Exploring The ST
Hi-welcome to "Insight: ST," COMPUTE!'s new monthly column for the Atari ST-series computers. Over the coming months, we're going to help you become more familiar with the ins and outs of the Atari ST, its operating system, GEM, and ST BASIC. The ST series is the most powerful line of computers ever released by Atari-one of the most powerful in the industry, in fact - so there's a great deal to learn and explore.
Before getting started, I want to reassure those of you who still own and use the eight-bit Atari 400/ 800, XL, and XE computers. Veteran readers will recognize that I've been writing the "Insight: Atari" column on these machines for the past five years in COMPUTE!. This new column does not mean that we're dropping Insight: Atari. In fact, I plan to continue writing Insight: Atari in addition to Insight: ST for the next few months. Eventually I'll turn over Insight: ST to someone more specialized in ST BASIC. Don't be surprised, though, to find occasional ST tidbits in Insight: Atari as well. Both columns will be of continuing interest to all Atari enthusiasts.
The ST In Perspective
Just what is an Atari ST computer? Even if you already own an ST, I may have some surprising answers for you.
From a hardware viewpoint, the ST is most commonly compared to the Apple Macintosh and the Commodore Amiga. Indeed, it shares characteristics with both. All three use a Motorola 68000-series microprocessor, 3½-inch floppy disk drives, bit-mapped screen display, a range of peripheral interfaces, and more-generally the things we've come to expect from today's advanced personal computers. Both the ST and the Amiga have one advantage over the Macintosh: color graphics (though admittedly only the Amiga uses a sophisticated graphics processor chip to display true sprites).
Even the user interfaces of the three machines are similar: All have a system of icons, multiple screen windows, and a mouse controller to visually display and manipulate the contents of disks and perform general "maintenance" chores.
Finally, as long as we're making comparisons, we should be fair and mention that the Macintosh has much, much more software available for it than either of its competitors. But that situation is changing rapidly, even as I write.
What makes the ST stand out from other computers? Well, the Atari marketing department has a whole series of answers, but let me tell you the ones which impress me. First and foremost is the built-in hard disk port. It's capable of transferring data to or from a hard disk (or a network or external RAM disk or whatever) at a rate of up to 1,300,000 bytes per second. That means you could, in theory, fill the 512K RAM memory of a 520ST in under half a second.
The Allure Of Speed
Theory is nice, but what does this mean in practice? Well, for me (or any other programmer) it means that after writing source code with a text editor, I can save the source file to disk, exit the editor, load a compiler, compile the source code I just saved, link the resulting object code with both system and GEM libraries, and maybe (if I swallow fast) finish eating a bite or two of a sandwich. Elapsed time: between 10 and 15 seconds, depending on the size of the program. On an IBM PC with a hard disk, it would take four to six times as long. And on the Macintosh, most external hard disks aren't much faster than the ST's floppies.
Thanks to its fast processor and amazing hard disk speed, for sheer computing power there is probably no "home" computer available which can touch the ST. Exception: If you're doing heavy work with floating-point math (for example, scientific or engineering computing), an IBM PC with 8087 floatingpoint chip will win hands down. (Are you listening, Atari?)
The only other hardware features which are distinctively Atari are the built-in MIDI (Musical In strument Digital Interface) ports, the cartridge slot, and the absolutely beautiful black-and-white display. Now MIDI will be of interest to musicians, and the cartridge port may have some interesting future applications (perhaps a way to get that fast floating-point chip?), but the surprise here is the 640 X 400 monochrome display. Why do I rave about this on a machine with advanced color graphics?
Although I enjoy color displays, I will probably never create one. I'm not particularly artistic and I don't write games. But I do write programs. Which means I appreciate an easy to read, rock-steady display. Atari went to the trouble to equip the ST with a completely separate monochrome video port, and its quality is nothing short of amazing. And, besides, it costs $200 less than a color system. (But be forewarned: Many games only run on a color monitor. Poor software design, in my opinion, but that's how it is.)
Next month, we'll begin turning the Atari ST inside out and exploring the intricacies of TOS, its multilevel operating system.