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
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.