Art For Art’s Sake

There are literally hundreds of Art applications available for home micros, ranging from simple doodlers to complex suites offering solid 3D animation; the choice is bewildering. So what features should you look out for when buying one for your machine? Andy Storer paints a picture of the perfect pixel package…

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King Tut gets another airing – the original pic was picked up as brush, rotated in 3D, pasted down 4 times, swapped to tint mode and overlaid with two circles. Simple eh? On Deluxe Paint III maybe…

How many colours in the spectrum?

Whether you’re paying £3 or £300, most art programs provide a system of pull-down menus and icons for moving between the screen painting area and palette and painting tool control. This is absolutely essential, since you’ll want to be able to move quickly through the range of colours on hand and the painting ‘surface’ before you.

A good program will allow you to flick back to a full screen painting area after changing tools, operations or colours from an overlaid control panel. The more advanced packages will offer you the choice to scroll through a much larger area of work than can be displayed on screen at any one time or, alternatively, have a number of screens in memory that you can flick between.

Although you can buy packages for mono systems, most on offer are designed for colour. Obvious really. Painting’s all about colour isn’t it? Well, up to a point. The point being that you don’t need thousands of colours to produce effective artwork. The number of colours available to you will initially depend on the resolution your machine’s able to support and the degree to which the software allows mixing of the standard colours and combining them to form composite hues and shades.

But more sophisticated software can actually address the hardware to change the screen-scanning to display a new palette of colours on every line. Thus, for instance, Quantum Paint on the ST can offer 4,096 on-screen colours despite the ST offering only a choice of 16 from a palette of 512.

For general purposes, however, 256 colours is the most you’ll ever need – beyond that it becomes difficult to distinguish them. The best packages will offer you a full screen palette which displays all available colours, rather than a simple palette bordering it, thus allowing you to select the one you wish to use simply by clicking on it.

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A 512 colour extravaganza on the ST’s Spectrum 512. But shouldn’t you only be able to see 16 colours at once?

Pixel Picassos

The beauty of electronic painting is the ability to continually modify your work without having to start all over again. Whilst a package will offer you the obvious option of a variable sized eraser, alterations are often likely to involve finer tuning than rubbing out whole areas.

So, for instance, once you’ve chosen a colour and done some drawing you will be able to change it simply by selecting a shade from the palette you wish to replace it with. Ideally, you should be able to click on any individual pixel of colour you’ve painted and be given its exact RGB code so that subtle alterations can be made.

In addition, it’s useful to have a ‘cycle draw’ option where you may select a range of adjacent colours to be painted in sequence as a brush line is drawn. In this way you can subtly blend colour to produce graded hues. In this respect it’s also useful if you can individually alter the hue and luminance of any particular pixel or area by simply clicking on a relevant icon.

The ‘front end’ control panel will allow you to choose between the range of painting tools on hand. A good package should offer you not only different pens, brushes, sprays and fills but a range of shapes, transformations, preset effects and texts. For freehand drawing, mouse control is infinitely preferable to the joystick or keyboard, assuming you don’t have a graphics tablet, and the range of pens and brushes should allow you a choice of line thickness, tip size and style.

Ideally, rather than preset sizes and shapes, you should be able to step up or down through a range. Likewise, sprays should also offer variable density and offer a choice of pattern, flow and nozzle type. The option to fill enclosed areas of artwork with a range of preset patterns is also essential, as is the ability to design your own fills.

Such design may require a fair degree of detail, so a facility allowing a graded zoom magnification of any area is also essential.

Ideally you should be able to grab any part of a screen and use it as fill for another and also merge, or ‘dither’, two adjacent fills so that a perfect gradation is apparent.

Getting into shape

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Any art package worth its salt should allow you to zoom into an area of the screen for detailed work. Even an average package will offer a zoom of 16x magnification.

Another feature worth looking out for in art packages is the ease with which it is possible to call up perfect circles and ellipses of varying size and thickness for exact positioning in the work area. Advanced packages will also allow you to smooth the curvature of a circle or ellipse to remove its jagged edges.

Of course, you’ll want to be able to construct other shapes, not all of them regular, and in this case you should look for a package that allows you to form multi-sided polygons. Creating the exact shape you desire is likely to be a process of hit and miss, so it also essential to have an ‘Undo’ function.

The most sophisticated features available to the pixel painter are block manipulations. Standard packages offer the facility to define sub-screen areas and move or copy them to other parts of the display. Middle range products will allow you stretch, skew, rotate and distort such defined blocks, whilst the more advanced will not only provide the tools to mirror, flip and invert the image-block but also make it opaque or transparent. It should also be possible to smear a specified area so that it appears to have been dragged. In addition, a more comprehensive package will allow you to outline and frame specified areas with a range of borders and define shadow depth and direction effects.

What can I get out of it though?

Unless you wish to incorporate your artwork into a program or game, then you’ll be wanting to produce hard copies of your masterpieces. The simplest way of achieving this is by photographing the screen. For this you’ll need a 35mm camera with a variable shutter speed which will allow you to shoot slow enough to avoid screen refresh lines in mid-scan. It’s best to shoot in a darkened room with the aperture wide open at a speed of 1/8 or l/4sec.

Colour printers aren’t much cop unless you’re prepared to fork out the readies, so the only other recommended way of displaying your work is by transferring it to videotape. A composite video lead between your micro and the video’s input should do the trick quite easily.

There’s always more…

This overview has concentrated on the options offered by paint packages and takes no account of related features, often incorporated, such as sprite construction, animation and 3D modelling. Express will be covering these areas in the near future.

Write then, let’s go

The inclusion of a text facility is also essential so that you may annotate diagrams or drawings. Here, you should look out for those programs which offer a range of text and font sizes and also include options to vary density and add outline, underlining and skew.

Finally, you should be able to save whole or part-screen files in a compressed form to save on disk space, and also be able to save and load palette and paint tool selections as new default values.

Graphically Superior

Rik Haynes checks out the best buys in graphics software for your machine…

Amiga

With its huge potential as a graphics workstation, and thanks to its superlative custom-designed  chips, the Amiga has perhaps the largest and most impressive selection of excellent graphics software and hardware. This includes a wide variety of paint and animation software, video digitisers, genlocks, etc. But this power unfortunately comes at a price – namely extra RAM and disk drives are not only recommended but absolutely essential in some cases.

DeluxePaint III

  • Paint and Animation Software
  • £79.99
  • Published by Electronic Arts

DeluxePaint III is the latest version of the most popular Amiga paint package around. Requiring 1Mb of RAM, DeluxePaint III includes an impressive paint-animation capability, extra-halfbrite 64-colour and overscan mode support, new wrap and tint brushes, font handling enhancements and substantial speed increases in all modes of operation. Electronic Arts is offering a upgrade service for owners of DeluxePaint (£50 + £5 carriage) and DeluxePaint II (£30 + £5 carriage).

Photon Paint 2.0

  • Paint Software
  • £85.99
  • Published by Microillusions, USA
  • Distributed in UK by Activision

Photon Paint 2.0 is a 4,096 colour HAM-compatible paint package with sophisticated brush operations, surface and contour mapping, shadowing with adjustable size and offset, and luminance with definable source location and intensity. Although Activision has yet to confirm plans to run an upgrade offer for owners of Photon Paint 1.0 in the UK, there is a service available in the US.

Sculpt 3-D

  • Animation Software
  • £85 inc VAT
  • Published by Byte by Byte, USA
  • Distributed in UK by Amiga Centre Scotland

Sculpt 3-D allows you to design and animate 3-dimensional scenes and incorporates an interactive object editor and power tools for constructing arbitrary solid shapes with symmetry, reflection, surfaces of revolution, extrusion, and cross section reconstruction. Sculpt 3-D also includes anti-aliasing, variable object colours and texture, unlimited (number, colour and placement) of light sources, arbitrary observer (placement, angle and direction) of view, phong shading, flat polygonal shading, full ray traced imaging with shadows and highlights, supports all the  Amiga’s graphics modes including overscan and 4,096 colour HAM, and is IFF-compatible.

Sculpt 4-D

  • Animation Software
  • £320 ex VAT
  • Published by Byte by Byte, USA
  • Distributed in UK by Amiga Centre Scotland

Sculpt 4-D is a state-of-the-art professional animation program which requires 1Mb of RAM and two disk drives. It includes substantial enhancements and additions to Sculpt-3D, though at this price, Sculpt 4-D is strictly for Amiga owning animation enthusiasts with loadsadosh.

Zoetrope

  • Paint and Animation Software
  • £99.95 inc VAT
  • Published by Antic, USA
  • Distributed in UK by ISM on 0983 864674

Zoetrope is the Amiga version of the popular ST Cyber paint and animation series, and is split into five modes: painting, cell animation, image processing, video titling and “flip book” pencil testing. Zoetrope requires 1Mb of RAM.

Atari ST

Despite being overshadowed by the Amiga in the visual department, the ST has still managed to attract a wide variety of good quality graphics software which can produce some very impressive results.

Flare Paint

  • Paint Software
  • £34.99
  • Published by AMS/Logitech
  • Distributed in UK by Database Software

Flair Paint is the current flavour-of the-month paint package for ST artists, allowing you to draw images in low-res and high-res – but not medium-res – screen resolution modes.

Degas Elite

  • Paint Software
  • £24.99
  • Published by Electronic Arts

Degas Elite was one of the first paint packages released for the ST, and it still remains one of easiest and most versatile paint programs around for that machine, allowing you to draw images in low-res, medium-res and hi-res screen resolution modes.

Spectrum 512

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Another shot from Spectrum 512 on the ST, showing off smooth toned gradation across a range of colour.

  • Paint Software
  • £59.95 Published by Antic, USA
  • Distributed in UK by Electric Distribution.

Using scan-line palette changing software techniques, Spectrum 512 allows you to draw images on a low-res screen with 512 on-screen colours.

Cyber Studio

  • CAD-3D 2.0 and Cybermate Software
  • £79.95
  • Published by Antic, USA
  • Distributed in UK by Electric Distribution

Cyber Studio requires 1Mb of RAM and combines a 3-D design program Stereo CAD-3D 2.0 and powerful animation control language Cybermate. CAD-3D allows you to create 3D objects and includes camera view with variable zoom and perspective control, three independent user positioned light sources plus ambient lighting (all with variable intensity) and wireframe, hidden line, solid, or solid outline modes. Cybermate uses Forth-type commands to create animation sequences, incorporates delta compression techniques, special effects and lap dissolves and allows you to splice in animations from multiple sources.

Cyber Paint 2.0

  • 2D Paint and Animation Software
  • £69.95
  • Published by Antic, USA
  • Distributed in UK by Electric Distribution

Cyber Paint 2.0 allows to paint and animate 2-D images and can be used to add the final touches to a Cyber Studio 3-D animated sequence. It includes automatic image registration to create cel animation arrangements, real-time zoom mode, multiple static or animated overlaid images and special animation effects with automatic intermediate view generation (tweening) on any area of the screen. Cyber Paint 2.0 requires
1Mb of RAM.

Cyber Sculpt

  • 3D Sculpting Software
  • £79.95
  • Published by Antic, USA
  • Distributed in UK by Electric Distribution

Cyber Sculpt is a professional 3D off-station solid-modeler used to port 3D object files to high-end rendering systems – and includes variable magnification, spline path extrude and spin, face bevelling, and cross-sectional model creation. Cyber Sculpt requires 1Mb of RAM and Cyber Studio (CAD-3D 2.0).

PC

DeluxePaint II

  • Paint Software
  • £99.99
  • Published by Electronic Arts

DeluxePaint II is the PC version of the popular Amiga paint program, and allows you to draw images in CGA, EGA, VGA, MCGA, Hercules and Tandy graphics modes.

Spectrum

Art Studio

  • Paint Software
  • £12.95 (Spectrum 48K compatible)
  • Published by Rainbird
  • Distributed in UK by EEC

Advanced Art Studio

  • Paint Software
  • £22.95 (Spectrum 128K Only) Published by Rainbird
  • Distributed in UK by EEC

C64

Art Studio

  • Paint Software
  • £12.95cs, £15.95dk
  • Published by Rainbird
  • Distributed in UK by EEC

Advanced Art Studio

  • Paint Software
  • £22.95 (Disk Only)
  • Published by Rainbird
  • Distributed in UK by EEC

CPC

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Even on the Amstrad CPC, a machine supporting only 4 colours, the range of fills is impressive – here it’s Advanced Art Studio from Rainbird.

Art Studio

  • Paint Software
  • £17.95dk
  • Published by Rainbird
  • Distributed in UK by EEC

Advanced Art Studio

  • Paint Software
  • £22.95dk
  • Published by Rainbird
  • Distributed in UK by EEC

First published in New Computer Express magazine, 25th March 1989

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Release Your ST’s Potential

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So you’ve got the machine that’s the envy of all other computer owners. What now? You need software. Whatever you want – entertainment, creative, serious – there is plenty to choose from. Richard Monteiro presents the ST good shopping guide.

In the mid ‘80s the head of Commodore Business Machines, Jack Tramiel, decided to quit. Wouldn’t you? Jack wanted to build a Tramiel empire and give each of his sons senior positions at CBM; Commodore decided against this. Off went Jack and sons. Tramiel’s travels took him to a sleepy company called Atari. It was run, unsuccessfully, by Warner Communications, which was only too happy to offload the withering company onto Jack.

Knowing that Commodore was hard at work trying to make something of the Amiga, Jack decided a rival product was necessary. After stealing much of Commodore’s top talent, Atari eventually gave birth to the ST. The success of the ST has made Atari what it is today – a force to be reckoned with.

So what? It’s the software you’re interested in! Since 1986, when the ST was conceived, Atari’s machine has become the most sought-after home computer by far. It is its unique multifarious talent that makes it such a hit. The 68000-based ST is good for many things: entertainment, creativity, serious use. Think of an application and then think of the ST. It’s as if the two were made for each other.

Although any machine in the ST range will cope with almost any application, specific STs will do the job even better. There’s the 520 – the baby – which is great for games and text processing on a small scale. Next in line is the 1040; ideal for graphics applications and MIDI sequencing, and for games players that just can’t get enough. The Mega ST2, third in line, is one mean machine when it comes to handling business accounts, organising data, heavy duty word processing and desktop publishing. And at the top of the mountain there’s the Mega ST4; a power user’s dream. For program development, constant office use or memory hungry applications, it’s unbeatable.

But it’s the software that maketh the machine. And what a fabulous selection there is. ST software is the envy of all other computer users. It’s sexy, it’s powerful, it’s easy to use and – most important – it does the job. Here’s the best software for virtually every conceivable application.

Words work

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Computers – or rather word processors – have removed the tedium from writing. Spelling mistakes can be removed instantly, choice words can be substituted for flat words, paragraph positions can be switched, pictures can be placed within text, text styles and document layout can be altered again and again until you’re satisfied.

If you need to churn out words regularly by the thousand and aren’t worried about style or fancy fonts, then there is only one text processor worth considering. It’s Protext (£99.95) from Amor (0733 68909). Protext is available across several formats; from Amstrad CPC to IBM PC. However, it is most powerful – and certainly most stable – in its ST form. This article was put together using ST Protext.

Amor’s text processor is fast, powerful, incorporates a spell checker and mail merge facilities, includes a powerful command line that provides MSDOS-like commands and lets you run script files. Because it’s so powerful, first time word processor users will find it hard going. If you’re looking for visual impact in your documents then forget Protext: apart from the usual bold, italics and so on, there is no provision for using different point sizes or merging graphic images with text.

First Word Plus (£79.95) from Electric Distribution (0480 496789) is the complete opposite to Protext. It’s easily grasped, uses traditional GEM menus and windows, allows text and graphics to be mixed, and has a mail merge functions. From a beginner’s point of view there’s no beating it. Old hacks, however, will soon tire of its slow screen updating and frustrating option selection procedure.

HB Marketing’s Wordup (£59.95) is one of those programs that borders between a word processor and a DTP package. You can do all the more usual things expected of a word processor such as spell checking, searching and replacing and general editing. You can also do similar things found in DTP packages: import pictures and force text to flow round the images, change the point size and style of fonts, have numerous fonts on screen. Certainly, if you want to produce fancy documents, go for HBM’s (0895 444433) offering. The only drawbacks are painfully slow screen updates and slow printed output.

Business dodges

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The ST isn’t generally seen as a business machine, although there are numerous serious applications that put to shame similar titles for the PC. STs – in particular the Mega 2 and Mega 4 – are great for number crunching; they’ve got a fast processor and lots of memory.

Undoubtedly the most popular database (or should that be suite of databases?) is Precision Software’s Superbase. There’s a Superbase to suit every pocket and every need. Superbase Personal (£59.95) is the entry-level package while Superbase Professional (£249.95) is at the top end. Along with text and numerical data sorting and storing, Superbase can store and retrieve pictures. Text and graphics can even be mixed within the same record. Naturally the Professional version has extras such as a programming language and comms support. Details from Precision on 01-330 7166.

Digita’s (0395 45059) Digicalc (£39.95) is a fast, solid and very reasonably-priced spreadsheet which will provide many people with everything they need. However, if you plan to do anything clever then something more powerful will be necessary. A heavier duty spreadsheet is VIP Professional (£149.95) from VIP Technologies (Silica, 01 300 3399). It’s an integrated suite of programs that can work partly as a database, partly as a graphing system and partly at what it is supposed to be: a Lotus 1-2-3 compatible spreadsheet. How’s about that for schizophrenia?

Personal Finance Manager is ideal if you suffer from cashflow problems and need sorting out. PFM from Microdeal (0726 68020) provides an easy way of looking after your bank account, building society account and credit cards. There’s a graphic display which visually demonstrates just how far into the red you’ve sunk. It’s a worthwhile £29.95.

See it move

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The ST’s high resolution modes and large colour palette make it ideal for graphic work. Indeed, this shows in the number of high quality art and animation packages around. There’s only one drawback to the ST’s graphics: there’s no standard screen format (at least, none that is in wide use). Over 10 file formats exist, with new ones being added all the time. For this reason it is wise to have two art packages or one package that copes with a lot of formats.

Although the ST has a palette of 512 colours, only 16 shades can be displayed on screen at once. At least, that’s the situation normally. Electric’s (0480 496789) Spectrum 512 (£59.95) graphics package boasts painting in all glorious 512 colours. The results are spectacular. Standard graphics functions are present including draw, line, circle, brush, fill and magnify. Sadly, though, there is nothing other than the 512-colour feature that is innovative. Such a package screams for ray tracing facilities, no matter how primitive.

Without a doubt, AMS’s Flair Paint (£34.99) is the most powerful art package. It’s the range of features and speed at which operations take place that are most impressive. Flair’s user interface is very slick – it’s also very novel (perhaps too radical for many first time users) and ultimately lets you flip between menus quickly. AMS’s (0925 413501) package supports Degas, Neo and IMG file formats. It can be used as a Desktop accessory which has all sorts of exciting implications when used alongside a DTP package.

Two notable graphics packages are Neochrome (£29.99 from Silica) and Degas Elite (£24.95 from EA). These two have been around almost since the ST was launched and between them account for the most widely used file formats.

The Cyber series distributed in this country by Electric (0480 496789) represent the most comprehensive drawing and animation utilities for the ST. The range of packages is phenomenal. For instance, there’s Cyber Paint 2 (£69.95) a spectacular graphics/animation tool, Cyber Studio (£79.95) which combines 3D drawing with a powerful animation scripting language, and Cyber Control (£59.95) for controlling Cyber animations.

Desktop lay

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Put an ST and Atari’s SLM804 together and you have a formidable, low-cost DTP kit. For instance, a Mega 2 and an Atari laser can be purchased for well under £2000. There’s no way you could get a comparable PC or Apple Mac setup for even twice the price. There’s a lot happening on the ST DTP scene; two packages to look out for in forthcoming months are Atari’s Calamus and Silica’s Pagestream.

Fleet Street Publisher (£125) from Mirrorsoft (01 377 4644) is nifty – and is well established. For precise control of text on the page and the final look of single documents, FSP is great. The lack of graphics functions and multi-page support are annoying, but bearable. FSP prints to dot matrix printers of all persuasions – drivers are available for HP, Postscript and Atari lasers.

Timeworks DTP (£99) from Electric (0480 496789) is another package worth considering. It can handle multiple page documents which is useful if you need to create reports or manuals. It’s easier to use than FSP, but not as comprehensive.

Play the game

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On average, there is one game released every two days for the ST. Now that’s not bad going. New games are generally released on the ST first and then converted to other formats. There are many good games, and everyone has their own opinion on what makes a five star game.

Virus, £19.95 from Firebird, for pose appeal. It’s a programmer’s game. Something to look at in awe and wonder how it was done. Difficult to play and hypnotic to watch. Something that also looks good is Palace’s Barbarian II. However, it also plays well and is extremely funny.

Leisure Suit Larry Goes Looking For Love In Several Wrong Places, £29.95 from Activision, as it’s such a nutty adventure. It will also keep you fit swapping all those disks.

For getting the adrenalin flowing there are several: Thunder Blade (£24.99 from US Gold), Andes Attack (£9.95 from Llamasoft), Flying Shark (£19.95 from Firebird), BAAL (£19.95 from Psygnosis), Jupiter Probe (£19.95 Microdeal), BDTA (£19.95 Electra).

Get down on it

Because the Atari ST has MIDI ports built in, it has an enormous library of MIDI sequencing and synthesizer specific software. Musicians were quick to realise the potential of inbuilt MIDI ports; and consequently the ST is very strong in this area with numerous professional packages on the market. There’s also the ST’s sound chip for making music. Although it’s not very sophisticated – being identical in performance to that of the Amstrad CPC – it is nonetheless capable of reasonable output. On that note (groan) here’s what’s available for utilising the internal sound chip.

Although EA’s (0753 49442) Music Construction Set (£24 95) requires some musical knowledge and has limited sound editing facilities, it is easy to use, flexible and good fun. Compositions can be played over the three ST channels and can consist of 16 instruments ranging from piano to sax. For four pence more Activision (0734 311666) can provide you with Music Studio which is mostly more of the same. However, you can plant coloured graphic blobs or true notes on staves. The idea being that both novice and professional can join in the fun.

There is really so much choice as far as MIDI software goes and much of it is first class. If it’s a sequencer you want then any of the following will do: Steinberg Pro-24 (regarded as the music industry standard), Sonus Masterpiece, Iconix, C-Lab Creator. Patch editors are too numerous to mention (most common synths are catered for). Syndromic Music on 01-444 9126 is an ST specialist. Tell it what you want to do – while mentioning the equipment you own – and it’ll be able to suggest something.

Learn the lingo

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Programming languages abound. Look hard enough and you’ll find everything from Fortran to Occam. The BASIC bundled with the ST is naff, which is why you’ll find more versions of BASIC than any other programming language for the ST. C and Assembler are the other two major contenders – and are the only languages worth using if you’re planning to write a five star game or decent application.

If you want to write programs in BASIC and then run them from the Desktop, you need a compiled BASIC. The only all-in-one package to provide this is Power BASIC (or the developers version called HiSoft BASIC). Power BASIC sells for £39.95 while HiSoft BASIC goes for £79.95. Both can be purchased from HiSoft on 0525 718181. The great bonus with HiSoft’s offerings is that they run and compile ST BASIC without need for modification. Even ST BASICS bugs have been deliberately replicated.

GFA BASIC and Compiler – two separate programs now bundled together and available from Glentop (01-441 4130) – retail for £49.95. GFA BASIC is an interpreted language which can be compiled by GFA Compiler. Makes sense. There is a new version, GFA BASIC V3, which unfortunately can’t be compiled because the appropriate package is still under development. GFA is probably the most popular simply because it was one of the first BASICS on the scene.

For complete control of the ST you need an Assembler. The best is HiSoft’s Devpac Version 2 (£59.95). Devpac scores highly over its competitors because it’s fully integrated. It is possible to edit, assemble and debug from the same core program. No messing about. It also happens to be fast and can assemble direct to memory.

As for C software, your best bet is Metacomco’s Lattice C Development System (£99.99). Phone 0272 428781 for details.

For games creation you might like to try ST OS from Mandarin (0625 878888) which, in reality, is another dressed-up version of BASIC. Unlike traditional BASICS, STOS is geared towards moving large areas of the screen, scrolling and music. It is very much a game creator’s dream. STOS offers much for £29.95. Adventure fans will pleased to know there’s something for them, STAC. Incentive’s (07356 77288) £39.95 package lets you create adventures in much the same way that STOS lets you write games. STAC requires far less programming knowledge.

Pick and choose

The ST’s work environment is pleasant enough, but could still do with a little tweaking. You’d be smart to invest in a few utilities to perk up your machine’s performance.

If you’ve got plenty of memory then HiSoft’s (0525 718181) Twist (£39.95) is worthwhile. It lets you keep several applications in memory and flip between them at a press of a key. Of course, the programs must stick to the constraints of GEM to work.

For designing printer fonts or screen fonts there’s nothing to equal the ST Club’s Fontkit Plus. Particularly at the agreeable price of £9.99. More on 0602 410241.

Utilities Plus (£29.95) from Microdeal (0726 68020) is the best value utilities package around. It’s a combination of five packages in one. There’s a sector editor that lets you alter file attributes, format individual sectors and restore deleted files; DOS shell which is an alternative method of using the GEM; disk organiser; ram disk and printer spooler; 21 smaller programs that provide everything from a key combination machine reset to automatically running an application.

Public domain libraries are an excellent source of utilities. Libraries worth checking follow: ST Club (0602 410241), Goodman PD (0782 335650), FloppyShop (0224 691824), Page 6 (0785 213928), Softville (0705 266509), Star UK (0224 593024)

Just £300 to spend

You’ve only got £300 to spend on software before being marooned on a desert island. So, what do you go for?

  • Protext, £99.95 from Arnor, for writing to your friends to tell them what a wonderful time you’re having.
  • Cyber Paint 2, £69.95 from Electric, for sketching the scenery and animating the results.
  • Flair Paint, £34.99 from AMS, for doing much the same as above, only faster.
  • Music Construction Set, £24.95 from EA, for churning out tunes of your own when you’re sick of the natives’ cacophony.
  • Andes Attack, £9.95 from Llamasoft, because there’s no chance you’ll ever complete it. And ‘cos it’s cheap.
  • Devpac V2, £59.95 from HiSoft, for hacking into Andes Attack and writing every application you couldn’t bring along.

Pay the price

Following are Atari’s official prices for the ST range of computers and a few of the latest special deals offered by select distributors and retailers. Do shop around: you’ll probably be able to pick up a machine at considerably less than the list price or, at the very least, find a very tempting software bundle.

Machine Price
520STFM* £299
1040STFM £499
Mega ST2 £899
Mega ST4 £1199

* For an extra £100 you can get the Super Pack. This comprises 21 top arcade games, organiser software and joystick. Notional value of all the freebies is £458.97.

Silica Shop (01-309 1111) sell all Atari hardware at Atari recommended prices. Do note that these prices exclude a monitor. The 520 and 1040 can be used with a television; fine for games, but not ideal for serious work. The SMI24 monochrome monitor sells for £99.99 while the colour SC1224 goes for £299.99.

Deals to watch out for: 520STFM plus Super Pack for £343.85 from Computer Express (0727 37451); 520STFM, Super Pack and 10 Air Miles vouchers for £399 from Compumart (0509 610444); 1040STFM, VIP Professional, Superbase Personal, Microsoft Write, mouse mat and Starter disks for £449 from Apolonia (01-738 8400); Mega ST4 plus SMI24 mono monitor for £899 from Bath Shack (0225 310300).

Vital statistics

Here’s a look at the ST’s technical specification for those interested in the Atari as a possible upgrade machine.

  • 512K RAM (520), 1Mbyte (1040), 2Mbytes (Mega 2), 4Mbytes (Mega 4). All machines come with operating system on 128K of ROM.
  • Three resolutions and 512-colour palette: low resolution (320 by 200 pixels in 16 colours), medium resolution (640 by 200 in four colours), high resolution (640 by 400 pixels in black and white).
  • Blitter chip present in Mega STs aids many graphics operations.
  • 68000 processor running at 8MHz.
  • Yamaha YM2149 three-channel sound chip capable of producing square sound waves.
  • 13-pin socket for interfacing to monochrome or colour monitor, parallel printer port, RS232, second drive socket, DMA interface, MIDI ports, joystick and mouse slots, cartridge port.

First published in New Computer Express, 11th March 1989

512K Mac – Packing the Missing Punch

Apple introduces the Fat Mac

By John J. Anderson

AppleMac001

The nameplate on the back of this machine is the only visible indication that this is the Fat Mac, not the standard Mac.

It has been six months now since my initial review of the Macintosh computer appeared in the pages of the July 1984 issue of Creative Computing. I received more mail concerning that review than any piece I have ever written. I got letters telling me I was wrong: that the Macintosh was a gimmick, a flash in the pan, and I was foolish to call it a “breakthrough.” I got letters telling me I was wrong: that the Macintosh was the greatest thing to happen to computing, and I was foolish to poke holes in such a miraculous development. The fact that readers of both ilks were mad at me was gratifying, at least in one sense: it showed that my point of view was at once suitably awed and suitably critical to offend the extremists at both ends of the spectrum. That pleased me nearly as much as the handful of complimentary notes I received.

My conclusions in that article were neither profound nor heretical. Quite simply, I asserted that the introduction of the Mac did in fact represent a milestone in the history of personal computing, but that the machine had some rather serious problems that could not be overlooked simply because its user interface was so strikingly elegant. My bottom line was that the Apple Macintosh represented a hefty and heady promise of what a computer might one day come to be. The question was, could it make good on that promise?

So that question remains today, though we are closer to an answer. But let me make one thing perfectly clear at the outset: I am a user. There is a Mac on my desk at work and a Mac on my desk at home. So, browbeat me all you like, but don’t assume that to show loyalty to a piece of hardware you must not criticize it. Because that’s wrong. Remember, we’re “the rest of us,” right?

It was easy then and it is still easy now to dismiss the Mac out of hand. Thanks to slick campaigns and multi-megabucks, the ballyhoo is still with us – test drive a Mac, or look through a special edition of Newsweek with nothing but Apple ads in it. In a way, Apple’s California trendiness, laid-back pitch, and open-collar media image may ultimately work against Macintosh sales. When it comes down to business, buyers don’t want madras. They want white button-down. In a TV ad for Compaq, John Cleese’s impression of a typical Mac buyer hits the dynamic right on the nerve.

Let’s take it a step further and dare to suggest that two of the Mac’s very hottest features also mitigate against its popularity in the business world: 1) it is too small, cute, and sexy; and 2) it is much too easy to use. I don’t have the space here to elaborate on this theory, but those of you who know I’m right will know I’m right. It has to do with the color of your cerebral cortex. Once it turns even the slightest shade of blue, all bets are off.

But the cosmetic issue is far from most significant. The major factor hurting Mac sales in the business market today is the fact that it is “not powerful enough.” Fact is the Mac is top-heavy with overhead devoted to its slick user interface, leaving precious little memory for the actual jobs at hand. I stick by my original assertion that the Mac was never a 128K machine on the early drawing board. I would guess that 256K was the target, but the need to lower costs eventually wiped out the option. What was left was an incredibly neat little machine terribly restrained by memory limitations. This was the most serious flaw I could find in my initial report.

And though some good 128K software has made an appearance for the machine, by and large the Macintosh software scene was rather disappointing in 1984, both in quantity and quality. The cardinal sin in any Mac software trade off is to sacrifice needed features for ease of use, and unfortunately, many Macintosh packages are guilty of that transgression to quite some degree. Many of the programs that are available today in very powerful MS-DOS incarnations have been bowdlerized in some way, shape, or form in order to bring them to fruition on the 128K Macintosh. I can mention two prime examples: DB-Master and ThinkTank. Both now run on the Macintosh, albeit in a highly abridged form. In order to release a Macintosh version, both manufacturers traded off features – an undesirable transaction, to say the least.

Now the 512K Mac has hit dealer’s shelves and has been dubbed, much to the chagrin of McDonald’s, the Fat Mac. The Fat Mac packs its punch into the same mother board as the 128K Mac, with the replacement of 16 memory chips on its left-hand side. This fourfold gain in RAM can also be purchased as a retrofit to existing 128K Macs. The option adds $1000 to the list price of a 128K machine – whether purchased initially or fitted as an upgrade.

The RAM chips themselves are soldered directly to the multilayer motherboard of the Mac, and only as an act of vandalism can be removed with an IC puller. You cannot, therefore, do the upgrade yourself, but must bring the machine to an authorized dealer. In a 15-minute procedure, motherboards are switched. The old board is then reconditioned and itself sold as an upgrade.

Fat Mac units themselves are in short supply, but we managed to lasso a machine. The only hint that it is any different from a standard Mac is its nameplate, and since that nameplate appears on the back of the machine, it is a quiet self-announcement. But when you start using it, the difference is readily apparent.

I’m going to assume here that our readers who use the Mac regularly have purchased a second disk drive, if not a hard disk unit. For them, the bother of disk-swapping is already in the past. So I won’t dwell on the improvement 512K makes on a single disk machine. Certainly if I were to be limited to a single disk machine, I would do my best to make that machine a Fat Mac. Because bigger chunks of data can be stored at a time, disk-swapping is cut to a minimum. Even on a dual-drive system, file transfer time is cut dramatically.

But that is a minor advantage of the 512K Macintosh compared to its improvement in computing power. From a maximum of 10 single-spaced pages per document in Mac Write, the same program can yield an 80-page document on the Fat Mac. (A new version of MacWrite uses virtual memory techniques to allow 50-page documents on a 128K Mac and 250-page documents on a 512K Mac.) In MacPaint, the user interface is now silky smooth while scrolling the page, rather than chopped by sporadic disk loads. In Basic, desktop tools can be called up during program execution without disturbing screen memory or the stack itself. In MacTerm, the text buffer is huge. In Multiplan, spreadsheet size can be increased dramatically. In other existing software packages, the usable workspace can be quadrupled.

Even more significant, however, is what the Fat Mac can do for software currently under development. Features that would have to be lopped off to make a program run in the 128K can be salvaged – even improved upon – in a 512K environment. It would not be surprising to see two versions of a single product, like Lotus’ integrated package or Microsoft Word – for which 512K would be required to take full advantage of all features, but a limited version would run on a minimally configured machine. By developing products for the Fat Mac, software houses can subvert the reputation that Mac software sacrifices power for ease of use. We Mac users know that software can do more and be easier to use at the same time.

So: is a Fat Mac or an upgrade for you? The answer to that question is without a doubt a resounding yes. The remaining and real question is when will a Fat Mac or upgrade be for you. The upgrade chips themselves, 256K dynamic RAM chips, are still relatively rare and still relatively expensive. I would not be startled if chipset costs were cut in half – to $500 list, or even less – by this time next year. And so you must measure lost convenience across a function of time.

When the next generation Mac appears, it will most probably sport a megabyte of RAM as standard equipment, and 512K will be considered paltry. It’s all relative, folks.

First published in Creative Computing magazine, February 1985

LSI M-Four

LSI M Four001

Jane Bird tackles a heavyweight British newcomer to the 16-bit market

The M-Four is built by British micro manufacturer LSI, based in Woking, Surrey. The company intends it primarily as a single user system for business applications such as word-processing, stock control and accountancy. Other possibilities include instrumentation control. It is the centrepiece of a new family of machines anticipated by LSI.

In the beginning was the M-One, a single user business computer that ran only proprietary software. Then came the M-Two, a multi-user system, but also restricted to LSI’s own software. Those two systems sacrifice the advantages of supporting a standard operating system such as CP/M with the abundance of associated software in favour of higher performance from proprietary software. LSI claims that the standard operating system for networks, MP/M, in particular, is less efficient for multi-users in a business environment than the company’s own operating system.

With the 8-bit Z80- based M-Three LSI moved into general purpose desk-top machines. The M-Three was launched two and a half years ago and has sold nearly 3000 units to date. Its successor, the M-Four, which offers both an 8-bit Z80B processor (twice as fast as the Z80) and a 16-bit Intel 8088 which controls the Z80B, was first exhibited last September. Production got underway in January. About 50 had been sold at time of going to press.

The M-Four supports two standard operating systems, CP/M86/80 from Digital Research and MS-DOS from Microsoft. In addition it supports the not truly compatible 8-bit CP/ M which actually runs on the 16-bit processor. The total system thus supports an enormous range of standard software.

According to LSI, this machine is only the first in a whole family of machines anticipated by the company. Rather than continually upgrade the M-Four the company expects to launch other machines in the range. Even so LSI may introduce an 8Mhz version in the future. (The 8088 functions at the standard 5MHz in the M-Four – the same speed as in the IBM Personal Computer and the Sirius.) Throughout, the priority with the M-Four is to keep price down as it is intended to be a single user system. For this reason, LSI has no plans to switch from the 8088 to the higher performing but much more expensive 8086. The latter, it thinks, is only really necessary for multi-user systems or number crunching applications. Intel’s iapx 80186 will be used as the basis for a different machine in the family.

The Z80B is under the control of the 8088 in the M-Four. The system has 128 Kbytes RAM with parity as standard and an option of 256 Kbytes RAM. There is also a real-time clock and calendar with battery back-up.

During the second half of this year we can expect to see other members of the family beginning to appear, with networking a major component of the new developments. Networks may include other processing units as well as M-Fours. In addition to MS-DOS and CP/M-86/80. LSI is currently implementing its M-Two multi-user software ELSIE on the M-Four. It is also implementing MP/M, against its better judgement, because of market demands.

Hardware

Perhaps I should explain the disturbing pattern of events that led up to the moment of bench testing the M-Four. It must have been way back last September that PCW first expressed interest in looking at the machine and there followed a fiasco of being sent two (or was it three?) M-Fours one after another, none of which worked. By the time we got a machine that lit up when you switched it on we had already lined up a whole lot of other micros to look at first and that is why you won’t be reading this until March at the earliest (When will manufacturers learn not to launch machines before they’re working?) The machine I tested was a pre-production model which may excuse some of the defects. Once I did start to put the poor thing through its paces, I found that the keyboard had several duff keys – but more of that later.

The M-Four comes in two parts – the main unit houses two disk drives, a 24 x 80 screen and the processors; the keyboard is separate and plugs in at the front of the main unit.

The main unit is housed in mushroom-coloured polyurethane. But the final keyboard I received clashed horribly, being ivory pale. Apparently the production machines now come in a two-tone breed of the mushroom colour. The unit weighs a ton! Well actually it weighs 35kg (77 lbs) including keyboard. It is also massive, being 642mm wide and sporting a keyboard to match.

The disks are arranged vertically on the right-hand side of the main unit with the left-hand drive housing the system disk. I tested an M-Four 250/4 series machine which gives a maximum formatted capacity of 2.4Mbytes on its two 8in floppy drives. Other models offer 5.25in drives at the lower end or a 10Mbyte Winchester at the upper end.

The screen is to the left with the qwerty keyset directly in front of it In the centre of the main unit is the on/off switch and below that a badge bearing a billowing Union Jack to remind you where your heart was in buying the LSI machine.

Beside the connector for the keyboard, at the bottom left hand side of the main unit is a dial for controlling the contrast on the screen – but you can’t control brightness. LSI dictates that the brightness has been ‘pre-set during manufacture for optimum operating conditions’. In fact, I found that brightness and contrast are satisfactory though the screen does have a sheen across it that tends to cause reflection. A gauze cover might alleviate this.

At the back are the interface plugs for connecting peripheral devices. My system had two standard RS232 serial ports with 25-way D-type connectors. It also had a parallel printer port with a 36-way Delta socket. The latter gives connection to any Centronics compatible parallel printer. Also available is an RS422 asynchronous/synchronous interface which you need for networking.

LSI M Four002

Rear view of the M-Four

Removing the lid of the main unit to examine the innards of the machine was quite a challenge. The machine is sealed and solid as though it were expecting an armed raid, which is almost what you need to get in. Eventually I located some allen keys of the right dimensions and was able to remove the top which turned out to be excessively thick and strong. Should you so wish, you could easily stand on it, which is a resilience quite unnecessary in a part of the machine that serves basically to keep the dust out of the components.

Inside, confirming all my suspicions, there is lots of empty space. It’s almost as if LSI had built a big machine to give the purchaser the impression of buying lots of electronic goodies. Still, I suppose this make room for enhancement should LSI dream up some plans. The main processor board sits inside the bottom left of the machine. On it are clearly visible the 16 64k RAM chips in the 128kbytes version with space for another 16 in the 256kbyte model (The Z80 can be programmed to use any block of 64k RAM within the main memory). You can also see the 8088, and the Z80B is located next to the PROMs in the middle of the board.

It is good news for fast servicing that the processor and memory are all mounted on the one board – allowing the whole lot to be swapped in and out at once. All the main processor and memory chips are socketed rather than soldered and could be yanked out with a screwdriver. This also facilitates maintenance by allowing you to switch chips in and out. The inside is a bit of a rats’ nest on wiring but is not as bad as some I’ve seen. There was no obvious patching of last minute bugs and the overall effect is very clean. The power supply is also mounted on its own board but the strength and solidity of the thing is reminiscent more of a Victorian viaduct than a modem microcomputer!

Disks

Once you have switched on, the screen asks for a system disk to be inserted. This goes in the left-hand drive: take care if you have to open the drive first by pressing the illuminated door button – the door springs back violently.

Inserting the disks is another clumsy task with this machine which has drive doors so hard to close that you have to concentrate real force into the fingertips and slam the doors across as if ramming home a winning goal. Once you’ve done this there emanates a pandemonium of clicking, clunking and thumping with deep echoes giving the impression of lofty caverns inside the machine. Each disk access is accompanied by a resounding clunk. It is bad that the drives keep the disks constantly spinning even when not in use since this tends to wear them out inside their jackets. It also promotes wear to the bearings of the drive – and drive B will keep spinning unused for a whole session if you don’t need it. Other manufacturers provide auto cut-out after a few minutes if you don’t access the disk.

Disk formats are unusually flexible on the M-Four – undoubtedly one of its finer points. Immediately after loading the system disk the screen presents details of available disk formats. The review machine restricted itself to double sided and double density for the left hand drive, but in addition to that could also handle double sided single density, single sided double density and single sided single density disks on the right hand drive. You specify which one you want by the prefix B:, C:, or D: respectively before the file name when accessing. The M-Four also reads IBM 3740 disk formats.

The maximum number of files allowed on a double sided 8 in disk for the M-Four is 256.

It was not very auspicious when the manual gave the incorrect information on how to switch on the system. ‘Depress the “power-on” switch so that it lights up’, it said. Unfortunately my machine switched on by means of a key and didn’t have a light. When you switch on, the machine emits a high-pitched bleep just to let you know it’s alive. The cooling fan also whirs into action and the M-Four starts off in the tradition it intends to follow as a rather noisy machine that likes to assert its presence.

Keyboard

LSI M Four003

The M-Four has a magnificent 109 keys on its 642mm wide keyboard

The keyboard has been carefully designed to be just as wide as the machine – a magnificent 642mm. This makes it almost totally impractical to rest the keyboard on your lap, although being an armchair programmer I persistently tried to do so.

A thick unwieldy piece of cable attaches the keyboard to the main unit. There is space underneath the keyboard to push in the spare cable but the whole arrangement is a bit primitive. It would be better with a flexible, coiled telephone-style cable to connect the two.

I also found that, although the keyboard is attached to the main processor by over 600mms of cable, it is rather heavy and so long that if you try to use the qwerty part of the keyboard in a central part of your lap the whole thing cascades to the floor on your right!

The keys are grouped in three banks across the front, with a row of function keys across the back. The left-hand bank is the standard qwerty keyboard, just to the right is the numeric pad and then further right again is a bank of function keys, a HOME key, and four cursor arrows. The arrows are much too far away and it is impossible to move the cursor about the screen without watching where you put your fingers on the keyboard. There are 24 function keys across the back of the keyboard which can be programmed to perform different functions in the SHIFT and normal positions. There are seven more to the right and one at the foot of the qwerty cluster, giving a total of 32 programmable function keys that can either be programmed by the user or by LSI as in the case of Wordstar. There are also 32 control codes which are addressed by using the CTRL key in conjunction with the alphabetic keys or @, [, /, ], ^, and . The control codes can be assigned to functions as dictated by the resident software. ‘ESCape’ generates the same control code as ‘[’ but provides two keys for the same function – one either side of the keyboard – which can save time in use.

There is a caps lock as well as a shift lock. The caps key allows you to type everything in upper case but the top row of the qwerty cluster still generates numbers. It puts on line most of the keys you need to write a program (although unfortunately not brackets, inverted commas or $).

The main keybank includes both DELete and BACKSPACE keys. The DELete rubs out text immediately preceding the cursor, and the BACKSPACE simply moves the cursor backwards without affecting the text it traverses. According to the manual in some software the DELete key causes the same character to appear on the screen again, but either way it will be considered by the system to have been erased. Then there is a LINE FEED which corresponds to CTRL J and therefore gives quick access to the HELP menu when using Wordstar. BREAK is a special function key on the main section which generates code outside the ASCII range.

The numeric pad to the right generates the same ASCII codes as the qwerty cluster but is separated off for fast data entry.

The first keyboard I had included a raised pip on the central key of the numeric keypad for touch-key entry but the new keyboard seemed to have reneged on this useful idea and all numerics were smoothly indistinguishable to the touch. Confusion is certainly caused by the apostrophe key being indistinguishable from the comma key – both have the punctuation symbol marked in the lower part of the key and I kept forgetting which was which. In all the M-Four has a magnificent 109 keys!

If keys are held down for more than 0.5 seconds they repeat. The repeat key is said to operate about three times per second.

I mentioned earlier that the keyboard on the final machine turned out to be defective. This took some time to sink in. Incredulous at the apparent defect in the nth machine, I paused before pressing the offending keys 20 times without result. Then I took a deep breath, walked twice round the room, approached the machine gently and gave a perfect short sharp jab. This produced a character – or rather several characters all the same.

It took LSI a little over 24 hours to deliver a new keyboard. Unfortunately this one had a defective shift lock which caused problems when using the Wordstar function key set – I kept accidentally saving the exiting Wordstar when I only wanted to save and resume, or deleting the character at the cursor when I wanted to delete the one to the left.

Operating system

The manual contains a partial guide to CP/M-86/80 which is the standard operating system for the M-Four. CP/M-86/80 maps out RAM into three areas: the main system management program modules, the system data, and the user programs and data(TPA). Within the first of these three areas are three main program modules, the console command processor (CCP) the basic disk operating system (BDOS) and the basic input/output system (BIOS). The CCP recognises the commands input by the user and initiates the appropriate program from within BDOS. BDOS calls BIOS if access to external data is required.

Programs from disk have to be loaded into RAM before they can be run. If they are to be run by the 16-bit processor then the space available to them in TPA is the total memory size (128 or 256kbytes) minus the space occupied by the operating system – about 30kbytes, depending on the release. If they are to be run by the 8-bit processor then they get 63kbytes because the operating system resides outside the Z80 address space. The remaining 1k is taken up by the bare minimum of CP/M needed to accept the user program.

The M-Four also supports MS-DOS, which bears a remarkable resemblance to IBM Personal Computer DOS. This is hardly surprising since Microsoft wrote the IBM operating system! M-Four users will be able to benefit from the vast amount of software that will be, and indeed already has been, written for the IBM PC.

Software

The M-Four allows you to run 16-bit and 8-bit software without changing disks. Program files are identified by the file extensions .CMD for CP/M 86 and .COM for CP/M 80. In fact, CP/M 80 programs are run in 16-bit mode under an 8-bit like environment. There isn’t an 8-bit operating system sitting at the top of the 64k associated with the Z80B processor. It gets translated into CP/M 86 sitting alongside the 64k on the Z80B.

LSI claims that its method of CP/M emulation is more efficient than other manufacturers’ because it leaves 62.5kbytes of TPA in the Z80B’s RAM as opposed to about 52kbytes of TPA left on a typical 8-bit machine. The Z80B also improves functionality over other machines because it operates at 5MHz as opposed to 4MHz for the Z80A and 2.5MHz for the Z80. The larger amount of TPA allows programs with large databases to do large disc access. The spare memory can be used to hold the actual matrix, in SuperCalc for example.

Basic

Although LSI gives you interpreted Microsoft Basic for both CP/M-86/80 and for MS-DOS, the 8-bit Z80 compiled Basic is much faster than the MS-DOS Basic. This is because, to provide Basic on the 16-bit processor, Microsoft simply did a semiautomatic translation giving very poor 8086 code. The same thing has happened with Wordstar and LSI reckons that Wordstar on the 8-bit processor is 1.6 times as fast as the 16-bit version. However, I had a more recent version of Microsoft Basic on the MS-DOS disk LSI sent than on the CP/M disk – 5.21 as opposed to 4.51. This created an anomalous situation. All the Benchmarks ran under MS-DOS at the same speed or slower than they did under CP/M-86/80. All, that is, except for Benchmark 8 which took 50.8 seconds under CP/M and only 29.2 under MS-DOS. A Basic compiler is also supplied under MS-DOS.

The screen is software-controlled on the M-Four so you can build display functions such as absolute cursor positioning and partial line erasure into your applications programs. The facility is intended to be used if you are designing a system to be used by operators working directly from the screens. When you write your application program you can include an ESCape H, for example, to move the cursor to the Home position in the top left hand corner and present your user with a completely screen. Other ESCape screen functions include ESC E to erase the screen, ESC J to erase the screen from the current cursor position to the end, and ESC A, B, C, D to move the cursor non-destructively up, down, right and left respectively.

The manual mentioned two other ESCape functions. There is the cursor address (ESC Y) and the graphics mode (ESC F). The cursor address supposedly allows you to move to a position using x, y co-ordinates. Graphics mode provides 32 graphics symbols using lower case alphabetics and six punctuation keys. Regrettably the manual refers the user to two appendices for further explanation of these facilities, but the appendices are not there – even in the final version of the manual!

You can store two different fonts in RAM at the same time – they take up 2k each – and these live in a file with the extension .FNT, and are loaded into RAM using the LOADFONT utility. You can then switch from one font to another in an application program by means of ESCape p. This displays all subsequent characters using the second 2k of font RAM, until it is switched off again by ESCape q. Under normal conditions the second 2k of font RAM contains the reverse video ASCII set so you could use ESCp and ESCq to toggle in and out of reverse video, giving clarity to applications on screen.

System utilities

There are three different aspects of the M-Four that the user can change: key programming, the character set displayed on the screen and system parameters. The last of these covers areas such as serial ports, logical/physical device assignment, cursor characteristics (flashing or steady, blocked or underlined) and the way the screen behaves in certain conditions like wrap-around at the end of a line.

The information relating to these aspects is stored in the following three different file types: .KEY, .FNT and .PRM.

On your system disk you get three utility programs for generating and editing these files. The programs are KEYGEN, FONTGEN and PARMGEN. These are interactive programs with a series of friendly and explanatory menus detailing how to use the utility. They are useful for generating the files the first time and also for going back to edit them later.

The first time you switch the system on it goes into AUTOEXEC. SUB as defined by LSI. But you can also create this file and edit it yourself.

LSI told me that the keyboard is delivered with a set of plastic overlays for the programmable function keys. The only overlay I had was for Wordstar and my main criticism of it is that it doesn’t specify which set of functions are executed by holding down the SHIFT key in conjunction with the function key, and which functions are executed by holding down the function key alone. Of course, I eventually learnt that SHIFT was for the bottom set of functions and that if you didn’t use it you’d get the top set executed instead. But all this took considerable time, trial and error and caused much annoyance. Also I kept forgetting every time I came back to the machine after a few days’ break. LSI also intends to provide an overlay for the spreadsheet package SuperCalc and for its own Modular Accounting Package (Map). You can get hold of blank overlays for your own special function programming.

The set of functions you have programmed into the keys are stored in a special file identified on the directory by the file extension .KEY. You can have as many of these files as you like and you load whichever one you want into the system by typing its name from CP/M. There are 511 codes available to the function keys and although they do not have to be shared equally, a complex sequence for one key will deprive the remainder.

KEYGEN is very friendly and leads you through a set of options. ‘T’ allows you to set an ERASE key other than BACK SPACE to help in a programmed key code sequence. ‘R’ is to call up a key function table which has already been created under KEYGEN. ‘I’ provides information on how to use KEYGEN and ‘F’ goes directly into key function programming mode. However, I found the utility much less friendly when it came to saving and exiting my KEYGEN file. When you have finished with the file you are given a two-option menu: ‘A’ to give the file a name and save it, or ‘E’ to abandon. Naturally you press ‘A’. But the menu comes straight back and if you genuinely don’t want to abandon the file you press ‘A’ again and go on looping the loop, conspicuously failing to get back into CP/M. Eventually I realised that after pressing ‘A’ to save, ‘E’ changed its meaning and became E to Exit to CP/M not E to abandon. So that needs tidying up.

KEYGEN is well laid out and at the top of the screen it displays a pictorial representation of the programmable keys with a pointer indicating which key you are currently programming and whether it is the SHIFT function (upwards arrow) or the normal function (downwards arrow).

A KEYGEN file is loaded into memory simply by typing LOADKEY followed by a space and then the filename.

The PARMGEN utility is for setting up the system’s parameters such as baud rate, word length or cursor characteristics. Again it is organised in a friendly series of options. ‘A’ is for cursor personality, ‘B’ is for the serial port, ‘C’ is for logical/physical input/output device assignment; ‘D’ is to change drive B to single/double sided, and ‘X’ is to overwrite existing parameters.

Logically enough, a file that has been created under PARMGEN is loaded into memory with the system command LOADPARM followed by the filename.

Devising the font is the third aspect of the system that the user can manipulate, and it is the most fun, if not the most vital. FONTGEN allows you to create all your own characters for the entire ASCII key set. In the top left it provides a visual representation of each location available in the file. On the right is a diagram of the character cell and you switch bits in it on or off using an ‘X’ or a ‘.’. At the bottom left hand side of the screen is information giving you the location of the current character you are working on in both decimal and hex. I designed a hieroglyphic style font which was wonderfully spidery and spikey. It would have been a good font to use while writing a ghost story – I’m sure Mervyn Peake would have approved. Sadly, you would of course need a more than ordinary printer to actually produce the characters on a printed page. But you could wake up sleepy users by fixing it so that important messages suddenly appear on the screen in scrawly handwriting style! I also designed a graphics font but there was a problem remembering the ASCII locations of the graphics.

My only complaint about the FONTGEN utility relates to the display it provides of the existing character’s font that you wish to edit (or blank set of locations waiting for characters in an empty file) eight pixels across and 13 down. If you think 13 is a strange number, it should be made clear that LSI wanted to have 14 with the extra line giving space for clarity between characters. However, the extra electronics involved in providing this would have added unacceptably to the cost of the system. The annoying thing here is that moving the cursor around the display of the font file has to be done using CTRL E, X, S, and D for up, down, left and right respectively.

I did hit another problem due to my own stupidity. I accidentally loaded an empty font file so that there was nothing on the screen. I could find no way out of this other than to switch the machine off and start again. I wonder what happens if you accidentally load an empty font file into your submit autoexec program! Which reminds me, one oddity of the M-Four is that it has no reset button!

Files created with FONTGEN are loaded with the LOADFONT command. This command has several options. As mentioned you can have two fonts loaded at the same time, with Font 1 occupying the first 2kbytes and Font 2 occupying the second 2kbytes. By default, two fonts are loaded. But if you follow the LOADFONT command with /1 this loads Font 1 only, and /2 loads only Font 2. You can also use ‘U’ to underline the loaded font and ‘R’ to reverse the loaded font. You can compound these specifiers to create /1 R for example which loads in Font 1 in reverse video.

The other utilities on the system disk were FORMAT, HELP, TIME, PIP, RDCPM and STAT. These are all menu driven and easy to use. HELP can be used for virtually anything on the system, but LSI seems to have lost interest halfway through the explanations. They go into things in some detail and at the end ask you if you want to see examples. I dutifully asked to see examples every time – but I never found any and always ended up back at the first HELP menu or back to CP/M.

As an example of the clear and unpompous way that HELP is written, look at the explanation of STAT. First you get a long paragraph describing the purpose of the STAT utility: ‘To supply information about the disk drives, files and peripheral devices attached to the computer. STAT also changes attributes of files and devices…’ and it goes on to explain the command line parameters. Then you are told that STAT gives you the free space ‘in kbytes (1024 bytes or 1k) for all online disks since CP/M was loaded’. It describes using STAT to set drives to Read/Write or Read Only, and how STAT VAL shows the possible external devices that can be assigned to your computer.

The manual also describes the utility DISCOPY but I did not find this on any of my system disks.

PIP is a standard CP/M utility to copy, combine and transfer files between peripherals. RDCPM allows you to read CP/M files from MS-DOS.

TIME refers to the real time clock system which tells you the date and time whenever you switch the system on. One pleasing feature about it is that you input the initial date and time in digits it is printed on the screen at the beginning of a session with the day of the week printed in English. Unfortunately my clock had a few problems. On one occasion it told me, on booting the system, that it was 02.59.04 on Monday July 15th 2058!!! LSI assures me that the fault has been patched and now functions properly on production machines.

Conclusions

LSI regards the dual processor as the big selling point of this system and although a similar facility is available on the Digital Equipment Rainbow LSI claims to be in the lead with a machine that is up and running and in the marketplace. Also the Rainbow only uses a 4MHz Z80A. LSI says the M-Four is definitely faster than the Rainbow when running in 8-bit mode and the M-Four is also cheaper for the 128k version (The Rainbow starts at a 64k version, which LSI thinks ridiculous for a 16-bit processor.) LSI also claims the M-Four is cheaper than IBM.

I did find my patience somewhat stretched with the reliability of the machine although the fact that I was testing a preproduction model probably gave me an unfair impression of the system before final bugs had been disguised.

Aesthetically, I thought it an ugly machine which takes up far too much space – especially since the M-Four is being marketed as a single user tool and therefore ought to sit easily on a desk top. It needs a table all of its own about 130cms wide to accommodate the main unit, keyboard and a small printer. It is also very deep, 683mm counting the main unit and keyboard together. The unwieldly bulk of the keyboard and the long stretches involved amount to a significant handicap.

Undoubtedly the major advantage of the M-Four is the amount of standard software it will support Most people should be able to find a package to do more or less what they want under CP/M-86/80 or MS-DOS. It is also useful to be able to use a variety of different density disks in the same drive. On price it matches up respectably against the competition.

Prices

These prices apply to the LSI M-Four with 8088 and Z80B dual processors, 128k RAM, real time clock, Centronics printer interface, two RS232 interface ports, screen, keyboard two disk drives and CP/M-86/80.

  • Model 150/4 (5!4in double sided drives, two 400k byte disks – £2390
  • Model 250/4 (8 in double sided drives with two 1.2Mbyte disks) – £3475
  • Model 650/4 (10Mbyte Winchester formatted capacity, 8 in double sided with 2Mbytes) – £4875
  • Model 160/4 (5.25in quadruple density double sided disks, not yet in production) – no price available.
  • Model 652/4 (21Mbyte Winchester disk, 8in double sided disk) – no price available.

Options

  • Extra 128kbytes RAM, one RS232 interface, one RS422 interface – £500
    MS-DOS – £500

Technical specifications

  • CPU: 5MHz Z80B, 5MHz 8088
  • RAM: 128k expandable to 256k
  • ROM: 4k bootstrap loader
  • I/O Ports: Centronics parallel printer ports; 2 x RS232 and 20mA Current loop async ports; General purpose interface bus – optional; RS422 serial port – optional.
  • Disks:25in 8in
  • O/S: CP/M-86/80, MS-DOS
  • Languages: Wide range available under CP/M and MS-DOS
Benchmark timings
BM1 1.9
BM2 4.8
BM3 11.5
BM4 11.5
BM5 12.4
BM6 19.8
BM7 30.9
BM8 50.8
All timings in seconds. For an explanation and listing of the Benchmark programs, see PCW November 1982.

First published in Personal Computer World magazine, April 1983

Atari 520ST – A Hands-On Report

ST520Main

“We aren’t selling home computers. We aren’t selling business computers. We’re selling personal computers. People can use them for whatever they want.” With those words, Jack Tramiel launched the ST series and a new beginning for Atari. Here’s a close look at the first computer in the ST series and the most powerful Atari ever.

By Tom R. Halfhill, Editor

The old stereotypes about home computers are being challenged. There’s a new generation of personal computers emerging that combines massive memory, high speed processing, fast floppy disk drives, hard disk interfaces, considerable expansion potential, stunning graphics, and sophisticated sound. These computers are powerful enough to run state-of-the-art business software and versatile enough to excel at running entertainment and educational programs.

The Atari 520ST was the first of this new breed. Announced at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show last January, it is now becoming widely available. Here are the standard features:

  • 512K of Random Access Memory (RAM), half a megabyte.
  • Motorola 68000 microprocessor. This 16/32-bit chip is clocked at 8 megahertz and can directly address up to 16 megabytes of memory without bank-switching. It’s the same central processing unit found in the Apple Macintosh and Amiga from Commodore.
  • One of the fastest floppy disk drive interfaces in personal computing. Although the interface bus is serial, not parallel, it transfers data at a megabit per second, faster than some hard disks. The basic 520ST system comes with one external drive that stores 400K (unformatted) on a single side of a 3½-inch micro-floppy disk. Double-sided drives which store 800K per disk have also been announced.
  • One of the fastest hard disk interfaces in personal computing. It transfers data at 1.33 megabytes per second, more than eight times faster than the floppy interface. Although hard disks aren’t yet available for the ST, Atari plans to introduce a 10- to 15-megabyte drive by early 1986, possibly for as low as $399. This price is feasible because the hard disk controller is already built into the computer. The hard disk interface can also be used for memory expansion or a CD-ROM (Compact Disc-Read Only Memory). Atari has shown a prototype CD-ROM that stores up to 550 megabytes of data on a single compact disc. (See “Monster Memory,” August 1985.)
  • Built-in Centronics-standard parallel port and RS-232 serial port for printers, modems, and other peripherals. These ports are compatible with IBM cables for printers and modems.
  • Built-in Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) for attaching keyboard synthesizers, sequencers, drum boxes, and other electronic musical devices. Because the MIDI ports transfer data at a very high speed (31.25 kilobaud), they’ve also been considered for such future applications as extremely inexpensive local area networks (LANs).
  • A slot for cartridges containing up to 128K of Read Only Memory (ROM).
  • Intelligent video output port that recognizes whether a colour or monochrome monitor is plugged into the computer and allows the operating system to adjust itself accordingly. This port also has pins for audio input/output.
  • High-resolution monochrome monitor. With a screen refresh rate of 70 hertz – about 16 percent faster than normal monitors and TVs – this monitor is capable of unusually sharp displays. An analogue RGB (red-green-blue) colour monitor also is available.
  • Screen modes with high resolution (640 x 400 pixels, monochrome), medium resolution (640 x 200, four onscreen colours), and low resolution (320 x 200, 16 on screen colours).
  • Palette of 512 possible colours. Any of the four colours in medium resolution or 16 colours in high resolution can be selected from this palette.
  • Three-channel General Instruments sound chip, the same as found in the Texas Instruments TI-99/4A, IBM PCjr, and MSX standard computers. Envelope registers allow the chip to simulate various types of waveforms.
  • A disk-based operating system called TOS (Tramiel Operating System) which combines Digital Research’s CP/M-68K and GEM (Graphics Environment Manager). CP/M-68K is the 68000 version of the popular Z80-based operating system, CP/M (Control Program/Microcomputers), similar to the MS-DOS used on the IBM PC and compatibles. CP/M-68K is vastly expanded, however, with provisions to support up to 16 disk drives with 512 megabytes per drive and 32 megabytes per file. To make this operating system easier to use, it is linked on the 520ST with GEM, a Macintosh-like user interface with icons, windows, and drop-down menus. GEM can be manipulated from the keyboard or with a mouse controller that comes with the 520ST. The two-button mouse plugs into one of the two controller ports built into the computer.
  • Digital Research Logo and Atari BASIC programming languages on disk. (At this writing, BASIC wasn’t finished, and the 520ST was being shipped with Logo only. Atari has said that BASIC will be added to the package when it’s done and offered as an upgrade to early ST buyers as well.)
  • An 84-key keyboard with cursor keypad, numeric keypad, plus ten special function keys.

The price for the complete system (520ST, disk drive, monochrome monitor, mouse, and system software) is $799. A 520ST system with RGB monitor costs $999.

ST520Turtle

Turtle graphics in logo: This geometric figure was created in the Atari 520ST’s low-resolution mode (320 x 200 pixels, 16 colours).

If you’ve never used a Macintosh, working with the Atari 520ST for the first time will be an unfamiliar experience. When you switch on most personal computers, you find yourself either in BASIC or some type of disk operating system (DOS). But the 520ST doesn’t wake up with a READY prompt, command line, or DOS menu. Instead, the first thing you see is the GEM desktop.

Icons along the edges of the desktop screen show a trash can and file drawers. The drawers represent floppy disk drives and hard disks, depending on your system configuration. Menu titles appear across the top of the screen. Floating above the desktop is an arrow that you can move by rolling the mouse or by pressing certain keys. It represents an extension of your hand on the screen.

To view a menu, you move the pointer to the desired title. Instantly, the menu drops down over the screen. (The 520ST’s drop-down menus are summoned slightly differently than the Macintosh’s pull-down menus: You don’t have to click and hold the mouse button.) As you move the pointer up and down the menu, it highlights various options. Some options may be invalid for a particular operation, so they appear in dim print and cannot be highlighted. To select an option, you simply highlight it and click the left button on the mouse.

To call a disk directory, you move the pointer atop the appropriate file drawer icon and do what’s called a double-click – pressing the mouse button twice in rapid succession. The disk drive hums, and a window appears on the desktop. Various types of icons inside the window denote data files, executable program files, and sub-directories on the disk. If you prefer a more conventional disk directory, you can drop down the View menu and select View As Text. The file icons change into a list of filenames which includes such information as file lengths in bytes and the dates on which the files were last updated. Other options on the View menu let you sort the directory by filename (alphabetically), file type, size, or date.

If you’re working with a two-drive system, you can call the directory for drive B by double-clicking on its icon. When this window appears, it overlaps the window for drive A. But the drive A window isn’t erased; by pointing to it and clicking the mouse button once, it moves atop the drive B window. A similar click on the drive B window brings it to the fore. You can flip back and forth between several windows in this manner, like shuffling papers on a real desktop. Options selected from menus, such as View As Text, affect the window which is currently on top of the pile.

All other functions in the GEM desktop work in similar ways: You point to a menu option or icon, then click the mouse button once or twice. For instance, to run a program, you point to its icon or filename in the disk directory window and double-click. The desktop disappears and the program runs. When you exit the program, the desktop reappears.

Some operations, such as deleting a file, require a mouse manoeuvre known as dragging. First you select the icon – in this case, the file you want to delete – by pointing to it with the mouse and then clicking the mouse button. While still holding down the button, you can roll the mouse to drag an outline of the file icon along with the pointer. To delete the file, you would drag it to the trash can icon and release the mouse button. A window appears and asks “Are you sure?”, warning that the file will be erased if you click on a marker labelled “OK.” If you don’t want to delete the file, you can click on a marker labelled “Cancel.” The first choice irretrievably erases the selected file off the disk; the second choice restores everything to normal. (Unlike the Macintosh, you can’t retrieve files from the trash can. As the 5205T manual points out, the 520ST trash can is more like an incinerator.)

This dragging technique is used for other operations as well. You can copy a file from one disk to another by dragging the file icon from the source disk’s directory window to the destination disk’s window; you can copy the contents of an entire disk by dragging its file cabinet icon atop another disk’s icon; and you can organise files into sub-directories by dragging their icons into a folder icon.

You can also manipulate windows as easily as icons. The “active” window – that is, the one on top of the pile if several are displayed – has various control bars and squares along its edges. Pointing to the square in the upper-right corner and clicking the mouse button expands the active window to full-screen size. Clicking this corner again restores it as a window. Dragging the lower-right corner lets you adjust a window’s size, making it larger or smaller. Dragging the top bar lets you move a window anywhere on the screen. Clicking on the small arrows displayed along the bottom and right bars will scroll the material displayed in the window, assuming some of it is hidden due to the window’s size. And clicking on the upper-left corner removes the active window from the screen (“closes” the window).

ST520GemLoRES

In low res, the GEM desktop has a 40-column screen. The Control Panel is a pop-up menu that lets you adjust various system functions.

ST520GemMedRES

In medium resolution (640 x 200 pixels, four colours), the GEM desktop has an 80-column screen. Note the two disk directory windows.

ST520TypeStyles

The 520ST is capable of displaying numerous type styles, as seen on this hi-res Logo screen.

One unusual feature of the 520ST is its intelligent monitor interface. When you boot up, the operating system checks whether a monochrome or colour monitor is attached to the computer and adjusts itself for one of three possible screen resolutions.

With the monochrome monitor, the operating system automatically configures the GEM desktop for high resolution – 640 x 400 pixels, black and white. The display is extremely sharp and stable because of the monitor’s 70 hertz refresh rate, which means it redraws the screen image 70 times per second rather than 60 times as on standard monitors and TVs. (This is possible because the monitor uses its own 70 hertz oscillator instead of synchronising with the 60 hertz power line.) Furthermore, the display is paper-white, not blue-white, easier on the eyes. When the monochrome monitor is hooked up, the operating system won’t let you enter the medium- or low-resolution modes, which have colour.

If the 520ST is booted up when plugged into its RGB monitor, it defaults to medium resolution – 640 x 200 with four simultaneous colours. Because this screen has the same horizontal resolution as the monochrome mode but only half the vertical resolution, the aspect ratio is slightly distorted. Icons appear tall and skinny, and characters are narrower.

The low-resolution mode – 320 x 200 with 16 simultaneous colours – also requires the RGB monitor. (The RF modulator included in pre-production 520STs has been eliminated from production models, so it can’t be attached to ordinary TVs. There’s also no direct output for standard composite monitors, although one could probably be rigged from the RGB pins.)

To enter the low-res mode, you boot up in medium-res, then drop down the Options menu and select Set Preferences. A small window appears with markers for low-res, medium-res, and hi-res (the hi-res marker is dimmed to indicate it’s not available with this configuration). To change modes, you click the mouse button while pointing to the appropriate marker.

If you want your 520ST to “wake up” in low-res instead of medium-res, you can drop down the Options menu and select Save Desktop. This selection saves all adjustments you’ve made to GEM onto the operating system boot disk. Other preferences can be saved this way, too. By dropping down various menus, you can specify whether warning windows should appear when copying or deleting files; turn the keyboard click and error beeps on or off; adjust the keyboard’s auto-repeat delay and repeat rate; set the mouse button’s response speed for double-clicking; choose the desktop’s foreground and background screen colours from the 512 available hues; set the real time clock’s time and date, which is automatically stamped on disk directories whenever you save a file; and configure the RS232 and parallel ports for certain peripherals.

The 520ST doesn’t have sprites or player/missile graphics, but animation is possible in any of its screen modes by a technique called bit-block transfer. Like sprite graphics, it allows you to move objects around the screen without erasing the background. The mouse pointer and the bumblebee icon that appears when the disk drive is busy are examples of bit-block animation. Unfortunately, these capabilities are not supported in Logo, the only language shipped with the 520ST at launch. The Logo is actually a translation of Digital Research’s Logo for the IBM PC, and it has no commands for animation or sound. Reportedly, the BASIC being prepared for the 520ST is a translation of Digital Research’s BASIC for the PC.

ST520Doodle

This low-res picture was created with Dr Doodle, a simple drawing program written by Digital Research and included on an ST demo disk.

ST520Gem

In high resolution (640 X 400 pixels, monochrome), GEM closely resembles the Macintosh desktop.

ST520Error

Error messages on the 520ST are usually more helpful than the cryptic error codes of days past.

When the 520ST made its first appearance at the Winter CES, it was hard to believe that anyone could design a system like the 520ST and throw together a prototype in only about six months – the time that had elapsed since ex-Commodore President Jack Tramiel had acquired Atari from its parent company, Warner Communications.

Forced to trim down from several thousand employees to several hundred, Atari accelerated development on the 520ST by taking advantage of some ready-made parts. The 520ST came along just in time for Digital Research’s CP/M-68K and GEM. This is important in understanding the underlying structure of the 520ST, which has been nicknamed the “Jackintosh.”

Although the Atari’s desktop screens can easily be mistaken for the Macintosh’s, the 520ST is actually quite different from the Mac. True, GEM has all the icons, windows, menus, and other Macintosh screen graphics. But GEM is really just a shell – a layer between the user and the real operating system, CP/M-68K. In fact, it’s possible to leave GEM and enter this lower level. All the fancy graphics can be made to disappear and you see a screen prompt, A>. This prompt is familiar to users of CP/M and MSDOS/PC-DOS (a descendant of CP/M). You can enter commands such as DIR to call a disk directory or TYPE to display a file. Like CP/M and PC-DOS, CP/M-68K allows programmers to perform various system functions by calling routines in the Basic Input/Output System, or BIOS. Digital Research even says that CP/M file structures are upwardly compatible with CP/M-68K.

GEM, too, is a module that has something in common with other systems. Digital Research sells a version of GEM for the IBM PC and compatibles, and publishes guide lines for writing application programs to work with GEM.

All this doesn’t mean that the 520ST can run CP/M or PC-DOS programs, of course – the machine languages are completely incompatible. But it does mean that programs written in compiled languages such as C can be adapted for these various systems without complete rewriting. If software companies take advantage of this, it could significantly boost the amount of software available for the 520ST.

Another consequence of the 520ST’s shell-like operating system structure is that the machine has not been designed around its user interface. The computer is functional without the mouse, and the key board includes such traditional features as cursor keys.

Combining ease of use with real power, speed, and the potential for future expansion, the Atari 520ST is an important addition to personal computing. It lends itself to users who prefer to buy their software off the shelf as well as to programmers – a versatile representative of the new generation.

First published in Compute! magazine, October 1985

Atari 1040ST

How do you improve on a good idea? The 1040ST, Atari’s upgraded and enhanced 520ST, has 1Mbyte of RAM and an internal 720K disk drive. Nick Walker considers it to be top of the compatibles chart.

Main-Picture

In recent months, the PCW office has begun to resemble the warehouse of an IBM PC-compatible distributor – with boxes and boxes of lookalikes arriving for possible Benchtesting. Occasionally someone will unpack one, set it up on a desk, declare ‘Yes, it’s a PC-compatible’, and a day later put it back in its box.

If we are really lucky, we might unpack a machine that’s finished in brown instead of IBM grey, or perhaps it will have an amber screen instead of the usual green. It’s not the outdated PC architecture or even the ancient, unfriendly MS-DOS operating system, but the sheer volume of practically identical machines that bores me. Consequently, any machine which breaks the mould of IBM compatibility, regardless of its merit, tends to generate more than its fair share of interest.

One such machine, launched in June 1985, is the Atari 520ST, which offers the processing power of a 68000, a Macintosh-like environment, a high-resolution monochrome monitor, and a 3½inch floppy disk drive – all for £750. At least as far as specification is concerned, the 520ST has made other machines such as the IBM PC and the Apple Macintosh, appear grossly overpriced.

However, at the time of the 520ST’s launch, there was still a big question-mark over the state of Atari, and many people were questioning whether the company had the resources to make a success of the 520ST. Now, almost a year later, Atari has launched the 1040ST as its ‘top of the range’ machine – complete with 1Mbyte of RAM (1000k) and an internal 720k disk drive – to sell alongside the 520ST. I decided to take a look, not only at the 1040ST, but also at how the market has progressed for all ST owners.

Hardware

Atari-1040-STWEB

The stylish, sloping keyboard features angled function keys, and disk drive lights

The Atari 520ST is one of the nicest looking machines I’ve ever seen, and it’s good to see that those good looks have been retained on the 1040. Despite the inclusion of an internal floppy disk drive and an internal power supply, the casing has increased very little in size. It’s rather deeper and taller but, in terms of the amount of desk space it occupies, there is almost no difference. The sleek, grey casing, with function keys, ventilation slots, a floppy disk access light and a power light all sloping at the same angle, gives the machine a very elegant appearance.

The ports which feature on the 520ST are all there on the 1040ST, and make up one of the fullest complements I’ve seen on a micro. Of the four sides that could possibly hold ports, three of them do so, and the one which doesn’t, holds the floppy disk drive. A little tunnel under the front of the keyboard leads to the two mouse/joystick ports; although this makes the insertion of a mouse or joystick extremely awkward, it does mean that no extra room is needed on the right-hand side for plugs, and the wire comes out at the natural angle for use. It might also bring back some nostalgic memories for owners of the original Atari 400 and 800 8-bit micros, which feature four forward-facing joystick ports.

When running joystick software, both STs use standard joysticks and most software uses the second port, so if you have a mouse in port one and a joystick in port two, there shouldn’t be any need to change them.

Along the left-hand side of the 1040ST there is a ROM cartridge port and two MIDI ports – MIDI-in and MIDI-out – for the connection and control of electronic instruments such as synthesisers, drum boxes and sequencers. At the moment there is no software available for the cartridge port, although I do know of a version of Basic which is being developed and is claimed to pack a lot more power than ST Basic.

The back of the machine is, like the 520ST, heavily populated with ports. From left to right it features ports for: serial RS232; parallel Centronics printer; high-speed hard disk port; additional floppy disk port; monitor; power switch; power in; and, finally, there is the reset button.

The right-hand side of the machine features an integral 3½in, double-sided disk drive which gives a formatted capacity of 720k. The drive is also capable of reading, writing and formatting in the single-sided 360k format as used with the 520ST.

Floppy-DriveWEB

The unsightly power supply boxes of the 520ST have been eliminated: the 1040ST features an integral disk drive.

By making the disk drive and power supply internal, Atari has enhanced the system in a further respect. The 520ST requires hefty power supplies for the main system unit and the disk drive; these unsightly boxes have been eliminated on the 1040ST.

One thing that’s certain about the 1040ST is that Atari does not intend users to get inside it. This machine is the most difficult one I’ve ever tried to open – I’m still scarred from the fight. On the underside of the machine are 11 screws of different lengths; removing these allows you to take off the top covering where you are confronted with an expanse of shielding, and a small silver box in the right-hand corner – the disk drive. One of the reasons why Atari has made it difficult for users to get inside the system is that the shielding for the internal power supply is not a sealed unit, so operating the machine with its lid off could be dangerous.

But I was still interested to see if the PCB had been changed, so I removed the floppy disk and the keyboard, and set about removing the shielding. My first obstacle – three Phillips screws; no problem. Then I noticed the 11 metal tags which have to be bent before the cover will come off. When I twisted these, things looked hopeful, but no – the shielding goes under the rear port. At this point I gave up; at least I could peer at the PCB by bending the shielding.

The layout of the 1040’s PCB is totally different from that of the 520, presumably to incorporate the extra RAM. There is, as you would expect in order to maintain compatibility, no change to the logical architecture. Even with 100k of RAM on board, the chip count is still remarkably low due to the use of four large custom chips for such functions as graphics, DMA (Direct Memory Access) and timing.

The first 520STs were supplied with the operating system on disk, and loading it in gobbled vast amounts of RAM. At that time, there was speculation that it would remain that way. However, all 1040s have the operating system in ROM as standard, and the majority of 520s have now been updated. These ROMs include the TOS operating system and its friendly interface, GEM.

The 1040ST can be supplied with either a high-resolution black on white monochrome monitor or a medium-resolution colour monitor. While the monochrome unit is of Atari’s original manufacture, the colour unit is actually a Thomson unit packaged in a similar grey plastic to the machine. Both monitors give a good picture when used with either ST, but the colour unit is not quite up to the standard of the original Atari colour monitor which was shown with 520s at computer shows in 1985.

The bundling of a third-party monitor is typical of the new, quick moving Atari. Since Jack Tramiel took over at Atari, various products have been seen at shows, and assurances have come from the company that these items would soon be in production – only to be dropped a few months later. The usual reason Atari drops products is that the company can’t produce them cheap enough and, as soon as it can, the product will reappear. The really worrying thing is that I believe Atari.

The dropping of Atari’s £500 CDROM was a very big disappointment and has probably cost the company dearly in potential sales revenue. In the US, a company called Activenture has taken the CD-ROM player and the Grolier encyclopedia (used to demonstrate the Atari unit) and is making it commercially available.

Unfortunately, the Activenture unit costs rather more than £500, and it is doubtful whether we will ever see it in the UK. The one glimmer of hope for this product could be provided by Warner Brothers, Atari’s erstwhile owner, which still has a large stake in the company. Warner Brothers is currently installing its own CD manufacturing operation, so hopefully we might see the original unit soon. Atari’s 20Mbyte hard disk also looks to have been dropped as a worldwide Atari product. Admittedly, at national level, Atari is signing various deals with third-party companies but, in the UK at least, this means a hard-disk which is nowhere near as competitively priced as the rest of the ST line-up.

The official announcement of the 1040ST in the UK was accompanied by a preview of a plug-in box which gives IBM compatibility to the ST range. Like a similar product which plugs into the Macintosh – MacCharlie – this extra box is really an IBM-compatible which uses the 1040ST as a terminal and a RAM disk. The prototype unit I saw had an Intel 8088 processor running at 4.77MHz and 512k RAM, and a 5¼in floppy disk drive was connected to the ST via the hard disk DMA port.

When the 1040 is used in its native mode, this PC add-on can act as a second disk drive, giving a formatted capacity of around 360k. No price is available for this box, but I suspect that whatever the price tag, it will have difficulty competing with the current crop of Taiwanese clones, and will only appeal to 1040 users who want a neat-looking, single system and IBM-compatibility. The box’s planned release date is next month.

At the same time that the PC compatible box was announced Atari also publicised the 520STM, a version of the 520ST which will sell for under £400. For this price you get a 520ST console with an extra port -modulated television output, which allows you to connect a standard television set to the system. However, you don’t get a monitor or, more surprisingly, a disk drive, so you won’t be able to do anything with the system until you buy a disk drive at an extra £150. These figures give an interesting breakdown of the pricing of the separate components which comprise an ST system, and marginally lowers the cost of an entry-level system. I would like to see the TV modulation added to the 520ST and the 1040ST, so that purchasers of the bundled monochrome system can at least use their home televisions to play games.

On a sour note, after conversations with users and dealers of the 520ST, it appears that there is some doubt as to the reliability of the system. One dealer reported 18 of his 30 systems being returned to Atari and, of the users I know, everyone has experienced at least one hardware fault. The system in the PCW office has gone through one mouse and one monitor in about four months, and the 1040’s disk drive is rather temperamental. As a colleague remarked after reviewing the 520: ‘There’s a price to all this cheapness.’ So far, his pessimism has proved to be justified.

Software

Having both TOS and GEM in ROM significantly improves the performance of the 1040ST, and alleviates the need to insert a system disk each time you reboot the system. I won’t go into any depth in this Checkout about the operation of GEM, as it has been well covered before and also in the original 520ST Benchtest in June 1985. However, just to refresh your memory, GEM is a graphics-based friendly interface which usually sits on top of a standard operating system – in this case, TOS. It is interesting to note that the version of GEM included in the 1040ST contains the code over which Apple recently sued Digital Research (the originators of GEM). After an out-of-court settlement, Digital Research has modified its own commercial version of GEM so that it isn’t similar to the Apple Macintosh desk-top program. All I can assume is that Atari has produced thousands of ROMs containing the old version of GEM, and these are still going into the machines. My advice, if you’re thinking of buying an 1040ST, is to get one soon, as eventually the Atari will have to be modified, and the latest version of GEM isn’t a patch on its predecessor.

There is no way to get to the underlying operating system, TOS, a version of CP/M 68k, on the ST, which is a shame, because for certain applications such as program development, it could be a powerful boon. Interestingly, Atari is now denying that TOS stands for Tramiel Operating System, even though Jack Tramiel himself said that was what it stood for in January 1985. It now apparently stands for The Operating System. (Personally; I couldn’t give a TOS (sic) as long as it works.)

When it was launched, the 520ST was going to be bundled with Basic; Logo; the GEM Write word processor from Digital Research; and GEM Paint, a graphics painting program also from Digital Research. In fact, the very first machines were bundled with Logo and a promise of the other packages when they became available. The deals with Digital Research fell through, so Atari cobbled together an alternative bundle which consists of a database – DBOne; two word processors – ST Writer and 1st Word; an unfinished graphics program – Neochrome; a simple doodling program; and a game which is free anyway, so can’t really be classed as bundled. This collection doesn’t provide the business machine image Atari is trying to push, but is, nevertheless, an interesting bundle to play with upon unpacking your new 520ST. Sadly, with the 1040ST, the bundled software has been whittled down to Basic, Logo and Neochrome, which do even less for the machine’s image as a capable business machine. The computer languages in particular, while being good implementations, make little use of the GEM environment, especially in terms of the GEM features which a user can access.

At least one good thing has come from Atari’s late delivery of ST Basic: while users were waiting for it, C became available from a number of different suppliers, and it seems to have established itself as the standard for serious programming on the ST. Even magazines are publishing C listings, so perhaps we might see the demise of that awful, non-standard language Basic at long last.

With regard to commercially available applications for the 1040ST, Atari claims that there are now 400 applications available and I have no reason to disbelieve the company. Two clear trends are emerging: firstly, the majority of these applications are games, and there is definitely a contingent of ST owners who see the machine as the next step up from the Atari 400/800 as the ultimate games playing machine. From what I’ve seen, there are going to be some incredible games programs for this machine. Secondly, there is also a vast quantity of programming languages and utilities available for the ST, and it seems, especially in the UK, to have attracted a lot of serious home users/programmers who adore all the power of the 68000 and the high-quality graphics. Business applications are a little scarce, though to some extent that can be attributed to longer development times for business applications. While there is no doubt that the ST has the power to run serious business applications, what is really needed is for a major business software house to convert some applications for the ST, and some assurances from Atari as to reliability.

It is nice to see Atari producing software, as Jack Tramiel stated that there would be no more company produced software. Two of these packages stand out: a CP/M emulation package which, effectively, opens up the whole range of CP/M programs (provided you can find a way to get them into Atari’s 3½in floppy disk format); and an all-singing, all-dancing telecommunications program, Fastcom. For a real trip down memory lane, Atari is also developing a version of the game which so beautifully revealed the capabilities of the Atari 400/800 back in 1980 – the all-time classic, Star Raiders.

Documentation

Three manuals are included with the 1040ST: an Owner’s Manual; an Atari Logo Sourcebook; and an Atari Basic Sourcebook. The manuals are spiral-bound, professionally produced, and contain a lot of information in a reference book-like format.

However, no attempt has been made at a tutorial section, and very few examples have been used. Additional books would be required by newcomers to either Basic or Logo, whereas GEM is easy to use and learn, and sufficient information on the interface is included in the Owner’s Manual for the benefit of most ST owners.

Prices

The 1040ST with a monochrome monitor retails for £799 and with a colour unit for £999, which makes the price of the 520ST, with half the memory and half the disk capacity, look silly at £749 and £949 respectively for monochrome and colour systems. No plans are afoot to reduce the price of the 520ST. The 520STM will cost £399. Atari won’t be offering an upgrade for 520 owners to 1Mbyte of RAM, but this can easily be achieved with a little electronics knowledge, and no doubt some third-party companies will offer the service. (This upgrade will, of course, invalidate any remaining guarantee.)

In an effort to regain the confidence of the dealers which Atari alienated by only selling 520STs to bulk purchasers, the 1040ST will only be sold to specialist computer dealers who have the facilities to demonstrate the product on an individual basis. As the machine is so much better value than the 520ST, this will send a lot of customers back to their local computer shops and away from the Dixons and Laskys-type shop, which must be a good thing.

The additional products for which prices are shown are: hard disk – £800; floppy 360k drive – £149; floppy 720k drive – £199; and CP/M emulation software – £49.

Conclusion

When Atari launched the 520ST there was nothing to compete with it, and there still isn’t. Now, with the 1040ST and the power it offers, there is an even wider gap between an ST and the competition. Amstrad may be cleaning up in the cheap-and-reliable market with the PCW8256 and the CPC6128, but for those of us who are still enthusiastic about the latest technology, the 1040ST represents a new entry point in home computing. I’m impressed.

Benchmarks
BM1 0.85
BM2 2.11
BM3 5.83
BM4 6.37
BM5 7.74
BM6 11.87
BM7 16.95
BM8 9.42
Average 7.64
All timings in seconds. For a full listing of the Benchmarks programs, see page 185, January 1985 issue.

First published in Personal Computer World magazine, May 1986

Olivetti M20

Olivetti-M20-ForWeb

Chris Sadler and Roger Oliver take a close look at an elegantly styled 16-bit micro from Europe’s largest office equipment supplier.

One of the real advances that microcomputers have made over larger computers is their level of standardisation. Whereas big machines always have their in-house designed processors and software, microcomputers tend to be based around very few microprocessors and software products. Because of this, the appearance of so many packages that run in these environments means that new machines based on different processors have very little chance of catching up. Olivetti chose the Z8001 on which to base its M20 microcomputer. As it isn’t a minicomputer in a micro box (like the Onyx), Olivetti decided to write its own operating system, although, as a concession to the rest of the micro world, it offers the mandatory Microsoft Basic. On an unusual machine the question must be whether it has sufficient features over a more standard system to make it worth having.

Hardware

The Olivetti M20 comes packaged in two detachable units, the main box and the monitor box. The main box houses the main board, a power supply and fan, the keyboard, and (on the review machine) a couple of disk drives. The monitor stands on a circular plinth, with respect to which the screen can be tilted. A shallow oval tray on top of the main box will accept the base of the plinth so that the monitor can be conveniently positioned in relation to the keyboard. The monitor draws its power from the main box – a single power cable drives the whole machine.

The keyboard has a numeric pad in addition to the qwerty layout. All 72 keys are grey (as is the plastic casing) except for a yellow one and a blue one on the left-hand side. The manual suggests that the blue and yellow keys are respectively control and command keys, although on the review machine both were labelled ‘SHIFT’, which makes it much harder to remember which is which.

There is a reset key above the coloured ones, and two mysterious keys labelled ‘S1’ and ‘S2’above the Return key… more about these in the software section. All keys auto-repeat when held down for more than a short time. The keyboard is ‘sculpted’ and the keys make a positive click sound. Ten different character sets are available, as follows: USA ASCII, Italian, French, British, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Norwegian/Danish, Swedish/Finnish and the USA ASCII + Basic. The review machine was the last of these, with a Basic keyword etched on the front edge of each alphabetic character key.

Above the keyboard are two horizontal slots (unmarked) for the disks. Unusually, the rightmost drive is nominated drive zero. The disks are 5¼ in soft-sectored double-density double-sided, 35 tracks/side, 320 kbytes unformatted. This drops to 286 kbytes formatted, which doesn’t compare particularly well with other DDDS disks.

The main PC board has three edge connectors which extrude from the rear of the cabinet. One of these is for the monitor; the others are a parallel (Centronics) and serial (RS232C) interface for the different printers. Two screws at the back secure the top and, once this is lifted, off, everything else seems to slide apart very neatly. The keyboard mounting and disk drive mounting lift away to reveal the main board.

The processor chip is at the front of the board. It is a Z8001, Zilog’s 16-bit, capable of addressing more than 64k. Along with a 16-bit data bus, this should offer a speed advantage over 8-bit systems in arithmetic operations and memory access, although with a 4 MHz clock it would not be expected to outperform a Z80A in, say, character manipulation.

To the left is the ROM area – on the review machine there were two chips in place, sockets for another two and space on the board for another four, giving 8k for ROM. Further back on the board are other devices like disk controller, etc. On the right-hand side there is 128k of RAM (the standard configuration), beyond which the board becomes a motherboard to three small expansion sockets and two larger ones. Each of the smaller sockets can accept an additional board with 32k of memory, so the maximum memory is 224k if the monochrome monitor is used. The colour monitor, however, uses one slot and so gives a maximum memory of 192k. The review machine had a black and white monitor and a single memory expansion card (i.e., 160k).

The two larger sockets (50 connectors per side – the pinouts undocumented) are for an IEEE-488 interface socket and a pair of RS232 (or 20 mA loop) ports, and pop-out panels exist at the rear of the cabinet to allow for the necessary cabling. The board gives the appearance of a clean, uncluttered (and not particularly densely populated) design, although the review machine had a few ‘fixes’ snaking between the chips. On the extreme right at the back is a recessed, spring-loaded switch, allowing the system to be rebooted by sticking something sharp into the recess. The review machine showed evidence that people just don’t carry sharp things around with them anymore as the area surrounding the reboot hole looked scratched and scribbled-on.

Olivetti offers a choice of four printers – a thermal one (which we had), a fast (140 cps) or slow (100 cps) matrix printer, or a daisywheel. The thermal printer and the slow matrix printer are capable of screen-dump graphics.

The screen can be configured for 16 lines of 64 characters or 25 lines of 80 characters (rather crammed together) with a corresponding alteration of character size. Likewise, graphics can be resolved to 512 x 256 pixels or 480 x 256 pixels. The colour monitor provides black, red, green, yellow, blue, magenta, cyan and white, while the black and white monitor supports reverse video. With its non-glare glare surface, the screen gives a crisp, steady image and the system runs very quietly. On power-up the system performs seven seconds’ worth of diagnostic tests, sizing up the memory, testing which drives are on-line, etc. If, during the self-test, one of the keys B, D or L is pressed, the following events occur:

B: boots the Basic subsystem directly;

D: loops through the disk-testing portion of the diagnostic until some other key is pressed;

L: loops through the entire diagnostic until some other key is pressed.

When we tried the disk test, we discovered that drive 0 would not work and, although the disk test was run repeatedly thereafter, it never signalled this fact. On taking the system apart, we discovered that the drive had slipped its belt, and it worked perfectly once that was repaired.

Benchmark timings
BM1 1.3
BM2 4.0
BM3 8.1
BM4 8.5
BM5 9.6
BM6 17.4
BM7 26.7
BM8 1.6
All timings in seconds. For an explanation and listing of the Benchmark tests, see PCW Vol 4 No 11, November 1981

Software

Software consists of the operating system PCOS (Professional Computer Operating System) and a large Microsoft Basic subsystem.

The first thing one can say about PCOS is that, by microcomputer standards, it is big. On the review machine it left only 58k of user memory out or an original 160k. PCOS is composed of three parts: a nucleus, which contains system primitives, memory and device control code, etc; a set of memory resident utilities (i.e., commands); and a set of disk resident (transient) utilities. Memory is configured according to the Z8001 segmentation scheme as follows:

Segment

  • 0  – PCOS kernel
  • 1 – Basic interpreter and PCOS utilities
  • 2 – PCOS variables, Basic stack and tables, user memory
  • 3 –  Screen bitmap (and colour bitmap)
  • 4 – Diagnostics and Bootstrap

In PCOS, ‘system’ programming consists of:

  • controlling which of the utilities will be transient or resident;
  • manipulating files and volumes;
  • ‘programming’ the keyboard;
  • setting certain operating parameters;
  • constructing a turnkey boot-up program.

The system disk is distributed with certain utilities compulsorily resident (marked as such in the table of PCOS commands which follows this section). Transient utilities are those which are loaded from disk when invoked and overwritten when they complete. Any utility which is going to be used more than once or twice in a session can be ‘locked’ into memory by means of the PLOAD command. It is possible to generate a new version of the operating system by PLOADing a set of utilities into the resident area and then PSAVEing the whole memory image onto a new system disk.

Volumes and the files which are stored on them can be manipulated by means of a series of commands which begin with ‘V’ and ‘F’ respectively Thus, FCOPY transfers a single named file while VCOPY would back up a whole disk. Strangely there is apparently no command for deleting files! The Basic manual suggests using the Basic command KILL, which involves invoking the Basic interpreter, issuing the KILL command and then exiting from Basic all just to delete a file! However, we discovered a utility (undocumented) on the system disk named FKILL.CMD which sounded like what we were looking for – anyway, it worked.

Security works on two levels – disk and file. As usual, a disk may be hardware write-protected (by physically blocking a ‘write-permit’ hole on the disk); it may also be password-protected against any unauthorised access. Files may also be software write-protected and password-protected. Basic programs may be SAVEd so that they can be executed but not LISTed or RUN.

Any key which generates a printable character can be reprogrammed, by means of the PKEY command, to produce any other character, or a string of characters. In particular, the substitution string can be a Basic or PCOS command, or a sequence of commands, separated by the ASCII codes for CR and LF. A series of PKEY commands can be saved on disk and downloaded at the start of each session, thus customising the keyboard – the Basic keywords printed on the keycaps are enabled in this way through a file on the system disk named SCIENTIFIC.BAS. (The key COMMAND is depressed in conjunction with the desired keyword key to obtain the Basic keyword.) A whole sequence of commands initiated by a single keystroke is as close as PCOS allows to the sort of command file processing obtainable in other operating systems (e.g., SUBMIT  in CP/M).

Three commands exist for configuring the environment for a particular session. SSYS takes five parameters which set the time and date, the number of (256 byte) blocks by which files are to be extended, the screen format (e.g., 25 lines by 80 characters, etc) and a disk read/write verification switch. SBASIC allows the user to define the amount of open files and windows permissible and the size of the I/O buffers. Clearly, the more open files and windows allowed for and the larger the record buffer, the less memory there is for the user’s code. As a rule of thumb, each window needs 90 bytes and each file needs 600 bytes in addition to its record buffer. By comparison each memory-resident utility takes about 1800 bytes. The command SFORM sets up the printer. One of the parameters is the type of printer (e.g., ‘pr2400’ for the thermal type) so it may not be too straightforward to interface a printer not supplied by Olivetti to the M20. One parameter is an optional string which, if supplied, will be printed as a title at the top of each page of printout.

Access to the printer is gained by appending ‘+PRT’ onto the end of every command. Output is directed to the printer only as long as that command is operative – in the case of BASIC (the command which invokes the Basic subsystem) all screen I/O within the subsystem will be copied to the printer. The manual mentions ‘+CIN’ (for Communications INput), which directs input from the serial port to the system (in place of keyboard input). ‘+CONS’ resets both of the above, returning both input and output to the console.

On boot-up, once the memory-resident portion of PCOS is in place, the system searches for a file called INIT.BAS first on drive 0 and then on drive 1. If it finds one it will begin executing the program, which can contain PKEY commands and S-type environment commands as well as an ordinary Basic program. Thus the system can be made completely turnkey and the whole machine customised every time it is switched on.

Other commands include SPRINT, which dumps a given window from the screen to the printer with an optional title or time/date entry, and LABEL, which enables one to write a title, vertically or horizontally, at a given point on the screen and up to 16 times the normal character size. A number of user aids discussed in the manual were not present on the review system. These included HELP, COMMANDS and ERRORS, which provide lists of commands and error numbers, together with facilities to obtain a description of individual commands and error numbers – but how satisfactorily they work we cannot tell.

Three facilities which are available within Basic require access to utilities within the operating system, and these should be resident if Basic is to make calls to them. They are the IEEE-488 extension package; MI, a utility which enables a Basic program to pass a Z8001 machine code instruction directly to the processor; and LTERM. The two keys S1 and S2 mentioned in ‘Hardware’ are actually the equivalent of the Return key, except that the utility LTERM keeps track of which of the three ‘return’ keys was actually depressed. This enables a programmer to provide users with a variety of input keys – useful for setting up menus, Y/N
answers and so on.

PCOS seems to be an irritating operating system to use – it doesn’t react in a very consistent manner. Sometimes it is necessary to specify the disk from which one wishes to work, and at other times not. System reset is sometimes achieved with RESET+ CNTRL and sometimes with RESET+ SHIFT (the RESET key should be depressed fractionally after the other one). The PCOS file security system lays traps for the unwary. You need only mistype one key when resetting a disk password and fail to realise it and you are in trouble, as there’s no way of breaking a forgotten password.

Even worse, since once the password has been correctly supplied access is granted, even if the password is changed, you will receive no indication for the rest of the session. Thus, at the end of the session you might (as you should) take a back-up copy onto (assuming a rolling sequence of disks) a previous copy! Incidentally, if the colon is left off the volume specifier when the VLIST command is used, PCOS announces that the disk is empty – this may give you a heart attack (where are my files?) or, even worse, persuade you that the disk in question is nice and empty and suitable for back-up!

Other criticisms are that there seems to be no way for users to create their own utilities for insertion into the system and that there is no opposite to the PLOAD command whereby resident commands can be made transient. Neither is there any way of finding out which commands are resident in any given PSAVEd system. Finally, although none of the ‘help’ files were supplied with the review system, some intriguing undocumented commands were found (FFREE, FKILL, FMOVE, FNEW, PRUN, RKILL, SCOMM, SDEVICE, VALPHA, VMOVE, VQUICK). Table 1 shows the documented commands.

The high level language provided with the M20 is Microsoft Basic Version 5.2, with special extensions covering the graphics capabilities and the IEEE-488 interface. All the basic commands, statements and functions are listed in Table 2.

The SAVE command has some interesting features. Unless an ‘,A’ is appended to the command, the program is stored in packed binary format to save space. If ‘,P’ is appended instead, the file is saved in ‘protected’ form, which allows it to be run but not listed or altered in the future. TRON and TROFF set the trace flag; if it is on, line numbers are displayed as the program executes. There are the usual control structures: FOR…NEXT, IF…THEN…ELSE, WHILE…WEND and GOSUB.

Arithmetic may be performed in 2-byte integers, 4-byte single precision and in 8-byte double precision. Functions for conversion between these are provided. Using DEFINT, DEFSNG, DEFDBL and DEFSTR, implicit variable typing by initial letter of variable name is possible. For example, the statement

10 DEFSTR S, U-W

will cause all variables beginning with the letters S, U, V and W to be of type STRING. Implicit typing may be overwritten by adding a character at the end of the name: i.e., % for integers, ! for single precision, £ for double precision and $ for strings.

Data files may be either sequential or random. The former are set for input (i.e., read), output (write) or append when they are opened; they are processed with the INPUT#, LINE INPUT# (i.e., ignore delimiters), PRINT# and PRINT# USING statements. Random files are handled completely differently; the file is declared to be random when it is opened, and the maximum record length is also declared. Unfortunately, it is not possible to set the file to be read-only or write-only if it is a random access file. Communication between program and file is conducted via a buffer. GET# transfers a record from file to buffer and PUT# vice versa. To extract data from the buffer, the FIELD statement assigns specific buffer locations to field names. The field names must not appear on the LHS of an assignment if they are to be used later to address the buffer; hence the LSET/RSET statements are required to place data in the buffer. Since only string data can be placed in the buffer, the functions CVI, CVS, CVD and MKI$, MKD$, MKS$ are needed for interconversions.

The most interesting features of the Basic’s graphics facilities is that the screen can be divided into a maximum of 16 independent windows. (Strictly speaking, they are not real graphics windows since they cannot overlap non-destructively.) The WINDOW function subdivides the current window (either horizontally or vertically) and returns the new window number. The WINDOW% (expression) statement causes the user to ‘move’ to the window given by the expression. The usual DRAW and CIRCLE statements are available; the former is very complex since it also has to double for the MOVE command (i.e., changing position without drawing a line). When drawing a line one can AND, OR, XOR and complement with the existing screen contents. The COLOR statement allows one to select four out of eight colours for use at any given time and to set foreground and background colours for each of the windows.

A nice feature of the graphics is that it is possible to store part of the screen display (text and graphics), pixel by pixel into an array, and to recreate the image at a later date. The PAINT statement allows any enclosed space to be filled in.

The IEEE-488 interface Is apparently accessible to the user via a set of Basic keywords, but these are not documented in the Basic manual. There is an IEEE-488 Parallel Interface Reference Guide which comes with the actual interface, so perhaps they are described there. By means of these keywords it is possible to read or write data from compatible devices: assign talker/listener status to other devices; receive and respond to service requests from other devices; and act as a controller for other devices.

Generally speaking, the syntax of the Basic is rather complex (see Figure 1). There are examples of one keyword being made to perform too many functions. For example, WINDOW can be used as a function which takes on the number of a new window (which is created as a ‘side effect’) and which has a special case when it takes on the number of the current window (and no new window is created); WINDOW can also be a command causing another window to become the current window.

Figure 1

Figure_001

Fairly sophisticated program segmentation facilities are provided. It is possible to CHAIN programs together so that one ‘calls’ another. Communication between programs is via data files or COMMON variables. The latter seem to be like the Fortran facility in that a block of memory is set aside for access by various routines. According to the Basic manual, variables in COMMON statements in different programs are matched by position and type, and not by name. Thus, if one has

10 COMMON A$,N

in one program, and

10 COMMON B$, X

in another, and they were CHAlNed, then A$ and B$ would access the same location, as would N and X. Unfortunately, this feature did not appear to work perfectly on our machine. One can also MERGE programs with the current program, allowing subroutines and blocks of code to overlay one another as
they are needed.

Potential

The product literature explicitly directs the Olivetti M20 at the commercial and scientific user. This is backed by an apparently sound maintenance and guarantee policy and a list of software products. For the scientific user there is the option of the IEEE-488 interface, which grants access to a range of laboratory equipment, and a set of Basic graphics calls to assist with the display of information. In addition, the Basic BM8 ran exceptionally quickly so that the system, with the propriety Olinum (scientific subroutine library) and Olistat (statistical subroutine library), is probably a reasonable number-cruncher. On the engineering side, there are a few design and numerical control packages.

On the business side, there are Olispec, which provides the usual accounting suite; Oliword for word processing; Olientry for data preparation; and sales and production management packages and specialised packages for solicitors, independent schools, quantity surveyors, builders and electricians. Finally, there is Multiplan, the Microsoft forecasting and modelling package. Utilities include ISAM, Olisort and Olidoc – for ‘documenting’ a Basic program – together with Oliterm (a terminal emulator) and Olicom (a remote batch entry package).

There is also Olimaster, which purports to be an author language for ‘development of interactive instruction’ but we felt that the system was not really flexible enough to find widespread educational use. The system is not suitable for the hobbyist.

We have mentioned this software under ‘Potential’ rather than ‘Software’ because it was not available to us for review. Of the 10 or so independent software suppliers listed by Olivetti, we managed to contact about half; most of these said that work on the packages was near to completion, and most seemed to be established companies that had worked with Olivetti’s minicomputer and accounting machine operations.

Expansion

Most of the hardware expansion features have been mentioned in the ‘Hardware’ section. In summary, a fully expanded system would offer twin floppy disks, 244 kbytes (with black and white monitor) or 192 kbytes (colour monitor) of main memory, an IEEE-488 parallel interface and a pair of RS232 or 20 mA current loop serial ports. A recent advertisement for the system in the computer press mentioned a hard disk but we could find no evidence for this, either in the documentation or on the board.

On the software side, the price list mentions an assembler (and, indeed, with CALL and EXEC the Basic interpreter is configured to interface with assembler routines) and again the advertisements spoke of Pascal, but we found no mention in the product literature. Presumably, Olivetti feels that offering access to IEEE-488 based peripherals will take its potential market as far as it wants to go.

Documentation

The manuals are masterpieces of slow, careful explanation and are probably ideal for an extended tutorial on fundamental microcomputer operations, with long sections on the use and abuse of floppy disks and a lot of trouble taken with the initial ‘getting started’ phase. Troubleshooting is dealt with in the same style, using large flowcharts which end up in boxes with messages like ‘contact Olivetti dealer/distributor’. PCOS commands and Basic keywords are dealt with exhaustively, with explanations of each of the field values and syntax diagrams (although not very many examples).

However, manuals have a dual function to perform. They have to get the user started on the system and then have to serve as reference material for filling in all the details, and the Olivetti manuals fall down somewhat here. Instead of an index, there is an exhaustive table of contents (five pages long in the PCOS manual). This references everything one could want to look up – but in page order rather than alphabetically, so it’s quite hard to use. As we had only the PCOS and Basic manuals, hardware information was rather hard to come by and information about (say) the IEEE-488 interface was virtually non-existent. Although there are ‘pocket’ reference manuals for PCOS, Basic and the interface (not supplied), there seems to be no hardware manual at all.

The manuals are very glossy and one gets the impression that considerable care has been taken in their production and translation into English. In the two volumes, only one sentence appeared to have wriggled through the translator’s comprehension.

Prices

Olivetti has decided that its micro is going to be competitively priced with the current 8-bit systems. The review machine’s configuration (standard system with 160k RAM, dual minifloppy disk drives and a monochrome display) costs £2395. To this must be added the printer (£738), the manuals (£50) and PCOS (£30). As there was no price for Basic, it must be included in the standard price.

Olivetti sells three configurations (all of which carry a one-year guarantee). The basic configuration comes with one disk only and 128k of RAM and sells for £1895. The review machine was the middle configuration, whereas the upmarket version comes with a colour display and costs £3262.

Upgrades and peripherals are not particularly inexpensive and as there are no technical specs for the hardware it is unlikely that second sources will appear. The dot matrix printers cost £550 for 100 cps and £1475 for 140 cps. A 32k memory upgrade costs £139, the IEEE interface £227 and the serial ports £225. Most of the Olivetti applications cost between £150 and £300, while the third-party software seems to be priced from £300 to £1000.

Conclusion

The Olivetti M20 represents a brave attempt by a large firm to make its way independently in the microcomputer market. (By way of comparison, Texas Instruments and Hewlett Packard tried it; IBM and DEC did not.) This independence reflects itself by the decision to base the hardware on an unpopular processor; this cuts Olivetti off from the mainstream of microcomputer software development, both at operating system and application levels. Olivetti seems to be fully aware of this step as it is making efforts to provide the requisite software, both in-house and by recruiting external software houses.

The system could appeal to scientific/commercial users who derive confidence from dealing with a big firm which offers some sensitivity in meeting software needs and which is willing to provide extensive and sound maintenance and support.

Technical data  
CPU: Z8001, 4 Mhz
Video: 16 x64 or 25 x 80 character display, 512 x 256 or 480 x 256 pixel graphics, black and white or colour
RAM: 128k as standard + up to three 32k boards
ROM: 2k standard, expandable up to 8k
Comms: Centronics parallel and RS232 serial, standard; IEEE-488 and two ports RS232 or 20 mA loop
Keyboard: 72 keys, programmable
Bus: Olivetti’s own – 16 data lines
Disks: One or two, 360k (unformatted) 5¼in floppies
Printers: Thermal, matrix or daisy wheel
 Table 1
BASIC Invoke Basic interpreter Resident
COMMANDS List all commands  
[COMMAND]? Display an explanation of the specified command  
ERRORS List all error codes  
E n Display an explanation of error code number n  
FCOPY Copy named file  
FDEPASS Unset a file password  
FLIST List a named file Resident
FNEW Create a named file  
FPASS Set a file password  
FUNPROT Remove write-protection from a file  
FWPROT Write-protect a file  
HELP Display Help routines  
IEEE-488 Invoke the IEEE-488 Basic control package  
LABEL Invoke the labelling package  
LTERM Return number of Return key last pressed Resident
MI Invoke machine instruction routine  
PKEY Program given key  
PLOAD Load and lock utility into memory Resident
PSAVE Save current system on disk for subsequent reboot Resident
SBASIC Set Basic environment Resident
SFORM Set printer environment  
SPRINT Print screen  
SSYS Set system environment Resident
VCOPY Copy volume  
VDEPASS Unset a volume password  
VFORMAT Format a disk  
VLIST List a volume directory Resident
VNEW Create a volume on a disk  
VPASS Set a volume password  
VRENAME Rename a volume
Table 2 – Basic reserved words
Commands    
AUTO LLIST RUN
CONT LOAD SAVE
DELETE MERGE SYSTEM
EDIT NAME TRON
FILES NEW TROFF
KILL NULL WIDTH
LIST RENUM  
Statements    
CALL CHAIN CIRCLE
CLEAR CLOSE CLOSE WINDOW
CLS COLOR COLOR=
CURSOR DATA DEFDBL
DEF FN DEF USR DEFINT
DEFSNG DEFSTR DIM
DRAW END ERASE
ERROR EXEC FIELD
FOR/NEXT GET GET#
GOSUB GOTO IF…GOTO…ELSE
IF…THEN…ELSE INPUT LINE
LINE INPUT LINE INPUT# LET
LPRINT LPRINT# USING LSET
ON ERROR GOTO ON GOSUB ON GOTO
OPEN OPTION BASE PAINT
PRESET PSET PRINT
PRINT# PRINT USING PRINT# USING
PUT PUT£ RANDOMIZE
READ RSET RESTORE
RESUME RETURN SCALE
STOP SWAP WHILE/WEND
WINDOW WRITE WRITE#
Functions    
ABS ASC ATN
CDBL CHR$ CINT
COS CSNG CVD
CVI CVS EXP
EOF ERL ERR
FIX FRE HEX$
INKEY$ INPUT$ INSTR
INT LEFT$ LEN
LOC LOG LPOS
MKI$ MKD$ MKS$
MID$ OCT$ POINT
POS RND SCALEX
SCALEY SGN SIN
SPACE$ SPC SQR
STR$ STRING$ TAB
TAN USR VAL
VARPTR WINDOW

First published in Personal Computer World magazine (September 1982)