Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 59 / APRIL 1985 / PAGE 123


Bill Wilkinson

Atari Acquires Apple!
As I write this, the Winter Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas has just ended. By now you have probably read in the papers and magazines just what real marvels the new Atari Corporation introduced at CES. While I didn't get a chance to attend CES (though others from my company were there), I did have the privilege of getting some preshow information about Atari's new products. Also, thanks to being just a bit nosey, I learned a little about how Atari developed their remarkable new computers and even a little bit of what's yet to come.

Purchase Obvious In Retrospect
(An important aside: The issue of COMPUTE! which will carry this article is dated April 1985. However, since this issue will most likely appear on newsstands and in subscribers' mail by about mid-March, you might be reading this before April. If so, be sure to keep all of what I am about to reveal secret until at least the first of April.)

Reveals Other Buys
Anyway, as I started to say, I was lucky enough to be privy to some early information and (thanks to my nosey nature) overhear even more. One thing I overheard was a simple question, "Should we take the Mac with us?" (An obvious reference to an Apple Macintosh.) It seems that in the process of designing the 130ST and 520ST computers, the engineers at Atari looked at several existing computers. Now, no rival companies were about to be so generous as to donate machines. So, looking back, it seems obvious that Atari had to go out and buy several-including the Mac, of course.

IBM Failure Described
In the process of evaluating the various computers, Atari also was able to look at the microprocessors (CPUs) which they used. It comes as no surprise that the 8/16 bit 8088 used by the IBM PC was rejected early on as being unable to achieve the speed Atari desired. So what processor got the nod for the 130ST and 520ST?

Leonard Tramiel Departs Company
Although I have managed to enjoy Leonard Tramiel's company in several meetings, the one time we managed to get in a really interesting discussion of processors he had to depart early (for another meeting, probably). Before he left, he did seem to indicate that his personal choice for a CPU might be the National Semiconductor 32016 and 32032 processors. They are very powerful and very orthogonal machines, but (and this is speculation on my part) the fact that they are available only from National Semi probably makes choosing them difficult for any company.
    In any case, Atari chose to go with the tried and true Motorola 68000 series of processors, the same one used in the Apple Macintosh and Lisa computers. (An aside: The official meaning of the ST designation is "Sixteen/Thirty-two" for the 16-bit bus and 32-bit registers of the 68000 chip. XE implies XL compatibility, but Extended.)

Future Plans Fall Flat
What about all the loyal Atari 400/800/ 1200XL/600XL/800XL owners? Has Atari completely forgotten them? No way! Apple has Mac and Lisa, both built around a 68000 chip, in its "sort of 32-bit" division, and the IIe and IIc, both using a 650x CPU, in its 8-bit division.
    Lo and behold! We already saw that Atari has the 130ST and 520ST built around the 68000. Does it really surprise you to learn that the 65XE and 130XE will be produced using a 650x processor? And we were even given the privilege of having a set of drawings for a portable computer (in the 650x line) dropped flat on the table in front of us!

Original Projections Unrealized
The same day we saw those plans for the portable, we also got to see some of the features that the new machines will be sporting. On that day I decided that my predictions of success for Atari, which I made in this column in December, could very well have been ridiculous underestimates.

Operations Shut Down
What kind of features impressed me? I think it will be obvious to you when you read a spec sheet at your local dealer or the other CES coverage in this issue. In the meantime, I'll give a brief list of what I think are the best features of each machine at the end of this column. I tried to ask some of my contacts at Atari about a couple of things I am not quite clear on, but the lure of CES left the software and engineering departments virtually shut down for these four days.

Long-Term Outlook Bright
If there is any area of concern to those of us here at Optimized Systems Software, it is about those products where our software sales overlap those of Atari Corporation. New prices on Atari software have made us rethink some of our plans, but we think that there will always be sophisticated and/or advanced users out there who will be willing to pay a little more for higher quality. And we are not alone: The number of companies showing Atari-compatible software or hardware at CES was almost amazing. Will we stay in the Atari software market? How could we not?

At Last
"What the heck," you ask, "was all that about?" The answer: Every word that you just read was true. Even the subheadlines are properly explained in the text. Oh, I may have bent some words here and there to make the headlines more spectacular, but that was the whole purpose of this exercise. I always wanted to show how you can take an innocuous and/or positive review and generate sensational National Enquirer-type headlines.
    If you're an acrostics fan, you may have already caught the significance of the first letter of each headline. (Go back and reread them if you want a minor laugh.) This is, of course, my annual attempt at some humor. It's not very subtle or well-hidden this year, because I thought it would be fun to find out how many COMPUTE! readers actually plow through all my verbiage. If you got to here unscathed, congratulations. Time for a complete change of pace.

New Machine Features
This is just a simple table of what I feel are the most important features of four of the new Atari machines. I am sure that more info will be available by the time you read this, but maybe these specs will whet your appetite.

• 6502-series processor.
• 64K of RAM.
• Very, very compatible with 800XL.
• Nicely sculptured case and keyboard.
• Cartridge port on rear (where our ugly orange cartridges won't be so obtrusive).
• About $100.

• Identical to 65XE plus:
• 128K of RAM (supported as a ramdisk by new DOS 2.5).
• Expansion port on rear (used in conjunction with cartridge slot).
• About $150.

• 68000-series processor.
• 128K of RAM.
• 192K of ROM.
• Uses Digital Research's GEM windowing and display system-virtually identical in form and function to Apple's Macintosh system.
• Built-in RS-232 interface.
• Built-in parallel printer interface.
• Built-in disk controller handles up to four floppy disk drives (designed to use very inexpensive 3.5-inch drives, 360K each-priced perhaps as low as $100!).
• DMA-capable expansion port (designed for very fast hard disk drives).
• Three-voice sound chip.
• Color graphics (640 X 400 in black and white, 640 X 200 with four colors, 320 X 200 with 16 colors).
• Cartridge slot (up to 128K ROM in cartridge).
• 10 special function keys.
• MIDI interface (for music synthesizers and ???).
• About $400.

• All the features of the 130ST plus:
• 512K of RAM instead of 128K.
• About $600 (Yep ... that gives you a color "Fat Mac" at around $1,000).

Information Please
It's time, once again, to respond to some letters. I may have made a mistake in publishing the P.O. box where you can write me directly, since I find myself with about five or six times as much mail to answer as I had before. Until I get adjusted to answering this much correspondence, please bear with me.
    For this month, I have decided to select some letters which (I think) really need answers. Surprisingly, for such varied topics, the answers to all may be much the same.
    Bob Dorn, of College Park, Georgia, was the first of three or four to ask me how to use an Atari 1030 direct-connect modem to upload and download files. Well, you got caught in the great Atari let's-protect-the-poor-dumb-user game. For reasons best understood only by now-extinct marketing people at the old Atari, neither the 835 or 1030 modem came with software support for uploading and downloading programs, text files, and so on. I guess those marketers never used a computer with a modem, so they couldn't see any use for the capabilities.
    Luckily, many other people, including a few software gurus, found themselves in the same fix you are in. One commercial company which seems to be doing a lot of work with these modems is Gardner Computing, P.O. Box 388, Holbrook, NY 11741. I am not endorsing them (I have never used any of their products-I have only read their ads), and I apologize in advance for inadvertently slighting any other companies supplying similar software.
    There are other solutions. See the "Readers' Feedback" letter headlined "Atari Modem Update" in the February 1985 issue of COMPUTE!. There are also some programs floating around in public domain user group libraries which allow upload/download and more. As a general rule, such programs come without documentation (or, at most, with a few paragraphs on the disk with the program), so you may need to do a little detective work to use them.

Good Local Support
Again, though, there may be another solution. Join your local user group. Come on now, what will it cost you? One evening and a couple of dollars a month will probably be the best investment you ever made in computing. And so many user groups have people who know the answers. To almost anything you ask!
    Another practical reason for joining such a group is that Atari has already announced that its primary means of providing programming support to users will be through the user group network. The toll-free phone lines are gone, and the support group is decimated. This may be the only way to get technical answers in the future (aside from writing to me or "Readers' Feedback").
    All of this, and we haven't even mentioned the fact that most user groups have literally hundreds of programs available for next to nothing. Okay, okay. Some of the programs don't work right, are poorly written, are too slow, etc. So what? You are getting what you paid for and more. If nothing else, a cruddy little Atari BASIC subroutine may lead your computer to uses you hadn't thought of yet.
    So join, join, join. Why wait five months for my answer to appear in this magazine when help is available two miles from your home?
    How do you know where/who/when/what your local group is? Well, try asking at local computer stores, even those that don't sell Atari products. Look in your local paper. Look in Atari-oriented magazines, which sometimes have listings of clubs. If you are really desperate, send me a self-addressed and stamped card or envelope. No guarantees, because I don't know where all the clubs are, but if there's one on my list I will tell you. Please use me only if all else fails, because (1) I'm always too busy, (2) it may take me some time to answer, and (3) if I ask my kids to help me with this, they will charge me.

Deluged With Information
From going to users who can't find what they need, we go to a couple of readers who have found too much. Jamie Patterson, of Hooker, Oklahoma, sent me a well-argued plea for some help in choosing material about his three-month-old baby, an 800XL computer. I quote: "How does a three-month-old know which books to choose?"
    Darned good question. My usual answer, when I want to choose a new computer book, is to go to two or three bookstores that carry a couple of hundred computer books each and browse. This works because there are at least a dozen such bookstores within reasonable distance of my house. Now, I have to admit I don't know where Hooker, Oklahoma, is, but if it isn't within 20 miles of a major computer bookstore, my method won't work for Jamie. What can he do?
    The editors of COMPUTE! might like me to answer, "Buy a COMPUTE! book." But whatever book you buy, you must choose one which is at the right level for you. From COMPUTE! Books, the most general material may be found in the First, Second, and Third Book of Atari, along with the two books on Atari Graphics. Some, but not all, of this material is relevant to someone who has learned the fundamentals of Atari BASIC.
    Suppose, though, that you aren't even to that level yet. You don't know a PRINT from a PLOT statement. Where do you turn? Since Atari stopped shipping copies of Inside Atari BASIC with the XL computers, buyers have been left to choose their own tutorial. And what should they choose?
    My trouble is that every time I look at a book that purports to teach BASIC (or word processing or assembly language or ... ), I find something wrong. I don't like the order of presentation of the topics. There are mistakes in the section on how to speed up your programs. The author encourages poor programming style. The list goes on and on. So I refuse to make a firm recommendation.

The Great Book Survey
What, then, can Jamie Patterson and others like him do? What else? Join a user group. Ask other Atari owners. Ask to look at their books. Okay, so maybe none of the over-200 user groups is close enough to Jamie. And, besides, he asked me for an answer. I guess I should do something, right?
    So here it comes. I am asking you, my readers, to make some comments on the books you have learned from. Don't stick to learning BASIC. Any aspect of Atari computers is eligible, even manufacturers' manuals. To make life easier for me, just send the title(s) of the book(s), the level (1 to 10, with 1 being rank beginner), and your overall rating (0 for trash to 10 for perfection). A postcard will do fine.
    I don't want any experts evaluating these books; I can mishandle that aspect myself. Instead, I want actual real-life experiences. Did or did not the book teach you what it said it would? If it did, was it an uphill battle or did the style make it downright easy for you? I can't respond personally to these rating cards, but I will report the results received by April 20 in the August or September issue (sorry, but that's the fastest turnaround possible).

Translators, Again
Robert Glover, of Cleveland, Tennessee, has been the proud owner of an Atari 400, an 800, and now an 800XL. He asks me why he can't simply use the binary save option of Atari DOS to make a copy of the 800's operating system ROMs and then load that file into his 800XL as a home-brew translator disk. He suggests that I perform this service in my column.
    Well, in theory, and with some modifications to his method, I might be able to do so. Why won't I? First, there are several problems to over come. Two of the simpler examples: (1) You can't write/save ROM directly with DOS 2.0S; you have to copy it down to RAM first. (2) Joystick ports 3 and 4 are used for output in an 800XL and for input in an 800.
    Also, how many readers have access to both an 800 and 800XL? And, finally, why go to that kind of trouble when the translator disks are so available?
    Ah, but that last point was raised by Mr. Glover. He says he cannot find the translator disks anywhere. Hmmmm. Guess where I am going to suggest he look? Right. Ask your local user group. And that brings us back to the quandary of the last reader: What if there is no user group nearby?
    I have a couple of partial solutions. First, there are a few mail-order organizations which, in addition to selling commercial software, sell public domain programs for reasonably low prices. Right now, LotsaBytes (15445 Ventura Blvd., Suite 10, Sherman Oaks, CA 91413) seems to be the leader in this category, but I should also mention DynaComp, Antic, and ANALOG (the latter two offer primarily games and BASIC utilities from their magazines).
    Perhaps even better, many user groups (especially the larger ones) allow mail-order memberships. Since there are so many of these groups just crying for members, I hesitate to recommend one over another. But because their newsletter has been around the longest and may have the greatest number of readers, I will at least mention the very friendly people of ACE (3662 Vine Maple Dr., Eugene, OR 97405).
    So my message this month is clear: Atari is very, very, very much alive and well. Keep your interest in your machine similarly healthy by joining a user group.