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Mattel Aquarius

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Mattel Aquarius
Mattel-Aquarius-Computer-FL.jpg
TypeHome computer
Release dateJune 1983; 35 years ago (1983-06)
Introductory price160 US$ (today $402.49)
DiscontinuedOctober 1983 (1983-10)
MediaCassette tape, ROM Cartridge
Operating systemMicrosoft BASIC
CPUZilog Z80A @ 3.5 MHz
Memory4KB RAM (expandable to 20KB), 8KB ROM
InputKeyboard

Aquarius is a home computer designed by Radofin and released by Mattel in 1983. It features a Zilog Z80 microprocessor, a rubber chiclet keyboard, 4K of RAM, and a subset of Microsoft BASIC in ROM. It connects to a television set for audio and visual output, and uses a cassette tape recorder for secondary data storage. A limited number of peripherals, such as a 40-column thermal printer, a 4-color printer/plotter, and a 300 baud modem, were released for the unit.

History[edit]

The Aquarius with attached expansion block including 4KB RAM expansion and game cartridge inserted, controllers, and tape Data Recorder
The back of the Aquarius, showing connectors for TV out, an external cassette drive and printer.

Looking to compete in the standalone computer market, Mattel Electronics turned to Radofin, the Hong Kong based manufacturer of their Intellivision consoles. Radofin had designed two computer systems. Internally they were known as "Checkers", and the more sophisticated "Chess". Mattel contracted for these to become the Aquarius and Aquarius II, respectively. Aquarius was announced in 1982 and finally released in June 1983, at a price of $160. Production ceased four months later because of poor sales. Mattel paid Radofin to take back the marketing rights, and four other companies—CEZAR Industries, CRIMAC Inc., New Era Incentives, Inc., and Bentley Industries—also marketed the unit and accessories for it. Bentley Industries (of Los Angeles) and New Era Incentives, Inc. (of St. Paul) are still in business, though they no longer have any affiliation with the Aquarius product line.

The Aquarius often came bundled with the Mini-Expander peripheral, which added game pads, an additional cartridge port for memory expansion, and the GI AY-3-8914 sound chip, which was the same one used on the Intellivision console. Other common peripherals were the Data recorder, 40 column thermal printer, 4K and 16K ram carts. Less common first party peripherals include a 300 baud cartridge modem, 32k RAM cart, 4 color plotter, and Quick Disk drive.

Although less expensive than the Texas Instruments TI-99/4A and Commodore VIC-20, the Aquarius had comparatively weak graphics and limited memory. Internally, Mattel programmers dubbed it "the system for the seventies". Of the 32 software titles Mattel announced for the unit, only 21 were released, most of which were ports from Mattel's Intellivision game console. Because of the hardware limitations of the Aquarius (such as a lack of programmable graphics), the quality of many games suffered. This is in contrast to other home video game companies of the era such as Atari and Coleco, who were branching out into the home computer market with computers that matched or exceeded the capabilities of their dedicated gaming consoles.

The Aquarius was discontinued almost as soon as it hit store shelves; a magazine of the era declared the Aquarius had: "One of the shortest lifespans of any computer."[1] Just after the release of the Aquarius, Mattel announced plans for the release of the Aquarius II, and there is evidence that the Aquarius II reached the market in small numbers,[2][3] but was never a commercial success.

Technical specifications[edit]

The motherboard of the Mattel Aquarius.
  • CPU: Zilog Z-80, 3.5 MHz
  • Memory: 4K RAM, expandable to 20K RAM; 8K ROM
  • Keyboard: 48-key rubber chiclet
  • Display: 256 x 192 pixels (all available within borders), 40x24 text (8 x 8 pixel character block), 80x72 addressable graphics, 16 colors
  • Sound: One voice, expandable to four voices
  • Ports: Television, cartridge/expansion, tape recorder, printer
  • Hardware Sprites: None
  • PSU: Non-removable external power supply hard-wired into case providing 8.8 / 16 / 19 VDC

Old and New ROM[edit]

There is both an "old ROM" and a "new ROM" version of the Aquarius, although both bear the same model number (#5931). They can be distinguished by the start-up message. Both versions say "Copyright (c) 1982 by Microsoft Inc.", but the "new ROM" adds at the end of that line, "S2". The "old ROM" has 1731 bytes free on start-up, while the "new ROM" has slightly less-- 1724 bytes. The advantage of the "new ROM" is that it fixes certain bugs in the "old ROM".[4] An example of the errors fixed is related to the CLOAD? command, used for tape verification. In case of error, the "old ROM" Aquarius will report-- Ba_ --with that last character being something other than a "d"; the "new ROM" Aquarius will properly report "Bad".[4]

Released Hardware and Cartridge Software[edit]

Some items below were actively marketed; others may not have been extensively released but at least a few examples appear to be in circulation. Model numbers below ending in a "C" were CRIMAC-produced products; the other model numbers were Radofin-produced products, and sometimes have an "R" set at the end of the model numbers shown:[4]

Aquarius Mini Expander (Model #4063)- An expansion system that made game playing more exciting and easier. It came with 2 detachable 6-key 16-position disk hand controllers (similar to Intellivision controllers but with 6 keys instead of 12 and no side fire buttons). The unit added a decent sound chip (the same as used on the Intellivision) and gave the Aquarius 3 sound channels. It had two cartridge slots, allowing one to be used with a memory cartridge while the other could be used for a program cartridge.

Aquarius Data Recorder (Model #4394)- A sequential file medium cassette player to store data and programs. It is 12" L x 8.5" W. It is sloped from the back (4" thickness) down to the front (2.5" thickness). It weighs 2.7 pounds and has its own internal power transformer & hardwired AC cord. The case and buttons are all white with a nice sculpted design. There is a black translucent panel over the cassette area; marking-wise, it has a black plate with "Aquarius Data Recorder" written on it, and a large colorful Aquarius logo. Once you get past the case, the unit is pretty much a standard 70's/80's portable cassette recorder. It has a resetable tape counter on the top, along with RECORD, PLAY, REWIND, FAST FWD., STOP/EJ. and PAUSE buttons. However, the recorder has no volume knob (though there is a small trimmer pot inside the unit); the volume is preset for the level the Aquarius likes. The unit also has no speaker. On the back of the unit are 3 jacks: EAR (EARphone, for audio output), MIC (MICrophone, for audio input) and REM (REMote control). The REM jack is unused by the Aquarius; the standard connecting cable, which was included with the recorder (and not sold separately) had only two plugs (marked MIC and EAR). There is a green "POWER" LED, which does not come on when the unit is plugged in, but instead lights when any movement button (like PLAY or REWIND) is pressed. The unit also has a red "DATA" LED which comes on when data is encountered on the playback/record circuit, whether or not the computer is processing such data. The "DATA" LED is fed via a bandpass filter, and will light up erratically if you put in a music cassette, etc. The Aquarius recording system uses a lightly tokenized save format for its BASIC recordings: all strings, program names, variables and values are stored as ASCII text, with only standard commands being tokenized. The Aquarius recording system operates at 600 baud, using 900 Hz and 1800 Hz tones. Input impedance is 82 ohms, output impedance is 2.4K ohms, and output level is 50mV. For more detailed information on the recording system, see the "What's the Tape Recording Format?" section of this FAQ.

Data Recorder Tape (Model #4700)- Computer cassette tapes, marketed as having been designed specifically for the Aquarius Data Recorder.

Aquarius Printer (Model #4210)- 40 column, narrow-paper thermal printer. 80 cps in upper/lower case text and 20 graphic lines per second. 5x7 character matrix at 10 cpi; thermal roll paper utilized up to 4-3/8" wide. Another incarnation of the narrow-width Alphacom 42 thermal printer that was OEMed for so many home computers of that era (e.g., as the Timex/Sinclair 2040, TI Solid State Printer, and Tandy TP-10).

Aquarius 4-Color Printer (Model #4615)- A 4-color printer/plotter using small red, green, blue and black pens to draw graphics, or text 40 or 80 columns wide, on plain 4-1/2" roll paper. It was apparently an OEMed version of the small Alps printer/plotter that appeared under many manufacturers' names (e.g., the Commodore 1520, the Atari 1020, and the Tandy CGP-115).

Printer Paper Pack (Model #4216)- Roll printer paper, marketed for use with either the Aquarius Printer or the Aquarius 4-Color Printer.

Aquarius Modem (Model #4399)- A 300 baud modem with originate/answer capability and upload/download ability. The needed terminal software came on tape. It was intended to be used with "Aquarius Home Services", a Mattel on-line service tied in with CompuServe; and, the modem's official release was held pending start-up of that service. But, the latter never materialized, and the modem was never widely distributed.

Aquarius Modem (Model #4820C)- This was the CRIMAC model of Aquarius modem. It too was 300 baud.

Aquarius Master Expansion Module (Model #4398)- A large peripheral expansion box with room for two floppy disk drives and "seven built-in peripheral boards to expand Aquarius memory and expand it into the technology of the future at your own pace." It would have allowed not only use of the floppies for storage, but also utilization of the popular CP/M disk operating system and CP/M-compatible programs. Certainly not widely released.

Aquarius Single Disk Drive (Model #4801C)- A stand-alone external double-sided disk drive for the Aquarius. This added not only 128K of disk capacity to the unit, being 64K on both sides of the special 2.8" disks, but also 128K of RAM.

Quick Disks (Model #4825C)- These were the disks for the Single Disk Drive. 2.8", double sided, these were used to hold 128K (64K on each side).

Com/Pac - This was simply a marketing package which included an Aquarius, Aquarius Printer, Aquarius Data Recorder, and Aquarius Mini Expander, all in one box.

Memory Cartridges - 4K RAM Cartridge (Model #4214), 16K RAM Cartridge (Model #4215), 32K RAM Cartridge (Model #4217).

Practical/Educational Cartridges -

    LOGO (#4890C)- Graphics programming with Turtle Graphics.
    FinForm (#4178)- 63 column by 255 row spreadsheet program.
    FileForm (#4177)- Database & word processing program.
    Extended Microsoft BASIC (#4392)- Programming with most if not all the remaining commands of full Microsoft BASIC.  
      With this you were also able to access the Mini Expander's controllers to write games to use them.
    Hints From Heloise- Question and Answer program with helpful hints for common household questions ("Heloise" being the author 
      of a popular newspaper column and an authority on housekeeping).
    Zero-In (#4895C)- Educational software.
    Biorhythms (#4673)- Software calculating the user's "biorhythm" cycles.  Many home computers of the era had similar software 
      exploring the "biorhythm" theory and whether the same had any predictive ability regarding daily performance.
    Space Speller (a/k/a Spelling in Space) (#4682)- Education in spelling.
    Melody Chase (#4920C)

Game Cartridges -

    Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Treasures of Tarmin (#4023)
    Astrosmash (#4003)
    Burger Time (#4653)
    Bump and Jump (#4925C)
    Night Stalker (#4595)
    Reversi (#4594)
    Snafu (#4028)
    Tron Deadly Discs (#4024)
    Utopia (#4596)
    Chess (#4393)
    Lock 'N' Chase (#4029)
    Sea Battle

Planned/Unreleased Hardware and Cartridge Software[edit]

Certain other hardware and software products were publicly announced, but were apparently never released:[4]

Aquarius Home Computer System Command Console (Model #7064)- An X-10 or similar type device capable of controlling up to 64 lights or appliances around the house, turning them on or off up to 32 times a day.

Cartridges -

    Match & Learn
    Trapdoor
    Waterfall
    Math & Mazes
    Mr. Whirlpool
    Brain Baffler
    Menu Planner
    Tax Tips
    Advanced Diet Trac
    Typemaster
    Masters of the Universe

Interfacing[edit]

The Aquarius manual did not contain a diagram of any of the Aquarius ports. This caused confusion, particularly regarding attachment of a cassette recorder for saving and loading programs. The Aquarius Data Recorder came with the appropriate cable, but the manual did not indicate that commercially-available cables, such as the similar-looking cable available at Radio Shack, would not work. In fact, the pinout of the Aquarius cassette port was totally different from the TRS-80 design.[4] The cassette port on the back of the Aquarius is a 5-pin female DIN connector; looking at it from the back, the pins are:

3       1             Port on back of Computer
 5     4       (or DIN plug pins viewed from the BACK)
    2

The holes/pins are assigned the following functions for the Aquarius:[4]

Pin 1	MIC    (tip of one plug)
Pin 2	Ground (outside of both MIC and EAR plugs)
Pin 3	EAR    (tip of other plug)
Pin 4	(Not used)
Pin 5	(Not used)

The tape recorder end of the proper cable used two 3.5mm miniplugs for connection to the MIC (MICrophone) jack and the EAR (EARphone, Speaker or Monitor) jack of the typical cassette recorder. The REM (REMote) jack frequently found on such recorders was not used on the Aquarius.[4]

The printer interface is a mini-stereo socket with just 3 lines. The Aquarius printers came with their own cables. However, the Aquarius used standard RS-232C serial signals (+12VDC/-12VDC), so it was possible to interface many RS-232C serial printers.[4] The Aquarius used a 1200 baud rate, 8 data bits, 2 stop bits, and no parity; the printer needed to be set to these selections with no line feed (sometimes called "carriage return only", "CR", "new line invalid", or "line feed inhibit"), and Busy/Ready instead of X-on/X-off.[4] Typical serial printers had DB-25 interfaces; some had DE-9 interfaces; and, some Radio Shack (RS) printers had round 4-pin female DIN connector serial interfaces, with the pin sockets numbered (as you look at the port from the back of the computer) left-to-right: 4, 3, 2, 1. The proper cable for connecting such a printer is as follows:[4]

MINI-STEREO PLUG      DB-25    DE-9     RS       FUNCTION
Tip/Center of Plug    Pin 3    Pin 2    Pin 4    Data to Printer
Middle of Plug        Pin 20   Pin 4    Pin 2    Printer Busy/Ready 
Base/Outside          Pin 7    Pin 5    Pin 3    Signal Ground

References[edit]

  1. ^ COMPUTE! Magazine, April 1985.
  2. ^ Mattel Aquarius II at old-computers.com, retrieved October 6, 2006
  3. ^ Mattel Aquarius at perso.orange.fr[dead link] (translated via Babel Fish, original article), retrieved October 6, 2006 Archived March 11, 2007, at the Wayback Machine
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Horvat/Parrish, “Mattel Aquarius FAQ,” May 6, 2001.

External links[edit]