Mega 4 Computer
Taking the wraps off Atari's most powerful ST
Atari's newest ST computers, the two-megabyte Mega 2 and four-megabyte Mega 4, were first shown at the January 1987 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Our developer's Mega 4 arrived at Antic in mid-August, and the first Megas on dealers' shelves showed up at the end of September. The prices-with monochrome-are $1,699 for a Mega 2 and $2,399 for a Mega 4. For color systems, add $200.
Just how much is new in these three-piece Megas? (Atari decided last summer not to call the new computers Mega STs.) Will the Mega run current ST software? What about the oft-heralded blitter chip? And increased resolution? Are there card slots? Most of all, will the Megas make 520STs or 1040STs worthless?
Well, many things have remained the same. The Megas still use the Motorola 68000 microprocessor. GEM is still the operating environment and Megas still run all ST software currently on the market. The Megas still offer Atari's crisp, clear ST color or monochrome graphics in the same low, medium and high resolutions.
But there are changes. The Mega's separate keyboard has a crisper typing feel. More significantly, the Mega has two or four million bytes of memory, a battery-backed clock and a blitter - a custom-designed chip that greatly speeds up some graphics and text operations. It does not, however, increase the screen resolution or give you more colors.
The computer itself is now a slim, flat box, connected to the keyboard via a coiled cable. The computer is about 3 x 13 x 13 inches-just the right size to support an Atari monitor. There's a double row of cooling vents on top, and the Mega's internal 3.5-inch double-sided disk drive opens conveniently on the front of the box.
As on the 520 ST and 1040 ST, there's a cartridge port on the left side of the Mega. The keyboard's coiled cable connects right next to the cartridge port (which may make some cartridges unusable, such as the Lshaped ones favored by Navarone Industries). A small compartment near the cooling vents houses two AA batteries for the Mega's internal clock, which keeps time even when the computer is off.
On the back panel of the Mega you'll find the following: the Reset button, On/Off switch, modem port (a standard RS-232C serial port with a male DB-25 connector), power jack, printer port (an IBM-standard parallel printer port with a female DB-25 connector), MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) Out port (for connecting the Mega to a synthesizer), MIDI In port, monitor port, floppy disk port and hard disk port. Actually, the latter is for an Atari hard disk or any other Atari DMA port device- including the Atari Laser Printer. (To use both, you'll need Atari's new interface box, the SLMC 804.)
A new item on the back of the Mega is the exhaust vent for the onboard fan-needed because the Mega has ample space inside for add-on boards that could produce more heat.
And just above the MIDI In and MIDI Out connectors is a removable plastic plate, with a removable metal plate right behind it. That's where the cable from an expansion board inside the Mega could exit to connect with the outside world. This opening is directly in line with a connector on the Mega's main board.
The separate keyboard is about 20 inches wide and 7 inches deep. The key arrangement is unchanged from earlier STs. On the underside of the keyboard are the mouse and joystick ports. The connectors are in recessed areas similar to those on a 1040. Centered at the back is Port 0, the mouse port, and to one side is another recessed area for Port 1, the joystick port.
The underside of the keyboard also sports a pair of hinged, 2-inch-wide plastic legs which you can raise and lock into place. This lifts the back of the keyboard and changes the typing angle.
If the keyboard sits too close to the computer, it's hard to use the disk drive slot even without the legs extended. So if you prefer sitting close to your monitor, one solution is to put the computer on a platform or on top of Atari's new 20 megabyte hard drive, the SH205, which has a case the same size as the Mega.
Many ST owners clamored for a crisper feel to the keyboard, and Atari listened. The mushy rubber cups have been replaced by the traditional springs of a standard keyboard. Everyone at Antic Publishing who tried it liked it. Use it for a week, and you'll never want to return to your original ST keyboard.
But while the Mega has been redesigned, it's still basically an ST with lots more memory. All hardware addresses have remained the same, and the Mega is compatible with existing software produced for the original 520 STs and 1040 STs-except for programs that don't follow Atari's software development guidelines. These mostly include programs that make "illegal" calls to the TOS operating system, and those with special disk copy-protection schemes (especially games and other programs that depend on disk drives that can read more than 80 tracks.)
We tested the Mega 4 with a wide range of commercial software. Though some software couldn't take advantage of the full four megabytes of memory, we had no significant problem with any major software package.
One reason Atari decided to create the Megas has to do with both business and graphics-the forthcoming low-cost Atari laser printer, the SLM804. Laser printers have traditionally been expensive because they've had to be computers themselves, with a CPU and megabytes of memory inside to create each printed page.
Atari's solution: Let the computer and laser printer share the CPU and memory. The plan is to sell a computer-laser printer combination at a lower price than other laser printers cost alone. Jack Tramiel and his business warriors hope to make as much a splash in desktop publishing as the ST's MIDI port has already made in the world of electronic music.
The Megas are clearly intended to help Atari work its
way into the business world. With their vastly increased memory and serious,
businesslike appearance, the Megas may help Atari finally shake its game-machine
image and establish a place in corporate America.(For additional technical
details about the Mega, see the Winter 1987 issue of START, The ST Quarterly.)