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Dick Smith

Dick Smith CAT complete review from Computer Input a New Zealand magazine, in August 1984:

The CAT is one of the latest and more impressive computers to join the Dick Smith personal computer range. It offers to the potential buyer many enhanced facilities and features, a wide range of software, along with a capability for system expansion. Many of the features offered are not found to the same degree in other similarily priced computer systems.

The CAT uses a 6502A microprocessor with an operating clock speed of 2MHz. The basic computing unit comes complete with a 64K byte on-board RAM and a 32K byte ROM. Of this ROM, 24K bytes are used to provide the user with the Enhanced Microsoft BASIC language. The CAT can be expanded up to a total of 192K bytes of RAM.

Two sockets have been provided at the back of the console for a display monitor. The first, a composite video socket can be used for a composite video monitor or a standard television set. If a television set is used for the display, a separate RF Modulator unit must be connected between the computer and the composite video cable. The second socket, the RGB socket can be used for connecting a high resolution RGB monitor.

The CAT cannot strictly be considered in the portable computer range - it is quite large (size wise) in comparison with it's more portable competitors. It has not been designed to be packed-up and put away after each use. (In fact you probably won't want to put it away for weeks!) Ideally, the CAT should have a space in the home or office dedicated for it's own specific use.

The CAT has a fullsize keyboard, set out in the standard QWERTY format. One of the main features of this keyboard is the row of 8 user definable keys above the main keyboard. These user definable keys can be programmed to give a total of 24 different functions. Other special features on this keyboard are the TAB, RUBOUT, ESC, CTRL, and BREAK Keys.

The TAB key moves the cursor when pressed to the next pre-defined tab stop on the line. The RUBOUT key as the name suggests, rubs out characters on the screen. It is essentially a backspace key, erasing characters as it moves. The ESC (escape) and CTRL (control) keys perform effectively the same function. When pressed simultaneously with any other character key, the special functions defined on that key are displayed or executed. The BREAK key is used to interrupt program execution. To continue running the program the CONT command can be used.

A separate numeric keypad has also been included on the CAT. This keypad can be used to make number entry faster. However, three annoying omissions have been made on the keypad, that of '*', '/)', and ','. These keys are still only available on the main keypad and this tends to slow down the number entering process.

Above the numeric keyboard are the 4 cursor control keys. These keys allow the cursor to be moved anywhere on the screen without changing any characters. All the keys on the keyboard have the auto-repeat facility when held down.

Screen editing features on the CAT are limited to the RUBOUT key and control of cursor movement. Cursor movement can be obtained through the arrow keys (mentioned earlier) and also by using the ESC and CTRL keys. These keys provide functions such as moving the cursor to the HOME postion or clearing characters from the cursor to the end of the line.

The arrow keys can be used to correct any mistakes in program lines, but we found this method unreliable as often the correction made was not found on the right line when a new listing of the program was taken. Instead the correction was on some other line making that line erroneous too. To get around this problem, we found it useful to re-write the whole line (line-number included) at the bottom of the program.

A noticeable omission in the screen editing facilities was a character insert key. If a character was missed out in the middle of a line, virtually the whole line had to be retyped to include it. This feature is usually found on similarily priced computers and is a very useful tool in editing programs.

Also missing are an auto line numbering command and a renumbering command. However, a command has been included for deleting blocks of code (DEL command).

There are 5 different display modes that can be selected on the CAT. These are: 40 column text mode, 80 column text mode, low resolution graphics (280 pixels x 192 lines; 6 colours available), bit image graphics (280 pixels x 192 lines; 8 colours), and double resolution graphics (560 pixels x 192 lines; 6 colours).

In the text modes, each character is formed using a 7 x 8 dot matrix. A total of 8 colours are available with the additional options of inverse mode and flashing mode. The colour of the characters, background, and screen frame can all be changed simply using the TEXT command or alternatively by directly addressing the system kernel. Incidentally, the 80 column text mode is quite readable on a normal television set.

The CAT has an internal sound generator with an external volume control at the back of the console. Two types of sound statement are available on the CAT, both of which are very easy to understand and use. The first has four parameters: pitch, duration, channel number and volume. These can all be specified as constant numbers or as variables, or any mixture of both. The second form allows 3 tone channels to be used at the same time. This form is used for executing musical compositions. A block of code is defined as containing music statements, and executed as such. By this method the tempo of the composition can also be set.

Two manuals are provided with the CAT - a "Users Manual" and a "Basic Reference Manual". The "User Manual" explains how to set up the computer, the basic keyboard functions and briefly discusses memory organisation and the system kernel. (For a more detailed approach the "Technical Reference Manual" is recommended). Also covered in "User Manual" are sections on video screen mapping and the 6502 Instruction set.

The "Basic Reference Manual" covers very comprehensively each of the commands and functions available with Enhanced Microsoft Basic. A good index and a summary of BASIC commands make this manual very pleasant to use. This manual also contains a list of error messages and their associated explanations encountered when programming the CAT. We would recommend however, that if you have never programmed before you should get a supplementary text to learn the techniques of programming. Neither of the manuals provided have worthwhile examples or instructions in the art of good programming.

The CAT has been designed to be compatible with most Apple II software. The extensive range of this software (business, games, educational, and language packages) makes the CAT a very versatile computer. An advantage of making the CAT Apple II software compatible is that the software used is already tried and proven.

A soft emulator card is available for the CAT, and this just plugs into the cartridge slot located on the right of the console. The addition of this card makes the CAT even more compatible and allows software written for the 64K Apple IIe to be run on the CAT. This software included language packages such as: Apple Pascal, Apple Fortran, Apple Logo, and Apple Super Pilot. The soft emulator also supports 56K or 60K CP/M which means software such as Wordstar 56K, Microsoft's Cobol-80, Microsoft's Fortran-80, and Microsoft's Basic-80, can be run on the CAT.

Special languages like Apple II integer BASIC can also be run on the CAT provided an Apple II System Master diskette can be obtained and used with the CAT.

So far in this review we have only mentioned one of the peripherals (the soft emulator cartridge) that can be added to the CAT. The remaining list of peripherals that can be directly plugged into the CAT are by no means less impressive - a disk controller and associated floppy disk drives, a printer with centronics-type parallel interface, a RS232 serial adapter, a pair of joysticks, and lastly a data cassette recorder. The cartridge slot (already mentioned) can be used for any hardware or solid state software modules as it connects directly with the system bus.

The CAT computer system can be expanded by two floppy disk drives (5 1/2" floppies). These disk drives are controlled through the disk controller unit which connects directly to the system bus. The DOS (Disk Operating System) used, boots automatically when the CAT is switched on. That is, with a floppy disk in the disk drive, all the user has to do is switch the computer on, to expand the Enhanced Microsoft BASIC to include Disk BASIC. The DOS contains 18 commands which allows the user to manage disks. Each command is clearly explained in the "DOS Manual" which is provided with the 'Filer' utilities diskette.

An RS232 interface has been provided on the CAT so that it can be linked to any external device via the RS232 standard. That is, the CAT can be connected to CRT's, serial printers, modems or network data concentrators. The additions of the RS232 serial adapter also means the CAT can simulate a terminal in either half or full duplex mode.

The CAT is being marketed with it's primary competitor as the Apple IIe and from our study of the CAT we found it a worthy competitor. It should be acknowledged though, that the CAT is very much a newcomer in the computer market and still has to stand the tests of time and many users.

As a computer system in its own right the CAT offers many advanced features not seen in other similarily priced computer systems. The CAT, priced at $1295 for the basic unit, has bridged the cost gap between serious computing and pure entertainment. It offers an impressive alternative for potential computer users who have a limited price budget, but want a serious computer not just a toy.

Thanks to Murray Moffatt from New Zealand.

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