LGR – Tandy 1000 RL/HD Retro Computer Review

[theme music] Tandy/Radio Shack started selling computers in the late 1970s in competition with machines from Apple and Commodore. This was the TRS-80 series of computers which ended up being rather popular with home users, as well as schools and some businesses. But in 1981, IBM released the IBM PC, which dominated the business market and set the standard for computers to come. Tandy made a PC XT clone of sorts with enhanced graphics and sound, the Tandy 2000. But due to their choice of the 80186 CPU, it never really took off. Then in 1984, IBM released the PCjr, a home version of the PC. It had been hyped to no end during its development and during this time, Tandy got to work on a PCjr clone. But as Tandy was about to release their PCjr machine, the Tandy 1000, IBM announced that they were discontinuing the failed PCjr. Tandy quickly changed their marketing campaign to remove all references to IBM and the PC instead promoting it as an MS-DOS-compatible machine. It released in 1985 and quickly caught on as a very viable alternative to an IBM PC. Retaining compatibility with the PCjr and PC standards, as well as presenting a great upgrade for TRS-80 users, since it used many of the same peripherals. It was so popular, that the PCjr’s standard for graphics and sounds soon became known as “Tandy compatible.” There are many different Tandy 1000 machines, starting with the original, the 1000 and the 1000HD, both with 128K of RAM, and a hard drive in the HD model The 1000EX and the HX were the same as the 1000, but with smaller form factors and a built-in keyboard, the former with a 5.25″ drive, and the latter with a 3.5″ drive and DOS in ROM. There is also the SX and TX, with 8088-2 and 286 processors, respectively. Next are the updates to those machines, the SL and TL series. They had varying processors but they also had higher res graphics and even better sound chips, in addition to the earlier PCjr compatible chips often referred to as TL graphics and sound. The last machines made were the RL, RL/HD, RLX and RSX. The RL and RL/HD were similar to the TL machines, with 8086 AT-class processors and more RAM. The RLX with a 286 CPU, VGA graphics and high-density disk drive and the RSX with a 386SX CPU, SVGA graphics, and more RAM and upgrade options. I got my 1000 RL/HD for about $30, I suppose, since I got it bundled with some other items from Yushatak. Thanks again, dude. I also have a 1000 EX, but I’ve never gotten it to work properly. It only cost about $10. Before I get any further, I just want to preface this by saying that I’m going to treat this as a review of all the classic Tandy 1000s, since they really all had the basic same capabilities until the RLX. The RL/HD is the last of its kind and by that, I mean it’s the last with PCjr compatibility intact. See my PCjr review for more, but the big thing about the PCjr was enhanced graphics and sound over the IBM’s CGA and PC speaker capabilities. While the PCjr failed in bringing these extras to the mainstream, Tandy succeeded. The “HD” in RL/HD is because of the hard drive built in. It is a 20MB drive and was a godsend for Tandy games, since they often take several floppies and swapping sucks. But most of the rest of the computer is quite similar to the other 1000 machines. So let’s go over some Tandy 1000 basics. A big goal of the 1000 series was that it was to be compatible with most TRS-80 peripherals. This meant that while it was compatible with the PCjr’s hardware, the peripherals technically were not. The joysticks are a good example. They are the same thing as IBM or Kraft sticks, but have the same DIN connector as the TRS-80, so owners of that machine already has a head start. The earlier machines also had composite output so you could use it with your TRS-80 monitor which was really a rebadged TV set. You have your typical IBM-type ports like CGA monitor, serial and Centronics, or parallel, although the parallel is output only, so no hooking up external drives here. On the RL/HD, you have PS/2 ports for mouse and keyboard, which I guess makes sense since the PS/2 came around this time, and the case style somewhat mimics it. But they aren’t exactly the same as the IBM standards, so you’ll probably still need Tandy devices for full compatibility. While we’re back here, it’s worth mentioning the Tandy machines were some of the first IBM-compatibles to use integrated components on the motherboard similar to what a modern chipset does, unlike the IBM machines, which still required the use of several expansion cards to perform base functions. I don’t yet have a Tandy monitor, but my IBM 5153 CGA monitor works just fine, since the Tandy graphics mode is really just CGA with all the colors at once. And don’t take this to mean that it works with EGA games because it won’t. The TL graphics mode might work on it too, but I haven’t yet run across a game that uses it. A sound output is built into the system with headphone output, a speaker and volume knob. The RL also has a mic input and we’ll get to that soon. Unlike the PCjr, there are no cartridge slots, but it does have the same 360K floppy drive, and RL has a 720K 3.5″ floppy drive. On the EX and similar machines, the drive is required for use, since there is no hard drive or built-in DOS. Many later machines had DOS in ROM, and of course the hard drive negated the need for booting from a floppy. But another big part of Tandy machines was its optional operating environment, Deskmate. At the time, environments like MacOS and GEM were all the rage, and Tandy had their own. It’s a GUI for DOS which contains its own programs as well as helping to manage DOS programs and files. It’s pretty darned awesome to use, especially if you have a mouse, like this ugly freak. It’s pretty similar to AmigaOS and GEM, and makes it feel like its own machine and not just another IBM clone. My favorite things are the sound programs. You can take full advantage of the Tandy DAC and listen to and compose music. [synth piano] And even sound effects, which you can also record using the mic input. [synth strings] It even has built-in audio manipulation, which was absolutely *insane* for 1991, when sound cards were still a luxury. Still, this is only on the TL and higher machines, like the RL here. The earlier 1000s had Deskmate available, but not with these advanced audio features. In my PCjr review, I mentioned how the thing was pretty much suck because while the capabilities were there, so many games were made to take advantage of Tandy hardware and more RAM. Well, if you get a Tandy 1000, you can just forget those issues. The RL/HD is especially nice with 768K of RAM, with 128K devoted to video, the PCjr compatible chips and a 9.56 MHz 8086 processor, putting it in the AT category. A good example of this extra speed boost is really noticeable in games like Digger. On a PCjr, it runs almost too slow to play, but on the RL, it is, quite simply, great. Also the RL’s CPU, extra RAM and hard drive make it ideal for many Tandy games since the enhanced graphics and sound add a bit more processing and memory requirements. There are literally hundreds of games that take advantage of the Tandy capabilities. Here a few that stand out. [computerized sound effects] [female voice]
“Sega Computer Software Presents” “Out Run” [engine revving and tires screeching] [three-tone Arkanoid theme] [three-tone music and sound effects] [synth music] [three-tone music] Regarding the RL/HD, probably the biggest hurdle you run into is the 720K 3.5″ drive Many Tandy compatible games still came on 360K 5.25″ floppies, so you’ll need to either convert them or get 720K versions. Thankfully, writing the 720K disks is easy enough on any 3.5″ drive provided you can find 720K disks, that is. I prefer using DSDD disks, but you can just use the 1.44 Meg disks with the classic taping over the hole trick. There’s also the excellent DOSBox and Tand-Em emulators for emulating the machines and their enhanced capabilities and for the most part, they do quite well. But with the breadth of hardware and software made for these things, you’ll no doubt run into several little quirks that emulation just can’t deal with. So, is the Tandy 1000 series computer worth buying? In short, yes. Yes it is. If you’re into late-’80s/early-’90s DOS gaming, especially those that take advantage of the Tandy hardware which seems to be most of them, it’s well worth looking into. The RL and TL series especially because of their extra enhanced modes on top of the normal Tandy/PCjr modes. Now of course, their success didn’t last forever. They were quickly eclipsed by the capabilities of later computers which used cheaper sound cards like the Sound Blaster that did a lot more than the Tandy and VGA cards, which surpassed Tandy graphics pretty quickly. Still, for the time and today, they’re small, affordable, and can do a whole lot in a very neat little package. So if you have any interest in one of these things, I would say go for it. It blows the PCjr out of the water and is probably gonna give you a lot more enjoyment than many other DOS machines in the long run.

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