Product: ELECTRON USER 7.04
Publisher: Electron User
Compatibility: BBC B, B+, Master 128 & Acorn Electron
Reviewed by: Dave E
Originally published in EUG #71

January 1990 - the era of Blast and, um, not a lot more besides. The Acorn Electron was walking wounded - the Amiga and Atari ST were amazing the kiddies down at Gordon Harwoods' Computers and Database Publications probably had an inkling from the dearth of new games that the writing was on the wall (in luminous dayglo paint). However, you wouldn't think it from their news columns - a new Electron expansion was coming our way; Mini Office had just sold its 500,000th copy and the Computer Shopper fair in London had been beseiged by over 27,000 BBC and Electron enthusiasts the month before. Advertising was still going strong through its pages too - over 20 of them alone in this one issue. As with all Electron User issues, many of the features, reviews and articles of this issue have now already been converted to web format and you can check out much of the above by clicking on the appropriate links.

So why are we taking a look at this particular issue? Partly we browse because rifling through an old issue of Database's old workhorse brings back a hundred memories like those above. Partly we browse for the sheer 'oddness' of some of the articles. (The Verran AC Datalink, for example!) And partly we browse for things like The Sunburst Demo - which, if you're scratching your head because you've never seen it before, you should call up immediately!

Let's talk about Sunburst first. Certainly (Some might say for once!) EU knew it had got its hands on something special here. The spin that "no demo has ever impressed us so much as this amazing sunburst display" was not spin. The first time I booted this up I was mesmerised for a good thirty minutes or so. This demo is definitely one of the best demos for any 8-bit microcomputer ever. And so simple an idea! Patterns are calculated according to 'the Roses algorithm', so named because, like a rose, it simply rotates a shape around a fixed point. However, and please appreciate that it is difficult to do justice to it in text, its author John Geraghty has combined these pretty patterns with colour-switching of such complexity that the resulting display literally looks like a complete 1000 different frame animation! Nor do the rotating shapes remain constant themselves, occasionally they form diamonds, pentagrams and circles, as well as polygons and triangles. There are even fades in between, and a 'SUNBURST' header and footer occasionally lighting up fireworks-style!

As was usual, Sunburst came as a type-in, as did the other EU offerings this issue: Boing, Software Filer, 3D Bar Chart, ADFS & DFS Disc Editors, VDU CODER and VDU Linker. You might think the majority of these sound a bit boring but in actual fact the quality is top-notch. The only real annoyance, as I've said before in relation to Electron User, and its sister publication The Micro User, is the insistence of changing the name of the program in the text from what it is actually called - Boing is listed elsewhere as Bounce and in yet more places as Bertie Bounce.

Wait a minute, did you say there's a game there? What's Boing/Bounce about? Unfortunately it is only a sort of very poor man's Sphere Of Destiny - you control a ball rolling along a floor of tiles. You cannot start or stop and need to jump the tiles that make you sticky, drunk, dead, etc and get your ball to the end of the very long, vertically scrolling floor. The whole game is done in BASIC in three colours in Mode 5 and when I tell you that ball is represented by a full stop, you're probably halfway to guessing that, in stark contrast to Sunburst this is definitely nothing to get excited about.

The other utilities I tried out for the sake of fairness for this review. In the days before Relational Database Managament Systems (RDMS) I guess we needed little utilities like Software Filer to help us to locate the physical tapes (especially if they were all pirated ones on Boots C15 computer cassettes!). 3D Bar Chart draws a very impressive picture to represent any data fed into it, and the disc editors are of course very useful if you are ever in the uneviable position of having corrupted a disc which contains your latest project. These ones are also, naturally, software-based (not ROM-based) meaning that, if you need to do something slightly differently, you can hack them open and force them to operate differently.

The two other utilities VDU Coder and VDU Linker intrigued me simply because I found them the day after I completed the EUG Morph Demo that opens up this issue. This demo contains almost exclusively MOVE and DRAW commands which, so the writeup for the VDU utilities would have me believe, can be easily be compiled into machine code using them.

They work like this. You write your code, presumably not using PROCedures or GOSUBs or the like, but just as a simple sequence of GCOL, MOVE, DRAW and PLOT commands. You then add the command *ON before your code, and *OFF at the bottom of it. Then you load and RUN VDU Coder which sticks a procedure into PAGE &E00 that will compile your little BASIC code into its machine code equivalent. Next load and RUN your own code, which, working with the resident code at &E00, will output a file of VDU instructions. Finally load and RUN VDU Linker, feed it the VDU file and let it know the name for the machine code file. Not too complicated to be off-putting, especially when the EUG Morph Demo could be converted by such a method quite easily. Hmmmm, I thought, I could convert that EUG Morph Demo into machine code very easily using this method. I tried it out by just extracting the MOVE and DRAW instructions to create the U (of User Group), added the *ON and *OFF, went through the next steps and I *RUNned that resultant code at the end. It worked!

Unfortunately however, as soon as I gave the program more than 20 or so commands, it really did not seem to have a clue what it was doing. The instructions are, unusually for Electron User missing a few important points and, after three failed attempts I gave these utilities up as a waste of time for anything more impressive that putting a U on the screen. (It's there on the companion disc if you type *RUN MC by the way. ;-D) This is a shame, as machine code isn't my forte and you can see that these are potentially very useful if you've designed a screen with vector instead of raster graphics. If you have more stamina, you may be able to use them successfully or indeed, work out where I was going wrong.

To come back now then to the Verran AC Datalink review, this is perhaps one of the most fascinating products I've ever read about with the benefit of hindsight. Before wireless networks this century became all prevalent, home networks were extremely rare. Many offices in the 1980s relied on 'sneakernet' - moving data on a physical disc from one machine to another. The cost of interfacing many different machines from many different manufacturers, and all those cables lying around, was a deterrent. So what could the solution be? Verran AC Datalink thought it had the answer - why not route your data around your home or office using electricity?! Wow, what an idea - and there's no real reason it shouldn't work!! After all, after you've stripped a code away to its composite zeros and ones, those are transmitted along cables as electrical pulses, are they not? So why not pipe them around your house from one plug to another? Why not indeed?!

What's quickly clear on reading the review is that you would need to fill your house with these units, all running separately and individually, and at astronomical cost (£201.25 (ex. VAT) per unit), to gain any kind of benefit. Why, you'd need one running next to your Electron and another one running next to your printer simply to print out your work. And each would have to be configured to listen through the mains to the other(s) through DIP switches on its front. And forget queueing - if you had the (mis)fortune to connect another computer and sent a document to your printer whilst your wife was halfway through printing her memoires, you'd get a resultant cacophany of mashed up data packets! Increase your electricity bill by a quarter and cause your users as much frustration as possible for just £603.75 plus VAT. Brilliant stuff. EU as always however was determined to look on the bright side though - so "if office moves are expected, it would no doubt be a cost effective and convenient solution". Even more brilliant.

Also in its review section this issue are Blast (Audiogenic), the colourful Thrust update which is tricky to master but well presented, gaining a respectable 8/10 from EU's team of reviewers. I have to take issue with the 6/10s awarded for the other two meagre offerings however. Tomcat (Players) is a monochrome blast-'em-up that runs at the speed of a dead tortoise. Subway Vigilante is yet more monochrome turgid dross paralleled only by Shanghai Warriors which uses exactly the same game engine!

Make no mistake, this was a very disappointing month for new releases. And, if the Gallup Software Chart putting Paperboy (Encore) at number one position is to be believed (which it isn't!), a disappointing month for everyone who didn't type in Sunburst. Fortunately, Superior/Acornsoft had recently set a whole new benchmark in graphical adventures with its release of Ricochet, so EU redressed the balance with a whole page discussing the programming techniques Neil Davidson employed writing it. The regular "Time Warp" articles of the last few EU issues continued apace and a re-run of the cheat for Superior/Acornsoft's Elite finished off the contents.

So much for Electron User 7.04. Worth checking out the companion disc for Sunburst - and worth reading for EU's reviewers desperate waffling about the benefits of dubious hardware and software products and the odd snippet of obscure information which I personally don't know what we'd do without. Did you know, for example, that the manufacturer of both the Project Expansions and Complex Sound Systems' Sound Expansion cartridges was one David Ingleby-Oddy? Well, now you do!