In broad strokes, all of the units are very similar and use the same essential BASIC dialect, making the entire line upwardly compatible (except for the very first PC-4 which has some peculiarities to be discussed below); although the Casio and Sharp units were not compatible across the two families, some of the conceits of the Sharp interpreter were carried over into Casio's BASIC, particularly split RUN and PROgram (in this case, WRiTe) modes, and the standard 26 fixed variable allocation. However, a critical advance of the Casio units over the Sharp units was their use of segmented programming spaces, allowing up to ten program slots ("P0" through "P9") in what could almost be considered to be a rudimentary filesystem. You could fill up P0 with one big program, or have multiple other ones in the other spaces, all pulling from the same pool of memory. Program slots could call other slots, which could easily be shoehorned into a primitive sort of library system, and program slots could be written out to tape either individually or all ten at once. Although the Sharp units tried to mitigate their single stored program limitation with keyboard shortcuts, theirs was clearly the less elegant approach. The segmented programming space feature was common to all of the Casio units.
Unfortunately, the Casio units were obviously selected because of their pricepoint; while this was not such a liability in 1983 with the PC-4, it was definitely a problem in 1985-6 with the remainder, and as a result this page spans the gamut from one of the best, two mediocre and the positively worst Tandy Pocket Computer in the bunch. What a way to clobber the line!
Remember: in the computer option descriptions, M = memory expansion
(with maximum available), T = cassette tape interface, P = printer interface,
S = serial interface. Lists of non-Tandy peripherals and options are not
guaranteed to be exhaustive. MSRPs best guess from available contemporary
Tandy Radio Shack Pocket Computer PC-4
No, I won't make any bones about it -- the PC-4 is my favourite Pocket Computer, not least because it was the first one I ever owned, as a Christmas gift from my folks. It went off to camp, went to school and went to the rollerskate rink, and managed to survive a near-constant thrashing on the same pair of batteries for several years until it met an untimely end at the hands of a sizeable Coca-Cola spill. It taught me programming, played a lot of homemade games, kept (a small collection of) notes, ground through calculus problems and even computed atomic weights for my high school chemistry course until its tragic demise. A few years later, I acquired another one from a TRS-80 reseller and put it right back to work where the old one had left off, this time crunching the math for concentrations in the biochem lab and running a few homebrew games. That second unit is still in my collection.
Obviously, my point is not to say that the PC-4 is the only useful or functional Pocket Computer, because clearly you could do stuff like this with the others, and in many cases better (certainly faster given that ghastly clock speed; the clock is actually 400kHz, but it is divided by two for the CPU). Where the PC-4 stands out is its size, especially compared to a monster like the PC-2; its tiny power consumption; and most of all, the fact that it was dirt cheap (a 1983 MSRP of just $69.95). Even on the used market, it still exists in enough numbers to keep prices reasonable for collectors and users. Plus, the segmented programming space combined with its minimal battery draw ensure that it'll be a long time before you'll need to dump stuff out to tape, and you won't have to take the tape interface with you to have a portable program library. For this reason, the PC-4 is far and away the unit I recommend to people with a casual interest in Pocket Computers because it has a really attractive form factor and it carries everything in a single package to get you started off quick. (For the next step up, consider a 4K PC-3.)
The PC-4 was originally based on Casio's ultra-low-end PB-100 system, chosen because it was small and very inexpensive. Although a 12-character LCD was unavoidably cramped for a display, and having just over half a kilobyte of memory made for tight programming, this was certainly acceptable for 1983 based on its physical size and its low cost. (It would not be acceptable later, but we're getting ahead of ourselves.) This initial form of the PC-4 (26-3650) was released in 1983 and used the BASIC of the PB-100, a fairly parsimonious if mildly limited interpreter. Naturally possessing both the dual-mode and 26-fixed-variable conventions of the Sharp models' BASICs, PC-4 BASIC had some additional constraints to allow it to make the most of the little free memory available. Instead of the dimensionable string length of the PC-3, the PC-4 limited users to eight byte strings and used a large 30-byte accumulator simply called $ for larger manipulations; dynamic variable allocation and additional array space could be accomplished manually using the DEFM command, although the string length was immutable. The PC-4 was otherwise a very simple BASIC, with most elemental BASIC functions and control statements, plus additional trigonometric functions. Curiously, there was no REMark statement, but that would have been terribly wasteful anyway. Tandy thoughtfully included separate Programming and User Manuals free in the box, one targetted at the beginner programmer and one for those already familiar with BASIC, respectively (the boy wonder mascot I use for decoration is from the Programming Manual), the only Tandy Pocket Computer so equipped. The BASIC ROM is internal to the CPU.
544 bytes of programming space made for programs with a minimum of waste, as the scheduler (written for the later 3650B) at right demonstrates. This sample program also elegantly shows how to use the separate program spaces as subroutines, though of course you could easily GOSUB within your own space to make your application more encapsulated. The optional 1K memory expansion connected to a flat contact ridge accessed with the back cover off, and was practically de rigueur as the near-tripling of memory greatly enhanced the number and complexity of programs storable in the unit (not to mention a lot more dates in your scheduler book). With 1568 bytes available after its installation, suddenly the PC-4 became a much more enjoyable little system.
For Casio, the PB-100 was the basis of a great many successor units, mostly featuring upgraded BASIC and additional software features, but Tandy only chose one of its direct descendants to market. The 1985 PC-4 (26-3650B), the member of the PC-4 series in widest circulation, did not mitigate the small memory but did improve the BASIC considerably using the version extant in the PB-100F. This new BASIC variant could dynamically allocate variable space even within a program, added READ and DATA statements, added ON-GOTO/GOSUB, offered password protection, added STR$ (VAL already existed) and various degree/minute/second conversion functions, changed the name of various commands slightly, and just for yuks, allowed REM. It was fully upwards compatible with its older sibling, which was itself redesignated as the 26-3650A; this label variant is extremely difficult to locate as few of them were produced. The only place the "A" appeared, in fact, was on the box and the rear of the unit; it appears that the 3650As were simply old stock PC-4s that were rebadged and sold until gone, as they lasted only a few months.
However, what was most important to consumers was that the price on the new 3650B PC-4s was reduced down to $59.95, appropriate as little else about the technology had changed. These units were also introduced without the Radio Shack label, just like the 4K PC-3, and were simply called the Tandy Pocket Computer PC-4. (Compare the label on the two units above to see the difference.)
It is noteworthy that the 26-3650/26-3650A's BASIC dialect was effectively a dead end; the PC-5/6/7 are all based on the 26-3650B's, and all of the subsequent Casio-Tandy models required conversion of the unique keywords of the original PC-4 (such as VAC, etc.).
In addition to the 1K expansion pack (unfortunately, no other option packs were made for the rear option slot, RAM, ROM or otherwise), Tandy also offered a rebadged 20 CPL/55 LPM thermal printer for $79.95, along with a separate tape interface for $39.95. The printer used a rechargeable supply, which could not power the computer or the rest of the system, but the cassette tape interface used standard alkaline batteries. Designed to "stack" one on the other, the net effect was something of an unstable joke and made the whole shebang swell to over double in size. In fact, the printer was so dependent on the cassette interface for structural support that the printer package actually included a set of dummy prop struts for users who didn't have the tape connector, with a most inelegant thumbscrew securing the printer to the tape interface as an insurance policy. Helpfully, both interfaces include "rests" to store the port covers just like other Pocket Computer peripherals. The "family picture" above shows a PC-4 saddled with both units in their typical configuration. Tapes written by the 26-3650/26-3650A are fully compatible with the 26-3650B although the converse, naturally, is not guaranteed.
A very nice option, but unfortunately very hard to find, is the Casio FP-40 thermal printer. This unit can print up to 80 CPL and best of all is powered by AA batteries. However, it requires an SB-42 link cable to connect it which is even harder to find than the FP-40 itself.
Due to its respectable sales, the PC-4 was a particularly long-lived series and was not retired until 1987.
Here are the Tandy options/catalogue numbers and their Casio equivalents for both PC-4s:
Tandy Pocket Scientific Computer PC-5, PC-6
Originated as Casio FX-780P
Base memory (free/total bytes): 3552/4096
Options: T, P (via link cable)
Originated as Casio FX-790P
Base memory (free/total bytes): 7520/8192
Options: +8K M; T, P (via link cable)
On paper, the PC-5/6 ought to be the best Pocket Computers Casio ever made (originating as the Casio FX-780P and FX-790P respectively) and/or Tandy ever released. After all, here's a 4K (8K if you're a PC-6) system with advanced mathematics and statistical analysis features (anyone for HYPCOS? linear regression?), a data bank, a full assembler, compatibility with PC-4 peripherals, upwards compatibility with the revised PC-4 BASIC, and the most extensive keyboard of any Tandy Pocket Computer system -- who'd say no to that? Give me two!
Then you open the box and reality sets in. Yes, it's a big keyboard, but most of the business end is in a membrane arrangement on the top which is not only mushy to type on but terribly clumsy because of the clamshell design (which also flexes in a fairly alarming fashion). Yes, you can use PC-4 peripherals, but you have to get a link cable and the arrangement is even sillier than what the PC-4 had to put up with. Yes, it has an assembler. but it's a ridiculously underpowered one for a completely contrived architecture having nothing to do with the CPU itself, where the lack of built-in functionality meant you were writing programs that often were more complex and sluggish than if you wrote them in BASIC in the first place. (And the paltry 16 opcodes were interpreted to boot, robbing you of the most useful thing about machine code as it is! In addition, there's a peculiarity about the assembler and the PC-5 discussed below.) In plain terms, it's this sort of "commitment to compromise" that makes the PC-5/6 fall far short of its marketing.
This isn't to say that the PC-5/6 are all bad. In fact, they do have some very nice features, particularly the built-in advanced trigonometry and fast statistical analysis packages (thus very deserving of the Pocket Scientific Computer moniker, the first Pocket Computers to be designated as such), and their impressive Data Bank feature which allows part of the program area to become a very simple data store. BASIC extensions allow inserting, modifying and deleting records, and simple search and retrieval. The computer even has a primitive editor for entering them and then accessing them later.
Another nice feature is that the PC-5/6 are the only Pocket Computers with a secondary backup battery, meaning you can replace the main batteries without losing everything; RAM is maintained by the auxiliary battery if the main cells die or are removed.
However, these nice-to-haves are drowned out by some very concerning practical issues. Besides the fact that my Atari 400 has better tactile feedback than this device, it doesn't make sense to put commonly used keys like the alphabet on the membrane while single-stroke, less operated functions like the trig operations were on the real keys on the bottom. Better to toss the membrane entirely, of course, but touch typing is more important when you're putting in long strings of text than just getting the sine of 30 degrees. In addition, build quality for the case can only be charitably called mixed; my NOS PC-6 unit was in real danger of splitting down the hinges after just a few times opening and closing it, and the front latch practically begs to be cracked. (In fact, I've seen several PC-6s on auction sites where that is exactly what happened and the units won't lock shut.)
Finally, if the PC-6 only gets a Passing grade on our Pocket Computer report card, the PC-5 ought to merit an Incomplete. First, it lacks a memory slot (the hole is on the board but there are no connector pads), which seems completely arbitrary, and second, even though it has an Assembler (Asmbl) key and the assembler LCD elements, the assembler won't start and pushing Asmbl just resets the unit to RUN mode. I haven't determined if this is just a quirk of my unit or not because PC-5s are quite hard to find, and the manual claims that the assembler is there (but actually, now that I think of it, maybe lacking the assembler isn't so bad).
What really doesn't make sense is that the two units were introduced nearly simultaneously; the PC-5 lasted less than a year before it was replaced by the PC-6, but both units retailed for the same price of $119.95! The units can be easily distinguished by their labels (of course); the front RESET button, which is only on the PC-6; and the MEMO key, which is "MEMO (SEARCH)" on the PC-6.
Despite their various and multiple sins, it is startling how popular the PC-5/6 are today and I can only attribute this to their form factor, which is admittedly fairly sexy. Indeed, more than any other Pocket Computer, these units as a group (particularly the PC-6, being the most available) tend to command the highest prices for a Tandy Pocket Computer on auction and used computer sites. The PC-5 is considerably more uncommon because of its short lifespan, but being less powerful is not as prized when it appears. On the other hand, the PC-6 had the longest lifespan of any Pocket Computer, still appearing in Radio Shack catalogues as late as 1991 long after the rest of the line had faded away. As evidence of this popularity, the official $119.95 MSRP never changed!
Here are the Tandy options/catalogue numbers and their Casio equivalents for the PC-5/6:
Tandy Pocket Scientific Computer PC-7
Originated as Casio FX-5200P
CPU: likely HD619xx series @ 200kHz
LCD: 12 character, non-dot-addressable
Base memory (free/total bytes): 1568/2048
Size: (folded) 139.5x87x13mm, (open) 139.5x180.5x10.4mm, 146g (0.32lb)
Options: utter bupkis
In essence, the PC-7 is a partially upgraded, partially downgraded PC-4. Starting with exactly the same LCD and 4-bit CPU, it adds the PC-4's 1K RAM expansion "built in" (though like the PC-5 it has a slot where another one could go, but blocked off without any connectors), and uses the same upgraded BASIC as the 26-3650B while adding the PC-5/6's advanced math and statistical functions and keys for same (though not the data bank features).
So much for the upgrades, now for the downgrades: the PC-7 does not have an I/O expansion port. Yes, you heard right. No peripherals, no printer, and most importantly, no tape. I'm sorry, did you say your batteries were getting low? Sucks to be you, my friend. Don't bother to put anything of substance in this device because once the batteries have to be changed, it'll be going to the great PC-1 in the sky. With that sobering thought, maybe it's not such a great loss that the PC-5/6 Data Bank didn't make it to this unit after all.
But wait, there's less! If you didn't like the clamshell PC-5/6 design, the PC-7 will really steam your broccoli because its flipface is of even lower build quality: all but my NOS unit show obvious flex strain on the join and some have even torn open, revealing the ribbon cable which is clearly being stressed even more by the case distortion. Casio didn't learn anything from the PC-5/6 and went right on slapping the alphabet onto the membrane half of the keyboard, although in this case you're not going to be doing much programming on it anyway.
Plain and simple, this doesn't deserve to be called a Pocket Computer. Sure, you can write programs with it, but because you can't save them you're restricted in a practical sense to quick one-offs and simple functions that you can afford to lose, and where I come from that's what calculators are for. I didn't buy my Pocket Computers for that kind of limited usage, but surprisingly many people did and I still get a decent proportion of mail from former PC-7 owners. (P. T. Barnum was right; there really are suckers born every minute.) Although technically superior and higher quality (relatively speaking), the PC-8 that followed the PC-7 actually exited the market earlier -- the PC-7 itself lasted until 1990! As far as I was concerned, about all the PC-7 did do was make the PC-8 look not quite so bad by comparison.
I'd dearly love to tell you Tandy's options and catalogue numbers and the Casio equivalents, but there aren't any.
Other PC-7 sites:
Did I mention I like the PC-4?