Low cost and wide distribution may make this system the cornerstone of the long-awaited computer
By WILLIAM J. HAWKINS
PHOTOS BY GREG SHARKO
Timex Sinclair 1000 comes with 2K of RAM and BASIC for $100. Additional gear,
such as that 16K RAM pack ($50) and printer ($100), can be added now; an auto-dial modem ($100) will be
available soon. Cassette software will cost from $10 to $20.
The checkbook balances instantly. The Christmas cards are done in a snap. Your taxes are figured to be
just this side of legal. And every number ever given to you - from phone numbers to your Visa account
- is available at a touch.
Personal computers. People say the silicon surrogates will change the world. And one look at most of
the price tags will tell you they're right - you'd have to change your life style to afford one. But
now our wallets are in for a pleasant surprise.
It's called the Timex Sinclair 1000, and it's the first ready-to-go personal computer for under $100
($99.95). Connected to your TV set, it's a complete system: Compute numbers, display text, draw
pictures, even write your own programs using its built-in BASIC language. Optional gear? Sure,
additional memory and a printer are available - and each is comparably priced to make the 1000 the
lowest-cost system yet.
But there's more to this computer than just money. "We're aiming the 1000 at the general consumer
market," says Daniel Ross, vice-president of Timex. Watch out (no pun intended). With some 100,000
retail stores now distributing Timex products, it means you'll soon see them in department stores,
jewelry shops, and even local drug stores. And wide distribution coupled with low cost could make this
computer the cornerstone of the long-predicted "computer revolution."
But what do you get for your $100? What are the system's limitations? And what does it all mean to the
competition? Take a look:
The computer? "Sure, I have it." George Grimm of Timex slipped his hand into the Manila envelope.
"The printer's in here, too." He pulled out a piece at a time and handed them to me. "Here. This is
the 16K [kilobyte] RAM pack."
Needless to say, the Timex Sinclair system is small - and familiar. It's actually an updated version of
the Sinclair ZX81 [PS, Sept. '81], sold through mail order for the past year. (Timex has been building
60,000 units a month for Sinclair in its New York manufacturing plant.)
The entire computer is almost hand-sized - it measures just 1.5 by six by 6.5 inches and weighs a mere
12 ounces. Inside, all the electronics are neatly packed into four integrated-circuit chips and run by
a Z80A microprocessor (a common one for many personal computers). An 8K ROM (read-only memory) holds
the BASIC interpreter program and a 2K RAM (random-access memory) temporarily holds your program. (The
ZX81 has only 1K of RAM.) You enter your program and data using the 40-key, pressure-sensitive keyboard.
It's laid out like a typewriter but, naturally, much smaller.
To see the results of your work, you'll have to supply a standard black-and-white or color TV. (The
1000 produces black-and-white images only.) You merely connect a cable from the antenna terminals to
the RF output jack on the computer; to save past programs and information, you must also connect a
standard cassette tape recorder to the unit through two side-mounted jacks.
Oddly, there is no on-off switch on the 1000. You turn it off by plugging in the low-voltage cord from
the AC outlet plug-transformer.
"It's simple," Grimm told me as he began setting up the prototype unit. "Everything's piggybacked."
The 1000 is made so anyone can easily add future gear to expand its capabilities via a rear connector.
It accepts the optional 32-character-per-line thermal printer ($100) for making permanent paper copies
of your work. In turn, the printer's connector accepts another add-on - such as the 16K RAM pack ($50)
for additional memory. The memory pack will allow you to write longer programs or temporarily store
larger quantities of data. And later this year, a plug-in auto-dial modem ($100) will be available.
With this, you'll be able to use the 1000 to contact remote computers, such as The Source and
CompuServe, using the phone line. (Other companies offer products for the Timex Sinclair system, too.
Memotech Corp. of Denver, Colo., for example, makes a 64K memory pack for $180.)
"Here we go," said Grimm as he pushed the power jack into place. A cursor, which shows the typing
position, appeared on the screen. "It works in standard BASIC," he added as his fingers danced over the
small keyboard, "although you can trick it into using machine code." (Machine codes are the actual
numbers used by the microprocessor. Experienced programmers can use them to create programs that
consume less memory and run much faster than ones created by using BASIC. You and I may never use
them - but the computer has the capability.)
Some of the 37 graphics characters appeared and disappeared on the screen as he ran a quick test
program. Minutes later, a home-finance program (the one shown in the printout photo, next page) was
entered from tape, proving the computer can get down to business.
But for me, the best part was yet to come: Now it was my turn to try it.
Add-on gear easily attaches to computer. Thermal printer plugs into rear connector,
and memory module piggybacks printer connector. Side-mounted jacks accept cassette recorder, for saving
data, and power plug from wall transformer.
The 1000 is an excellent teacher. It uses the standard BASIC programming terms plus additional commands
I've only seen on larger, enhanced versions of BASIC (pi, USR, RAND, IN KEY$, for example).
And it's a "smart" BASIC. It knows, for example, that the first word in the command line should be a
BASIC term - it won't let you enter anything else. Make a typing mistake farther down the line (syntax
error, in computer terms), and BASIC helps you out again - it shows you the error, and the line will
not enter the program until you fix it. Get it right, and the line is added and the computer does an
automatic list of the program.
Each key on the keyboard has up to five different functions. Normally, it produces a simple letter or
number. But when used with the separate SHIFT or FUNCTION key, a graphics character will appear, for
example, or an entire command word will be automatically spelled out. Press FUNCTION and D, for
instance, and the command ARCTAN (to determine the arc tangent of a number) immediately appears on the
programming line. That saves time and memory space since only one special code represents, in this
case, six letters.
All this is great for the beginner. But the experienced programmer may have some serious criticisms of
the 1000. First, it's relatively slow. That's because the microprocessor spends most of its time
creating the video image. (It's designed to process data in the short "blanking" period of time between
each picture frame.) You can speed it up with the command FAST, which tells the microprocessor to
forget the display and just compute, but then the screen gives you an annoying flicker until the work
Entering programs or data is also a slow process. The automatic listing after each line entry is
nice... if you want to see your program again. But it's painfully annoying to wait for the new display
if you'd prefer to just keep typing.
The small keyboard can bring even the fastest typist to a crawl. Since you cannot feel the key move
(tactile response), you must constantly verify an input by looking up at the screen. And because each
key can perform multiple functions, you can spend lots of time figuring out the right combinations
needed to enter just one character. (Although, to be fair, once you're accustomed to the keyboard that
becomes less of a problem.)
Are they major problems? I don't think so - not when you consider who will be using the computer.
Thermal printer produces lines only 32 characters wide, but it can create any
number, letter, or graphic character from the computer. Above printout is from a home-finance program.
"The 1000 is for people who want to learn computers but don't want to spend a lot of money," says
Ross. "For $150 you get a 16K system - that's a lot of computer for a first- time user."
But the Timex Sinclair will do more than just teach, once more prepackaged software is available. Plans
include home financial management, educational teaching aids, games, and business-oriented financial
worksheet programs (Visi-calc type). And, coupled with the modem device for communicating with The
Source and CompuServe systems over the phone, "you get the resources of a $1 million computer system
for just $200," added Ross.
Timex's closest competition is from Commodore. It's scheduled to release its $180 color-graphics and
music-synthesizing Max computer by the time you read this. Says Mike Tomczyk, international product
manager for the company, "I don't see the Timex computer as much of a threat. If you want the cheapest
thing, you have it. But there are so many things to consider. If it gets people into computing, it will
help Commodore because they'll want to move up. I see that as a benefit."
Actually, it will likely be a benefit to everyone - you, me, and the computer industry. It means the
rush to make better home computers - for less money - is on. We saw that happen with the first $100
digital watch, and the calculator shortly after that. Today, of course, both are common.
There is a major difference, however. "This type of product can have the same impact as the car did 100
years ago," says Ross. He's right. The power of the computer is enormous. It could - and probably will -
change the way you and I work, shop, and spend our leisure time.
How long from now? It's anybody's guess, but for the Timex Sinclair 1000, the clock has started. And no
one - not even John Cameron Swayze - can stop it.