Sord drawn: The story of the M5 micro

The 1983 Japanese home computer that tried to cut it in the UK


Archaeologic It took Japanese micro maker Sord more than six months to launch its M5 home computer in the UK, but in April 1983, the company said the Z80A-based machine would finally go on sale during the following month - half a year after it was originally scheduled to arrive over here.

It was a bold move. Even in November 1982, when the Sord M5 was first scheduled to debut, the UK home computer market was becoming uncomfortably congested. More to the point, it was dominated by British firms: Sinclair, Acorn and Dragon, and Tangerine offshoot Oric and Camputers were both gearing up to release home micros of their own. Oxford’s Research Machines dominated the education micro market.

Sord M5

Sord's M5
Source: Liftarn

There were overseas computer makers who were successful over here in the home market: Commodore primarily but also, though to a lesser extent, Atari and Texas Instruments. Apple was selling its pricey II to business buyers, and IBM was starting to do make inroads into the same market with its 1981-launched PC.

But the Japanese? They were nowhere close. Only Sharp and Epson were making any headway in the business micro market, but neither they nor their fellow firms were attacking the home arena. It was arguably a point of pride among native computer companies that this was the case. They were adamant that they were not going to let Japan’s major electronics firms destroy the UK home micro industry they way the Japanese had smashed domestic hi-fi makers.

Sord Computer Systems was no Sony, JVC or Sharp, of course. It was founded on 15 April 1970 by Takayoshi Shiina and his mum, and in its first ten years had become one of Japan’s fastest growing firms - the fastest, it claimed at the time - thanks to its success selling business micros on its home turf. Sord, by the way, came from ‘SOftware haRDware’, Shiina said in a 1979 interview with the Sydney Morning Herald. When the company opened a beachhead in the UK early in October 1982, it was forecasting an annual turnover of £40 million - equivalent to £167 million now, depending on how you measure it. To put that 1982 figure into context, Sinclair Research reported revenues of £27.17 million for the year to April 1982, rising to £54 million during the following 12 months.

Sord’s pitch to British home computer buyers was typically Japanese: a machine clearly designed for playing games rather than thrashing out your own code, or running a small business. The stylish M5 had a prominent Rom cartridge slot and came with a pair of Mattel Intellivision-style wheel-based games controllers. Like other home micros it supported the Basic language, but the interprester came on a cartridge rather than a firmware chip within the machine. The M5 packed 8KB of Rom for its operating system. Other cartridges allowed it to run PIPS, Sord’s business automation system.

Sord ad

By the late 1970s, Sord was punching out business micros

The M5 spec was suitable games-centric too: only 4KB of Ram but an additional 16KB dedicated to the video sub-system. The resolution wasn’t spectacular but it was comparable to that offered by other micros of the time: 256 x 192, with 16 colours. But it had the capability to run 32 separate 8 x 8 or 16 x 16 graphic sprites - a facility then only offered by the Commodore 64, at that time as readily available to Brits as hens’ teeth, and the Texas Instruments TI-99/4A. It had four-channel sound too - three for tones, one for “noise” - and its processor ran at an impressive (for the time) 3.6MHz. Handling the video was a Texas Instruments TMS9929A chip. It had the same sound chip, the TI SN76489A, as the BBC Micro.

When Sord took the wraps off the M5 in the UK at the end of October 1982, the machine had been on sale in Japan for less than a month but had already notched up a software library of 60-odd applications and games, the company claimed. Sord said the M5 would cost around £150.

Inevitably, it was a no-show. Due to go on sale here in November 1982, by mid-December Sord was pointing to a February 1983 release instead. Most likely, the parallel attempt to establish the M5 in the US, which saw the M5 debut there as scheduled, along with the M343, an Intel 8086-based MS-DOS machine, took all the units Sord had earmarked for Blighty. Exchange rate fluctuations and other factors saw the price now listed as £169, though it would now come bundled with three cartridges, Sord promised: Basic and a couple of games.

Sord also had an eye to the broader British micro market. Come March 1983 there was still no sign of the M5, but the Japanese company had by now signed a distribution deal with Loughton, Essex-based Computer Games Ltd (CGL) to allow it, as CGL Chairman Paul Balcombe said at the time, to “concentrate its efforts on promising its business computer range”. CGL had experience importing Japanese handheld videogame devices. It would later be acquired by Amstrad.

Sord M5

The M5 was Sord's first home computer
Source: Quagmire

That was still in the future. Now the question was, would the M5 ever be released in the UK? Toward the end of April 1983, Sord President Takayoshi Shiina flew into the UK to state that, yes, the M5 will go on sale here, in May. Oh, and it’ll now cost £190 - £189.95, to be precise. By way of some sort of compensation, the M5 would gain the ability to take extra memory, to be made available in 16KB units from July, Shiina said.

Some punters might have preferred to wait a little longer. Sord also announced it would offer the M5 Turbo, a faster version with “at least” 64KB of Ram in October, the same month in which, it also promised, it would ship a 16-bit business machine, the M12. Impecunious kids exasperated by the M5’s pre-release price rises were offered the prospect of a low-cost games-only machine, the M2, due to arrive in August. Sord even boasted it has a battery-powered portable machine not unlike Epson’s HX-20 in the works. It would go on sale in September, the company promised.

Next page: Situation: public

Similar topics


Other stories you might like

  • Lonestar plans to put datacenters in the Moon's lava tubes
    How? Founder tells The Register 'Robots… lots of robots'

    Imagine a future where racks of computer servers hum quietly in darkness below the surface of the Moon.

    Here is where some of the most important data is stored, to be left untouched for as long as can be. The idea sounds like something from science-fiction, but one startup that recently emerged from stealth is trying to turn it into a reality. Lonestar Data Holdings has a unique mission unlike any other cloud provider: to build datacenters on the Moon backing up the world's data.

    "It's inconceivable to me that we are keeping our most precious assets, our knowledge and our data, on Earth, where we're setting off bombs and burning things," Christopher Stott, founder and CEO of Lonestar, told The Register. "We need to put our assets in place off our planet, where we can keep it safe."

    Continue reading
  • Conti: Russian-backed rulers of Costa Rican hacktocracy?
    Also, Chinese IT admin jailed for deleting database, and the NSA promises no more backdoors

    In brief The notorious Russian-aligned Conti ransomware gang has upped the ante in its attack against Costa Rica, threatening to overthrow the government if it doesn't pay a $20 million ransom. 

    Costa Rican president Rodrigo Chaves said that the country is effectively at war with the gang, who in April infiltrated the government's computer systems, gaining a foothold in 27 agencies at various government levels. The US State Department has offered a $15 million reward leading to the capture of Conti's leaders, who it said have made more than $150 million from 1,000+ victims.

    Conti claimed this week that it has insiders in the Costa Rican government, the AP reported, warning that "We are determined to overthrow the government by means of a cyber attack, we have already shown you all the strength and power, you have introduced an emergency." 

    Continue reading
  • China-linked Twisted Panda caught spying on Russian defense R&D
    Because Beijing isn't above covert ops to accomplish its five-year goals

    Chinese cyberspies targeted two Russian defense institutes and possibly another research facility in Belarus, according to Check Point Research.

    The new campaign, dubbed Twisted Panda, is part of a larger, state-sponsored espionage operation that has been ongoing for several months, if not nearly a year, according to the security shop.

    In a technical analysis, the researchers detail the various malicious stages and payloads of the campaign that used sanctions-related phishing emails to attack Russian entities, which are part of the state-owned defense conglomerate Rostec Corporation.

    Continue reading
  • FTC signals crackdown on ed-tech harvesting kid's data
    Trade watchdog, and President, reminds that COPPA can ban ya

    The US Federal Trade Commission on Thursday said it intends to take action against educational technology companies that unlawfully collect data from children using online educational services.

    In a policy statement, the agency said, "Children should not have to needlessly hand over their data and forfeit their privacy in order to do their schoolwork or participate in remote learning, especially given the wide and increasing adoption of ed tech tools."

    The agency says it will scrutinize educational service providers to ensure that they are meeting their legal obligations under COPPA, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.

    Continue reading
  • Mysterious firm seeks to buy majority stake in Arm China
    Chinese joint venture's ousted CEO tries to hang on - who will get control?

    The saga surrounding Arm's joint venture in China just took another intriguing turn: a mysterious firm named Lotcap Group claims it has signed a letter of intent to buy a 51 percent stake in Arm China from existing investors in the country.

    In a Chinese-language press release posted Wednesday, Lotcap said it has formed a subsidiary, Lotcap Fund, to buy a majority stake in the joint venture. However, reporting by one newspaper suggested that the investment firm still needs the approval of one significant investor to gain 51 percent control of Arm China.

    The development comes a couple of weeks after Arm China said that its former CEO, Allen Wu, was refusing once again to step down from his position, despite the company's board voting in late April to replace Wu with two co-chief executives. SoftBank Group, which owns 49 percent of the Chinese venture, has been trying to unentangle Arm China from Wu as the Japanese tech investment giant plans for an initial public offering of the British parent company.

    Continue reading
  • SmartNICs power the cloud, are enterprise datacenters next?
    High pricing, lack of software make smartNICs a tough sell, despite offload potential

    SmartNICs have the potential to accelerate enterprise workloads, but don't expect to see them bring hyperscale-class efficiency to most datacenters anytime soon, ZK Research's Zeus Kerravala told The Register.

    SmartNICs are widely deployed in cloud and hyperscale datacenters as a means to offload input/output (I/O) intensive network, security, and storage operations from the CPU, freeing it up to run revenue generating tenant workloads. Some more advanced chips even offload the hypervisor to further separate the infrastructure management layer from the rest of the server.

    Despite relative success in the cloud and a flurry of innovation from the still-limited vendor SmartNIC ecosystem, including Mellanox (Nvidia), Intel, Marvell, and Xilinx (AMD), Kerravala argues that the use cases for enterprise datacenters are unlikely to resemble those of the major hyperscalers, at least in the near term.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022