Why 8 bit?

This is a partial translation of Waarom dit alles? Van ZX80 tot BBC..., with other material added.

The first computer I used was my dad's Sinclair ZX80, which was quite disappointing to me. It was far less powerful or useful than a programmable calculator...

The second computer was one I bought myself late 1983 with financial support from my parents: The BBC model B. In some sense this was also disappointing: More powerful machines were already appearing shortly after I bought it, notably the Sinclair QL, and these were better suited to what I was doing (simulations which needed fast floating point calculations). The QL did have problems, but these would not be too problematical for me, and the feeling got stronger as I couldn't afford expansions like disk drives or EPROM programmers. I hoped that a transputer based machine would appear ca. 1986-1987, but nothing happened... (perhaps a DAI would have been better for me as it had an optional math coprocessor, the AMD9511; I considered writing software and making some hardware to use a similar coprocessor on the BBC B, but the speed increase over the 6502 was not great, at least with the math processor I had data sheets on (probably not the AMD 9511), so I didn't pursue this idea).

Why would one use 8 bit machines today? A couple of reasons:
1. games: These are still as good as they were then (the ones that were good! A lot were bad, just as with games for recent computers). You can play these on emulators, but it just doesn't give the right feel in many cases. This probably depends on what 8 bit machine you were used to (especially w.r.t. the keyboard, its quality and also whether it was used much for games at all; games for machines like the C64 and Atari usually require joysticks...; see also below)
2. Interfacing with do-it-yourself hardware.
3. Nostalgia and/or trying to play with/get hold of stuff you couldn't afford in the old days!
4. Interest in history of computers and technological development

Why do I use 8 bit BBCs?

For me all of the above reasons hold:

I like the games from that era, and fast action games are problematical on PCs due to the keyboard. Cheapo keyboards are awful, IBM clicky keyboards are excellent for text (I can't stand any other type), but for the 8 bit games they do not work well. This means emulators are not really useful for actually playing games and having a real BBC is more or less necessary for the real experience. Also, PC keyboards have more problems registering keys while keeping others pressed. With a BBC you can generate a certain key press by pressing 3 others (EOR the 3 values and check which key it gives, then do a keyboard check for the 4th key while pressing the 3 keys), but that rarely interferes with games. With PCs it's worse, planetoid is impossible to play properly... Joysticks I don't use much for BBC games as in almost all cases the keyboard gives much better control.

I also try to get hold of various original software, and the reasons for this are:
- There are very few of the instructions/manuals on the net for games and even less for serious software.
- It's fun to be able to get hold of the originals which I could not afford in the old days (1984-1985). I remember browsing a lot through the Acornsoft Autumn 1983 catalogue (I consider this catalogue an esthetic little masterpiece btw.), and not being able to buy much as the BBC micro itself cost me all my savings! I didn't know software was being copied in clubs, and anyway, having an original is and was part of the fun for me. Btw, I don't like clubs in general. For example, I went to the initial club meeting for a BBC computer club in Zoetermeer in 1984 and couldn't stand it. I remember someone bragging about using tape at 9600 bps, which I didn't believe (IIRC that guy didn't have it finished so he was talking about something he was sure of would work. Hmm....), and all in all I got a 'vapourware'/'Lots of talk and no programs' feeling. And what about hardware! Where was the spirit that abounded in the Atom clubs, which produced lots of good quality PCBs for various expansions? The 'Big ben club' magazine lists almost no hardware projects and in other respects it's also pretty meagre compared to the Dutch Atom magazine.

I finally got hold of an original 'Planetoid' (my favourite BBC game, along with Elite) in 2001, and later even a disc version... Just before getting Planetoid on tape, I feared I would never see an original (*), but with a lot of perseverance, all the stuff advertised in magazines can still be obtained from people who sell/give away their stuff when they decide "this is enough, this BBC stuff has to go after 20 years!". BCPL was another 'cool but not affordable' item (also because it needed a disc system), that I finally got my hands on in June 2003...

(*) I thought most people would have thrown it all away... It turns out this rarely happens except for magazines when moving (as they're heavy).

This also goes for some hardware: I always wanted an EPROM programmer, and a Bitstik for graphics experimenting but both were too expensive (way too expensive in case of the Bitstik). The price is not a problem now, but it is quite difficult to actually get hold of such stuff.

Another reason to get hold of various hardware, is for my interest in the technological development.

And hardware interfacing with DIY electronics is yet another reason to use BBCs. Interfacing you own hardware with a PC is very difficult as there are no standard hardware outputs to drive say a transistor, and protected mode operating systems do not allow direct hardware access, which means you need to mess about with writing kernel drivers...

In general, some of the most interesting things for me are old magazines, leaflets and catalogues as these give a feel of the era.

Not everything was enjoyable; there were negative aspects to what went on at the time. Indeed, I have severe criticism towards Acorn and some of the supporting companies (in particular the arrogant attitudes), and the BBC computer itself. See my comparison page for some information.

Something that's peculiar about the period the 8 bit machines were popular, is the fact that lots of sources (books, magazine articles) say Basic is an acronym and consequently write it as BASIC (supposedly standing for 'Beginners All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code'). This is of course nonsense, even if those who 'designed' the language (tremendous overstatement in this case), say so. Noone designs a programming language with 'symbolic instruction code' in mind. They just made a basic language (hence 'Basic'), then probably thought it wouldn't be 'cool' if it wasn't an acronym. Or maybe they were seeing how many people they could fool. At the time I read in some books or articles that people thought it was likely a backcronym (so the word came first then think of words that could fit to make it an acronym), and later I did find some peculiar combinations of words used at the time Basic was developed, which I guess makes it slightly more likely that it's not a backronym, but a reference to an unplublished paper is definitely not enough to convince me!

To email me, go to this page