Starting to get acquainted with the Sinclair book world
Since the dawning of the ZX-80, hundreds of thousands of words have been written about it and its successor. Each month we will examine some of those words to see if they are of value to users. By Ron Coates.
ONCE YOU have your ZX-81, have set it up and worked your way through the manual provided, the obvious question arises - where do I go from here?
For the Sinclair book, good of its kind, is still only a manufacturer's manual - a guide to the capabilities of the product. It will tell how to do things but is not concerned particularly with why the techniques it describes are useful, nor the best way of attacking a practical program, whether for household accounts or a game.
Do not worry. Publishers are falling over each other to produce books which will aim, with varying degrees of success, to provide the answer for which the new ZX-81 owner is looking.
In the U.K. there are at least 15 manuals generally available for owners of all levels of experience and fields of interest, with new titles appearing almost weekly. That is at least comforting but it raises another problem, that of which to choose. The answer can really be provided by deciding the purpose for which you bought the machine in the first place.
The machine is just a tool. It is how you use it that counts - for enjoyment, for work or for education. The authors and publishers have had somewhat the same problems of trying to decide what information the ZX-81 user might want and how best to impart it.
The approaches generally can be divided into two - that the whole thing should be fun and that the reader should be taught or shown the techniques he needs to know for what he wants to do. Both frequently then leave you to get on with it.
Both are fair enough. The programming techniques learned in computer games are just as applicable to writing a household accounts program as those designed specifically to do so.
We aim to provide a rough guide to the books available, so that you can choose the approach to suit you. All the books assume that the reader has read the manual. Some may say that is not the case but all, have to rely at one point or another on various pieces of information and the explanations in it.
That probably is unavoidable, for if any manual or book tried to explain all its terms and usages in comprehensive detail, it would be long, boring, tedious and, worst of all, very expensive.
The game approach to teaching computer programming has a long history. Many big computer companies and universities discovered that one of the best ways of teaching programming was for the students to design their own games and run them on a machine.
It was regarded by the teachers and students as a painless way of learning how to make the machine work and do what was required of it. When you think that the alternative was to read a number of manuals and then write programs to work out the VAT on any quantity of widgets, it also worked.
That is the approach followed by one of the pioneer ZX-80 writers, Tim Hartnell, who has a number of titles to his credit of scaled degrees of difficulty. Getting acquainted with your ZX-81 starts at the lowest level.
It aims to have the reader start using the machine as soon as it can be hooked to the television. The explanatory text is held to a bare minimum, as are the other books. There is a page-and-a-half of introduction and Hartnell then expects you to key-in the first game to see how it works and enjoy it. Then he explains what has happened. Through the book games of greater complexity are listed, most to demonstrate a programming technique or facility of the machine - tricks with the screen, specialised functions in mathematics and so on.
His other book, Making the most of your ZX-80 and Stretching your ZX-81 or ZX-80 are continuations of increasing complexity and I found that stretching referred more to me than it really did to the computer.
The good point is that Hartnell makes the effort to make learning a pleasure and pushes the reader quickly to a point of confidence in programming ability and the ZX-81.
The techniques and uses of the machine are indicated very well by the example programs. The disadvantages are that the books are all revisions of books for the ZX-80 and Hartnell has had neither the time nor resources to make it clear which listings of programs are for which machine.
His explanations are terse, occasionally to the verge of incomprehensibility, but he never says anything without reason and you can generally grasp the point with a little thought.
That may sound damning but on the whole the books are to be recommended because of the successful effort Hartnell has put into judging the level of information he presents in each.
A book which tries to cover much the same ground is The ZX81 Pocket Book by Trevor Toms. The author has made an effort to extend his explanation - for instance each line of programming code is explained if it is novel - and do more than provide a series of listings to type into the machine.
It is not really for the absolute beginner but embraces most of the techniques dealt with by Hartnell's three books. Readers will probably find his explanations easier to follow, because of his step-by-step notation.
For the person who wishes to take the ZX-81 really seriously, The ZX-81 Companion is one of the better books. It is different in concept from the others reviewed. The author is an academic and his style, while not heavy-handed, shows it. Programs and examples are presented clearly but he is obviously addressing himself to the ZX-81 owner who wants to move as quickly as possible from the manual to using the machine for teaching, business or household accounting.
Next month we will look at more serious books and the delightful Peek, Poke, Byte and Ram.