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Alive 8

              Micromart Show report

       At the Birmingham NEC - 30.11.03

Here's some background information to kick off with:- Micromart is a  weekly
paper magazine available in the UK, which started off in the mid-eighties or
thereabouts.  It  used to specialise in private individuals taking out small
classified  ads  to sell off their personal computing gear.  It was  printed
using the cheapest possible paper! As time went on, the format gradually got
glossier, and more and more articles and regular full page advertisments for
box-shifters started to appear.  These days, there is still a classified ads
section,  but  that  is a small part of the magazine now,  with the  balance
shifted  in favour of the big adverts and regular article columns.  So there
is little to tell it apart from a regular PeeCee magazine now.

They do have some goodies,  such as a retro column, and a linux section, and
try to be objective with their reviews,  ie,  not just act as a press office
for  the  big  companies.  So generally,  Micromart is a force for  good  in
today's market.

They started to do their own shows a year ago,  and the success of the small
retro  section inspired them to try something bigger.  So at this point,  we
start to get interested.

The  hero  of  Jagfest,  Nick  Harlow managed to blag  some  space  off  the
Micromart  organisers for a micro-Jagfest,  a scaled down rerun of the event
that  was  so successful last June.  This was being held in concert  with  a
whole bunch of other stuff of a retro-ish nature.  This looked promising, so
we  decided to go up to Birmingham,  and the National Exibition Centre (NEC)
where it was being held on the 30th November.

Sunday Morning,  the big day dawns with a phone call from Felice at 08.50 to
say  he  is  on his way shortly.  After a discreet interval,  I wait in  the
street outside.  A chilly pause ensues.  About 09.30ish, Felice turns up and
explains  he  took  a  detour  by way of breakfast!  The sun  is  at  a  low
reflecting  off  every shiny thing on the road angle,  which is a  pain  for
spotting  those crucial direction signs.  Still,  that doesn't impede us too

On the way to Birmingham,  we spot some ominous new "just about to come into
use"  signs  on  the M6 motorway.  These refer to an 'M6  Toll'(!)  I  don't
remember hearing about this before,  but find out afterwards that this is an
entirely  new section of road split off from the main motorway.  It promises
to  bypass  the traffic chaos surrounding Birmingham in its entirety  for  a
price. It is only a matter of time before they start doing this to motorways
in  general,  and  so  we  go  to the French  model  of  quiet  traffic-free
motorways, and crowded minor roads!

Smartarse  -  "Ahh,  but the French have an efficient network of high  speed
trains for all their long distance travelling requirements!"

Government Minister  - "Bugger, didn't think of that!"

The NEC is a huge site, as befits the title and status. We are directed to a
car park on the other side of the moon. Then get in a queue to park, another
queue to pay, then we are told it is free of charge for lucky Micromart Show
goers,  then to another queue for the shuttlebus. This turns up gratifyingly
quickly,  and  we arrive at the main complex,  trudging through the vast and
mostly  empty halls,  following the distant sounds and smells of  overheated
hardware and lukewarm warez, to lead us to the show itself.

We  collect  the bag of free bumf being handed out at the  entrance,  stride
boldly into the rugby scrum crowd,  pushing through to the holy grail of the
Retro  Zone.  Where  we  find a host of familiar Atari  faces  and  hardware

Nick  Harlow is beaming at everyone who looks like they are going  to  spend
some money with him,  which tends to frighten the smaller children a bit ;-)
He has brought a large chunk of 16/32 with him, catering for all generations
of Atari, from 2600, to Jaguar and so on. The major show release for the Tos
Compatible range,  is the new version of Papyrus,  just hitting these shores
now.  The  Jaguar  cognosti  are running a couple of Jags,  one of which  is
running the ever persistent Tempest 2000,  the other a newish Defender clone
from Songbird Productions.

Just  around  the corner, Shiuming Lai is running around with an  expensive
digi-camera,  muttering  about  bandwidth restrictions on the  MyAtari  site
limiting the amount of photo-journalism he can do! He is disinclined to stop
anyway.  I  get talking to a Cheshunt Computer Club dude who has a CT60 in a
humongous  full-sized tower.  This project is only halfway done,  as the rom
flash  and  software patches are not updated since the  early  period.  This
machine tends to wobble a lot more than my latest version setup.  Incredibly
he thinks that there is an overheating problem, even though it runs at least
10  deg C lower than mine does!  It tuns out that he has got most  accident-
prone  hardware guru,  who between bouts of injury and vehicular misfortune,
hasn't had time to put it on the right track yet!

I'm  roped  in to help out with Ace Tracker on another  Falcy,  managing  to
unlock  the  secret  of  how  to use  the  unusual  tracking  interface  for
Shiuming's  benefit.  I  also find an Atari 800XL running demo stuffs.  This
machine was  tracked down by the distinctive pokey sound chip noises it  was
making..  There  is  also  a VCS in the area,  and an  interestingly  styled
Turbographix  console,  which looks like a bigger version of the classic and
rare PC-Engine console, running R-Type fit to burst.

Further exploration of the retro zone reveals a gratifyingly varied picture.
An  exceedingly large collection of Commodore hardware of all ages prior  to
Amiga,  dominates  the  other end.  We see Commodore Pets,  some of which are
running space invaders ascii-style. There are also some sx64 portable C64's,
one  of which is running Elite.  There is even one of the C64 game consoles,
produced  very  late in its lifetime,  running some kind of  football  game.
Strangely  we  see no Plus 4 or C16 hardware though?  There are a couple  of
C64's,  which  are  under direct user control by Alan Bairstow of  Commodore

He  has  one of these super-boosted 16 bit machines,  with a massive  memory
bank  attached to it.  this also doubles as a battery-backed static  storage
device. At that moment, he is running a GUI called 'Wheels, which is the C64
equivalent  of GEM or Windowze,  presumably without the complications of the
latter?   Nearby,   a   colourful   and  professional  looking   four-player
multicontroller Bomberman clone plays. This is representative of the current
generation of C64 games.

In  the  far corner,  the colour of the day is Sinclair,  with a sizeable QL
user presence to hand,  and a couple of dudes with ZX Spectrum and Sam Coupe
to hand.  The latter is running a variety of stuffs, including the Sam Coupe
version of Lemmings,  and various sampled sound demos, to show off an add-on
soundcard.  A  gentleman  called Colin Piggot,  or 'Quazar' publishes a very
smart  semi-glossy  paper magazine 'Sam Revival',  but apart from a  sampler
issue, the production run is very limited and subscription only.

One  other item of interest,  glimpsed later on,  is a screengrab from a Sam
Coupe  first person perspective shooter,  which seems to go for a flat  poly
landscape,  rather than textures. I'm told that this *is* just a screengrab,
the project is very incomplete!

The QL people are an older group, and much lower key in operation. I do find
out  in conversation with them later,  that a select few are now up to 68060
upgrades,  at  a performance level very similar to an '060 upgrade closer to
home!  I glimpse through their user-group zine,  a more traditionally styled
newsletter, which sheds just a little more light on things.

Then  I come across something even more 'retro',  which is a decent turn-out
by  the Texas Instruments Ti99 user group!  I remember this machine from  my
very early days of computing,  when it rubbed shoulders against the likes of
the  Acorn  Atom,  Vic 20,  and ZX81!  These were one of the first to go,  as
Texas Instruments pulled out their home computer division altogether in  the
early  eighties.  The  Ti99  is an unusual machine,  having an early 16  bit
processor  running  at  3mhz,  but  this was crippled  with  an  8-bit  bus,
according to the people I talked to there.

There was still a worldwide interest, kept very well hidden from the rest of
us!  Their  typical  age  profile  was similar to the  QL  group,  that  is,
distinctly  middle-aged,  but a bit more dynamic,  showing off a very nicely
done  Arkanoid clone,  and picture displayers running at 16 colours onscreen
out  of  a palette of 19200,  which is more than an early  eighties  machine
ought  to  be  able  to do!  They have a club magazine too,  and a  slew  of
interesting URL's is fast going into my collection. Like all the other retro
people, they are happy to share their friendly enthusiasm and compare notes.

One end of the table contains a massive power supply for the assorted  Texas
gear, which we think is a trainee nuclear reactor. After all, how many PSU's
feature  a  control wheel for raising and lowering graphite  control  rods?!
That,  or  it  could be the emergency power supply (EPS) for the hall  as  a
whole, if the mains to the NEC go down??

(Out  of  interest,  both  the QL and Ti user groups quoted  me  figures  of
several  hundred to the low thousands,  worldwide,  still interested in this
ancient  hardware.  More  actually for the older Ti99 system.  I wonder what
sort of a figure that a headcount of the worldwide current Atari enthusiasts
would come up with?)

One  group  I didn't see there,  but well remembered from the  Stafford  ACC
Show,  was the Tatung Einstein user group.  I wonder if they died out in the
end?  (A  quick  Google  check reveals,  no actually,  they still seem to be

A  cluster  of vintage arcade machines fills the centre of the  retro  zone,
from  table-top  invaders,  to Sega Star Wars (the more recent  filled  poly
version,  not  the  classic early 80's sit-in cabinet coloured  vector  line
game. These are very rare now, as they tended to get very broken in the end!
Same  really,  because that would have been one game I'd have been happy  to
invest 50 pence in, just to have one last go on it...)

Away from the main part of the Retro zone, possibly because they still think
of themselves as cutting edge,  is the relaunched Amiga, which is on display
in  a  stand  with the name of Eyetech.  This is running in the  form  of  a
display case, with innards on display, a 800 mhz G4 PPC heart, running a new
AmigaOS,  and  grud knows what else besides!  They have their club magazine,
which  is a black and white semi-glossy in the manner of Atari Computing  of
days  past,  but  are  asking for 3.50ukp per issue.  The new machine  looks
exactly  like  what  it  set out to be,  a "what if?"  alternate  future  of
computing, as if Amiga had won, and the PeeCee was vanquished.

It  is  very very nice,  and if I were an Amiga owner,  I'd be screaming for
one.  At  a  higher  end price level,  we're not sure how much of the  world
outside of the diehard faithful, it will set alight though?

The show is an all day session, and lunchtime reveals how out of practice we
are at these kind of events.  Lunchtime consists of a selection of so-so but
extremely  pricey snackbars,  with drinks and sandwiches of mediocre to fair
quality,  but around double the normal street prices.  As a budget conscious
alternative,  Micromart,  the show organisers,  and publishers of the weekly
newsstand magazine have their own open hospitality area, which can be raided
for snacks and goodies,  available on a salmonella sharing basis on a number
of table tops.

The rest of the show is a boxshifters convention,  and many are the boxes to
shift.  There are bargain prices on some things,  as it is possible to get a
reasonable barebones PeeCee,  no OS or screen, for under 100 ukp. Or 300 ukp
for a full starter level PeeCee,  or about the same for a laptop a couple of
generations old, but otherwise functional.

We spot longtime grandees of the boxshifter world,  Gasteiner,  in there and
showing  no  sign that they ever were one of the first people in the  UK  to
take  on  selling  the Falcon back in 1993.  These days,  they are  strictly
selling PeeCee gear.

LCD  screens were no cheaper than at PeeCeeWorld though,  and apart from the
ever  present CD-R's,  there wasn't too much blank media around,  although I
did find some zipdisks priced at a fiver each,  or less then half what would
be  paid in the high street.  There was a good selection of cables and junk,
Felice  scoring the bargain of the day,  which was a cased external SCSI CD-
ROM for his Falcon, at 5 ukp!

There are several vendors who are selling gear which is slightly 'off-topic'
for a computer show. One place selling radio controlled cars, and boats, and
planes.  They  have  a nice catalogue,  so I pick one up to fantasise  over.
Felice  only  just  resists  the temptation to buy  himself  an  in-car  GPS
navigation system,  remembering in time he has a trip to Finland to pay for!
There is a cheap and cheerful novelty seller, demonstrating radio controlled
'stunt' car racers on a homemade race track (with ramps and humps included.)

Apart  from  the Zipdisks,  which were a pre-planned purchase,  I resist the
temptation  to  make an impulse buy.  The fact that I was still  flush  with
ownership of my CT60 might have had something to do with that?

The  afternoon  wears on,  and my weary feet take me back to the  retrozone.
There,  everything  is  pretty  much  as I left it.  One of the  Jaguars  is
sprouting  an  Alpine  devkit out of the cartridge slot,  and a  very  early
project submission of a golf game is being shown.  ("These aren't the actual
in-game graphics, just intended to represent what happens in the game.") The
name  of  the famous Jack Niklaus is used there,  but the roughly  digitised
ingame  stand in digitised graphic,  could have been anyone,  done as it was
with  the 'drunk' version of Videomaster?  They go on to make a cartoon duck
in another early beta test re-enact one of the miracles of Jesus, by walking
it on a pool of in-game water.

I flop down in a vacant chair near the Commodore part of the floor,  as some
demo's  are  being  shown on the C64,  which was good timing by  me.  I  get
chatting  with  Allan,  the Commodore Scene dude,  about  demo's in general.
We compare notes on the state of our respective present scenes.

Eventually,  about half an hour before the death,  with crowds thinning, and
the lights starting to go out,  we take our leave.  Outside, the weather has
gone  from  rather  nice,  to rather wet.  A shuttlebus turns up  after  ten
minutes  taking a very large crowd of people to the distant car parks.  I am
wearing my "I didn't think it was going to rain" shoes,  which are extremely
worn,  therefore  fantastically  comfortable  for a  day  long  footslogging
marathon,  but  not waterproof anymore.  So I squelch back the fair distance
from the bus stop to Felice's car.

A  welcome  burst of blood sugar replenishment at a service  station  Burger
King  follows,  and  a  journey home punctuated by  the  occasional  traffic
slowdown  in the teeming rain.  it is not too late when I am back home,  and
reunited with my Atari gear, especially the new family member!

A summing up kind of thing....

I  went  to the show not expecting too much.  A pleasant day out  with  some
Atari  friends,  and a nostalgic revisit to a boxshifters convention,  which
was  something  I hadn't done for a long while.  But to be honest,  I wasn't
expecting a lot more.

These expectations were happily exceeded, as Micromart managed to make their
Retro  Zone  big  enough to provide for a wide and  varied  range  of  retro
interests,  and  make it a major attraction in its own right,  almost a show
contained within the bulk of the main show!

The  brave  individuals who give up their Sundays,  to come and  demonstrate
their hobby or obsessions made it worthwhile. I was encouraged to see a good
turnout,  and an active demonstration of their equipment, much of it heavily
modified,  and  showing  new software under active development.  I'm sure it
gave  some of the PeeCee bargain hunters,  who assume non-Wintel systems are
not worth the time and effort, something to think about.

It  was also great to remeet some of the Jagfest dudes from June.  I am also
pleased to be able to tell you that there will definitely be a re-run of the
Jagfest big party in June,  and I would like to see some more European scene
people  over,  as  I  don't think TXG wants to  play  'Worms'  single-handed

Big  hi-theres go to the Cheshunt Computer Club people,  who were revisiting
from the Jagfest,  especially Shiuming of MyAtari notoriety.  And of course,
we  have  Nick  Harlow to thank for having something Atari  related  to  buy
there, if we wanted. Felice did get a copy of Jinnee from there, and he must
have surely sold some other stuff as well?

Even  the  box-shifting part of the show was not uninteresting.  If I had  a
couple of hundred pounds for impulse-buying, I'm sure I could have spent it,
at  least  a couple of times over.  But apart from the food,  I maintained a
strict financial self-discipline.  I can do that sometimes,  especially when
there are too many other ways to spend hard earned, and limited cash!

Out  of  what  could  have been an uninspiring  car-boot  sale  of  a  show,
Micromart  managed  to  accomplish  something better  than  that.  I'm  sure
everyone will be back, and I hope the Retro Zone grows more next time round,
like a cancer nibbling at your toes!

(Maybe I could have put that better?)

CiH, for Alive Mag,Dec '03.

Alive 8