Classic Computer Magazine Archive ST-Log ISSUE 21 / JULY 1988 / PAGE 84


by Ian Chadwick

Ian Chadwick is a Toronto-based technical writer specializing in desktop publishing. He is currently designing several war-games, including one for the ST. He is looking for reference books on Napoleonic warfare, campaigns, armies, etc. Contact him at: 47 Oakcrest Ave, Toronto, Ont., Canada, M4C 1B4.

It's been a long time since I wrote one of these columns. ST-Log is just out now and my column in it was written last fall, six or more months before it finally saw print. It's a trifle dated. . .I can't even remember the contents of any subsequent columns. Well, back to work, then.

Of late, I've had the opportunity to work with WordPerfect 4.1 and Microsoft Write for the ST. The former crashes a lot and won't always perform as ordered. The latter is a weak-kneed offering not a whit better than anything already on the market. Both are a lot more expensive than any of the competition as well.

Both programs are the products of large, wealthy and important software publishers—WordPerfect Corp. and Microsoft—whose strengths in the PC and Mac worlds are well known. Both companies must be highly embarrassed by these products, although for different reasons.

WP appeared in late fall, 87. Four revisions were shipped out by the end of January 88. And there are still serious bugs in it. The program merrily crashes, performs erratically, freezes up and dies with disturbing frequency. It does not inspire confidence.

What's the latest version? Well, at the time of this writing, it's January 29. But the versions aren't numbered so you can tell what you have—they all say 4.1. Rely on the file creation dates on the disks. A "clean" version of WP was slated for release in late March. Perhaps we've all received it now.

WP has a feature list as long as your arm. Very impressive, and if they all worked properly, it would be truly amazing (remember, they all do work on the PC). It has a super spelling checker and thesaurus, macro commands, on-screen column display, flexible printer control and a whole lot more—more than I dare list here. One can understand, at least, why the program costs so much—it offers value for the money.

WP 4.1 made a big hit in the PC world a couple of years back. But it was topped by 4.2 a year ago. 4.1 for the ST is a close work-alike to the PC version. Why didn't they bring out 4.2 for the ST, rather than 4.1? Why did they slavishly tie the ST version to the PC, rather than take advantage of the ST's various features such as graphics? Why did they release a flawed version that should have been kept in the beta stage for a few more months? Good questions.

This isn't typical of WordPerfect Corp.—they have a good reputation developed over four years of hard work. Obviously the ST marketplace doesn't have the potential of the MS-DOS world, so perhaps efforts to perfect the product aren't quite as active as we would hope—after all, they also sell a version for the Amiga, Apple II and a version 5.0 for the PC is about to be released. All these products take time, effort and money.

WordPerfect Corp. squashed rumours that they would pull out of the Atari market, due to rampant piracy. WP was found on at least three pirate BBSs, but they are still making the effort to stay with us. That shows a serious commitment on their part. If you want them to remain part of this market, then show them the same amount of respect and don't make or accept any pirate copies of their product. If they pull out, the chance of anyone else in their league coming over to the ST is slightly less than your being hit by Halley's comet.

I have faith that WP will finally come to its own—that the bugs will be fixed and the program will be finished. It was suggested that they might release 4.2 for the ST a year or so from now. Don't hold your breath—it will depend on sales of 4.1 to justify the expense and effort. Of course, the pirates could ruin it for all of us... .

Microsoft Write is another product altogether. It leaves me with no hope at all. The box art should have alerted me—it's hideous.

Write is similar to Word 1.0 for the Mac, a product that, when released four years ago, wasn't much of a hit. Don't confuse Write for the ST with the excellent program of that name bundled with Microsoft Windows. No hope. And don't think it bears any resemblance to the latest versions of Word on either the Mac or the PC. Will Microsoft upgrade the ST version? Add new features? Improve the display? Not within the Age of Mammals, anyway.

Write whimpers. It does little that other word processors don't do at half the price. It looks like it's WYSIWYG, but aside from screen fonts, it can't show text as it will appear when printed. Multiple columns, for example, don't display across the screen. Headers, footers and footnotes don't show on the page where they print. There isn't a spelling checker or thesaurus, and printer drivers are limited to the SMM804, Atari laser and Epson-compatibles. The list of features is depressingly short and unimpressive.

Like WP, Write copies from another system—the Mac in this instance. It does it so well that it even ignores the right mouse button (the Mac only has one mouse button...). Like WP, it is also not the latest version the company has to offer everyone else. But unlike WP, it leaves a distinctly unpleasant aftertaste. Why would anyone bother bringing out such a lame duck? And then charging top dollar for it! Surely Jack and the boys don't think we're that gullible!?!

I heard that Microsoft washed its hands of the Write project early on and gave it to Atari to finish development (more than a year in the doing thereof). A local source even told me that only a single, co-op student programmer was assigned to the project. Why doesn't that surprise me? Even if it isn't true, the program looks like it was a back-burner project. I'm surprised that Microsoft even allowed its name to be associated with the final product. It looks like no one was ever consulted on the concept of word processors and what the consumer might want in one.

On the back of the Write package it states: "Team Microsoft Write with an Atari Mega computer and the Atari SLM804 laser printer for an excellent desktop publishing system." Write can't import or print graphics, doesn't do kerning, can't produce rules, won't display multiple columns—the simplest things required by desktop publishing. To call this statement misleading doesn't do it justice. I say it's an outright lie. Write is absolutely unsuited for desktop publishing.

WP and Write are major software disappointments, although as I said earlier, for different reasons. I had high hopes that these two companies—major dynamos in the industry and major competitors for the same market (word processing) would race to offer the best programs they could. Neither one achieved that. I'm willing to wait for the finished WP, but as far as I'm concerned, Write isn't worth the shelf space it consumes.

Way back when, I wrote about the Atari PC1. It's been available in Canada since the end of December but I understand not in the USA. The PC2 started shipping up here in early March. I've been led to believe that the PC series is unloved and unwanted by the U.S. Atari folk. No one seems to care to see them released in the USA. Maybe because they're tired of flogging the mediocre?

The PC1 is a good idea in a handsome package, but poorly implemented as a consumer product—the design lacks foresight and comprehension of the marketplace demands. It has built-in monochrome, CGA and EGA graphics and a Microsoft compatible mouse. It comes with a good amber monitor but bundling discourages making a purchase of a color or high-res monitor later. The monitor port is standard TTL, without composite or RGB output. So far so good. It goes pretty much downhill from here.

The PC1 has a 720K 3.5&inch; internal floppy drive and can accept another two externally. The nice thing is that they're standard ST314 drives. The nasty thing is that Atari doesn't make a 5.25&inch; drive for the machine and there's still a lot of software out there that's not available on 3.5&inch; disks. It also makes for difficult data transfer if your office machine uses 1.2MB floppies!

The basic memory is 512K RAM, expandable to 640K maximum. With no expansion cards, forget RAMdisks or additional EMS or LIMS memory cards. This is a severe restriction. Many PC programs make use of expanded memory—Lotus 1-2-3 for example.

The PC1's biggest failing is the lack of standard expansion slots. There is only a single custom bus—for which the schematics have not been released! The myriad of PC/XT cards available for almost every other PC aren't of any use with the PC1. Forget internal clock calendars, modems, new graphics drivers, additional parallel or serial ports, joysticks, fax cards, JLaser cards, RAM cards or even a hard drive. If you get anything, it must connect through the existing serial, parallel or floppy port. See what I mean about short-sightedness?

The PC2 is a better machine but still a long way from perfect. It offers pretty much everything the PC1 has, plus a bit more compatibility with the real-world PC market. The biggest difference is that it can house a 20mb hard drive and a single 5.25&inch; floppy or two floppies. 20mb, however, is a small drive—I filled 40mb on my AT clone in a few months! Also, you apparently can't mix 3.5&inch; and 5.25&inch; drive types to take advantage of both (I use one of each on my system).

Both machines come with a two-button ST mouse (although the best PC mice, like Logitech's, are the three-button type) but no utilities to create menus, drivers, and so on for non-mouse programs (with which every PC mouse comes, of course).

The PC2 has four standard expansion slots, which is adequate for most users. It doesn't have the external floppy port, but has the parallel, serial and mouse ports like the PC1.

Both machines are extremely IBM/PC compatible. They are switchable between 4.77 and 8 mhz speeds, but I don't know how many, if any, wait-states that includes, so the realized speed may be less. 4.77 mhz really drags on the 8088, and I can't imagine why anyone with even a semblance of brain power would work at that slow a speed. Many competing XT clones offer 10mhz "turbo" speeds.

The keyboard, alas, is lightweight and the keys appear to be cut from the ST mold—a trifle larger than standard PC size, so clumsy and awkward—as the ST keyboard is. However, it is detachable. You can replace it with a Keytronics or a similar keyboard.

Both machines come with MS-DOS 3.21, GWBASIC, GEM desktop, GEM Write and GEM Paint. I don't know why Atari failed to provide the latest version of DOS 3.3.1 also wonder why the PC1 rates all of this software when the ST limped along with an unfinished version of NeoChrome, third-rate 1ST Word, a slow and cranky BASIC and GEM without GDOS. Think maybe we got the nasty end of the stick?

All in all, I can't recommend the PC1; the design is too restrictive and there are a lot of expandable competitors at the same price with a few more options from which to choose. It's not even suited as a home machine, because it can't be upgraded or enhanced. However, if you need an expensive paperweight....

The PC2 is a reasonable entry-level system for the home user. The limitations on floppy drives (number and type) and hard drive size certainly lower it below any professional or business user category. But as a backup machine, when fully loaded, it should be adequate.

Other notes

In my next column, I'll look at an entirely new ST product—ST X * Press designed by Alan Page, co-author of Flash. Imagine being able to get all the news 24 hours a day—international, local, business, your favorite sports stories, market updates, weather, fashion, and so on. Not a newspaper—they'd be on your ST. Instead of rummaging through page after page looking for stories of interest, you could collect stories with specific keywords and save them to disk to read later. That's just part of what ST X* Press does when combined with your TV cable. It does a whole lot more too, but I'll talk about it next time. A very exciting new offering for this market.

Desktop publishing: I haven't seen anything except the earliest release of Publishing Partner (their "professional" version is expected—one hopes a significant improvement over the original!), although I see new packages are out there now (Fleet Street publisher for one). I hope to be able to get the newest releases and compare them with Xerox's Ventura Publisher for the PC in the near future.

I've played a lot of Wargame Construction Set, from SSI, recently. A thinking person's game—challenging but fun. I'll review it soon, along with several new products including Juggler from Michtron, GFA Artist, Gunship and Defender of the Crown.

My thanks to readers who sent me PD programs (especially the GFA listings) after my disk hard crashed. I have since heard of others losing their data the same way. I appreciate everyone's support.