Oric File Opens

Oric was named after the omniscient computer, Aurac, of BBC TV's Blake's Seven. Oric Products International was formed in April 1982 as an offshoot of Tangerine Computer Systems, makers of the Microtan 65 kit computer. Tangerine had come into being in the late 70s, the brainchild of Barry Muncaster and Paul Johnston, and gained popularity with the Microtan and then with its teletext adaptor TANTEL.

Financial backing from British Car Auctions helped launch the Oric-1 in a blaze of colour advertising in the atumun of 1982. A choice of 16K or 48K Oric-1 at £99.95 and £169.96 respectively was available and an Oric Communications Modem for £79.

The proposed modem and the Oric-1's 'teletext/viewdata compatible' graphics were a major attraction. In October 1982 a dial-a-game service called Aladdin's Cave was mooted. And the modem has still not appeared.

Like others, the company reneged on its 28-day delivery promise in many cases, claiming it was astonished by the demand. Customers who ordered the 16K model were the worst hit, some having to wait until March 1983. Oric ran into supply problems with the chips for the 16K machine and, in fact, sent out many 48K models instead to appease customers.

Retail Deals

However, these difficulties did not detract from the technical merits of the Oric-1. Reviewers quickly labelled it as the Spectrum's main rival. Its powerful sound capabilities and built-in Centronics interface were welcomed not only by the press but by high street shops such as WHSmith, Laskys and Greens. These deals convinced Oric it should drop its mail order operation and concentrate on the shops, which it announced at the end of 1982. Many waiting mail order customers were less than delighted in the New Year to see Oric-1s crowding the WHSmith shelves.

Documentation

Oric had brought out an innovate first machine but provided minimal help for the user.

The manual accompanying the first machines was a 32 page booklet riddled with errors, apparently written by someone unacquainted with the machine. Fortunately this was soon followed by a weightier volume (164 pages). This had the novelty of setting out in the style of 'Noddy Meets the Oric-1' while the rest covered everything the enthusiast wished to know is esoteric charts and tables, apparently rivalling masonic symbols in their complexity.

Sound

Nevertheless, the Oric-1 soon had some avid disciples. The large loudspeaker and sophisticated sound commands combined to give a powerful music machine. Four pre-programmed sounds enabled programmers to PING, SHOOT, EXPLODE or ZAP their way through countless alien hordes. For the more serious aficionado two finite and five continuous sound envelopes could be used, at varied volumes, with up to three tone or noise channels.

Graphics

The Oric-1's approach to graphics tended to polarise users into those who doted on it and those whose hair rapidly receded. Since Tangerine had built a reputation for teletext graphics, the Oric-1 had been made to be teletext-compatible. So, instead of following the normal approach to video memory organisation, a radically different method was used. In many other micros, including the Spectrum, a display file holds characters shown on the screen, while another separate area holds the attributes of the characters, namely their colours, whether they are flashing and so on. However, the Oric-1 (and the Atmos) uses a single display file holding both data and attributes. Thus an attribute character takes up a screen position, and it affects all other characters following it on the line: hence the term 'serial attributes'.

The net effect of these teletext-style graphics is that good displays can be tricky to set up. There is no alternative but to sit down with graph paper and plan out, not only where all the displayed characters must go, but also where all the attributes must go. Despite this, some excellent screens can be created, as some of the commercial games now available show. The Oric-1 certainly offered a good range of display attributes too - eight colours in foreground or background, double or single height, flashing or steady, and even obscure ones which changed the display synchronisation to the American standard.

Machine Code Aids

Another popular feature was the help given to machine code programming. Double length DEEK and DOKE keywords extended the normal PEEK and POKE, and a function HEX$ converted decimal numbers to hexadecimal. To go the other way, a number could be used anywhere in a program in its hexadecimal form prefixed by the hash sign, and the Oric-1 would convert it to decimal as required. One innovation was the provision of user-defined functions and instructions. Here, you could enter code into a memory area and it would then be used to specify a new Basic function (as &) or instruction (as !).

Software and Literature

By April 1983 Oric had met orders and the mail order side of the business ceased. Tansoft, Tangerine's software arm, were quick to realise the machine's potential and they released the first Oric-1 software. Other software houses quickly followed, and books for the Oric owner soon appeared. Tansoft also published the first glossy magazine for the machine, Oric Owner and included a copy with every Oric-1 sold.

Colour Printer

The first Oric peripheral was the MCP40 Colour Printer which appeared in June, at £169.95. This novel device comprises a barrel containing four pens (black, blue, red and green) which moves over a continuous roll of plain paper to give hard copy of text and graphics. It uses the normal Centronics connection, and is therefore suitable for use with micros outside the Oric range.

Price War

The long hot summer of 1983 brought a long hot price war. In reply to Sinclair price cuts, Oric Products included a voucher with every Oric-1 which chopped £40 off the price of the MCP40 Printer. Free software from the Tansoft range was also included.

The Oric-1 Bug Saga

Over the summer too, Oric corrspondence in the press centred on users' difficulties with some Basic instructions and functionalities. It became apparent that the Oric-1 was stricken with more gremlins than the average micro. Oric issued a dealers' newsletter with notes on how to answer customer questions, labelling some apparent bugs as 'the way our Basic is written'. However the ROM did contain some glaring glitches, as we now explain.

The TAB function, used to tabulate the print porition to a specified point does not work correctly on the Oric-1 before column 13. The SPC function could, however, be used as an alternative. Another function, STR$, when converting a number to a string expression, places a spurious control character at the beginning. This is overcome by stripping off the first character. An instruction used in high-resolution mode, namely FILL, also acts incorrectly by failing to update the HIRES cursor position.

The Oric-1's printing facilities are marred by occasional squiggles in listings. These occur through keyboard interrupts interfering with data sent out of the printer port. Again, this is not insurmountable - the interrupts may be swtiched off by a machine code call to address E6CA hex.

Finally, among the major bugs, the ELSE clause of the IF statement can give unreliable results. The Oric-1 has a few other minor peculiarities, including a couple of redundant keywords in ROM (i.e. INVERSE and NORMAL) and conversion of hexadecimal data to decimal when used in POKE statements.

Communication Problems

Oric released information on overcoming bugs through Tansoft's Oric Owner magazine, and more facts on the ROM were also promised, but little became available. It is disappointing that a technically good machine was largely underused because details of its features were not known. However, lessons seemed to have been learned with the new Atmos, as we shall see. For example, the Oric-1 used a system variable to decide on the time delay after which to repeat a key, but hardly anybody knew about it. Now the Atmos is using the same variable, but is marketed with 'new user controlled auto repeats'.

French Acclaim

The Oric-1 scored a first in September 1983 when it received the 'Best Micro of the Year' award in France. The French particularly welcomes the machine's monitor output. The SECAM TV standard used in France differs from the UK PAL system, but many continental television sets are fitted with RGB sockets. The ZX Spectrum, along with most low cost micros, does not have an RGB output, so oric was in a winning position.

The Atmos Launched

In November 1983, Edenspring Investments took over Oric Products International, and pumped in £4m for research and product development. Two months later the Atmos was launched at Birmingham's Which Computer? show and Oric showed it had grown in wisdom and stature since the Oric-1. The 294-page manual is comprehensive, the ROM bugs have been removed, the keyboard is professional in standard, and lots of tidying up has been done. On the supply side too, Oric seems to have got it right. Within a fortnight of the launch, I found an Atmos on the shelf of my local retailer in Middlesbrough.