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

Getting Started

The Atari ST Book of Tips,
Instructions, Secrets and Hints


My bookshelves are loaded with books about the Atari ST. Some are too simplistic to be of any real instructional value and the rest are too complex or technical to understand. Lacking any useful manuals or tutorials, whatever expertise I've managed to acquire on the ST came from three years of trial and error (mostly error) and lots of hair-pulling. However, in somehow compiling most of my hard-learned tricks in just over one year, Ralph C. Turner has managed to publish what is arguably the best ST users' guide to date: The Atari ST Book of Tips, Instructions, Secrets and Hints for the 520, 1040 and Mega STs.

The Atari ST Book of Tips,
Instructions, Secrets and Hints
by Ralph C. Turner.

At one end of the spectrum of users' guides is the type of book that rehashes the basics of clicking on icons. At the other end are those esoteric tomes that discuss disk-seek rates and BIOS error codes. The first type is insulting in its simplicity (although if you need to read three books to figure out how the mouse works, maybe you shouldn't own a computer anyway). The second type is irritating in its complexity (you don't always need to know how a car works; you just need to know how to drive it). Unfortunately, instead of falling somewhere in between, most ST books end up at one end of the spectrum or the other.

Atari's GEM Desktop interface is actually a sophisticated and powerful program. You wouldn't consider buying a piece of commercial software unless it included a detailed, understandable users' manual. However, the basic information from the Atari GEM manual barely scratches the surface of what you need to know. Digging this knowledge out of the many technical manuals is an awesome task and most users don't even try. They simply struggle along, making mistakes and learning the hard way.

Turner's book was written for the vast majority of ST and Mega owners who want to learn how to use their computers quickly and painlessly. A new user will understand it easily and yet it contains enough tricks and tips to be worthwhile reading even for experienced users.

Questions and Answers

The 159-page book is presented in a question-and-answer format. The first 10 chapters thoroughly describe all you need to know to set up and use the Desktop interface. Turner explains the DESKTOP.INF file format and how to edit this file to save any desired changes.

Turner devotes one chapter to adjusting the color palette with the Control Panel desk accessory and another to an excellent discussion of desk accessories in general and talks specifically about those accessories packaged with the ST. Here he presents the advantages and disadvantages of these programs and offers some alternatives.

The book discusses files and file management, including copy operations and an alternative to the standard GEM file selector. Also, many users were mystified by the cryptic one-page explanation of installing an Application in the ST owners' manual, but Turner devotes an entire chapter to it, clearly explaining the feature and putting forth some excellent arguments that changed my views on this subject.

Rounding out the first part of the book are chapters on RAMdisks and the boot process (warm and cold boots). The author puts quite a lot of emphasis on using a RAMdisk but barely comments on using a hard disk. I'm told that Turner has a second book in the works and, considering the potential problems and benefits involved, I hope he discusses hard disks in more depth.

Big PD Fan

The remaining seven chapters discuss software and applications. Turner is a big fan of public domain software, devoting an entire chapter to it and mentioning specific programs throughout the book. He warns the reader about the "uneven" quality of these free programs, but clearly he has many personal favorites. He mentions that you can download PD programs from bulletin board systems but recommends purchasing collections from various companies or users groups that compile such packages, which he says lowers the chances of getting poor quality programs.

I've used most of the selections listed in the book and while they do work as described, I feel that better programs are available. And considering how high Turner is on PD programs, he fails to mention the largest source of PD or "copyrighted but free" software: commercial information services such as CompuServe and The Source. My experience has shown that the programs contained on PD collection disks have usually been available many months earlier on the commercial services. The nominal hourly connect charges to download such files are cheaper than calling long-distance bulletin boards and not much greater than purchasing the disk sets themselves.

And That's Not All

While the material on modems and telecommunications was rather weak, the chapters on printers and word processors were very good. Considering all the different printers available, each with its own peculiarities and requirements, the author has managed to touch upon the common issues and problems remarkably well.

Rather than pick the "best" word-processor, Turner devotes a chapter to a general discussion of the typical features found in word processing software. After explaining what features should be considered when shopping for a word processor, Turner continues with a second chapter that profiles six popular word processors. The same logic can apply easily to other software application decisions.

The book ends with an extensive list of ST-oriented magazines published worldwide, and an unusual offer: each copy of the book comes with a free consultation coupon that lets you mail in one question or ask about an ST-related problem and receive a personal response from the author. In times when customer service is a rare commodity, this offer is quite refreshing.

In summary, I heartily recommend this book to all ST owners, new and old. It fills a huge educational gap between the overly simple and overly technical manuals now available and is a bargain at any price. If I owned Atari Corp., I'd make sure to include a copy of this book with every ST sold today.

Ron Luks is the founder and manager of the Atari Forums on CompuServe. He has been an Atari owner since 1979.


The Atari Book of Tips, Instructions, Secrets and Hints for the 520, 1040 and Mega STs by Ralph Turner, $16.95. Index Legalis Publishing, P.O. Box 1822-21, Fairfield, IA 52556, (515) 472-2293.