Classic Computer Magazine Archive ANTIC VOL. 8, NO. 1 / MAY 1989


New 8-Bit Power Tools

Quintopus!, XF551 Enhancer, Atari View 8, Reviewed by Matthew Ratcliff


Quintopus! is an SIO port expander for Atari 8-bit computers. It provides up to six (ComputerSoftware Services added an extra port, but didn't change the name) SIO ports for attaching disk drives, modem or printer interfaces, or even multiple computers. Using Quintopus! can minimize cable tangles, improve data transfer reliability and even deliver a simple, but functional, "multi-user" environment.

If you have more than two "dead end" devices in your system, such as an Atari XM301 modem and ICD's Printer Connection, for example, cable juggling can be a real hassle.

Quintopus! eliminates this problem. It can be connected directly to your Atari computer, and all other peripherals may then be attached to the other ports on the Quintopus!. If you have more than five peripherals, they can be daisy-chained in the usual manner.

Connecting your system this way will shorten the total cable length between your computer and each peripheral. This can improve the reliability of communications between the devices and computer, since there are fewer linkages and less "voltage drop" along the way.

This is especially useful for such devices as the Atari XM301 modem and ICD's Printer Connection, which also get their power from the computer. Ideally, they should be the first devices in the "daisy chain" of peripherals, for the most reliable operation. Quintopus! makes this possible.

I reviewed the switchable version of Quintopus!, which provides some "multi-user" capabilities. This model has two toggle switches and two associated connectors, marked with white dots. The most obvious application is to connect an Atari computer to each swithched port. When the associated switch is on, the computer has full access to the disk drives, modem, printer and other devices you may have attached.

You can have both toggle switches on at the same time, although this isn't recommended. Everything will work fine, until both users try to access a peripheral at the same time (and it need not be the same peripheral). Neither computer is "aware" of the other's presence, and each assumes it has total control of the Atari bus. When two computers try to write to the same disk at the same time, it's a sure bet your data will be scrambled.

It might have been better if the switchable version had a double-pole, double-throw switch, which would insure that any time one port is switched on, the other is switched off. This would prevent any accidental conflicts with peripherals.

As it is, users sharing their systems can best avoid problems by employing "manual handshaking," where one user asks the other for access to the peripherals, switches the other's computer off, switches his on, and then goes to work. Ideally, each would use RAMdisks for the majority of his work, switching the Quintopus! into gear only at backup time.

Quintopus! is also useful in situations where you freguently switch between two like peripherials, such as printers. An Atari 1027 letter-quality printer may be attached to one port, for printing those formal letters and reports. The other switched port could provide access to your work-horse dot-matrix printer.

When turning off one computer in dual-computer setup, It's wise to disconnect that computer at the Quintopus! switch. If the other computer is on and both switches are enabled, the first computer will continue to draw power from the bus. This isn't good for either computer, and is best avoided.

Actually, I can't think of any reason why you'd want both switchable ports on at the same time. If both ports are needed at the same time, then no switching is required. In that case, the less expensive version of the Quintopus! best applies.

The Quintopus! consists of a small circuit board, not much larger than a 3 x 5 inch index card. It contains a few components to handle the switching of the ports, a pair of toggle switches, and the six Atari SIO bus connectors. It's not pretty, since it isn't housed in a case. Computer Software Services said a case would have added about seven dollars to the final cost. They decided to provide the most product at the lowest price, so the case was eliminated.

I have no complaints about the lack of a case. If you do, you can buy a plastic project box from any Radio Shack, providing for an enjoyable evening of drilling, cutting, filing and fitting your own custom Quintopus! package. Of course, it will be mostly holes, to accommodate all the connectors.

The Quintopus! lets me connect my Atari XEGS and 800XL to the same set of peripherals. The XEGS video output is connected to the front of my Commodore 1702 monitor, the 800XL to the rear. I can easily put the XEGS to work backing up floppies or growing fractal curves, and then flip the monitor and Quintopus! switches to the 800XL. Then I can get back to work with MAC/65 and the ICD MIO RAM disks and FA-ST hard drive on that next software project for Antic.

Though not the most sophisticated form of "multi-tasking" available, the Quintopus! still delivers an elegant, affordable solution to an age-old problem--putting multiple computers to work with only one set of peripherals.

$39.95, switchable version $59.95. Computer Software Services, P.O. Box 17660, Rochester, NY 14617. (716) 467-9326.


The XF551 Enhancer is a very useful hardware modification for the Atari XF551 disk drive. Very useful, and very confusingly advertised.

According to the Computer Software Services ad for the Enhancer, Atari's XF551 drive " is a fine product with one major flaw . . . it writes to side TWO of your floppy disks BACKWARDS. This causes read/write incompatibility problems with all other single sided drives made for Atari". These statements are not quite correct!

For years, Atarians have been making what we call double-sided disks on our 810 and 1050 drives. This is done by notching the opposite side of the disk, flipping it over, and formatting the reverse side of the disk. Each side of this disk has its own separate directory, and each side is logically considered to be a separate disk.

The proper term for such a disk is "flippy", since you must flip the disk over to access side two.

The Atari XF551 has two read/write heads, top and bottom. When a disk is formatted Double Sided, Double Density by Atari DOS-XE, SpartaDOS, or MYDOS, it is a single disk, logically as well as physically, with only one directory which charts BOTH sides of the disk.

What's the difference, you ask? Well, there's no more disk-flipping. You can access a full 360K of data (both sides) without turning the disk over! The DOS and second disk head make access to side two of the disk completely transparent.

It is true that side two is written in the opposite direction, relative to side one, but you couldn't use this disk as a flippy anyway, since there is no directory information on the second side. Assuming it was written in the "same direction" as the flip side of a flippy, there would still be no reasonable way to access the data. Users have been making flippies for so long that Atari built some "protection" into the new XF551 drive mechanism. To prevent accidental formatting of the second side of a disk which is alreaay double-sided, the XF551 refuses to format the back side of a flippy disk--even if it is notched.

The idea is to break a bad habit and protect your data. It is a good idea, but can also be annoying.

The XF551 can read and write to the flip side of flippy disks as long as they are formatted elsewhere (on a 1050 or 810 for example).

The XF551 Enhancer defeats the XF551's format protection, letting you either create flippy disks, or the "true standard" double-sided disks, at the flip of a switch. The reality is that there are far more 1050 and 810 drives out there than XF551s. To exchange data with these other systems, or with other single-sided drives in your own system(s) in the most disk-efficient manner, you need the XF551 Enhancer.

The Enhancer consists of a small, solid black module (which encases some electronics), a toggle switch, and seven wires that must be connected to various points in the drive mechanism and circuit board. One jumper must be cut and soldered. There are no pins to desolder and pull up, and no etch to cut. This makes installation pretty simple and straight forward.

The 16-step instruction sequence is very nicely detailed, accompanied by a hand-drawn reference schematic. I found no need to look at the schematic, since the written instructions were so well prepared.

With proper lighting, soldering equipment and related tools, this installation should take an experienced "solder jockey" less than a half hour. With care, a novice who knows how to wield a soldering iron with the proper attention to all details should be able to complete the job in about an hour.

You must remember that any hardware modifications to the XF551 will void its Atari warranty. Therefore, it is best left pristine until the 90 day warrranty has expired. (Antic takes no responsibility for the results of any hardware modifications.)

There are no ON/OFF indicators on the switch itself. With the switch in the direction of the "black wire," you can format the flip side of any disk, with or without a write-enable notch. In the opposite direction, the flip side of your disks are protected from accidental formatting, just as originally designed by Atari.

I wrote "FLIPPY" and "NORMAL" on opposite sides of a disk label, attached it to the rear of the drive above the drive select switches, drilled a 1/4" hole between the two words, and mounted the switch as prescribed in the documentation. Before locking down the nut, I made certain that the black wire was facing the "FLIPPY" side of the label. Some double-backed tape, provided on the XF551 Enhancer, made it a snap to attach the small black cube to the metal bracket just inside the rear of the drive.

The disk worked fine the very first time. DOS was able to format the flip side of a disk, without a write-enable notch cut in the disk. Reading and writing was writing was no problem after that. But I strongly recommend notching the flip sides of flippy disks. That way you are much less likely to confuse your double-sided and flippy disks. Also, a notched flippy allows writing to the hack side of the disk without having the XF551 Enhancer enabled. It's wise to keep the Enhancer off at all times, except when formatting a flippy.

The XF551 Enhancer lets you create flippy disks in the same manner as the 1050 or 810, with the added feature of being able to override write protect tabs. This facilitates the exchange of more data on fewer floppy disks, using 1050, 810, Rana, Indus, and other Atari compatible drives.

I'm very pleased with the performance of the Enhancer. Since I have a l050, and most of my friends still use them as their main drive, I must be able to format and duplicate flippy format disks easily, and the Enhancer lets me get the job done on my XF551. Now that I have the Enhancer installed, I'm ready to retire my old 1050 and add a second XF551 to my 8 bit arsenal.

$29.95. Computer Software Services, P.O. Box 17660 Rochester, NY14617. (716) 467-9326.


Atari view 8 is a shareware product written and distributed by Don Davis. It is a utility for viewing pictures stored in CompuServe's GIF (Graphics Interchange Format).

GIF is a graphics file format developed and trademarked by CompuServe. It is a "device independent" standard that provides a method for transferring graphics from one computer to another. The various picture forums on CompuServe provide many visuals in this graphics standard.

Atari View 8, Version 2.0 is a shareware utility that lets you load and display a GIF file in your 8-bit Atari. It also lets you zoom in or out on any portion of the image. If you like what you see, the program can also save the current display in Micropainter format.

When you have logged onto CompuServe, type GO QUICKPICS to find some of the files best suited for viewing on the 8-bit Atari. There are 16 libraries to choose from. Here all files are 20,000 bytes or smaller, with a resolution of no more than 640 X 200 pixels, and 16 colors at most.

I've gotten best results with 320x200 graphics in either two or four colors, especially digitized images.

When you go looking for these files on CompuServe, make certain that they are GIF format and not the older .RLE (run length encoded) format. The correct filenames will have .GIF extenders.

I managed to find a GIF version of "Stoneage," by Darrell Anderson of Colorado Springs. He was the DEGAS art contest winner in Antic, July, 1986. However the original Atari ST image loses something in "translation" when viewed on the 8-bit with Atari View. The color mapping didn't work well, and no matter how much I zoomed in on the image it was difficult to recognize its content.

The documentation warns of such problems and provides advice on proper GIF selections. The original Stoneage was 640 X 200 pixels, in 4 colors. Atari View does a very good job with most two-color and four-color images, regardless of size.

Once you have downloaded some GIF files from CompuServe or other bulletin board systems, you can put Atari View to work displaying them. And then you can convert them to a format for customizing with your favorite paint software. There are many "clip-art" files in the graphics forum of CompuServe that could potentially be used with Print Shop, Newsroom, or the applications from Hi-Tech Expressions. If you want to convert your graphics to other formats, Rapid Graphics Converter by Charles Jackson (Antic, November 1985) will let you convert your Micropainter (.MIC) files into uncompressed Micro Illustrator format, the format used by a wide variety of graphics products, Graphics Shop ($19.95, Antic Arcade Catalog AP156) will handle conversions to Print Shop format, and Newsroom Converter (Antic, December1988) converts images into Newsroom file format.

Atari View takes its color data from the GIF file header and does not allow you to adjust it. This is the only annoying limitation of the program. The documentation advises you to adjust your display if the colors don't appear correctly. A sample color bar file is provided for use as a reference in these adjustments. This doesn't account for personal tastes. No matter how well Atari View might match the original colors, personal interpretations are somewhat subjective and should be adjustable.

Also, the user may specify a default drive, but Atari View always looks at Drive 1 for its "help file," not on the default drive. The directory function and filename input are two separate commands, so you can't view a list of GIF files while typing a filename. All user-friendly software should allow you to see a list of files at the same time that your input is being accepted.

These are only minor gripes about an otherwise exemplary program. Atari View performs all other functions very well. The commands are straightforward, [R] to read a GIF picture, and [W] to write a Micropainter file.

The most useful commands are [V]ertical, [H]orizontal, and [S]ize scaling of an image. They are a little quirky to use at first, requiring that you adjust vertical and horizontal scaling down, using keyboard controls, before moving a pair of sizing boxes to select a zoom area. It would have been more elegant to allow joystick selection of these parameters. Atari View will even allow you to zoom out, or shrink an image on the display.

You can achieve very good results by adjusting the color [T]hreshold and the zoom area of an image. I found a two-color digitized image of Chuck Berry that looked pretty sharp on my PC display. On the Atari 8-bit it looked pretty sad when viewing the entire picture. I adjusted the width and height, then selected just the upper body and guitar to zoom in on. The result was excellent, and I pressed the [W] key to write the picture to disk.

Atari View 8 opens up a whole new world of graphics for your Atari 8-bit computer. No matter how large or complex the image, so long as the GIF picture fits on one disk, Atari View will show it to you. It isn't practical for viewing pictures with more than four colors, in most cases. But by zooming in on bits and pieces of a very large image, you can get a very good idea of what it contains.

I hope that future upgrades to the Atari View package will include a separate printing utility for creating hard copies of some of these excellent graphics. Atari View 8 is available for downloading from CompuServe's 8-bit Atari forum (type GO ATARI8), or may be ordered by mail from the author. It's an excellent product for the price.

$20 shareware contribution requested. Don Davis, 50 W. Holly Hill Road, Apt. 13, Thomasville, NC 27360. (919) 475-2627.