ThE XL/XE GUidE TO ExpANdEd MEMORy, PART 3
JEff McWilliAMS, AC STAff ColUMNiST
OS RAMdisk Handlers
There are several different ways of setting up a RAMdisk on your computer, depending on what you have for hardware and software. Several OS replacements have built-in RAMdisk handlers. Many of the most popular DOS's have their own RAMdisk handler programs included with them. Those that don't can usually gain access to a RAMdisk through a public domain RAMdisk program. There are over half a dozen RAMdisk programs for DOS 2.5 alone. To talk about each and every RAMdisk program for every different DOS would be a waste of time since most DOS RAMdisks work the same. I'll only discuss the most popular or unique DOS's and RAMdisk handlers.
Pay special attention to what's contained in brackets after the product or program name. That is where you'll find which category the program falls into, be it XE, PLUS, or XE+. (You'll have to refer to the chart in my Column in the June '93 issue.) If more than one category is listed, it means the program has several modes of operation. In the description of the program you'll find details on how to configure the program for each mode if that information was available at the time this article was written.
To my knowledge, two Operating System replacements offer RAMdisk handlers as part of their built-in features. These are the UltraSpeed+ OS from Computer Software Services, and the Omniview 256 from Newell Industries. I'll start with those first.
Omniview 256 [PLUS/XE+]
The Omniview 256 was designed for either a stock 130XE or the Newell 256K XL upgrade for the 800XL and 1200XL computers. The RAMdisk handlers support a maximum memory size of 256K. Anything above that is ignored by the Omniview 256.
Enabling the RAMdisk is done by first pressing the drive number you want your RAMdisk to respond to. You then press and hold the START key while hitting RESET. You can also enable the RAMdisk by running one of several programs on the Omniview 256 disk called INSTALLx, where x is the number you want the RAMdisk to respond to. Either way, you then have to format the RAMdisk using the DOS of your choice. If you're using a stock 130XE, format the RAMdisk as a single sided, single density drive. It should format leaving 512 free sectors. The RAMdisk will consume all of your 130XE's expanded RAM.
If you're using a Newell 256K 800XL or 1200XL, you can format the RAMdisk in one of two ways. You may format it as a single sided, single density RAMdisk. This will give you a standard 720 sector RAMdisk identical to a floppy of the same configuration. In this mode the Omniview RAMdisk behaves as a PLUS program, leaving the XE banks free for use by other software. Alternatively, you may format the RAMdisk as a double sided, single density drive, yielding up to 1440 free sectors. MyDOS and SpartaDOS are the only DOS systems I'm aware of that support this configuration. In this mode the Omniview RAMdisk behaves as an XE+ program, using all the expanded RAM in a 256K computer. The Omniview 256 RAMdisk works fine with DOS 2.5, DOS 2.0s, MyDOS 4.5, and SpartaDOS 3.2z. I haven't tested it with other DOS's.
This RAMdisk works well not only with DOS systems, but also with boot programs. I had specific experience using the Omniview 256 with LJK's Letter Perfect wordprocessor. LJK has a spelling checker that occupies an entire 90K disk. With the Omniview 256, I could boot up an ordinary sector copier, enable the RAMdisk as drive 2, and sector copy the Letter Perfect dictionary disk to the RAMdisk. I could then do a coldstart, booting Letter Perfect. Once Letter Perfect was loaded, I re-enabled the RAMdisk and configured Letter Perfect to let it know I had a 2nd floppy drive where the spelling checker was located. The second floppy drive was actually the Omniview 256 handler activated as D2:. From that point on spell checking any document I wrote or loaded from disk was done at lightning speed. This is a good example of how to use a RAMdisk with software that wasn't originally designed with expanded memory in mind.
Although the Omniview 256 RAMdisk handler was designed exclusively for a 130XE or Newell 256K upgrade, it may also work well with other upgrades. I wouldn't expect it to work properly with a RAMBO or similar 256K upgrade because those use a different set of banking parameters written to Port B than the Newell upgrade does. 320K and above memory upgrades may work with the Omniview 256. The Newell 1088K works fine with the RAMdisk handlers in the Omniview 256 if you're willing to tolerate the fact that 832K will be unused by the RAMdisk.
UItraSpeed+ OS [PLUS/XE+]
The US+ RAMdisk handlers were designed for any 130XE compatible memory upgrade, from 128K to 2 megabytes. Activating the RAMdisk is done via the US+ menu, which you access by holding down the START key while pressing RESET. From the menu you set the drive number of the RAMdisk. As with the Omniview 256, you then have to format the RAMdisk using the DOS of your choice.
You can also install a toggle switch that when in the "ON" position will automatically make the RAMdisk appear as drive 1. This feature has a number of unique uses. One would be when playing an Infocom game which uses two sides of a floppy disk. Sector copy side two of the game into the RAMdisk, and then boot side one. Side one of an Infocom game is only accessed once when you boot the game. After side one is through loading, throw the toggle switch to the "ON" position, enabling the RAMdisk as D1:, containing side two of the Infocom game. By doing this, you eliminate all the time it takes for the game to constantly load new information as the game progresses. Who knows, it could breathe new life into a host of classic interactive fiction games for the 8-bit, especially since most are now available for around $10 from B&C ComputerVisions.
If you're using a computer with 256K or more of memory, then formatting the RAMdisk as a single sided single density disk will make it act like a PLUS program. The RAMdisk handler won't touch the 130XE banks of expanded RAM so that other programs categorized as "XE" programs will work in harmony with the US+ RAMdisk. Formatting the RAMdisk to single sided double density results in the use of all the RAM in a 256K computer. The RAMdisk would then be acting like an XE+ program.
If you use those same format parameters on a RAMdisk for a machine with 320K or greater, the RAMdisk will again be in PLUS mode, freeing the 130XE banks. In fact, by knowing the amount of expanded RAM available in your machine, you can configure MyDOS to format that RAMdisk as a floppy using all but 64K. The US+ RAMdisk routines automatically save the 130XE banks for last. Leaving at least 64K of expanded RAM free on a memory upgrade of any size will result in the RAMdisk handlers continuing to operate in PLUS mode. The US+ RAMdisk handlers have been tested and verified to work with DOS 2.0s, DOS 2.5, MyDOS, and SpartaDOS 3.2z.
More Goodies In US+
The US+ has three additional features not found in the Omniview 256. First, you can set the RAMdisk to D1: and then boot from it. This would be great for boot games that use only one side of a disk, rebooting DOS, or any other bootable utility or application as long as that program doesn't have expanded memory conflicts with the RAMdisk handler.
Second, the US+ has its own mini sector copier you can call from the configuration menu. It was designed for tasks like the Infocom game where you would sector copy one side of a disk into the RAMdisk, and then use it later on. It can also copy disk to disk, or RAMdisk to disk. The sector copier only copies up to 720 sectors of a disk, so you won't be able to make instant copies of XF551 360K or 3.5" 720K disks with it.
Third, the US+ has a memory checking feature that will check ALL the memory in your upgraded computer. Standard RAM, OS RAM, and expanded RAM are all thoroughly checked for errors or problems. If a memory failure is due to a faulty DRAM chip, the error reporting routines and the instructions in the manual can help you locate that bad chip. Our Managing Editor recently discovered how valuable this is as a troubleshooting tool while installing the Newell 1088K upgrade into an 800XL. [The US+ in my 1088K 800XL found- and tested- 1120K, 32K more RAM than the machine actually has! The darn thing is still flaky, and I hope to find time away from AC to hack at it again. Could be the subject of an interesting article once I figure out where I messed up. The Newell 1-meg upgrade is rather nasty for the do-it-yourselfer, defmitely not recommended for technophobes - BLP]
The Ultraspeed+ OS has features that appeal to everyone, be they casual interactive fiction game players, serious power users, or something in between. The Omniview 256 has less to offer in terms of RAMdisk capability than the US+ does, but also costs less than the US+. Both alternative Operating Systems have more to offer than just RAMdisk handlers, and those interested in either one should contact either Computer Software Services (see their ad in this issue) or Newell Industries (P.O. Box 253, Wylie TX 75098, USA, phone 214442-6612) for more information.
Whither Art Thou, Synergy?
At one time there was a third OS available that offered RAMdisk features similar to those found in Omniview 256 and US+. It was called the Expander Operating System and was produced by an outfit called Synergy Concepts. The Expander supported up to 512K of RAM, not including the Newell 256K XL upgrade. Like the US+, the Expander allowed you to boot from the RAMdisk as D1: if you wanted. It also had a resident mini-DOS that allowed you to format and copy data into your RAMdisk. The Expander seems to have had the ability to create multiple RAMdrives from expanded RAM, not just one. The Expander was a worthy OS replacement, somewhere between the Omniview 256 and the US+ in both features and cost.
So, what happened to it? According to Brad Koda at Best Electronics, the two owners of Synergy Concepts had a falling out and decided to dissolve the company due to irreconcilable differences. Brad made an unsuccessful attempt to purchase the product from the owners. To this day, I've yet to run into someone who actually owns the Expander and would welcome the opportunity to have a serious look at one. The plight of Synergy Concepts is yet another faded chapter in the still-unfolding saga of the Atari 8-bit community's struggle for existence.
Next time. the AC Guide to Expanded Memory continues with RAMdisk handlers for several DOS's, and then move on to applications See you soon!