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Thread: Coleco ADAM: A journey in to madness?

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    Default Coleco ADAM: A journey in to madness?

    I freely admit to having a particular soft spot for 32bit Acorn computers. But one of my favourite things about being a confirmed retro computer nerd is discovering the foibles of old computers, especially systems new to me. With that in mind I've had a crazy hankering for a Coleco ADAM for a long time as it ticks all the boxes for me: I only have a vague knowledge of the system. There's much to like, both cool and these days charmingly silly. Also the system was such a glorious failure it saw off the company that made it.

    So I thought it might be interesting to start a thread about my impressions and adventures with this machine.

    I give you the Coleco ADAM:
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    A Huge Pile of Awesome

    I bought mine as a complete, boxed, system expecting it to be broken as the seller advertised it as "untested". It didn't disappoint as it was so big it was shipped in a wardrobe box, was complete, and didn't work.

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    The Box is MUCH Bigger Than You Think

    It's genuinely quite exciting to get this much computer, and back in the day I can see how this huge and heavy box containing lots more goodies than any rival system would appeal to punters. I bet that was Coleco's intention but store managers must have cursed them, especially with a returns rate of about 4/5.
    You think Sinclair had a reputation for poor reliability and overenthusiastic release schedules? The Spectrum initially "only" had a failure rate of about 1/10, was cheep, and was made by a recognised computer manufacturer. Coleco made Cabbage Patch Kids, games consoles, and was going for Apple's market. In other words the system had a lot to live up to and had a disastrously bad start. Oh, and this was shortly before the infamous games console crash.
    As I understand it Coleco had the sensible idea to follow up their excellent and very successful Colecovision games console with a compatible computer that would come in at a good price but still be a full set up. At the time every other manufacturer was selling pretty much only the computer itself for a headline price knowing punters would have to buy a bunch of other stuff when they got home and found their new toy couldn't do anything.

    A well priced complete system is exactly what Amstrad later marketed to such effect:
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    Amstrad CPC 464

    So how did Coleco get it so wrong? Well, finding that out for myself is one of the reasons I wanted to get an ADAM. I also wanted to see for myself why the system is viewed with such affection.
    Last edited by Charlie; 3rd September 2017 at 15:46.
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    While the ADAM was a tad on the expensive side, it wasn't out of line for an all-in-one computer of the day...a fully equipped C64 would cost about the same, an Apple IIE was about 3-4x more expensive (even without a printer) and an Apple II clone would run you about the same (with 48K of ram...) (although, with those, you'd have yourself a 5.25" FDD instead of a tape drive)

    It had a few pros, but many many cons...you also got a ColecoVision with your purchase, so this was great for anyone with a Coleco that wanted a computer (or had neither a computer nor a console system, but wanted both), and you got a full computer with 80K of RAM, it came stock with a tape drive, which in itself was both a pro (to a degree) and a con, as most systems came with (or at least had the option of...) a Floppy drive by 1983.

    The fact it came with a printer was also both a pro and a con...you got, and paid for, a printer whether you wanted one or not (additionally, if the printer failed, you weren't just out a printer, you were typically out your entire system)...of course many people who had zero intention of using a printer, would certainly have rather just paid a few hundred dollars less for their system...

    While it had a large CV library, it never got much software that took advantage of the (few) improvements of the ADAM, particularly as the system was orphaned just 15 months after release.

    It did have a fairly decent Zilog Z80 CPU running @ 3.58mhz, as well as 80KB of RAM, which was a bit better than most other 8-bit offerings at the time.

    however it was also one of the last '8-bit' systems released, and much better systems had started coming out in 1983 (IBM PC XT, March 83) and in early 1984 (Macintosh 128k - January 1984, a mere 3 months after the ADAM) granted both systems were a lot more money.

    The ADAM had many issues, but I think the greatest being the fact that it was just 'too little, too late' in the marketplace for this particular system...to a certain degree the Commodore 128 would have a similar fate (albeit a better machine with a faithful Commodore following, it survived for 4 years...) as the Amiga was released very quickly after as well... (Jan 85 vs July 85 - the ADAM being discontinued in Jan 85)

    also consider that it was competing against the C64, Atari 800, CoCo2 and many other systems (including 'budget' systems like the Vic20, Texas Instruments TI99/4A, Atari 400 etc), and the market was completely saturated.

    However, I will say this, at 13 years old, I would've absolutely killed for an ADAM (or any other computer system for that matter) for Christmas '83.

    (side note: don't fire up the ADAM with a tape already inside the drive, it has a tendency to erase tapes with it's strong EM burst on powerup)
    Last edited by SaviorX; 3rd September 2017 at 11:05.
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    I'm pleased to report my ADAM is now fully working and looking much better. Initially it was very yellowed, and when first unpacked, rattling alarmingly. It's a pretty easy system to dismantle and it turned out a couple of heat-sinks had been dislodged in transit so causing the rattle.

    Initial impressions?
    Quite a good looking system, separate keyboard, two Coleco controllers with a keyboard dock for one, and that infamous printer / PSU. Three things that stood out right away were how crappy the action of the keyboard is (cost cutting I'm sure) and the weird way some plastics were far more yellowed than others, particularly noticeable with the keyboard keys. Also the guts of the computer seem to have been thrown together, constructed very poorly, and there's a good few (seemingly factory) patches to the lower motherboard. All told the ADAM has the feel of an engineering sample, not a production machine.
    Happily the motherboard came back to life after a darn good clean and re-seating of ICs in their sockets, a win in my book. So I got down to the task of disassembling and Retr0briting, starting with the keyboard:
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    Stages of Retr0briting

    The keyboard itself is very easy to take apart, removal of six screws on the back (one a different size!) allows the two halves to fall apart. The keys themselves easily pull off and the keyboard controller lives under a metal can. It's an amazing hotch-potch of different plastics (even the keys!), obvious design care, but seemingly poor electronic design with little care put in to construction. While the shell itself seems to be made from the same material as the system unit the keys themselves seem to have been made from four different kinds of plastic, seemingly at random - bizarre!
    Most of it Retr0brited pretty easily, taking about three - four hours of sunshine, but the most stubborn keys (see middle-bottom photo) took four straight days! Even then I had to resort to a little bleach to get a near match to the rest. Just like the system itself, the keyboard has the feel of something that had much thought put in to it, but very rushed production engineering with corners cut to reduce costs.

    The system comes with a couple of Colecovision controllers matching the colour of the system. I'm glad to say they work fine, but also needed a darn good clean and Retr0brite:

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    Open and Connections

    There's an amazing number of diodes in these controllers, I presume to help support the number pad. The connectors just press-fit to the base of the PCB, and as the colour coding was the same for both so I thought I'd post a photo. There's five screws on the back, and once they are out the unit just hinges open at the base. They are the same controllers supplied with the Colecovision and I'd call them an acquired taste. There's also a plastic keyboard dock thingy to mount one of the controllers into, not sure why? I understand the Coleco ports are Atari compatible (but for the keypad) so I think I may end up using something nicer once I have a few games to play.
    Last edited by Charlie; 3rd September 2017 at 15:48.
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    that is a properly wacky machine.

    nice

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    Great to see you got it going. Now.... what can you do with it?
    Is it stand-alone? I always thought the Adam had to be connected into a Colecovision?
    The joystick press-fit wires are exactly the same as Atari 2600 joysticks and the Commodore rip-off of it.
    The Colecovision/Adam joypad has the same pinout as Atari 2600 and other common DB9 joysticks of the era so it's pretty amazing that they figured out how to multiplex in an extra 12 keypad keys without additional wires.
    Please post some more pics, especially the inside of the main unit and close-ups of the PCBs. I'm hungry for more
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    Quote Originally Posted by iainjh View Post
    that is a properly wacky machine.

    nice
    So true... and I haven't made it to the good stuff yet! On to the system unit:

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    "Fresh" From The Packaging

    Once out of the box I could see it was a bit yellow. Also there was that nasty rattle, so I dissembled the thing before I did anything else. The first photo shows the groovy tape drive (more later) with an ADAM Net port front-right (more later). The dismembered corpse is in the second photo, yes two motherboards and shielding everywhere. Even so this machine gives such a strong EM thump when it starts that it will very likely erase any tape left in the tape drive or near the computer! I believe Coleco only found out about this after "broken" units started coming back, the manual states that the user should put the intended tape in the drive prior to powering up the system, oops. Coleco soon sorted that problem by adding a sticker to the top of the unit warning users not to do so!
    The unit was dead easy to take apart, and even more than the keyboard has very much the engineering prototype vibe about it. Screws everywhere, two motherboards connected by ribbon cable, and a boat-load of wasted space. The lower system board also had a good few patches, seemingly of factory origin.

    So the motherboard was cleaned, repaired, gotten in to working order, and the case Retr0brited:

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    Post Retr0brite

    That's better. A quick tour from top-left to bottom-right shows an Atari-type connector used for power and ADAM Net round the side, the tape drive, Colecovision cartridge port flanked by ADAM and Colecovision reset switches, and two Atari-type controller ports along with a Colecovision compatible expansion port round the side. With the lid off there's a three slot expansion bay and room for another tape drive. Round the back is a channel selector, RF out, Composite out, and multi-function DIN.


    Let's take a closer look at those internals:

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    Upper and Lower Motherboards

    Once the first shield is off the upper motherboard looks pretty much like a Colecovision clone to me. The Video chip and it's VRAM, Sound chip, Z80, and ports all live on this board. The lower motherboard contains all the stuff that makes it a computer: System RAM, ROMs, I/O, expansion slots.The Video board looks nicely done to me, but the Memory board has a good few patches suggesting a rush job, and the pair have got me scratching my head a bit. I could understand the system having two boards if the memory board was just a straight expansion for a Colecovision motherboard and the pair shoved in one case to make a computer. But why go though a costly re-design and re-tool to make two new system boards and not integrate them together when that would be more reliable, cheaper to make, and result in a physically smaller system so saving further costs for all sorts of practicable reasons? I wonder what an expansion model 3 looks like inside? I realise hindsight is a wonderful thing but there are so many ways this system could have been done better, cheaper, and so more reliable.
    I've seen an initial concept drawing for the ADAM which is basically just a black keyboard that plugs in to the front of a Coloceovision. The result looks a lot like a black Amiga 500 with two Coleco controllers nestled in the top. Quite groovy, smaller, and in the end I suspect that concept would have been both easier to make and more appealing to Coleco's potential user base.

    I seem to be giving the ADAM a right bashing so far, and I haven't even gotten to the madness that is the Printer / PSU. But I also haven't gotten to the really cool stuff, and speaking for myself I can already see why the ADAM has that certain something that makes it's owners all warm and gooey.
    Last edited by Charlie; 3rd September 2017 at 18:40.
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    Quote Originally Posted by fordav1 View Post
    Great to see you got it going. Now.... what can you do with it?
    Is it stand-alone? I always thought the Adam had to be connected into a Colecovision?
    The joystick press-fit wires are exactly the same as Atari 2600 joysticks and the Commodore rip-off of it.
    The Colecovision/Adam joypad has the same pinout as Atari 2600 and other common DB9 joysticks of the era so it's pretty amazing that they figured out how to multiplex in an extra 12 keypad keys without additional wires.
    Please post some more pics, especially the inside of the main unit and close-ups of the PCBs. I'm hungry for more
    There were 2 versions of the ADAM, a full stand-alone computer and an add-on to a ColecoVision that turned it into an ADAM, also known as the Expansion Module #3
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    Here goes with next part of my ADAM retrospective. See what I did there?

    Here comes the Printer PSU unit:
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    My What a Big One!

    A large part of the Coleco's sales pitch for the ADAM, as I understand it, was you got a whole computer system with a 'letter quality' printer for the price of a... printer. Heck, the computer boots in to a word processor rather than BASIC as most other systems of the time did. At face value that's a pretty good deal, until you give it a bit of thought. I would say Coleco were going for the 'it's far better value than an Apple II' pitch. Which was certainly true, but I suspect anyone in the market for a upmarket system would not go for something with Coleco's name on it.

    Oh, 'ADAM took a bite out of the Apple', get it?

    Not everybody wants a printer, and even if you did you probably didn't want it set up all the time. The PSU and power switch for the system is built in the the printer, think about that for a mo'... yes, there was no way for Coleco to sell a system without printer. You would also have to have two printers on your desk if dot-matrix, or just a better printer was your thing. Did I mention this printer is probably the least well made part of the ADAM system, and also by far the largest and heaviest? Also it's REALLY LOUD, and at best can manage 10cps. Oh, and very prone to breaking which meant no computer even if you weren't bothered about the printer.

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    The Belly of the Beast

    I'm pleasantly surprised to report my ADAM's printer actually works, but I thought I'd take it apart anyway. More cleaning and Retr0briting. I have to say this thing is a true glory of cost-reduced engineering. Whoever designed this thing should have been given a Nobel Prize for creative engineering... and then banned from ever making anything again.Take a closer look at the pictures, go find some photos of the insides of some contemporary daisy wheel printers, and tell me this wasn't made by a mad genius.
    Taking it to bits was really easy, a few screws in the base. But was a total SOB to put back together. Large pieces of flimsy plastic don't like to mate accurately enough to allow the very recessed self-tappers to go back in easily. On so many levels what were Coleco's designers smoking?

    God, I'm in love with this machine!

    Getting back to sanity for a mo' a better plan would have been to put the PSU in the computer, there's certainly enough room. Actually AMSTRAD went for a far better version of the 'all in one' sales pitch. Make a cheep, functional, computer that's reliable, easy to set up, and has a monitor as the main selling point of the package. Everybody needs a screen and all the PSU gubbins is already in there, not everybody needs a printer. Even though AMSTRAD were late to the 8bit market (1984?) the CPC line of computers, and PCW's, proved that if done right Coleco's plan wasn't madness after all.

    That's it for my impressions. I don't think I've said anything that's not been said many thousand's of times before, but I hope some found this interesting. To me the ADAM is actually a lovely system that deserved to do very well but Coleco got their design philosophy, engineering, and marketing focus all wrong. It could have saved the company from the games crash in the USA but instead killed off it's creator. I'm far from done with this thread, I want to talk about some of the really cool things I've so far not touched on and start the modding process with a replacement PSU. Thoughts and ideas very welcome.
    Last edited by Charlie; 4th September 2017 at 20:31.
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    While the ADAM was not a very good computer, in and of itself...

    from a 13 year-olds perspective: you'd have crapped yourself Christmas morning 1983 to find that almost 4' x 2' x 1.5' (give or take) box under (in front of) the Christmas tree...a full blown computer PLUS a ColecoVision like many of your friends might have had at that point...

    You might have even left other presents unopened that day... (which would actually be saying a lot, since Return of the Jedi stuff was also hot that Christmas, I remember our downstairs neighbors got an AT-AT, Jabba playset, Ewok Village and the Speeder bike which 'flew apart' at the press of a button)
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    Of ADAM Net and High Speed Digital Data Drives:

    A couple of really cool things about the ADAM are the way peripherals are connected, no really stay with me, and the storage media they use. Darn, I hear snoring.

    ADAM Net:
    In essence every peripheral for the ADAM has a fairly dumb CPU in it to run said peripheral and handle communication with the computer via a serial protocol called ADAM Net. I guess this is not the cheapest way to hook up peripherals but it seems one can daisy-chain as many devices as as you like to your ADAM. It tickles me that the ADAM Net cables and connectors look like household telephone line. Think of it as a kind of 80's USB where the computer only has to be concerned about communication and not running the device. Such a good, and seemingly well implemented, idea I wonder why Coleco bothered with these when there's an expansion port on the side:

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    More Expense?

    I wish I could find some useful info on the ADAM Net protocol and hardware specs, I can see some fun projects here. Oh, did I mention it's strongly recommended that all self-powered peripherals are left switched on, along with the Printer / PSU, and all plugged in to the same power strip with it's own switch? It seems if everything isn't fired up at the same time you're liable to blow a few IC's. Well done Coleco!

    High Speed Digital Data Drives:
    As far as I'm aware the mass storage system used as default by the ADAM is both ingenious and has an interesting history. When Coleco were initially speccing the design of the ADAM they wanted to go with a wafa-drive system rather like the abomination that was Sinclair's Microdrive:

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    Oh the Humanity


    Just like Sinclair Coleco seemingly had a sound reason for going with such a system. They wanted a low cost mass storage solution that was near to a floppy drive in performance when at the time of development floppy drives were too expensive for the price point they were aiming for. As I understand it the compact cassette tape, much beloved by UK home computer users, was not an option in the US. No doubt because the weather is generally better and so Americans didn't need an excuse to avoid going out in the rain for hours at a time. Coleco also had a cunning plan: As wafa-tapes were decently quick and much cheaper to make than solid state cartridges they were hoping they would make a viable replacement for games distribution. Coleco even got as far as the prototype stage but could never get the system reliable enough and, unlike Sinclair, decided to drop the idea for something that would actually work.


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    Prototype ADAM

    Hindsight is a wonderful thing but by the time Coleco came up with their own fiendishly cleaver idea for a mass storage system and shipped that with the ADAM floppy drives had come down to a sensible price and would have been a much better option. Indeed the ADAM did get it's own floppy drive in the end. Still, the High Speed Digital Data Drive was a really cleaver solution to a problem that was admittedly going to go away. Using largely off the shelf components was always going to work more reliably than the dreaded Microdrive on a tight development deadline caused by the failure of the wafa-drive.


    Click image for larger version. 

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ID:	126215Click image for larger version. 

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    High Speed Digital Data Drive and High Speed Digital Data Packs
    (not cassettes, honest)

    Genius of this system was to take already mature technology and tweak it to make something close to the speed and capacity of a floppy drive. The only real difference between the, a-hem, High Speed Digital Data Drive / Pack and an audio cassette drive / tape was the head in the Coleco system read / wrote both sides of the tape at the same time. One track held the data and the other held indexing information which allowed the tapes, sorry Data Packs, to run reliably very fast for good loading times and something close to the floppy's random access. It's also quite cool seeing what looks like a cassette tape running so fast if it was a sprinter you'd swear somebody put a fire-cracker up their bum, and doing the whole forward-back thing you see with tape drives on old mainframes. Just one problem:

    Click image for larger version. 

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    The ADAM is very good at erasing it's own tapes

    Oh, well. Charming in this day an age, probably not so much for owners of new systems. Especially as the manual told users to put the Digital Data Pack in the drive and then power up the system.Coleco 'fixed' the issue by sticking the above notice to the top of each computer once their many angry customers explained the problem.

    A last thought. Here's a picture of the initial concept drawing for the ADAM. With all that's actually really good about the underlying architecture, and a ready made catalogue of games, I can't help but feel they would have done far better with their initial plans:
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    Printer too small to house a PSU
    Last edited by Charlie; 4th September 2017 at 22:51.
    Charlie.
    Are you pondering what I'm pondering?

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