IS SAGA'S 'ULTIMATE' ADD-ON WORTH IT?
The Saga Systems' Compliment purports to be a complete system. The 'ultimate' add-on that will turn your mere mortal of a Spectrum into a personal computer worthy of the title 'PC', equipped with a disc drive, quality keyboard, printer and integrated software suite.
It costs £299.99 plus VAT, which for those of us without an accountant works out at £344.95. and you certainly get a lot for your money. Some of the components of the system - like its badge engineered Opus drive - are already highly respected pieces of hardware.
Saga's strategy is that the total price of the package will be good value for money, saving around 15 per cent on the combined cost of the parts if bought separately - and any interfacing problems encountered with a piecemeal system will be avoided completely.
So the real question is: How well has Saga chosen the components of the system?
The keyboard is the Saga 2+, a considerable improvement over any of the standard keyboards. Some six inches wider than a Spectrum, you simply remove the top half of your computer and bolt it to the underside of the Saga. Many additional keys are provided - a numeric keypad, Extended Mode, Caps Lock. One problem occurs if you are unfamiliar with the standard Spectrum keyboard and wish to program in Basic as none of the keyword legends are marked.
There is an overlay but that's not as good as actually having the markings on the keys.
I'm rather wary about making subjective judgements about the tactile qualities of keyboards, but if your tastes are similar to mine then you will like the Saga 2+. The space bar is particularly good in operation, but I would rather the Caps Shift keys were larger.
My final quibble is that unlike the majority of machines the Delete key is on the left. The keyboard normally retails at £59.95.
Disc drive and interfaces are provided in the shape of re-badged Opus Discovery One. This a fairly chunky unit housed in a black metal case. In addition to the 3.5 inch disc drive and controller, it also contains a power supply that feeds the Spectrum as well as itself, a parallel printer interface and joystick port. The Spectrum plugs into the front of the Opus via the expansion bus which is brought through to the side of the box, thereby allowing the use of other peripherals. The only signal not to be carried through is the 'non-maskable' interrupt. Other connectors are a standard Atari-style joystick D-plug and protruding edge connector for the printer cable.
Connecting the Saga keyboard to the Opus Discovery is not as satisfactory as connecting a normal Spectrum because the Saga overhangs the supporting plate considerably. Saga will be providing bolts and hopefully some large rubber feet to cure this problem, but even the review system showed no signs of coming apart - it was just rather wobbly.
For those not familiar with the Discovery One, a brief description is in order. To all intents it behaves very much as an Interface One and Microdrive, but with vastly improved Load and Save speeds and, in my experience, flawless reliability. I am a fan of the 3.5 disc medium, although the Opus version is only capable of storing 178K on a formatted disc. The disc-operating commands are reasonably easy to use, but are restricted somewhat by having to maintain compatibility with Microdrives; the advantage of this, though, is that you will have no trouble converting software to run on disc.
The remaining piece of hardware is a dot-matrix printer, dubbed by Saga as the Compliment LQ, but its original name of Polo lurks underneath a rather temporary looking label. The printer is actually a simplified version of a Triton RQ80, but not many people in the UK will have seen one of those either (so I don't know why I mentioned it!) The Polo is fairly compact with draft, normal and NLQ printing available at a claimed 150, 120 and 25 characters per second, respectively. The LQ is no slouch. It also boosts a good range of print and graphic modes as well as international character sets. Control codes are in abundance and on the whole seem to be Epson compatible. I was particularly impressed with the look of the Near-Letter Quality mode, which is available in both Pica and Elite sizes (30mm wide, 290mm deep and 90mm high.) The usual front panel switches, Select (On Line), Form Feed and Line Feed are provided. To operate the DIP switches that dictate the default print settings necessitates, unfortunately, dismantling the case - although they can be controlled by software. Paper feed can be either tractor-fed fanfold or friction-fed single sheet. Once threaded up the tractor feed works well, but using single sheets is a bit of a pain.
Further evidence of the basic nature of the LQ emerges when you try to fit a ribbon, because the front cover can only be removed by prising the case apart. The ribbon cartridge is easy enough to fit but does not look as if it holds much fabric so running costs may be high, particularly if Saga turns out to be the only importer - they have not set a price for a ribbon but quote £7 to £9.
The complete hardware of the Compliment package fits together well and offers excellent value. Apart from the lack of punctuation symbols on the keyboard and my slight doubts about the printer's suitability for a heavy workload, the package has the potential to be very useful. If you went an aesthetic criticism, the cream keyboard, black disc box and grey printer are not worthy of the name Compliment from a colour co-ordination point of view, so if you are an interior designer or of a very sensitive disposition, beware!
The real icing on the cake of the Compliment system, though, should be the software packages included.
There are three main items included: The Last Word is perhaps the most important as the foremost use of the Compliment is likely to be word processing, but you are also supplied with Campbell's Masterfile database and Omnisphere's Omnicalc spreadsheet. All the software resides on a single disc and is linked by a menu program that is automatically loaded by pressing the Run and Enter keys.
The Last Word was awarded an SU Classic, and in relation to the Spectrum competition this was quite justified. For myself. I would summarise the program as very powerful, very fast, with some curious omissions and some uniquely excellent features. Above all, its power makes it difficult to get to grips with, but worth the time spent mastering it. The paging of printed documents is a complex procedure, however, and the Help page is so cryptic that is probably quicker to consult the manual. I must admit to using various versions of Tasword for so long now that I am unlikely to change to any WP that doesn't turn a Spectrum into a Mac Plus running Microsoft Word.
Masterfile has been around as long as the aforementioned Tasword and offers a very flexible approach to creating a database. You can design the style of screen display and reports, and the whole program is menu-driven to the extent that you hardly need the manual to get started. Omnicalc is another highly respected utility program. Not such a cinch to get to know, but powerful. Not so many years ago you would have needed to buy an Apple iI to benefit from such programs.
The remaining programs available include a screen dump that is used by both Masterfile and Omnicalc for output to the printer and a number of routines for extending and modifying The Last Word.
Really to make the grade as a package, the integration of these programs, along with various commands for disc handling and so on, into one menu-driven program is essential. The Compliment is nearly there, and by the time it is launched I hope that Saga have solved some of the problems that mar the menu program. As it stands, however, I found myself having to pull the plug on a number of occasions, and a computer-naive user is likely to often find themselves lost in the wonderful world of Sinclair Basic.
Of the crashes that occurred, the most fatal was when returning to the menu from the spreadsheet, but two other points irritated me. The first should be sorted out before the launch - The Last Word was not properly configured for the Compliment printer. For example, it does not print a £ sign and selecting the draft mode results in no output at all. The second problem is less likely to be solved quickly and revolves around the use of the Opus Discovery. If you do something daft such as trying to save a file to a non-existent Drive 2 or sending data to an unattached printer, Basic does not have sufficient error trapping to allow a dignified exit.
Even with a cleaner version of the menu program, it would be stretching a point to claim that the Compliment was as suitable for beginners as a real windows/icons/mouse/printer (WIMP) environment, but it should be adequate for anyone with a little understanding and enough confidence to cope with a non-fatal crash.
I dislike writing reviews that come to no firm conclusions. It would be so satisfying to write something along the lines of 'Buy one, or if you can't, steal one' or an equally positive sentence such as 'if it was a house it would be condemned'. With a package like the Saga Compliment, consisting of a number of components of varied quality, the reservations are bound to make any review sound a bit indecisive.
It's a bit of a mixed bag. Good in parts and certainly not bad value for money.