Classic Computer Magazine Archive START VOL. 4 NO. 5 / DECEMBER 1989


Elmtech's ParSec Graphic Interface


Want more speed? Is 6.125 MIPS enough? Hungry for color? Well, if 196,000 colors from a palette of 16,777,216 colors aren't enough for you, then turn the page. But if you 're interested in bow to make your ST perform like a graphics workstation, read on. The English lads from Elmtech are invading the U.S. with ParSec and the ST will never be the same!

In today's computer world, the ST's graphic abilities are far from astounding. At one time or another, it's been called the "plain vanilla" or "basic" 68000 machine. No matter that it's an amazing blend of power and low cost or that it performs feats equal to (and occasionally superior to) other 16-bit computers on the market, it's just that its maximum of 16 colors on screen from a palette of 512 seems a bit tame by today's standards. The ST seems to have been relegated to the graphics role of the "second car" for paint programs and the like. Until now, that is.

Enter the ParSec from Elmtech. To see it, I went to England's Alexandria Palace Convention Hall. There, among all the trappings of an Atari ST show, I found Elmtech Research Ltd.'s Director David Encill amidst a mob of ST devotees squeezed into his small booth. Everyone was watching STs displaying graphics that just couldn't be-without the ParSec Graphic Interface.

ParSec? What's a ParSec?
The ParSec Graphic Interface is physically about the same size as a 1040ST, configured into an aluminum rectangle that's 296 millimeters (11-5/8 inches) wide, 284 mm (11-3/16 inches) deep and 50 mm (two inches) high. It adds a second microprocessor and additional RAM to the ST and extends the graphics capabilities beyond anything dreamed of for the ST.

Listen to these specifications: A 32-bit microprocessor running at 50 MHz/6.125 MIPS (that's 6.12 5 million instructions per second), 768 kilobytes of on-board RAM and four color planes with 16 colors per line from 4,096 maximum colors on-screen. If you want more, the 8768 upgrade board increases this to over 196,000 colors onscreen from a palette of more than 16 million colors.

ParSec plugs into the ST's cartridge port. Besides adding a video port, there's a standard RS232 port for hard copy output to XY plotters and laser, dot-matrix and color thermal transfer printers or input from graphic tablets and a mouse. There's also a SCSI port for CD ROMs and hard disks. The 8768 upgrade board also adds an additional connector for video (four and eight bit-plane outputs), plus space for up to 4 MB of additional RAM.

Similar to Atari's own ATW, the ParSec
adds another microprocessor for sheer
number-crunching power, while retaining
an ST as the front-end. Ian Maw, technical
director of Elm-tech Research, Ltd., is shown
holding a prototype ParSec board.

Goodbye, Atari Monitors
Getting this power onto a screen requires a multi-sync monitor; low resolution is 640 by 480 pixels and high is 1024 by 768, and all displays are double-buffered. Encill notes that any noninterlaced monitor with a horizontal scan frequency of at least 28.8 kHz for low resolution and 46.08 kHz for high will work, but recommends their own ELM MultiSync Plus, which allows programmable resolutions up to the 1024 by 768 maximum. Technical director and product designer Ian Maw takes great pride in his accomplishment. "ParSec brings the kind of power and control that normally requires systems costing thousands of dollars," he says. "The ST is a fine machine, but with ParSec added, it flies into the world of graphic workstations."

The ST works in conjunction with
ParSec for familiarity and ease of use.

Maw also notes that a GEM-to-ParSec conversion program offers the ability to run most Atari GEM-based programs without modification, while still taking advantage of the greater speed, superior resolution and increased color palette. "The trick [is] . . . that the ST works in conjunction with ParSec for familiarity and ease of use."

This enthusiasm is echoed by Paul Cowling, software designer for Elmtech. "We want to keep the options open. The Paint package supplied is very good. It can handle files in various formats, including .IFF and those from the IBM and enables 16 colors on screen in 640 by 480 resolution. What we're excited about in our Paintbox Pixel+Art series are the possibilities for greatly enhanced features, such as oil, water color and chalk emulation."

Cowling reaffirms that the Paint-box art programs will use the ST to handle such functions as menus and sub-menus, freeing up the ParSec to handle large-scale image processing and the like. "The next generation Paintbox will continue all the standard graphic choices, such as line draw [with XOR and line-length tonal changes] and shapes [boxes, circles, regular polygon, ellipse and quadrilateral functions with full rotation in several axes, shearing and stretching]. Improvements will include file access functions for swapping palettes, merging and shrinking images, as well as being able to format and port images down to any host computer, but this relies on the host's compatibility with the SCSI port."

Cowling also points out that additional graphic functions will include variable airbrush with color flow parameters and image masking, plus palette color processing for limited color analysis, creating variable shading and stripping control. "The Paintbox will make the background of an image behave like a textured paper on command," he says, "and will include a full choice of functions for specific patterns and designs for the backdrops in the image."

Power Has a Price
Elmtech expects to sell the basic ParSec 4768 unit for approximately $1550 U.S., but no price has been set yet on the 8768 upgrade board. Also being planned are a Genlock for mixing and overlaying composite video and a digitizer for importing images to be manipulated by paint programs.

Of course, it all comes down to what you see on the screen, and that is impressive. Certainly not for everyone, the ParSec is for those wanting more graphic power, but still wishing to stay in the friendly environment of the Atari. As the Brits would say: "The ST and ParSec form a very good combination indeed."

Marshal M. Rosenthal is a New York-based writer and photographer who has been involved in the overseas electronic/computer industry since the early days of the "dreaded" VCS2600. He wrote about the ATW in the November issue of START.


ParSec Graphic Interface, $1,550 (approximate price). Elmtech Research Ltd., 6 Witherlord Way, Selly Oak, Birmingham, England B29 4AX, 011-0827-59566.