Product: A&B Computing 3.01
Publisher: A&B Computing
Compatibility: BBC/Electron
Reviewed by: Dave E
Originally published in EUG #61

Two of the most surprising aspects of the much overlooked magazine A&B Computing magazine are (a) just how many programs each issue has stuffed in it, and (b) just how many of them work on both BBC and Electron machines. Until relatively recently, these programs seemed destined never to be played again - due to only being available in the printed format - but a summer session of blitz-typing them at EUG HQ has changed all that. Companion discs to accompany almost all of your A&B magazines are now available free from www.8bs.com; this disc is only one of them.

A&B 3.01 was originally published over fifteen years ago, very much in the "Golden Days" of the Beeb when new software was appearing every month and hardware enthusiasts were pushing all manner of gadgets into the machines' expansion ports. To reinforce this, the cover of the magazine even boasts the message "For BBC Micro, Electron and Torch Users"; the Torch, of course, having such a limited lifetime that many Acorn users are unaware that it existed. [For more info on the Torch, see the Micro's Computer Mart feature published in EUG #60 - Ed]

For all of its quantitative value (This particular issue is 130 pages thick which, at £1.50, was certainly value for money!) and nice presentation throughout though, it's fair to say that A&B was a magazine which "never looked back" (sometimes to the exasperation of readers with older machines). This issue is fairly typical; the magazine is awash with 'news' items that are cloaked advertisements for the new products from companies such as Beebugsoft, ACP and Level 9 - on top of the actual full-page advertisements themselves that appear elsewhere! - in its opening pages. Redressing the balance come huge and frank reviews of Strike Force Harrier, the Challenger 3 disc drive, the Electron with Plus 1 and Plus 3, the Aries B12 ROM, the UMI 2B music package and Amx Art, all complete with colourful screenshots. On top of these are the mailbag, educational software and arcade software sections where cursory glances are cast over less worthy yet recent products to hit the Beeb market. It's all sporadically intersected with software and hardware listings for the reader to 'type up' if they're interested in that particular area.

That's not to say, however, that the same care is taken with page-setting the listings as it so obviously is with the articles. Programs invariably come from the readers of A&B and their programming skills, and descriptions of what their program does, are patently hard to fathom. The series on simple animation in this issue includes a small "Snake" demo with bizarre statements like COLOUR 128+3 (COLOUR 131 is much simpler!) and the program itself is less than inspiring for would-be programmers when executed.

Ghosts and Ghouls - Or is that Ghouls and Ghosts?

The most fascinating inclusion in this particular issue is a platformer named Ghosts, suitable for all series. Fascinating for a number of reasons, readers of the original magazine will however find that, after spending hours typing it in (It's almost 100% machine code!), they are unable to play it by following the instructions in the Ghosts article because (a) they don't know what they are waffling on about, and (b) a whole section of the listing has been chopped off during the 'pasting' of the four sections into the magazine!

Get the game on the screen then by loading it from the companion disc (much more simple than using A&B 3.03's correction) and you discover one of the most blatant rip-offs of all time! Ghosts is nothing more or less than Micro Power's Ghosts, right down to the level layout, sound, sprites, moving platforms and spring-style bridges. No, it's not by the same author, nor are Ghouls and Ghosts 'clones' of an arcade game. This is a straightforward copy of the Micro Power title, which was top of the charts when this magazine hit the shelves! There are very minor differences which in fact, make Ghosts harder, but all in all it should have been one for Intellectual Property lawyers, not the arcade addict. Even the Micro Power style loading screen is in there!

Less controversial are the utilities and demos that appear. A hybrid Multi-Mode demo, beloved of games such as Gauntlet and The Hunt, and also compatible over all machines, yields much interesting information while the Basic Magic Squares demo claims to be so compatible but uses Mode 7, causing much frustration as the Elk fills the screen with odd characters. Such misleading claims of compatibility are typical of A&B and it makes no apologies for them, such is its concentration on "bigger and better machines". Any letters noting that compatibility was stated incorrectly are answered in terms of "Yes, well, if you've only got that machine then obviously it won't work. You'll have to change some lines. Which is, of course, the conclusion the hapless reader had already come to. But it could also be argued convincingly that A&B should check its programs on all machines before heading its listings wrongly.

Finally, on top of intriguing articles, mesmerising demos, fair reviews and a blatant commercial game rip-off, are hardware projects. "Build a speech synthesiser for your BBC B for only £8!" boasts the article "Speak Easy" before launching into a mass of diagrams, code and technical jargon that is enough to deter all but the most ardent hardware adventurer. [It also turned out the accompanying programs to this series were also originally incomplete! - Ed] Also, somewhere in between hardware and programming picks up a series on printing via the new NLQ Epson add-on board. Doubtless the manufacturers supplied less than adequate information with the add-on as it was originally purchased and had to call A&B to the rescue.

With the improvements to an earlier word processor utility listed in *EXECutable form in the mailbag section, the A&B 3.01 companion disc also includes an updated Electron version of Textmaster, although it is, fairly evidently, not as sophisticated as either Starword or View.

A&B 3.01, with its programs now typed up and completed (where necessary), is now one of the best of the mags Argus Press produced. The programs are bug-free and presented nicely, the articles move from absolute beginner to the Acorn boffin, the reviews are diverse and free-ranging and everything exhibits a wonderful aura that was the world of BBC and Elk expansions in January 1986. The only question that remains is why on earth does it refer to itself as volume four issue one on the contents page?