The computer that really wanted to be a BBC but failed. There is a point
where you can take compromise too far. Perhaps this was the case with the
Electron. It seems to me it had most of the right ingredients but not all
of them, which resulted in something rather dull. I don't want to knock the
Electron too much as I like it and in some ways it's superior to the BBC.
It is fair to say that customer reaction was poor with sales figures far
less than Acorn anticipated. It was launched at £199 but that price didn't
stay for too long. Soon it was down to £130 and then the retailers started
bundling cassette recorders etc with them just to get shot of them. Also
retailers soon after that started setting their own price based on a
desire to clear out stocks and make way for products which were profitable
and which could be moved in volume. The Electron was actually advertised
as BBC compatible but with no mode 7 there were a lot of compatibility
problems. In fact even after the Electron's launch, many programs were
released as separate BBC and Electron programs. If they were that similar
you would expect one version which ran on both machines. The Electron was
a computer designed along the lines of a Sinclair computer. The BBC was a
computer designed along the lines of an Apple computer.
The Apple philosophy (of the early eighties).
Don't worry about what it will cost, as many components as you need to
make it flexible, user friendly and desirable. It's more important to make
a computer that people want to use than to make it cheaply.
The Sinclair philosophy
The key is to provide all the important features at the lowest possible
price. The computer will be small to reduce transport and material costs.
It will have a low chip count thanks to integrating simpler I.C.s into
one larger I.C and using the main processor for as much as possible even
if this slows the computer down dramatically. The keyboard will be as
cheap as possible to make. There will be little in the way of ports. Minor
features which aid useability will be left out.
Most manufacturers of the time like Atari, Commodore, Dragon, Oric,
Memotech and Tandy etc would fit in between these two examples.
The BBC fits the Apple philosophy because it has a very high chip count,
its large, its designed to be expandable both internally and externally.
The built in software is of a very high standard. Because of its no
compromise design it runs at a very high speed for an 8bit computer.
The Electron fits the Sinclair philosophy. It has a very low chip count
with a lot of integration. For this reason its a slower machine at about
2/3rds the speed of a BBC even though it has the same main processor
running at the same speed. The 3 channel sound chip of the BBC has been
removed, in its place a single channel of sound which is just one of the
features of the main ASIC in the Electron. Theres no Mode 7 as thats a
processor in itself and would be too expensive to include. Expansions are
cut down to a minimum, just; RGB, tape(with motor control), aerial,
composite(mono), power and expansion(the edge of the PCB sticking out the
back). The keyboard has been compromised slightly as it doesn't have the
function keys of the BBC although you can use the main number keys as
function keys if you press the 'FUNC' key at the same time. The actual
feel of the keys is better than the BBC I think. One point about the
Electron which shows the Spectrum had some bearing on its design is that
Clive Sinclair made a point that because the Basic keywords were printed
on the keyboard it made it far easier to learn and remember. The Electron
also has Basic keywords on the keyboard which can be immediately accessed
using the 'FUNC' key. It's more limited than the Spectrum but you do have
the option of typing them in full as well.
One novel point about the design of the Electron is the PSU. Its external
and converts high A/C down to about 11/12 volts A/C. The actual conversion
of A/C to D/C is done inside the computer. I've never encountered another
computer designed that way. Normally its either done all externally or
internally, not split into two. It may have been done this way to aid
exports where they simply change the transformer, or alternatively its to
stop any polarity problems if people use the wrong PSU by mistake. Out of
interest if your Electron has a duff PSU and you can't find a normal A/C
PSU you can always use a DC one as long as it's the same voltage, current
and is stable. It will just mean the A/C to D/C circuit inside the
Electron has nothing to do.
Expanding the Electron.
The trouble with expanding the Electron is you can soon spend more money
buying the add ons than it would actually cost to change over to a BBC.
Plus you end up with a computer still not as capable. Probably the most
important add on is the Plus One. It provided the all important printer
port, analogue joysticks port and twin cartridge ports. The cartridge
ports lead on to; disk interfaces, sideways ROM cartridges, digital
joystick interfaces, sideways ram, Music 5000, 2nd processors etc.
The next most important add on I think is the Master RAM board. This was
both an accelerator and memory expansion. The accelerator side which I
unfortunately don't know the spec of, increased the Electron's speed two
to three times making it comparable to the BBC. In fact in some ways its
faster. Plus there was 32k of extra memory so in came the shadow modes
like the Master and plus ranges with the 12k left over. In all it
transformed the machine. It was fitted internally and required that the
Electron's 6502 be removed. Hence it was best done by a dealer. A three
way toggle switch was fitted to the left side of the Electron which gave
you normal, turbo and 64k modes.
Acorn's other main expansion was the Plus 3. The only disk interface not
requiring the Plus 1. A very nice unit with a fast 3.5 drive and
ADFS. Unfortunately ADFS took over 3k of the Electron's precious main
memory. This led to problems converting tape games to disk especially
multiload games. The drive and interface were combined in one large 'L'
shaped unit which matched the Electron in colour and design. The disk
interfaces that fit into the Plus One were huge monoliths in comparison.
The Plus 3 also had an external drive connector which was nonstandard
compared to the normal BBC connectors. The drive fitted to a Plus 3 is
normally a single sided 3.5 80t drive. The manual mentions a double sided
version although I've never seen one apart from people who replaced the
single sided drive with a double sided model they bought separately.
There was even a Mode 7 expansion board. It worked very well but was very
expensive at about £90.
In conclusion I think Acorn got greedy. It's specification needed to be
better to justify the £199 price. The Electron was very cheap to
manufacture but had quite high development costs. Those development costs
would have been better spent reducing the chip count in the BBC without
compromising compatibility. This would have meant the BBC could have been
sold at a far more aggressive price. It might have doubled it's sales if
it could have been sold for £300 or less, especially with DFS fitted, or
£399 with a 40 track single sided drive. The Electron, either expanded or
in it's standard form, is still a fully usable little computer, but there
is a lot of distance between it and the BBC range.