Retro-review: British “business” computers of 1985. The ACT Apricot F1 vs. Sinclair QL.

In 1984 Sir Clive Sinclair announced the QL as his answer to a “business computer”, costing £399, and the year later ACT released their follow-up to the Apricot PC, the F1, in a stylish new slim design with such innovations as wireless (infra red) keyboard and mouse (actually a track ball), costing around £3000.

Seeing as I’ve been rebuilding an Apricot F1 and I have a couple of QLs I thought I’d give a comparison review of the two machines side by side.

Well, back in 1984 when the Sinclair QL came out, to put it mildly, everyone poured scorn on the machine as a “business” computer. After all, where were the floppy drives? Did it run Lotus 1-2-3? Of course, the price played very little into this discussion as all the “business” machines were many multiples of the cost of a base QL. Having played with its direct(?) competition I think I can make a better comparison. (I’ll cut to the chase, in terms of speed and convenience, the QL wins, but with some pretty important gotchas.)

1. The Sinclair QL

The QL comes out of the box with 128K of RAM, two 100K Microdrive drives and the set of pretty decent office applications from Psion, including word processor and spreadsheet. If you want to add a monitor that costs you extra, adding a couple of hundred pounds to the cost, then add the printer for another £100. So, for a working “business” system you’re probably looking at £700-ish in 1985.

In terms of convenience, you plug it all in, switch it on and you have a working system. You probably want to buy a set of Microdrive cartridges which I seem to remember retailed at about £5 each and then make working copies of the Psion Exchange suite.

Popping an application cart into the first drive and a file cart into the second drive, resetting and hitting F2 to boot would bring you to the Quill word processor in about a minute.

In terms of speed, the text update is slow relative to IBM PC-XT clones of the day due to the bitmapped graphics, but they were well out of the price range costing many thousands of pounds. However, for a word processor the screen update was adequate and Quill was definitely up there with the early versions of Wordperfect etc. in terms of functionality.

With respect to the much maligned Microdrives, they were slow to “seek” to find a file but could be surprisingly fast to load one if the data was contiguous on the tape as the transfer rate is technically higher than that of standard double-density floppy drives.

The biggest down side of the QL, however, is that it doesn’t have a separate keyboard. With everything being in the same unit it makes ergonomics poor as it’s difficult to move the unit to a comfortable position. Not that ergonomics was really a thing back then. The keyboard itself wasn’t brilliant to type on either. It’s an early iteration of the plunger and membrane keyboards most systems use today but it’s just clunky. The lack of a dedicated delete key is another large omission.

Expansion of the machine was possible with, by the time of 1985, both memory upgrades and floppy disk interfaces available. However, they added to the cost and the number of cables attached to the keyboard making ergonomics even worse.

2. The ACT Apricot F1

The F1 was a follow up to the Apricot PC, which was a boxy luggable desktop machine. The new F1, had a stylish clean, new design and, unlike its sibling, a single 3.5″ double density floppy disk drive built in. It also had an innovative (but ultimately problematical) infra red wireless keyboard. Again like its sibling the time of day clock was held in the keyboard and not in the main unit, so to set it you had to hit a key after each reboot.

The F1’s keyboard keys actually looked very similar to the Sinclair QL’s, being a flat square with a raised circle. Apparently this keyboard didn’t have a great feel to it either, being replaced with the version with more normal key caps and a better mechanism for the later F2 and F10 models.

The Apricot machines were based upon an Intel 8086 processor clocked at the same speed as the 8088 in the IBM PC-XT. It would have been expected therefore that they would run more quickly due to the data and address buses not being multiplexed 8 bit ones but this is not the case as memory accesses were interleaved with the video circuitry slowing the whole system down to the same speed.

Although the Apricots did run MSDOS (2.11) they were not at all IBM PC-XT compatible. Any software which didn’t use standard MSDOS calls only wouldn’t work and the screen display access was completely different so applications would have to be specially ported to the platform. Later ACT did create a compatibility shim application which added at least MDA/CGA display access via software emulation but it was very slow.

To do any graphics you have to load the Digital Research GSX graphics subsystem and use call to this, if you wanted your application to run on all the Apricot machines, as the graphics hardware on each was very different.

So, what did you get for your £3000 F1 system? Basically, you got the machine, a wireless keyboard and MSDOS 2.11 with the “Activity” graphical user interface. The machine had a composite video out port as standard, along with the proprietary 9 pin RGBI port. If you wanted a monitor then at was a couple of hundred pounds extra for the 9″ monochrome display and a lot more for the 12″ colour one. If you wanted applications then they were extra, a couple of hundred pounds extra for each. There was a native port of Wordstar for your word processing needs and a spreadsheet, which I’ve not found as a floppy image on the ‘Net.

So, what was the user experience like?

Well, when you powered the unit on (with a power switch, something the QL lacks!) it comes to the “BIOS” screen which is quite nice. You then have to hit the “TIME/DATE” key on the keyboard and put the OS floppy into the machine. The machine will then (slowly) boot MSDOS and bring you into the “Activity” GUI, which you have to navigate using the number keypad (You didn’t pay that extra £100 quid or so for the “mouse” trackball which isn’t used by anything did you?). Ejecting the OS floppy and then putting the application floppy into the machine will allow you to start the word processor. Yes, there’s lots of disk juggling going on due to the single drive.

So, after about 5 minutes you will probably be into your application.

The screen display update speed is very similar to that of the QL as there’s no hardware acceleration other than scrolling. The graphics capability of the machine is actually almost identical to that of the QL.

With the base system only coming with 256K of RAM and the OS being in RAM as well the working memory is actually less than the base 128K QL.

As for expandability, there is a slot internally for upgrades and another on the side. There was a 10MB “Winchester disk” external unit which would probably cost you almost as much as the machine in 1985. There was no option to add an external floppy drive, though the hardware is capable and it would have only meant them adding a header on the motherboard as the clip-out panel in the case was there ready. Even with a two floppy drives MSDOS is painful to use though.

3. Conclusion.

Well, to be honest it’s six of one and half dozen of the other actually. In terms of speed the 7.5MHz 68008 in the QL, hampered by its multiplexed 8 bit bus, is about the same as that of the Apricot with its 4.7MHz 8086 in use. The single floppy drive is a major problem when using the machine and it “feels” slower than the Microdrives not because of the data rate (600rpm drives make the data rate far higher) or the latency, which is far less, but because all accesses are in the foreground and you have to swap disks so much more often. It makes even copying a file from one floppy to another a major task with four disk swaps per file. In this way the F1 is far less usable.

However, the separate keyboard, irrespective of the problems with the wireless nature, is far better than the “all built into the keyboard” form factor of the QL.

Anyway, if the purchase price wasn’t a decider, given my experience operating the two machines today I find the experience with the base QL far superior and I would have preferred to use that.

The Apricot F Series with more memory, hard disk and the later release of the GEM graphical front end does make the machines a world better, but Apricot (rebranded from ACT in 1986) soon dropped them in favour of PC compatibility, and a price hike, and the innovative British business PC era came to an end.

2014 – The year of retro-computing.

For me, other than health issues which I won’t say any more about here, 2014 has been a year dominated by retro-computing sparked off by the call from the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford for exhibits for an exhibition they were setting up.

The call went out in January, a little before my previous post (this is called “irregular” for a reason), and I responded by offering the use of my archive of machines. In the end they took up the offer of a Sinclair QL and a BBC Micro.

Of course, this meant that I had to get the machines down from the loft to check them out, clean them and generally prepare them for the exhibition, which was going to start in May.

The machines themselves proved to be in fine fettle but the floppy disk drives needed a bit of coaxing. The worst problem was that the lubricant used in the 1980s on the drives had mostly dried out to a sticky goo, the opposite of a lubricant. This took a little while to sort out. Another issue was getting a way to display the computers’ output.

My Sinclair QL showing the appalling echoing and smearing on the TV

My Sinclair QL showing the appalling echoing and smearing on the TV

The LCD TV I used in my spare room as a monitor for my server does have an analogue TV input, along with HDMI, SCART, VGA etc. so it shouldn’t be a major problem. However, it’s obvious that the company Dixons/Curry’s chose to build their Sandstrom TVs never actually tested the analogue circuitry very well. Displaying anything with a defined, high-contrast signal produces at best multiple echoes of the point/line across the screen or, at worst, a smeared bright line to the left of the pixels. Not exactly useful for anything other than a quick test.

This problem induced me to have to build new SCART video cables for the machines. A fiddly job at the best of times but not helped by the TV’s insistence in only displaying composite video through the SCART connector unless one pin is energised with 3 volts and with no way of overriding this in the menu system. Quite a pain when the computers required to connect don’t produce this voltage (and it’s not available from the TV’s SCART either). So, a battery box had to be installed and velcroed. What a pain.

Anyway, by the time Easter came I had everything ready and delivery to the museum was planned after I got back from Cornwall. Unfortunately my health intervened and I was stuck down South for rather longer than expected, so missing the deadline for delivery. The museum managed to find a BBC Micro from someone else, along with my friend, Janet’s Beeb so they could set up without my stuff initially.

Thankfully I got back to Oxford just before the exhibition was to begin, so the team from the museum rocked up in a van and collected my QL, screen and floppy and they were deployed just in time for the opening.

Unfortunately I was still too ill to go into town so a friend took a picture of the set-up for me. I was so glad everything had turned out OK.

The Sinclair QL and BBC Micro doing public duty in the "Geek is Good" exhibition. (Sorry for the camera shake.)

The Sinclair QL and BBC Micro doing public duty in the “Geek is Good” exhibition.
(Sorry for the camera shake.)

A few weeks later, after I’d become well enough, I travelled into town myself and took a look at the exhibition, “Geek is Good.” and realised that the materials in the hands-on display area were rather basic and used an arcane BASIC programming example which was really dull and, well, very 1970s.

This spurred me into action. Being too unwell to go into work did allow me some time to use the energy I had to create a set of three programs for the BBC and the QL, exact equivalents in both BASIC dialects, and a crib sheet for program entry, explaining how to edit lines and simplify the typing in using the “AUTO” command. Far better.

All this action at the museum also inspired me to “play” with the other machines in my collection, discovering in the process a few of them starting to die. For example, the Atari TT030 which seems to have developed a floppy controller fault, and the Acorn A4000 ARM machine where the rechargeable  motherboard battery has burst, corroding the tracks and then the power supply died after I fixed this. These are really annoying failures as they’re the rarest of the machines.

The ethernetted Sinclair ZX Spectrums in the basement of the Museum of the History of Science for the "Geek Out!" event.

The ethernetted Sinclair ZX Spectrums in the basement of the Museum of the History of Science for the “Geek Out!” event.

Anyway, I’ve had great fun with all this culminating yesterday with the Museum of the History of Science’s “Geek Out!” event, closing the year with ethernet networked ZX Sepctrums in the basement running games served from a MacBook followed by playing a symphony and BBC Micros in the upper gallery.

The display in the Upper Gallery of the Museum of the History of Science.

The display in the Upper Gallery of the Museum of the History of Science.

I’ve been testing and checking a second BBC Micro for the display all week, duplicating floppy disks of games all ready for yesterday morning. After arriving before 9am with the kit I took it up stairs and attempted to get it working. Hampered by not having the correct monitor cable I soldiered ahead but found that the floppy disk would no-longer read disks. Worse, the other BBC Micro wouldn’t do so either. Even after swapping drives etc. between the machines nothing worked!

To save the day I asked Scott, the exhibition organiser, to get my Sinclair QL out of the store along with the floppy drive and a copy of “Arcanoid II”. The Sinclair saved the day!

A BBC Micro with a board allowing an SD card to be used as a floppy disk drive and my Sinclair QL play games.

A BBC Micro with a board allowing an SD card to be used as a floppy disk drive and my Sinclair QL play games.

Despite only having two games machines plus a BBC Micro sitting there for people to program upon the day went really well. The crowds were really interested and the kids were having a ball. Surprisingly the BBC Micro set up for programming was as popular as the machines running games. One late teenager, who I think was South American, was fascinated with programming and asked where he might be able to get a BBC Micro. Also, a group of Italian Computer Science students found the machine highly interesting and wondered at how much could be done with so little coding. I think they may be searching for BBC Micro emulators now!

And so, the end of the event came. I didn’t realise how tiring the day had been until I got home. I was shattered and almost fell asleep eating my dinner. Still, it was a good day.

And now, the computers are back in their home in the loft. I’ll probably get the Beebs down one day to try to diagnose the floppy problem but probably not this year. I’ve got other things to do, such as play the sequel to the 1984 smash hit on the BBC Micro, “Elite: Dangerous”!

Docking at a Coriolis station in the original Elite on a BBC Micro and in Elite:Dangerous on a PC.

Docking at a Coriolis station in the original Elite on a BBC Micro and in Elite:Dangerous on a PC.

Right on Commanders!


It’s been 30 years since the announcement of an important computing product…

and I’m not talking about the Macintosh.

QL Launch Macintosh Launch

In the news at the moment there’s been a number of stories about the launch 30 years ago of the Apple Macintosh with its flash media event and slick marketing “Big Brother” advert. However, two weeks previously in a lower key event a 3rd of the planet away in a London hotel there was another event, another launch of another computer which is rather less well known but was a breakthrough in many ways and the stepping stone to other, greater things.


The inside of the original flyer advertisement distributed inside magazines in January 1984.

1984-02-04_PCN_Sinclair_QL_advertisement_doublepage-SCN04-pimped1984-02-04_PCN_Sinclair_QL_advertisement_doublepage-SCN04-pimped1984-02-04_PCN_Sinclair_QL_advertisement_doublepage-SCN04-pimpedNow the Sinclair QL was in many ways a flawed design, mostly due to some really silly design decisions such as using the 4 bit Intel co-processor to do keyboard input, sound output and serial port input. This poor, underpowered chip could just about do one of those jobs at a time but not two, which meant that if you played a sound you couldn’t read the keyboard properly and you certainly couldn’t accept any data on either of the serial ports.

However, this ignores what it did provide. It was the first “affordable” 16 bit computer system with a fully pre-emptive multitasking, modular operating system. It may have been aimed at the business consumer, a boat long sailed by this point, but it found a niche in the programming community.

A Mac Plus I rescued.

A Mac Plus I rescued.

Now, you may be screaming by this point, “But the Macintosh was far more influential and it’s still here!” Well, I’d agree that the Mac did bring a huge leap forward in usability and design, for a price. However, the machines which are sold as Macs now have very little to do with that cream box with a handle and a screen launched all that time ago. MacOS now is not a descendant of that original Mac operating system at all, it’s a direct descendant of NeXTstep, the BSD UNIX derived OS running on the NeXT Cube, from Steve Jobs’ other company. Even Postscript and the other innovations didn’t come along with the first release of MacOS, they happened later when the Laserwriter was created. It should also be remembered that the Macintosh was not the first computer marketed which had a WIMP environment and a mouse, there was the Apple Lisa before it. In many ways the Macintosh was the Lisa-Lite and most of the launch applications were quick ports of the Lisa applications.

On the matter of cost, when the Macintosh was released it may have been affordable to a few in the USA but it was well beyond anything the normal person in the UK could afford. If you could find an Apple dealer the price of a Macintosh started at around £1300 and went up steeply if you wanted to actually do anything. This is why they were so rare. The first one I saw was in 1988 in the Pi Magazine office, University College London.

On the other hand, the Sinclair QL was launched at £399. This was still a huge outlay, being half to two thirds the monthly wage of a normal person, but at least you could use your TV as a display, it came with applications and, if you had a printer, could usually be cheaply hooked up to it. Sure, you could spend a whole lot more on a monitor and a printer but you didn’t need to.

Now, in many ways the QL was a bit of a flop, especially if you look at it relative to the ZX Spectrum. However, those machines which did go out there had a remarkably high impact in the longer term, even if it wasn’t at all visible.

Without the QL would there have been Linux? Linus Torvalds cut his teeth on one, got a little frustrated by the restriction and decided to write his own operating system. QDOS, for all its advanced features and modularity is no UNIX and it was written in a hurry, I can see how Linus may have seen the problems, but it was, in the end his muse and impetus.

The QL was also the development platform for the first version of AmigaDOS. Without the QL the Commodore Amiga would have been a very different machine to use. Metacomco in Bristol was contracted to build an operating system for the fledgling machine and because they had been early to support the QL, building compilers for it, they had the M68000 expertise and the tools for the job. AmigaDOS itself was a re-implementation of Tripos, an operating system developed in Cambridge, UK. and written in BCPL. Seeing as Metacomco already had their own BCPL compiler for the QL it was a perfect match. Later versions of the OS were re-written (mostly because Metacomco weren’t actually THAT good coders all told).

Anyway, I’d like to wish a very happy birthday to both the Sinclair QL and the Apple Macintosh. You both advanced computing in your own little ways. Both still have active communities (though the QL’s is “somewhat” smaller). May your legacy go on another 30 years.

The Sinclair QL I'm currently starting to prepare for an exhibition.

The Sinclair QL I’m currently starting to prepare for an exhibition.

I’m currently preparing one of my two QLs (the one I rescued from being recycled by the Oxford University Physical Chemistry department) as a hands-on display in an exhibition at the Oxford Museum of the History of Science which will be happening later this year.

By the way, if you have a QL in need of a few spare parts, take a look at “Sell My Retro”.