The Fitting Room
Adventures with RAMdisks and TransKey
Adventures with RAMdisks and TransKey
Mike Jewison, AC Staff Columnist
Welcome to a new column in Atari Classics. Hmmm... actually, I guess they're all new columns, aren't they? You might be wondering "what's this Fitting Room thing, anyway?" My Fitting Room is much like those you'd find, for example, in a clothing store. There, you wander the aisles, perusing shelves, to see what's available. If you see something you like, you take it into the fitting room and try it out for size. If it does what you want, great; if not, you keep on looking. What we'll be doing in this and future installments of The Fitting Room is taking a look at things we can use to dress up our computers. These could include hardware or firmware upgrades, both commercial and homebrewed, as well as software packages.
I don't consider myself an expert in either hardware or software design; anyone who's seen my programming style can attest to that! What I do love to do, however, is tinker. I like to take things apart and put them back together. I like to build little projects I find in magazines. I like to upgrade hardware. Although I couldn't design an electronic dodad from scratch, give me a schematic and a parts list and I'm off to the races. I'm what I like to call a Weekend Hacker. I suspect that many of you are much the same, and it's you to whom this column is dedicated.
In the Beginning...
I bought my first computer, a 16K Atari 400, in 1981. At that time I couldn't even afford a 410 cassette recorder (I was a poor starving graduate student; I had to wait one more paycheck for the 410). The day the warranty on the 400 expired, I opened it up. (As you'll discover over time, I'm cautiously paranoid. I wasn't about to void my warranty by opening the computer while it was still in effect!) I wanted to know what it looked like on the inside. Over time I made some modifications to the little beastie; a proper composite video output jack (from Antic Vol. 3 No. 1), an external keyboard (from Analog #9), a 48K memory upgrade, others I've undoubtedly forgotten. The day my 400 died (from an overdose of tinkering, no doubt), I moved up to a 48K 800 and a Percom DS/DD disk drive.
The purchase of the Percom opened up many new vistas for me, including the world of Infocom. I became addicted to Interactive Fiction. I never solved any of the games (I have 8 or 9), but the joy was in the playing, not in the solving. I began to worry, though, about how much of a toll all this Infocoming was taking on my disk drive. I figured that the drive motor turning itself off and on several hundred times during the course of playing a game would exponentially decrease the lifetime of the drive. Percom had ceased production of its Atari drives to concentrate on the more lucrative IBM market. The thought my drive wearing out and me being forced to buy a new one sent shivers up and down my spine (not to mention my bank book).
All the while I continued to tinker. Over the years my 800 has been through several metamorphoses, including upgrades to both its operating system and memory. The machine's current configuration consists of a Newell Industries' RAMROD OS (which also holds both the 8K OMNIMON and 4K OMNIVIEW chips) and a Crystal Computer Products' 256K Axlon-compatible memory board. In fact, my 800 has evolved about as much as it's going to; I daresay there are very few new hardware upgrades left in the marketplace for the venerable 800.
Sometime during 1986, as I was worrying about my Percom (tinkering with a computer was one thing, but a disk drive was something else), I came across a message on CompuServe from Charles F. Johnson, now of Codehead Software fame, asking Antic Publishing if they'd be interested in some software he'd written (they said no) to allow you to play an Infocom game from your RAMdisk using the Newell OMNIMON chip and any Axlon-compatible RAM card. Well, Antic may not have been interested (they claimed the software required too much specialized hardware and firmware) but I certainly was! He had just perfectly described the internal workings of my computer. Well, this was something I most assuredly just had to try out. Needless to say, I immediately sent a reply to Charles and within a week or so I'd received a disk in the mail.
Getting the games to run from the RAMdisk was a multiple step process. You had to first modify the Infocom shell program (side one of the disk) with the necessary hooks to tell it to look to the RAMdisk for its data files, have the OMNIMON install and format the RAMdisk, copy the flip side of the Infocom disk (the game data) onto the RAMdisk, and finally load in the (modified) shell program from side one of the disk. Unknown to me, however, was the fact that Infocom regularly changed the format of their shell routines so that many of my versions of the games were incompatible with Charles' software; the only games I was able to successfully modify to run from the RAMdisk were Enchanter and Planetfall. Now I love to tinker, but I'm not much of an assembly language programmer. I didn't have the expertise to go in and disassemble the shell program for each of the remainder of my Infocom games and implement the necessary patches by hand. As a result, I ended up playing a lot of Enchanter from the RAMdisk (but never solving it) secure in the knowledge that I was extending the useful lifetime of my Percom drive. Not to mention the fact that Infocom games become much more pleasurable at ramdisk speeds.
I was very comfortable with my setup and had no desire to upgrade. But various reviews and ads for nifty new gadgets and hardware upgrades that would work with only the XL/XE computers (like the MIO and Black Box) got me thinking that I should re-evaluate my "status quo" stance. Then, one day, I ran across a BBS message that crystallized my desire to upgrade.
The message was one which originated on GEnie from Michael St. Pierre. For those of you who don't know who Michael is, he developed the TransKey, a hardware upgrade that allows you to connect an IBM-PC style keyboard to your 8-bit Atari (ANY 8bit Atari). The message gave general instructions on how to mount an 8-bit Atari inside a PC case. Using the TransKey, you'd have a configuration which looked like a PC on the outside (case and keyboard), but which was actually an 8-bit Atari on the inside. Well, this was such an intriguing idea that I just had to try it out.
As there was no way I could rip apart my dear old 800 (I thought of it as giving the computer a face lift, something I would never do to myself), I decided I needed a new CPU. I bought a used 130XE from someone on the Internet but couldn't bring myself to gutting the machine and simply discarding the case; it looked so nice sitting there on my desk. After hearing from many of the diehard hackers that an XL would best suit my purposes, I ended up getting the motherboard from an old 800XL-no case, no keyboard, no power supply. After all, I didn't need those things anyway. The fellow from whom I purchased the board thought I was crazy-but that's another story.
I ordered my TransKey board from DataQue Software, who had purchased the rights to TransKey from Michael, and waited an interminable length of time for it to arrive. I never could figure out why Canada Post picks the most inopportune times to go on strike. Anyway, while I waited for the strike to settle I managed to scrounge an old, unused PC case and keyboard from work. I mounted the motherboard in the case and waited. When the TransKey finally arrived, I plugged everything in, wired up the necessary jumpers, and-lo and behold! It worked like a charm.
The TransKey consists of a PC board measuring about 3.5 x 2.5 inches connected, via a short ribbon cable, to a piggyback board which plugs into the POKEY socket (woe to those of you with unsocketed chips!) on your motherboard. You then plug the POKEY back into the piggyback board. The jack to which you plug in the IBM-style keyboard is connected to the main TransKey board, which also contains its own microprocessor as well as a number of other chips. Once you've installed the TransKey you can use either the IBM keyboard or the stock Atari keyboard (which does me no good as I don't have one for my XL).
The use of an IBM keyboard gives you access to a number of new features, including improved cursor movement, use of the numeric keypad, and a macro function (a macro is a preprogrammed series of commands implemented as a single command) which allows you to send any key sequence with a single keypress. In fact, this might be the most powerful feature of the TransKey. There are four macro tables burned into the EPROM on the TransKey board, including macros for some of the more common Basic, MAC/65, and SpartaDOS commands. The on-board 4K SRAM chip allows you to program and store four more macro tables in RAM.
Just as with your computer, however, any macros you enter into the RAM tables will be lost when you power down the computer. For an additional $10.00, you can replace the 4K SRAM chip with a battery-backed SRAM, which will preserve your RAM macro tables when your computer is turned off (I opted for this with mine). You can also rewrite those macros burned into the EPROM if you have access to an EPROM burner.
The TransKey is available in a variety of flavors, depending on whether your POKEY is socketed or soldered, whether you want an in-line or chassis mount keyboard connector, and whether you decide to go for the battery-backed RAM or not. I haven't yet had much of an opportunity to fully explore all that TransKey has to offer, but I like what I see so far.
Anyway, with my TransKey successfully installed, my insatiable desire to tinker led me back to the magazine ads. I noticed in a recent issue of AIM that one of the last bastions of 8-bit hardware support, Computer Software Services, was offering a sale price on their Ultra Speed+ OS upgrade for the XL/XE computers.
One thing which caught my eye was that US+ included its own RAMdisk handlers and that you could, if you chose, install your RAMdisk as drive 1. This got me to thinking the combination of US+ and a memory upgrade to my XL would allow me to run Infocom games from a RAMdisk. The glory of this is that I would not have to modify the Infocom games themselves; any Infocom game should work with such a setup. I immediately placed my order with CSS for the U1traSpeed+ OS.
Next time: The US+ arrives, and I look for a suitable memory upgrade!
TransKey, from DataQue Software
Basic Price: $49.95 (soldered Pokey)
$59.95 (socketed Pokey)
ZRAM option: $10.00 additional