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Old 10 October 2015, 23:38   #6
Quazar
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Join Date: Sep 2014
Location: Edinburgh, Scotland
Posts: 31
Just thought I'd pop back to this thread to paste in the article I wrote for 'Retro Fusion' back in the mid 2000s. It in two parts - the first a brief history of the SAM Coupe, and the second about what I've done (and still continue to do!) for the machine.

It is now rather dated as it was written around 2006 - as I've continued to design and release more hardware, software and magazines for another 9 years since I wrote the article!

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The SAM Coupé, a true gem of an 8 bit home computer. For over the last eleven years I have been heavily involved with designing hardware and software for the SAM Coupé and single handedly running 'Quazar', the last SAM company that's still going.

Over the years the SAM has had quite an eventful history but how did it all start?

In the mid 1980's Miles Gordon Technology Plc (MGT for short), lead by Alan Miles and Bruce Gordon, concentrated on hardware for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, with their flagship products being the Disciple disk interface and later superseded by the '+D' disk interface. But they were thinking higher with their aim to create a new computer to go head to head with the Atari ST and the Amiga.

In early 1988 they announced they were working on the SAM Coupé which was met with a lot of enthusiasm. Magazines featured interviews and progress reports, showing the stage at which the early prototypes were at, and followed the progress as the specifications of the machine grew.

The SAM Coupé's concept was to be a cheap 8-bit micro, but with capabilities matching the 16-bits computers, and to an extent the final specifications did come closely up to par with the likes of the Atari ST.

The SAM is powered by a 6MHz Z80 processor, and was originally offered with either 256K or 512K of memory and had a 32K ROM which held the built in BASIC that was written by Dr Andrew Wright. As well as the processor at the heart of the SAM was the custom ASIC chip that was designed by Bruce which provides the core housekeeping functions of the SAM including graphics, MIDI and memory control etc. Originally to have been manufactured by Fujitsu, MGT finally chose VLSI to make the chip, and with the change in manufacturer and size of the custom chip possible it allowed more features to be added than originally intended.

The ASIC gave the SAM four graphics modes: Mode 1 mimicked the screen memory of the ZX Spectrum (256x192 pixels, with 8x8 attributes). This was to be a key part of MGT's strategy with the SAM. They were banking on sales by having a ZX Spectrum emulator bundled with the SAM so it would appeal to current Spectrum owners, who would then hopefully upgrade to a SAM instead of say an Amiga as it would be possible for them to continue to use their current collection of Spectrum games. Mode 2 was an extended attribute mode giving a screen resolution of 256x192 pixels, with 8x1 attributes, similar to what was added to the Sinclair Timex computers in the USA. The other two modes were true bitmap modes: Mode 3 was a high resolution mode of 512x192 pixels, with 4 colours out of a 128 palette. And finally Mode 4 was the main SAM graphics mode used which gives a resolution of 256x192 pixels with 16 colours out of the 128. (More colours could be used by changing the palette registers during the screen update.)

Sound was provided by a off the shelf soundchip from Philips - the SAA1099, which gives six channel stereo sound using FM synthesis and two noise generators, effectively giving the SAM double the sound capabilities of the Atari ST. Full MIDI capabilities were also built into the SAM as standard.

A few innovative ideas were also implemented that made the SAM Coupé stand out. The case featured two internal bays for the disk drives to slip into to easily upgrade the machine easily, and there was also a SCART socket on the back to give composite video and RGB outputs - something that wasn't seen before or since on a home computer.

Initially touted for a launch in the late summer of 1989 it was not after several months of delays that the SAM Coupé was finally launched in December 1989. Sadly, there were still further hiccups with the launch. The disk drives that were to have been launched at the same time were delayed even further, with users having to rely on cassette tapes for several months before they became available. And to make matters worse when the disk drives were released there was a bug in the ROM which meant users had to type in a CALL instruction to get the DOS executing correctly resulting in MGT having to rush out version 2 of the ROM chip free of charge to all existing SAM owners.

But the outlook for the SAM started to brighten up. MGT hosted a roadshow around England and made numerous appearances at the popular All-Formats computer fairs, along with coverage in multi-format and Sinclair computer magazines boosted publicity for MGT and the SAM. However, games were thin on the ground. Top software houses at the time, including Ocean, US Gold and Codemasters, all initially expressed an interest in producing games for the SAM Coupé. But it soon grew apparent their interest was shifting to the 16-bit machines, and a vicious circle became evident - they wouldn't write software until more machines were sold, and people wouldn't buy the machines until there was more software.

The SAM hadn't even been out a year by the time in late 1990 Miles Gordon Technology went bust and folded. However, within a very short space of time Alan Miles and Bruce Gordon were personally able to raise enough capital to buy back the assets and form a new company together - SAM Computers Ltd, or SAMCo as it was became affectionately known as.

Once again the SAM was back in production and now available fitted with 512K as standard, with at least one disk drive to provide programmers a base level to aim for, there was no need for games having to be limited to run in 256K or load in from tape.

With a whole new sense of direction SAMCo ploughed ahead. New hardware emerged including 1 Megabyte memory expansions, communications interfaces increasing the capabilities and connectivity of the SAM. SAMCo also formed Revelation, their own software label, which attracted the attention of coders and soon a wide variety of games were available on the SAM - including Prince of Persia which was licensed from Domark/Broderbund and was able to rival the popular 16-bit versions. They also started the 'SAMCo Newsdisk' magazine disk in early 1992 which became highly popular, and kept SAM users fully up to date with the latest news, developments and demos.

At the same time, more companies were forming, Blue Alpha Electronics who had very close ties to SAMCo, produced new SAM hardware including a sound sampler and a speech synthesiser, several SAM specific software houses formed and released new games and magazine disks. Overall there was a wealth of games and software available.

However, behind the scenes, SAMCo was slowly going down, and in June 1992 SAMCo went into liquidation. It was the end of the game for Alan and Bruce.

But the SAM lived on with Blue Alpha Electronics taking over the front role for production of the SAM for a short time, as a stop gap until West Coast Computers was formally. West Coast Computers was specifically started up to carry on manufacturing and selling the SAM Coupé.

In 1994, West Coast updated the SAM's image - with what they termed a new model - the "SAM Elite". However that was simply a SAM Coupé with a built in printer interface, a tweaked ROM, and sticky labels covering the old SAM Coupé logo on the case, a bit of a bodge in all honesty and the name SAM Elite has never been used to refer to the machines, they are still just referred to as SAM Coupés by everyone!

West Coast did carry on until 1999 with SAM's available all throughout that time, however West Coast came to an abrupt stop in early 1999 when it's operator, Bob Brenchley, disappeared along with 'Format' the SAM / Spectrum magazine which he also produced. 1999 also saw most other SAM companies shut down operations too, but I ploughed on....


So how did I get involved with the SAM Coupé myself?


Although I had followed the progress of the SAM through what I read in magazines throughout the early years I was a bit of a latecomer to the scene and purchased my first SAM from Blue Alpha Electronics in April 1993. Having only owned a ZX Spectrum by then I was quite amazed by what the SAM could do and within weeks I was tinkering away in BASIC writing a few small games and utilities that were later published on 'Fred', one of the mainstream magazine disks at the time. The following year I wrote a disk recovery utility that was commercially published and I also delved into learning and mastering the art of programming in Z80 assembly language and all the time my interest and passion was growing for the SAM Coupé.

It was around then I decided I had to start up and go it alone with my own company, "Quazar", for my SAM projects as I had a few ideas on the go. At the 4th SAM & Spectrum show held in Gloucester in April 1995 I publicly unveiled my first piece of SAM hardware - the 'Quazar Surround' soundcard.

Computer music had always fascinated me, from how sound could be stored and played back as by then I had heard samples on other computers such as Apple Macs and Amigas and felt the SAM had to have sound to match! The Quazar Surround took a few days to design and the prototype was built over a couple of weeks in December '94 and January '95 and to hear it first playing samples was quite exciting.

I had tried to incorporate the best features I could think off into the design such as making it multichannel to allow many sounds to play at once, and be able to play back 16 bit quality samples to match the latest PC soundcards at the time. From the outset I had also decided to make it support 4 speakers to give it full surround sound capabilities - it really is quite impressive when you can hear the sound all around you and at the time this was really unheard of on soundcards, let alone on an 8-bit computer!

Up until then the SAM had been limited in terms of sample playback, the SAA1099 could be used to play back low quality 4 bit samples, and the Blue Alpha sound sampler gave just one eight bit sound channel and only had a short release back in 1992 so was no longer available.

I knew that software support was to be the key to success with the Quazar Surround, so I also launched Soundbyte, a regular monthly disk with games, utilities and demos all specifically for the Quazar Surround soundcard and it paid off, creating a wealth of software support and also featured programs and music from other coders as well. I produced in total seventy six issues of Soundbyte over the years, with it taking a sabbatical in 2004 so I could concentrate more on other projects, but I'm sure I'll be resurrecting it again for a few more issues with some fresh material sometime in the future.

Although the Quazar Surround was always seen as my flagship product I did deviate away from the sound orientated software too. In 1997 I spent eleven months writing 'Stratosphere', a game to push the SAM to it's limits, featuring fast 3D wireframe graphics in full Mode 4 graphics.

Up until then the only wireframe game on the SAM was a port of the ZX Spectrum version of 'Elite' from Revelation software. To put it simply it was a snapshot of Elite running under spectrum emulation, but patched to save and load from the disk drive. For that fact, and the hefty price tag of £15, it received dreadful reviews. Anyone who wanted to play Elite would just load a snapshot or tape themselves into a Spectrum emulator instead of paying through the nose for the privilege.

So I felt Stratosphere was a chance to show what the SAM could do, and to say I was pleased with the results would be an understatement when Stratosphere went on to receive rave reviews.

It was quite disheartening when elsewhere all went quiet in 1999, with all the other SAM companies and West Coast Computers vanishing or shutting up shop. The only dedicated SAM publication left going was 'SAM Community', a paper based fanzine produced by Gavin Smith, a very keen SAM user in Northern Ireland, but that too stopped in late 2000. I had decided to keep Quazar on going as there was still a demand for the Quazar Surround, I was still releasing Soundbyte regularly, and there was still demand for Stratosphere and my other games.

With the demand for SAM products, I was often getting requests for the availability for upgrades such as disk drives and memory upgrades so that kick started some fresh hardware development in 2001 and I was able to offer new disk drives and other standard upgrades for the SAM. It seemed as if the interest in the SAM was slowly, but surely, returning.

In 2002 the SAM scene was getting more lively, I designed and released several new pieces of hardware that year including a mouse interface and a PC Keyboard interface - the latter to connect a PS/2 keyboard to the SAM as replacement keyboard membranes had not been available since the demise of West Coast computers three years previously.

It was also in 2002 I took the plunge to start my own SAM magazine - "SAM Revival" - to fill the void left when all the old SAM publications stopped. Issue 1 was a 44 page paper magazine that launched in August, and it went down a storm bringing news of what I had been doing along with a wide varied mix of articles and reviews from a handful of contributors I had invited to write for the magazine. SAM Revival lived up to it's name, it seemed to kickstart a whole revival of interest in the SAM.

With no slowing in my enthusiasm for the SAM I went on to design and release more hardware in 2003. The most interesting being a piece being for my own curiosity's sake and my interest with computer music. I had decided to take the famous 'SID' soundchip from the Commodore 64 and get it working with the SAM.

To meet requests for where to obtain a SAM from I also began to recondition and stock SAM Coupé computers themselves and now usually have several in stock, along with a limited range of early hardware and software titles. From this also stemmed the infamous 'SAM In A Can'. This was again something I built for myself but users soon began to inquire about! Essentially it involves taking an original SAM motherboard and fitting it inside a new aluminium case along with a pile of SAM peripherals! Expensive to build, but it gives the ultimate SAM Coupé setup in one case.

SAM Revival has gone from strength to strength in both content and readership, I expanded the scope of the magazine from issue 9 when I started to include a coverdisk with the magazine which features a range of both old and new software. There's been brand new games as well as old classics - including the full SAM version of Manic Miner which I had obtained distribution rights to from the copyright holder. I know a lot of retro fans are into Manic Miner - if you've never played the SAM Coupé version then you are missing out - as well as the 20 original caverns there are an additional 40 new caverns in the SAM version!

What have I got in store for the future?

Lots! I'm working hard at several new projects at the moment. Software wise I'm in the process of revamping a couple of classic SAM games and also going through a lot of unreleased games that I now own the rights to. It's been fairly time consuming as it is quite a drawn out process giving them a fresh lick of paint and making sure they are finished off to high standards. I've also got one of my own games still on the backburner including a Doom style shooter called 'Chrome' which I originally started initial work on about five years ago.

However the largest project I have on the go is the 'Mayhem Accelerator', which to put it simply accelerates the SAM! As mentioned earlier the SAM runs at 6MHz clock speed, or when the screen is on it is effectively 4.8MHz due to the contended memory (the CPU has to wait when the ASIC accesses the memory to generate the display).

The prototype Mayhem Accelerator is currently running at 16MHz making the SAM run at approximately 303% speed! And this is only the prototype - there is still some extra circuitry to add to refine the timing further, and allow it to achieve it's full speed of 20MHz.

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So that covers me up to 2006.... Since then I've been continuing and produced much more - for more information on everything I do for the SAM Coupé do take a look at the Quazar website at:

www.samcoupe.com
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