Atari ST: the good, the bad, and the ugly. (Outpost: Atari) (evaluation) Sheldon Leemon.
After months of waiting for my new Atari 520 ST system, its arrival was almost anticlimactic. Although I reacted to the announcement of the machine in January with enthusiasm, during the long waiting period that followed, some of the initial optimism faded as the ever-present doomsayers spun their scenarios for disaster. It was true that Jack Tramiel, Atari's new proprietor, had built Commodore into the premier survivor of the home computer wars, but along the way he had also acquired a reputation for announcing more products than he intended to deliver, for sacrificing quality for price, and for alienating computer retailers and third party software developers alike.
So while on paper the ST looked like a breakthrough new-generation product, there were still plenty of reasons to be cautious. As with any new computer product, the first units would undoubtedly have more problems and less software than more established machines. The price would no doubt be higher at first. So, as the waiting dragged on, it became easier and easier to wait.
Blase as I was, I could not ignore that big stack of cartons for long. It contained my 520 ST, two single sided 3.5" disk drives, and two monitors--a high-resolution black-and-white screen and an RGB color display. As I hooked up the system and turned it on, my disinterested facade quickly began to crumble. Since the operating system is not yet available in ROM, I had ample opportunity to check the transfer speed of the disk drive as it loaded TOS from disk. The ST loaded the entire 200K + file in about 25 seconds. When it finished loading, I found the GEM desktop staring me in the face. For those of you unfamiliar with GEM, it is a user interface program which attempts to put a Macintosh face on antiquated computers like the IBM PC. It uses icons, "dropdown" menus, a mouse--the whole nine yards. I have used GEM on the PC, and I found the implementation on the ST to be identical, except for a couple of important differences.
First, the Atari monochrome monitor displays 640x400 pixels in living black and white, as opposed to the 640x200 resolution of the PC. Therefore, the display looks much better than that provided by the standard PC graphics adapter and, indeed, makes the ST a close rival to the Macintosh. The letters looked so big and blocky compared to the skinny little characters found on most displays that I had to count them to make sure that there were really 80 columns (there were).
Some of the screen clarity may stem from the large overscan area that leaves a thick border around the display, so that the actual display area is only about 9" (diagonal) on a 12" screen. While the color display has no worse resolution than that provided by the PC color card and much better color, the monochrome mode gives the ST real credibility in performing serious business applications which primarily display text.
The second difference was that on the ST, GEM looked like it was running about twice as fast as it does on the PC. Windows that would crawl open on the IBM burst open on the ST. I could feel the commencement of a slight elevation of the old blood pressure. Speed. Power. Lots of RAM. Fast disk drives. Maybe this ST was the breakthrough it was cracked up to be.
Unfortunately, the feeling of euphoria did not last long, as I realized that I had no way to put the ST through its paces. The only software I had was Logo--a version so slow that I wondered if the interpreter was written in Logo. The fact that I had sprung the $1700 to buy the developer's package hardly made me any better off than the average buyer. Although the package came with development software like a C compiler and assembler, it was essentially useless out of the box, because the text editor needed for writing programs was to be sent out later separately by the manufacturer (apparently much later, since six weeks after getting the machine, I'm still waiting).
Moreover, the celebrated 6" stack of documentation that comes with the development package turned out to contain more hints than answers. The bulk of the material consisted mainly of photocopies of Digital Research documentation that, though somewhat related to the machine, was by no means ST specific. These included a CP/M 68K manual and the full manual for development under GEM on the IBM PC. Only a few pages of the documentation actually came from Atari, including some sketchy material on the BIOS routines, the keyboard, printer codes, and a source code listing for the boot ROMs. Of the 1500 or so pages included, more material was devoted to the Kermit protocol file transfer program (250 pages) than to the ST.
With such modest development tools available, it is small wonder that application programs were not ready for early buyers of the machine. This is a real shame, because seeing the speed at which GEM desktop ran gave me an idea. If GEM ran at PC AT speed on the ST, how would programs such as GEM Write and GEM Draw stack up on the ST when compared to versions of the same software running on the AT? And if the ST ran applications at AT-speed, then what real difference in potential computing power would there be between the $1500 ST system with a hard disk and the $5000 AT system?
Although it may be that lack of software has caused me to wax philosophical, I can't help feeling that if Atari had arranged to bundle these applications with the machines (or even provided them to dealers), many buyers would be able to make head-to-head comparisons that would cause them to ask some serious philosophical questions (like why is the sky Big Blue?).
In the end, I was reduced to discovering odd facts about the ST. For example, did you know that although the ST character set conforms fairly closely to the extended ASCII used on the IBM PC, it also includes the characters for the Atari Logo, the entire Hebrew alphabet, and a picture of a man smoking a pipe? Some people say that the picture of the man looks like Jack Tramiel himself, smoking a cigar, but I think it looks more like Hugh Hefner. By typing in the Logo programs in Listing 1, you can decide for yourself.
Even this idle exploration was not to last. After a few short hours of poking around, my ST started to act like it had eaten too much cotton candy and was looking for the men's room. I started to get duplicate images of the Busy Beeicon all over the screen. Then, random dots started speckling the screen as if bees really were the cause of yellow rain. I knew the end was near when mushroom clouds began to appear. The more I rebooted, the faster the machine would crash, until finally I turned it on and nothing happened. Sure, I had had fun for a couple of hours, but I really didn't feel as though I had gotten my money's worth.
Fortunately, help was but a phone call away. Dialing into the SIG* Atari section of CompuServe (a hotbed of information about the new ST series), I discovered from a number of messages that I was not alone. A large percentage of the first batch of STs, it seems, had shown the symptoms I have described. In most cases, however, the problem was a minor one, caused by the chips coming loose in shipping. Some people had cured the difficulty by taking the cover off and pushing down on the chips, or by extracting and reinserting them. Others had straightened out the shielding, making sure that it did not short out the circuit board and soldering it into place when they were done. Even proceeding with extreme caution, I was able to complete the "repair" in somewhat less than an hour. Since then, my 520 has operated flawlessly.
Still, the problem that was a mere annoyance to me would have been far more serious if it had happened to someone who was afraid to touch the keyboard, let alone take the computer apart. Somehow, I can't picture going into a store and hearing "Attention K-Mart shoppers. Over in aisle 10, there will be a short demonstration of Atari computer home repair."
While the malfunctions encountered by ST owners do not rank with the terrible quality control problems that plagued Commodore products when that company was under Mr. Tramiel's direction, they still must be dealt with. My suggestion to potential ST owners is that they buy their computers from a reliable dealer with a liberal replacement policy, and go so far as to have the dealer operate it at the store for a trial "burn-in" period to make sure that it works properly.
By the time you read this, the software shortage may be alleviated somewhat and the high ST failure rate may be just an ugly memory. When there are plenty of working STs in the field, running software that demonstrates their speed and power, we may have to run a column entitled "The Atari 520 ST: Good, Better, and Best."
Products: Atari 520 ST (computer)