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Remembering the Dragon 32 and 64

Looking back at the Dragon 32 computer from the 80s

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Dragon 32 Computer
Dragon 32 Computer. More

Invisible Dragon

Like the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, the Dragon 32 was released in 1982. However, I don’t recall the machine having very high profile — at least in my circles.

Once I heard about the Dragon, I was curious about it, and wondered how it compared to machines which were more familiar to me, such as the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Apple II and BBC Micro.

Hardware

The Dragon computers were related to the Tandy / Radio Shack TRS-80 Color Computer, also known as CoCo. As you might expect, the Dragon 32 had 32 KB of RAM, and the 64 model (which came out a year later) had twice the amount.

The 6809 processor sounded quite impressive — until you noticed its clock speed of 0.89 MHz! I don’t think I’ve seen any other home computers which are clocked slower.

Despite the low clock speed, the 6809 was quite powerful for an 8-bit microprocessor, having some 16-bit features as well. That meant that the Dragon was not at a disadvantage in terms of processing power, compared to computers based on the more common 6502 or Z80 chips.

There was no built-in support for lower case letters, rather like the original Apple II. But the Dragon did have support for analogue joysticks and a light pen. And like most home computers, programs were generally stored on audio cassette. There was also a ROM cartridge slot, for almost instant loading.


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Graphics and Sound

Graphics capability was somewhat limited, with modes ranging from 256 x 192 monochrome to 128 x 192 with four colours. There was a choice of two colour palettes for each mode. Text mode was 32 x 16, black on green.

Regarding sound, initially the Dragon seemed rather like the ZX Spectrum or Apple II, in that it seemed to have a single channel which generated simple pulses or square waves. But some websites describe its sound along the lines of ‘1 voice and 5 octaves in BASIC, and 4 voices with 7 octaves via. machine code’.

After some digging, it seems that it has a DAC which can be routed to the sound output. So I imagine that’s how more complex sounds were generated, if you weren’t using BASIC — although I’d think it would take up a lot of CPU time.

Introduction to Basic Using the Dragon
Dragon BASIC programming manual. More

Brief Encounter

As luck would have it, some time in the mid-80s, my sister’s boyfriend bought a used Dragon 32. He didn’t seem to know much about computers, so she asked me to test it. Always keen to try any kind of new gadget, I jumped at the chance. I remember spending quite a few hours playing around with the machine.

The Dragon had a good keyboard, and a good version of BASIC built-in (provided by Microsoft). It wasn’t a very big machine like the BBC Micro, but neither was it tiny like the ZX Spectrum or Oric 1. The sound and graphics facilities were rather limited, compared to machines like the Commodore 64.

Initially, the thing that made the Dragon seem most interesting was its use of the slightly more powerful 6809 processor. But in the end, it was just a decent general purpose computer, which somehow failed to stand out in any particular way.

Conclusion

I think the Dragon was aimed at a more serious kind of user. Its limited graphics and different CPU meant that less software was available for it. Apart from that brief time in the 80s using one, I had never owned one until a few years ago. (Like quite a few of my vintage computers, the Dragon 32 was a present from my late wife.)

Dragon 32 with Accessories
Dragon 32 with joysticks and power supply. More

Do you have memories of using the Dragon 32 or 64?
Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Related Articles

Memorable 1980s Home and Personal Computers

Remembering the Sinclair ZX Spectrum
Remembering the Commodore 64
Remembering the Apple II Series
Remembering the BBC Micro

External Links

Story of the Dragon 32 (The Register)
Dragon 32/64 (Wikipedia)
Dragon 32 (Retrogamer)
TRS-80 Color Computer (Wikipedia)
Dragon Hardware (6809.org.uk)


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Creator of the Jigsaw Mix website. Presently programming and writing. Previously spent 25+ years developing electronics and software, particularly for embedded systems based on microcontrollers. Other interests include music and cars. Widowed aged 44 in 2013. More

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