Classic Computer Magazine Archive START VOL. 3 NO. 10 / MAY 1989

Mac and PC On The ST

pc-ditto II: An Interview with
Avant-Garde's Bill Teal


Even as you read this, chances are good that pc-ditto II is available for purchase. Bill Teal and his crew at Avante-Garde Systems have been working long and hard on an upgrade, and the results are impressive. What's also interesting is that pc-ditto now looks more like Spectre 128, the Mac emulator. What follows is excerpted from a lengthy telephone conversation with Bill in mid-December.

The new version of pc-ditto is now cartridge-based rather than disk-based, as the original was. You still need software on disk to make it work, but the cartridge fulfills the main wish of every pc-ditto owner: increased speed. Considering that it was long considered impossible to emulate the Intel 808x family of Motorola chips, the fact that pc-ditto worked as well as it did is amazing and a testament to Avant-Garde's hard work and dedication. But it was slo-o-ow, because even though the 68000 in your ST is twice as fast as the 8088 built into the original PC, it still can't emulate that chip at full speed.

Avant-Garde Software partner
Bill Teal.

As with so many other things in the computer world, the answer is hardware. Using custom gate arrays, which are very advanced hardware devices, Avant-Garde managed to produce an emulator that can run at the full speed of an IBM PC. Of course, it may have been possible just to build an "emulator" containing an 8088 chip, as well as the attendant circuitry (essentially creating a PC in a small box), but such a device would likely cost almost as much as a PC clone! By doing it the way they did, the price of the new pc-ditto was kept astoundingly low. At the time of this writing, the price has not been set, but it will be very reasonable.

The use of a cartridge makes other things possible including emulation of the higher-resolution PC graphics modes such as EGA and VGA. Unfortunately, only the "base" modes can be used (320-by-200, 16 colors) because of the limitations of the ST monitor! Enhanced EGA and VGA can't be used, and this probably won't change in the near future. It certainly is an interesting development when the Atari hardware limits what can be done with a PC emulator!

As you may know, the original PC can only use 640K of RAM. To combat this, a specification for extended memory was developed by Lotus, Intel and Microsoft (and so is known as the LIM specification, or more generically, as EMS-Extended Memory Specification.) With four-megabyte STs becoming plentiful, it would be nice to use EMS 4.0 with pc-ditto. While this might not be implemented in the very next version of pc-ditto, it is a very real possibility and something Avant-Garde is interested in doing.

In our discussion, some very interesting information came to light. Software publishers must be very careful in setting their price points; often, the price they feel they can (reasonably) charge for a product determines just how much time and effort they can put into that product.

The engineering resources of Avant-Garde are considerable; they could probably design almost any feature into a hardware box that plugged into the ST. But there are some important considerations in pricing the new pc-ditto. The first is that STs are not very expensive. "Great," you say, but ST owners rarely buy software that costs more than their machines, so this places an upper limit on what can be charged. Another very important consideration is that PC clones are available for under $600. If the cost of pc-ditto is even reasonably close to that, people would probably just buy the clone. Finally, the product should be inexpensive enough to encourage dealers to bundle it in a package with a Mega, as was often the case with the original pc-ditto--which was very good for Avant-Garde.

Since the new pc-ditto is a cartridge-based product, it must pass FCC certification. Now, contrary to what you may have heard, it is not especially hard to get FCC certification. The first step is to submit your equipment to a testing lab, which will run the requisite tests. Ah, but there's an interesting rub: the cartridges are plugged into STs--and many of those that Avant-Garde tried to use emit so much radiation that they won't pass the FCC tests even without the pc-ditto cartridge plugged in.

The final interesting tidbit has to do with Atari's published list of dealers. In the process of marketing pc-ditto, Avant-Garde contacted many of the dealers on the list and, according to Bill Teal, found that in fact they were not Atari dealers. They may have requested information from Atari at one time, but did not sell Ataris and some were quite annoyed that anyone would think that they would. The final numbers are somewhat disconcerting: perhaps 200 to 250 dealers in the United States, perhaps 60 in Canada and about 700 in Europe. I admit that the European numbers look good, but the U.S. numbers are scary. On the up-side, Avant-Garde also discovered that some pretty prestigious companies, including Boeing and NASA, are using STs.

Advantages of Speed

The extra speed available through pc-ditto II will permit operations that the original pc-ditto couldn't handle. One minor item is that PC games will now work more or less normally, giving ST owners access to some of the better ones that have never been available for the ST. These games worked with the original pc-ditto, but they were so slow that they really couldn't be used. More importantly, many graphics-based programs can now be used. Print Magic from Epyx lets you make your own cards, banners, signs and calendars. There is similar ST software, notably Unison World's Print Master Plus, but Print Magic's print resolution is much better. Print Magic is easy to use and comes with many icons, fonts and borders. It supports the mouse and uses dialog boxes, and herein is the problem: when you move the mouse, you must wait for the pointer to move, and drawing a dialog box on the screen takes an incredible 28 seconds! With full PC speed, this excellent package should become fully functional on the ST.

Contributing Editor David Plotkin is a chemical engineer for Chevron U.S.A.


pc-ditto, $89.95; pc-ditto II, no price set. Avant-Garde Systems, 381 Pablo Point Drive, Jacksonville, FL 32225, (904) 221-2904.