Dragon 32/64

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Dragon 32.jpg
A Dragon 32 home computer.
TypeHome computer
Release dateAugust 1982; 37 years ago (1982-08)
Discontinued1984; 35 years ago (1984)[1]
Operating systemMicrosoft Extended BASIC
CPUMotorola 6809E @ 0.89 MHz
Memory32 KB/64 KB
Left and right of a Dragon 64
Back of Dragon 32

The Dragon 32 and Dragon 64 are home computers that were built in the 1980s. The Dragons are very similar to the TRS-80 Color Computer, and were produced for the European market by Dragon Data, Ltd., in Port Talbot, Wales, and for the US market by Tano of New Orleans, Louisiana. The model numbers reflect the primary difference between the two machines, which have 32 and 64 kilobytes (32,768 and 65,536 bytes) of RAM, respectively.

Product history[edit]

In the early 1980s, the British home computer market was booming. New models were released almost monthly. In August 1982, Dragon Data joined the fray with the Dragon 32; the Dragon 64 followed a year later. The computers sold well initially and attracted the interest of independent software developers including Microdeal. A companion magazine, Dragon User, began publication shortly after the microcomputer's launch.

In the private home computer market, where games were a significant driver, the Dragon suffered because its graphics were inferior to competitors Sinclair ZX Spectrum and BBC Micro.[1]

The Dragon was unable to display lower-case letters easily. Some more sophisticated applications would synthesise them using high-resolution graphics modes (in the same way that user-defined characters would be designed for purely graphical applications such as games). Simpler programs just managed without lower case, effectively locking the computer out of the blooming educational market.[1]

As a result of its limitations, the Dragon was not a commercial success, and Dragon Data collapsed in June 1984.[2] It was acquired by the Spanish company Eurohard S.A., which filed for bankruptcy in 1987.

In the United States it was possible to purchase the Tano Dragon new in box until early-2017 from California Digital, a retailer that purchased the remaining stock.[3]

Dragon logo

Technical notes[edit]

Hardware and peripherals[edit]

The Dragon is built around the Motorola MC6809E processor running at 0.89 MHz. It was an advanced 8-bit CPU design, with limited 16-bit capabilities.

It was possible to increase the speed of the computer by using POKE 65495,0 which accelerates the ROM-resident BASIC interpreter, but temporarily disables correct functioning of the cassette/printer ports. Manufacturing variances mean that not all Dragons are able to function at this higher speed, and use of this POKE can cause some units to crash or be unstable, though with no permanent damage. POKE 65494,0 returns the speed to normal. POKE 65497,0 pushes the speed yet higher but the display is lost until a slower speed is restored.

The Dragon used the SN74LS783/MC6883 Synchronous Address Multiplexer (SAM) and the MC6847 Video Display Generator (VDG). I/O was provided by two MC6821 Peripheral Interface Adapters (PIAs). Many Dragon 32s were upgraded by their owners to 64 kB of memory. A few were further expanded to 128 kB, 256 kB, or 512 kB, with home-built memory controllers/memory management units (MMUs).

A broad range of peripherals exist for the Dragon 32/64, and there are add-ons such as the Dragon's Claw which give the Dragons access to the BBC Micro's large range of accessories (a particularly important factor in the UK home market). Although neither machine has a built-in disk operating system (cassette tapes being the default data-storage mechanism in the home computer market at the time), DragonDOS was supplied as part of the disk controller interface from Dragon Data Ltd. The versatile external ports (by the standards of the time), including the standard RS-232 on the 64, also allows hobbyists to attach a diverse range of equipment.

The computer featured a composite monitor port as an alternative to the TV RF output which can be used to connect the Dragon 32 to most modern TVs to deliver a much better picture.

The Dragon uses analogue joysticks, unlike most systems of the time which used less versatile but cheaper digital systems. Other uses for the joystick ports include light pens.

Tony Clarke and Richard Wadman established the specifications for the Dragon.[4]

The units had a robust motherboard in a spacious case, reminiscent of the BBC Micro, and so were more tolerant of home-modification than some of their contemporaries, which often had their components crammed into the smallest possible space.

Video modes[edit]

The Dragon's main display mode is 'black on green' text (actually the black was a deeper, muddier green). The only graphics possible in this mode are quarter-tile block based.

It also has a selection of five high resolution modes, named PMODEs 0-4, which alternate monochrome and four-colour in successively higher resolutions, culminating in the black and white 256×192 PMODE 4. Each mode has two possible colour palettes. Unfortunately, these are rather garish and cause the system to fare poorly in visual comparisons with other home computers of the time. It is also impossible to use standard printing commands to print text on the graphical modes, causing software development difficulties.[5]

Full colour scanline based 64×192 "semi-graphics" modes are also possible, though their imbalanced resolution and programming difficulty (they are not accessible via BASIC) meant they were not often utilised.

Disk systems[edit]

A complete Disk Operating System was produced for the Dragon by a third-party supplier, Premier Microsystems located near Croydon. The system was sold as the "Delta" disk operating system. Although Premier offered the Delta system to be marketed by Dragon themselves, Dragon were not happy that a third party were hijacking the standards for their computer, and produced their own rival DragonDOS system making it clear that the third party Delta was not compatible with the 'standard' Dragon Disk system.

Inevitably, with Delta's head start, software was marketed in either system, but rarely both. The result was the inevitable confusion with customers upset that a particular piece of software was not available for the Disk system that they had.

System software[edit]

The Dragon comes with a Microsoft BASIC interpreter in 16 KB of ROM. The BASIC appears to be identical to Tandy Color Computer's Extended Basic.[4]

Unlike a modern PC with the operating system on disk, a Dragon starts instantly when powered up. Some software providers also produced compilers for BASIC, and other languages, to produce binary (or "machine") code which would run many times faster and make better use of the small system RAM. Towards the end of its life, Dragon Data produced an assembler/disassembler/editor suite called Dream.

In addition to the DragonDOS disk operating system, the Dragon 32/64 is capable of running several others, including FLEX, and even OS-9 which brought UNIX-like multitasking to the platform. Memory-expanded and MMU-equipped Dragons are able to run OS-9 Level 2.


Manic Miner (Software Projects) had to run in black and white.

Initially, the Dragon was reasonably well supported by the major UK software companies with versions of popular games from other systems being ported to the Dragon. Examples of top selling games available for the Dragon include Arcadia (Imagine), Chuckie Egg (A&F), Manic Miner and sequel Jet Set Willy (Software Projects), Hunchback (Ocean) and Football Manager (Addictive). There were also companies that concentrated on the Dragon such as Microdeal. Their character Cuthbert appeared in several games on the Dragon with Cuthbert Goes Walkabout also being converted for Atari 8-bit and Commodore 64 systems.

Due to the limited graphics modes of the Dragon, converted games had a distinctive appearance with colour games being usually played on a green or white background (rather than the more common black on other systems) or games with high definition graphics having to run in black and white.

When the system was discontinued, support from software companies also effectively ended. However, Microdeal continued supporting the Dragon until January 1988. Some of their final games developed for the Dragon in 1987 such as Tanglewood and Airball were also converted for 16-bit machines such as the Atari ST and Amiga.

Differences from the TRS-80[edit]

Both the Dragon and the TRS-80 Color Computer are based on a Motorola data sheet design for the MC6883 SAM (MMU) chip for memory management and peripheral control.

The systems are sufficiently similar that a significant fraction of the compiled software produced for one machine will run on the other. Software running via the built-in Basic interpreters also has a high level of compatibility, but only after they are re-tokenized, which can be achieved fairly easily by transferring via cassette tape with appropriate options.

It is possible to permanently convert a Color Computer into a Dragon by swapping the original Color Computer ROM and rewiring the keyboard cable.[6]

The Dragon has additional circuitry to make the MC6847 VDG compatible with European 625-line television standards, rather than the US 525-line NTSC standard, and a Centronics parallel printer port not present on the TRS-80. Some models were manufactured with NTSC video for the US market.

Dragon 32 vs. Dragon 64[edit]

Aside from the amount of RAM, the 64 also has a functional RS-232 serial port which was not included on the 32. A minor difference between the two Dragon models is the outer case colour; the Dragon 32 is beige and the 64 is light grey. Besides the case, branding and the Dragon 64's serial port, the two machines look the same. The Dragon 32 is upgradable to Dragon 64.


BYTE wrote in January 1983 that the Dragon 32 "offers more feature for the money than most of its [British] competitors", but "there's nothing exceptional about it". The review described it as a redesigned, less-expensive Color Computer with 32K RAM and better keyboard.[7]


  1. ^ a b c Sangani, Kris (2009). "Gadgets That Design Forgot". Engineering & Technology. IET. 4 (16): 31. doi:10.1049/et.2009.1604. ISSN 1750-9637. Archived from the original on 5 February 2010.
  2. ^ Worlock, Peter. "Dragon Fire Flickers". Personal Computer News. Archived from the original on 15 September 2014. Retrieved 14 September 2012.
  3. ^ https://web.archive.org/web/20170220125131/http://cadigital.com/computer.htm
  4. ^ a b "The Computer that Roared" by Fernleigh Edmonson. "Microcomputing" magazine 1983 May.
  5. ^ Brooks, Phil. "Dragon User May 1985, 'Write On!'" (PDF). World of Dragon. Dragon User. p. 10.
  6. ^ "Coco to Dragon Conversion". Archived from the original on 26 November 2009. Retrieved 5 August 2008.
  7. ^ Williams, Gregg (January 1983). "Microcomputer, British Style / The Fifth Personal Computer World Show". BYTE. p. 40. Retrieved 19 October 2013.
  • Vander Reyden, John (1983). Dragon 32 programmer's reference guide. Beam Software/Melbourne House. ISBN 0-86161-134-9.
  • Smeed, D.; Sommerville, I. (1983). Inside the Dragon. Addison-Wesley. ISBN 0-201-14523-5

External links[edit]