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Dick Smith

Dick Smith VZ-200 complete review from Computer Input a New Zealand magazine, in December 1983:

So you are thinking of buying your first home computer. In that case you will have probably already heard of the Dick Smith VZ 200. Even if you haven't heard of this computer before, you should read this article - we hope to tell you a few things that the glossy advertising may not.

When the computer is first removed from the box it is obvious how light and compact it is. The whole computer is only nominally larger than the keyboard. A clear and precise "User Manual" accompanies the computer and will help to have the computer set up either with a TV or monitor without too much fuss and bother. A limitation in the system was noted here, in that the computer can only be tuned to channel one. This means some inconvenience if you are using the family TV all the time, as the picture will need retuning each time you use it. A reasonable length of coaxial cable: (2.5m) (RF lead) is provided with the system to go between the computer and TV set.

Initially, the VZ 200 keyboard looks rather awesome. This is due to the fact that the majority of the keys have four functions apiece. But these looks deceive, as it really is not too difficult to operate. The keys themselves, are the rubber pad type set out approximately in the STANDARD QWERTY layout, with the exception of the space bar. All the keys are the same size apart from the SHIFT, SPACE & RETURN keys. Two disappoining features in the keyboard are: 1) that the space bar has been tucked away to one side, (if you, like me, are used to the traditional QWERTY layout, you will keep hitting the bottom of the computer cover each time you space); and b) one key has not been defined as a backspace key (the only way to move the cursor backwards is the use the "CTRL" 'M' keys). Both these points become frustrating after a period of intensive keyboard work. A further point worth noting is to make sure that a 'bleep' sound is heard when a key is depressed, as this acknowledges that the entry has been made. It was found on the odd occasion that if you pressed a key off centre, that the entry would not be registered. As stated before, a feature of this computer is that most keys have up to four functions. The first function is obtained by just pressing a key, the second by pressing the SHIFT key at the same time as any other, the third using the CTRL key in the same manner as the SHIFT key and the fourth - to quote the 'Basic Reference Manual' ... 'is a little more complicated'. Firstly, the CTRL & RETURN keys must be pressed together and then the CTRL and any key pressed. This large number of keyboard functions has meant that most of the BASIC commands and functions appear on the keyboard somewhere and can be printed to the screen at the touch of a few buttons. However, I did find that in some cases it was much quicker to ignore this facility and just type in the word manually rather than hunt all over the keyboard for a single key!!
Apart from the omission of a backspace key as mentioned earlier, the other editing facilities on the VZ 200 are very good. Many of the features provided are only seen on more expensive computers. A good example of this is the ability to move the cursor to any point on the screen using 'cursor control keys'. Another good feature is the repeat facility which comes into operation if a key is held down for more than one second - that key is repeated until it is released. Two special editing features available on the VZ 200 are the INSERT and RUBOUT keys. The INSERT keys allows empty spaces to be put into a line at the cursor position, whilst moving all the characters to the right of the cursor along one space. The RUB-OUT key works in reverse to the above, by deleting the character under which the cursor appears.

Next on the list for first impressions is the sound and graphics displays. The sound quality from the system was rather disappointing on the whole. The sound is generated from within the computer not through the TV speaker and was low in volume and sounded a bit "tinny", to add, the computer lacks a control. The 2 1/2 active range with 9 different note lengths does not, in our opinion, allow for "serious music programming" as stated in the advertising.

The graphics on the other hand are good for a small home computer. In total eight different colours are available and these can be projected onto the two different background colours. Within the graphics display there are two modes available, the text mode and the graphics mode. When the computer is first turned on it is in the normal text mode. The screen for this mode is divided into 16 lines each with 32 characters. For graphic programming this mode displays 64 x 32 dots over the screen. The colour of each dot can be changed using the "COLOR" command (note the American spelling, English spelling leads to a syntax error!) The colours are: Green, Yellow, Blue, Red, Buff, Cyan, Magenta and Orange. The second mode, is a "higher resolution graphics mode", i.e. there are more dots on the screen, hence more detail can be used in pictures etc. This second mode is obtained using the MODE command. For this second mode only 4 colours are available with each of the two background colours instead of the usual 8 colours. One thing we did notice when experimenting with the graphics is that only the graphic characters change colour, the text or commands on the screen do not change colour unless the background colour is changed.

The Dick Smith VZ 200 comes complete with 8K RAM (2K for screen, 6K for user programs) which can be expanded up to 24K bytes. The 16K RAM has a built-in Basic Interpreter and operating system. Because no computer system is complete without some form of data or program storage, also included with the computer is an interconnection lead for a cassette recorder. The lead has a stereo plug on one end (computer) and two minute jack plugs on the other (cassette player). Any standard cassette player can be used, although Dick Smith does offer his own brand, which was the type used in their review. This cassette recorder has had the volume and tone levels preset to provide the best read/write levels. Apart from this no additional features are offered, although the cassette recorder is colour co-ordinated with the computer.
The system can be easily expanded by adding plug-in modules. The plug-in modules available at present are: a 16K ex-pansion RAM, a Printer Interface, and a joystick interface.

The 16K RAM Memory expansion is very useful if you are writing or using large programs, or if you are intending to buy a lot of the software available. Some of the games available on cassette require 24K of memory. If you do not intend to expand the basic system the sockets at the back of the computer can be covered with the handy metal plates provided. These plates will keep dust and dirt, not to mention little fingers, out of the sockets.

The Printer Interface and the Joystick Interface share the same socket, needless to say the system does not operate both at the same time. The Joystick Interface is connected to two joysticks. A more generous length of cable for the joysticks would lead to more relaxed playing; because at present one must sit very close to the computer. The joysticks appear reasonably hardy although a little on the small side and do get knocked around a bit with particularly exciting games. If you are going to play a lot of games joysticks are a worthwhile investment.
The Printer Interface is bought separately and this means that the printer of your choice (please check that the interface will support the printer you wish to buy) can be added to the system. The interface unit supports external centrenics-bus dot-matrix, daisy wheel or printer plotters. An important thing well worth noting with most computers is that all power must be disconnected to the computer before any of the plug-in modules are connected.

An added advantage of this entire system is that all the software and hardware is readily available through a mail-order service which Dick Smith offers in his "NZ Enthusiasts Catalogue 83/84". This is a special bonus if you don't live in a main centre.

The written material provided with the computer, the "BASIC Reference Manual" is well worth a look, even if you are familar with the BASIC computing language. The manual is written in such a way as to explain each command and then to give a worked example of how the command is used. Also very useful in the back of the book is a list of Error Messages and their causes - this section will be referred to constantly when de-bugging a program. The other manual supplied is a collection of Basic Application Programs. The manual has been written to aid the new computer user in understanding some simple programming techniques. It is aimed specifically at the beginner. 

In conclusion, the Dick Smith VZ 200 offers a good investment for the first-time computer buyer. For around $300.00 you as the investor, get a complete up and running system from the Basic Interpreter to sound graphics and editing facilities. Many of the features found in this computer are only found in more expensive systems, and once these facilities have been mastered the system can be expanded with additional memory, a printer and joystick - to grow as you grow.

In all, the VZ 200 allows a beginner to learn all the fundamentals of computers, can be used as great family entertainment, and most importantly should not be too far out-side the household budget price range.

Thanks to Murray Moffatt from New Zealand

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