Written by David Tebbutt, MicroScope 05/84 item 02 - scanned

WHO'LL FORM QL QUEUES (column)

As one of PCW's benchtesters, I recently laid my hands on the elusive QL and it occurred to me that you might like to know what it is. One the face of it, the QL is a peculiar beast: it needs a separate television or a monitor, it uses those horrid little Microdrives and, at first anyway, you have to buy it mail order. Compound these things with the fact that it's already very late, that what exists even now is not a complete product, and that Sinclair has millions of pounds of would-be buyers' money and you would be forgiven for thinking all sorts of nasty things about Sinclair Research. Maybe this is all a ploy to distract you from the reality of the QL.

Maybe Sinclair wants to put across this tacky image so that you won't take the machine very seriously when it finally does appear. I say you should take the QL seriously. At least seriously enough to realise what it is and where it fits. For what it's worth I'd now like to throw in my two penn'orth and tell you what I think QL is and whose money it's after.

First of all it is a well-engineered piece of equipment. One of the things I quite missed inside the review machine were bits of wire, plasticine and sellotape patching it and holding it together. The only peculiar thing on the hardware front was the plug in ROM pack at the back which contained the overflowing code from the SuperBasic and the operating system, QDOS. Sinclair tells me that machines will be going out with these ROM packs for a couple of months. It should be fun watching them being recalled in a few months to have the internal ROMs fitted. At least Sinclair allowed for this in the design of the circuit board.

Sure the QL offers a 68008 processor, 128K of memory and so on, but the most important thing is what the machine can actually do, and the answer is 'much'. Sinclair has stitched up a deal with Psion whereby it supplies the four bundled application packages for the QL. A word processor, a spreadsheet, a business graphics package and a database system are provided with every QL. Couple this with the limited capacity of Microdrives (from 100K each) and you start to perceive the target market. I would say the QL is aimed squarely at the serious personal computer user, with the emphasis very much on the word 'personal'.

To look at it another way, I reckon the QL is aimed at the sort of people who would buy a lap-held or a Macintosh. They are people who need to use one or more of the applications mentioned but they don't want to get involved in the expense of a 'proper' computer or the hassle of sharing with others. They certainly aren't looking to run their business on it although I've seen businesses running on machines with a lot less power than the QL. - The Basic in the machine is not at all bad, and it really doesn't need the GOTO and GOSUB commands which it carries for compatibility. The language is extensible using the PROCedure DEFinition structure. All sorts of other structures are built-in and it is a vast improvement on previous Sinclair Basics. The operating system allows you to define separate windows on the screen, each of which can run a separate application or contain some different aspect of the current application. The Microdrives are fast sometimes and slow at others; it rather depends on what you're trying to do. Program loading currently takes roughly a second per Kbyte of code. This is to be speeded up to six times faster by tweaking the operating system code.

At the moment the machine can only be purchased mail-order. For the audience the machine seems to be aimed at, I think this is a bit of a problem. Those who are used to machines already and haven't become disillusioned by recent broken promises will probably go ahead and order. The great unwashed, ie. the computer illiterate, will probably prefer to wait until the machine is in the shops so they have someone to beat up if anything goes wrong. The price and the bundled packages make the QL in many ways quite irresistible. You definitely need a printer and some sort of display but whichever way you look at it a computer system is yours for less than £1000.

That's the pitch of the QL. Sinclair clearly hopes that professional buyers will be as casual about support and help as the buyers of their previous ZX computers. If the company is right then an enormous market could be on the verge of opening up for it. Providing the machine and software prove to be as reliable as that for, say, the Spectrum then I think Sinclair could do rather well. If it's not then I don't envy the people running QLUB, the users' club, which undertakes to answer all queries, provide updates, and produce a regular newsletter. They could be inundated.