Classic Computer Magazine Archive START VOL. 5 NO. 3 / NOVEMBER 1990

Return of the kitchen-table Atari developers...


Trans Keyboard, AVUE, Black Box


Harness the power of a PC keyboard for your Atari

Review by Matthew Ratcliff

The Transkey is a hardware modification for all 8-bit Atari computers, which allows you to hook up an IBM PC keyboard to your Atari. IBM PC keyboards come in two styles, XT and Enhanced (also called AT or 101 key), and Transkey supports both. Adding an IBM keyboard to any Atari computer can vastly improve your typing speed and quality, while simplifying all editing functions. The hardware includes a small circuit board with its own CPU, ROM software, support circuitry, and an extra ROM socket for future expansion. Version 1.1 of the ROM software was tested for this review.

Two versions are available. One must be soldered in, while the other simply plugs in - if your computer has a socketed POKEY chip. The solder version comes with a flat ribbon cable that connects to the Transkey circuit board, with 10 solder connections to be made to the POKEY chip at the opposite end. In the plug-in version, the ribbon cable plugs to a small "piggyback" circuit board. You remove the POKEY chip from the computer and plug it into this small board, which you then plug into the POKEY socket. The circuit board fits neatly under the metal RFI shield on all systems except the 1200XL. For the 1200XL the RFI shield must have a small hole cut in it, or be removed completely, to accommodate the Transkey circuit board. It is held firmly in place with double-sided tape provided with the upgrade kit.

There are four more connections to be made. These make it possible for Transkey's IBM keyboard interface to handle the [START], [SELECT], [OPTION], and [RESET] keys. If the computer is fully socketed, these wires may simply be friction-fit between pins on certain chips and the sockets they plug into. Otherwise, some soldering is required to attach the wires to the proper locations.

Check your 800XL computer before ordering, to see if it is socketed. Only about a third of all 800XL computers (maybe less) are socketed. If not, there's no point in paying the $10 extra for a plug-in version. All Atari 400, 800, and 1200XL systems are socketed, so it would be advantageous to order the plug-in version. None of the 130XE, 65XE computers are socketed, so order the solder version. If you are not experienced with soldering, enlist the assistance of someone from your local Atari computer club or Atari dealer, if possible. Soldering mistakes can be costly.

The Transkey comes with another connector and cable that brings out the standard IBM keyboard interface. This may be an in-line connector (like a keyboard extension cable), or a chassis mount. (Specify your choice when ordering.) If you're not squeamish about drilling a 5/8 inch hole in the computer case to mount the keyboard connector, this is better than having a short cable and connector dangling from the back of the machine.

The documentation details installation procedures for the Atari 400, 800,1200XL, 600XL, 800XL, and 130XE computers. Designer Michael St. Pierre informed me that it would probably work with an XEGS, but has not been tested. Finding all the connections might be a bit difficult, since the XEGS circuit board has a unique layout.

The descriptions are accompanied by detailed, professional-looking drawings. Complete wire connection lists are included as well. The circuit board is a very clean design, expertly crafted. There were numerous spelling and grammar errors in the instructions, but overall the information is accurate and gets the point across.

A Better Keyboard?

Once the Transkey installation is complete, simply plug in just about any IBM compatible keyboard, power up the computer, and begin typing. The only flaw I discovered with the Transkey is the keyboard "roll-over" feature; it's too sluggish. When typing on the PC keyboard and Transkey, I must slow my typing noticeably, as compared to my average typing speed on an IBM PC system. This takes a minor bit of getting adjusted to, and will probably only be noticed by fast touch typists. It is still far more responsive than the original Atari 800XL keyboard.

The first big plus for the Transkey is the fact that you can use arrow keys on the keyboard to move the cursor. All those [CONTROL] key combinations ([CONTROL]-[MINUS], [CONTROL]-[+], etc.) are no longer needed to move the cursor. This makes it a pleasure to edit programs.

The HOME key moves the cursor to the top left of the display. SHIFT-HOME clears the display. The END key moves the cursor to the lower left of the display. The PAGE-UP and PAGE-DOWN keys move the cursor to the left and right edges of the screen, respectively. To insert a character on a line, simply press the INSERT key. SHIFT-INSERT will insert a complete blank line. Press the DELETE key to delete characters. In most cases, these editing sequences require an accompanying [SHIFT] or [CONTROL] keypress on the original Atari keyboard.

Of course, every IBM keyboard comes with a numeric keypad. Transkey fully supports this too, either in numeric or cursor positioning mode, as controlled by the NUM- LOCK key. And this keypad will work with virtually any software, unlike Atari's CX85 keypad, which plugs into a joystick port, and requires a special handler not compatible with most word processing programs.

Function Keys

To enhance programming speed, the Transkey has predefined the IBM keyboard's function keys F1 through F8. In one mode, each function key press outputs a BASIC command, such as POKE or SAVE "D: (allowing you to enter the rest of the filename). In the MAC/65 mode, the commands are specific to this cartridge-based assembler, such as ASM,#-,#D: and so on. The function keys F9, F10, F11, and F12 are START, SELECT, OPTION, and HELP keys respectively. (Note that F11 and F12 are available only on enhanced IBM keyboards. If you employ an XT keyboard, it will be necessary to use the computer's console key for OPTION.)

Combining CONTROL with function key presses, you can adjust certain operating modes of the Transkey and special features of the computer. CONTROL-F1 disables and enables the keyboard, both the IBM and the original.

CONTROL-F2 toggles DMA (direct memory access). When you turn DMA off you shut off the ANTIC chip, which frequently accesses computer memory for the screen display. This turns off the screen and speeds up any currently running program by approximately 30 percent. This is useful for number crunching programs, such as ray tracers.

CONTROL-F2 toggles the audio keyboard click sound off and on. On the XL and XE computers, CONTROL-F4 toggles between two built-in character sets. One set is for character graphics and the other contains international characters used in representing some foreign languages. These fonts are available only on the XL/XE computers. CONTROL-F4 will have no effect on 400/800 systems.

CONTROL-F5 acts as the [HELP] key found on XL and XE systems. CONTROL-F6 is the reverse video key. CONTROL-F7 toggles between the BASIC and Mac/65 macro definitions for the function keys.

Great ESCape, BREAKing Away

The ESCAPE key is at the far top left of IBM keyboards, a somewhat inconvenient position for Atarians accustomed to having [ESCAPE] just to the left of the number [1] key. On the IBM keyboard, the key in that position is the grave (') character, not used on the Atari. Therefore, Transkey maps this IBM key to [ESCAPE] as well, giving you two [ESCAPE] keys.

CONTROL-SCROLL LOCK acts as the [BREAK] key for the Atari on the IBM keyboard. However, on the IBM computer, the key labeled PAUSE/ BREAK is usually used as the break key, in a CONTROL-PAUSE key combination. If you are accustomed to using the standard break method on an IBM computer, this might be a little annoying at first on the Atari. To reset an IBM computer, you press the CONTROL-ALT-DEL keys simultaneously. Transkey makes this the [RESET] for the Atari computer, as well.

Test Results

I tested the Transkey with AtariWriter 80, and it worked flawlessly. The screen editing is a bit cumbersome, however, because AtariWriter uses the console keys in a way that most other programs use [CONTROL] key combinations. For example, [OPTION]-[=]is the Page Up command in AtariWriter. Transkey does not map Page-Up to an equivalent [OPTION]-[=] key combination. Therefore, you must use F11 plus = to perform a Page Up in AtariWriter, or use the [OPTION] key on the original keyboard for this function. Similar limitations may be experienced with other word processors as well.

Transkey seamlessly integrates an IBM PC keyboard into your Atari computer. IBM PC keyboards can be had for as little as $40 by mail order, so the total upgrade cost will be around $100. The keyboard works best with Atari BASIC, Mac/65, and other programming languages. It is still quite useful when it comes to word processing, with only minor limitations. It would have been nice if Transkey had "programmable macros" for the function and editing keys, so that one could create a custom configuration for any application. However, such a feature would have made Transkey a lot more expensive. Micro Solutions has an excellent product in Transkey, and I highly recommend it.


Solder-in version $48
Plug-in version $58
Shipping & handling $3

Micro Solutions, Box 750396, Petaluma, CA 94975. (707) 763-9103.


Power without Programming

Review by Chester Cox

AVUE, the Analog Visual Utility Environment, offers new ways of getting to those marvelous graphics and sounds hidden inside our Ataris. It even offers programming without programming.

Norman Thornton's AVUE package actually consists of several programs. Foremost is Pather, the actual programming language. It accesses graphics, colors, sound and movement at a rate comparable to machine language. Despite its power, Pather is a simple, straightforward programming language. With commands such as MASK (masks a portion of code as a value or a graphic) and BUCKET (a "bucket of color" from your favorite input device or devices), coding in Pather can be something of an entertaining game in itself. Even a casual programmer will be able to make exciting displays.

A compiled language, Pather lets you type your program in a word processor and save it as an ASCII file, or you can type it in BASIC. AVUE also includes UFORMS, a program which will actually help you write Pather programs, even if you've never programmed before. I don't program myself, yet I've doodled around with this program and come up with some colorful (and noisy!) nonsense. The TRACY program doesn't seem to operate as stated in the manual. When I tried to save a traced TRACY picture, I got a frequent ERROR 144 message. (This was an early version of AVUE, and perhaps these problems have already been addressed.)

The manual comes in an inexpensive three-ring binder that nonetheless looks quite classy, with section tabs on the pages. The writing style is friendly and helpful, but the manual doesn't have an index, and more examples would have been helpful. There are some errors which can slow you down. For example, the instructions tell you to RUN "D:UFORMS.MAK", but the program is actually in LISTed form, so you have to ENTER it before RUNning. .

Even with these flaws, the package is hard to fault. An audio patch cord makes a delightful bonus, and the manual provides ideas on how to use it to create new input devices. I hooked it up to my stereo to make crazy musical color patterns. There's plenty of potential in this gadget - imagine hooking this up to an exercise bike and a racing game on your Atari, so the faster you go, the faster your player goes.

AVUE can't replace real programming skills, but it can make accessing your Atari simpler and more enjoyable for non programmers. I've been bitten - despite my antipathy towards programming, I continue to play around with AVUE. Perhaps I'll never write a truly useful bit of code, but I'll have fun along the way.

AVUE $30

EXIT, 6411 6th St. NW, Washington, DC 20012. (703) 441-1525.


Hard drive interface for your 8-bit

Review by Theodore DiVito

I became interested in Computer Software Services' Black Box recently when a friend bought one. I had put in a hard disk of my own not long before, using a Multi I/O board (MIO) from ICD as an interface. The MIO can be hard to find, though they're still available direct from ICD. The MIO offers either 256K or 1 megabyte of RAM which can be partitioned into multiple RAMdisks, one printer spooler, a SCSI/SASI hard disk interface, a modem interface, and a printer interface. This multi-purpose Input-Output device hooks up to the parallel bus on the XL. On an XE it requires an adaptor card for the enhanced cartridge port. The MIO works well with generic IBM hard drives, and I have used it with an Adaptec 4070 RLL hard drive controller, with several brand-name hard drives.

The MIO has some disadvantages, among them its pin structures. Hooking up a 50-pin cable to the hard disk port on the MIO can be difficult, and if you're not careful you can easily break off a pin. The MIO does nothing to enhance floppy I/O, either. Although it has a built-in hardware menu that lets you control the CIO channels, re-arranging device numbers in the process, it has no special handlers to speed the flow of data from hard drives or floppies. An MIO with 256K costs around $240 (prices fluctuate due to the changing prices of RAM chips).

My friend's Black Box had some impressive features, especially its ability to format hard drives in QUAD density (512 bytes per sector) as opposed to the normal density provided by the MIO. My friend's 30Mb hard drive now had 38Mb. The Black Box also has ultra-speed I/O on all secondary storage devices and allows interleave settings on hard drives to boost their read times. A built-in monitor allows you to dissect any program in assembly language. The Black Box also sports a screen-dump button and a coldboot button, both very useful trinkets. Another neat item about the Black Box is that you can boot as many as 96 boot-disks off a hard drive. This is a real advantage over the MIO, which only lets you boot about one boot-disk using its RAM.

CSS promises some upgrades for the Black Box, including interfaces for Atari XF551 floppy drives and for IBM/ST floppy drives. Both the MIO and the Black Box allow modem rates up to 19,200 baud.

Some of the chief disadvantages of the Black Box lie in its architecture. A T-shaped card, the Box is BIG, about 2.5 times the size of an MIO, and it comes with neither case nor RAM. These items are extra and cost considerably more. If you decide to add RAM, you'll be limited to 64K, which can be used as a printer spooler.

However, for those who don't really care about the RAM or a case, the Black Box does have some well-designed cable connections. For hard drives, the Black Box uses clip-pin drive connectors, providing a secure connection unlikely to break under stress (unlike the MIO, which has bare, exposed pins). XE owners will appreciate the fact than an XE adaptor is built right in, and costs nothing extra. I didn't like the printer and modem cable connectors, which are nonstandard ribbon cards. However, it is easy to build inexpensive cables for those connectors.

I can recommend both interfaces to any 8-hit owner. Each has its advantages and drawbacks. The MIO has been around a while, proving to be a generally rugged, sound investment. It doesn't offer all the extra frills of the Black Box, but it does come with a case and a minimum 256K of RAM. The Black Box, on the other hand, offers lots of added features, but lacks the case, RAM, and standard printer/modem connectors unless you pay a lot more.

Both interfaces come with well-written, informative manuals. As is the case with so many 8-bit products these days, neither is widely available except through the manufacturers, who are also the only sources for repairs (to my knowledge). The MIO has the advantage of being a known quantity, a tested, integrated system that is ready to go with all you need for a hard drive setup. The Black Box offers extras like faster speeds and higher density formats for your hard disk, though you may find yourself paying more than you planned if you decide you need that case and RAM. CSS promises future enhancements to the Black Box, and I'm looking forward to seeing how they work.

MIO with 256K - $239.95
MIO with 1Mb (if available) - $469.95
MIO XE adapter - $19.95

ICD, Inc., 1220 Rock Street, Rockford, IL 61101. (815) 968-2228, BBS (815) 968-2229. (Prices may vary due to fluctuations in cost of RAM chips.)

BLACK BOX (bare board) - $199.95
BLACK BOX (64K RAM) - $249.95

Computer Software Services, P.O. Box 17660, Rochester, NY 14617. (716) 586-5545. BBS (716) 247-7157.

Chester Cox is a U.S. Air Force Sergeant who is an active 8-bit supporter and has written many ANTIC reviews.

Theodore DiVito is studying Astrophysics at the University of Maryland. He has written several 8-bit Atari astrophotography programs

Matthew Ratcliff is a St. Louis engineer who has long been one of the 8-bit Atari's best known programmers, hardware hackers and reviewers.