Oddball Micros: Oric, The World's First £100 Colour Personal Computer
By James Grahame
I miss the technological excitement of the early 1980s, especially since I wasn't old enough to fully participate the first time around. Computers are commodity items in the 21st century; the purchase choice usually boils down to a PC or Mac. Anything beyond that is usually a matter of personal taste and wealth: processor speed, operating system, and maybe a blindingly fast graphic card and massive hard drive or two.
It's all amazingly dull when compared to the rough-and-tumble Wild West of 1983.
Sinclair started a frenzied (and somewhat silly) price war with the introduction of their incredibly low cost ZX80 and ZX81 computers. They were extremely limited machines, with only 1 or 2 kilobytes or RAM and B&W TV-compatible output. Still, millions of people leapt at the opportunity to own a real personal computer. Most of the major manufacturers panicked when they saw how much attention these machines were generating, and they rushed their own ultra low-cost machines to market. Of course, the flood of low cost computers in 1983/1984 turned out to be a passing fad: most of them were too limited to be of real use, and millions of them migrated from the living room to the basement closet.
A number of smaller companies decided to jump into the fray as well, including Oric Products International. Their Oric-1 earns a place in the Retro Thing Hall of Fame for being the first sub-£100 ($200) colour machine to hit the market. For that price, buyers received a 6502A-based machine capable of displaying eight colours (including black and white) with a whopping 16K of RAM and a versatile 3-voice sound generation chip (the General Instruments AY-3-8912).
The computer offered a respectable "extended BASIC" programming language, 240 x 200 graphics and a 57-key chiclet keyboard. Program storage was cassette-based at 2400 bps. There was also a Centronics parallel printer port to connect a dot matrix printer. My favourite feature? Typing ZAP, PING, SHOOT or EXPLODE produced the corresponding sound effect. Perfect when coding quick and dirty games in BASIC.
Many customers found themselves waiting two or three months for the delivery. To make things worse, many of these wanna-be users had previously canceled orders for the Sinclair Spectrum because Sinclair was unable to deliver as promised. The Oric was also seriously ugly, a design oversight that should never be underestimated. Over 200,000 Oric-1 computers were sold in the UK and Europe -- not a resounding success, but enough to keep the company alive. They went on to release the Atmos, Stratos and Telestrat before running out of money in late 1986.