typeface. If the command key is pressed, the list of available commands show in this top area. These commands allow changing the format of the document, saving, loading, and the like.
A ruler line appears below the control area to show margins and tab stops.
At the bottom are two lines which show the mode, word count, current line and page, document name, and typeface (normal, bold, or underline).
This leaves 18 lines in the center of the screen for display of your text or, if you toggle off the control area, 22 lines for text.
We used Quill quite extensively and found it was very capable.
Like any word processing package, it has some idiosyncrasies that were mildly annoying. In particular, it always indents a paragraph. While you can specify the number of spaces to indent, you can't defeat the indent no matter what. When the system is loaded, it is in right justify mode. If you want an unjustified document and forget to change the format at the start of the session, you can re-format the text later, but it will take nearly two minutes per page to perform the operation. While you are entering a document, the system will occasionally spin the microdrive without warning. Presumably, this is just QDOS doing its thing, but it is disconcerting.
Nevertheless, we have no serious complaints about Quill, and we feel it is well matched to the computer. Other Applications Software
QL Abacus is a full-featured spreadsheet package which would have received high marks in our spreadsheet roundup in the June issue of Creative. Like Quill, it has a control area at the top of the screen and a two-line status area at the bottom. It has an extensive set of built-in math, statistics, and business functions including net present value, rate of return, and table lookup. About the only obvious missing function was a sort facility.
QL Archive is a database, more properly called a file manager. The default layout is very similar to a 5 x 7 index card, although you can design your own layouts. Since the QL has no character graphics (only Greek and various accented letters), forms must be designed with ASCII characters like hyphens, colons, and brackets.
The real power of Archive becomes apparent when you start to use its own database language, a language nearly as powerful as Basic, but oriented to file manipulation. You can create a named procedure to do exactly what you want and then use it as an additional command just as you use the other Archive commands.
We had the most fun with QL Easel, a business graphics program. This is an exceptionally friendly program that allows the creation of line, bar (horizontal and vertical), and pie charts. You can vary nearly everything: colors, sizes and shapes of bars, labels, and formats. You can even combine two types of plotting on a single graph.
We made one bar chart and kept adding bars. At first the screen provides space for 12 bars (months), but when you specify the value for the 12th one, the screen is automatically reformatted for 20 bars. This process continues to 30, 45, 78, 100, and eventually to more than 600 bars. Furthermore, if a vertical bar extends beyond the defined range, the screen is automatically reformatted and redrawn. All together, a nifty package! Documentation
The documentation for the QL is in a single large-format ring binder. It includes a 12-page introduction, 113-page beginner's guide (actually a Basic tutorial), 57-page keyword reference guide, 52-page discussion of the concepts and technology of the QL, sections on each of the four Psion software packages, and a section of miscellaneous technical information (installing printer drivers, transferring data to other computers, guarantee, etc.). In total, the manual contains 400 pages--all typeset and well-illustrated. We were impressed! Pricing
The QL comes as a bundled unit including computer, User's Guide, power supply, cables, four software packages, four blank microdrive cartridges, and three plastic feet. The U.S. price has been set at $499. Initially, the QL will only be available by mail order directly from Sinclair, but later it may make its way into some retail outlets. In Summary
At the moment, the Sinclair QL is the lowest priced 32-bit microcomputer on the market. It is a technologically advanced machine and packs a tremendous amount of capability into a small package.
Although it is bundled with a good complement of capable software for the business market, we feel the microdrive storage system, European-design keyboard, and mail order sales and service policy will prevent the QL from receiving widespread acceptance among business users, at least not as the primary computer of the company.
On the other hand, the QL Easel business graphics package is outstanding, and it alone may justify the purchase of the system, especially for a business which already has an Epson FX80 (which prints the graphics output exactly). The QL may also represent a good buy for company employees with occasional computing requirements.
In addition, we think the QL may also be a good choice for the serious home user or person running a part-time business. Welcome back to the U.S., Sinclair.
Products: Sinclair QL (computer)