Classic Computer Magazine Archive ST-Log ISSUE 18 / APRIL 1988  / PAGE 51

Ian's Quest

by Ian Chadwick

Ian Chadwick is a Toronto-based freelance writer with a newiy-empty hard disk drive. If anyone has PD software—especially GFA BASIC programs — to replace those now lost, he would appreciate any you can send to him at: 47 Oakcrest Ave, Toronto, Ont., Canada M4C 1B4. Gracias.

ST news, information and opinion.

By the time you read this, Atari may have released their IBM clone, the PC1. Then again, they may not have—it's hard to keep up with the pushme/pullyou nature of their product announcements. Rumor suggests that some of the higher echelon Atari execs aren't anxious to sell in the PC market. And, that some of them are not happy about manufacturing the machine in the first place. They're afraid it will take away from their efforts to market the ST.

Dealers, on the other hand, seem eager to get it. I've been told by several dealers that they expect to move a lot of them. Some of these dealers are also (Gasp) Commodore dealers who sell the Commodore PC10, PC20 and so on, in reasonable numbers. The Commodore isn't a bad clone, but is a tad more expensive than many of the gray-area imports (those no-name Korean and Taiwanese clones). Other dealers may offer clones of various names and brands, but, in any case, no one has ever suggested the PC clones reduce potential sales for their Amigas—the markets are too different.

There's plenty of sales potential in those PC/MS-DOS machines. In this two-university city with dozens of colleges and technical schools, teachers are saying to their students, "You should (or need to) buy a computer."

They don't, however, mean buy an ST, or an 800XL, or a C64, or even a Macintosh—they mean buy an IBM clone. Period. They have shorn versions of WordPerfect, dBase, 1-2-3, and others for sale in the textbook stores—all running under an MS-DOS environment.

They have all sorts of courseware programs and books, all for the same system. They've got doodley-squat for the ST; and they don't care one whit either. It's PC/MS-DOS, take it or leave it.

Atari huffs and puffs and gets in a tizzy about selling to the "Big Blue" market. But face it folks, the money is in MS-DOS. Whether you (or they) like it or not.

So me, I'm looking forward to getting one of these machines. I already have a laptop Toshiba T1100 on which I do a lot of my writing now. I couldn't live without it. My ST can read its 3½-inch disks too, so I can pass data files back and forth with ease, and use my ST's hard drive for Toshiba support.

But, I want a desktop model; something with slots so I can add a 2-megabyte RAM card, a hard disk, and so on, and not have to swap disks between incompatible machines. I trust the PC1 will have those options—I'd hate to think Atari is going to release a crippled machine. Consider that even here in Canada, where the devalued peso barely buys what it oughta, I can get an XT clone with one drive, AT-style keyboard, 640K RAM and monochrome video board for $650 and I can add boards and drives to my heart's content. Atari has to compete with this.

Finding out exactly what the PC does have is tough. People up here hem and haw when I ask how many card slots it has. Or RAM. Or expansion bus lines. What's the big secret? Maybe no one knows! Maybe it's not even in production yet!

Anyway. . .turning to things ST, my friends at Micro D Distributing arranged for me to borrow a copy of PC Ditto from Avant-Garde Systems to review and test, since I have a lot of PC software on 3½-inch disks. I dropped in on the closest Electronic Playworld where Eric set it up and ran it for me.

A kid looked up from the display of Commodore PC-10s while I loaded some software. He'd been pricing clones and asking about compatibility for the past few minutes. He was a student at the University of Toronto (Engineering, which is almost like a real subject) and needed a PC for his lab work.

"Is that Sidekick running on that 1040?"

"Yes it is," I said in my most innocent voice.

"I didn't think it was translated over to the ST," he said as awed sounds issued from his mouth. Other shoppers, sensing action, peered our way. A few shuffled over toward the end of the store where the STs are set up.

"It's not," I replied while loading WordPerfect 4.2 with a text file.

"Then how are you doing that?" (Intimations of magic and skulduggery here. . .)

"Why, I'm using PC Ditto, a PC/MS-DOS emulator. . ."

You get the drift, I'm sure. I ran through the dozen or so programs I had with me, including a few public domain things I got from CIS. Yes indeed, prestidigitation, folks. Nothing up my sleeve, but all the same, here we see a game machine acting like a Baby Blue. Hmmm. . .

So, here I stood, loading this, trying that. I got GEM 2.0 running on an ST—that's the version after the legal conference between Apple and Digital Research: the one that's not supposed to look like a Mac, but looks like Smalltalk no matter what anyone says (yet I never saw Alan Kay suing Steve Jobs about it). But, dear readers, I digress. . .

Why, you ask, would anyone want to run PC software when they have an ST? Well, for one, there are a lot of good programs out there—1-2-3, WordPerfect, Grammatik, Ventura, dBase III, AutoCAD, to name a few. On the other hand, a lot of PC software is more expensive than an entire ST system. But, for those of us with both systems, it's quite a boon. If you hook up a 5¼-inch drive to your ST, you can even run a lot of the protected programs without any trouble. There are even (Gasp) some good games for the PC which will probably come out for the ST about the time Halley's comet returns.

For me, with my Toshiba T1100 and amber monitor, the advantage is obvious. I can run programs in color using the ST monitor. Also, a 5¼-inch drive for my Toshiba retails at $88 here, while an ST drive is about $300—a distinct savings. The flip side is that it's slow—I mean glacial. About as fast as a C64. Obviously, I don't want to run anything where speed is an issue. But then if my T1100 needs to go in for repairs anytime, I can use my ST in the interim and not lose valuable work time. So the cost is certainly worth it.

There are some caveats, however. First, I don't believe it works with the monochrome monitors—color only. Second, you need a DOS disk from which to boot. PC and MS-DOS are proprietary programs, just like other software. You can't walk into a computer store and ask for a copy of DOS to go along with your PC Ditto. You'll have to buy it. (One advantage of owning a PC or clone is that you already have this disk and don't need to shell out another $200 or so).

When I visited Atari Canada and brought up the topic of the PC1 and PC Ditto, I got a pretty cool reception. Some of those same people who were dumping on MS-DOS as clunky, slow, inane and hostile, were praising CLIs (Command Line Interpreters) for the ST a while back. For the uninitiated, CLIs give you text command input for commands, instead of GEM. For example, rather than double-click on drive A to see its contents, you type DIR A:. Sound familiar? A lot like MS-DOS? Maybe exactly like MS-DOS? Some are, at least. Others are of the UNIX persuasion: nasty, obfuscatory, hostile and generally inelegant (compared to which MS-DOS is a veritable delight of ease and charm).

The ST is a nice machine, but it's not going to make it in the business world. No way, no how. IBM architecture has its foot in that door for life. And they're not exactly stagnant: they've grown from PC, through XT and AT to some amazing 16mHz 386 machines that just roar. And then there's OS2, the new operating system due sometime before the next ice age. Things change in that world, but the sales curves just keep going up. And, believe it or not, IBM and other manufacturers have rejuvenated the PCjr concept—the "home" PC market—with what appears to be success. Can the ST compete in the home market if Big Blue Brother and its minions come forth in force? Sigh. . .

Okay, so I see people having two distinct machines: a business and home machine. Certainly, most ST games can run circles around the usual lot of PC offerings (despite an unfortunate penchant for arcade style, as opposed to strategic entertainments where the mind is the workhorse, not the trigger finger). PC Ditto is the bridge between the two, so that you can enjoy the benefits of both worlds. The PC1 and its ilk are the serious solution for long-term efforts (assuming, as I stated above, Atari is intelligent and foresightful enough to offer a machine that can compete with the others).

Now for some whining, crying and sniffling. I'm writing this column on my T1100. Why? Not because WordPerfect is so much better than any current ST word processor, but because I had a little accident. Let me tell you about it.

I recently got a copy of MichTron's Tune Up, a hard disk optimizer. This program basically reads the files off the disk and writes them back in contiguous order, rather than scattering them all over the disk. This makes reading and writing operations a lot faster. I've used this sort of program in the PC environment, so I knew what to expect. Sort of.

I read the manual first. It's short. Very short. Okay, nothing new, no warnings I need worry about. I ran the program. After trying a few basic operations, I optimized my hard disk (segmented into four drives C to F). I don't have a RAM-disk at present, but I do have DeskCart. Looks fine. . .working. . . a few error messages, but it keeps on chugging. Fine. It's over. I reboot the system.

DISK ERROR! DISK ERROR! I couldn't reload my hard drive. No way, no how. I tried everything. No go. Somehow, the program managed to zap the drive. I even had a terrible time getting the & ± %$# thing formatted—it took several hours and many, many attempts. Everything lost, wiped out, destroyed, gone. Imagine my delight.

Of course, I have backups of my program files and applications. But, what I hadn't done for a few months—due to an overload at the ex-office—was backup my own files. Everything I had downloaded from CIS was gone. All my programs in GFA BASIC gone. My Midway game, and all the data files that went with it, gone. My Flash DO files gone. My romance novel gone. My sci-fi short stories gone. All the stuff that really mattered: GONE.

Now, to be fair, I took this little problem to a few other folk. Julius at Atari Canada sat down and ran the program on his own system without a single hitch. No one else had the same experience. Which led me to wonder: Why me? Was it because I had four disks partitioned? Or did DeskCart somehow interact with it in a nasty fashion? (For a reason that escapes me, some of the disk copy programs like Procopy will not work with DeskCart plugged in.)

Nonetheless, caveat emptor. I'd suggest that you remove any and all carts from the port first, and—just in case—make sure you have a backup copy of everything before you start. For those of you who want this sort of optimization, but don't want to risk my experience, you can simply back up your hard disk and reformat it, then copy each file back, one at a time. They'll be written contiguously. And, of course, the real lesson is: Always back everything up first!

An Atari twist: I saw a little item in the local paper, Toronto Computes, so I thought I'd bring you my experiences with the same problem.

Quite a long time ago, my 520 was upgraded locally to 1 meg. It started refusing to boot, then sometimes bombed out in the middle of things. One day, it finally refused to start up at all. So I took it to Keith Hope at BI (ah, the good old days) and he took it in hand, literally. He held it up and twisted the case. Voilà! It worked again. Needless to say, I questioned him on this matter. His reply: "The metal shield is in two parts, joined only by pressure contacts. It tends to oxidize and break contact between the halves. The twisting cleans it enough to work again."

"Isn't there a somewhat better solution?" I asked. He suggested that I solder one or two of the twist connections so that the connection was—more or less—permanent. He did so for me and I've never had this problem since. I might add that the real solution involves Atari making a more competent shield that screws down, rather than this stupid twist-tab idea. But, hey, who's listening to me?