AN ABSOLUTE GEM?
It's not every day that a Spectrum add-on turns up unfinished, undocumented, and in German but still gets written about. But this is just one of those days...
So this isn't a review, but more a preview of what promises to be at least a useful bit of Spectrum whizzery. And has the possibility of turning into a whole lot more than that - maybe something pretty interesting for the new 128K+3.
The product is Vision, from Individual Software. Individual is a German software house, and Vision is a desktop. This particular desktop takes the form of a ROM chip that plugs into a Beta disc interface. At the moment it only works with the Beta interface, but could fairly simply be changed by individual to be able to work with the 128K+3.
Once it's fitted - on the Beta - instead of typing in commands to use the disc drive, you move an arrow around the screen and on to the thing you want to do or use.
Like most things computer, the world of desktops has a language all its own. Pictures aren't pictures, they're icons. Arrows are likewise pointers, areas of screen become windows and choosing becomes selecting. Selection happens when you click on something - clicking being the process of pressing the button appointed for the purpose.
Vision has icons of four disc drives (labelled A to D), a dustbin, and information logo and a printer. Along the top of the screen are a set of menu titles.
The first is called Vision, and this just gives the version number and a copyright notice. Then there's Drive, which selects 40 or 80 track drives, and also has a Test option for days when nothing seems to be going right. The Disc menu has options to Move, Format and Rename a disc. Finally, the Output menu sets the way bits of information appear. Program size can be shown in decimal or hex, for example.
Very pretty. But is it any good? Say you want to load a program, but you can't remember whether is was called BLUES 13 or BLOOS13. On a standard disc interface, the usual sequence of events is to type CAT to find the file name, and then LOAD "BLOOS13" to get the thing. With a desktop like Vision, you move the pointer on to the picture of the disc drive you want, and press SPACE twice. A window opens up, and a list of the programs, data and junk on the disc appears. Move the pointer over the program you want to load, and press SPACE again.
You have to click twice to load a program because there's a chance that you just want to rename it or Copy it somewhere rather than Run it immediately. This sort of thing is covered by clicking once on the program name, whereupon the name reverses into white-on-black, and then moving the pointer to a menu to select the action you want. It's also possible like this to choose more than one program at once. This is also where the dustbin comes in - select a few obsolete files and then click on the bin... vaboom. They've gone.
Lots of games have used this sort of technique for controlling action, more often as a gimmick than because it's genuinely easier. With Vision, it really is easier than remembering and typing a gaggle of commands and program names in Basic.
It might be easier - but it's certainly more fun. The whole process is aided immeasurably by the high quality of the graphics, which (on my creaking old portable TV) look as nice as an Atari ST in low-resolution mode. There's been a lot of effort expended in the design of the small character set, and restrained use of Colour and Bright make for a very professional appearance.
I can foresee problems with the ROM as it is. Leaving aside the fact that it seemed unfinished (I never did find out what Move did from the Disc menu, and the information logo just flashed at me), the Desktop code is designed to use the spare space in the existing Beta ROM. So if Individual want to sell a ROM, it's got to have all the Beta code in, which raises interesting copyright problems. At least in this country.
Then there's the fact that the Beta interface, while not uncommon isn't the world's favourite Spectrum disc system. And there are lots of versions of the software, most of which use hardware which is subtly different from other releases. This raises the problem of compatibility - does one ROM suit all Beta interfaces?
Now the good news - the 128K +3. With all that memory, and with details of the disc operating system widely available, it should be entirely possible for all the good bits (graphics, menuing, commands) to be transferred from the Beta system at speed.
The 128K +3 needs just such a system to bring it into the late 80's, and individual could produce a disc fast enough for their desktop to become the standard. And having a standard for a system brings good things for everyone. They've done most of the work - I hope they finish the job!
Details Hartmut Schwinty, c/o 21A Telferscott Road, London SW12 0HW.