Watch on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pFL_72HpVwk
The IT Crowd Oric Atmos - Story, Repair & Review - As Seen On TV!
I’m the proud owner of an Oric Atmos 8-bit computer that was used as a prop in Channel 4 sitcom The IT Crowd. Here’s the story of how it came to be in my possession, what happened when I tried to power it up for the first time, and what I needed to fix to get it up and running. I also take a look at some games on the system.
Hey everyone, Rees here, and I’m going to talk about something quite special from my collection today. You see, not only is the Oric Atmos quite a rare and interesting machine in its own right, but this particular one has a very interesting history.
You see this Atmos was very prominently featured as a prop in a TV show here in the UK, and if you haven’t already guessed it from the video title and thumbnail, that show was called The IT Crowd.
I bought it back in 2015 in a charity auction and it always gets a lot of attention on my social media, so I thought it was finally time to tell its story and how it came to be in my possession.
The IT Crowd was the brainchild of Graham Lineham, the man behind Father Ted. It was broadcast on Channel 4 between 2006 and 2010, with a special in 2013, and revolved around the basement dwelling IT department of Reynholm Industries, a fictional London-based company that does… Well, I’m actually not sure what it does.
The show was well known for its IT department set and it was always fun trying to spot all of the obscure machines and references in the background. It’s a real shame it was filmed before the days of HD.
There’s actually a tour of the set in a special called The IT Crowd manual where Graham points out some of the computers, including the Oric.
A lot of the props on the set were provided by a company called Pure Energy Multimedia, who work closely with The Centre For Computing History in Cambridge. It’s worth giving the centre a shoutout, they’re a really excellent resource and focus on having stuff set up that visitors can actually play with. They’re also a registered charity who are entirely funded by donations. I’ll put some links down in the description so you can check them out. They have a really good YouTube channel as well.
So I was idly browsing ebay one day and came across a listing by Pure Energy for a prop used on the show. I could’ve sworn I took some screenshots of the ebay listing but I can’t seem to find them now. Fortunately it’s still available on the Wayback Machine, albeit with some bits missing.
Anyway, as you can see, they were donating 100% of the proceeds of the sale to the centre, and had some pictures of the Oric on set. The listing says that it was there from season 3 onwards, and looking at some old clips confirmed that that was indeed the case.
According to the ebay listing they also provided some other really interesting machines, like a very rare Altair 8800, an Acorn Atom PCB, Amstrad CPC464 and some nice boxed items like a ZX Spectrum and an Astro Wars handheld game.
So despite me knowing absolutely nothing about the Atmos and them not knowing whether it even worked, I stuck in a bid and, to cut a long story short, I won.
It took a while for them to sort out a certificate of authenticity for me but I was pretty insistent on having it. Not because I’m ever planning on selling this on - as a huge fan of the show I just love the story that goes with it.
So onto the ORIC itself. I actually knew so little about them that I thought they were French for years. To be fair they did sell very well in France and still have a cult following over there. It’s only relatively recently I discovered that they were British.
There’s plenty of info out there if you’re interested and I’ll probably put together a video specifically covering the history of ORIC in the future - but to cut a long story short, ORIC was a trading name of Tangerine Computer Systems, and was used on their ORIC-1, Atmos and Telestrat computers released in the early 1980s. The specs of these machines were all pretty similar, using the ubiquitous 6502 CPU that was also found in the Commodore PET, VIC-20 and 64, the Apple II, the Atari 8-bit computer range, and the Atari 2600, Nintendo NES and oh, the Tamagotchi as well, believe it or not.
The ORIC computers came with either 16K or 48K of RAM and ran a variant of Microsoft BASIC. The ORIC-1’s ROM was notoriously buggy and the keyboard widely considered one of the worst in existence, but thankfully ORIC fixed both of these issues in the Atmos.
I can’t speak for the ROM as I haven’t used it all that much yet but the keyboard is excellent and has a reputation of being one of the best available on an 8-bit system.
So let’s pop this thing open and see what we can see inside.
The first thing that immediately stands out is the ORIC-1 motherboard. Many of these early Atmos machines were actually repurposed ORIC-1s. As the spec was otherwise identical it was just a case of replacing the ROM chip with the Atmos version.
The ORIC outputs its sound through a built in speaker. I temporarily removed this and tapped directly into the AY-3-8910 sound chip to get some decent audio for my video captures as you’ll see later on. This chip was used in Amstrad CPC, MSX and Spectrum, and a slightly upgraded version was used in the Atari ST, so it has great pedigree.
Speaking of pedigree, here’s that MOS 6502 CPU, this one’s clocked at 1MHz, and alongside it is the 6522 VIA which interfaces it to the rest of the hardware. This area here, if you haven’t guessed it already, is the 48K of RAM.
Finally, above this is the Oric HCS 10017 ULA chip. This custom chip is mainly concerned with generating graphics and clocking the CPU, as well as having DMA capabilities so it can access the RAM directly. It’s a pretty sophisticated chip, actually, and is what makes an ORIC an ORIC.
As far as connectivity is concerned, the Atmos provides an RF modulator for connection to a TV, a TTL RGB video output for connection to a monitor, a tape interface for loading software from cassette, a printer port, and a proprietary expansion port. It’s powered by a 9V positive tip barrel jack connector which feeds this voltage regulator.
This is where I came up against my first challenge - I didn’t have any suitable power supplies for this machine. I had to adapt a Nintendo Famicom power supply by stripping it down and reversing the polarity. Not a huge job and it saved me having to buy a new PSU.
Once I had a suitable power supply I decided to test the voltage regulator. I don’t have a current limiting supply for testing but it’s something I’m intending on getting in future, so I’m just going to have to risk it. We can see that the regulator is giving us a reading of around 3.9V, which is lower than the 5V I was expecting. On the input side we’re seeing around 9V as expected from the supply.
The ORIC uses a strange setup, with a negative voltage regulator called an LM79. This actually generates negative 5 volts, which is converted back to the 5V required by the components. Why oh why Tangerine decided to go with this setup is beyond me. But anyway.
The regulator is notorious for getting extremely hot and burning itself out, so I’m going to replace it with a TRACO switching regulator. This is a more modern design that is not only much more stable, but up to 96% efficient as well, meaning it runs cool. It’s pin compatible so a drop in replacement, and the original heatsink is no longer required of course.
Unfortunately I don’t have one in my box of parts and have to order one in, so I’ll move on for now and get back to it.
When powering up the machine I’m getting this black and white error screen, so the next thing to test will be the chips. It’s a very simple test, but by touching the tops of the chips when the computer is on, we can feel whether any of them are hot to the touch, indicating a short circuit. You have to be careful as they can sometimes get hot enough to burn your fingers.
As suspected, one of the RAM chips is extremely hot. ORICs are notorious for RAM chip failures and I just happen to have some compatible Samsung 4164s in stock which I bought for my IBM PC, so I’m going to socket the RAM and get those installed.
Now I have the new RAM chips safely in their sockets and my new regulator has arrived, so let’s get that installed as well.
Testing again we can see that we’re getting almost exactly 5V where we had 3.9 before, so that seems much better.
So now the machine is repaired it’s time to get it powered up and see what the ORIC is all about.
The Atmos didn’t come with any cables so to hook it up to my monitor I’m using a SCART cable from Retro Computer Shack. These are hand built in the UK and they do a range of cables which are all excellent quality. The ORIC’s video output is actually too weak for a modern TV so this cable has a built in amplifier which is powered by the ORIC’s 9V power supply using these pass through connectors.
The ORIC has some built in sound effects that can be triggered from BASIC and these are apparently a popular way to test whether things are working properly, so lets try typing them in and seeing what happens.
Back in the day when this machine was new it would have been connected to either a disk interface or, more commonly, a cassette player. I have a few cassette players that might work but I don’t have any ORIC software on cassette and besides, the interface is notoriously finicky so I’m using this cable that I got from a site called Cool Novelties to connect it to my PC.
That means I’m limited to software that was released on cassette, but using these TAP files and a converter I can get them converted to WAV format and play them like any other sound file.
I just want to talk a little bit about how I managed to get these games to load as it required some trial and error. I used the TAP2WAV utility to convert the TAP files into WAV audio files. Initially they didn’t work at all which I suspected was something to do with the volume based on the info I’d read online. It turns out that both VLC and Audacity failed to play the 4800Hz files properly, or at least in a way the ORIC was expecting, so I had to specify 11KHz output.
Then it was just a case of setting the volume to 95% and playing the files back in Audacity.I also went into my system settings and made sure everything else was muted to stop any notifications or other noises from interfering with the loading process.
I’m using a public domain game here called Conveyor Belt, mainly because it’s tiny and only takes 20 seconds to load so it’s quite handy for testing things out. Something I saw mentioned a lot online was how important it is to try to prevent hum on the audio cables, apparently a laptop running on battery power is the safest option. There’s also an Android app called TapOric but I couldn’t get anything to load when trying it on my phone, it’s definitely something I’m going to revisit though.
I have zero experience with ORICs so I asked for some game recommendations on Twitter. I had three from 6502nerd, so I’ll check those out first.
First up is Xenon One. Based on the name alone I was expecting the Bitmap Brothers game from the Amiga and Atari ST, which is one of my all time favourites. That’s not what this is. It’s fun though and pretty tough and it looks like there’s a bit depth to it that I haven’t discovered yet. Definitely one to revisit.
The second recommendation was Hunchback. This is quite an interesting concept, like a platformer without the platforms. Or maybe it has them later on and I didn’t get that far. It’s all about timing your jumps and is pretty unforgiving. It’s a good challenge and graphically pretty nice. It seems there may be some palette switching shenanigans going on here to get the ORIC to display so many colours at once, I’m not sure.
The third recommendation from 6502nerd was Ghost Gobbler, which is a pac-man clone. As you may or may not be aware, I notoriously suck at pac-man, and that’s also true of this version. Some of these unofficial arcade clones from back in the day were actually really good and this is no exception. I’m a big fan of the graphics on this one and it plays really nicely. I’d rather play a game like this on a decent keyboard than a rubbish joystick and the ORIC definitely delivers in this department.
So three really good recommendations there.
I also had a bit of a back and forth with someone called Defence Force, who was really helpful in getting everything up and running. His website is definitely the authority on ORIC info so it’s well worth checking out. He also has a YouTube channel with lots of great in depth technical information about the ORICs which I’ll link below.
He had quite a few game recommendations and I’m still working through them at the time of filming. Xenon One came up again, which isn’t surprising because it is genuinely very good as we’ve seen. The game he presumably took his name from, Defence Force, unfortunately wouldn’t work for me no matter what I tried. I’m going to keep at it though because it looks good from what I’ve seen.
He also recommended Impossible Mission, which is actually a modern port of the Commodore 64 classic of the same name. The Atari ST version of this game was one of my absolute favourites as a kid - still is in fact - and although it seems a few things have been tweaked to make it run on the ORIC it certainly doesn’t disappoint.
The graphics and sound are a big step up from the other games I’ve seen so far. It’s much more recent so that’s progress. A really good interpretation of one of my favourite games and I can highly recommend it.
I thought I’d check out Manic Miner as well just to see how that translated to the Oric. I’m a big fan of the BBC Micro version of this game. Unlike the previous game this one is an old release from 1985. Well, if the graphics and music on the title screen is anything to go by this should be good.
And yep, the graphics are on par with the other versions of the time. It’s just as ridiculously difficult as it should be. The music was specifically arranged for the ORIC and sounds really good as a result. A great port of a great game.
As we’ve done a few platformers, an arcade game and a shooter I thought I’d check out a couple of other genres.
Another of Defence Force’s recommendations was 3D Fongus. The title screen comes up while the tape is still loading, which is the first one I’ve come across so far. At least it’s an indication that something is happening. The game’s in French, and I have to admit fongus isn’t a word we learned in high school so I had to look it up. Apparently it means fungus.
This game seems to involve racing some kind of glider through the desert while trying to keep it between these flags. I’m not sure what that has to do with fungus. Anyway, it’s pretty simple but challenging and the 3D wireframe graphics are very nice.
Speaking of 3D wireframe graphics, the final recommendation I’m going to look at is called Starter 3D. It’s a good old fashioned racing game. When I first fired this up I couldn’t get past the copy protection, but digging around a bit I found a cracked version on oric.org.
Starter 3D certainly looks impressive and the sound effects are great too, but it isn’t half difficult. I think I managed to spin out on pretty much every single corner. I don’t have the time to master it now but it’s another one that I’m going to revisit in the near future.
So there we go, that’s the story of how I came to own a famous Oric Atmos from one of my favourite TV shows and how I finally got around to getting it up and running 5 years later.
I’ve spent a lot of time with this computer over the past few weeks and I have to say that I definitely see what all the fuss is about. Oric has a small but very active and friendly community around it and the Atmos is a genuinely good machine by the standards of its day.
I’m gradually documenting everything in my collection and fixing and upgrading things where needed and I have a lot of videos in the pipeline, so if you enjoyed this story and want to see more please do consider subscribing to my channel.
Also if you could click that like button you’ll be helping me get the word out and giving me useful feedback.
Finally if you want to talk Oric, The IT Crowd, or anything else why not leave a comment, I read and respond to every one.
Until next time…
The Centre For Computing History: http://www.computinghistory.org.uk The Centre’s YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCnw4p95EOWghQNP4vOv8VHw Pure Energy Multimedia: http://www.tvfilmprops.co.uk
Internet Archive ORIC TOSEC: https://archive.org/details/Tangerine_Oric_1_and_Atmos_TOSEC_2012_04_23 TAP2WAV utility: https://github.com/oric-international/oric-tools/tree/master/euphoric-tools/tape_tools/wav_format TapOric Android app: https://iss.sandacite.com/iss/taporic
All pictures unless specified otherwise: Wikipedia
“The IT Crowd” is copyright Talkback Thames / Channel 4. Short clips and stills are featured in this video for the purpose of commentary under fair use.
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