Atari 520ST; a reborn Atari once again points the way to the next generation. (evaluation) John J. Anderson.
A tari owners are a special breed of computer enthusiasts. They have always found it an uphill battle to defend their choice, despite the fact that the hardware is demonstrably superior. Like the sound of seagulls at the beach, the cry "not just a game machine!" tends to fill the air in any room full of Atarians. Tiresome, perhaps, but oh so true.
I am proud to consider myself a member of the small but outspoken group of Atari loyalists. It might not have happened but for my tenacity in purchasing an Atari 800.
It was a habit of mine back in the spring of 1980: during my lunch hour, I used to walk over to a computer store on Lexington Avenue to play with the Apple II computer on display there. I was saving for an Apple and, in fact, had managed to cull $800 from my meager salary toward buying it. I was nearly halfway to the purchase price, and beginning to get really excited.
One fateful afternoon, however, my sentiments changed. For after a few rounds of monochrome Lunar Lander on the Apple, I noticed a new machine lying neglected in the corner of the store. I will try to reconstruct the nature of the conversation as best I can.
Power Without the Price
"What's that you've got over there?" I asked the salesperson innocently.
"Oh that's nothing. It's just the new machine from Atari. You know, the people who make Pong."
"Huh. Got anything to run on it?"
"Not really. Just this space game."
He tossed me a ROM cartridge. I had never seen such a thing before. It took me a few minutes to hook the computer up and discover how to plug in the cartridge. No help was proffered. The salesperson obviously hadn't spent a solitary moment with the machine.
I was immediately impressed with how simple the thing was to use. No cryptic commands, no ribbon cables hanging out the back, no disk directories to call up. I shut the cartridge door, and in a split second the title screen came up. Star Raiders was the name of the game. I picked up the joystick and began my love affair with the Atari computer.
"How much is this?"
"You don't want one of those. They won't last through the year, and then you'll be high and dry."
"How much is it?"
"It's $800, but I'm not going to sell one to you. You want an Apple II, and I'm going to save you from yourself. The Atari is just a game machine..."
Well, you get the idea. I literally had to force the guy to sell me an Atari 800, and he "tsked" at me on sight for the next two years. But I had bought the most advanced personal computer available at the time. And it was not just a game machine.
Much has happened during the ensuing five years, not the least of which is that Atari slid from one of the greatest success stories in American business to one of the greatest case studies in American business failure. Their problems were manifold, and I have related them at length in the pages of Creative Computing since 1982. Certainly, however, among their primary problems was the fact that over those five years there was no significant improvement in the product line.
Until now. Under the stewardship of the family Tramiel, Atari has risen Phoenix-like from its own ashes, with a machine as truly innovative today as the 800 was in 1980: the Atari ST.
The Atari ST has been designed to move the power associated with machines costing thousands of dollars into the range a middle class consumer can afford.
It is based on the Motorola 68000, clocked at 8 MHz. It ships with 520K, theoretically expandable to a whopping 16 Meg. It includes parallel and serial interfaces, and a DMA (direct memory access) port for hard disk and other peripherals. Also featured are an external floppy port, MIDI input and output, two mouse/joystick ports, and a 128K ROM catridge port.
The keyboard is a 95-key full stroke in Selectric configuration. It sports a separate numeric Keypad and ten programmable "French-cut" function keys. The cursor control keys are laid out in VT 100 terminal style and are easy to get used to.
Three display modes are available, each with a 32K bit map. Lo-res color graphics are capable of 16 simultaneous colors from a palette of 512 in a resolution of 320 X 200 pixels. Medium-resolution color offers four colors with a resolution of 640 x 400. In both modes, a call to BIOS can change the palette on the fly--even by the scan line--to call up to all 512 colors simultaneously on a single screen. Text sizes available from these modes are 40 x 25 and 80 x 25 respectively. The output is RGB analog.
The third graphics mode is hi-res monochrome, offering a resolution of 640 x 400 pixels. It refreshes at 70 Hz, which is ten more cycles per second than conventional displays. The result is the sharpest, most legible display available on the consumer market today. Monochrome text resolution is also 80 x 25, but the tech wizards at Atari have already pushed this to a slightly cramped but legible 80 x 50.
The disk drive itself is an external, 3.5", single-sided, dual density drive, capable of storing 360K. Atari also plans a dual-sided drive. The system supports a maximum of two floppy drives. They are a little noisy, but very, very fast.
In its current incarnation, the Atari ST sports a mere 16K of boot ROM. The sockets are onboard, however, awaiting a ROM version of TOS, to be delivered in the late fall. This will eliminate the wait for a system disk to load (about 35 seconds) and free all 520K RAM for programs and data.
Four custom chips inside the ST help give it the amazing processing power it boasts. They are a graphics chip, DMA a chip, memory manager chip, and Glue, which incorporates a number of ancillary housekeeping chores. Glue also replaces a number of off-the-shelf components, saving money and space under the hood.
System architecture was designed to interleave cycles between the CPU and the graphics chip to maximize throughput. Unburdened by graphics and housekeeping chores, the 68000 mpu can attain speeds comparable to a VAX mainframe. The ST is a formidable muscle machine.
The mouse is a two-button mechanical device in the Xerox PARC-style. The second button adds functionality to the point-and-click peripheral, putting more options at the literal fingertips of the user.
Sprite graphics are missing from the ST, but are rendered obsolete by the bit-blitting capability of the machine. This technique allows chunks of memory to be designated as shapes, which can then move on the screen independent of the background field and without the constraints that limit the size and multicolor of ordinary sprites.
The ST includes a General Instruments sound chip, built to the MSX specification. This means three channels of pure tone audio, across nearly the entire audible octave range, plus a noise channel. Several pre-programmed wave-forms are available, along with some envelope customization capability.
Far more powerful, however, is the built-in MIDI interface, which will connect the ST to dedicated music machines. Through the MIDI ports, the ST can control a limitless number of MIDI devices, including drum machines and MIDI-equipped tape decks, offering a powerful tool to the professional musician and serious hobbyist as well. It is also quite possible that the MIDI input and output jacks of the ST could be harnessed in unique ways beyond the scope of a music interface.
A large number of exciting hardware peripherals have been announced. These include a 550Mb CD-ROM drive at $500; a 1200 baud modern for $150; a 720K dual-sided floppy drive for $200; and a 10Mb hard disk drive for around $600. Haba Systems has announced its own 10Mb hard disk, as well.
Official word has it that TOS, the name of the proprietary ST operating system, stands for "The Operating System." We're willing to accept that if you are. It consists of six program modules: Desktop, which keeps track of windows and icons; DOS Manager, which handles the disk drive; BIOS and BDOS, system modules common to MS-DOS and CP/M; VDI, the virtual device interface; and AES, applications environment services. These constitute GEM, the desk-top metaphor interface for the ST, developed by Digital Research. GEM makes the ST look and work much like a Macintosh or Xerox mini, and we'll explore it more fully up ahead.
Bundled in the hardware package in its current configuration is a TOS disk and Atari ST Logo. Logo is similar to DR Logo, but has been optimized to take advantage of the windowed GEM environment. Announced for shipment soon are Atari ST Basic, which will be similar to Digital Research's Personal Basic. It has fewer hooks to GEM, but does feature windowing. Atari ST Forth as well as 4xForth will be offered to Forth programmers. Two versions of C are set to ship as well: DRI-Cand Hippo-C, the latter to be distributed by Haba. A version of ported Pascal is floating around developers' circles right now, but no formal plans have been announced for commercial availability.
You don't have to be terribly astute to notice the connection between the Atari ST and Digital Research, the developers of GEM. DR is also developing three packages for the ST. GEM Write, which we are told is very nearly finished, is a word processor in the spirit of MacWrite. GEM Paint is a paint program, which looks like MacPaint, except in color. GEM Draw is an advanced drawing program for the graphic arts.
Rising Star will convert its line of Valdocs software, usually associated with the Epson QX series of microcomputers, to run on the ST. The line includes a word processor, spreadsheet, database, terminal package, and drawing package. Along with Hippo-C, Haba is developing five packages specifically for the Atari ST: a word processor, a file manager, a spreadsheet and business graphics package, a checkbook balancer, and a terminal package. Haba has also voiced a commitment to translate its existing and future Macintosh releases to run on the ST.
The company Batteries Included has remained as faithful to Atari as any independent software house possibly could, even back in the dark days when Atari itself was unappreciative of such loyalty. They have professed belief in the power of the ST and are developing several integrated software modules for the machine. These include a word processor with built-in spelling checker, a database package, a spreadsheet, and a portfolio package.
VIP Technologies has announced a $100 Lotus 1-2-3 workalike for the Atari ST, which offers the full utility of Lotus' information management with the point-and-click ease of GEM.
Even if you own a "not just a game" machine, it is sometimes fun to play a game or two. And the ST will have its share of those as well. Infocom has committed to translations of all its popular adventure titles for the Atari ST. SubLogic is custom developing a super flight simulator program, to take full advantage of the graphics and animation power of the machine. FTL Software is working on a version of Sundog, its science fiction role-playing adventure for the Apple II series, said to be a knockout in its ST incarnation.
The submarine simulation Gato is being translated for the ST by Sierra Online, and Datasoft has announced two games for the machine, one based on the film "Goonies." We have also heard that an arcade-quality version of the game Joust is being prepared for the Atari ST by a company called Rugby Circle.
By far the most exciting game possibility we heard about, from a highly reliable source, is that of Star Raiders II for the ST. One can only hope that this becomes a reality. Of course Atari must be careful in this, lest its new high-powered product again be stigmatized by the label "game machine." But it would be entirely fitting, I think, to tailor a new advance in the state of the software gaming art to accompany such an advance in new-generation hardware. History would do well to repeat itself in at least that one respect.
The Hands On
I could hardly contain my enthusiasm when the ST arrived at the lab; imagine my disappointment when I could not get TOS to boot. Once again I was pulled out of a tight spot by my good tech buddy Sheldon Leemon, who had experienced the problem himself. The fix was simple: reseat the chips on the motherboard. Unfortunately, this required disassembly of the system unit and removal of the RF shield, which requires a bit of desoldering. Fortunately, I am assured by Atari that this malady occurred only with the earliest production models (we have got serial number 1080). The machine you buy will not suffer the problem.
The only problems that you might identify are rather nitpicky. I am not entirely satisfied with the touch of the keyboard, which I might describe as "mooshy." Also, I felt discriminated against as a left-hander, because the mouse cable is too short to be moved comfortably to the lefthand side of the system unit. Luckily, I happened to have handy an Atari spec joystick extension cord, which worked just fine to extend the mouse cable from its port on the right of the system unit.
The external power supplies for the computer and disk drives are big and bulky. The disk drive power switches are on the back of the drives, which means trouble if you want to tuck them in under a shelf. They sport no power lights, and it is easy to forget to turn them off, especially if you are used to the Mac external drive, which has no power switch.
The most disconcerting aspect of my review process, however, was the sheer dearth of software to explore with the new machine. I was especially disappointed that no Basic was available at press time. I tried running the Ahl Benchmark out of Logo, but the results were so slow, I will not report them here. I am sure they reflect the overhead of windowed Logo rather than an accurate representation of the power of the Atari ST, which is lightning fast.
GEM: How many Karats?
Then there is the GEM environment itself. While it is a remarkably capable implementation of the desktop metaphor, it is certainly no match for the Mac, and for that reason you will never see the word "Jackintosh" in Creative Computing magazine. Much of GEM seems very Maclike, but the fact is, the more you play with it, the less satisfying a substitute it reveals itself to be. You cannot move icons freely--they can only be copied or deleted. And don't try to move an icon onto the desktop. When you move an icon into a folder, it copies, leaving you to delete the original.
Things get worse if you want to move something out of a folder. Folders do not open into their own true windows, but rather usurp the window in which they reside. This means that to move an icon out of a folder, you must first copy it to another volume, then close the folder window, then copy the icon back to the original volume outside the folder. Finally, you can delete the copy inside the folder. Rather a primitive approach to the electronic desktop.
And while you are deleting, watch out for that trash can. Once you have thrown something in there, it's gone. You can set the ST to confirm the delete, but unlike the Mac, you cannot double click the ST trash can to look inside. Perhaps it would have been better depicted as a shredder or sink drain.
The feel of GEM is far from the Mac as well. The mouse moves smoothly, and it is easy to position the pointer. But accurate double clicking requires a bit of practice, and point-and-click with GEM just doesn't feel as good as it does on the Mac. Nor do you get that pinpoint accuracy when moving or sizing windows. I can't help but draw the analogy of the feel of a Toyota Corolla compared to a Rolls Royce Silver Shadow. But heck, I drive a Toyota Corolla anyhow, and I am happy with it.
The thing that annoyed me the most in my exploration of GEM was the way menus pull down the moment a pointer nears them. Perhaps this is another facet of my habituated experience with the Mac, but I just don't think that menus should pull down without a click. It is all too easy to overshoot an icon or windowbox up at the top of the screen and end up staring at a menu. To make it go away, you must pull the pointer out of the menubox and click. This was a mistake in the design; it could be easily corrected by requiring a click as does the Mac.
Kill the Critic
But let's be reasonable. Should a reviewer fault a Corolla because it doesn't roll like a Rolls? Absolutely not. The fact is, the Atari ST delivers 75% of the splendor of the desktop interface at 25% of the price of a 512K Macintosh. As it is currently packaged, a 520 ST with hi-res monochrome monitor and single disk drive lists for $799, which makes it without question the most advanced, most powerful microcomputer your money can buy.
When you consider that a 256K Amiga (reviewed last month) with monitor will set you back more than twice as much, it may well be said that the Atari ST is fairly positioned to blow the Commodore Amiga right out of the water. After all, the Amiga is just a game machine, right?
Products: Atari 520ST (computer)