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Unlike the Apple II clones from Franklin, VTech reverse-engineered the Apple Monitor ROM using a clean room design rather than copying it, as Franklin had. Apple Computer challenged VTech in court, but unlike its efforts directed at Franklin, Apple was unable to force the Laser 128 off the market. The Applesoft BASIC ROM was licensed from Microsoft and went unchallenged by Apple.
As its name suggests, the $479 Laser 128 had 128 KB of RAM. Like the Apple IIc, it was a one-piece semi-portable design with a carrying handle and a single built-in 5¼-inch floppy disk drive, and used the 65C02 microprocessor. Unlike the Apple IIc, it had a numeric keypad, a Centronics printer port, and two Laser 128-only graphics modes. The Laser 128 also had a single Apple IIe-compatible expansion slot, which gave it better expansion capabilities than a IIc, but cards remained exposed; the slot was intended for an expansion chassis that provided slots compatible with the Apple's Slot 5 and Slot 7. The computer also had a separate, internal memory-expansion slot.
VTech obtained United States Customs approval to export the Laser 128 to the United States in 1986. Central Point Software sold the computer and accessories by mail in full-page magazine advertisements, claiming that "a computer without expansion slots is a dead-end that stays behind as technology advances". By late 1986 other mail-order firms also sold the Laser 128, and at least one peripheral maker advertised its product's compatibility with the clone.
By 1988 VTech had purchased Central Point Software and formed Laser Computer as a division of the company. It ended Central Point's mail order sales of the 128, only selling through dealers such as Sears. inCider magazine wrote that year that "Laser will never sell as many computers or have as big a distribution network as Apple, but there's no doubt that the 128 [has] won a place in the Apple market, and irritated Apple in the process". Apple countered the Laser 128 with the Apple IIc Plus. VTech responded with the Laser 128EX (1987), with a 3.6MHz CPU, and the $549 Laser 128EX/2 (1988), with a 3.5-inch disk drive and MIDI port. (A $499 version of the 128EX/2 with a 5.25-inch drive was available.)
Despite its physical resemblance to the IIc, software saw the Laser 128 as an enhanced IIe with 128K RAM. InfoWorld found in 1986 that the Laser 128 was incompatible with 12% of 129 tested software packages, mostly educational software or games. Compatible software included AppleWorks, Quicken, Apple Writer, VisiCalc, Flight Simulator II, The Print Shop, and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?. inCider called the computer "amazingly Apple-compatible", estimating 95% compatibility. Successes included F-15 Strike Eagle, Fantavision, WordPerfect, and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and the magazine noted that it was easy to install $25 upgraded ROM chips if necessary. A+ similarly found that the Laser 128 was compatible with 28 of 30 popular Apple II programs, while only about half worked with the Frankln Ace. BYTE's tests were less favorable. Most expansion cards worked properly but the magazine found "mixed results" with software compatibility, stating that "graphics programs I tested revealed flaws in the Laser 128's compatibility with both the Apple IIc and II+". By comparison, Apple claimed in 1984 that the IIc was compatible with 90% of all Apple II software. The Laser 128's popularity ensured that most major software companies tested their software on the Laser as well as on Apple hardware.
VTech licensed an Applesoft BASIC-compatible version of Microsoft BASIC, heavily reducing the amount of code that had to be reimplemented. Applesoft BASIC constitutes the largest and most complex part of an Apple II's ROM contents. Microsoft had made most of its money by keeping the rights to the software that it sold to others. Like IBM with PC DOS, Apple had failed to secure an exclusive distribution license for the Applesoft dialect of BASIC, and VTech was free to license it. Much Apple software depended on various machine code routines that are a part of BASIC in ROM, and it's quite likely that the Laser would not have been as successful had it not had compatible ROM entry points.
InfoWorld in May 1986 stated that "we can see why" Apple opposed the Laser 128's importation to the United States. It stated that other than the keyboard feel the computer's external features, such as the expansion slot, numeric keypad, and Centronics port, improved on the IIc. Given the high degree of compatibility and a price less than half that of the IIc, the magazine concluded that the Laser 128 "is a real bargain". inCider in December 1986 stated that the computer "[deserved] a look from anyone considering a Commodore. Or, to be blunt, anyone considering an Apple IIc". The magazine also disliked the keyboard's feel and called the computer "homely", but concluded that "The Laser is a remarkably compatible, competent performer. The Apple market isn't known for hardware bargains, but it has one now". BYTE in January 1987 preferred the Laser 128's keyboard, including the keypad and cursor keys' locations, to that of the Apple IIc and approved of the documentation's quality. Despite describing the software incompatibility issues as "disappointing" the magazine concluded that its "technical issues are relatively minor", and that its low price made the computer "perfect for someone looking for a second computer or an inexpensive first computer that runs the largest pool of software available today".
inCider in November 1988 stated that the Laser 128EX/2 "has everything you can possibly put into an 8-bit Apple II ... in terms of standard equipment, it's more than a match for the IIc Plus". The Apple product was slightly faster and the difference in price between the two computers was much smaller than the IIc's more than $300 premium over the Laser 128, but the 128EX/2's memory was more easily expandable, important to AppleWorks users. The magazine concluded that while the "128EX/2 is a slick machine, the most fully loaded II compatible you can buy", the 5 1/4-inch version of the EX/2—or the older EX for those who did not need a 3 1/2-inch drive—"may be bargain hunters' best bet".
- Field, Cynthia E. (1986-05-05). "Laser 128 Adds Bonuses to IIc". InfoWorld. p. 51. Retrieved 1 November 2013.
- Grevstad, Eric (1986-12). "Laser 128 / An Affordable Compatible". inCider. p. 58. Retrieved 29 June 2014.
- Raleigh, Lisa (1986-04-01). "Video Technology's Laser Works with Apple software". Boca Raton News. Knight-Ridder Newspapers. p. 12. Retrieved 29 June 2014.
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