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I don't want to re-ignite the old system wars but...


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I've been thinking, out of ALL the pre-PC era computers, ending mid 1981, which computer do you think had the best BASIC?

 

I'm talking about a combination of graphics, and sound as well as sheer programming might.

 

For example, the TRS-80 had a nice BASIC, but it sucked on graphics and sound. The TI-99/4A has some sound and graphics capability in it's BASIC, but it was slower than molasses in January.

 

I know many of you have multiple platforms, so your input is valuable.

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By most accounts Applesoft and Integer were somewhere middle of the road compared against other contemporary machines. And I'm not fluent enough in other systems' implementation of BASIC to make an informed official judgment. No doubt there were articles in publications of the day that latched onto and extolled certain niche features of one machine's BASIC so it appeared to be the best. High precision math, comprehensive sound or graphics commands.. Yes. I remember reading articles that this version or that version would rule the market because of "feature x"..

 

But I did absolutely love how well BASIC + DOS combined together on the II+ and //e. And as far as speed goes. I could write something and convert it into machine language with a single command! Now that was something to behold. The machine re-writing my programs in a language it could understand and interpret faster! The epitome of artificial intelligence to be sure. Quite fun and amusing to see our infantile Basic programs run at 5x and 10x speed!

 

I also loved the number of extensions and modifications that were available, including the ability to easily make and access short machine language programs directly from BASIC itself. Adding new commands. Using new areas of memory. Big stuff back then!

 

While other machines surely had this capability, the Apple II series presented it in a way I could understand. Or perhaps it was because I learned this stuff 1st on the Apple II to begin with.

 

So the Apple II's Applesoft, Integer, and DOS get my vote.. however biased..

Edited by Keatah
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Except the first model of the BBC Micro was released in December 1981, so if we strictly put the limit to systems that were available to customers before July 1981, it doesn't qualify. MSX is even worse, it wasn't launched until June 1983, which is way after the proposed deadline.

 

I understand that the July 1981 date is set to specifically exclude the IBM PC 5150, not that I know if its ROM BASIC is particularly powerful. Apparently the Commodore 64 would be excluded as well, but a VIC-20 would barely qualify and the two have the same version of BASIC 2 (pretty much BASIC 4 from the PET/CBM minus the disk commands that reverts it to a V2).

 

It should also be noted that the TI-99/4A was released in June 1981, so pretty much it is one of the newest computers to qualify for this particular question. Ideally I think we should limit it to built-in BASIC versions or at least what was originally supplied with the computer, not expansions.

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The answer is they all had a powerful BASIC. Commodore lacked graphics commands but it had floating point math and MD arrays.

 

Apple and Atari lacked some of that but had great graphics commands, particularly the Atari.

 

Imagine turning your computer on today and being immediately presented with a language you could use with a shell built in instead of a demented paperclip that reboots your system to make you buy apps?

 

Linux comes close but Office takes the cake - the latest release (2016/2017) has BASIC from the 90's built in.

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The best thing I liked about the onboard firmware Applesoft/Integer was the syntax, it was easy to understand for grade school kid. HPLOT X,Y made immediate sense to even a 7 year old kid. Control-Reset always stopped execution and gave me a prompt, that was nice. Speed and TRON (tracing) were advanced tools to me at the time.

 

It also provided for a lot of hooks and methods for integrating other things, like DOS and custom Ampersand commands. Oh it was quite amusing to remap and rename them to stupid stuff. And the ability to have 2 versions at the ready with the optional 16K card was pretty advanced.

 

And of course there were the Monitor and Mini-Assembler. Not forgetting the superb unrivaled documentation both by Apple and 3rd parties.

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I've never used the BASIC, but the Exidy Sorcerer had decent hi-res B&W graphics and a reasonably fast CPU for 1978. From what I understand, the designer's goal was to have something like the TRS-80 but with hi-res graphics. I don't think it had support for drawing lines or anything like that. An extended BASIC cart was advertised but the Wiki seems to indicate that it was vaporware.
The speed isn't that special against the later Atari and it has no sound at all.

Ohio Scientific had some machines that look kinda decent. At some point they even had a 2 MHz option. But floating point was single precision, graphics were limited and sound was also limited. It's biggest problem was lack of software.
The Commodore PET is similar but without color, sound or the faster CPU option. I'm pretty sure more of them sold than OSI machines, a lot more.

The TRS-80 Model I/III have a good BASIC but it doesn't have graphics or sound commands. The Model III was basically a fixed Model I with a better keyboard, faster CPU, and lower case text, but that made it a better business system. There was a product from Microsoft called Level III BASIC that added graphics commands, but you still had lo-res graphics and no sound. You could generate sound through the cassette port or add on hardware, but... it wasn't universally supported. 3rd party Hi-res graphics upgrades were available at that time but had little support and there was no single standard.

The BASIC was pretty good for business though since it supports PRINT USING, integers, single and double precision floating point.

Speed wise they were okay vs a 1 MHz 6502 but no so much against the Atari.
There were faster TRS-80 clones though.
The Lobo Max-80 which ran at just over 5 MHz. But it came out in 1982.
And the LNW-80 which ran at up to 4 MHz and added hi-res color graphics. It was easy to add color to existing TRS-80 games through one of the new graphics modes and several games supposedly had patches available to do just that from what I've read. But it also came out in 1982.

The BBC Micro was out too late, but the Acorn Atom was available.
What the Atom is now... it's a pretty decent machine, 32K of RAM can replace ROM, SID sound card, SD interfaces, 2 MHz upgrades, etc...
but back then, you had to buy everything piece meal, there were no slots, the SID didn't exist, and it's sound was like the Apple II's.
Piece meal expansion wasn't unheard of, the TRS-80 model I required separate boards plugged into the expansion interface, and upgrade ROMs were available for the Apple II.

In fact, the best comparison I can think of is the original Apple II but without slots. Even floating point and color support were extra.

It's BASIC was obviously a little primitive without upgrades, but it's BASIC was fast and the assembler was built into BASIC.

BBC BASIC was an evolution of the Atom's BASIC and Atom even supported BBC BASIC later, but I'm not sure what year it came out.
I'd say it has all the limitations of the Apple II combined with the color choices of the CoCo minus the NTSC artifacting in hi-res mode.

The VIC 20... a Commodore PET with limited RAM, a narrow screen, sound, color, and programmable characters. No extended BASIC features.
It has some surprisingly good games for the limitations, but it's not really in the running in any category.

The TI-99/4A... anyone remember the fedora plot thread in the Atari 8 bit area? To use bitmapped graphics with TI Extended BASIC, you have to use a 3rd party tool that may not have existed in the given time period. It's ANSI BASIC kinda sucks when it comes to memory efficiency and ease of porting software from other machines. The 9900 supports compiled languages pretty well though so it (the CPU) is pretty powerful. Mini-computers were based on versions of that CPU!

However, TI also crippled the machine in far too many ways to realize any advantage from the 16 bit CPU. A few changes and it could have been in the running for best machine. Add 16K of 16 bit RAM on the CPU buss, a native 9900 BASIC interpreter with PEEK and POKE, support for bitmapped graphics... and it's definitely in the running.

Atari BASIC is an extended BASIC but it has unique string handling which makes it more difficult to port programs to. It also lacks some more advance file handling commands though you could duplicate them through ROM calls. It's probably not the best choice to develop a business application in BASIC on though.
As far as other features go, it's not bad, but it lacks a few features vs some BASICs. Drawing software sprites, complex shapes, or playing music for example.
It's BASIC is also slow. Hardware wise it's a good machine and it had a fast 6502 for the time.

Applesoft II isn't bad, but it uses many unique commands which makes porting more difficult. You'll either love or hate it's editor. It supports quite a few on screen colors through artifacting but get the wrong colors next to each other and you have white. The screen memory layout stinks, it has no hardware sprites, software sprites are limited to shape tables in BASIC, sound is made by clicking the speaker and there are no sound commands in BASIC. File I/O is a bit unique as well. However, there were many free and commercial utilities that let you add machine language extensions for playing sounds, for software sprites, for printing text on a hi-res screen, etc...
Speed wise... it's okay. 1 MHz with no wait states and the keyboard is controlled through an external chip. Scanning the keyboard in BASIC eats a lot of clock cycles on other machines, so it's fast for the clock speed in BASIC.
The big advantages of the Apple II+ are the expansion slots and software. It was also the first machine I'm aware of to support swapping out the ROM for RAM.
PASCAL was big at that time... and Apple PASCAL was better than the Tiny PASCAL ports available for many machines.

The TRS-80 Color Computer's Extended Color BASIC was probably the best BASIC. You could play music stored in strings, draw complex graphics from strings, draw software sprites, double buffer graphics, it has PRINT USING, and good file handling capabilities. But without a sound chip, playing sounds eats a lot of clock cycles. You can play sounds while doing other things by using interrupts, but BASIC doesn't use that. Since it uses a DAC, you can play sound samples or music with pretty much any instrument. But BASIC doesn't support that, you get a sign wave or nothing.
Later software stored sound waves in the RAM bank behind the BASIC ROM and let you play music with them, but that wasn't available in 81. The bitmapped graphics aren't bad for the time except the limited color choices are pretty ugly, and there are no hardware sprites.

In spite of the lack of hardware sprites, I was able to write some pretty impressive animations in BASIC using double buffering. But with 2 6K graphics screens, some overhead for BASIC, the BASIC text screen, and lots of memory taken up for software sprites... I was always running out of RAM. If you wanted to do this you had to limit yourself to lower resolution graphics modes. But hey, at least it has several choices for graphics modes.

Power wise, the 6809 kicks butt in the 8 bit world, but the standard clock speed of .89 MHz hurts it. Depending on what you are doing it will keep up with faster clocked Z80s and 6502s though. If you use high level compiled languages, it does really well and it supports a high speed POKE that makes BASIC run much faster.

Using the high speed POKE was common in BASIC programs and then the BASIC is pretty fast. People didn't realize that if you put some SRAM on a cart, you could run programs out of RAM at the higher speed. If someone had released an SRAM cart that was addressed above the disk ROM, people could have gotten more speed out of the machine, even in BASIC.
The machine also had the FLEX9 OS which I think was available at that time so it inherited a lot of software including native code compilers for C, Pascal, Cobol, and Fortran.
The biggest problem I see with the machine in the 1981 timeframe, is that Tandy basically ignored it until later that year and major software houses didn't support it.


The problem here is that there is no one best all around machine.

When it comes to graphics and sound, the Atari has the best hardware and one of the fastest CPUs. But it's tied down by a slow BASIC and was a pretty closed system at first.
The Atari has a lot of computing power but I see it as largely wasted unless you use assembly.

For volume of software, and manufacturer support, the Apple II wins. If there is no software to do what you need it doesn't matter how fast the CPU is. And having Apple release their own Pascal and Fortran created sort of a standard. This appealed to schools or colleges that wanted to teach computer science without having to use a mini-computer or mainframe.

For best BASIC and raw computing power, I give the CoCo the edge. For BASIC, it is the hands down winner. High level languages were either interpreted on the Apple II/Atari (P-Code) or generated poor quality native code. Generating decent native code for the 6809 is easier so the resulting programs are faster. However, the CoCo lacked mainstream support, so we are back to software.
I also base the computing power on my own observations from programming the 6803, 6809, 6502, and Z80. A 6809 is very fast for the MHz and easy to program. Code to do the same thing also requires less space.

The TRS-80 Model I/III had a lot of compilers and saw a lot of custom business applications, so I'd give the Model III an honorable mention here. The Z80 is a little easier to generate code for in a compiler than the 6502. But for native assembly you might need to run the Z80 faster than the Model III to keep up with the Atari or CoCo.

The award for most unrealized potential has to go to the TI-99. Good hardware, decent CPU... completely crippled.

Edited by JamesD
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The Microtan 65 existed though, but I don't know how much of Oric BASIC was directly lifted from the Microtan. As for the Acorn Atom, doesn't it have a horrid BASIC syntax or am I misremembering things? I thought the BBC BASIC was a completely different implementation than what came with the Atom but I might be terribly wrong on that account.

 

Edit: Ok, the M65 came with 1K ROM and 1K RAM. To get 10K Microsoft Extended BASIC, you needed a TANEX expansion board so perhaps that disqualifies it. Probably it shares the same properties as the Ohio Scientific, PET, KIM-1 etc 6502 based Microsoft BASIC versions. On which accounts the final Oric BASIC improves on e.g. the C64, it gotta be in the non-standard sound and graphics department, which the M65 didn't really have anyway.

Edited by carlsson
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The Microtan 65 existed though, but I don't know how much of Oric BASIC was directly lifted from the Microtan. As for the Acorn Atom, doesn't it have a horrid BASIC syntax or am I misremembering things? I thought the BBC BASIC was a completely different implementation than what came with the Atom but I might be terribly wrong on that account.

 

Edit: Ok, the M65 came with 1K ROM and 1K RAM. To get 10K Microsoft Extended BASIC, you needed a TANEX expansion board so perhaps that disqualifies it. Probably it shares the same properties as the Ohio Scientific, PET, KIM-1 etc 6502 based Microsoft BASIC versions. On which accounts the final Oric BASIC improves on e.g. the C64, it gotta be in the non-standard sound and graphics department, which the M65 didn't really have anyway.

Maybe you are correct on BBC BASIC. I thought the core of the interpreter was derived from the Atom.

As for syntax:

http://members.casema.nl/hhaydn/howel/Acorn/Atom/atap/atap.htm

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Did the 2600 have a keyboard? That would have been pretty cool...

 

 

No, you used these things with the Basic Programming cart. :lol:

 

http://atariage.com/controller_page.php?SystemID=2600&ControllerID=4

 

Atari's own keyboard was scrapped, but later, Spectravideo released one and had a version of M$ BASIC built in:

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CompuMate

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