Commander Keyboard. (evaluation) Arthur Leyenberger.
A Detachable Replacement Keyboard for Atari
It has been over four years since the Atari 400/800 computers made their debut on the home computer scene. At first, there was very little software. A few games and a couple of educational packages was about the extent of it. Those who had foresight recognized that the Atari computers were state-of-the-art machines and began supplying software.
Additional software became available. More games, application software like word processors, database programs, and even a spreadsheet appeared. Suddenly, about two years ago the flood gates burst open and a wealth of software arrived for the Atari machines. Now, over a thousand programs are available which means that the Atari user can choose from as much software as just about any other computer owner.
The hardware story is a little bit different. At first, Atari was very tightlipped about their machines. In fact, most people were unaware of either the components that made up their home computer or the power that lay beneath the keyboard. Then, hardware modifications gradually became available. An 80-column board, a voice synthesizer, and even a couple of keyboards to replace the membrane keyboard on the 400 were made. This growth in aftermarket hardware products was spurred on by Atari themselves, who by then, published the specifications and schematics for the computers in the form of a hardware manual.
Amid the recent avalanche of alternate operating systems, resident monitors, and memory cards comes a new product manufactured by Ralston-Clearwaters Electronics, the Commander keyboard.
RCE actually makes three keyboard products for the Atari 400 and 800 computers. Called the Commander series, a detachable keyboard (#2400-2), a detachable keyboard with keypad (#2400-1), and a separate keypad (#2400-5) are available. The Model #2400-1 is a full-stroke, full size keyboard containing the Atari special function keys, special macro keys, and a numeric keypad on the right side. A host of addition features have also been incorporated into this deluxe hardware addition to the Atari computer. Before I describe them, let me discuss the way the keyboard is installed.
I am not a hard core hardware person. Sure, I have built a few Heathkits in my time, learned digital electronics on my own by experimentation, and am pretty fast with a soldering iron. But I have a general rule that I always try to follow: if it works, don't fix it. So it was with trepidation that I dared to open my Atari 800 and install the RCE keyboard interface. As it turned out, my fears were unfounded. I am using the keyboard now to type this review and all is well.
The first step in installing the Commander keyboard was to read the five pages of instructions to familiarize myself self with the procedure. The instructions looked simple enough. All I had to do was follow along step-by-step and refer to the easy to read diagram.
First, I placed the computer upside down with the keyboard side toward me and removed the five screws holding the bottom cover on. Next, the speaker was detached and placed out of the way. Three more screws, which hold the top half of the cover on, were removed to complete the disassembly.
Removing the top cover exposed the mother and power boards containing the ribbon cables coming from the existing keyboard. The interface consists of two sets of gold-pin connector plugs that are attached to the existing keyboard jacks; two insulated alligator clips are attached to both sides of a capacitor.
The cover was placed back on the computer and the flat ribbon cable was routed to the side and sandwiched between the 800 keyboard and its associated cable. The speaker was reattached, and the bottom cover fastened with the screws. That completed the installation and I was ready to try out the new keyboard.
A total time of 47 minutes had elapsed from the time I first began to unscrew the bottom cover of the 800.
The detachable keyboard has a sixfoot cable terminating in a male plug. Sticking out of the left side of my 800 is a female jack. I chose not to install the female jack permanently; therefore, it simply dangles from between the top and bottom halves of the computer cover. Connecting the jack and plug, turning on the power to the computer and loading a Basic program revealed that all was in perfect working order.
There are several useful features on the Commander 2400. At the lower left corner of the keyboard, are three keys labelled L, S and R. These are macro function keys and represent three separate functions--list, stop/start, and run. With a Basic program in memory, pressing the L key lists the program on the screen. It is equivalent to typing L. or LIST. In fact pressing this key actually sends those characters to the computer.
The S key is equivalent to pressing CTRL-1. If you are listing a Basic program, this freezes the listing on the screen. Pressing the key one more time resumes the listing at the point at which it stopped. The S key also temporarily suspends the execution of a Basic program or a directory listing when in DOS.
The R key is a macro for the RUN command. Pressing R runs a Basic program that is currently in memory. It is equivalent to typing R-U-N and pressing RETURN.
In addition to having the separate numeric keypad, which is handy for entering data, a built-in calculator is also provided. There is a slide switch underneath the keyboard which enables the calculator function. When switched on, a green LED is lit and calculations may be performed without disturbing your program. Pressing the second = key activates and initializes the keypad.
This calculator mode places a PRINT statement before the next entry so all you have to do is type in your calculation and press =. The answer is immediately displayed on the screen--a nice touch.
I have a few minor comments about the Commander keyboard. The cable that comes out of the keyboard is quite thick When I attached the cable plug to the female jack that dangles just outside of the computer, I noticed that it put some stress on the ribbon cable. If I were to have this keyboard permanently installed, I would certainly mount the female jack on the side of the computer. The instructions provide details for doing this.
I do a lot of word processing on the Atari computer and have grown accustomed to the placement of the keys. Although I am not a touch typist I feel for the right edge of the keyboard to find the RETURN, DELETE, CAPS, and cursor control keys. On the Commander keyboard, the START, SELECT, OPTION, and SYSTEM RESET keys are not separated from the main cluster of keys. Also they are the same size as the other keys. Hitting the special function keys while typing has not caused any problems because the word processor I use does not recognize those key presses. Accidently pressing reset while programming, for example, may have more serious consequences.
Overall, the Commander Model #2400-1 is an excellent detachable keyboard. It is easy to install, provides many useful features and is reasonably priced. The tactile feedback of the keys is stiffer than that of either of my two Atari 800s. In just the short time I have been using the Commander, I have become used to it and now prefer its feel. I think the numeric keypad is great. It really makes typing numbers much easier, and for those who can enter data via a keypad without looking, there is a raised dot on the 5 key for centering your fingers.
There is one missing feature on the Commander that I would have liked to see implemented. That is to reverse the function of the cursor control and arithmetic keys. Instead of having to press and hold the CTRL key with any of the cursor keys, the cursor keys would be one-press keys. The arithmetic keys would then require the use of the CTRL key. This arrangement makes sense given that the cursor keys are used much more often than the arithmetic keys.
Is the Commander #2400-1 worth the cost and time required to install it? I believe it is. Although the addition of a detachable keyboard to the Atari computer is really a professional touch that may not be required by everyone. If you do a great deal of typing or entering data, you should definitely consider this quality product.
Products: Commander Keyboard (computer apparatus)