VTech Logo Computers

I am always fascinated about computers with a programming language other than Basic in ROM. You might have heard of computers with Forth (e.g. the Jupiter Ace), maybe even APL. But do you know any computers with LOGO as their first language? No? Then you probably also do not know the company with the largest lineup of LOGO-computers. Any guesses? No, it’s VTECH!

You might pretend that you don’t know VTECH, but that would be very unlikely given that they are in business since the mid-70s and that their products are still sold in a big shop near you. VTECH is a Hongkong-based electronics company and my impression of them was always that they started selling computers in the 80s, and cleverly never changed their architecture afterwards, just their target market. However, that’s not really true.

VTECH (short for Video Technology) started their business in the mid-70s with a PONG console (what else?). They followed this up with LED-based games (looking like old calculator displays), then LCD-based handheld games. In 1982, they released their own games console, the CreatiVision. We might know VTECH for their 1980s line-up of home computers (and similar devices), the Laser family of computers (i.e. the Z80-based Laser 50, 100, 200, 210, 300, 310, 350, 500, and 700, and the 6502-based Laser 128, 2001, and 3000).

Next to their “serious” home computer line, VTECH also started in the 80s to build up a line-up of educational devices targeted at kids that soon imitated the looks of serious computers, either desktop models, or, later on, notebook models which makes one think of them as toy computers, especially when a tiny, black-and-white LCD display is mounted in a normal-size notebook lid, resulting in a huge bezel. Initially, these models were also based on Z80 CPUs.

Now, lately, I watched Nostalgia Nerd’s Youtube episode on VTECH (educational, toy) Laptops (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9F4it_DH6ps), and I was very surprised to learn that there was a model from 1998 which even had the programming language LOGO built in.

This puzzled me because there is no other computer with a built-in Logo in ROM (as far as I know). Sure, there were quite some Logo modules and interpreters that could be added to all sorts of computers, but no manufacturer chose to provide this as the initial choice and in ROM.

So, I started to explore this road a little bit. What is the CPU Logo is interpreted on? How many models did VTECH produce with Logo? How good is the interpreter? There is not much information about these aspects on the Internet (probably you can find all of it in the references section). So, here is what I could find out.

All the models with Logo were a single generation of VTECH educational computers that were produced between about 1997 and 2001. This generation was probably all based on the same or at least a similar System-on-a-chip (SoC) architecture plus a RAM chip (the Black Magic CX had 128 kB of static RAM) that was completed by a conventional masked ROM chip that had up to 2 MB of ROM memory.

Unfortunately, we do not know the exact SoC model(s) that were used for sure, but the MAME code trying to emulate some of these computers use “CR16B” emulations. CR16B is a version of National Semiconductors 16bit “CompactRisc” architecture that can address (you guessed it) up to 2 MB of code/data. We don’t know for sure because, unfortunately, the SoC is bonded directly on the (very small) PCB, with a drop of epoxy on top of it, and no helpful labels on the PCB.

Main PCB of the Black Magic CX

However, the friendly decapping nerds from Team Europe decapped the SoC of a 6600 CX (see References) and produced a picture of the chip underneath the epoxy. It looks as if the die has a label that reads “NSC1028”. They also cite a press release from 1999 saying: “National Semiconductor designed the Geode NSC1028 processor specifically for VTech’s new email appliances. The system-on-a-chip integrates a powerful 16-bit RISC processor, keyboard and printer ports, LCD display controller and speech synthesis circuitry into a single piece of silicon. This custom integrated processor represents the first step in a partnership between VTech and National to bring attractively priced, easy-to-use information appliances to the consumer market.”

BTW, it seems to me that this line of Geode-branded SoCs has nothing to do with the x86-compatible line of Geode processors based on Cyrix technology that was sold later on to AMD.

The Logo is a nameless, quite basic version of the programming language. It is rudimentarily explained on 2.5 pages in the manual of the device, and consist of 25 drawing commands (turtle graphics), 15 mathematical functions, 9 “word and list” commands (don’t forget that Logo is a descendent of Lisp), 3 logical functions, 17 “other” commands, and 11 “flow control” commands, resulting in 80 commands overall.

If we compare this to e.g. to Commodore’s C64 Logo (by Terrapin), we find 37 drawing commands, 20 mathematical operations, 16 word and list commands, 7 flow control commands, and 66 other commands, 146 commands in total. The differences lie mainly in the larger range of devices that can be addressed on the C64.

Words and lists (in the Logo sense!) must not have more than 20 characters. Apart from that it is not known how much memory is available to the Logo interpreter, or whether there are other restrictions to the language. It seems to me that the interpreter is very, very slow, at least when graphics are involved.

The VTECH devices do not only offer the Logo interpreter (and editor mode), but also three groups of sample programs, ready to be edited if needed. When using the editor, Logo programs can be stored to either the internal (battery buffered) memory or a storage cartridge if you have one.

The different VTECH computer models had partially different displays, varying in size and resolution. The basic model (e.g. the 5005 X) had only a 5.4″ display with a resolution of 130 x 50 pixels (still giving you 4 or 5 lines of text). The deluxe Black Magic CX has a whopping 7.1″ with (about) 237 x 138 pixels. Unfortunately, because VTECH needed to appear modern, the usable area for Logo programs is much smaller as there is a window border around the area, and command icons on the right and the bottom. As a result, e.g. on the Black Magic CX, you can use maximally 202 x 86 pixels under Logo.

Apart from the English version, there was also a German version of Logo that is completely localized language-wise even down to the command names. So if you have e.g. the 5005 X model which features both English and German, you get also an English and a German Logo! Apart from German I did not find another language Logo was localized to (although I could check this only for the Genio 6000 model which has Spanish and English software. The Spanisch software offer also the English Logo.
For the later, deluxe model (the Black Magic CX) the Logo part of the manual was even extended heavily. Now, you are introduced through 10 pages into Logo (plus the extended explanation of the commands), quite a nice change.

Now to the question of which models of this generation do have Logo on board. This question is a little bit hard to answer as

  • there is no comprehensive, worldwide catalogue of VTECH devices
  • different language versions of basically the same machine have different names

So it’s up to lists of machines where the Logo feature we could ascertain. Here is my current list:

Power Zone 2000

Year: 1997
Format: Desktop with separate keyboard, see-through case
Display size: large, probably 18.1 cm = 7.1 inch, 237 x 138 pixels, with background light
Languages: English

PC Endeavour

Year: 1998
Format: Notebook
Display size: small, probably 5.4 inch, 130 x 50 pixels
Languages: English

Power Zone Edge

Year: 1998
Format: Desktop with separate keyboard, see-through case
Display size: large, probably 18.1 cm = 7.1 inch, 237 x 138 pixels, with background light
Languages: English

Power Zone Plus Notebook

Year: 2001
Format: Notebook
Display size: small, probably 5.4 inch, 130 x 50 pixels
Languages: English

Power Zone Plus Desktop

Year: 2001
Format: Desktop
Display size: small, probably 5.4 inch, 130 x 50 pixels
Languages: English

Genius 5005 X

Year: ???
Format: Notebook
Display size: 13.8 cm = 5.4 inch, 130 x 50 pixels
Languages: German & English

Genio 6000

Year: ???
Format: Notebook
Display size: 13.8 cm = 5.4 inch, 130 x 50 pixels
Languages: Spanish & English

Genius 6600 CX

Year: 1999
Format: Notebook
Display size: small, probably 5.4 inch, 130 x 50 pixels
Languages: German

Genius 8008 CX

Year: 2000
Format: Notebook
Display size: large, probably 18.1 cm = 7.1 inch, 237 x 138 pixels
Languages: German & English

Genius Tabletop Black Magic CX

Year: 2000
Format: Desktop with separate keyboard, see-through case
Display size: 18.1 cm = 7.1 inch, 237 x 138 pixels, with background light
Usable pixels under Logo: 202 * 86
Languages: German
Keyboard: wireless (infrared) keyboard with connector for the mouse
RAM: 128 kB Static RAM (GM76v8128cllfw70)

In conclusion, VTECH produced a number of models of educational computers offering a built-in Logo interpreter. Given the typical volumes of VTECH products, this makes them the largest (and only) manufacturer of Logo computers. If you want to own one yourself, get a model with the large screen.

Genius 9009 CXL

Year: 2000
Format: Notebook
Display size: large, probably 18.1 cm = 7.1 inch, 237 x 138 pixels
Languages: German & English

References

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: