Wide angle Atari. (evaluation) Arlan Levitan.
Wide Angle Atari
Group Commander Ahta Reeh checked the Galactic Map and pinpointed what was surely the last pocket of Zylon resistance in Sector 707. "It's about time,' the stalwart defender of the universe thought. "Let's get this over with. I've got some heavy duty word processing to do this evening.'
Star Cruiser Seven made the hyper-space jump with ease and materialized within 50 centons of what the battle compute identified as an all too familiar Tie Fighter. A wave of compassion swept over Reeh, who thumbed the subspace radio on and beamed an offer of clemency to the doomed Zylon ship.
"Drop your shields and surrender, General Rejistor. I've no desire to shed any more green blood today.'
The alien's reply was more hissed than uttered. "We Zylons do not bargain with crude savages armed with preatomic tools . . . even your battle computer displays are only a pitiful forty columns wide!'
Reeh's grip on the phaser bank trigger slowly tightened . . .
Meanwhile, Back on Earth . . .
Believe it or not, there are life forms around today that echo sentiments similar to those of our fictional Zylons. Namely, that if a computer doesn't have an 80-column display, it can't be taken seriously. While such a position is rather extreme, it must be acknowledged that the combination of an 80-column text display and the right software can greatly enhance the utility of a personal computer for some users.
Microcomputer owners who regularly access computer time-sharing systems are among those who can benefit. Most large and medium sized commercial computer systems are customarily accessed with video terminals that display 24 lines of text, with 80 characters per line. Many data processing professionals use personal computers to work from home during off hours, and working with 80-column format material on a 40-column screen can be quite confusing, especially if column-oriented data are involved.
A standard feature of many professional word processing systems is the ability to format text to a screen display that can accurately preview how a document will look on paper before actually printing it. Errors that require reformatting text or changing data may be caught before subjecting your printer to unnecessary wear and your wallet to paying for wasted paper.
In short, more data on the screen can mean more usable information presented to you, the user, at one time.
Special circuit cards that make it possible for computers such as the Apple II to display 80 columns rather than the usual 40 have been available for several years. The Bit 3 Computer Corporation has drawn upon its experience in this area and released an 80-column board designed to expand the text display capabilities of the Atari 800 computer. Before getting into the details of Bit 3's Full-View 80 board, a discussion of why many home computers, including the Atari, are designed to display fewer than 80 characters per line is in order.
The designers of the Atari 800 personal computer structured the text and graphics displays of the system around the capabilities of the most common color video display device found in the home, the television set. While this design eliminated the need for Atari owners to purchase a special monitor, it did impose certain limits upon the amount of text that could be displayed.
Living Within Limits
A measurement referred to as bandwidth is the major determinant of the number of separate dots per line that may be clearly displayed. It is not necessary for us to get into the mathematics involved in determining bandwidth. All you need to remember is that the higher the rated bandwidth of a monitor, the finer its horizontal display can be. To display clearly the output of the Full-View 80, Bit 3 recommends a display monitor having a minimum bandwidth of 10 MHz. The average color TV has a bandwidth of only 3 MHz, and even the best component color monitors driven by standard video signals are rated at only 6 MHz.
Why do we need a monitor with such a high bandwidth? All because of a tiny creature called a pixel--the smallest separate dot of light that can be displayed by most computers on a video screen. The Atari 400 and 800 can display a maximum of 320 such dots on a single horizontal line, and can stack 192 such lines up to fill the TV screen. The Atari display is therefore said to have a maximum display resolution of 320 X 192. This is very close to the maximum number of pixels that the TV itself can display.
The screen editor on the Atari displays each text character as a pattern of lighted dots within an 8 X 8 matrix or cell. Dividing the horizontal and vertical resolution by the number of pixels each character uses, we arrive at a display of 320/8 X 192/8 or 40 X 24.
Can't we squeeze more text onto each line by using a smaller matrix for each character? Yes, but doing so reduces the legibility of the display as the width of each character narrows. Software packages that display 64 or 80 characters per line by using smaller cell width usually also provide the user with a good case of eyestrain.
Eighty-column boards overcome the limits of resolution built into many personal computers by incorporating independent circuitry capable of generating extremely high resolution monochrome displays. The Full-View 80 uses an 8 X 10 cell matrix for each of the 80 characters on each display line. The resolution of the 80-column by 24-line display is therefore 640 horizontal by 240 vertical pixels. The large number of dots in the display is why the FV80 requires a high-resolution monitor. The introduction of the 24-page user manual and the label on the board clearly state that the unit will not work with a TV set.
This makes a high quality monochrome monitor the most logical choice for use as a display unit with the FV80. Such monitors typically range in price from $100 to $250 and are available in a variety of display colors. Green phospor displays are generally the easiest on the eyes, but black and white and even amber displays are available to suit individual tastes. I used a Kaga Model KG12N 12 green phospor monitor (one of those recommended by Bit 3) to make the photographs that appear here.
Even a novice will find installation of the FV80 easy to accomplish by following the clear instructions given in the manual. The board simply plugs into the last memory slot of the Atari. A thin, flat set of wires attached tot the FV80 is run out of the memory cage and the system cover is reinstalled. Metallic tape is supplied to keep the cover from cutting into the flat ribbon wire. The wire terminates in two separate plugs. One is connected to the five-pin jack on the right side of the 800, the other to the monitor.
While there is no minimum RAM requirement for using the device, this hardware set-up does impose a few restrictions.
Since the FV80 uses the last memory slot in the Atari, a 32K memory board must be used in conjunction with one 16K card to run a full 48K system. Although Bit 3 recommends their own Memory-Plus board, any good quality 32K unit will suffice.
Also, if you are already using that five-pin jack to feed the Atari audio signal through your stereo system or a color video signal into a TV with video input jacks, it will be necessary to build a simple Y-connector to continue doing so.
The Bit 3 board did not interfere with any of the regular Atari software I ran. The on-board circuitry of the FV80 remains dormant unless it is specifically activated. The simplest way to do this is to type A=USR(54818) directly from Atari 8K cartridge Basic. This jumps to a routine located in an EPROM on the FV80 board that works some internal magic (actually, it installs the FV80 as a new device in the device table and redirects output normally vectored to the screen editor to the Bit 3). The screen blinks, clears, and the familiar READY prompt from Basic appears at the top of the now 80-column display. Happily, any program that was in memory before the USR jump will still be there.
The character set produced by the board is crisp and readable. All the full screen editing capabilities of the Atari are retained and some new functions are added. CTR-Cf toggles the cursor character between an underline and the familiar inverse block.
All characters on a single line to the right of the cursor may be erased by typing. CTRL-E. On the drastic side is CTRL-S which will erase everything on the screen past the present cursor position. I soon found that I preferred the underline cursor and that the delete to end of line feature was a real plus.
Another feature is described as a Video Switch. The manual makes it sound as though you can flip between 40- and 80-column displays by typing CTRL-A and CTRL-B respectively. This is not exactly the case. What the switch does do is flip between text and Atari graphics modes. Once turned on, the FV80 display is automatically deactivated by graphics modes other than zero and reactivated by returning to graphics 0. This makes it possible to alternate 80-column text displays and graphics screens under program control.
If any of the control codes normally interpreted by the FV80 as editing or function commands are required to be entered as text, the character must be preceded with an escape code (ESC), or alternatively, all control code execution may be deselected with a single POKE.
Although the performance of the FV80 is quite satisfactory, a few caveats are in order. This is a new device, the first of its kind for the Atari, and I did discover some flaws in the Bit 3 unit, all of them involving the on-board control software:
CTRL-3 is not supported as end of file for the screen editor. Some software makes use of this feature. I found myself "lost in the ozone' after preparing a screen full of data and attempting to enter an EOF by typing CTRL-3.
The graphic representations of the characters for CTRL-F, G, H, J, ;, comma and period are wrong on the FV80. For example, a CTRL-F printed as a graphics club. Even though machine language strings containing any of these characters were incorrect in their screen appearance, they were correct internally and functioned properly. A factory technician stated that correct representations of these characters were attempted at first and were judged to be visually displeasing. Bit 3 subsequently opted to substitute other characters for them and does not plan to correct the situation at this time.
A GRAPHICS O statement does not clear the screen and position the cursor at the top of the diplay.
Although the speed of the display under most circumstances is fine, the execution of the Insert Line function is noticeably slothlike.
Fortunately, items one and three can be remedied by changes to the FV80 firmeare. According to Bit 3, new EPROMs incorporating such revisions will be made available at nominal cost to present FV80 owners in the near future. The technical staff at the factory returned all of my calls promptly and were extremely courteous and helpful. Bit 3's confidence in the board is evidenced by a one-year warranty, a welcome change from the usual three-month guarantees so prevalent these days.
The manual contains a good deal of technical information, including descriptions of firmware and hardware characteristics, and instructions for making custom character sets for those who have access to EPROM burners. The FV80 character set is not redefinable on the fly, as is the standard Atari display.
A short list of compatible software is also provided, as well as instructions for using the board with Atari Microsoft Basic. At this time, only one manufacturer has committed to produce packages written especially for the Full-View 80. Before rushing out and spending $349.95 on an FV80 board, and another healthy chunk of cash for a monochrome monitor and 80-column software, you would be well advised to insure that the software available fully meets your expectations and anticipated needs.
Although many straight text-oriented Basic programs may work without major modification on the FV80, much software will not, and modifying existing software is out of the question for most casual users. For example, I was able to get my all machine code smart T.H.E. Terminal program to work with 80 columns only because the author, Tom Giese, is a fellow MACE (Michigan Atari Computer Enthusiasts) member and was willing to drop by and work things out. The average user just can't count on support like that. Even those with some degree of skill can forget about modifying protected software.
The only word processing package currently available that takes advantage of the FV80 is Letter Perfect from LJK Enterprises in St. Louis, Mo.
Hardware does not make software happen by virtue of its very existence. If the Full-View 80 is to gain wide acceptance, Bit 3 must actively promote the product within the software development community. Hopefully, existing products such as word processors, terminal programs and databases will be modified to support both 40- and 80-column modes at little or no additional charge. Let's hope more software authors are bitten by the 80-column bug. The Full-View 80 hardware is ready for them and is certainly up to snuff.
LJK Enterprises, 7852 Big Bend Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63119.
Photo: Bit 3 80-column board.
Photo: A look at the 80-column character set of the Full-View 80.
Products: Bit 3 Full-View 80 (video display module)