Archive for May, 2021

Soundic/Hanimex Pencil II

May 2, 2021

When browsing through my boxes, I recently discovered that I had purchased (probably a long time ago) a very rare computer that is not well known and not very often described. This is because it probably was never widespread at any time nor technologically or price-wise attractive. It is called the “Pencil II” and was produced by a Hong Kong-based company called Soundic.

Soundic/Hanimex Pencil II

Soundic was a low-end electronic game consumer electronics manufacturer whose products, mainly pong-like games and games consoles in the 1970s and 80s were sold under a large variety of brand names.

In 1984 Soundic released their only homecomputer, the Pencil II (from what I can tell there was never a Pencil I). In true Soundic fashion, the Pencil II was also sold under the Hanimex brand, so that half the Internet pages call it the Hanimex Pencil II. Hanimex (Jack Hannes Import and Export) was an Australian trading company that imported cameras, Pong-like games and game consoles.

Let’s have a look on the computer.

The CPU is a Zilog Z80A (in a NEC version), the graphics chip a Texas Instruments TMS9929. It has a whopping 2k of user RAM and 16k of VRAM. The sound chip is a Texas Instruments SN76489A. The keyboard is of the chiclet rubber variety, much like a ZX Spectrum, even down to using a single-key Basic command input. The Basic comes as a separate cartridge. The machine has two joystick ports, a SCART output, a composite output, and a cassette interface. So far, so boring. The only interesting thing about the Pencil II is its possibility to run Colecovision cartridges using the optional Colecovision module.

I had a hard time understanding this computer model. It seemed to be an one-off for Soundic which never produced any other computer. It is not itself a re-labelled model of another manufacturer and seems not to be a clone of another model. It is clearly a game console at heart (joystick ports, small amount of RAM), but: what is it?

Slowly, a suspicion developed in my mind: maybe this machine is not a clone of another computer, but a clone of a games console. Using additional hardware it can execute ColecoVision cartridges, so does is it try a Colecovision clone?

And, if we compare the hardware, that’s exactly what it is. The 1982 Colecovision uses the same CPU, graphics chip, VRAM amount, and sound chip. It uses the same 2 joystick ports. The Pencil II has 2 kB of user RAM instead of 1 kB, but that does probably not cost more production-wise in 1983/1984.

So, if the Pencil II is a Colecovision clone, what is in the Colecovision cartridge? And, sure enough, it is only a ROM chip that probably contains a Colecovision-compatible BIOS that overlays the Pencil’s own BIOS. All the rest is already in the Pencil II.

Now, the Pencil II has a few more features than a Colecovision. Apart from the 2k instead of 1k of user RAM, it has a cassette interface, a proprietary printer interface, and the Basic (as a cartridge). It also has an additional interface to connect to Memory Packs housing more RAM (there is not much Basic program to have in 2k of RAM). Memory Packs came in 16 kB, and 64 kB. Using the expansion slot, the Pencil II could even connect to 5.25″ floppy disks via a controller module.

In this sense, the Pencil II is an extended Colecovision clone, between almost a Colecovision (because you still needed the Colecovision module) and Coleco’s Expansion Module #3 (the Adam expansion).

Bering able to use Colecovision modules, it is clear there was not a large need for games in the Pencil II mode. However, there seems to be 3 games that were sold by Soundic (at least in France):

  • PEN 701: Le Jardin Magique
  • PEN 702: Le plongeur a la recherche du tresor
  • Big Foot Chase
16 kB Memory Pack and SD-Basic 1.0

The Pencil II that I have does not bear the Hanimex logo, it seems to be a Soundic-branded model. Also, the Basic cartridge I have is a Version 1.0, whereas the Hanimex ones seems to have been delivered with a Version 2.0 Basic. BTW, the Soundic manuals and the Basic 1.0 have a copyright date from 1983. Probably, it was available in some markets already there.

Let’s have a look on dates and prices of the Pencil II in France. The Colecovision came out in April of 1983 for 1995 FF. The (Hanimex) Pencil II came out in November 1984 for a price of 2300 FF. I did not find a French price for the Expansion Module #3, but it must have been in the vicinity of the price of the Colecovision or higher (the US Adam price was more than thrice the price of the console).

It is not completely clear to me how many Pencil IIs were made in total or on which markets it was available. We know that the Hanimex version was sold in Australia and in France, but obviously, they were sold under the Soundic brand also elsewhere.

What we know is that a Pencil II nowadays is a very rare sight. And there you have it, the enhanced Colecovision clone: the Pencil II.

Technical Data

Manufacturer: Soundic (also sold as Hanimex)
Model: Pencil II
Date of Introduction: 1983, 1984
CPU: NEC D780C-1 (Z80A clone)@3.58 MHz
Graphics chip: Texas Instruments TMS9929(?)
Resolution: 256 x 192, 16 colors
Sound chip: Texas Instruments SN76489A
VRAM: 16 kB
RAM: 2 kB
ROM: 8 kB
Programming Language: SD-Basic (on cartridge, 12 kB ROMs)
Interfaces: expansion port, memory interface, printer, 2 * joystick, cassette, SCART, composite, PSU
Size: 37 x 22 x 7.5 cm
Weight: 1.5kg
Options: 16 kB RAM, 64 kB RAM, Colecovision option, floppy disk controller

References