Classic Computer Magazine Archive ST-Log ISSUE 28 / FEBRUARY 1989 / PAGE 13

Tools of the Trade

by Maurice Molyneaux

When not writing articles for ST-Log or otherwise working on computers, Maurice Molyneaux studies classic cel and modern computer animation, deadens his eardrums with overloud classical music and further damages his already questionable sanity by listening to recordings of Monty Python and Tom Lehrer. Otherwise he just makes a nuisance of himself. His DELPHI username is MAURICEM.

A few months ago I relegated my dear three-year-old 520ST and one-year-old Supra 20-megabyte hard disk to the status of "backup" computer when I bought a Mega ST4 and a custom 65-megabyte hard drive. The extra RAM and stiffer keyboard on the Mega are nice, but I didn't expect my working habits would be changed too drastically.

Hoo, boy, was I wrong!

There's a computer axiom (and I don't know who coined the phrase, darn it) that says, "Any program will expand to fill all available memory." I'd like to paraphrase that to say, "Any user will expand his tools to fill all available memory." I became aware of this quite suddenly one day when I had to use my old one-megabyte 520 and found myself feeling cramped by lack of memory to keep all my favorite and now (on the Mega) always-resident tools! In 1985, when I first purchased my ST, I thought 512K of RAM was the living end. Now I find one meg cramped, and fully expect to overrun the limits of the current four-meg machine before too long.

Anyway, for those of you who haven't run into this "fill all available RAM" syndrome, your luck has just run out. This month I'm going to list a number of useful programs and accessories that will make your ST easier to use, though at the cost of chewing up your RAM. But don't worry, it won't hurt a bit. In fact, once you try out some of these beauties, you, like me, will be hooked.

As usual, the following are my own personal favorites. I do not mean to slight anyone or any program by omitting them. Furthermore, there were several utilities I wanted to mention but couldn't find information as to whether they were public domain or shareware, so I omitted them from the article. Also, in a few cases I was unable to find the names of the authors of several programs, so if I left out a name, it was unintentional (and feel free to drop me a line care of this magazine or on DELPHI, username MAURICEM, to inform me of any omissions or corrections.)

Driving an AUTOmatic

The ST's AUTO folder is a mixed blessing. It's great because it allows you to automatically run the programs in it at bootup. It's a pain because it runs everything with a .PRG extender regardless of whether you want the program run that time or not. If you use a floppy-based system, one way around this is to set up different "boot disks" with AUTO folders containing certain utilities... but then you end with a lot of boot disks. An easier way (and the best way if you have a hard disk) is to use a program which will allow you to select which programs to autorun.

My favorite choice for this kind of program is Charles E Johnson's Desk Manager, the earliest version of which was originally published in STLog #16 That first version allowed you to select only which desk accessories to load, not AUTO programs. The latest version not only allows you to select which AUTO programs to run and which accessories to load, but also automatically selects a DESKTOP.INF file customized for whatever monitor you're using. To put further icing on the cake, if you are using GDOS, you can similarly select a .SYS file to make into ASSIGN.SYS! This eliminates having to manually rename the files.

Of course, to put Desk Manager to full use, it really should be the first thing in your AUTO folder. Otherwise other AUTO programs will run before it, making it a moot point!

Desk Manager is a shareware product, available on most online services. (Shareware, for those new to the term, means you are free to copy and distribute it, but you are asked to send a monetary contribution to the author if you find the program useful. Please do contribute if you use the program because it stimulates the programmers to keep writing software.)

DiskFree by Timothy Purves is a domain (or PD, free to the public) pro gram for your AUTO folder that speeds up the GEMDOS FAT (File Allocation Table) routines used to calculate the amount of space used and available on a disk. Using the Desktop's "Show Info" option on a 16-megabyte hard-disk partition that is one-third full finishes almost five times more rapidly with DiskFree than without.

Another useful program in this vein, although not exactly the same thing as DiskFree, is FAT Speed, by Ulrich Kuebler. FAT Speed speeds up overall GEMDOS FAT searches and accesses, meaning not only are free-space checks quicker, but hard-disk access speed is greater, the system taking less time to find and work with files. The greatest increase comes when writing files to a relatively full hard disk. If you have FAT Speed, you don't need DiskFree. The program is copyrighted, but freely distributable.

One of CodeHead software's more interesting commercial products is John Eidsvoog's TopDown Loader utility. Top-Down was originally designed to make it possible to use desk accessories with programs requiring a specific load address (usually low in an ST's memory, where accessories normally load).

What TopDown does is force the system to load and run all AUTO folder programs and desk accessories at the top end of available RAM, not down at the bottom as usual, thus putting them "out of the way" of many of these "hard-addressed" programs.

TopDown is not for everyone though. It is tricky to use, because you have to configure a block of top-end memory for it to use, and if you make it too small for your accessories, AUTO folder programs and system screen RAM, things can go bananas! It works best on STs with more than one meg of memory, where you can configure a sufficiently large block. Epyx's Art & Film Director is a package that benefits from TopDown on a large-memory ST (it doesn't help much on machines with one meg and under). Useful if you have hard-addressed software, otherwise not for the faint of heart!

Another highly technical program, but one that offers some neat capabilities, is Thomas Tempelmann's Templemon monitor. This program, when run from the AUTO folder, installs itself in memory and just sits back. You can access it at almost any time using a "hot key" combination (Alt-Shift-Help), which places you in a powerful machine-language monitor. From Templemon you can scan and search memory, check system variables, addresses, etc., trace a program one instruction at a time, modify system settings, trace the execution of a program in slow motion, even mark a block of memory and save it out to a file (as I have done several times when I quit my terminal program before saving the capture buffer. With Templemon I found the text still in RAM and saved it to disk).

Especially nice for programmers is that Templemon intercepts the ST's "bombs," so instead of seeing the usual cherry bombs on the screen, Templemon appears instead, displaying the error and allowing the programmer to see what happened. What's nice about this for the non-programmer is that, in some cases, it's possible to use a command in Templemon to execute a system call to "close" the current application, sometimes allowing you to escape from what otherwise might be a lockup.

Templemon is not for the novice, but more useful to the average person than you might think. It's simple to use (okay, as simple as a machine-language monitor can be), has online help, and best of all, it's public domain.

The infamous GEM "40-folder bug" can be eliminated using the public-domain FOLDR100.PRG program. If you place it in your AUTO folder, it sets aside buffer space for more folders. If 100 additional folders aren't enough, you can alter the number by changing the filename. If you need 365 more folders, rename the program FOLDR365.PRG and reboot. It's that simple.

The old GEM Item Selector is not so hot. It's clunky to use and only displays nine filenames at a time. A commercially available replacement selector is Chris Latham's Universal Item Selector II, from Application & Design Software. UIS II comes in two forms on the same disk, an accessory version and a standalone program version. Using either version will result in the program/accessory putting its own custom item selector on the screen whenever the regular GEM selector would normally appear. If installed as an accessory, you can access it just like any other desk accessory.

UIS II not only allows you to view more files at once than the GEM selector, but also provides buttons for selecting various drives, and even provides the user with many disk functions from the selector proper! You can copy, move and delete single or multiple files, rename files and folders, even lock/unlock and/or hide/unhide files with UIS II, even while deep in another application. A "find" feature lets you locate any filename on any drive. There are also functions for printing directories and formatting disks.

If you often use a program that utilizes Atari's GDOS, the best thing you can do for yourself is to buy CodeHead's G + Plus, which completely replaces GDOS and is faster and more flexible to boot. When you use the accessory that comes with this AUTO folder program, you can load ASSIGN.SYS files when you run a program, meaning you don't have to reboot the system to load in a different ASSIGN.SYS if going from one GDOS application to another. Best of all, it doesn't slow down the system the way GDOS does. (In fact, when I visited Atari last September, many of the people there were using G + Plus, not GDOS.)

If you have some memory to spare and want to snazz up your Desktop, you could do worse than to buy Easel ST, published by Computer Fenestrations. What this AUTO folder program does is to load a DEGAS or NEO picture at bootup and use it as the background for the Desktop. You need different pictures for each resolution, of course, but that's no big deal. Currently, I have the "Reagan" version of "American Gothic" as the Desktop background in monochrome, and a picture of Megabit Mouse (see last December's Step 1) in low resolution. Sure, it takes up some memory, and really does nothing, but it's nice to be able to put something on the Desktop, rather than just icons and windows.

Desk accessories

If I had to name a single desk accessory that was more useful than any other, it would have to be MultiDesk from Code-Head software. This is one of those schizophrenic utilities that doesn't know if it's an accessory or a program because it can be both! If you name the file MULTDESK.ACC, it will load as an accessory under the Desk drop-down. If you rename it MULTDESK.PRG, it runs as a standalone program from the desktop. (No, you can't run it from the AUTO folder.)

Either way, it is powerful and useful, as it allows you to load up to 32 desk accessories. Unlike some other "fixes" for the GEM six-accessory limit, MultiDesk allows you to load accessories at almost any time, not just at bootup (even when running a GEM program). And once you've loaded up on accessories, you can dump them all with the click of a button. You can resize the buffer, shrink it to take no more memory than the current accessories need or even set it so that when you click on MultiDesk, the last accessory used comes up.

Best of all, you can put MultiDesk into all six accessory slots and have each of those six load up to 32 other MultiDesks, allowing you to have thousands of accessories (of course, the practical limit is really free RAM, but it's fun to imagine what it would be like with unlimited memory!).

MultiDesk handles most properly written accessories, including those that utilize the GEM "pipelines" (used to pass information between various applications in memory), like Cyber Control. This means you don't have to reboot your ST every time you need another accessory, nor do you have to frugally pick only the six accessories you use most often. Even if you have a small-memory machine, MultiDesk is great because you can load an accessory and then, after you're done with it, delete it from memory.

You may have heard of Double Click Software's Stuffer desk-accessory loader. Unlike MultiDesk, Stuffer is shareware, and while Stuffer is nowhere near as flexible as MultiDesk, it is still better than having no way to load more than six accessories. So, if you're not in the market to buy something like MultiDesk, you might give Stuffer a look. (But, if you decide to use it, you really should send in the requested shareware contribution.)

If you would like to have numerous formatting options available at almost any time, the shareware DC Formatter accessory from Double Click Software (written by Paul Lee, Keith Gerdes and Michael Vederman) is for you. Version 1.1 formats single- and double-sided, using either normal sectors and tracks or extended ones; formats disks with MS-DOS executable boot sectors; and will even format disks for use with the Magic Sac Macintosh emulator. You also have a set of options that allows you to set certain bootup parameters on a floppy, such as whether or not to bypass the hard disk, turn the disk-write verification routines off, etc. The latest version supports the Spectre 128 Mac emulator, and I expect the next version of the accessory will as well. A few warnings, though: If you format beyond 80 tracks, some ST disk drives may not be able to read the formatted disk properly. If you choose extended formats, but set up an MS-DOS boot, the disk will only be 720K as usual. Well worth having!

If you have a hard disk, The Protector by Timothy Purves (placed in the public domain by Michtron) is very useful. This accessory allows you to "lock" partitions of your hard drive (and even RAMdisks) so that nothing can be written to them. This is useful if you are experimenting with a program that might write data where you don't want it, or just to keep other people from saving to or overwriting important data on your hard disk. You can unlock them just as easily as you can lock them, so it's painless to use.

There are a number of programs that do not allow you to type in characters beyond ASCII #128, which means much of the international character set is inaccessible, even if your printer can handle some of the characters. One of the best ways to get around this limitation is through the use of the ExtaKEY, a shareware accessory (written by Gregory Wrenn) that allows you to put together a string of characters from any combination of characters in the character set and feed them into the current application just as if they had been typed from the keyboard. While this is not needed in word processors such as 1st Word or the later releases of ST Writer, it is handy in programs that don't allow such characters, or software like WordPerfect, where accessing such characters is more difficult than you'd like.

William Cota's Mouse Speed is another shareware accessory worth having. It allows you to alter your mouse response to greater or lesser than usual (the distance the pointer will move on the screen relative to actual mouse movement can be selected). Settings range from a snail-like &frac116; normal to a nearly uncontrollable eight times normal. This is handy for those times when you feel the mouse response isn't quite right.

It can even be used to adjust the movement in one resolution so that it is more proportional to another (such as halving the mouse response in low resolution to approximate the feel of high resolution). Interestingly, it even affects the keyboard equivalents for pointer movement. There are some other mouse-accelerator programs out there, but thus far Mouse Speed has the most speed ranges, and therefore gets my vote.

Other stuff

With the multitude of paint programs out there, and source material coming in any of three different resolutions, it's a bit difficult to move images from one graphics program to another unless you have a program for converting such graphics files. One of the best of these is the shareware PicSwitch 0.7, written by John Brochu. The program will read and write all the standard ST paint program file formats (with the exception of the newly released Art Director), and does a good job of converting color to monochrome and vice versa. Furthermore, it can read some Atari 8-bit files, CompuServe high-resolution RLE files, Amiga .IFF files and even MacPaint pictures! The program is simple to use, and has been around for quite some time. I've been waiting for an update, but no luck yet.

If you don't have ARC.TTP and ARCX.TTP, find them. These public domain programs are a real necessity if you do much file swapping with other ST users. ARC.TTP is used to compress a file or files into file "archives," which can be anywhere from 20 to 60% smaller than the original file(s). Of course, you can't use these files when compressed like this, but it makes them small enough so that you can fit more data on a disk or make files you are uploading over a modem smaller, thus saving time and phone charges. In addition to compressing files, ARC.TTP will also decompress them, allow you to list the files in the archive, etc. ARCX.TTP does one thing alone: it decompresses (deARCs) ARC files.

Using it all

A lot of utilities, I know, but I use most of them all the time. In fact, I usually have something like 400K of AUTO folder programs loaded when I start up my Mega ST4. And, as I said at the beginning of the article, I have gotten so used to those AUTO utilities and accessories being "part of the system" that I get frustrated when I have to work on a machine without them. I admit it: I'm spoiled. But I'm not alone. And, if you start amassing some of these tools, you'll be spoiled too. You'll find your ST suddenly more powerful, faster and easier to use.

And who can complain about that?


Of late Step 1 has been the victim of recurring "Murphy's Law." Here are some corrections:

In the November '88 issue ("Of Mice and Megabytes, Part I"), Figures 2 and 3 got transposed. Furthermore, on page 66, Column 2, paragraph 3, a blank space somehow wandered into the middle of a word. So, the line that should have read "you could get away with Klingons wantonly marauding" became "Klingons want only marauding." Now, while you might say the latter is true, it's not what I wrote!

In that same article, I neglected to mention Mark Keeran, who loaned me his video equipment so that I could put the videotape together. Thanks, Mark.