Can you use a BBC Micro as your main computer?

Well, the short answer is no, (but I have been trying)...

For a computer to be of any use, I figure that it must be able to do the following well:

  • Connect to the Internet and have a fast, secure browser.
  • Provide applications for work flow.
  • Provide applications for playing media files.
We'll look at these in turn, but first some information about the BBC Microcomputer.

A Graphical User Interface for the Beeb

The BBC micro, (or 'Beeb') was an 8-bit microcomputer commissioned by the BBC and built by Acorn in 1981. It was highly popular in education in the UK and survives today in the hands of enthusiasts such as myself. If you need to get your beeb 'fix' then there are a number of emulators available, including browser-based, and desktop (I recommend BeebEm). There is, however, nothing like running a vintage machine for the full experience. I recommend Retroclinic for all your BBC computer needs, including the datacentre (more about that later).

The Internet

While Acorn produced Econet, their own version of LAN connectivity for the BBC microcomputer, in the modern world this is not going to get you very far. It is possible to connect a modem to a BBC micro computer, however you must keep in mind that this machine was build before the World Wide Web was invented. You will be very disappointed if you need to upload your duck faces to Instagram on a beeb. You will find that you must keep your Twitter-rants to yourself and it will be virtually impossible to see what everyone is having for dinner on Facebook.

As a main computer, the BBC micro falls at the first hurdle. This was a pre-Internet machine and sadly, you will need a modern computer to experience the modern Internet.

That should be enough to kill anyone's dreams of using the BBC micro as a main computer, however there are two other critical points of failure:

Work flow

Whatever your job, business or hobby, you will likely need to run some Office software, or other such desktop publishing or productivity tools. If these are mission-critical to you, then switching to a 35-year old computer is not an option. The Beeb doesn't fall flat completely, however. Most BBC computers were packing work-flow software, and although they seem primitive now, you can get stuff done. My BBC Master computer has a word processor, spreadsheet and text editor built into ROM, and thanks to the Retroclinic datacentre it is possible to transfer files from the beeb onto my Windows 10 PC.

That being said, and despite having some, albeit ancient productivity tools, the beeb cannot replace my PC as a productivity machine (however I will talk about what it CAN do later).

Media center

I am currently typing away on a modern laptop, and streaming music on a chromebook which is plugged into my amplifier. I have a library of music, movies and photographs stretching back nearly two decades stored on a network drive, and if any computer is going to be my main computer, then it will need to handle my entertainment needs. For a while, I used a Raspberry Pi as my main music jukebox, although I now use Microsoft's Groove app. Whatever your media needs, your BBC microcomputer is not going to do it. 8 bit machines simply do not have the codecs required to play audio and other media files. Although digital cameras were available for the BBC, they are nothing compared to their modern counterparts.

So, it seems like the BBC computer cannot be used as a main computer. 

If, however, you accept these limitations, then the beeb still has a lot going for it. In the rest of this post I shall talk about some of the cool things my beeb does for me.


My computer is a Master series with 128K RAM and a second processor. The caps were replace about a year ago, so there is no danger of the power supply failing anytime soon. The battery for the CMOS RAM is also in good condition having been replace fairly recently. I have a dual-drive disk drive, however the main way of storing files is using the Retroclinic datacentre. This little device provides four virtual RAM disks, a small non-volatile 64K RAM disk and it also has 2GB compact-flash cards which provide four 500MB hard disk drives. There is a USB flash drive sticking out of the front storing literally hundreds of disk images which can be transferred into RAM in just a few seconds.

My microcomputer has 'pride of place' on my desk and supports a 32 inch monitor. When I first got it I promised myself that I would use it as an 'everyday' machine in order to justify its position on the desk.

I often use the BBC as a notebook. The EDIT program built into ROM is always available, and I use this to write notes to myself as well as my diary and other documents. I didn't go as far as writing this blog post on it, however I just realised that I could have done, and now I wish I had. I also use the spreadsheet program to help manage my accounts, as well as other diverse tasks including calculating the most cost effective pizza as well as helping calculate options in online games. The Beeb performs all of these tasks admirably and there really is no need for a modern computer. I am waiting for the time a colleague requests some trivial or not critical information from me, expecting an email, but instead, as I am a mischievous soul I will provide them with a text file on a portable USB disk drive. Mwah ha ha ha HAAAA!

Although the BBC was not well-know for it's games, this computer did have an extensive library of titles available for it, and the beeb was no slouch when it came to graphics and sound, for it's time. Most games are available to download online from such sites as Stairway to Hell. The best experience can be had from games with a focus on gameplay rather than graphics. Classic games such as chess, backgammon, connect-four, patience, solitaire, UNO, Yahtzee, NIM, Mastermind, draughts, reversi and cribbage all work very well on a BBC. There really is no need for a modern PC to play these games as the beeb will be a very challenging opponent.

Being beaten at Minesweeper on the Beeb (again).
Armies of programmers have over the years written countless applications for the beeb. I often trawl through the disk images that came with magazines in the eighties to find apps that are still useful today.

Here is an app for finding the next few phases of the moon.

This app calculates the dates of future eclipses and even shows a graphic of what the Earth's shadow will look like over the moon.
Okay, it's not quite Google Earth...

The beeb has a (very good) version of BASIC held in ROM. For this reason it is very easy to write your applications for the beeb. You can read about my early attempts here. I currently have applications for telling me the time and date, as well as useful stopwatches, countdowns and alarms (yes, I use it to help me cook my dinner). I have a perpetual calendar application and a calculator. All of which get regular use. I am currently working on a dictionary program.

My very useful calendar/clock app.
So, in summary, can you use a BBC microcomputer as your main computer? No, but it does make a very handy, and tremendously fun second computer.

If you are still awake and for some reason you liked this post then you might like to read about my other BBC micro posts, or even my adventures with the Raspberry Pi. Perhaps you just want to know how many floppy disks would be needed to store all of Google Maps?

Either way, I hope you liked this post. Please come back soon for more geeky stuff.

Life hack 03

It is quite possible that this one doesn't count as a life hack because it is actually a little-known design featured added by many manufacturers, however this will make your life easier, and of the two people I asked, neither had heard of it before (scientific, I know).  When I said it was a 'little-known' feature I think it is safe to assume that you don't know about this trick. If you do, then award yourself one geek experience point and move onto something else.

The problem
You will be aware of the frustration that accompanies the use of kitchen foil, cling film or any other such product that comes on a cardboard tube inside a cardboard box. The roll move often than not just comes out of the box whenever you try to grab a length of it. With cling film this is even more frustrating as the vexatious stuff has a tendency to stick to itself.

Push the tabs in. What do you mean, you've never read the side of the box before?!

The solution:
Are you aware that manufactures place two flaps at the side of the box? These are designed to be pushed in through ninety degrees. They act like an axle through the ends of the tube which makes pulling a length of product from the tube much easier.

Usually when the party is REALLY swinging, I get my collection of packets out to show off.
If that has left you dazed in wonderment, then you might like to explore some more life hacks, or perhaps you came here for the Tabloid Headline Generator or you just want to know how many floppy disks it would take to store all of Google Maps.

You're writing dates wrong, probably

I've been having this argument with people recently. We write dates wrong.  Here's why:

Today is the 18th day of the second month of 2017 (unless of course, you are reading this in the future, in which case, how long did you have to wait for hover-skateboards and what do teleporters feel like, and does anybody in the future remember those couple of months when American had President Trump?).

Most people will say that today's date is "The 18th of February 2017" and will sign documents with digits 18/2/17, or 18/02/17 (or if in America, the even more horrible 02/18/17).  The problem is of course the confusion here as to what the digits mean. Is it the 18th day, or the 2nd day, or the 17th day of the 18th month of year 2....?

When you stop to think about it, writing dates in either British or American formats is deeply confusing and fundamentally illogical.

Much better to write the date as 2017-02-18.

That's YYYY-MM-DD.

There are a number of reasons for this.  Firstly, documents date stamped in this way will automatically be sorted into chronological order. Someone sent me a document today from a recent meeting. The filename was DD MM YY. I can only imagine what a mess their 'my documents' folder looks like. Perhaps they like having all files written on the first day of every month next to each other? Or maybe they are The Doctor, from Doctor Who? You see, time is not a big ball of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey 'stuff'. It is a strict line.

Fun, but wrong!
Secondly, we have always written time in the same way. Currently, looking at my clock, it is 11:47 in the morning. My accurate clock tells me that it is 12 seconds into the 47th minute.  That is 11:47:12, or HH:mm:ss.  That means that the current position in time could be written as:

2017-02-18 11:47:12

Notice that the largest unit of time is on the left. As you move through the digits, the units of time become progressively smaller, from years to months to days to hours to minutes.

Is there anywhere else that we also apply this logic?  Consider the number "three hundred and forty nine".

It would seem logical to write this as "349", with the largest unit on the left, getting progressively smaller.  It would be very silly to write it as "493", or even "49 and 300", or "four hundred minus fifty-one".

How about your postal address? You probably also write it in order of size:

Little person
Some house
A Street
In a little town
Your massive planet

Of course, I am only talking about written dates here. I think it is perfectly acceptable to say "Saturday the eighteenth of February", or "it is nearly ten past two" in spoken English.

In fact, you shouldn't be surprised to discover that there is an international standard for date formats (and it makes incredible sense to adopt it all in written documents). It is basically what I have been banging on about in this rant.

No longer should you accept the problem of interpreting a date written as 04/05/11 as being the fifth of April in the late Roman period, or possibly the eleventh of May, or possibly April, in, um, in year 4, or maybe 5. Oh, my brain!

Right now! I mean, just, it's gone.

If you enjoyed this rant, then you probably want to take a long hard look at yourself, however you might also like to read about why Americans drive on the wrong side of the road or perhaps you would like these articles about calendars.

See you for some more nerdy stuff in the future......

Life hack 002

I've just discovered this really effective  use for cardboard tubes.  No longer will your drawers be a tangle of loose wires. Simply post one or two loosely folded wires inside the tube and hey-presto! Tidy wires. You will also get a warm fuzzy feeling from recycling household waste (unless you recycle anyway, which, of course, you should, in which case you get a warm fuzzy feeling from knowing that your wires are safely stored tangle-free).

Should you like this post, then you might like all of our life hacks, or maybe you just want to play a 2D, text-based adventure game.

Quiz Magic

Quiz Magic is a program I wrote a few years ago for some teachers who wanted to be able to set custom-made starter and plenary activities in their lessons based on key-words. 

Quiz Magic simply takes a keyword, or sentence and allows you to perform up to four actions:

  1. Remove vowels, eg: "SUPERDECADE GAMES" to "SPRDCD GMS".
  2. Mixup, eg: "SUPERDECADE GAMES" to "SUACRPDDEEE GAEMS". This scrambles the middle letters of the words, but leaves the first and last the same. This sort of anagram is weirdly easy to read so long as the word in question is know to the reader.
  3. Anagram, eg: "SUPERDECADE GAMES" to "DEAUESRDCPE MEGSA". This turns all the words into anagrams and is much more difficult to work out.
  4. Substitution, eg: "SUPERDECADE GAMES" to "5UP3RD3C4D3 G4M35".

All of the functions can be chained one after the other, for example to create an anagram with the vowels removed.

If this is something that you need in your life then the executable and source code is available on my OneDrive by either clicking the image or following the link.

Should I ever decide to work on this app again then I shall either add functionality to allow bulk uploading of words from a spreadsheet, or indeed, make it available as a web app.

If you are still with us, then you might like to read about my Dementia Day Clock, or other vaguely education-related posts.

How many floppy disks would it take to store all of Google Maps?

So, in a moment of boredom today I decided to do a back-of-the-envelope calculation. I wanted to know what size of floppy disk mountain it would take to store all of Google Maps. And by 'back of the envelope', I mean that I fired up my trusty BBC microcomputer and booted into the ViewSheet spread sheet.

There is surprisingly little information on the size of Google Maps online, however I found a source that quoted 20 Petabytes from 2012. I estimate that this is about one million times the amount of 'data' sent by the US postal service each day, or about one thousands times the volume of data that Facebook deals with each day. Armed with this information, and the capacity of a floppy disk I went to work.

Now there is some confusion in the computing industry as to whether MB and KB are base 10 or base 2 prefixes. Sometimes they seem to be used interchangeably when they are clearly different number bases, however for arguments sake I have taken a 1.44MB disk capacity to be 1457664 bytes. For simplicity I have ignored any capacity used by the disk filing system allocation table.

There is little argument as to the height of a floppy disk: 3mm.

So if you stored all of Google Maps onto floppy disk, how high would your floppy disk mountain be?

Well, by my calculations you will create a stack that extents four-thousand, eight-hundred times higher than Mount Everest, or 11% of the distance to the moon.

My own floppy disk mountain. This doesn't even come close.
Do please take time to check my calculations and then come back to me if I have gone wrong somewhere.

Either way come back soon for some new nerdy stuff, or if you are still here, you might like to read about the Adventures of Sir Eric the Unready, or just hack some BASIC code together.

#floppy disks
#Mount Everest

This blog is also available on floppy disk. Please send a self-addressed envelope...

Where's your petrol cap?

My car recently broke down leaving me stranded and awaiting recovery. Following a freezing cold wait by the side of the road (for two and a half hours) I was picked up and the car and I were taken to the nearest car dealership, which just happened to be where I bought the car from in the first place. Following a heated discussion I was finally supplied with a courtesy car.

So I found myself driving an unfamiliar Hyundai with a bare trickle of petrol in the tank. I promptly went to the nearest petrol station to fill up (my American colleagues call it 'gaaas'). As I joined the queue I was hit by the sudden panicked thought that I did not know which side the petrol cap was located.

Rather than trying to peer out of the window to see if the cap was indeed behind me on the driver's side, or jump out into the cold and run around the car looking like a fool, I remembered a rumour I had heard that the dashboard of modern cars indicate the location of the petrol cap.

Look for the little arrow on you dashboard located near the petrol gauge. The arrow indicates the position of the cap. Here it is pointing left, so the cap is on the passenger side.

Petrol cap side indicating passenger side (in a UK car).
The other arrow in this image shows an estimate of the number of miles I can travel before requiring another top-up. This is only an estimate, and it is fun watching the number change as your fuel efficiency changes. You will get more miles to the gallon when travelling at a constant cruising speed in fifth gear than when idling in city traffic.

My American or European readers might be surprised to discover that here in Britain we drive on the left (by which I mean the 'right' or 'correct' side of the road).  Why is the left the best side of the road to drive?  The number one reason that reason on the left-hand side of the road is perfect for the right-handed driver is that it keeps your strongest arm on the wheel freeing your weaker arm to operate the gears/hand brake/entertainment system. This allows you to be more responsive when making unexpected maneuvers.

Don't believe me? You just need to look at road-traffic deaths by country. Countries that drive on the left have fewer fatal accidents.

Road traffic fatalities by country. The lighter the colour, the safer the roads.

Log of base 2 calculator

Simply because I found myself needing to work out the log of base 2 for a series of numbers whilst studying and comparing several 'divide and conquer' algorithms, I decided to write a simple log of base 2 calculator. You can try it by following the link below.

Log of base 2 calculator running on my Lumia 950
As you can see from the screenshot, the applet keeps a record of all of your calculations until you refresh the page and the results are returned with 15 decimal places accuracy.

It is hoped that the page will be of use to students of computer science, mathematics, or any of the natural sciences that require logs of base 2. It is also hoped that the app will be of use to anyone who simply loves their powers of 2 (and who doesn't?).

Stuff I use my microcomputer for #01 Chess

Avid readers of this blog will be well aware that I am a retro computer hobbyist, with my favourite machines being those produced by Acorn in the 1980s. You see, the 1980s were not only the days of Rubik's Cube, Ghostbusters, Tiffany, dreadful fashion and Margret Thatcher (oh, I've made myself sad) - for the 80s was also the time of the BBC microcomputer (yay, happy again!).

So, I've decided to start a series of posts about what I still use my BBC microcomputer for. Or, at the very least, a series of things that I would like to do more of.


Acornsoft Chess

Acornsoft Chess running on vintage hardware
Acornsoft Chess is a pretty decent chess program, all things considered. It features all legal chess moves including en passant and minor promotions. Moves are entered using pure coordinates, as shown in the image above. The software also has and 'edit' mode to explore different game positions and solve 'mate in two' type puzzles. Most importantly for the game's longevity is a 'save' feature, because leaving a microcomputer switched on permanently is not really an option.

There are ten levels of play, and as I consider myself to be of fairly average ability I have recently moved up to level 5, and as you can see from the image I am holding my own in this epic three-hour battle.

Acornsoft chess is not as speedy as a modern implementation, but this matters not because, for one thing, what do you expect from a 6502 processor with 32K RAM? The other thing is it is about as fast, if not better than an average game of online postal chess.

Well, that's it for today on pre-Internet Chess. I also play on Chess Time, so any readers who want to challenge me, my user name is superdecade and my current chess rating is 'very poor'. Please, if you do send me a challenge, keep the move limit four days or longer.

Well, must dash, it's my move.

New update to Have Spell Will Travel

Today I have pushed out a new update to my adventure game Have Spell Will Travel.

If you don't know Have Spell Will Travel, it is a game of luck, skill and fantasy questing. You take control of one of over a hundred different protagonists who then go on a series of adventures against the computer, all the time trying not to die. It lives somewhere in between the games of Talisman and Top Trumps.

What's new?

Thanks to some feedback from players I have reduced the cost of various items in the village. You can now stock up on magic potions at a much cheaper price.

There are also a number of new challenges to get you going, including an endpoint to the dungeon. There are several new items to discover, but I wont say much about that so as not to spoil the surprise of finding them.

So, if you have some time to kill, and you feel like getting killed by fantastic beasties in a fantasy setting, then do check out Have Spell Will Travel now!

We are also on Pinterest

I didn't choose the geek life, the geek life chose me.

If you like our stuff then you might like to know that we also post on Pinterest.

Click the image to load our Pinterest pages.

There you will find almost daily updates for all manner of geeky boards from Computing Science, LEGO, algorithms, Science fiction and fantasy to some rare photos of invisible things. So if you have nothing better to do, I'll see you over there.

Hey Cortana, play some metal!

My new favourite app.

Previously, my media center revolved around using Music on Console on my Raspberry Pi. The music files were stored on a networked drive and the output of the Pi fed into my stereo amplifier which freed the monitor for use with either my BBC microcomputer or my Windows 10 computer.

I really like this set-up as I could control the music player by pressing keys on the keyboard without having to switch the monitor to the Raspberry Pi channel. For example 'pause' is the spacebar, and 'next tune' is the 'N' key.

More recently my Raspberry Pi stopped working properly (I'm not sure what the problem is, suffice to say that the OS no longer responds to mouse clicks correctly). I needed some time to rebuild the Raspberry Pi, so I switched to another media center app.

Microsoft Groove, playing some metal on a Lumia 950

Microsoft Groove for Windows 10 seemed like the logical choice as it could see the same files on the network as the Raspberry Pi (a collection of several hundred GB of files painstakingly ripped from CDs since the early 1990's). I had used Groove several times for playing music before, however the Pi was my previous main system.

My first impressions were of a really well-designed user interface that was simple to use and beautiful. The app had already found the music files from the network and had even loaded my playlists created on the Raspberry Pi and so I was up and running in a matter of seconds.

Things got better when I got my free trial of the Groove Music Pass which unlocks literally millions of tunes ad-free. I have been having tremendous fun building new play lists from forgotten classics as well as new music. Groove has a radio feature that lets you discover new music based on any artist that you may care to mention, and, of course, download or curate new music into whatever playlist you like.

The service runs on my Windows Phone as well as my Android devices, which is another boon as I can have access to my playlists at work and on the go, but also, rather crucially for me, it frees the monitor so I don't miss any of the retro-computer action on my BBC micro! There is also a web-player so I can access the service on my Chromebook or, if I really have to (and I mean if there is literally no other device available with a power supply) I can get it on my iPad (shudder). But this is a rare thing as I usually use this device to chop onions.

A really nice feature is that I can control the player on my phone with my Microsoft Band 2, which I still love even though Microsoft seem to have forgotten all about it. Cortana on desktop also responds to voice commands ("Hey Cortana, play some metal!") and I understand that more voice commands for Groove a due in the next large update for Windows 10 next April.

Microsoft is keen for you to sync your music with your OneDrive account, and a purchase of the Groove Music pass comes with a very generous 100GB of OneDrive storage.

Well, that's it for today. I'm off to listen to some new music and chop onions on my iPad.

Susan updated

Although I am not 100% serious about Susan, I do occasionally update her. Susan is a command-line driven, ASCII-based personal assistant app for Windows.

Susan version, follow the links to find out more.

I have pushed out a new version which you can download now.

What's new?

  1. Susan's messages now occur more frequently, and are date-specific. For example, tomorrow she will be wishing you a happy new year.
  2. Various bug fixes, specifically solving a problem with BBC RSS feeds which made the news appear with extra characters.
  3. Bug fix that caused the time to appear as 12am rather than 12pm.
  4. Load your Instagram page with the command 'insta'.
Susan main page showing news feed. If you feel the need for a command-line driven ASCII-based personal assistant, then Susan is your girl.
If you ran a previous version of Susan then you will be directed to the new Download location as soon as you boot her up again.

Day clock page

Following on from yesterday's Dementia Day Clock, I decided to create a new Day Clock with a little more information - for instance - accurate time.

Day clock on my Lumia 950. Click the image to load the new Day Clock.

I managed to export the data from the Perpetual Calendar for the BBC microcomputer using BeebEm and then wrote a script to convert the data from a BBC text file into a JSON file. The data contains the dates of various interesting anniversaries, and so I thought it would be a nice touch to show these on the new day clock, including a calculation of how long ago the event took place.  For example today is the 41 year anniversary of the UK Sex Discrimination Act 1975.

BeebEm has some really useful tools, most notably the 'export' function which allows you to export one or more files from a BBC disk image to a PC format. This means that I can code a file on the BBC microcomputer, but still access or edit it on my Windows 10 machine. Yay!

I then added in 'red-letter' days, or other recurring events including holidays and Pagan festivals (from Pagan Calendar). I cannot be absolutely sure I haven't made any errors here, but I'll keep checking that this works and then add some more date/time information as and when.

The final touch was to put the current time into the new page tab so you can check the time in your list of browser tabs without navigating back to the page.

Well that's it for now. In the future I may add some other features, perhaps a background image that changes with each passing month. Maybe I shall put a Google search box in, or other widgets such as weather. Maybe I'll just sack it off and build something else.

Come back soon for more nerdy stuff.

If you liked this post, then you might also like to watch some bouncing balls, or just play a game of Have Spell Will Travel.