FIRST LOOKINSIDE THE NEW ATARI SUPER COMPUTERS
Meet the 16-bit 512 Atari...and more!
by NAT FRIEDLAND, Antic Editor
The future of personal computing is here-and
Atari is delivering it at about half the price of the competition.
The 1985 Atari computers, peripherals and software are BETTER than what has been considered the leading edge of PCs up till now. The unprecedentedly low prices for the new Atari line do not mean that these products are merely cheapened copies of the leaders. Atari microcomputers now ARE the leaders.
When Atari vice president Leonard Tramiel was asked how the company could sell a 10 megabyte hard disk for under $600, he replied, "Why does everybody else charge so much for a hard disk?"
In only six months, the new Atari got six new computer models ready to manufacture-along with an impressively complete new line of printers, monitors, disk drives and productivity software. The previous Atari management hadn't been able to add to the XL line since 1983.
This report is being written on the day following the January Consumer Electronics Show, where the full line was first displayed. (Antic had obtained a special sneak preview a few days earlier.) Because of Atari's all-out push to meet the CES deadline, full technical documentation for the new computers is not available as of this writing.
However, Antic is rushing into print with the most important details we know as of now. Please keep in mind that some of these prices, model numbers and specifications may be changed by the time the products actually start appearing in stores during March and April.
16-BIT ST SERIES
Three of the 1985 computers are starting off an advanced new 16-bit line. Atari will price the 130ST at $399, the just-announced 260ST would be $499, and the 520ST lists at $599. Memory size is the only difference between these models-respectively 128K, 258K and 512K. According to Atari, the STs are not expandable.
The ST microprocessor is the Motorola 68000, the same chip used in the much higher priced and monochrome-only Macintosh. Despite the ads for the Mac, the 68000 is a 16/32-bit chip as opposed to a true 32 bits. It has eight 32-bit data registers and eight 32-bit address registers. However, the data bus is 16-bit and the address bus is 24-bit.
The 68000 supports seven levels of interrupts, 56 instructions, 14 addressing modes and five data types. But the chip's 16-bit operating code combines an instruction and addressing mode, GP register number, an op-mode and instruction-specific data. These multiple combinations provide over 1,000 actual usable instructions.
The 68000 runs on the ST at a speed of eight million cycles (8Mhz) per second-that's much faster than the Mac runs. The ST computers have a cleanly designed 196K built-in ROM, which is expandable to 328K with plug-in cartridges.
As you might expect, the ST series really shines with graphics. A built-in drawing program similar to MacPaint has been announced. The 32K bit mapped screen supports three graphics modes. Low resolution is 320 x 200 pixels in 16 colors, medium resolution is 640 x 200 pixels in 4 colors, and there's a monochrome high resolution of 640 x 400 pixels.
However, there are 512 colors available in the low and medium resolution modes-eight levels each of red, green and blue. At the CES, a sample display screen showing these colors on the new Atari 12" RGB Analog SC1224 (under $200) was quite a mind-boggling sight. This monitor was also shown with a built-in 3 1/2" disk drive.
All the graphics capabilities described above are supported by various models in the new Atari lineup of video monitors priced from $150 to $300. The 5M124, priced under $200, is the high resolution monochrome model.
The entire rear panel of the ST is honeycombed with ports. There are both a Centronics parallel interface and an RS232C serial interface. Interfaces for both hard disk and 3 1/2" disk drive are built in. There are two joystick ports, one of which will support a 2-button mouse. The video ports will support standard television as well as low resolution composite video, medium resolution RGB and high resolution monochrome.
Musicians can get professional state-of-the-art sound with MIDI in-out ports. MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) gives your ST the control of multiple synthesizers in an emulated multi-track digital recording studio. We saw the ST impressively demonstrating the MIDI ports by controlling playback on the new Casio CZ-101 $499 synthesizer.
Built-in ST sound includes three channels of frequencies controllable from as deep as 30Hz to higher than audible range. There are separate frequency and volume registers, plus ASDR, dynamic envelope control and a noise generator.
A separate microprocessor handles the sleek ST keyboard, which contains a 10-key pad and a separate one-touch cursor section as well as a standard typing layout. There are 10 programmable function keys and an UNDO key. The entire unit looks as if it belongs on a $3,000 office computer.
TOS AND GEM
The ST models' TOS (Tramiel Operating System) is easily accessible through the icon-driven GEM (Graphics Environment Manager).
GEM was designed by Digital Research, which created the first microcomputer operating system, CP/M. Programmers who know CP/M will already be familiar with TOS. The ST is to come with your choice of BASIC or Logo.
C and Pascal are the professional program development languages of choice for GEM. (Atari users familiar with ACTION! will find these languages easy to learn.) Much of the software originally written for the IBM PC or the Macintosh will be easily transportable to the ST computers. A number of popular programs may well be converted by summer.
GEM supports a variety of widely-used graphics call formats, including the ANSI standard Computer Graphics Interface and 32K X 32K VDI integer coordinate system. This gives GEM portability for workstation-quality graphics applications. GEM can also add advanced raster operations and raster fonts.
Other GEM features are drop-down menus, windowing, bit block transfer, vector drawing, a real-time clock, 2-button mouse controller.
The GEM icon desktop has a calculator, a wastebasket, file folders-even a Breakout game for recreation.
The main thing to be said about the new Atari 8-bit XE models is that they are engineered for 100% compatibility with the existing XL line and the 800/400. The keyboard resembles the classy ST design minus a separate 10-key pad and one-touch cursor.
The poorly-accepted DOS 3.0 has been dropped in favor of a new DOS 2.5. This was designed by Bill Wilkinson of Optimized Systems Software, the father of Atari disk operating systems and an Antic contributor. As you'd hope, Wilkinson's new DOS 2.5 closely resembles DOS 2.0S and is entirely compatible with it.
The 65XE is the 64K replacement for the 800XL and will be priced at under $120. The star of the series is the 130XE which has 128K memory and will sell for "well under $200" -or approaching $150.
In welcome news for many Atari owners, the 130XE will retain the open parallel bus to accommodate powerful plug-in peripherals. The PBI will even be improved over the current XL version. It will have improved timing and a built-in +/- 5 volt power amplification.
Reportedly, this last-minute decision to continue PBI came at an engineering meeting called by Atari president Sam Tramiel in response to Antic's strong write-in campaign on the CompuServe Atari SIG.
The first self-contained portable Atari is the 65XEP, selling for under $400. Built into this 64K machine is a 3 1/2" disk drive and a very clear 5" green monitor. The unit is about half the size of a Kaypro luggable micro.
When the new polyphonic AMIE super-sound chip is finalized this spring, it is to be marketed in an alternate 64K computer called the 65XEM.
Monitors for the 8-bit XE computers include the XM128, about $150, a crisp 12" green monitor with a built-in 80-column card for professional-quality word processing. There's also the bright XC1411 composite 14" color model for under $200. And naturally all 8-bit Ataris are compatible with standard television sets.
The 8-bit XE models will operate with either the current 5 1/4" floppy disk format, or with the new 3 1/2" disks which are used in the 16-bit ST series.
The 3 1/2" drive is the SF354 model with 500K capacity, priced under $200. Atari is now also considering a 250K drive for about $150, to be called the SF324. These 3 1/2" drives and the projected ST hard disks will transfer data at a sizzling 1.3 megabytes per second on the 16-bit computers. For the XEs, the goal is to boost the speed to 30,000 from the current 19,200.
The under-$600 SH317 hard disk was not shown at CES. And there still is doubt about whether it will store 10 or 15 megabytes of data, or whether there will be separate hard disk models at each capacity.
In 5 1/4" floppy disk drives, the current 1050 model will gradually be replaced by the compatible XF521. This drive will sell for about $150, support true double density with DOS 2.5 and match the looks of the XE computers.
Atari's full line of printers (and monitors) will also be marketed with interfaces for IBM, Apple and Commodore computers. These new printers all seem much sturdier and more effective than any printer that has ever carried the Atari imprint before.
For only about $150, you can choose between a slow (12 cps) but true letter-quality daisywheel printer, an 80 characters per second dot-matrix printer that produces graphics virtually as good as the Apple Image-writer, or a 50 cps non-impact dot matrix that prints sharp copy in multiple- colors. A black-only 20 cps nonimpact dot matrix will sell for $99.
Under various model numbers, these new Atari printers can be purchased with interfaces for either the 8-bit or the 16-bit computer lines.
In its own right, the '85 Atari software is as spectacular as the new hardware. The emphasis is on state-of-the-art productivity applications, and the prices are almost all under $49.95.
The undisputable star of Atari's new software is Infinity, a second-generation integrated program that's more powerful than Lotus 1-2-3. Yet it will sell at only $49.95 for XEs and about $70 for the STs. (It also runs on XLs and even on the 800, though it loses multi-tasking and windowing capability)
Infinity has a spreadsheet, a relational database, a word processor that displays all special lettering onscreen, business graphics and telecommunications. It also includes icons, drop-down menus, multi-tasking windows and integrated printing.
The program will support the upcoming Atari local area networking (LAN), for multiple Ataris cabled together. Infinity runs in virtual memory to take advantage of the expanded Atari disk drive capacities.
Admittedly, all this is a bit hard to believe about software that can operate with as little as 64K memory. A developer of the program told Antic that Infinity was able to pack in so many advanced features by "optimizing" the assembly language compilation. Until now, optimization has been used mainly for advanced military and government-agency software. It's a tedious process that requires painstaking line-by-line program compression analysis.
Other hot Atari software-virtually all priced under $49.95-includes:
AtariWriter Plus-Contains spelling checker and mailing list, the 128K version resides entirely on one disk.
Silent Butler-Personal finance software that tracks multiple checking and credit card accounts. It has the unique capability of printing on your own personalized checks, using a slotted holder that fits in your printer.
Shopkeeper-A small business accounting package that will ultimately be in six modules. The first release emulates an electronic cash register, counts inventory and compiles daily reports.
Song Painter-Joystick-controlled music construction program that replaces standard musical notation with easily-understood colored line patterns and icons.
THIRD PARTY PRODUCTS
Some of the best things for the Atari we saw at CES from third party developers were Paper Clip, the powerful and simple new word processor from Batteries Unlimited, and the new line of Star printers.
Star's SG-10, the model that replaces the Gemini l0X, prints near letter quality at 60 cps and draft quality at 120 cps. Yet it's priced at only $299. The new top-of-the-line SB-10 has 24 wires, costs about $900 and prints dot-matrix lettering that looks almost exactly as if it came from a daisywheel.
Be sure you don't miss the next issue of Antic when we'll cover Atari's technological breakthroughs in even greater depth.
And for the very latest-breaking news about the exciting new 1985 Atari developments, be sure to look in on CompuServe for Antic Online's Special Bulletins.