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Master 512 Forum by Robin Burton
Beebug Vol. 7 No. 7 December 1988

Robin Burton answers letters on memory upgrades and documentation, and tells his own story about buying software.

Thanks for the letters, it's helpful to know what you want to know, let's have more. We may not be able to cover every point individually, but we'll start this month with some of the items raised.

G.A. Mangham from Worksop in Nottingham is thinking of acquiring a 512. The best advice I can give is to get on with it. According to the grapevine supplies of the 512 won't last much longer, if you're not already too late! People have quickly realised that at around £100 the chips alone cost twice as much as the asking price.

Now to some of the other points. Mr. Mangham also asks about memory expansion, which of course means the Solidisk PC+. This has not been advertised recently, but it is still available. Solidisk tell me that a new batch of boards should be available in January.

You have to send your 512 board to Solidisk for them to fit the additional 512K of RAM, and must also sign a disclaimer of the Acorn warranty to permit them to alter the hardware. You also need DOS+ 2.1 (or Solidisk will amend your 1.2 disc) to benefit from the extra RAM. The cost is £109.00 including VAT, plus £4.00 for return post and packing. There is no longer an annual 'maintenance charge' which, I suspect, put many potential customers off in the past. I hope to get my hands on a PC+ soon, and if so I'll include a detailed report in a future 512 Forum.

Mr. Mangham also enquires about comms software, and it's the usual problem. Most DOS comms packages directly access the serial port instead of using legal calls, hence they fail on the 512. However, a package called Comm Plus from Margolis Systems reportedly uses only legal calls and does work on the 512, supporting both scrolling ASCII and Viewdata. I have no price, no address and no other details: I will supply them when I find out. If anyone knows about this package, any information would be appreciated.

Another question concerns model B expansion boards. Are there any problems? For example, will the 512 board fitted to a Universal Coprocessor work properly with all sideways RAM boards. Well, no problems are known by either Acorn or myself, and there should not be any with recent boards. The answer therefore is no, there should be no problems, unless anyone knows differently.

Finally Mr. Mangham mentions MS-DOS and asks if anyone has implemented it on the 512, or if there is a possibility of it, or of further DOS+ updates from Acorn. No is the simple answer to all of these, although there is nothing technically to stop somebody out there porting MS-DOS. Having said that, a little birdie has told me about some exciting new developments along these lines, although I can't say any more at the moment. Just remember where you heard it first!


Barry Tattersall writes from Victoria in Australia saying that there is not much support for the 512 over there. This is not confined to Australia, I am sure that most users would claim there is little support in this country either.

Barry's main point is the entirely inadequate, sometimes inaccurate (my words, he's more polite) so-called 'User Guide' supplied with the 512. He wonders where to obtain the DOS+ guides mentioned in the Acorn 512 manual. Not only is the manual inadequate, it's misleading in suggesting that these books are published by Digital Research.

The Programmers Reference Guide is published in the U.K. by Glentop Press Ltd. so asking about a book published by Digital Research will get you nowhere. The ISBN for this book is 1 85181147 8. Take note though that if you want a 'user guide' this isn't for you, this is a programmer's guide to the primitives in DOS+. Unless you write your own code it will not be much use, and it certainly is not aimed at the average user.

As to the DOS Plus User's Guide, the difficulty with this is that it is not commercially published, and therefore does not have an ISBN. This means that book suppliers will not be able to help, as their sources will contain no reference to it.

The DOS Plus User's Guide is in fact a four-ring binder of about 700 loose A4 reference sheets. It's really a Digital Research manual and as they're not in the publishing business it is expensive, (around £40, I recall). That is if they are prepared to supply it at all. I feel that Digital Research would not be overjoyed to receive hundreds of requests for it, as each copy looks like it is put together by hand.

Do not lose all hope though. At least one publisher is actively supporting the 512 (and about time too). This is Dabs Press, and I must confess to not being totally impartial on this subject, because I have contributed a great deal to their books on the subject.

Due at the end of January is the 512 User Guide at £9.95, or £14.95 with the programs disc. In short this is the manual that Acorn should have supplied with the 512. All the 512 DOS+ commands are documented, with examples and version differences. There is a section on disc formats and compatibility (including hard disc partitioning), a section on DOS's filing system, plus chapters on re-direction, command piping, the memory disc, batch files and so on.

The disc contains numerous utilities, including a disc editor for ALL the 512 formats, especially useful since none of the DOS editors can handle 640 or 800K discs. There's also a program to catalogue any DFS or ADFS disc from DOS. This too is particularly helpful. You don't need to exit DOS then re-boot the system when you mix discs up because (like most of us, let's be honest) you have discs lying around without up to date labels, or need to identify the contents to use MOVE, PUTFILE or GETFILE.

The second book planned by Dabs Press for the 512 is a more technical guide, which will be available around February or March. I will give you more details nearer the time.


It's all very well to pay a £100 for the 512 board itself, but what happens when the first piece of software you buy costs more than the hardware did. Well, it seems that the price of some imported software suffers from the highly inflated exchange rate syndrome. I recite here the story of how, with a bit of work, I obtained a particular package at a great discount. I will not name the package involved, or the company producing it, because that would be making an example of someone when the problem exists right across the board.

The package in question is sold and supported in Britain in a 'U.K.' version, although not surprisingly it is originally American. Our version is the same except for spelling changes (eg colour for color etc.) in both the software and the manual, and of course the possibility of local backup and support, though I have never needed this.

Over the past year or two the price of this product has consistently been about £100, give or take £10, and support costs £30 per year. Nothing unusual so far.

I investigated half a dozen of the most popular alternatives before purchase, so I am satisfied this package is as good as any other, and in my opinion better, so I'm very happy with it. Like many well developed packages, its roots are in CP/M, and in consequence there's a maximum file size of one segment, or 64K. (See 512 Forum, Vol.7 No.4 for an explanation of segments).

Allowing for workspace this means a practical maximum file size of about 60K. The snag is that I use the package for admittedly an unusual purpose, but it's one which can easily produce files two or three times bigger than 60K.

Recently I learned that a new version was being released in the U.S. which removes this one segment file size limit. One evening I phoned the American supplier in Seattle to check the facts. Lo and behold, the new version had been released five days before.

I next contacted the U.K. supplier to enquire about availability and upgrading. The answer was less than definite. It left me feeling that the new version might be released here sometime, if the development team were actually looking at it, (which could not be confirmed).

Next, I phoned Seattle again to see if I could acquire the software directly. Yes, I could, no there is no problem, an International Money Order, Visa, Mastercard, Diner's Club or American Express would all do nicely they said.

How much? (Prepare for enlightenment.) "If you want just the software the registration fee is $16 for the three discs." said the very pleasant lady on the phone, "If you want a soft-cover manual that's $35, or $45 for the hard-cover. If you also want support, the cost is $20 or $35 for support and the next two updates free. Shipping to the U.K. is $20."

What a difference! Rather than buying the software you are given it and pay to become a registered user. You can then decide how much support you actually need, and pay for this accordingly. In my opinion this is much better than the system over here where you are offered a complete package and the only choice you have is to take or leave it.

Compare prices too! I'm no international financier, but at a current rate of $1.85 to the pound the software is £8.64, a soft-cover manual just under £19 and support about £11 a year. (Where does the U.K.'s other £20 come from?)

Allowing for phone calls, exchange commissions and shipping I can obtain the latest version of this package for about £45, even if I was a first time buyer of that particular package.

Knowing the package well (it's full of 'Help' information anyway), I could get away with just the software and shipping, total about £20. In fact at this price I'll have the lot, even though I've already paid once before in this country.

Being realistic, retail prices cannot really bob up and down wildly like a cork on the sea of exchange rates, but surely my first loyalty is to myself. Provided that I acquire software legally and pay the full price there is no justification for parting with more cash than necessary.

I can now get 50% more dollars to the pound than a couple of years ago. Have you noticed the U.K. price of U.S. software reflecting this? I haven't!

If you're buying software that you know originates in the U.S. (that's most of it, because of the size of their market), and if it doesn't have important differences between international versions, do yourself a favour, invest in a phone call. You might get a pleasant surprise.

Remember time differences though, I phoned at 9.30pm. That's early afternoon in Washington State on Pacific Time, but would be closing time in New York, on Eastern Standard Time.

Finally, remember to keep those letters coming, because it is easier for me to answer specific queries than to try and guess what you want to know.

Details of the PC+ memory upgrade can be obtained from:

Solidisk Technology Ltd.
17 Sweyne Avenue,
Essex SS2 6JQ.
Tel. (0702) 354674

A catalogue of Dabs Press products for the 512 can be obtained free of charge from:

Dabs Press
5 Victoria Lane,
Manchester M25 6AL.
Tel. (061) 766 842

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