Can you use a BBC Micro as your main computer?

Well, the short answer is no, (but I have been trying)...

For a computer to be of any use, I figure that it must be able to do the following well:

  • Connect to the Internet and have a fast, secure browser.
  • Provide applications for work flow.
  • Provide applications for playing media files.
We'll look at these in turn, but first some information about the BBC Microcomputer.

A Graphical User Interface for the Beeb

The BBC micro, (or 'Beeb') was an 8-bit microcomputer commissioned by the BBC and built by Acorn in 1981. It was highly popular in education in the UK and survives today in the hands of enthusiasts such as myself. If you need to get your beeb 'fix' then there are a number of emulators available, including browser-based, and desktop (I recommend BeebEm). There is, however, nothing like running a vintage machine for the full experience. I recommend Retroclinic for all your BBC computer needs, including the datacentre (more about that later).

The Internet

While Acorn produced Econet, their own version of LAN connectivity for the BBC microcomputer, in the modern world this is not going to get you very far. It is possible to connect a modem to a BBC micro computer, however you must keep in mind that this machine was build before the World Wide Web was invented. You will be very disappointed if you need to upload your duck faces to Instagram on a beeb. You will find that you must keep your Twitter-rants to yourself and it will be virtually impossible to see what everyone is having for dinner on Facebook.

As a main computer, the BBC micro falls at the first hurdle. This was a pre-Internet machine and sadly, you will need a modern computer to experience the modern Internet.

That should be enough to kill anyone's dreams of using the BBC micro as a main computer, however there are two other critical points of failure:

Work flow

Whatever your job, business or hobby, you will likely need to run some Office software, or other such desktop publishing or productivity tools. If these are mission-critical to you, then switching to a 35-year old computer is not an option. The Beeb doesn't fall flat completely, however. Most BBC computers were packing work-flow software, and although they seem primitive now, you can get stuff done. My BBC Master computer has a word processor, spreadsheet and text editor built into ROM, and thanks to the Retroclinic datacentre it is possible to transfer files from the beeb onto my Windows 10 PC.

That being said, and despite having some, albeit ancient productivity tools, the beeb cannot replace my PC as a productivity machine (however I will talk about what it CAN do later).

Media center

I am currently typing away on a modern laptop, and streaming music on a chromebook which is plugged into my amplifier. I have a library of music, movies and photographs stretching back nearly two decades stored on a network drive, and if any computer is going to be my main computer, then it will need to handle my entertainment needs. For a while, I used a Raspberry Pi as my main music jukebox, although I now use Microsoft's Groove app. Whatever your media needs, your BBC microcomputer is not going to do it. 8 bit machines simply do not have the codecs required to play audio and other media files. Although digital cameras were available for the BBC, they are nothing compared to their modern counterparts.

So, it seems like the BBC computer cannot be used as a main computer. 

If, however, you accept these limitations, then the beeb still has a lot going for it. In the rest of this post I shall talk about some of the cool things my beeb does for me.


My computer is a Master series with 128K RAM and a second processor. The caps were replace about a year ago, so there is no danger of the power supply failing anytime soon. The battery for the CMOS RAM is also in good condition having been replace fairly recently. I have a dual-drive disk drive, however the main way of storing files is using the Retroclinic datacentre. This little device provides four virtual RAM disks, a small non-volatile 64K RAM disk and it also has 2GB compact-flash cards which provide four 500MB hard disk drives. There is a USB flash drive sticking out of the front storing literally hundreds of disk images which can be transferred into RAM in just a few seconds.

My microcomputer has 'pride of place' on my desk and supports a 32 inch monitor. When I first got it I promised myself that I would use it as an 'everyday' machine in order to justify its position on the desk.

I often use the BBC as a notebook. The EDIT program built into ROM is always available, and I use this to write notes to myself as well as my diary and other documents. I didn't go as far as writing this blog post on it, however I just realised that I could have done, and now I wish I had. I also use the spreadsheet program to help manage my accounts, as well as other diverse tasks including calculating the most cost effective pizza as well as helping calculate options in online games. The Beeb performs all of these tasks admirably and there really is no need for a modern computer. I am waiting for the time a colleague requests some trivial or not critical information from me, expecting an email, but instead, as I am a mischievous soul I will provide them with a text file on a portable USB disk drive. Mwah ha ha ha HAAAA!

Although the BBC was not well-know for it's games, this computer did have an extensive library of titles available for it, and the beeb was no slouch when it came to graphics and sound, for it's time. Most games are available to download online from such sites as Stairway to Hell. The best experience can be had from games with a focus on gameplay rather than graphics. Classic games such as chess, backgammon, connect-four, patience, solitaire, UNO, Yahtzee, NIM, Mastermind, draughts, reversi and cribbage all work very well on a BBC. There really is no need for a modern PC to play these games as the beeb will be a very challenging opponent.

Being beaten at Minesweeper on the Beeb (again).
Armies of programmers have over the years written countless applications for the beeb. I often trawl through the disk images that came with magazines in the eighties to find apps that are still useful today.

Here is an app for finding the next few phases of the moon.

This app calculates the dates of future eclipses and even shows a graphic of what the Earth's shadow will look like over the moon.
Okay, it's not quite Google Earth...

The beeb has a (very good) version of BASIC held in ROM. For this reason it is very easy to write your applications for the beeb. You can read about my early attempts here. I currently have applications for telling me the time and date, as well as useful stopwatches, countdowns and alarms (yes, I use it to help me cook my dinner). I have a perpetual calendar application and a calculator. All of which get regular use. I am currently working on a dictionary program.

My very useful calendar/clock app.
So, in summary, can you use a BBC microcomputer as your main computer? No, but it does make a very handy, and tremendously fun second computer.

If you are still awake and for some reason you liked this post then you might like to read about my other BBC micro posts, or even my adventures with the Raspberry Pi. Perhaps you just want to know how many floppy disks would be needed to store all of Google Maps?

Either way, I hope you liked this post. Please come back soon for more geeky stuff.

Life hack 03

It is quite possible that this one doesn't count as a life hack because it is actually a little-known design featured added by many manufacturers, however this will make your life easier, and of the two people I asked, neither had heard of it before (scientific, I know).  When I said it was a 'little-known' feature I think it is safe to assume that you don't know about this trick. If you do, then award yourself one geek experience point and move onto something else.

The problem
You will be aware of the frustration that accompanies the use of kitchen foil, cling film or any other such product that comes on a cardboard tube inside a cardboard box. The roll move often than not just comes out of the box whenever you try to grab a length of it. With cling film this is even more frustrating as the vexatious stuff has a tendency to stick to itself.

Push the tabs in. What do you mean, you've never read the side of the box before?!

The solution:
Are you aware that manufactures place two flaps at the side of the box? These are designed to be pushed in through ninety degrees. They act like an axle through the ends of the tube which makes pulling a length of product from the tube much easier.

Usually when the party is REALLY swinging, I get my collection of packets out to show off.
If that has left you dazed in wonderment, then you might like to explore some more life hacks, or perhaps you came here for the Tabloid Headline Generator or you just want to know how many floppy disks it would take to store all of Google Maps.

You're writing dates wrong, probably

I've been having this argument with people recently. We write dates wrong.  Here's why:

Today is the 18th day of the second month of 2017 (unless of course, you are reading this in the future, in which case, how long did you have to wait for hover-skateboards and what do teleporters feel like, and does anybody in the future remember those couple of months when American had President Trump?).

Most people will say that today's date is "The 18th of February 2017" and will sign documents with digits 18/2/17, or 18/02/17 (or if in America, the even more horrible 02/18/17).  The problem is of course the confusion here as to what the digits mean. Is it the 18th day, or the 2nd day, or the 17th day of the 18th month of year 2....?

When you stop to think about it, writing dates in either British or American formats is deeply confusing and fundamentally illogical.

Much better to write the date as 2017-02-18.

That's YYYY-MM-DD.

There are a number of reasons for this.  Firstly, documents date stamped in this way will automatically be sorted into chronological order. Someone sent me a document today from a recent meeting. The filename was DD MM YY. I can only imagine what a mess their 'my documents' folder looks like. Perhaps they like having all files written on the first day of every month next to each other? Or maybe they are The Doctor, from Doctor Who? You see, time is not a big ball of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey 'stuff'. It is a strict line.

Fun, but wrong!
Secondly, we have always written time in the same way. Currently, looking at my clock, it is 11:47 in the morning. My accurate clock tells me that it is 12 seconds into the 47th minute.  That is 11:47:12, or HH:mm:ss.  That means that the current position in time could be written as:

2017-02-18 11:47:12

Notice that the largest unit of time is on the left. As you move through the digits, the units of time become progressively smaller, from years to months to days to hours to minutes.

Is there anywhere else that we also apply this logic?  Consider the number "three hundred and forty nine".

It would seem logical to write this as "349", with the largest unit on the left, getting progressively smaller.  It would be very silly to write it as "493", or even "49 and 300", or "four hundred minus fifty-one".

How about your postal address? You probably also write it in order of size:

Little person
Some house
A Street
In a little town
Your massive planet

Of course, I am only talking about written dates here. I think it is perfectly acceptable to say "Saturday the eighteenth of February", or "it is nearly ten past two" in spoken English.

In fact, you shouldn't be surprised to discover that there is an international standard for date formats (and it makes incredible sense to adopt it all in written documents). It is basically what I have been banging on about in this rant.

No longer should you accept the problem of interpreting a date written as 04/05/11 as being the fifth of April in the late Roman period, or possibly the eleventh of May, or possibly April, in, um, in year 4, or maybe 5. Oh, my brain!

Right now! I mean, just, it's gone.

If you enjoyed this rant, then you probably want to take a long hard look at yourself, however you might also like to read about why Americans drive on the wrong side of the road or perhaps you would like these articles about calendars.

See you for some more nerdy stuff in the future......

Life hack 002

I've just discovered this really effective  use for cardboard tubes.  No longer will your drawers be a tangle of loose wires. Simply post one or two loosely folded wires inside the tube and hey-presto! Tidy wires. You will also get a warm fuzzy feeling from recycling household waste (unless you recycle anyway, which, of course, you should, in which case you get a warm fuzzy feeling from knowing that your wires are safely stored tangle-free).

Should you like this post, then you might like all of our life hacks, or maybe you just want to play a 2D, text-based adventure game.

Quiz Magic

Quiz Magic is a program I wrote a few years ago for some teachers who wanted to be able to set custom-made starter and plenary activities in their lessons based on key-words. 

Quiz Magic simply takes a keyword, or sentence and allows you to perform up to four actions:

  1. Remove vowels, eg: "SUPERDECADE GAMES" to "SPRDCD GMS".
  2. Mixup, eg: "SUPERDECADE GAMES" to "SUACRPDDEEE GAEMS". This scrambles the middle letters of the words, but leaves the first and last the same. This sort of anagram is weirdly easy to read so long as the word in question is know to the reader.
  3. Anagram, eg: "SUPERDECADE GAMES" to "DEAUESRDCPE MEGSA". This turns all the words into anagrams and is much more difficult to work out.
  4. Substitution, eg: "SUPERDECADE GAMES" to "5UP3RD3C4D3 G4M35".

All of the functions can be chained one after the other, for example to create an anagram with the vowels removed.

If this is something that you need in your life then the executable and source code is available on my OneDrive by either clicking the image or following the link.

Should I ever decide to work on this app again then I shall either add functionality to allow bulk uploading of words from a spreadsheet, or indeed, make it available as a web app.

If you are still with us, then you might like to read about my Dementia Day Clock, or other vaguely education-related posts.

How many floppy disks would it take to store all of Google Maps?

So, in a moment of boredom today I decided to do a back-of-the-envelope calculation. I wanted to know what size of floppy disk mountain it would take to store all of Google Maps. And by 'back of the envelope', I mean that I fired up my trusty BBC microcomputer and booted into the ViewSheet spread sheet.

There is surprisingly little information on the size of Google Maps online, however I found a source that quoted 20 Petabytes from 2012. I estimate that this is about one million times the amount of 'data' sent by the US postal service each day, or about one thousands times the volume of data that Facebook deals with each day. Armed with this information, and the capacity of a floppy disk I went to work.

Now there is some confusion in the computing industry as to whether MB and KB are base 10 or base 2 prefixes. Sometimes they seem to be used interchangeably when they are clearly different number bases, however for arguments sake I have taken a 1.44MB disk capacity to be 1457664 bytes. For simplicity I have ignored any capacity used by the disk filing system allocation table.

There is little argument as to the height of a floppy disk: 3mm.

So if you stored all of Google Maps onto floppy disk, how high would your floppy disk mountain be?

Well, by my calculations you will create a stack that extents four-thousand, eight-hundred times higher than Mount Everest, or 11% of the distance to the moon.

My own floppy disk mountain. This doesn't even come close.
Do please take time to check my calculations and then come back to me if I have gone wrong somewhere.

Either way come back soon for some new nerdy stuff, or if you are still here, you might like to read about the Adventures of Sir Eric the Unready, or just hack some BASIC code together.

#floppy disks
#Mount Everest

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