Mattel Aquarius home computer system. (evaluation) Owen W. Linzmayer; David Ahl.
Mattel Aquarius Home Computer System
Until recently, the name Mattel was associated mainly with children's toys, most notably, the Barbie doll and Hot Wheels. That was before the company decided to take a chance by trying to establish a foothold in the blossoming business of selling home video game systems. If we look at the unquestionable success of the Intellivision, it is apparent that the executives at Mattel made a wise decision.
Can Mattel break away from its toyoriented background? That is the question as Mattel now enters the already crowded home computer market with the Aquarius.
The Aquarius computer console retails for $100-$160, depending upon where you buy it. What exactly do you get for your money? The low-end, no frills Aquarius system features a rubber "Chiclet' keyboard, 4K RAM, a Z80A microprocessor, and a version of Microsoft Basic residing in ROM. You also receive a 10" video cable, TV switch box, power adapter, and two instruction manuals.
Let's take a closer look at the Aquarius and the peripherals available at the time of this writing.
The base of the computer measures 13.5 X 6 and is molded in a combination of black and off-white plastic. The back of the console is 2 high but slopes down to a sleek 1 at the front. The on/off switch is mounted on the righthand side of the computer, and a green LED located on the face indicates when power is flowing.
The Aquarius has a single edgeconnector in the rear that allows the user to plug in either program cartridges or accessories such as the Mini Expander module. When the slot is not in use, a dust cover keeps the contacts clean.
The video-out connector is also found on the back, along with the TV channel selector (3 or 4). Situated next to this switch are the cassette and printer I/O ports. The power adapter cable enters the computer at the rear where it is permanently attached.
The Aquarius keyboard is a compromise between full-stroke and membrane-what we refer to as "Chiclet' style. Unlike a flat membrane keyboard, each key on the Aquarius protrudes above the surface of the computer. To the delight of smaller children, and to the disappointment of touch typsts, the 49 light blue rubber keys are spaced rather close together. There is a slot on each side of the keyboard so that overlays may be inserted easily.
Most of the keys have both lowercase (normal) and uppercase (shift) characters. In addition, the control key provides 34 special keyword abbreviations, This is quite handy because the Aquarius is somewhat prone to key bounce (one press of a key is interpreted by the computer as two or three keystrokes).
Touch typists will find it particularly dificult to adjust to the Aquarius keyboard, mainly because of the positioning of the spacebar. Instead of its customary location, centered on the bottom row, the spacebar is found in the lower lefthand corner of the keyboard. What's more, it isn't even a spacebar. It is a small key. Granted, the space "bar' is larger than most of the other keys, but no bigger than the shift and return keys.
A better bit of keyboard design is seen in the reset key, which is surrounded by raised edges that prevent accidental pressing. If you hit the reset key by mistake, you can sometimes save your program by pressing CTL-C. The manual claims that CTL-C will always enable you to recover a program after pressing reset. Not so; it rarely works when programs use POKE statements.
The Aquarius comes with a version of Microsoft Basic residing in the 8K ROM. This version has somewhat fewer commands than some other implementations (see Table 1). Mattel plans to offer an Extended Basic upgrade later this year. This is similar to what Radio Shack did with their Color Computer.
The current version of Microsoft Basic on the Aquarius leaves much to be desired by the serious programmer. Probably the biggest inconvenience is that the editing features are extremely limited. If you find a mistake in your program, you must retype the entire line that contains the error.
The Aquarius features an upper- and lowercase text display of 40 X 24 black characters on a blue field. With a one line command, the background and foreground colors can be selected from a palette of 16 colors. Unfortunately, there is no Color command; to color a block, the command is POKE (L, C). L refers to the screen location (13352 to 14311) and C to the color (0 to 15).
Low-resolution graphics characters may also be manipulated within the 40 X 24 screen grid using POKE commands. Fortunately, the character set contains a substantial number of graphics characters (160) in addition to the standard 96 ASCII characters (letters, numbers, symbols). Thus it is possible to achieve reasonable animation on the low-resolution screen.
With the present Basic, the highest graphics resolution available to the user is 80 X 72 pixels. This is achieved by dividing each block on the 40 X 24 grid into six pixels. Unlike the background, you connot designate the color of a pixel; each pixel within a block of six is the same, although blocks may be individually colored. In this mode, the available commands are PSET(X, Y) to turn on a pixel, PRESET(X, Y) to turn it off, and POINT(X, Y) to determine if it is on or off.
Unfortunately, the Aquarius does not have a clear screen (CLS) command. Instead, you must type PRINT CHR[11). This is cumbersome, particularly since graphics characters do not automatically scroll off the screen when a listing is done.
The Aquarius system comes complete with two excellent instruction manuals. The first booklet, entitled "Guide to Home Computing,' gives detailed, illustrated directions on how to set up the computer. There are 11 chapters dedicated to introducing the beginner, as well as the more advanced programmer, to the Basic language and the particular features of the Aquarius. This manual is well written and explains each function in simple terms. To aid the learning process, hints, programming tips and examples are abundant. The omission of an index is the only disappointment in an otherwise excellent manual.
The second booklet is really a set of 16 "Simplified Instruction Cards.' These pop up and are intended to sit next to your computer for quick and easy reference. If neither manual solves a specific problem, toll-free phone numbers are provided for service information and programming assistance. This is a luxury and is tremendously useful. Unlike the "help' lines of many other computer companies, these two are manned by a staff of knowledgeable and courteous people.
One of the most useful peripherals for a computer system is a printer. Whether it be for word processing or getting a hard copy of a program listing, a printer is an invaluable tool. The Aquarius printer is just like its computer counterpart: small and simple.
Two blue buttons and a green LED are all that is found on the front panel of the printer. The rightmost button is the power switch, and when the electricity is on, the LED lights up. Depressing the button on the left causes the paper to advance little by little.
The printer requires its own power source. It uses a unique serial interface; a connecting cord is provided. The printer manual claims that the Aquarius thermal printer has an alphanumeric print rate of 80 characters per second (cps) and a graphics print rate of "20 elementary lines per second.' I did some of my own testing and found these numbers to be relatively accurate. The thermal printhead consists of a 5 X 7 dot matrix which prints blue characters on white 4 3/8 wide paper. The printer can output 40 characters per line, making it fine for listing a program, but a bit unorthodox for serious word processing. The printable characters include upperand lowercase, as well as special character graphics. On the back of the printer is a three-position sliding switch that designates which mode the printer is in: graphics, mixed, or text.
Like most thermal printers, the Aquarius model is fairly quiet. In fact, most of the noise it produces seems to be caused by the friction feed paper advance system, not the process of printing. When the printer is waiting for input, it is absolutely silent.
The Aquarius printer comes with a small booklet that is in no way a technical manual. Also included with the printer are two rolls of thermal paper--one already installed. By the way, installing the paper in the printer is no easy task. After a bit of practice it does become easier, but it is still something I don't look forward to doing.
The Aquarius computer comes with only one cartridge slot. The Mini Expander module has slots for both memory and program cartridges, two hand controllers, and two additional sound channels.
Designed in a fashion that is consistent with the computer console, the Mini Expander plugs into the cartridge slot and measures 4.5 X 5.5 when installed.
With the Expander, a memory upgrade cartridge can be inserted into the rear slot at the same time that a program cartridge sits in the front slot. I haven't seen it yet, but I assume that the 32K memory cartridge is used in conjunction with the 16K cartridge to provide the system maximum of 52K of RAM.
Mattel advertises each controller as having a 16-position disc, not joystick. This is true--and unfortunate. While those who are accustomed to the Intellivision may not mind the disc, I would much rather have a real joystick. Luckily you have two choices to improve the comfort of the controller: Buy either an Injoy-A-Stick adapter or a set of Thumb Saver cushion pads.
Each controller is detachable and accepts keypad overlays. The keypad consists of six rubber buttons. Why Mattel didn't make the Aquarius controllers compatible with the new Intellivision II controllers is beyond me.
The response of the controller is very good once handling it is mastered. The cable connecting it to the expander is a lengthy coil similar to those found on telephone handsets. Although the controllers work well with preprogrammed games, they cannot be accessed by the user from Basic. This is a major drawback for anyone who is interested in using the Aquarius to design game software. A representative at Mattel hinted that the Extended Basic may contain commands to allow the use of the controllers. One can only hope so.
As stated earlier, the minimum configuration Aquarius comes with 4K of user RAM. Additional 4K and 16K memory cartridges are now available. These augment the memory that is already permanently installed in the computer. A 32K upgrade is scheduled for release later this year.
Table: Program 1. This short produces 40 little men, each consisting of two graphics characters (characters 19 and 20) that are POCED into graphics screen locations in lines 320 and 330.
Table: Program 2. This program produces 20 colored concentric rectangles using low-resolution graphics characters. Points P1 through P4 define the four corners of each rectangle.
Table: Program 3. This program also produces 20 concentric rectangles using high-resolution pixels. Note the ease of using PSET command compared to the POKEs in Program 2.
Photo: Screen output for Program 1 as printed on the Aquarius printer.
Products: Mattel Aquarius home computer system (computer)