Acorn/PRES Plus 1
This is usually the first addon that Electron owners opt for, though there are alternatives available such as the Slogger ROMbox+ or the Plus 2. This interface is the one produced by Acorn themselves; later on PRES continued to produce their own version of the Plus 1. I have swapped my original Plus 1 ROM for a Slogger Expansion ROM v2.02 to allow for extra commands such as *JOYSTICK and *ROMS.
SLOGGER Plus 2
Offered by Slogger as an alternative to the popular Plus 1 expansion, this board plugs directly into the back of the Electron and has a through connector to allow for further expansion bus devices such as the Plus 1 to also be connected. My Plus 2 came as a bare PCB which I purchased on the StarDot forum; I populated it with advice from the very knowledgeable members there! The Plus 2 allows for RS423 connectivity (with an extra circuit), and provides a User Port, three ROM sockets and two Cartridge slots. There was a case released called the RX which contained everything, PC style.
SLOGGER Master RAM Board
The MRB upgrade gives the Electron three states, each selectable by a switch on the side of the computer:
Normal mode (functions as a from-the-factory vanilla Electron)
Turbo mode (gives a significant speed increase that is useful with a lot of software)
64k mode (increases the available RAM, to, for example, allow limited compatibility with BBC B software.)
Some work has begun over at Andy's Arcade to see which Beeb games work on a 64k Electron. I've done a video doing a comparison of a Beeb program running on BeebEm and also on my Elk in 64k mode with the Jafa Mode 7 Simulator ROM running.
JAFA Systems Mode 7 Simualtor ROM
One of the things that the Acorn Electron did not have, that it's big brother the Beeb did, was a Mode 7 or Teletext mode.
This mode allowed for colourful Teletext display but took up minimal memory. Having access to a Mode 7 on the Electron opened up access to lot of the BBC B software that would not otherwise run on the Elk. (Mode 7 expansion of the Elk was often coupled with the Slogger MRB, which gave a 64k mode so that even more Beeb titles would run.)
There were a few ways that Elk users could get around this:
- the Jafa Mode 7 Display Unit which was a hardware expansion that added 'full' Mode 7 functionality to the Electron. These are hard to source nowadays though.
- the Jafa Mode 7 ROM, which I have in my system, that uses software to simulate Mode 7 within Mode 2 on the Electron. Not as functional as the hardware solution, but pretty good!
The ROM works well, but I find screen refresh a little slow, even with the Electron running in Turbo mode on the MRB. The ROM comes with built-in Prestel Terminal and understands Teletext control codes.
Over on the galax.xyz site there's some very useful Teletext tools, including a Graphics Generator to give you the VDU codes from your design.
Electron User Port (EUP) with UPURS Transfer Suite
Probably my most-loved and vital addition to my Elk! This is the EUP and ROM-based UPURS software suite, designed by Martin Barr, that allows several transfer options with PCs as well as increased connectivity to the Electron through the two user ports.
The UPURS commands allow for the transfer of both single sided (ssd) and double sided (dsd) disk images to and from the Elk, thus allowing a physical disk to be created on the Electron from an ssd image on the PC and the other way around. You can also transfer ROM images to the Elk and back again and also load data directly into the Electron memory, for example the digitised image that you can see on the Contact page of this site. Cassette loading can also be achieved on the Electron from a tape image (uef) on the PC, resulting in tape games being loaded much faster than when using the traditional method.
The manual for the EUP & UPURS is available as a PDF file on the Retro-Kit website.
Example of UPURS use: Transferring an image to the Electron
I love the idea that my Electron can display good quality images, such as digitised photographs. Back in the 80's, this would have been even more impressive! Of course there were digitisers available, such as the WE Beeb Video Digitiser but these were pretty expensive and are now pretty rare. To use one now on your Elk you would need an extra interface, such as the PRES AP5, which is in itself fairly rare (although there is a redesigned AP5 available from Retro Hardware!).
An alternative method that lets you impress your retro buddies with near-photo-quality images on your Elk screen employs the help of UPURS. You will need:
an Acorn Electron
Plus 1, Rombox, Plus 2 or similar
the Electron User Port & UPURS suite as detailed above
a PC or laptop
the BBC Micro Image Converter (incorporating Image2BBC) by Francis G. Loch, Dreamland Fantasy Studios.
Using the BBC Image Converter on your PC, select a source picture or photograph and choose a Mode for the output Electron image. I usually use Mode 4 which produces a nice quality black and white interpretation. Using the Converter, you can select various filters and so on to get the final image looking nice.
In the example image shown here, the original is on the left and the converted beeb/elk output in on the right. In this example screenshot, output is in Mode 2 but we will be working with Mode 4.
Once you are happy with way your image looks, Save it; I give mine a name that reminds me of the way it was converted - as this is going to be a Mode 4 image on my Elk i call it "art_md4_5800" with 5800 being the HIMEM value for Mode 4 on the Electron.
Having converted our image into something that the Electron can understand, we next need to actually transfer it across to the Elk. This is where UPURS comes in. For all of my transfers, I use a package on the PC side called Hercules (as detailed in the Electron UPURS manual). For detailed guidelines on all UPURS transfers, see the manual for the Elk UPURS suite, but for the purposes of our example exercise I have set "art_md4_5800" as the file to send from my PC in Hercules and called for it on the Electron side with the UPURS command *UPLOAD 5800, making sure I have switched the Elk to Mode 4 first.
This is fine, but the command text will corrupt the image on the Electron once it has been sent over, so we first need to set up a text box on-screen first and change the COLOUR to 0 so that any text is hidden and does not corrupt our new image. I usually do this by entering MODE 4, then COLOUR 0 followed by a CLS. Then, using VDU 28,0,0,0,0 to set a text box up that doesnt interfere with our image (see page 92 of the Acorn Electron User Guide) you can go on to call the image over from the PC using *UPLOAD 5800 (It's also worth adding a VDU 23,1,0;0;0;0; in there to before that to remove the blinking cursor).
You will need to be careful typing that bit in as you won't be able to see what you're typing since it will be black and in a small text window! Once the image is displayed on the screen on the Electron, you either save it to tape or disk or print it using a screen dump routine, or, theoretically, manipulate it using an art package (though I haven't had a great deal of success with the latter).
To save the image to disk, I use *SAVE
In this example, I am going to go on a step further and print out a dump of the screen using Beebug DUMPMASTER rom, which i have imaged onto disk and transferred into SWRAM on my Elk (a later how-to, I think) ;-)
You can see in the earlier image conversion example screenshot that I had the output showing as a MODE 2 picture, but I like the monochrome feel of MODE 4 and as I only have a black ink ribbon for my Star LC-100 dot matrix, this is what I usually work with.
The Redesigned and Reissued AP5 from Retro Hardware
One add-on that I was desperate to get my hands on back in the day was the Advanced Plus 5 by P.R.E.S. Of all the expansions created for the Elk back then, this one really opened a lot of 'Beeb' doors.
Dave Hitchins (formerly of PRES) has redesigned the AP5 and released it via Retro Hardware on the StarDot forum in kit form, built pcb with the option of metal case.
In the words of the Retro Hardware AP5 manual:
"The AP5 is an interface card for the Acorn Electron that is fitted with either a Plus 1 or a Slogger ROMBox 2 fitted. It provides the following features:
BBC compatible Tube interface
BBC compatible 1MHz interface
2 x User Ports with one of them BBC compatible
3 x configurable IC sockets"
The board has support for (E)UPURS so that a 9-pin D-type connector can be used to connect to serial links for communication with other puters. I use the FTDI serial to usb that I use with my EUP board and the UPURS rom from that board. As far I can tell, all that works fine and it's nice to see the awesomeness that is UPURS supported here.
PRES AP34 Interface & Floppy Drives
Connecting to one of the Cartridge slots on an expansion such as the Plus 1 or Slogger Plus 2, the AP34 floppy disk interface provides connectivity to one or more floppy drives.
Driver support comes in the way of either DFS (AP4) or ADFS (AP3) on ROM plugged into one of the slots inside the interface itself. There is provision to have both ROMs in place, thus creating the AP34.
My setup currently has either 2 x 3.5" drives (double sided) or a double Cumana 40/80 T switchable 5.25" drive (single sided).
3-Button (AMX) Mouse
Mouse control is via the User Port to control certain compatible programs, for example the Electron version of AMX Art, shown in the image below.
Electron mice are typically 3-buttoned, with the function of each button defaulting to Execute, Menu and Cancel, from left to right. That said, it is possible for these functions to be reassigned to other functions, depending on the software being used.
To use a mouse through the user port you will also require a mouse driver ROM specifically for the Electron, such as the one that came with the PRES/AMX Art package. Again, I had a tremendous amount of help from StarDot in the finding and tweaking of a ROM image that worked in my Elk setup.
br> Speaking of control devices, I also have a Slogger Joystick interface that allows connection of a switched, Atari-style joystick to my setup.
Dot-Matrix and Microvitec CUB Monitor
I didn't have a printer connected to my Elk BITD; this lovely dot-matrix is now most welcome! I sometimes use the Electron to do letters using my View cartridge, but mostly I just like to print out doodles I've done on the Art package ;-)
I like this printer a lot as there is a ready supply of ink ribbons still cheaply available.
BITD we had the Elk hooked up to our telly at first, then later (late 80's) on I had it all to myself in my bedroom with it's own portable TV! More recently, I acquired this lovely Microvitec CUB Monitor from Dave Hitchins (formerly of P.R.E.S., aka Dave H on StarDot) when the wife and I went up to Wakefield show, 2013. Always wanted one of these monitors as they were the ones we had at school linked up to the BBC B's... how can such an aged monitor have such a crystal clear picture still!!!!!?
update: the CUB went bang yesterday :'( back to using an old CRT telly but hey ho, the picture is still good!
further update: I have now found the time to take the CUB apart and have a look; one of the little 1A glass fuses had blown! Replaced that and we are up and running again! I need replace the capacitors when I get a chance though; like in so many old items of electrical equipment these are prone to fail over time.
WARNING: risk of electric shock! don't open your CUB up whilst it is plugged in and ideally give it 24 hours unplugged to discharge fully before you do ;-)
PACE Nightingale Modem connected to RS423
Connects to my system via a Pace Micro Technology RS423 Communications Cartridge, allowing my Electron to dialup and connect to Bulletin Board Services via the telephone line.
My search for an RS423 interface for my Electron has been a long one! Despite the fact that several companies produced these interfaces, not many seem to be in circulation today.
The Pace interface that I use contains the Commstar 1140 (Version E1.12) ROM that gives the user an excellent software comms package to talk to other machines over the telephone line.
A major use for these devices BITD was connecting to Bulletin Board Services; very few of these exist today - most accept only connections over Telnet now - but there are two remaining in the UK that still accept dial in connections:
Nostromo BBS on 01582 600882
and Arcade BBS on 020 8654 2212
One of my projects is to host a dial in BBS on my Electron; a few of these did exist BITD but the Elk needed a bit of beefing up first - you need the 64k that comes with MRB, two floppy drives and ideally a way of entering Mode 7 on your Elk. I have all of these hardware addons now, but I am still lacking the BBS software itself. The quest continues!
As time goes by, things seem to have evolved as they would and I spend more and more time creating content on the PC itself, but with the spirit of the Acorn machines at the heart of it. I keep one foot in the pool that is pixelly way of creating art, one ear in the simple bleeps and bops of the sound.
As of September 2019, the PC spec is: AMD Ryzen 5 1600X 3.6GHz (4 GHz Turbo) Hex-Core CPU with Cooler Master MasterAir G100M CPU cooler
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1060 6GB Graphics Card
16GB Apacer Panther 2666MHz DDR4 Memory (in 2 x 8GB)
1 TB Seagate FireCuda Solid State Hybrid Drive
Gigabyte AB350 Gaming Motherboard.
Aerocool Integrator 700W 80+ PSU.
OS wise, I'm back on Windows 10, but only because I'm addicted to Skyrim and Fallout lol.
The Intuos BT (medium) has been a really excellent tool; I use it a lot with GIMP.
the Atari STe
I was a miggy boy after I had my Electron and then C64 back in the day (I had an A500+), but a few years ago I got hold of an Atari STe and I've never looked back. I love the ST and it feels like it is oozing with character and just find it so nice to use. My STe has 4mb of RAM and an UltraSatan SD card hard drive. I've got a Commodore MK-10 MIDI keyboard hooked up too. Oh, the irony!
the Commodore 64
The C64 that I had BITD was used for homework (honest, guv) and I remember punching out some awesome assignments in GEOwrite then printing them out on the MPS printer. Sadly I don't have that set up now, but I have got hold of another C64C which is very nice. I'm dabbling in PETSCII and the usual artwork, as well as some tracker stuff in Blackbird. Naturally, there's some chilling time with Mutant Camels too =)
Along the way, so many other machines have come and gone! From the Electron in '83 I got a C64 in about '88 or '89, then an Amiga500+ in the early '90s, swiftly followed by an Amstrad PC1512 when my Dad upgraded to a PC1640! Pretty sure there was some form of Apple along the way then since 2000 I've had a variety of Linux and Windows PC and laptops. I got back into 8-bits after 2010 or so and there's been a BBC B, a variety of Speccies and a gorgeous ZX81, a BBC Master 128, but they've all succumbed to being resold when pennies got tight. I currently have (2019) my Electron, PC, C64 and STe that you see here. Sure there will be more though!