After starting out with the Apple II, my high school computer studies class ended up with several BBC Micros as well, making it the second computer that I ever used. Even after the addition of the BBC machines, the class still wasn’t especially well-equipped, with about three pupils for every computer.
The BBC had a good keyboard, and was a fairly sophisticated and well-specified machine. With a 6502 clocked at 2 MHz, it was also one of the faster 8-bit machines. Most other 6502 systems at the time were clocked at around 1 MHz.
The BBC could store programs on tape, using an audio cassette recorder. Alternatively, there was the option to add floppy disk drives. The machine featured a number of expansion ports, allowing a range of add-ons to be connected.
The downside of having all those features was price — it was a bit too expensive for many parents to buy, including mine. Most children at my school seemed to own either a Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Oric 1 or VIC-20 instead.
The built-in analogue and digital interfaces made the BBC a very convenient machine for those wishing to interface it to experimental electronic circuits. There were regular articles in magazines such as Everyday Electronics. Cheaper computers like the ZX Spectrum required more add-on circuitry to do similar things.
Good BASIC Language
The BBC Micro had a relatively large 32K ROM, which unfortunately meant that RAM was limited to 32K in the model B. The cheaper model A only came with 16K of RAM.
The upside of having a larger ROM was that the built-in BASIC was very good, and it was possible to write well-structured programs, at a time when BASIC on other computers often resulted in spaghetti-style code. The BBC also allowed other language ROM chips to be fitted, so it wasn’t just limited to BASIC.
I seem to recall that it was somewhat difficult to find the information I needed in the user manual — but I suspect that another pupil might have ripped out the contents and index pages!
There were several graphics modes, offering a range of resolutions and colours, including 640 x 256 with 2 colours, 320 x 256 with 4 colours, and 160 x 256 with 8 colours. There were also text modes.
Fortunately, the BBC Micro’s BASIC had support for graphics, unlike the Commodore 64 which I would come to use later. I remember experimenting with line drawing in BASIC, and finding it significantly faster than the ZX Spectrum I had at home.
Fun with Sound
I particularly liked playing around with the sound generator, which was far more impressive than the one in my ZX Spectrum. By having a dedicated sound generator chip, the BBC machine could easily produce more complex sounds, without taking up CPU time.
As with the graphics, BBC’s built-in BASIC also had good support for its sound generator. Again, this made it much easier for beginners to program, compared to the Commodore 64 which I would eventually own.
I remember experimenting with the SOUND and ENVELOPE commands during a computer studies lesson. The usual teacher was not in on that day, and the history teacher was standing in. He admitted that he knew nothing about computers — but he did start to get suspicious when all kinds of sounds were coming from the BBC Micro that I was using…
In the early 1980s, the BBC made TV programmes such as The Computer Programme and Making the Most of the Micro, both of which featured their microcomputer. Watching those shows again now really takes me back. Most of them can be found on YouTube — see the links section at the end.
Acorn, the manufacturer of the BBC Micro, also made a cheaper machine called the Electron, but it didn’t really appeal to me. Despite the Electron being compatible with the BBC Micro in a number of ways, it had a poorer specification — e.g. it ran slower and had only one sound channel.
After the BBC Micro, more advanced machines followed, such as the BBC Master, which had 128 KB of RAM. Acorn also went on to develop the ARM processor, which they used in their Archimedes computers. (Most modern smartphones use newer versions of the ARM CPU core.)
All in all, the BBC Micro was a machine which I wanted to own, and take the time to explore in detail. But sadly — apart from my time at school — that never happened. Although I’ve never owned a BBC Micro, I’m pleased to say that several years ago, my wife bought me one of the newer BBC Master computers, which I still have.
Do you have memories of using the BBC Micro?
Share your thoughts in the comments section below.