Was I the only person
in the world who wondered what all the fuss was about when
the QL was launched? People kept on about the Motorola 68000
processor and the 128k of memory, not to mention a souped-up
version of Basic. Multi-tasking and windows were thrown at
me in a generous attempt to win me round but everything failed.
No matter how I tried, I could not get enthusiastic about
The responses warmed
up a little when I read the descriptions of Psion's four programs
- Archive, Easel, Quill and Abacus, which compared on paper
very favourably with many commercially available packages.
But I was still left with doubts; after all, how can anyone
do anything serious with a Microdrive?
It wasn't until I had been using the QL
for many hours that I twigged what it was all about. Like
the lap-helds and the Macintosh, the QL has been designed
for serious personal use. The supplied applications are just
what the professional user needs to get started. Of course,
the built-in SuperBasic will appeal to the enthusiast, too,
but I suspect the bulk of QL sales will be to people who would
like a business computer but cannot afford the cost normally
associated with such a purchase.
The QL costs £399 including VAT but
you'll need a printer which will cost from around £250.
If you use your existing television, you are ready to go for
£650. I would strongly advise buying a monitor if you
plan to use the QL for hours at a time. This might cost you
another £250, so you still get away with a computing
facility for less than £1,000.
The main psychological difference between
the QL and the other machines mentioned earlier is that the
QL is only available by mail order at present. With the lap-helds
and the Macintosh you can go into your local dealer and beat
him round the head if anything goes wrong. Not so with the
QL. There is a thing called the QLUB which, for £35
per annum, entitles you to a newsletter and software enhancements.
(Common bugs are fixed for nothing according to Sinclair.)
You may also send written queries about the software and these
will be answered in writing (in due course, no doubt). All
of which means that you're on your own if things go wrong,
or if you simply can't get the hang of something.
At the time I carried out the review (mid-April)
there was still no sign of any QL shipments, although Sinclair
was saying - with a degree of conviction - that the machines
would start trickling out at the end of April. If this is
the case, then I think they will be going out with a few known
holes in the firmware and with some sort of voucher scheme
which will entitle buyers to an upgrade when Sinclair finalises
At the moment the firmware is held in three
16k EPROMs which means that one of them must occupy the ROM
slot at the back of the machine. You will not be able to run
early QLs without this expansion ROM pack. Once the operating
system is tucked away on real ROMs, I am told that it will
fit inside the QL (on one 32k and one 16k ROM) and the ROM
pack slot will be freed. Quite how the upgrade will take place,
I have no idea. I suppose some sort of call-in system will
be necessary as I can't see the average QL user taking the
machine to bits to replace ROMs. I also find it hard to visualise
people who have become dependent on the QL giving it up while
the problem is sorted out. I suppose this latter group will
stick with the expansion ROM until they find they need the
slot for something else.
While the QL is only available by mail order,
I would expect only those already familiar with computers
to buy one. Of course this is a pretty hefty market these
days so I don't think Sinclair will be short of customers.
Once QLs get into the shops and stores, then I think that
computer naive people will be taking a serious look too.
A working QL comprises a keyboard with two
integral Microdrives, a power supply, a television or monitor
and its associated lead. Early versions will also need a ROM
pack plugged in at the back. An RS232C cable and a network
cable are also supplied with the machine. If you do a lot
of typing, you might find the keyboard lies a bit flat. To
overcome this, Sinclair has supplied three funny little plastic
feet which are supposed to fit into rubber pads under the
keyboard. I found that these fell out regularly and in the
end I dispensed with them and got used to a new typing position.
To compensate for this I found that the printer cable worked
first time with my Epson MX 80F/T. The network driver still
hadn't been implemented in my version of the operating system,
so attempts to talk to my son's Spectrum were doomed to failure.
Just in case you were wondering about the
QL's portability, Sinclair boasts that it weighs around three
pounds. What it doesn't boast about is that the separate power
supply weighs over two pounds! Also, you still need the television
and, at eighteen or so inches wide, the QL cannot be slipped
into a briefcase like its ZX predecessor.
The QL has the sort of style the public
has come to expect from Sinclair. The potential monotony of
an all black rectangular casing is relieved by a textured
surface and some ribbing at the right-hand side. The 65-key
conventional qwerty keyboard looks very neat, not at all unlike
the NCR DMV. Despite the inevitable membrane mechanism underneath,
the keyboard feels good and positive in operation. The Microdrives
are hidden under the flat area to the right of the keyboard.
The keyboard highlights the fact that we
are not really looking at a traditional Sinclair machine.
With its ESC key, five function keys, CTRL and ALT, it would
seem to represent a quantum leap by this company into the
arms of convention. I must say I'm relieved. I felt immediately
at home with the QL and found I could get on with the important
business of using it for productive work. The '3' key has
the hash sign above it but, don't despair, a pound sign is
provided in the top right-hand corner next to a backslash
key, apparently vital when programming in C.
A yellow light at the front of the keyboard
tells you when the machine is on and a red light in front
of each Microdrive tells you when it's in use. A row of slots
under the Microdrives provide a degree of ventilation and
also conceal a piezo-electric speaker. A covered expansion
port on the right allows up to six Microdrives to be added.
Incidentally, they are not the same as the ZX Microdrive although
the blank tapes are identical.
The Spectrum and the QL actually format
their tapes differently so, if you want to exchange information,
you'll need to use the network. The Microdrive cartridges
have a capacity of at least 100k. In theory they can take
up to 255 sectors, each of 512 bytes on a 200 inch tape loop.
A reset key next to the Microdrive expansion port is an improvement
on the ZX range which requires you to pull out the power supply
lead to obtain the same effect. Like the ZX range, there is
no on/off switch on the QL. The left-hand side of the keyboard
has an enormous expansion port covered by a removable plate.
This will be used for the promised 512k of add-on RAM. No
doubt enterprising companies will invent all sorts of devices
to plug in here.
Turning to the back of the keyboard, reading
from left to right, there are two network sockets, a miniature
power socket, an 8-pin DIN socket for the monitor (monochrome
or colour), UHF socket, two RS232C sockets, two joystick sockets
and a slot with a removable cover for the ROM pack. This pack
can hold up to 32k. The RS232C and the joystick sockets are
like those newfangled telephone jack sockets. If one RS232C
socket doesn't do what you want,you can try the other which
has its signalling pins reversed.
Removal of the 10 screws which hold the
QL together reveal a very tidy interior. The main PCB is very
crowded but neatly laid out. The large Motorola 68008 can
be seen on the left, 16 chips make up the 128k RAM, two EPROMs
contain the operating system and SuperBasic and an extra 8049
processor controls the keyboard among other things. Four Sinclair-designed
ICs control the display, memory, RS232C, network and Microdrives.
Over on the right are the Microdrives which look just like
the innards of the ZX Microdrives. Behind them is an enormous
heat sink which nicely warms the flat panel to the right of
The keyboard is covered by an aluminium
plate which when removed reveals the mechanism. The key presses
down on a sort of moulded soft plastic dome. The dome has
a spike moulded on its inside which in turn presses down on
a sheet of plastic printed with metallised tracks. This presses
in turn on another similar sheet thus completing an electrical
connection between two tracks - one on each sheet. It sounds
nasty but it actually works very well. Once you appreciate
how the keyboard works, you can feel it in use but I doubt
that most people would notice.
I used the QL with a domestic television;
and I must admit that it got a bit tiring after a while. I
have seen the machine in operation with a monitor and the
picture was a lot better with none of the irritating flicker
inevitable with UHF. The computer display wraps off the corners
of the television screen, another reason why a monitor may
On the other hand, it is possible to select
from a variety of character sizes and display resolutions
so that you can reduce the problems somewhat. Psion gives
users a choice of 80, 64 and 40-column displays for its programs.
The 64-column display works very well: I found myself using
that mode all the time.
Overall, I was very pleased with the quality
of the QL hardware; it behaved faultlessly the whole time
I had it.
As I mentioned earlier, the operating system
and the Basic were not finished on the machine I tested. They
were, however, complete in most important respects. The Basic
is a very powerful language with some additional structures
over and above the earlier ZX Basics. Particularly impressive
is the ability to define extensions to the language using
the procedure definition facilities. One current limitation
in SuperBasic restricts overall program size to 32k. This
is to do with the internal error checking. Sinclair tells
me that this restriction will be lifted in due course.
The other major omission in the review machine's
Basic was the full screen editor promised at launch. At the
time of writing, the only way to edit a line of Basic is to
re-enter it. That's all the bad news; now let's look at what's
actually in the Basic and perhaps see why it has been christened
The Basic follows a similar pattern to all
Basics. I had few problems writing little routines. I know
I shouldn't admit this but I must confess to having introduced
a couple of GOTOs in my programs. SuperBasic doesn't mind;
it just makes them a bit unnecessary Anyway the point of this
confession is that you cannot say IF . . . THEN and a line
number, you must say IF . . . THEN GOTO. Basic commands must
be typed in full - there is no keyword entry system, although
I suppose you could create your own using the procedure definition
An AUTO line numbering system was missing
on my copy but I have been assured that it will be included
in the released version. This, coupled with RENUMBER command,
will lead to tidier programs. BAUD sets the baud rate of the
two RS232C ports - yes both of them must be set to the same
speed which can be one of eight between 75 and 19200 baud.
19200 is reserved for transmission only. BEEP makes sounds
through the grotty speaker. Pitch and duration can varied,
as well as things like second pitch and bounce, which 'bounces'
the sound between the two pitches. A fuzzy option adds a random
number to the pitch on each cycle causing an appropriate distortion.
Fine for fun but not of massive practical benefit. I hear
that an external sound generator under development which should
The Basic contains an impressive range of
graphics facilities, as you might expect. Windows, borders
and blocks of colour can all be created on the 512x 256 resolution
screen. Up to four colours are available in this high resolution
mode and the lower resolution (256 x 256) gives eight colours
The MODE command lets you switch between
256 and 512 screen widths. When you define the ink and paper
colours, you can also define a stipple pattern but, unless
you like shimmering, don't use it on the domestic TV . Character
sizes can vary in width in four stages from 6 to 16 bits wide
and, in height, either 10 or 20 bits high. This would be useful
in headings or in applications for young children or partially-sighted
people, for example. A PAN command allows you to slide the
contents of a window sideways. Once you have lost stuff from
the window you can't get it back without regenerating it.
Windows are handled by allocating each one
a spare channel then you simply address your Basic commands
to the chosen channel. It really is a doddle.
Now for the various control structures available
in SuperBasic. Firstly there's DEF FN which is probably already
familiar to you. It allows you to define a function which
returns some sort of value to the line using it. It also allows
you to use local variables through the LOCAL statement. These
may have the same name as variables outside the function definition
but they will not become confused during execution of the
program. DEF FN is terminated with END DEF. Similarly DEFine
PROCedure is terminated with END DEF and it, too, allows local
variables. When defining the procedure, any parameters needed
are placed in brackets: for example, DEF PROC F (LIMIT), but
when the procedure is used the brackets are not needed: for
example, F 23. You can do some super things with this facility
and, of course, it does away with GOSUBs and the complications
of parameter passing.
And that's not all. The old familiar FOR
. . . NEXT has a new twist. It allows you to slip some commands
after the NEXT but before the END. REPeat gives you a repeating
loop which you escape via an EXIT command embedded somewhere
in the structure. Perhaps you need to wait until an input
satisfies a test before moving on. Once again this is an attempt
by Sinclair to encourage GOTO-less programming.
The final neat structure I'd like to mention
is SELect. Used with ON this gives a similar effect to ON
. . . GOTO but you can embed all the actions inside the procedure
itself. For example Select ON A can be followed by ON A=1
and then all the things you want to happen if A=1. The next
ON will stimulate a new set of actions for a second value
of A. This command ends with END Select Very neat.
SuperBasic has an interesting feature which
Sinclair calls 'coercion'. This allows you to mix your variables
when performing calculations. For example, it will let you
add '2' to '2' and still get '4'.
Finally, the Benchmark timings. They put
the QL in the top third or so of all machines tested by PCW.
Frankly, the comparative speed of machines is insignificant;
it's far more important to take the broader view and decide
how the facilities offered compare.
The QL operating system, QDOS, is busily
working in the background whenever the QL is in use. It makes
its presence known, for example, when you need to run jobs
in different windows and when you are transferring data to
and from the Microdrives.
When the QL is first switched on, the screen
is divided into three separate windows. The bottom few lines
of the screen is a command entry and message display area
where all the direct interactions with QDOS and SuperBasic
take place. The top of the screen is then divided vertically
with the upper left being used for displaying the developing
Basic program and the upper right displaying the user view
of the program when you run it. The bottom of the screen is
attached to channel 0, the listing area to channel 2 and the
program execution area to channel 1. It is a simple matter
to direct commands to the appropriate channel.
QDOS handles multi-tasking by dividing processing
time between the various jobs being executed, and according
to their built-in priorities. As I said earlier I couldn't
set up an adequate test system to see how this performed.
What I do know is that at the launch it was less than impressive.
The fact is that the QL can do several things at once. The
performance depends more on the quality of the programs running
than on the inherent capability of the operating system.
As you may have guessed from the channel
numbers, all I/O is device-independent. You simply choose
your channel, attach your device to it by saying something
arcane like OPEN £5; CON _ 200x200a50x50 _ and you have
created a 200x200 bit window starting at location 50x50 and
with a keyboard buffer of 32 characters. Easy isn't it?
The really annoying thing about QDOS for
me was that I had to put an underline at the end of my Microdrive
commands. For example 'DIR MDV1' does not give a directory
of Microdrive 1 whereas 'DIR MDV1_' does.
Without doubt, the Psion programs tip the
scales heavily in the QL's favour when comparing the system
Four packages are provided: word processor,
database system, spreadsheet program and business graphics.
I used all four programs to a limited extent. Then I chose
to plunge into the database program in detail.
I'll start with the others and then take
a closer look at Archive, the database.
Easel was the largest and most complicated
to program, yet it appears to the user as the most trivial
and the easiest to use. It's great for bringing numbers to
life. At the simplest level you can literally load the program
and start keying in numbers and immediately a histogram appears
on the screen. If you go off the scale it automatically rescales
itself and lets you carry on. If you want to enter another
set of figures, simply choose a new name and start keying
the new ones.
Let's say the first lot were called 'TURNOVER'
and the second lot 'COSTS'. You could easily create a third
set by saying 'MARGIN=TURNOVERCOSTS'. These can then be displayed
individually as histograms, line graphs or pie charts or they
can be superimposed on each other to show the relationships
between differing sets of figures. Text can be added to the
charts, and moved around, and everything can be printed, provided
your printer is capable of graphics.
You can read in files which have been prepared
either by Abacus, the spreadsheet or by Archive, the database.
Such data will be displayed according to the currently selected
format. Data can be transmitted from this program to others
in the form of tables of numbers.
Deeper inside the package there are open
windows, vary column widths and transfer data.
Quill, the word processor seems to have
very grown-up facilities. I particularly like the fact that
what you see on the screen is what gets printed out. Superscripts
and subscripts are handled by Quill's built-in special character
Underline is an inherent feature of the
QL and this is also used to good effect.
Another thing that impressed me was the
fact that the current character position is shown by a highlight
on the margin ruler at the top of the screen. Quill keeps
a word count as you go along, something many professional
writers will find invaluable.
Now Archive, the database. I spent hours
on this one. It is an extremely deep product. A novice user
can use it literally like a card file and be none the wiser
after months. Others will find that they prefer to use a special
screen layout rather than the default. Some people will want
to access multiple files while others will want to build some
sort of system around Archive. All these things are possible
within the one product.
I started by simply listing the fields into
which I wanted to enter data and then creating a simple file
of names and addresses. That was easy - it took about 10 minutes.
Then I got ambitious and started entering data which exceeded
the available space for its entry. The data was accepted although
it actually ruined the display. Archive will accept variable
length data up to 255 characters per field. In this respect
it shows similar limitations to other popular databases.
Since the QL has no character graphics,
the design of records is achieved with judicious use of the
exclamation mark and the hyphen. The end result is usable
but looks a little tacky. Bearing in mind the sort of program
size and timescale limitations Psion was working to, I think
this is a small price to pay for the power and usefulness
of the product.
It is possible to locate records in a file
quickly by using the search or locate commands. The first
ignores case and the second matches exactly. A sort is built
into Archive and it works on the straight ASCII sequence.
This means that 'Computer' would come before 'all', for example.
Like SuperBasic you can define procedures
within Archive, and the potential for developing applications
and new commands is mind-blowing. Suddenly the entire product
becomes soft and you can redefine it to suit your needs exactly.
For example, do you always open the same files, display them
in the same form and then access a particular record. Fine.
There's no reason why that shouldn't all be done with two
keystrokes - G and ENTER, for example. I chose 'G' for 'Go'.
There's a lot of power in this package and it really will
repay diligent study.
All the Psion packages have plain English
commands, although this does make them a little long-winded
at times. They all have extensive help facilities which can
be called up at any stage. Psion is about to launch its products
onto other machines and I reckon this is an excellent marketing
ploy. People who become used to using Psion programs on the
QL will feel much happier if they also use them on their real
machines at work. Conversely, people who use Psion on their
real machines may want to buy a QL because they've already
learned what Psion's products can do.
I was provided with preliminary documentation
which was adequate. There was no beginners' guide, although
I understand that this will be available in the final version.
A Basic keyword summary is provided which
explains every Basic instruction in detail. A concepts section
runs through all the concepts regarding the QL which is beyond
the scope of the Basic keywords section. And each of the applications
packages has a guide to itself which acts both as tutorial
reference material. Inevitably, with a preliminary document
there were many discrepancies between the manual and the products
I was using. Structurally, the documentation is fine and I
trust the errors will be put right before the final version
The price of the QL is £399 including
VAT. To this you will need to add the cost of a three-pin
plug and a monitor plug if you are using this rather than
At press time Sinclair claimed that deliveries
of the machine would start at the end of April. The fact is
that in mid-April I had an almost-working machine and set
of software. If the machines do go out soon, then I think
it is certain that they will have an extension ROM sticking
out of the back with software upgrades promised under some
sort of voucher scheme. Not the happiest state of affairs.
There's no doubt that the QL is a well made
piece of hardware. The operating system, the applications
and the Basic look very good, on paper. The review machine
was still short of a few facilities. This either means that
deliveries will start soon and early buyers will need some
sort of upgrade, or that the project is going to be delayed
further while the software is completed.
If everything were in place, then I would
consider this machine very seriously as a truly personal computer
but not as something to run a business on. The Psion spreadsheet,
database, business graphics and word processing packages coupled
with the limited Microdrive capacity define the market very
clearly. The Psion programs look very good in terms of the
ranges and quality of facilities offered.
The bottom line is that the QL gives you
the potential to own a complete serious computing facility,
including printer and essential software, for under £1000.
Well under that if you're prepared to use a domestic TV rather
than a monitor for the display.