Outpost: Atari; graphics and touch tablets. (evaluation) Arthur Leyenberger.
The interval between Outposts grows shorter every month. And there is always plenty to talk about. This month the topic is graphic tablets. But before we get to the main feature, here is a short subject of interest.
It is impossible for you to know this by reading the column, but I am using a different word processor this month. In the past LJK's Letter Perfect has served me well, and occasionally Atariwriter has been called in from the bullpen for special assignments such as proportional printing on my Epson FX-80 printer. I have graduated to the big leagues and am now using WordStar by Micropo. "Impossible!" you say. "Don't believe a word of it," I hear? Rest assured that this is not the April Fool's column.
Through the miracle of modern science, or more precisely, through the miracle of SWP, my Atari is now capable of running CP/M software on a Z80 microprocessor. Some of you have already guessed it, I am using an ATR8000. There will be a complete feature review of this marvelous product in an upcoming issue of Creative. Rather than gives the store away now, I just want to whet your appetite by telling you what this product can do.
Without hesitation, qualification, or any payola changing hands, I can say that the ATR8000 is the most exciting Atari peripheral to appear since the first Atari computer made its debut on the home computing scene.
Why is it so important? Because the ATR8000 combines several peripheral devices into one and is affordable. In its simplest form, it takes the place of the Atari 850 interface, providing a parallel printer port and rs-232 port. Also included in the 16K basic configuration ($350) is a 12K print buffer.
This would be a bargain in itself if that were all there were to the unit. But there is more. Generic disk drives in the $150 to $300 price range can be added to your system. And with the onboard Z80 microprocessor, a 64K upgrade (an additional $200 for memory chips and software) will allow you to run CP/M software and maintain full Atari software compatibility. For the person who finds price to be no obstacle, a fully configured system will boast 256K RAM and MS-DOS (as in IBM PC) compatibiliy.
If I say much more, there will be no need to publish the full length review, and you will think is all a commercial. But in closing, I want to dispel a couple of popular myths that I have been as guilty of perpetuating as anyone else. Namely, the CP/M oparating system which originally grew up with those early S-100 computers is difficult to use. It isn't.
And much to my surprise (and embarrassed amusement), I found it to be very similar to Atari DOS 2.0S. This is no coincidence, since Bill Wilkinson and company, designers of Atari DOS, had a systems background and were quite familiar with CP/M.
Another myth I would like to debunk is the WordStar is difficult to use. Ain't true. Sure, the help information seems to overwhelm the screen, but it can be turned of gradually as you learn the system. As with learning anything new, WordStar takes a little time to get used to. Although I have the complete two-pound reference manual, I used only the section on installation and bought myself an inexpensive quick guide. Eventually, I will read the entire manual, including the tutorial sections and will include a review of it as part of the ATR8000 piece. Graphics, Art and Touch Tablets
One of the reasons I purchased an Atari computer was for its excellent graphics capability. However, although I have been programming in Basic for many years, I was not ready to invest many hours into developing graphics programs. My first alternative to this time-consuming project was to use a couple of the drawing programs that are available. These included Paint, Micropainter, and Fun with Art. All of these products required the use of a joystick as a "paintbrush."
I soon became accustomed to using a joystick for drawing and control, but I knew there had to be something better. My main problem was control. I was just not able to get as fine a movement as I wanted. One solution was to use a trackball instead of the joystick. This was clearly an improvement, but the response was rather slow.
Next I tried a light pen--actually a couple of different light pens--and found that approach to be completely unacceptable. I was better of sticking with the joystick. Pen position was critical in order to have the program see my movements. Also, there was something foreign and uncomfortable about drawing with my arm extended toward the screen.
It was at about this time that graphic tablet started to appear. I was able to obtain a KoalaPad, an Atari Touch Tablet, and a Powerpad tablet for review. I am pleased to report that I have at last found the answer to my graphics needs. All three products give you more control than a joystick or a trackball, are more reliable as input devices than a light pen, and are so versatile that new uses for them will continue to be found.
Interestingly enough, the graphics drawing program for which I was searching is almost identical on all three tablets. The tablets differ primarily in size and "feel." I will first describe the physical aspects of these three different yet similar products. Let's Get Physical
The Atari Graphics Tablet measures 7.5" x 9.5" x 1.25". The drawing surface is horizontally oriented and measures 5" x 6.5". A stylus containing a pushbutton plugs into the back of the tablet, and the tablet is attached to joystick port 1. Two large pushbuttons, one on each side, are located toward the top of the tablet. A clear, removable piece of plastic allows a piece of paper to be inserted underneath for tracing.
The KoalaPad is slightly smaller than the Atari tablet and measures 8.5" x 6.5" x 2". The square drawing are is 4.25" on each side. The pad has a vertical orientation, and the two large horizontal pushbuttons are located on top. Also, the pad is angled about 30 degrees so that the back of the tablet is higher than the front. A separate, unattached stylus is used for drawing.
Chalkboard's Powerpad is the largest of the group. The dimensions are 17" x 19" x 1.5. The Powerpad has 12" square drawing area and is horizontally oriented. A separate, unattached stylus, slightly thicker than that of the Koala, is used. One interesting aspect of the Powerpad is that the cord that plugs into the joystick port on the Atari computer is detachable. One end of the cord has a joystick plug, and the other has a modular telephone plug. If this modular telephone plug were inserted into a modular wall jack rather than the Tablet,96 volts would be sent into the delicate innards of your computer when the phone rang. Best keep the Powerpad away from telephones.
Mylar overlays come with the software and are placed on top of the pad. Some areas are defined as keys, while others may have symbols, shapes, or figures. The Powerpad itself contains an x,y matrix of 120 by 120 wires. Signals from this grid of 14,400 points are digitally sensed, encoded, and read by the computer. One advantage of the Powerpad is that multiple points can be sensed simultaneously. Both the Atari and Koala tablets can only sense one point at a time. The Software
The graphics drawing program used by the Koala, Atari, and Powerpad tablets is called the MicroIllustrator. The Atari version was written by Steven Dompier and Robert Leyland of Island Graphics Corporation. Atari calls it AtariArtist. Both the Atari and Powerpad programs are cartridges. The Koala program comes on a disk, but it will soon be available in a cartridge version. However, the programs themselves and the disk files are not compatible with each other.
The MicroIllustrator program is very powerful. As an electronic drawing tool it allows you to draw freehand using several different brushes and colors. You can create geometric shape of all kinds and sizes and change colors of the drawings at any time. There is also a magnify option for detail work, and you can save your masterpiece to disk or tape.
The program is incredibly easy to use. You can begin using it immediately by selecting from among the dozen menu items. The choices are divided into three sections: commands, brush set, and color set. For example, with the menu screen displayed, move the stylus to DRAW and press the left button on the tablet. This selects the DRAW option, which allows you to draw freehand on the screen.
Say you want to use a different color? Press the left button once again to bring back the menu and position your stylus over one of the colors on the bottom of the screen. Press the button to choose that color, move back to the DRAW box, and press again. You can now continue your drawing with the new color.
In addition to the pushbuttons on each side of the tablet, the Atari tablet also has a button on the stylus itself. It functions exactly as the tablet buttons do. The Powerpad tablet has, instead of pushbuttons, two areas on the tablet itself. One is labeled Menu and the other Pen Down. Pressing these two labels corresponds to the button presses on the Atari and Koala tablets.
Here are some of the other options. LINE draws individual straight lines, K-LINE is similar, but the end point of one line becomes the beginning of another. RAYS makes lines that radiate from one point. BOX and FRAME allow you to make squares and rectangles by specifying two corners. The frame is filled with color with the BOX option. CIRCLE and DISC work the same way. CIRCLE is just the outline, and DISC fills in the circle. Any portion of your drawing may be filled with color by selecting the FILL option, pointing with the stylus, and pressing the button.
The ERASE and STORAGE commands are easy to use and include fail-safe techniques to prevent you from accidentally erasing a drawing or destroying a file. File loading and saving is also a breeze.
One of the more unusual options with this graphics program is the MIRROR mode. This choice lets you create duplicate or reverse images of your stylus movement. You can choose from horizontal, vertical, diagonal, or all (four-way) on the AtariArtist, whereas the Koala and Powerpad programs have only four-way. Some very pleasing effects may be created using these options. Using the Touch Tablets
All three of these touch tablets are a pleasure to use. The choice is not whether you should buy one, but rather which one. You could not go very wrong choosing any of them. The deciding factor will probably be size (the Powerpad is the largest and probably easiest for young children to use) and future products.
The KoalaPad already has several additional titles that work with the pad. These include a simple music program and several disks of geometric shapes that may be colored much like a coloring book. Koala is just beginning to use overlays with their products. There is also a programmer's package that shows how to use the Koala tablet with your Basic programs. It even includes some Basic routines to get you started.
Although it has the smallest drawing area, the KoalaPad was liked by all who used it. Its performance was judged to be second best, but given the available software, price, and ease of use, it appeared to be the all-around favorite.
The Powerpad has the most ambitious collection of ancillary software. These titles include several games and a four-voice music program that uses the multiple sensing aspect of the tablet to play chords. Another advantage of the Powerpad is that it uses overlays. This makes operation of the touch tablet much easier than if input from the keyboard were required.
Although the Powerpad has the most software of all three tablets, I know of several users (including me) who are disappointed with its performance. Specifically, the Powerpad will miss points if you draw too rapidly. With the MicroIllustrator and Leo's 'Lectric Paintbrush programs, moving the stylus across the pad had to be done very slowly so as not to miss points.
The Atari tablet was clearly the most attractive and the best performer. Zigzags can be made from one end of the tablet to the other, and the software/hardware combination always keeps up. At this time Atari does not have any additional software for their touch tablet. However, there are plans to release some additional programs later this year. Compatibility
Although all three touch tablets use virtually the same software, the tablets are not interchangeable. This means, for example, that I cannot use the Koala tablet with the AtariArtist cartridge. Not only are the programs not interchangeable, the disk picture files created by the programs are not compatible. And to make matters worse, the files are not compatible with other programs like Color Print and Micropainter. So there is no way to get a screen dump of your beautiful pictures.
But, leave it to an Atari User Group member to figure out that this sorry state of affairs needs attention. Bruce Frumker of the Atari Computer Enthusiasts of Cleveland has sent me some routines to convert KoalaPad files to and from Micropainter and Color Print. Listing 1 labeled KOALA2MP converts files from Koala to Micropainter format. Listing 2 labeled MP2KOALA converts files from Micropainter to Koala format. Listing 3, written by Keith Tscherne also of the Cleveland group, converts from Micropainter to Fun With Art (Epyx) format.
Thanks for the programs Bruce and Keith. Let us hear from the rest of you User Group members.
Also of interest is information provided by Russ Wetmore via Michael Reichmann on loading and saving compatible files from the KoalaPad. To save "standard" pictures use the following procedure: While your picture (not menu) is displayed using the KoalaPad, press the INSERT key on the Atari, and the picture will be saved on the disk under the name Picture. It will be 62 sectors long so be sure there is enough room on your disk.
To load a "standard" picture go to the drawing screen (it does not matter if it is bland or not) and press the CLEAR key on the keyboard. If there is a file called Picture on your disk in drive 1, it will be loaded. The load and save picture techniques just mentioned do not use the color registers. Therefore, your pictures will have to be adjusted to their original color. The programs to convert to and from the Koala format do use these registers so your colors remain intact. The Creativity Connection
It can be argued that these graphics tablets are nothing more than "electronic coloring books." The proponents of this argument further suggest that a piece of paper and some crayons are equally good. Assuming that a child can be equally creative with either medium, the question must be asked, "is there an advantage to touch tablets?"
My response would be that the very nature of the electronic medium which allows you to draw quickly and see the results of experimenting with colors and shapes, is the advantage. Also, an electronic creation can be manipulated (and even erased) more easily than its paper and crayon counterpart.
With some adult guidance, these graphics tablets and their various programs can be wonderful. Their use is limited only by the user's imagination. I think that they are the best thing to hit the home computer scene in a long time.
Products: Atari Graphics Tablet (computer apparatus)
Koala Pad (computer apparatus)
Powerpad (computer apparatus)