Imagine an electronics show which is five times larger than the PCW show in London, a show so big the organiser provide buses to move visitors from section to section. That's the Consumer Electronics Show held in Chicago each year.
Although it is just for the trade, that is for dealers who will sell to the public, this year's show attracted over 80,000 visitors. The hit of the show, in the computer section, was Coleco's Adam. This product combines a keyboard, processor unit, two keypad/joysticks on separate cables, daisy wheel printer plus double stringy-floppies (similar, we believe, to Sinclair's Microdrives) and all for around £400 ($640). Coleco's stock rose 15½ points on the New York stock exchange in a day as a result of the launch.
However, I was more interested in what Timex were doing. After some 18 months with the Timex version of the ZX81 (a 2K ZX81 called the Timex Sinclair 1000, or T/S 1000), Timex have managed to sell 600,000 of the machines in America. There are 750,000 VIC-20s in the States, with the T/S 1000 and Apple II taking equal second position. With a user base like that, Timex seem in a strong position to continue to hold their ground, Coleco notwithstanding.
The Timex stand was enormous, about the area of four-room flat, and it was dominated by giant pictures of the T/S 2000 and the T/S 1500. The T/S 1500 is essentially a ZX81, with 16K built-in, plus a Spectrum-like keyboard. The whole unit is silver, and looks very good indeed. Timex will be introducing it at around £45 ($72). That is a great price, compared to the ZX81, when you remember it has a Spectrum-like keyboard, and 16K onboard.
Daniel Ross, Vice President (they have such titles in business over there) of the Timex Computer Corporation, says he believes the T/S 1500 will produce as much excitement as the T/S 1000. He also stated that "the T/S 1000, T/S 1500 and T/S 2000 series colour computers, with the growing line of Timex peripherals and software, constitute the best price/value family of computing products available today." While some may argue with that, there seems little doubt that the Timex versions of Sinclair computers are pretty impressive.
The T/S 1500 is compatible with all of the peripherals and software available for the T/S 1000 (2K ZX81), including the 16K pack (a few POKEs and you've got a 32K computer) and the TS2040, a thermal printer developed by Timex to take the place of the silver paper machine we have in the UK.
Although the 100 or so software packs which Timex have made available in the US for the T/S 1000 and T/S 1500 are of interest (with most of the good items of software being written in Britain), the instant-load plug-in cartridges Timex are offering for the machines are really exciting. A small, wedge-shaped cartridge fits into a slot in a gadget which Timex sell to plug into the expansion area at the back of the machine where the RAM pack usually goes. Like plug-in cartridges on other machines, this means the program is available instantly, with no loading. The "mini-cartridges", as Timex call them, cost between £5.00 ($8) and £17.00 ($27), depending on the program.
Although the T/S 1500 seems a vast improvement on the 1K ZX81, the T/S 2000 series of computers - the American versions of the Spectrum - are a whole world apart. The story gets quite complicated here, so I'll try to explain it clearly. America will have two versions of the Spectrum. The 16K version will sell for around £100 ($160) and is much like our 16K Spectrum, with the following extras: five new commands (ON ERROR GOTO, RESET, FREE to tell how much memory is left, STICK to work the joystick, and SOUND to trigger a three-channel synthesiser), a hole in the side to take a joystick, an on/off switch, a slot (with flip-up cover) to take the plug-in cartridges, and a new paint job in shiny silver.
The 48K version of this (called the T/S 2048) has all the above plus the ability to go into a second graphics mode which gives 64 characters across each line. This version sells for around £135 ($216).
It seems as though there will be little chance of these machines being available on the UK market. A Timex spokesman who I won't name (so that Uncle Sir Clive wont belt him one next time they meet in the States) said that Sinclair in the UK have shown no interest whatsoever in bringing any developments of Sinclair products back into the UK. We offered him our printer, that spokesman said, and he just wasn't interested. I guess that's because he didn't build it himself. I predict the same thing may well happen with the plug-in cartridges and the extra commands.
However, Timex themselves may not be as hot as they think. I managed to cause a couple of Timex executives a moment of embarrassment by asking them to come with me to the T/S 2000s on display, and told them to watch as I typed in the new commands. To their discomfort, the machines on display (or at least the ones I tested) were only dressed-up Spectrums fitted with modulators to drive American TV sets. None of the exciting new commands actually worked. Instead, the keys produced such things as the Spectrums pretty (but useless) curly brackets.
Finally, a rather sad note. About 100 yards beyond the Timex razzle-dazzle of chrome and giant pictures of the new computers, was a small little booth marked Sinclair. In it, three somewhat bewildered people sat. On display was a ZX81 (not a T/S 1000), a UK Spectrum (modified to drive a US television), a copy of "The Hobbit" and "Scrabble". We are here to demonstrate that Sinclair Research is a separate company I was told. We need to show that Sinclair have not been taken over by Timex. And were maintaining a public stance so well be ready for the next product.
And what will that be? I enquired politely.
The flat screen TV . . . we hope, I was told.
Upstairs at the show, Casio were hammering nails into the coffin of that hope, with a crowd gathered around its 2¼ inch square TV which uses LCDs for a very clear screen.
The highlights of the show for me were Casio's little TV, the Coleco Adam and the T/S 2000 series of computers. It is strange that the three of them may well have more impact on Sinclair's fortunes in the coming year in the US than any other products.