LGR – Acorn Electron Vintage Computer System Review

LGR – Acorn Electron Vintage Computer System Review

The year: 1982. The setting: England. Acorn computers of Cambridge
had quite a success on their hands with the previous year’s
BBC Microcomputer System. With the backing of the BBC, Acorn’s
machine instantly made a name for itself and ended up seeing major
success in the education market. But with the price of
several hundreds of pounds, it wasn’t nearly as ubiquitous
in the home market. By 1982, competing machines like the
Sinclair ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 were invading English homes in
mass numbers due to several reasons, but mainly because they
were, A, less costly, and, B, had plenty of
games to choose from. The BBC had neither of
these points in its favor so Acorn got to work on a
cut-down version of the Beeb, and in 1983 came up with the Electron, affectionately known as the Elk. It emulated much of the BBC Micro’s
capabilities with a single custom ULA chip and had the same 32K of RAM, but there were limitations
as far as sounds and graphics compared to the BBC. And though it had some initial
setbacks due to manufacturing issues, the Electron eventually sold rather well, being the third-most
popular UK micro at its peak, eventually even outselling its
big brother, the BBC Micro. There was pretty much
only one Electron model, so you won’t be getting confused
looking at tons of hardware revisions. However, you may run across machines
with various add-ons included, like the Plus 1 and Plus 3 interfaces,
and different Slogger boards. These are nice but not required
for normal operation. My Acorn Elk is yet another
donation by UKRetroGames so once again, Mark,
I thank you kindly. Looking on eBay though, I’ve seen them
go for anywhere from about $10-40 USD. And of course, being from Great Britain, you’ll have to take into account
shipping costs if you don’t live there. but it’s a really affordable
machine to acquire. As mentioned, the Elk is essentially
a cut-down version of Acorn’s BBC Micro, and taking a look at it externally,
you can see the resemblance. You get pretty much
the exact same keyboard, minus the separate function and arrow keys. The full-stroke keyboard gives a
completely acceptable tactile experience, not quite the same feel as the Beeb, but similar to the original Macintosh and miles better for
typing than the Spectrum. Unlike the BBC, it has lots of BASIC commands
printed right onto the keys for quick input. And it still has the incredibly awesome
BBC BASIC built into its ROM for a pleasurable programming experience. On the side, you have an
RGB monitor output, cassette input, and RF and composite
monochrome video outputs. Since I don’t have an
RGB monitor or a PAL TV, mine has been modded to output composite
video in color through the composite port. There is no audio output, so all you have is the
internal speaker for sound. On the rear, you have the
Electron-exclusive expansion port for adding things like
the Plus 1 interface for optional printer and joystick support. While it is possible to load
programs from floppy disks, you need some add-ons to accomplish that. So at first, you’ll do best to stick with its
dominant storage medium, the cassette tape. The Electron uses the exact same
1200 baud cassette interface and cable for loading
software as the BBC. All you need is a decent tape recorder
and you’re ready to load software. Although, if you can get a
recorder with a remote input, either a third-party one or
an official one by Acorn, the Electron will take care
of controlling it for you, similar to how the Commodore 64
does with its C2N Datasette. Another nifty fact about the Elk is that it can use a standard
19-volt AC adapter for power, since it’s a UK machine
and uses 220-volt power, and though I have a power converter,
I don’t own its original power supply. Thankfully, I was able to just use an AC adapter
from my Compaq Contura Aero laptop, so I don’t have to fool with
any conversions that way. It is of course a PAL machine, so its
video will output in 50Hz with PAL color. So I just use a vertical hold
adjustable TV and signal converter, or I use it with a USB capture device. It’s a lot simpler that way. But what’s inside driving
all of this madness? Well, much of it is the exact
same thing as the BBC Micro but thanks to the ULA
there’s a lot less to see. You still have the same 32K RAM
and 32K ROM as the BBC, and there’s the uber-classic
MOSS Technology 6502A CPU running at 2MHz, same as the BBC. But in the Elk, it sometimes
runs a bit slower than that due to sharing memory with video
display circuits, among other things. Despite some quite capable graphics modes
ranging from 2-16 colors on-screen at once, it lacks the BBC’s Mode 7 graphics mode, and the sound is also crippled, with only one channel covering
seven octaves of sound and emulation of a noise channel. But that doesn’t mean the Elk isn’t capable
of a surprising amount of awesomeness. There were hundreds, if not thousands,
of titles made for the machine and software is easier to
find than for the BBC Micro. Like the Beeb and pretty much
all UK machines from that time, the games were predominantly on cassette tapes. It sucks there’s no built-in
joystick support, but whatever. The keyboard is more than adequate
if you’re used to computer games. Here are some of my top picks. Now while you can play certain
Electron titles on a BBC Micro, for the most part, you’re not going to be able to
use BBC games and applications on an Electron. So you’re going to want to make sure you get
the versions that state they do work on an Elk. Thankfully, Electron-specific games are quite
easy to come by and there were tons of them. And although they’re not quite
as easy to find and plentiful as, say, the Sinclair
Spectrum’s selection of games, you’ll still run across bunches
of them quite often on eBay. It’s also simple to transfer games over
to cassette using your modern computer. Just download the games and, using a
cassette cable and playback program, record them onto a tape or
load them directly into the Elk. And of course, there’s always the
ever-present emulation option using emulators like Elkulator and ElectrEm. It does a pretty good job, and although I always
prefer the real thing in a perfect world, it is
nice to have in a pinch, or when you don’t want to
wait on tapes to do their loading. So what does it all mean? Is the Acorn Electron worth buying or not? Well, I would say that is a large “yes.” Large– not the biggest in the world, but pretty large. The main thing, of course, as with any
European computer here in America is the fact that it is European
and requires weird power and a weird video signal, which
if you’re not equipped to handle that… That’s a huge struggle. And the fact that all of the hardware and
software is gonna be coming from overseas so you have to deal with that as far as cost… and convenience and such. But, you know, if you
ignore all that, [chuckles] well, yeah, of course.
It’s a great little computer. It’s got a lot of software and for the most part, it’s not crap. At least, the stuff that I have played. You know, I mean, it’s– you know.
Just solid all the way around. I wish it had more things. More options like disk drives and joysticks without a huge hassle for getting interfaces and such. Um, but if that’s really a concern,
I would say go ahead and get a BBC Micro. You know, the Model B can be had for a relatively affordable price. Although, you start getting into
a lot more with that machine because it does have all of those extra options. And, you know, maybe not as many games. I don’t know if it’s not as many, just it’s that they aren’t as easy
to find as the Electron, so… You know, the BBC I feel
is more of a commitment where the Electron, it’s just
sort of a fun machine to have Almost toy like. Um, but you know, still serious enough that
you can really get involved with it and have a lot of fun. Really does remind me a whole lot of
the Sinclair Spectrum in that respect. You know, you can pretty much jump
right in and start playing a bunch of games and… not have to worry too
much about it after that because you’re not gonna
put a ton of money into it. So, you know. Take it for what it is. I like the Electron. I recommend it to anybody, period,
because it’s just fun.

100 thoughts to “LGR – Acorn Electron Vintage Computer System Review”

  1. how about a Raspberry Pi inside a older chunky keyboard 🙂 it's a 8×5 SoC type system at a 35 euro/dollar price tag max. For something more consumer friendly there's a 100 euro/dollar intel i3/i5 system on it's way of just 10×10 cm's. Especially raspberry could be fitted into just about anything

  2. I must have had 300 games for my ZX and the same amount for my C64….aaahhhh, the joys of blank cassette tapes.

  3. Ok, I need to know, of all the versions of the original versions of Sim City, which one is your all time favorite. I personally like the Classic Windows rerelease.

  4. I had one back in the eighties! Great fun. It also came with BBC Basic, an easy to learn programming language in which you could create very nifty stuff yourself….

  5. God thats a blast from the past. I have a garage full of old computers. Vic20, Electron, BBC B and Master, Archimedes A3000 and a few more. Those cassette games really brought back some good memories. Only recently I spent a small fortune getting a games rig after not touching games for over 20 years. Although these games are like playing a movie they have nothing of the charm of these old simple "fun" games. Maybe it's just be or do others think that also ?

  6. Hello there – I'm sure you've played it at some point, but Elite; what do you think of it? A mind blowing game at the time (well, to a 12 year old). I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.
    Oh, and wrong computer, but Carrier Command.
    You previewed Atic-Attack, which was great to see, and Wizball, how about Populus?

    So, I'm just naming games I liked which I'd love to see you take a look at, I'm sure that's how it works eh?

    Cheers, anyway, loving your work sir

  7. gah – even in this presentation you play Elite! Should have waited to view it in its entirety before commenting….. Life lesson.

  8. I love watching your hardware videos, LGR. I don't understand half the stuff you're saying, but I feel like I've learned something.

  9. I just had a thought.
    If we call the Sinclar ZX Spectrum the ZX Spectrum, then the Commodore 64 would be just "64"!

  10. i have never used a BBC micro and was very pleased to see it is quite a capable computer judging from the selection of games you showed us. the inside of the box revealed it is really old school electronics, looks almost like a hobby computer. nice video thanks for posting. take care.

  11. I can't say when I first heard it called the Elk but it was Long Ago! I'm sure the magazines regularly used the term. I can't find a specific definitive example but web sites like Acorn Electron World have references going back over 15 years.

  12. In the UK the Acorn Electron was not a very good games computer…..it had to compete with the Spectrum 48k and the Commodore 64….the Acorn Electron was not on the same level as either of these computers

  13. Beeb is also a general nickname for the BBC itself, some call it Auntie Beeb.

    I grew up on british TV via PBS, so yeah, you hear it in some shows

  14. The BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) had the nickname 'Beeb' for years before the computer ever appeared. If you say BBC, you say BEEBeesee. That's how the ended up being nicknamed 'The Beeb'. Their other nickname is 'Auntie'

  15. Love those retro noises!

    I used to play Jet-boot Jack on one of these machines. Loved it. I had no idea Exile was on this machine. Will have to find it and try it out. Loved that on the C64.

  16. Nope. It basically just runs BASIC – most home computers back then booted straight into a BASIC programming language interpreter!

  17. Never saw more than 4 simultaneous colours – though there seemed to be more of a choice of palettes than for IBM CGA 4-colour mode. Do you have any that use 8 or 16 simultaneous colours?

  18. Hah! It has Exile, go for it 🙂

    Very nice to see American taking an interest in British home computers of the era. I actually forgot the Electron was this powerful, Acorn and BBC hardly marketed their computers abroad so very little was known about them outside England at the time.

    My first computer was the simpler Acorn Atom. A very nice home computer from the earlier BASIC era, with the forerunner of as you say ever awesome BBC Basic.

  19. Great video Clint, I had one of these in the 80`s loved it.  Have a look if you haven`t got these, Thrust, Plan B and Citadel.  Those were my some of my fav games including Chuckie egg and Strykers Run.

  20. I found a 32 inch CRT TV with M.P.I port that seems to look like a network port , Do you know anything about that?

  21. Hey, shot in the dark but there was a Doctor Who game released for the BBC Micro in the 80's…have you ever run across this?

  22. My first computer was the Electron. I live in Cambridge, UK, where Acorn was based. It is also the place where David Braben and Ian Bell wrote Elite (the world first true 3D graphical game). I still have my "Elk" along with a Plus 1, Plus 3 3.5" floppy drive and a BBC Model B with Cumana double 5.25" drives. There are still games for these that I still haven't completed (graphics were secondary to gameplay back in the 80's and 90's).

  23. I always wondered, why don't US TVs support PAL? Practically every TV I've ever owned in the UK has supported NTSC…

  24. Now it's time to review the Archimedes! 

    The Arc had some pretty awesome hardware for the time, the custom RISC chip  they designed for and R&D it would lay the groundwork for a large percentage of CPUs in today's smart phones. 

  25. im sure you would be more at home living in the uk LGR our weird power is the norm over here and im sure there are still warehouses full of 8 bit computers that never sold following the games crash in the 80s

  26. Everyone nowadays is calling it an Elk but back in the day me and the friends who had one never heard of that….even owners i know from further afield never heard of that nickname for it. I think it's more likely a more recent name for it. Dont like it though.

  27. I can't believe you have a BBC Micro; it's a little heartwarming to know that some of you guys across the pond take an interest in our British hardware of the 80s.  A friend of mine had a BBC Micro when we were kids, not the Electron, the full blown Micro, and it was awesome.  Repton was such a great game!

  28. This takes me back to xmas 1984. I think the Acorn only had about 27k of useable memory (as apposed to it's big cousin's 32). Elite on it was still good (even if it only had about 4 ships and was in monochrome). Those were the days of waiting patiently for the tape to load, praying there wasn't an error message.

  29. I first learned to program on one of these! (When it was probably already considered a vintage machine)

    It says it needs 19v DC, but I had it running from a 9v battery once!

  30. Nice review. What I find odd though is that you consider having an Elk a "huge yes" while the CPC is "erm… maybe". Cheers!

  31. I was raised on an Elk! My parents couldn't afford a BBC Micro so I learned to program on it. Also poured hours into (the somewhat mediocre and totally stripped down) Elite port. Happy days.

  32. I have a Acorn electron and the plus 1 expansion unit. It has the stock rom and I currently have no cartridges. I would like to acquire a sideways ram/rom cartridge with sockets as well as a slogger expansion 2.02 rom for my plus 1. Any help getting a place to buy these is appreciate, I live in Holland Europe btw.

  33. Nice vid. Had to laugh at ""weird power, video signal", but understandable as I find NTSC and 120v:60Hz as weird, especially since most the world use 230/240V:50Hz and PAL.

    Actually the part that always bugged me is why TVs for NTSC markets do NTSC only. That, and they did not have SCART, with its RGB signal, a godsend for me.

    In the end, its fun to dabble with both systems, especially the Mega Drive and the effects on gameplay speed haha!

  34. We had one of these when I was a kid! I remember loading games from cassettes and it making a horrible noise and taking ages to load!

    Thanks for uploading. Great to see one again.

  35. This was my second computer after the Amstrad CPC 464, which I got really cheap from a second hand place in the 90s. BBC BASIC was awesome! I made a colour financial graphing program with it which I used to track my savings.

  36. +LGR Any chance you could do a video on the Casio range of consoles in the 80's i.e the Casio PV 1000 and the 3 others they released at the same time..i know you mainly do Pc's but i personally would just love to hear your opinion of those doomed weird consoles no-one seems to have heard of!!…Gracias

  37. These old computer interest me, but man the sound would get on my nerves quick. I like seeing what type of hardware older systems have. And the while microcomputer thing is something most didn’t know about at the time. I don’t think the games look to appealing but i can handle nes and master system graphic anything less no so much. I would like to have a raspberry pi inside a spectrum, i dont know why ive always thought the species looked cool.

  38. Yknow, seeing mention of it on the BBC Micro video, and then this popping up on the sidebar as a reminder… One really rare and unique thing for you to find and review might be the Acorn Atom. Like, I personally don't even really know anything about it, other than it was the Electron and Micro aka Proton's predecessor… spec, software/games availability, etc…

  39. >Power input on the Electron says 19V AC
    >Plugs in a 19V DC supply

    Aaaaaaaaaah! Oh god, I hope you double checked and found out that it actually meant DC, and with the same centre-positive polarity as most laptop adaptors, rather than just plugging it in and hoping for the best.

    I've accidentally smoked a Spectrum +2 by assuming its "9V DC" input was centre positive before (it wasn't… it's amongst the small, annoying, but noteworthy contingent of devices that have centre negative), and blown the fuse in a set of rather nice and rather expensive Creative desktop speakers by not realising my workplace had taken delivery of two entirely different generations of the same model when ordering four sets at the exact wrong time… and, once things had been opened and distributed to various rooms and computers, connecting the 24V DC supply from one gen to the 28V AC (…go figure?!) input of another. It reaaaaaally didn't like that. Thankfully I was able to replace the fuse, and moreover put the right adaptors with the right speakers (and apply printed warning labels to each of them saying to ONLY use the correct supply / only use each supply with the right speakers) before anyone tried the reverse operation which might have been even more dramatic.

    At the time, I kinda thought basically every power adaptor output centre-positive DC … both of these events happened within a couple months of each other, so I very rapidly learned to be MUCH more careful when checking what a particular device demanded, and what any given adaptor provided.

  40. Oh hey … so it's essentially a BBC Model B without Teletext capability, a single sound channel, fewer built-in ports and fewer keys on the keyboard? Interesting. That explains some things… after seeing a rundown of a load of Electron games on the "Laird's Lair" channel without much explanation of the system, the main impression given was that it was rather lower capability in terms of processor, memory and other graphics modes as well. But then I saw your BBC Micro review and a lot of the games shown off there were the same as those seen on the LL Electron video, right down to what mode they were running in, so I didn't know if there'd been some confusion and maybe you were running Electron games on the Micro or something… guess really it's more that they either use the same mode and go a little slower, or sacrifice some resolution or colour depth in exchange for speed (as the CPU is having to share memory access with the graphics, which it doesn't in the Beeb).

    Really a pretty neat package for the size and price, therefore. Seems it should have been pretty simple to port Beeb games for it as well… just with that caveat on trading either speed or colour/pixels.

  41. The reason the Electron was slower than the BBC was because Acorn saved money by only using 4 bit DRAM, so it took two memory cycles to access each byte. That also stopped memory and graphics accesses being interleaved, which slowed the machine even further. This is why I was initially reluctant to buy one at the time, although I weakened when the price dropped considerably.

    Partly the problem was that DRAMs were either 16k x 1 or 64k x 1, so 32k x 8 was either 16 chips, or 8 chips with half the memory wasted. The older 16k chips also needed a more complicated power supply. Acorn chose 4 chips for 64k x 4, and crippled the CPU speed.

  42. I know this is an old video but was nice to see it running, I have just been given an electron and a commodore 4 plus. The elk has nothing with it but powered up on a DC supply (only did this for a short time as to not cause damage) thanks 🙂

  43. My first ever computer, good times.
    We hardly knew anyone with a C64 until much later on when the C64C bundles started coming out, the vast majority of youngsters here had Spectrums with the odd few like myself with an Electron.
    There was always that odd kid whose parents had a bit more cash who had a full on BBC Micro setup or a Trash-80 but they were few and far between.

  44. The Electron though was aimed at Programming rather than games. Since "All" UK schools had BBC Micro's in the 80's, and if you were doing "Computer Studies" like most of us at that time. Then you had a load of coursework to get completed. I remember my Computer studies class had about 15 BBC micro's. So generally you had 2 kids per machine which was still cool.
    The Electron being BBC Basic compatible meant you could do your coursework at home, so that was the main selling point to Parents. But it didnt take long for the software houses to start bringing out tons of games. So you could do your homework, and then play games afterwards !. Happy memories……

  45. The Electron was a massive abortion for Acorn. It should have been a drastically cut back BBC which was fully backwards compatibility with the BBC, minus Speech synthesizer and possibly Teletext (If you remove all BBC ports and unnecessary crap, its actually a pretty minimal computer) as the Feranti ULA caused so many development and production problems, and cost a fortune to develop. If they would have done that, with the BBC Computer for schools program, it would have been a sensible purchase for homes and outsold all the other home computers.

  46. No mention that the most popular computers ("phones") are powered by Acorn RISC Machines (ARM) ?

    Although, to be fair, i think the Electron used a (pre-ARM era) 6502…variant

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