It's no secret that the 64, BASIC 2.0, and the 1541 disk drive are each deficient in certain ways. Many of these shortcomings have been met with various hardware and software solutions. Chief among the problems are slow disk drive speed, difficult communication between computer and drive (lack of an accessible DOS wedge), no built-in machine language monitor, and a general absence of certain important features, including copy and back up procedures.

Over the past several years, plug-in utility cartridges and ROM replacement chips were developed to address these problems. And they've proved to be successful solutions. In fact, some cartridges are up to fifth versions, each version more powerful than its predecessor. Cartridge competition has been - and still is - a hotly contested area in the Commodore 64/128 market.

Full Utility

The utility cartridge is a descendant of the accelerator cartridge, which was designed, primarily, to accelerate the loading of programs. Utility cartridges still offer fast-load capabilities, but also much more. They speed up most, if not all, disk functions (including saving and formatting), and they include both a DOS wedge and the capability for single-stroke disk-access commands. The crop of currently available cartridges for the 64 are utility cartridges, but not all are. Interex's Blowup, for example, is exclusively a screen-capture-and-manipulation device. Even Timeworks' Partner, with its variety of desktop accessories, does not strictly meet the above conditions.

New ROMs

If you're looking for accessible disk turbo features, a DOS wedge, and programmable function keys only, you should consider ROM replacement products as well.

ROM replacements come in two varieties, parallel and serial. Both involve opening your computer (and with the better products, also the disk drive) and attempting some modest installation work. This means plugging and unplugging chip components or small circuit boards, not soldering. These constitute semi-permanent modifications to your equipment.

Without question, the parallel ROM replacement offers the best disk turbo speed-but it ties up the parallel port (you can't use a modem) and leaves a cable permanently attached to your disk drive. ROM replacements are, however, compatible with some utility cartridges. For example, I've been word processing for some time now with a cartridge version of Write Now! and a superfast Dolphin DOS parallel turbo system (from Micro Accessories of South Australia).

An excellent serial system, available for the 64 or 128 and a wide variety of disk drives, is JiffyDOS, from Creative Micro Designs. Serial systems, while slower, need no additional cables and do not tie up your parallel port. They are also much less expensive.

Super Cartridges

Many users prefer a cartridge to a ROM replacement. Cartridges are easily inserted and removed, and they are readily interchangeable among different 64s, 128s, and disk drives. They don't involve modification of the computer or drive. The supercartridges offer a host of extra features, such as BASIC extensions, machine language monitors, and track-and-sector editors. Two additional features found on the supercartridges which are most useful in a crisis are a reset button and an old (sometimes called unnew) command. These allow you to recover a BASIC program if your 64 decides to visit never-never land. (The reset button is not needed on the 128, but the old command is.)

We'll take a closeup look at five powerful cartridges, three of which we'll put in the supercartridge class.
If you're interested in graphics manipulation, sprite or character-set editing, or screen dumping in varied formats, it would be a good idea to carefully study the specific cartridge documentation. For extensive graphics capability and flexible color printing (including recolorization), look into Super Explode! 5 (discussed below).

We'll start with the latest generation of multifunction supercartridges: Final Cartridge III, Super Snapshot 4, and Action Replay 5. These may seem to have super price tags as well, but actually cost only $10-$20 more than less capable cartridges. All supercartridges, in addition to the features noted above, offer archival-backup capability, freezers, and various devices which - through the freezer - allow modifications to games (such as implementation of unlimited lives or firepower and the elimination of sprites or various types of collisions.)

Final Cartridge III

Final Cartridge III is the only supercartridge with 64K of ROM; the other supercartridges contain 32K of ROM plus 8K of RAM. FCIII's additional 32K of ROM is dedicated to a unique desktop accessory, something quite apart from the normal range of cartridge utilities. It is inspired by the Amiga and Macintosh, complete with multiple relocatable windows, pull-down menus, and options of keyboard, joystick, or mouse operation. (I recommend the mouse; keyboard control is somewhat cumbersome, and joystick control is nearly impossible.)

Included in the desktop are a complete point-and-click interface for DOS, a freezer interface, a notepad, a calculator, and a clock with an alarm. (A word of caution: To use the notepad with a parallel printer, you must have a recent interface which has internal switches for "transparent" mode. Or you can try to find a simple serial-to-Centronics cable. This is because, like Action Replay 5, FCIII contains its own Centronics interface. This extra interface is more a hindrance than a blessing in the U.S.; the situation is presumably different abroad.)

In two Preferences menus, you can change many default options, such as pointer velocity, default drive number, key repeat, and border color. There are multiple screen-dump choices as well, and numerous character sizes, colors, pin densities, and printer types are supported.

What I like most about Final Cartridge III is its ease of use. The programmed function keys are laid out logically and are easy to remember. The BASIC toolkit is by far the largest collection on any of the cartridges-almost 30 commands (unfortunately replace/change is not implemented, contrary to publicity). Its monitor is particularly useful and extensive, allowing data display and alteration in five different formats, for example. (Data is modified simply by overtyping.) The monitor even contains sprite and character editors.

Missing entirely from FCIII are file-copy and disk-backup routines, except from the freezer. As with Action Replay 5, which also comes from Europe, FCIII fully supports a tape drive and offers turbo-tape access. The Commodore-RUN key combination still loads and runs the first program on tape (dload is the shortcut for disk).

A final delightful feature is the automatic forward and backward scrolling of BASIC program listings, combined with a simple method for getting the cursor to the bottom left of the screen. FCIII is the only cartridge that implements BASIC list scrolling.

FCIII includes a parameters disk for archiving heavily protected programs that require extra help.

Super Snapshot 4

Super Snapshot contains 32K of ROM and 8K of RAM. SS particularly makes a lot out of the importance of the 8K of RAM, but it seems to be relevent only in archiving and customizing certain games and in slightly speeding up some turbo functions. With the 8K of RAM, after making changes in a game (through the ML monitor), you can pick up exactly where you left off.

The latest incarnation of Super Snapshot, version 4, contains several unique and important features. One is an autoboot-from-disk capability. On power-up or reset, after 30 seconds or upon pressing a designated key, any disk in the drive containing an autoboot sector will boot. (This roughly duplicates the 128's autostart.) The utility/parameters disk contains a routine for adding the autoboot sector; you simply specify the name of the program you wish to autoboot. (This program could in turn install several others.)

Also invaluable are programmed function keys that can easily be redefined (again, as on the 128). I've created an SS4 autoboot disk that first redefines the function keys the way I like them, then installs BASIC Aid from the utility disk. I could add to this autorun list if I wished.

SS4's 14-command toolkit, unlike the other supercartridges, exists on disk only, though the ability to autoboot from disk diminishes the inconvenience. Unfortunately, both find and change commands are lacking. A sprite editor is also included on disk. Indeed, a number of SS4 applications, including backups, require the accompanying disk. This can be considered a limitation.

By contrast, Final Cartridge III includes no supplementary utility disk, nor does Action Replay 5. But Action Replay 5 offers an optional Graphics Support disk at $19.99. Its contents are less significant and less integrated with the cartridge than are Super Snapshot's. Note, though, that Action Replay 5 already includes sprite-editor, BASIC-toolkit, and backup software. The Action Replay 5 disk is not essential, and, given its price, I do not particularly recommend it. Super Snapshot's Slideshow Creator (an optional disk for $14.95) is clearly superior to Action Replay's slide-show utility.

I found SS4 less easy to use and less straightforward in design than Final Cartridge III and Action Replay 5. Even at the opening screen, the choices seem more complex than necessary. The freeze button doubles as a reset, which introduces more complication. The manual, while quite complete, is not well organized, and information can be difficult to find. On the other hand, none of the three supercartridges has a very well organized or error-free manual, though Action Replay's is clearly the best.

Other particularly attractive features of SS4 include the file-copy and disk-backup routines (the whole-disk duplicators are on the utility disk). SS4 easily makes multiple copies of files, and it includes a number of whole-disk copy options. Disk drive types may be mixed (the 1581 is fully supported). Backup routines directly access the parameters list on disk, which gives instructions as to which backup routine to use. (The whole process seems as painless as can reasonably be expected.) The nibbler is the well-known Shotgun II.

Super Snapshot, like Action Replay 5, is easily and inexpensively upgradable ($20 or less). You simply unscrew the cartridge, pry out one ROM chip, and press in another. The only North American product among these supercartridges, SS offers a PAL version for overseas use, costing an extra $4. If you are searching for the ultimate in cartridge turbos, SS4's excellent program load and save times are beaten only by Action Replay 5, and only by a mere second or two.

Action Replay 5

Datel's Action Replay 5, a British product, is in many ways the most straightforward and self-contained of the multifunction cartridges. Software design is well planned, without any bells and whistles. It is remarkable in few respects, solid and comprehensive in all.

As noted above, it possesses the fastest turbo functions of the three cartridges; it even supports a special Warp*25 disk turbo that permits files to be fast-loaded without the cartridge. Two turbo-tape procedures are included. The file-copy routine permits multiple copies of batches of files, a very useful feature. Disk backups can be made with the whole disk or BAM copy method; the latter can save considerable time. One limitation is that the backup routines support only the 1541 drive.

In my opinion, AR5's most unusual features are its allowance for users to enter BASIC POKEs in a frozen program (without entering a monitor) and its Poke-finder General routine, a kind of hit-or-miss lives-finder for games. Over a series of life-losing trials, this routine attempts to identify one or more POKE addresses that will give you infinite lives. Datel claims a success rate of more than 80 percent.

The machine language monitor is full-featured and scrolls bi-directionally (as do all the monitors in these cartridges). The integrated track-and-sector editor is quite adequate. The 12-item BASIC toolkit contains several uncommon commands: linesave, which saves part of a program, and boot, which loads and then runs a machine language program from its starting address. Backup and copy commands are accessible from BASIC, unlike those of the other two supercartridges.

Unfortunately, several crucial commands are lacking: renumber, find, and change (although merge includes an option that renumbers a program addition prior to merging it-totally neglecting GOTOs and GOSUBs.) Game-player options from the freezer are similar to those in Super Snapshot, but Action Replay 5 includes a stand-alone sprite monitor/editor. AR5 also includes a unique text editor for text-based screens with which you can customize opening game screens. This editor works in tandem with the machine language monitor.

One pleasant final touch with Action Replay 5: The F1 key loads and runs any program from the disk's onscreen directory. You might think the Commodore-RUN key combination would be changed to do this (as in Super Snapshot). But AR5, like Final Cartridge III, fully supports tape, so that particular keystroke combination is already spoken for. AR5's boot capability for machine language programs is a most attractive feature, both in its f1-key implementation and its added boot command.

Warp Speed

Down a notch from the supercartridges is the 16K Warp Speed cartridge, essentially an updated and expanded successor to the original generation of accelerator cartridges. It provides turbo speed to all disk functions (except scratch and validate) and features a native 128 mode (the only cartridge in this survey to have this), a reset button, and an old command. Its track-and-sector editor is particularly useful and extensive; it is integrated well into the flexible ML monitor. Fortunately for the user, 64 and 128 modes function identically.

What's missing are a BASIC- toolkit feature and programmed function keys. However, you can still load, save, scratch, and so on, using shorthand commands from the onscreen directory with a minimum of effort.

The single-drive file-copy routines are of limited value because you must swap disks for every file. It's not possible to make more than one copy at a time. On the other hand, both whole-disk copiers are excellent and fast; the 128 version is particularly speedy, usually requiring no more than a single pass. Warp Speed's manual is small though adequate. The programming is not always as clear as it could be: Options on both the Copy and the Track/Sector submenus are confusing. Note that preprogrammed function keys are a mixed blessing. With Warp Speed, as with early accelerator cartridges, it is not difficult to wedge in your own function-key definitions. This is usually impossible with cartridges that preprogram these keys (Super Snapshot is an exception). Also, you can find BASIC Aid packages on disk that will not cause a wedge conflict.

Super Explode! 5

Super Explode! version 5 is primarily a graphics cartridge. It is designed to capture, manipulate, and edit screens and then print them. Its color print capability includes recolorization, and it dumps to all but one available color printer. Its extensive ability to manipulate graphics images makes it the cartridge of choice for graphics buffs. (Note that Super Explode! interfaces with The Soft Group's Video Byte system, a low-cost video digitizer designed to capture full-color images from a VCR or live camera.)

Super Explode! 5's modest utility repertoire includes a complete disk-turbo feature, directory list to screen, single-stroke disk commands, and easy access to the error channel. These commands are not implemented on function keys, nor are the function keys programmed. There is no BASIC toolkit, monitor, or disk-backup or archiving capability. There is a fast multiple-copy file routine, as well as an unnew command. The freeze button doubles as a reset.

The manual is on disk (you must print it out) and is rather haphazard. Nonetheless, it contains a wealth of technical information. Topics include split screens, elementary and advanced file conversion (for Doodle, Koala, text screens, and custom character sets), sprite manipulation, and sprite overlay. If you require few utility functions but extensive graphics capability, Super Explode! 5 is for you.

A Different Option

When considering a cartridge purchase, you may also want to consider another possibility: using a RAM cartridge to put together a personalized set of utilities. Quick Brown Box offers such an opportunity. The 32K or 64K battery-backed RAM is fairly expensive, but it's attractive because it permits utility customization.

Note that putting together a custom set of utilities is complicated and time-consuming and should be attempted only by the more experienced programmer. The big problem in customizing your box is that utilities gathered from varied sources are often incompatible with each other and with RAM-box software. Since these various routines were not designed to coexist, as they are in a ROM cartridge, there are both memory-location and interrupt, or wedge, conflicts. ROM cartridges typically contain a large number of routines; assembling a compatible, comprehensive collection on your own is difficult. If you write your own routines, the RAM cartridge is a good bet; and Brown Box programmers are ready to help. Support is excellent.
Importantly, Quick Brown Box offers an optional disk that includes compatible utilities for both the 64 and the 128. Utility boxes can be constructed, saved, and reloaded for either machine. With some effort, any box can be made to autostart-that is, to automatically boot a short BASIC program that in turn activates any number of utility routines. Remaining box memory is available to the user as a ramdisk.

QBB's Manager software makes using all this capability quite easy once QBB is constituted. You can even instantly save or
recall a current program to or from the ramdisk with a single keystroke and RETURN. The combination of utility cartridge and fast-access ramdisk is a thoroughly fascinating one. Be prepared, though, to spend time and effort, and to experience some frustration.

The 64 box I've constructed autoinstalls the following software upon power-up or reset (QBB has a reset button): Fast Save, Fast Load, Tiny Aid (extra BASIC commands), Directory Aid, and a function-key routine. All but the last item are included in the optional utilities disk.

Tiny Aid includes the commands I use the most: change, find, delete, number, renumber, and append-all the crucial ones. Directory Aid lists a noncorrupting disk directory to the screen and permits one-key loading, scratching, or file reading to screen or printer. A help screen is available.

Also in my box, ready for instant access when needed, are an old command, Fast Format, Supermon (ML monitor), a kill Box command, and the QBB Manager program itself for changing/editing box contents. All these routines are furnished on the Supplemental Utilities disk.

Now if my system crashes, I hit the cartridge reset button while holding down the CTRL key to defeat the autostart sequence; I then call the old routine, save my BASIC program to a ramdisk, and press reset again, this time with autoboot (to reinstall the utilities). Last, I reclaim my BASIC program from the ramdisk. Each one of these operations takes three keystrokes or less.

Something for Everyone

All the products discussed are fine ones, designed to make computing faster and more convenient. While all offer turbo disk access, DOS wedges, and so on, they do differ from each other in many significant respects. The chart below compares major features of the cartridges. The features are listed in general order of importance to the author. Though no cartridge will meet your every requirement, one or more will come close. Commodore computer enthusiasts are fortunate to have such a range of excellent utility products available.

Cartridge Comparisons

Final Cartridge III Super Snapshot 4 Action Replay 5 Warp Speed Super Explode! 5
Disk turbo yes yes yes yes yes
DOS wedge yes yes yes yes yes
Single-stroke disk-access commands with function keys yes yes yes yes
Single-stroke directory list to screen with function keys yes yes yes yes
Disk commands work with screen directory yes yes yes yes yes
Programmed function keys yes yes yes no no
Reprogrammable function keys no yes no no no
BASIC toolkit extension (# of commands) yes (29) on disk only (14) yes (12) no n.a.
Reset button and old command yes yes (reset doubles as freeze) yes yes yes
Track/sector editor yes yes yes yes n.a.
ML monitor yes yes yes yes n.a.
Disk backup no yes (on disk) yes (for 1541 only) yes n.a.
File copy no yes yes (multiple copies) yes (limited) n.a.
Bidirectional scrolling LIST (BASIC) yes no no no n.a.
Disk autoboot no yes no no n.a.
Freezer yes yes yes no n.a.
Parameters disk included for freezer yes yes no n.a. n.a.
Screen dumps yes yes yes yes (text only, from BASIC) yes
Screen dumps in color yes no no n.a. yes
Extended graphics capability n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. yes
Desktop accessory yes no no n.a. n.a.
Native 128 mode no no no yes no

Note: In the above chart, n.a. indicates not applicable.

BACK (c) November 1989, Compute USA