DISK DRIVE SURVEY
By LAWRENCE DZIEGIELEWSKI
Are you in the market for a disk drive?
If so, you're probably aware of the many alternatives you have. At
least six manufacturers market "Atari-compatible" disk drives, each of
which offers one or more unique features. It can be difficult to
determine which drive offers the best combination of features you really
This survey presents a variety of choices for anyone who wants to add a drive to his or her Atari PC system. It includes five of the best drives available today, all of which list for less than $600, though you can expect to find most of them offered at significant discounts by mail-order distributors. I've evaluated each drive for price, performance, features, and expandability of the system (slave drives, etc.).
The drives fall into three categories: top-of-the-line (Trak AT-D2), full-featured (Rana 1000 and Indus GT) and no-frills (Atari 1050 and Astra 1620 drives).
Of primary importance is software and hardware compatibility. Some drives have problems loading copy-protected commercial software. In most instances, when such an incompatibility is found, the software manufacturers work with the drive manufacturers to solve the problem. As a result, the compatibility problem is disappearing rapidly.
I'll be using a number of terms that may be unfamiliar to you. The following "glossary" explains some of these terms.
DENSITY - Usually used in combination with "single" or "double," density refers to the amount of data that can be stored on a diskette.
SINGLE DENSITY - With Atari disk drives, single density refers to a storage scheme that uses 40 tracks, each of which holds 18 sectors. Each sector holds 128 bytes of data.
DOUBLE DENSITY - Atari disk drives that are capable of double-density operation also use 40 tracks of 18 sectors each. However, each sector holds twice as much data, (256 bytes) as a single density sector.
ENHANCED DENSITY - This special density format is supported by Atari's DOS 3 and was developed by Atari specifically for its 1050 drive. As in single density, each sector holds 128 bytes. Instead of 18 sectors per track, though, there are 24 (for a total of 1040). An enhanced density disk holds about 127K of data.
SLAVE DRIVE OPTION - Most Atari disk drives include a "controller" that lets the computer communicate with that drive. Some controllers can control more than one disk drive. To these you can attach a "slave drive," a less expensive drive that doesn't have a controller. The only drive in this survey that accepts slave drives, the Trak, must use slaves made by Trak. All drives in this review can be "daisy-chained," or connected in series of up to four drives.
PRINTER PORT - This lets you connect a parallel printer, such as an Epson or Gemini, to your drive without an 850 Interface. Atari printers don't need a parallel port-they connect in series with other Atari peripherals.
WRITE-PROTECT - The usual way to "write-protect" a diskette is to cover the notch on the disk's edge with a gummed sticker. This makes it impossible to SAVE a file or otherwise write or erase data on the disk. If a disk drive has a "write-protect" switch, you can use it for the same purpose and eliminate the need for write-protect stickers.
TRACK BUFFERING - An entire track of data is read into a RAM buffer in the drive. This reduces wear and tear on the drive mechanism. Ordinarily, however, track buffering does not speed up the rate of writing.
MTBF - Mean Time Between Failures. Manufacturers provide this information as an average indicator of reliability. As expressed here it's the average number of hours prior to failure.
DIAGNOSTICS - Drives with this feature can perform "self-tests"
and report any problems to the user.
Some drives feature a digital readout that displays drive-status information, such as current track access, error status and number, and drive ID number (which is most useful in multi-drive systems). Experienced users will probably make greater use of this information than beginners.
ABOUT THE CHART
I used BATS (Antic, December/January 1983 & The Best of Antic Anthology), a 70-sector tokenized BASIC program to run comparison benchmarks on all of the drives in this survey. I LOADed and SAVEd the program seven times on each drive, then averaged the times. SAVEs were done both with and without write verification.
Although the Atari 810 drive is no longer available, I've also included it in the chart for purposes of comparison.
A relative newcomer to the Atari disk drive scene, Trak Microcomputer's "AT series" of drives is centered around a half-height drive mechanism in a well-designed, compact case. The series includes the AT-1, the standard double-density drive. The next in line, AT-D1 is a single-density drive with a printer port and a 2K buffer. The AT-D1 is upgradable to double-density. The drive examined here is the AT-D2, the flagship of Trak's line. This drive can be operated in either single or double density.
Included with the AT-D2 is a printer port with a 2K buffer, which can be upgraded to 16K. The AT-D2, like all drives in the AT Series, includes a touch-sensitive front panel. Brush your finger across the Trak logo, and the AT-D2 comes to life. The write-protect switch allows you to put an electronic write-protect tab on your disk, and the digital readout stays lit to assure you that the data on the disk is safe from accidental erasure. Another indicator shows you which track is being accessed. Additionally, the drive features a single-or-double-density mode indicator. Trak's touch-sensitive control panel is the best one I've used.
Every time you power up the AT-D2, a diagnostic package puts the drive through a complete self-check. This operation, which takes only half a second, prints error messages to the screen or printer if there are any problems. If there are no problems, there is no message. (In fact, a message of reassurance, such as "System OK," would be a welcome addition.) If everything is OK, the drive resets itself and awaits a disk.
Trak's Turbo ROM (Read Only Memory) is available as an option for all Trak drives. Turbo allows the Trak drive to perform track-buffered reads (but not writes), thus speeding up data input rates. This $50 upgrade kit also includes an extra 2K of RAM, which expands the print buffer size to 4K.
The AT_D2 has a retail price of $499.99, making it a competitively priced drive. All drives in the AT Series come with a 36-pin slave-drive port that uses a non-standard connector, so you must use Trak's slave drive, which costs $350. The AT-D2 has a 90-day warranty, and in everyday use, is an extremely reliable drive. It runs most of the software written for the Atari, including the latest protection formats. If you're looking for a good drive that's both easy to use and expandable, the Trak drive is certainly worth considering.
Trak's newest drive, the AT-D4, is the first double-sided double-density disk drive for Atari computers, and is available now. Also new from Trak is The Champ, a $399 no-frills, single-sided drive that handles all DOS's and densities. it also comes in a double-sided version, called The Champ 2, which comes with free software including Trak DOS, the game Pogoman, and a disk filing system. And you can add up to two Trak slave drives ($349) to The Champ. (We will review these products in a future issue -ANTIC ED)
Trak Microcomputer Corp., 1511 Ogden Ave., Downer's Grove, IL 60515.(800) 3234853, In IL call collect: (312) 968-1716.
We begin our look at full-featured drives with the Rana 1000. Rana has been producing drives for Apple computers for several years; the 1000 is their first product for the Atari computer.
I must admit that I was a little surprised when I removed the Rana from its package. The first thing I noticed was that the row of small push-button switches (as depicted in Rana's advertisements) was missing from the front panel. Rana elected to use a touch-sensitive panel (similar to Trak's) in place of the buttons. Also changed was the drive-door mechanism also shown in the ads. A "pop-up" mechanism has taken its place. This door is awkward to use-I occasionally had trouble closing it. You must first push down on the door, then pull it outward.
The 1000 measures a compact 3" x7 'I x 10.5". Two 1000's stacked on top of each other occupy less space than a single Atari 810.
The 1000's touch-sensitive front panel is easy to operate. There are touch-pads for track number, drive mode (single or double-density), error status, drive ID number, and a write-protect feature. If you touch any of these switches, the corresponding information is displayed on the two-digit LED readout. The digital display can be turned off. Incidentally, the 1000 is one of the few drives that is compatible with Atari's new enhanced-density format (see the discussion of the Atari 1050 drive). Since Atari's DOS 3.0 has not yet been released, I couldn't test this feature of the drive. However, the 1000 reads and writes in both standard single and double-density modes without a hitch.
By manipulating dipswitches on the back of the Rana, you can run one of nine diagnostic tests and routines. One of these lets you format a disk with no computer attached! Among the rest are tests of the drive's ability to read and write to a disk, both sequentially and at random.
Finding fault with the 1000 isn't easy, but there are a few quirks worth mentioning. First of all, the two-digit display is located at the bottom of the front panel, and unless the drive is pointed directly at you, the whole display is hard to see. Also, the 1000 lacks a slave-drive port. If you want to add a second drive, you must buy another drive at full price. Additionally, the door latch mechanism is difficult to use. (Rana informs us that they're aware of these problems and are working to correct them. -ANTIC ED)
At $399.00, the Rana 1000 is a good value. The warranty period is 120 days. The Rana is supplied with the SMARTDOS disk operating system. Although the Rana is a great drive, I really missed having a printer port at my disposal. If you don't need one, the Rana 1000 represents a great low-cost alternative to other drives on the market.
(NOTE.- There have been problems using data files from LJK products such as Letter Perfect and Continental Software products with Rana drives. The problem has been corrected with drives currently being shipped. If you own a Rana 1000, and get ERROR 138 or 144 when you try to use a data file, contact Bob Baker at RANA. -ANTIC ED)
Rana Systems, 21300 Superior St., Chatsworth, CA 91311. (213) 709-5484.
The Indus GT is the latest arrival in disk drives for the Atari. Going head-to-head with Rana was no easy task, but the people at Indus seem to have done OK. The GT comes packaged in a handsome, compact, and soundproof black metal case. A smoked-glass dust cover protects the drive door and controls, and opens at the touch of a button. The Indus comes packaged in a hard plastic carrying case, complete with a four-part soft-ware package that includes DOS XL from OSS Software.
Every GT drive from Indus sports an "ACCU-TOUCH" control panel, similar to the ones found on the Trak and Rana units. The panel features a two-digit display and four buttons that give access to information about drive status. As with Rana, the panel is located at the bottom of the drive mechanism, but it's angled upward and is easier to read.
The accompanying software package includes DOS XL, the GT Word Processor, the GT Data Manager, and a spreadsheet program. These programs can't be covered within the scope of this article, but my preliminary experience with them indicates that they are worthwhile. (Watch for a review in a future issue. -ANTIC ED)
Software compatibility wasn't a problem with the GT. All of the protected software in my library worked well with it. However, one annoying feature of the drive pops up whenever you try to load protected software. When the GT encounters a read/write error, it sends a "beep" and an error message to your TV or monitor.
The GT has no provision for a slave drive, nor is there a printer port.
This software-based modification to the Indus allows track buffering. It also changes data transmission from asynchronous to synchronous, speeding up data transfer four times. If you've bought an Indus that didn't include SynchroMesh, and you've sent in your warranty card, you'll be sent (or have already received) this automatically.
The Indus GT has a retail price of $499.99, and comes with the only one-year warranty in the business. When you include the longest warranty of any drive, free software, ease of use, and compatibility, as well as the carrying case, the Indus is a good value. (Also the most hi-tech looking. -ANTIC ED)
Indus Systems, 9304 Deering Ave., Chatsworth, CA 91311. (800) 334-6387, In CA (800) 544-6387.
I call the Atari 1050 a no-frills drive because it was designed simply to read and write disks. There are no digital readouts, no printer ports-no on-board frills.
Atari's 1050 is a good drive-it does well everything it's supposed to do. The 1050 is similar to its older brother, the 810, with a few differences. First, it uses a half-height drive mechanism for compactness. Much more importantly, the 1050 is capable of what Atari calls "enhanced density." Enhanced density is not double-density; it is actually one-and-a-half-density. The new Atari format uses 26 sectors per track instead of 18, which gives the 1050 about 127K bytes of formatted storage in this mode. This compares to 176K for true double density, and 88K for single density. While this does give the 1050 more storage than the 810, it's a mystery why Atari just didn't use the standard double-density format used by other manufacturers. The 1050 can also operate in single-density mode.
The new density format is supported by Atari's new DOS 3 .0, which will be available when you read this. If you've bought a 1050 that came with DOS 2.0 and have sent in your warranty card, you can obtain a free copy of DOS 3 and documentation by sending a request (include your drive's serial number) to: Atari Customer Relations, 1312 Crossman Ave., PO. Box 61657, Sunnyvale, CA 94088. Alternatively, see "Do More with DOS 2.0" in this issue for a way to obtain increased storage capacity with a 1050 and DOS 2.0.
The 1050 retails for $449.99. Atari warrants it for 90 days. The 1050 is a good drive, is compatible with all software, and should provide years of trouble-free service.
Atari Customer Relations, Attn: Clarice Weisbach, 1312 Crossman Ave., Sunnyvale, CA 94088. (408) 745-4851.
The Astra 1620 is the only drive in our survey that boasts dual drives as standard equipment. For $100-$200 more than the average disk drive system, you can have the Astra drive and its double-density dual disk drives. A two disk system makes many jobs easier. Word processing, spreadsheet and database use, and disk backup are easier with two drives.
The 1620 uses two half-height drives housed in a plastic case. Measuring 7 7/811 x 11 7/8 " x 5 7/8 11, the Astra takes up less desk space than one Atari 810. To compare, it would take four 810's to equal the Astm's maximum storage capacity of 320K. You can configure the drives in any combination of single and double density via software. No switches are available, nor are they necessary.
Apart from the two drives, there is little else that distinguishes the Astra from other drives in our survey. There is no built-in printer port or digital readout. The Astra 1620 uses the same clumsy drive-door mechanics as the Rana 1000. (As this issue was going to press, we learned that Astra has changed the door mechanisms on its drives to one that is easier to use. -ANTIC ED)
The Astra drive works fine. It reads and writes in both single and double density with no difficulty. Its operation is quiet and smooth, and the small size and relatively low price make it an attractive system. To those looking for a reliable system without a lot of frills, and who need two drives, I recommend the Astra 1620.
Astra Systems, 5230 Clark Ave., Lakewood, CA 90712. (213) 804-1475.
|DRIVE MODEL:||TRAK AT-D2||RANA 1000||INDUS GT||ATARI 1050||ASTRA 1620||ATARI 810|
|5 1/4" THINLINE
TEAC (DIRECT DRIVE)
|5 1/4" THINLINE MPI
|5 1/4" THINLINE
TANDON (DIRECT DRIVE)
|5 1/4" THINLINE
TANDON (DIRECT DRIVE)
|TWO 5 1/4" THINLINE
|5 1/4" TANDON
|MTBF:||10,000 HRS.||9200 HRS.||10,000 HRS.||10,000 HRS.||9200 HRS.||10,000 HRS.|
|YES||NO||NO||NO||NO (two drives
|DOS SUPPLIED:||NONE||SMART DOS||DOS XL||DOS 3||DOS XL||DOS 2.0|
|TADS2, GAMES||NONE||WORD PROCESSOR,
|9 SECONDS||10 SECONDS||10 SECONDS||10 SECONDS||10 SECONDS||10 SECONDS|
|10 SECONDS||11 SECONDS||11 SECONDS||12 SECONDS||11 SECONDS||15 SECONDS|
|25 SECONDS||25 SECONDS||26 SECONDS||31 SECONDS||26 SECONDS||31 SECONDS|
|WARRANTY:||90 DAYS||120 DAYS||1 YEAR||90 DAYS||90 DAYS||90 DAYS|
|(1) All drives' front panels have a power on/off indicator, as well as a "busy" light that shows when the drive is spinning.
(2) TADS is a program that converts your copy of DOS 2.0 to double-density operation.
(3) NA--Not Applicable