Thomson

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Thomson is a French High-Tech corporation who produce Weapons or HI-FI Electronic devices.

It used to produce 8-bit home computers in the 80's though sub-companies : SIMMIV (Société Internationale de Micro-Informatique et de Vidéo) also known as Thomson Micro. (1983-1989)

When the Amstrad arrived they literally whipped them out of the French market, they remain a well known fail in France, and are still quite beloved in this country by those who knew them at school.

As we say : Proudly Merde in France.


History : a French phenomenon

The computers were quite common in the early 80's because the french government started a program "Plan informatique pour tous" (computering for all plan) in late 1984/early 1985 which consisted of equipping schools with computers networks.

1 primary school in five had to get one, while all secondary schools (and laters) had to get computers networks.

An earlier plan to equip schools called "10.000 computer plan" was also started in 1979 and bought some TO7 as early as 1982.

It was decided to favour French industry and Thomson had to hastily produce a full range of adequate computers, based on the MOS 6809E CPU clocked at 1mhz design of their 1982's computer the TO7.

This gave a first generation which, while still being "real" computers, were not especially designed to perform well on domestic market, nor be a good gaming platform.

As a result, a lot of Thomson computers were almost only sold to schools, apart from the few unfortunates who got one instead of an Amstrad CPC.

While French National Education had to choose those French computers (hastily developed in a rush) the general public rarely got those as they were not as well rounded as an Amstrad CPC for example.

A notable flaw was the lack of a proper Soundchip, as only a poor beeper was put on those. Also most earlier models had very poor keyboards (just see pictures).

While the second generation (MO6/TO8) fixed a lot of issues such as lack of Memory and poor video modes, it was too late for them to take a good home-market share : Amstrad CPC and Atari ST were here.

Range and products

The Thomson 8bit computers are 6809E CPU based (1mhz)

They were released in a lot of models variations (mostly concerning the keyboard or colour of the casing) from late 1982-1983 to 1989. While MO and TO models are incompatible in software, most of the peripherals and Hardware were compatible. 2nd generation was almost fully retro-compatible with 1st generation but specific 2nd generation software couldn't run on 1st generation computers.

Those compatibilities issues were fatal to the range alongside the success of the Amstrad CPC in France. Most TO computers were supplied with a light pen, or even mouse (TO9) for the later generations.

The varied ranges were plagued by inconsistencies in releases, alongside a bigger price than Amstrad's products. Many models were actually re-released better and with bugs fixed, and often more inbuilt features the year later, for a cheaper price !

As a result, peoples were shy and reluctant to get into this because those computers were not the best for the same price on the market, to begin with, and because it is always a shame to see that if you waited a bit more, you would have had a far better product.

Amstrad customers had this with the CPC664 (with the Amstrad the CPC6128 was released only a few months later than the CPC664, having more memory for similar price). A typical example is the TO9, which was supplied with no Monitor first, then was supplied with a colour monitor for the exact same price a 4-6 months later. And with a lot of additional stuff 1 year after being first released (TO9+...). And TO9 keyboard was no more compatible with TO9+...


First generation

  • MO5 : released in 1984 in order to honour the "Plan Informatique pour Tous". They were clearly designed to be terminals and while sharing a lot of aspects with the TO7, were not actually software compatible (???). (extensions were compatible though)

Supplied with 48K (32K available to user in Basic)

The MO5 had quite a lot of different versions sold.

MO5 was first released with rubber keyboard. Then it had a more proper hard plastic mechanical keyboard, which was also supplied in a collector "Michel Platini" white casing..

  • MO5E: had a different casing and was aimed at Export, but was also sold on French market as the MO5Etentu (extended), with a AZERTY keyboard though. It features an in-built joystick and (slightly) upgraded beeper.

The casing would later be re-used with MO6 hardware as Network terminals renamed MO5NR.

Pictures courtesy of MO5.com


  • TO7 : produced from 1982 to 1984. Supplied with only 24K RAM (16K used by the video)... so actually 8K usable, upgradable into 48K (actually 32k because of the 16k video). It can display only 8 colours. Probably the worst keyboard ever.
  • TO7/70 : in 1984, this one replaced the "faulty" TO7.

The TO7/70 had a bit more RAM (64K, upgradable into 128K, still 16k used by Video) and some bug fixes and upgrades (implementations for the NanoReseau). It could display twice more colours (16 instead of 8) and became the "standard TO7".

Also the keyboard was changed into a rubber keyboard (fail!), then mechanical keyboard.

Pictures courtesy of MO5.com

Second generation

  • TO9 : released in late 1985. A professional casing with separate Keyboard and Central unit, and a lot of inbuilt peripherals and larger amount of RAM (128k upgradable into 192K). It was the prototype for the later MO6/TO8 graphical specifications.
  • MO5NR: released in 1985-1986. Was actually a MO6 specification with in-built NanoReseaux all cased in a MO5E casing, hence no in-built Tape Driver as it was supposed to be in network with a TO model as netserver..
  • MO6 : Released in 1986. 128K Ram and built in Tape driver. features the in-built "joystick and sound" upgrade.
  • TO8 : released in late 1986. 256K Ram (could be extended into 512K), 80K ROM with Microsoft's Basic512, better video modes, slightly upgraded beeper (DAC 6-bit) and a lot of connectics
  • TO9+ : released in late 1986 (one year after the TO9). The "+" version has an in-built Modem and 512k RAM..
  • TO8D : released in late 1987. a TO8 with a Built-in 3"1/2 floppy Disk drive (D=Disk).
  • Olivetti : Some Thomson MO6 were sold in Italy, branded as Olivetti prodest PC128


Pictures courtesy of MO5.com and Old-computers.com.

PC compatible

  • TO16 : released in september 1987. it was an 8088 based IBM compatible PC with various configurations that was to be used as network server alongside NanoReseaux.

A prototype TO16 was supposed to be 68000CPU based with an intel82716 graphic chipset and Unix styled "OS-9". only 5 prototype were produced and finalised. but they finally simply released an IBM PC clone instead.


Networking kings and peripherals

  • NanoReseau (Nano-Network) was a Network solution very "popular" as it was largely used in France's Schools.

Actually some sort of Ethernet. It was well known by young french peoples in the late 80's thanks to the "informatique pour tous" plan.

It was developed by the Science and Technology University of Lille (city in northern France).

it could enable to connect up to 31 Thomson (MO/TO) computers called "Nanomachines" with a more powerfull computer "head network".

It was largely supplied to various levels of schools by 1985.


  • Video incrustation system : enabled to mix TV signal with Computer graphics.


Also various RAM extensions, MassData storage devices, Lightpens and mouse, printers, modems/network connections, Vocal synthesisers, scanners, and so on.

As those available on most other computers..


Yet no proper soundchip solution were available.

The best one available was a "DAC 6 bits mono" beeper.

Palette and Video Modes

MO5 and TO7

And TO7/70.

The 1st generation of 8 bit thomson computers have a custom 4-bit RGBI palette of 16 colours.

Screen color test Thomson MO5.png

MO5 TO7 palette.png

Quite comparable with the ZX Spectrum, MSX1 or CGA palettes, it is indeed done with a range of medium and bright tones instead of dark and medium (spectrum). Also it is to notice that instead of having 2 Black slots (as on Spectrum), one was replaced by an Orange.


Resolution : 320x200x16 colours in 8x1 attributes (2 colours per attributes)

(except first TO7 series who could only display 8 colours on screen)

The Attribute system was comparable to MSX1 with attributes of 8x1 and 16 colours displayable on screen (2 per attributes), but with a 320x200 resolution instead of a 256x200 resolution..

Graphically the MO5 and TO7/70 are superior to ZX Spectrum in almost every way.

The TO7 (1st series) could only display 8 colours.

MO6 and TO8

Also TO9/TO9+, MO5E.

The 2nd generation of 8 bit Thomson computers mostly got the addition of the 3 bitmap video modes (no attributes) of the Amstrad CPC/PLUS, alongside the "heritage" (legacy) 320x200x16 attribute based mode. A few other exotic and obscure video modes were added too.

But the palette have been upgraded into a 4096 colours 12bit palette, the same as on the unreleased at the time Amstrad PLUS range (and of course the Commodore Amiga... and many other computers and consoles).

Modes.png

  • Those video modes are, according to the TO8 documentation :

(pixels x pixels x colours)

* a) MO 40-column mode : 320x200x2 (with 8x1pixels attributes , 16 colours on screen) the legacy video mode from MO5/TO7 older models.

* b) 80 column mode : 640x200x2

* c) BIT MODE MAP 4 : 320x200x4

* d) BIT MODE MAP 16 : 160x200x16

  • further Extra Video modes : Those Thomson computers also had a few extra obscure video modes that enabled transparency-masked plans (but with less colours than the usual CPC-like bitmap modes) which could be used for video incrustation. Another mode enabled to manage 2 separate pages (screen) at the same time.

* e) Mode page (page1/page2) : this enable to provides 2 separate screen pages in 320x200x2.

* f) Overprinting Mode : Two 1bit per pixel plans on the same screen in 320x200. (possible 3 colours on screen+border)

  • 2nd plan is 1 colour+transparency on the 1st plan
  • 1st plan is 2 colours

* g) Triple-Overprinting Mode : Four 1bit per pixel plans on the same screen in 160x200. This make-up for a total of 5 colours on screen (+ border).

  • 4th pan is 1 colour+transparency into 3rd plan
  • 3rd plan is 1 colour+transparency into 2nd plan
  • 2nd plan is 1 colour+transparency into 1st plan
  • 1st plan is 2 colours.



Those Bitmap video modes are coded (hardware generated) slightly differently than on CPC so you can't simply port the Graphic Datas from CPC/PLUS to Thomson MO6/TO8 without some proper recoding.

The Thomson always processes 16bits of graphical Datas, serialised differently according to the video mode.

This makes for a constant 16K VRAM (but it uses normal RAM, no dedicated RAM for this purpose) as on good old Amstrad CPC/PLUS "normal" setting, so the more resolution the less colours.

There are no overscan nor full borderless screen possibilities as on the Amstrad CPC.

Minus the lack of Hardware sprites and raster interrupt facilities (still doable on Thomson machines), the MO6 and TO8 are actually superior (in graphics) to the Amstrad PLUS Range due to the attribute based mode in addition to the 3 "CPC-like" modes, and largely superior to the Amstrad CPC due to the awesome Palette.


    • The 4096 colours 12bit palette

RGB 12bits palette color test chart.png

RGB 12bits palette.png

Impact on French market

As a french computer, french games producers ported a good amount of their games on those computers.

Thomson computers were known to have been used in some "common developpments" and ports for Amstrad CPC games.

As later MO6/TO8 models did include Video mode similar to Amstrad CPC's ones, in addition to a 16 colours character attributed mode (like on MSX1 or Spectrum...more like the MSX1 though...) and a 4096 colour palette, the portage was easier.

Also those later models included more RAM than Amstrad's 8 bit computers, hence being sometimes more faithfull to Atari ST version.

But those computers were lacking a decent sound chip as it was shipped with only a "beeper". Thomson said more decent sound system would be included into cartridges, but they would never be available.

Even the AY seems like a Sid in comparison.

Almost only market was France (perhaps a few sold in Italia), where Amstrad litteraly raped Thomson's market shares in their homeland.

The fact was that the Amstrad CPC was more well rounded machine, far cheaper and had a fully compatible range while MO6 wasn't even compatible with TO8 (nor MO5 with TO7).

Also the CPC getting CP/M compatibility was a definitive edge.


Thomson computers also got their share of Speccy Port due to the Attribute based Video mode of the 1st generation.

MO5 was basically a 6809E based ZX Spectrum.

Examples of games co-developed on Thomson and CPC

  • Bivouac (TO8) (also known as Chamonix Challenge)
  • Sapiens (MO5/TO7) : originally an MO5 game.
  • Le 5eme Axe (french name) from Loriciels, was originally a MO5 game.
  • Captain Blood : the TO8 version is exactly the same as the CPC version, minus the sounds.

Comparison

Bivouac

  • TO8 version :

BivouacTO8.png

  • CPC version :

Bivouac.png

Bactron

While some ports used different palette (the TO8 often using the AtariST/16bit version palette when available) other games were simply straight ports with no alteration in palette from CPC to TO8.

Mostly when the CPC palette was largely adequat.

  • TO8 version :

Bactron TO8.png

  • CPC version :

Bactron CPC.png

Iznogoud

  • TO8 version :

Iznogoud on TO8.png

  • CPC version :

Iznogoud on CPC.png

In the case of this game (Iznogoud) the TO8 version includes extra features that are available on Atari ST version (and perhaps IBM PC too) but not on the Amstrad CPC due to the CPC464 version's limitation.

TO8 had an impressive 256K Ram that Amstrad users could only dream for to be available from the shelf and used by software companies...


The few games who got a TO8 version alongside the CPC version could easily get a PLUS upgrade just by using the same colours as the TO8 version is this one had a specific palette.

DemoScene

Don't laught, there is an actual Demoscene on Thomson computers.



Most of those use the superior TO8 specifications and are visually not that different from Amstrad PLUS productions.

hcl.png

1496.png 1504.png

Links

  • Logicielsmoto.com a complete French site with softwares and stuff on Thomson computers.