Classic Computer Magazine Archive START VOL. 4 NO. 6 / JANUARY 1990


New PC Emulator and Spectre
GCR Hit the Streets


Talon Technologies' SuperCharger is a 512K "PC in a box" that plugs into the DMA port and offers
easy PC compatibility without opening up your ST. And for the price of $399, it's cheaper than a
PC clone.

Thanks to the continued development of add-on hardware, the ST's ability to emulate other computers is at a new high. Until now, the only truly effective emulator has been for the Apple Macintosh. But because of the difference in disk formats, the ST could only read Mac disks through the slow and expensive Translator One. PC emulation also has been slow because Avant-Garde's pc-ditto has done the whole job in software. But now things have changed.


The news of the first full-speed, hardware-based PC emulator comes from a surprising quarter, a here-to-fore unknown company called Talon Technologies. Its SuperCharger was designed in Germany, is manufactured in California and is being distributed by an English company. The SuperCharger is a small box that contains an NEC 8-MHz V30 microprocessor, RAM and supporting chips and plugs into your ST's DMA port. The V30 largely duplicates the Intel 8086/8088 family and, therefore, runs PC/MS-DOS software. In fact, since the V30 is a full 16-bit chip, it can run some programs, such as MS-Windows 286, which normally run only on an 80286-based machine.

The SuperCharger provides excellent performance for two reasons: it has a fast chip (almost twice as fast as the original PC's 4.77 MHz) and connects to the Atari's speediest bus, the DMA.

What You See is Less Than What You Get

The SuperCharger comes packaged with the main unit, 512K of RAM (1M is available as an option), a power supply, DMA cable and DOS. The SuperCharger's memory is used to run the PC software, not the ST's memory. To connect the SuperCharger, you must plug it into the hard-drive chain, preferably as the last item in the chain. The unit has a second DMA bus port to pass signals through if it can't be last in the chain. SuperCharger is a SCSI device and comes factory preset with an ID of 7, although this can be changed by altering some jumpers in the unit.

The five-volt power supply plugs into the back and the power switch is rather inconveniently mounted in the back. On the front of the unit are power and data lights and a reset switch.

SuperCharger's software is quite simple. You run a driver program to start the emulation. When you run the program, it prompts you to insert the MS-DOS disk in the drive and press [Return]. If all is well, then the SuperCharger boots MS-DOS and the next thing you see is the familiar "A>" prompt.

Also included is a utility to configure the driver to set certain parameters, such as how many drives you have, whether to use the internal drive as A or B (and thus the external drive as B or A) and to set the step rate of the disk drives. (A slower step rate is necessary to use a 5-1/4-inch drive for PC software.) You can also set whether you are using a 50 or 60 Hz color monitor (SuperCharger is also sold in Europe) and whether you have an 8087 math coprocessor chip installed. The SuperCharger has an empty socket for the 8087 and installing the chip is as simple as plugging it in. Unlike math coprocessors for the 68000, the 8087 is widely supported by PC software. It significantly speeds up such programs as Lotus 1-2-3.

Hard-Drive Support and Graphics

If you want to autoboot DOS from a hard drive, you must use the utility software to prepare it. You must give up a small partition to use as the autoboot partition, but you can specify which partition you want to use (it need not be the C: drive as with pc-ditto). After preparing the partition you want to use, you need only copy MS-DOS to it and you're all set. A driver is included with SuperCharger so that the emulator can recognize and use your ST's hard drive.

The stock SuperCharger supports CGA graphics--320 by 200 (color) in four colors or 640 by 200 in two colors (color or monochrome). The monochrome display is somewhat faster, because more calculations have to be done to convert character displays to the ST's graphics-based display in color. Unfortunately, SuperCharger does not support the EGA base mode of 320 by 200 in 16 colors.

There's also a "hot key" sequence that lets you switch between PC mode and ST mode. When you press these keys in PC mode, it reboots the Atari and brings you back to the standard Desktop. Upon running the driver program again, however, you find yourself exactly where you left off in your PC program. Although you can't freely jump back and forth between the two modes (the ST reboots every time), this feature is very handy if you find you have to return to your ST for awhile, but don't want to end the PC session.

There are a few tricky things about SuperCharger. The reset button must be pressed upon turning on your ST or the SuperCharger may interfere with the boot-up sequence. Talon is looking at making this reset automatic. Further, because the device is installed in the drive chain, it may cause problems with autoboot hard drives. This should not be a problem if the SuperCharger is the last item in the DMA chain, as recommended. However, if your hard drive (like mine) does not have a "pass through," then the SuperCharger has to be installed before it and may interrupt the boot-up sequence. This makes it impossible to use with an autoboot hard drive, especially if the autoboot software "polls" the drive chain looking for drives. Talon is looking into this problem and should have a fix shortly.

The instructions that came with my SuperCharger were preliminary, but even so were well written and easy to follow. They gave no technical information about the unit, nor anything about setting up MS-DOS to work with the ST's disk drives. As covered in "Mac and PC on the ST" (START, November 1988) it's fairly complicated to set this up right. Talon is working on revised documentation that should provide much more information.

Talon Technologies promises some interesting support products for the SuperCharger. First is a miniature VGA card that will actually fit inside the SuperCharger's case. With a multisynch monitor, you'll he able to run VGA graphics and ST color and monochrome--all on a single monitor! Further, the PC bus is available inside the case and Talon plans to bring out an expansion box so that PC cards can be used with SuperCharger.

Important Questions

The important questions about SuperCharger are: does it work and is it fast? The answer to both is yes. It works, running all the PC software I tried. The SuperCharger is also fast--it ran PC programs such as Lotus 1-2-3 and MicroSoft Word quickly. Graphics-based software was very fast, although the text software had a somewhat slower screen update speed. With SuperCharger, it is now feasible to bring PC-based work home from the office. Although the unit we tested was a late prototype, it worked well. Provided that Talon can handle the DMA chain problem with SuperCharger, this is a product that can change your ST from a friendly, powerful computer to an unfriendly, powerful computer: a PC!


Spectre GCR is also making its debut as this is written. For those of you who aren't aware, Spectre GCR is produced by Gadgets by Small and lets the ST emulate an Apple Macintosh. The emulation isn't perfect: there are some programs that won't run or that crash when you attempt to use certain features. However, most Mac software that "followed the rules" runs very well on Spectre. And with each version of the Spectre software, more programs run correctly.

As mentioned above, the main problem has always been how to move software from Mac format disks (GCR) to a format readable by Atari drives. Data Pacific's Translator One works, but it is very slow and costs $300. As you can probably guess from the name, Spectre GCR can directly read, write and format Mac disks. At $300, it is the same price as Translator One, but it includes the Mac emulator itself. All you need to add are a set of Macintosh ROMs, available from a number of sources.

Spectre GCR is a very large cartridge, the largest I've seen. You must open the cartridge to insert the Mac ROMs as detailed in the excellent manual, then close it up and plug it in. You then must plug the floppy drive(s) into the appropriate sockets on the Spectre GCR cartridge. The cartridge supposedly works best when it is at the end of the chain, although I have had no problem with it being in the middle.

To use a program or data disk, you simply pop it into the drive as you would with a Mac. Spectre GCR reads the disk, determines its format (Magic, Spectre or Mac) automatically and configures itself to read and write to that format.

Spectre GCR comes packaged with version 2.0 of the software. This release has some bug fixes and the necessary code to support GCR's new capabilities. Version 2.0 no longer supports Data Pacific's Translator One. Obviously, this isn't a problem with Spectre GCR, but it does mean that users of earlier Spectre cartridges will have to continue to use version 1.9 of the software in order to use Translator One. As with earlier versions, version 2.0 supports sound and alternate video and can format a hard drive for use with the Mac. It also seems to work well with version 6 of System and Finder, which is more or less the latest version.

Version 2.0 Mac sound seems to work quite well. You should use an Atari monochrome monitor for best results, but if necessary you can display your screens on the Atari color monitor in medium resolution. Here you must make a choice--either look at half the screen at a time (with a button to toggle between views) or lose every other scan line on the screen. Neither is very satisfactory, but the color display is limited by its lower resolution.

Spectre GCR has been a long time in coming but it was worth the wait. With it, you get the premier Macintosh emulator that can handle most of the things a Mac can do--and at full Mac speed. If you're serious about running Mac software on your ST, this is the product for you.

START Contributing Editor David Plotkin is an avid ST user, but has been forced to use those "other" computers at Chevron U.S.A., where he works as a chemical engineer.


SuperCharger. $399. Talon Technologies, 243 N Hwy. 101, #11, Solano Beach, CA 92075.

Spectre GCR. $300. Gadgets by Small, Inc, 40 West Littleton Blvd, #201211, Littleton, CO 80120, (303) 791-6098.