Atari strikes back; with six promising new computers that could re-shape the industry. Tim Onosko; John J. Anderson.
The secrecy of a military project has shrouded Atari Corporation since last summer when it was taken over by former Commodore head Jack Tramiel, sons Sam (reportedly running the company on a day-to-day basis) and Leonard, and trusted colleagues recruited from their posts at Commodore (or "C-Company" as it is now referred to inside Atari).
The reason for the secrecy--as well as for the uniformed security guards which replaced the company's front desk receptionists--is an entirely new line of Atari products designed to transform the company's image from one of a free-spending video game shop to that of a lean aggressive, leading-edge computer maker. If--and this is a big if--the Tramiel family can pull off its remarkable plan, Atari will fire a salvo that is almost certain to signal an all-out war that could spread to almost every area within the personal computer industry.
Briefly, this calls for Atari to introduce repackaged ultra low-end versions of the existing Atari computers along with very high performance new machines, and a line of new peripherals and other products designed for use with other microcomputers.
These details, obtained as this issue of Creative Computing went to press, outline Atari's new strategy. Information was obtained from sources within the company, including Brian Kerr, Atari's new marketing manager. All products mentioned in this story were scheduled for introductions at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January. The 65XE, 65XEM, 130XE and XEP
The footsoldier of the new Atari line is the 65XE, which at pre-January 800 XL prices ($100-$120), will replace the current computers. Based on the 65XX 8-bit family of processors, the 65XE will sport 64K of RAM and, according to Kerr, will be compatible with all current Atari software. This redesign of the 800 XL was termed "engineering optimization" by Kerr, who stated that the machine has at once been made more cost-effective and more reliable through the use of fewer parts.
The 65XE supports the existing model 1050 5.25" floppy disk drive, and Kerr promises Atari will continue to manufacture a 5.25" drive in 1985. However, "in recognition of where the technology is going," Kerr further states that a 3.5" microfloppy drive will also be offered for the XE series. The price of such a unit would be comparable to that of a 1050 (around $200), and "we certainly wouldn't come out with a higher priced drive," said Kerr.
Priced at approximately $30-50 above the 65XE is the 65XEM, which is a standard model XE with one very important addition--the AMY VLSI chip. Calling it an "advanced music synthesizer on a chip," Kerr tagged the advent of AMY as a "breakthrough," and said that the custom processor is capable of "symphonic quality sound." It features up to eight fully independent multi-timbre voices comprised of 64 separate and software-configurable oscillators, which can easily change sonic characteristic on the fly. AMY handles 10.75 octaves, from 4.8 Hz to 7.8 KHz which encompases the dynamic range of an 88-key piano.
In contrast to more conventional sound synthesis devices like Commodore's SID chip, AMY is based on digital sampling. This approach "recreates" a waveform rather than attempting to imitate it. AMY has a 30KHz digital sampling rate and a 60 dB dynamic range, and runs off the internal clock of the XEM at 7MHz.
Those who have heard AMY confirm that it can realistically portray a wide range of musical sounds. Listeners report, for example, that AMY simulates the highly distinctive "bow attack" of the cello sound with almost discomfiting accuracy. Kerr sees the 65XEM as both a music learning tool and a performance instrument.
The XE micros represent the "red series" Atari machines, marked distinctively with a red Atari logo which indicates their membership in the 8-bit Atari line.
Unpriced at press time is a 128K version of the 65XE dubbed the 130XE. (It seems Atari has finally broken the parochial tradition of systematically underestimating RAM in multiples of 16.) Also to ship is a portable version of the XE currently labeled the XEP. It sports a built-in microfloppy drive and a 5" monochrome CRT with two available character sizes. The price will be "around $500," says Kerr. The 130ST and 520ST
Perhaps the biggest news among Atari's planned introductions is its "blue line" of computers, called the ST (for Sam Tramiel?) series. Characterized by a blue logo, they constitute nothing less than Atari's "Manhattan Project." It may be fair to posi that if the Macintosh was the A-Bomb of microcomputing, the Tramiels intend to unleash with the ST series the fury of the H-Bomb. And the fallout will undoubtedly drift over to nearby Cupertino.
Like the Macintosh, the 130ST is a 128K micro based on the MP 68000 processor. It features NTSC, RGB, and hi-res monochrome video output; numeric keypad; HELP and UNDO keys; a built-in disk controller and hard disk interface; RS-232C serial and Centronics parallel ports; a MIDI (for Musical Instrument Digital Interface) I/O for music synthesizer interlock; a cartridge port capable of handling 128K ROM carts; and two joystick ports. One of the ports is designed for mouse input, and yes, you'll find a two-button mouse in the box with the ST series machines.
You'll want to use that mouse, too, because packed alongside the other routines in the 192K of onboard ROM inside the ST is the GEM (Graphics Environment Manager) operating system developed by Digital Research. Kerr states that GEM "uses the desktop metaphor that Xerox established" (italics ours): Windows, icons, pull-down menus, and point-and-click--in short, the easy way to use computers. GEM also features a built-in clock/calendar and up to six desk accessories. Sacking the Mac
The two major differences between the Mac and GEM on the ST are speed and color. "This machine has the fastest response of machine of this type," says Kerr. "And it's got the fastest file load I've ever seen off a floppy disk."
Then there is the difference of color. In monochrome mode, resolution is 640 X 400 (higher than that of the Macintosh). In RGB medium-res, resolution is 640 X 200 in four colors and eight luminance levels per color. In so-called lo-res, resolution is 320 X 200 in 16 colors. Five hundred twelve colors are available on the 130ST on an individually addressable 32K bit-mapped screen.
The 130ST does not come with a built-in drive, so the addition a 3.5" disk drive willpose an additional expense. This is not a great hardship, however, as the 130ST will retail for approximately $400. As already stated, microfloppy drives will cost in the neighborhood of $200. If this is so, Kerr can rightly claim that an entire system, consisting of computer, drive, and monitor, will come in at approximately half the price of a Macintosh.
The 520ST is a 512K version of the 130ST, and is slated to arrive in the $600 range.
As Atari patriarch Jack Tramiel has said, "Business is war." Monitors and Printers
In addition to a new line of printers, modems, and peripherals, Atari is initiating its own series of monitors for 1985. These include a 14" NTSC composite color model, 12" RGB medium-res model, and 12" monochrome hi-res model. A monochrome monitor aimed at the 800XL/65 XE line takes the 40-column output of an XE and, according to Kerr, whips it into an 80-column display.
Printers, all of which are being sourced from Asian vendors, will run the gamut from non-impact models to daisywheels. Like the monitors, the printers are meant to work with microcomputers from other manufacturers, as well as Atari's. What Will Happen, and Will It?
As for our own observations, we find Atari's new strategy very interesting. It includes something to aggravate almost everyone currently in the microcomputer business.
For Commodore, it means competition in the consumer priced 8-bit computer market and probably a realignment of their own low-end price structure. The introduction of the powerful ST series could also pre-empt Commodore's own high performance home computer, the fabled Amiga.
For Apple, the news is even worse. Atari could demonstrate that the features that drew so much attention to the Macintosh are not unique among consumer computers. At Apple's current prices and the (current) inability of the Mac to deliver color video, the new Atari Machines could divert much of the Mac audience.
And, although there has been no talk of an Atari computer with IBM PC compatability (yet), even the value of the PC could eventually be called into question by the Tramiels' new computers. If, for instance, the price and performance of the so-called business standard machines--PCs and clones--is suddenly eclipsed by a line of cheap home machines, what will happen to those current darlings of the industry?
Naturally, dramatic introductions like these will be greeted with skepticism. Commodore under Jack Tramiel was notorious for announcing products that never made it to retailers' shelves, but Atari's Kerr claimed the 65XE was in production as this was written (mid-December, 1984) and that the 130ST would be in production by the time you read this. He further stated that the remainder of drives, monitors, and printers announced at Winter CES 1985 would be delivered during first quarter of 1985. If all (or, indeed, most) of this is true, the Tramiels will have once again wrested the destiny of consumer microcomputing and molded it for many months to come.