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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Fast Forward

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There’s no time like the present to take a look at the future. Andy Storer maps out the millennium and offers a view of personal computing in ten years time.

Since the arrival of the first 4-bit micro­ processors of the early seventies, the cost of computing power has decreased in direct proportion to the amount of circuitry condensed on a single chip. The greater the density, the cheaper and more powerful the personal computer.

But semi-conductor technology is reaching its limits. Its rate of growth is slowing despite recent announcements by Intel and Motorola proclaiming their ‘monster’ 80486 and 68040 32-bit chips ‘deliver mainframe power to the fingertip’. Whether made of silicon or germanium, semiconductors are limited by simple laws of physics. Heat generation significantly slows the speed at which electrons make connections, whilst microscopic engineering, even with advances in Very Large Scale Integration, can only put so much circuitry on to a chip.

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Kuma’s K-Max 1 transputer board can plug straight into an ST. The 32-bit RISC chip at its heart is capable of addressing 4 Gigabytes. There’s also on-board communication allowing for banks or ‘farms’ of transputers to be connected in parallel.

You can push the technology further by changing the architecture – using transputer configurations to process data in parallel with RISC chips – but whilst it’s conceivable that by the mid-nineties many of us will be using 32-bit systems at much cheaper relative cost than today, it won’t be for any significantly different applications. It’ll be more of the same with more speed and less hassle.

But we need more than power to progress beyond ever faster number-crunching, higher quality graphics and all-purpose integrated software. To achieve full voice recognition and natural language processing we require significant advances in systems architecture, storage and the man/ machine interface.

Memories of the future

The nature of memory and the way it’s organised is the key to all advances in future computing. In 1980 the ZX80 offered you 1K of RAM for £100. Now you can buy a 512K card for the same money. It’s not just a result of economies of scale after a whole personal computer market grew up overnight; manufacturing technology itself has improved the quality control of faster, cheaper and denser memory chips.

Wafer scale technology, where large numbers of RAM chips are etched directly onto a disk, will improve quality control and reduce costs even further but more and more cheaper memory is only a small part of what you can expect. Having greeted instant ROM based software with open arms, micro-users are now awaiting non-volatile memory without the required battery backup already implemented in the Z88, Psion Organiser and the like. But non-volatile RAM is only a good mass storage system for low-volume applications. It’s refresh rates take comparatively large amounts of power and like EPROMs, it’s slow and expensive.

Besides which it’s going nowhere new. It’s the current way memory is organised as an architecture that sets the limitation. Current computers use the Von Neumann architecture consisting of a central processor and addressable memory linked by a data bus. The parallel architecture of transputer based systems speeds this up by dividing the same tasks between several processors but to realise the potential of true parallel processing we need the distributed processing of neural networks. Here all the activities of memory are mixed and spread throughout an entire network of interlinked memory cells – there’s no areas assigned to one specific purpose.

Neural networks are best described as Associative Memory systems which organise themselves into massive layered patterns of ‘knowledge’. They are able to cope with faults and incomplete data by literally making the connection, learning from experience through training. As such they’re useful in applications where no algorithm is known – like robotic vision and speech recognition.

It’s perhaps not a great shift to think of neural networks as forming the basis for ‘organic’ memory systems in the future. After all the analogy with the way in which the human brain works is clear. Software applications that ran on quasi-intelligent systems would offer a user almost intuitive assistance.

By 1999 could I expect to be using a neural computer that’s learned to know me sufficiently well not only to be able to recognise my speech but suggest the words Tm using to write this article? Among other things, a kind of fabulous Thesaurus?

Maybe. But it’s still silicon based. Next on the agenda would be bio-chips able to physically reproduce as additional memory and storage are required.

Put store by this

The time of magnetic storage media is over. Although you can now by a 3.5 inch 180 Meg hard disk and a 10 Meg floppy from Fujitsu, these staggering advances rely on a technology which is unstable and vulnerable.

In the short term we can expect to see smart cards replacing existing magnetic media. Smart cards planned for use in computing are just souped up phone-cards really. Whilst NEC’s PC Engine console loads its games off credit card sized smarts the ‘serious’ computer user of the future can expect to see smart cards containing a processor, 10 Megs of applications and 1 Meg of RAM. You just slot it home in a dumb terminal consisting of a monitor and keyboard and everything else boots up from the card.

But the key development by 1999 will be the merging of smart card and optical disk technology. You can already buy CD-ROM players for your PC containing archive and reference material – the CDs they run hold up to 550 Megs of data, access times are faster and they last 3 times the life of a floppy.

However, they’re Read Only for the most part although you can buy WORM equivalents where you may Write Once Read Many times. WORMs are cheap and allow you to update material that’s essentially going to be used for archive purposes – your company accounts for instance. But erasable optical technology is still some way off for the mass consumer although, of course, Sony, Kodak, Phillips, 3M and Hitachi are all planning to have CD-EPROMS on the market by 1992.

By 1999 you should be able to buy a 10 Gigabyte erasable optical disk storage system, cached into 100 Megs of wafer RAM, each in turn cached into 1 Meg of fast static RAM.

Beyond that it’s just a question of when the technology of light begins to replace that of electricity completely. For the ideal memory system too, whether it be based on the conventional architecture of parallel processing or some neural configuration, would ideally run on optical processors. And yes, work’s going on in that area too – but it’s all behind closed doors.

Integrated machines…

Whatever the memory and storage capabilities of the machines around in 1999, it’s likely that they’ll become increasingly compact and lightweight.

As such there’ll be no distinction between a desktop and laptop/portable computer – the use of smart cards will remove the need for everything except a display and means of input. You’ll view applications running on the compact computer of 1999 using a colour gas plasma screen with a full bit-mapped display powered by the monitors own on-board RAM.

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A couple of shots (above and below) from the trip to Jupiter mission based in Toronto. Here you are presented with a complete environmental simulation of shuttle voyage through the solar system with you sat in converted flight sim hydraulic cinema screening back-projected 70mm footage shot by Lucasfilm. Could cut-down versions of similar simulators find their way into our homes complete with surround-a-sound ambionics and wall sized hi definition television?

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There’ll be no dots or pixels though – lines will be real lines, polygons real polygons – software addressing library images rather than screen locations. Touch screen technology, already here for machines as humble as the ST, will replace the mouse until such a time as voice recognition systems remove the need for mouse/keyboard input entirely.

Future developments in displays by 1999 might include primitive holographic capabilities but these are still a long way off.

However, the machines of 1999 will represent more of what we define as the complete low-cost workstation of today. Besides having your portable, high-definition laser printer, your workstation will include fax card and answerphone in a PC bundle for PCW prices.

But as compact optical disk technology becomes the new all-embracing medium – replacing the old magnetic media of video tape and cassette – it’s also conceivable that the computer will merely become a dedicated peripheral of a larger optical disk based entertainment centre for the home.

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It’s already possible to scan hi-res images into DTP and Art packages for manipulation every which way you want. Icon driven applications allow even a novice user an easy means of navigating complex information retrieval systems. By 1999, optical disk systems will enable you to manipulate real-time video applications straight off the TV. In fact, the distinction between the PC, TV, CD and VT will have blurred to the point where all you have is a single unit.

Beyond that, the use of sophisticated smart cards will result in the computer as we know it disappearing from the desktop, and for that matter the laptop, altogether. There’s no reason why mainframe systems shouldn’t be accessible just like phones or electricity – just plug-in-and-go terminals in every home and workplace running integrated software accessed by your very own Profile card with its on-board neural networks.

…and integrated software

Apple Computers have probable done more than any company to change the way in which we use our machines. Its mouse-driven, icon and window system of 1982 based on the WIMP system developed by Rank Xerox released would-be users from the incomprehensibilities of MSDOS style command line inputs.

So successful was the interface, that it, and very similar systems are available for all personal computers. But WIMPs are only part of the progress in opening up the area of computing to the ordinary Joe in the street.

Natural language processing and the ability to generate ready to run programs from everyday English are the central tenets of fifth generation systems under development in Japan. Programming as a concept is likely to be replaced by Scripting – the crucial distinction being that you describe what you want to achieve rather than
how you want it achieved.

By 1999 we might see something like Microsoft’s DDE protocol as universal. DDE is a standard intended to be used by all software developers who write applications for the multi-tasking Windows WIMP system available for PC compatibles. Instead of choosing an integrated software package comprising word processor, database, spreadsheet and business graphics, you may pick and choose applications as you wish. The point being that the DDE data file standard allows you to load data files from any one company’s application into and between those of others.

But this scenario is itself likely to be replaced by the ultimate integration. User-dedicated, intuitive neural computers running one application package that grows with your needs.

All we need to speculate on now is what the Dixons of the future will look like. Robot salesman probably wouldn’t be a lot different to those manning the outlets now. Maybe even a bit more human if it comes to that!

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Atari’s Pocket PC uses smart cards to hold up to 128K of program data. Their compact size disguises the massive potential they offer in terms of storage. Optical smart cards could hold a processor, megabytes of RAM and all the applications you’re likely to need. Of course, Read/Write optical media are still in their infancy, but Third Coast Technologies have just released a Read/Write optical drive for the Atari ST. Able to hold 900 MBytes of data the drive will set you back a tidy £4950, but as yet there’s only one in the U.K.

The shape of games to come

Imagine what computer games will be like in ten years time – keep those thoughts in mind, and see how they shape up with Rik Haynes’ predictions of computer gaming in 1999…

If all those cyberpunk novelists are to be believed, playing a game in 1999 may well entail becoming one with your machine, and experiencing life-like computer simulations which are impossible to differentiate from the real thing. But are these predictions science fiction or science fact?

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Virus by Firebird, an indicator to the future of gaming software?

Where from…

Spawned by the huge popularity of dedicated arcade games coin-ops in the late seventies, computer entertainment in the home really took off in the early eighties with dedicated games consoles and microcomputers selling in their millions.

Rapid hardware development ensued over the next few years, with outstanding audio-visual improvements, greater memory and faster (more powerful) microprocessors.

By the mid-80’s console popularity had all but gone, to be replaced with micro fever – mostly in the guise of buying a micro to teach the kids computing, which actually translated into buying a micro so the kids could play the latest coin-op conversion.

What about the software?

Despite the rapid developments in games hardware in the eighties, there has been far less evolution in games software. The same basic themes (shoot’em-up’s, text adventures, platform games, maze games, role-playing games, machine simulations, sports simulations, exploration games, board games) have existed for years. Sure, each genre has undergone constant redefinition and enhancement – but very few original games have been developed over the years. Probably the most original title released for microcomputers has been Tetris, a highly addictive and totally simple game from the Soviet Union of all places!

Where now…

The present craze for games software is coin-op conversions, with micro owners everywhere ever eager to play the latest coin-op smash on their humble machine. Perhaps this is the best indication as to why the games console is back with a vengeance, with major Japanese multi-nationals producing consoles with the pulling power to sell millions of units of hardware and software in a single day.

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The 16-bit Sega Megadrive, an indicator to the future of gaming hardware?

Using the current console boom as a possible indicator, our predictions for games hardware and software are informed guesses on what it could be like to play a game in 1999…

Games would be run on advanced console decks, utilising massive high-definition displays (possibly with holographic capabilities), multichannel stereo audio with CD (and better) quality, all hooked up to neuro-sensory equipment with all round environment control, with the player experiencing sensations indistinguishable from the real thing.

Games would be stored on sleek smart cards (the size of current credit cards). These robust little cards would instantly load into your deck. Another exciting development would be the ability to interact with other players around the globe using worldwide on-line games networks.

We expect no radical developments in the games software itself – based on the lack of development in this area thus far. What we do expect however, is far greater realism, made possible by hardware advancements in speed and audio-visual quality – a logical extension of the hardware technology we currently possess, with just a few tweaks and surprises to keep things interesting.

Let’s hope games designers prove us wrong…

Three ways games could go…

Interactive Cinema

US software company Cinemaware is already laying the foundations for micro controlled interactive games using CD-ROM technology. It currently has a PC/ CDROM set-up playing an enhanced version of its most popular strategy action game, Defender of the Crown. This version has improved audio, but future developments will undoubtedly include visuals pulled from the CD as well.

In addition, as links with the movie industry grow closer – Robocop being a perfect example of this liaison – pictures and sounds grabbed directly from the film could be used inside the game. Unfortunately this audio-visual improvement may overshadow further development in gameplay.

On-Line Adventures

Of course there are already examples of this type of game system in-use today, with MUD being the most obvious example. Developments in this field could include not just text adventures, but also full graphic adventures if digital telephone lines are installed on a massive basis. The problem area with this way to play, is the cost and speed at which it operates. Current costs are prohibitive to the majority of users, so imagine the possible costs involved with setting-up and running a digital system. Hopefully, advances in technology should sort out any speed problems.

Multi-user shoot’em-ups

Using the same principle as online adventures, digital phone lines could also provide the audio-visual quality needed to produce decent shoot-em-ups. Speed would be even more of a problem, as will on-line charges.

First published in New Computer Express magazine, 6th May, 1989

Release Your ST’s Potential

STPotential001

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

Pleasure and Business – The Atari

The Atari 400 and 800 personal computers blend business with pleasure: they combine sophisticated game-playing facilities with the potential of a business computer. David Bannister looks at the tradition which produced these machines and assesses them from the hardware and software angles.

By David Bannister

Several years ago, computers were large boxes operated by highly-qualified staff in white coats. Today, you can buy a computer in the High Street. The general feeling among those who did not work with computers was that those who did were rather dull, but exceptionally clever with numbers. That, of course, was nonsense: some of them were dull, others had highly-developed senses of humour. Also, not all of them were all that clever, though some naturally were. It is those who were both clever and good-humoured who concern us.

When these fellows were not calculating the flight paths of lunar probes, they honed their programming techniques on devising assorted games for themselves. By today’s standards, these were crude – since most of them printed out messages at a Teletype, there were no mobile graphics displays.

The main difference was that they did not work in real time. This is the jargon way of saying that the results of the actions of the player were given in separate batches, rather than as the continuous display we see on modern games. As the cost of electronics dropped and its speed increased, it became possible to add the now-familiar TV display.

Again, this was still not in real time usually, since the computer was being used most of the time for the serious purpose for which its owners had bought it and its attention was only rarely diverted to a game. This meant it was possible to make your spaceship burn some fuel and have to wait five or 10 minutes before a response appeared on the screen.

Nowadays, once the computer has decided what to tell you, it could tell you faster on the TV display than on the printer. I once waited half an hour during a game of Star Trek, only to be told that I had been destroyed by Klingon attacks.

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Transforming factor

The factor that transformed computer games was the general availability of the microprocessor. Despite what people say about the chip, the good thing about microprocessors is that it means computing ability is inexpensive. Everybody can use them – in real time, too, which makes it easier to model reality. Video machines are just computers dedicated to one specific task.

Games today are still essentially the same as those which were being played – and still are – in computer installations 10 years ago, but the machines have improved and become much more widely available.

There are two types of videogame computer. There are those which play a selection of games – perhaps 10. Usually, they are tennis and battle-type games. Although they were initially very expensive, manufacturing for today’s mass market has led to a dramatic drop in price – just as it did with calculators.

The second type is the programmable game, which is still rather more expensive. By “programmable”, we mean the kind of machine on which the user can write programs for himself. Television advertising suggests that some machines can be “programmed” by the insertion of assorted cartridges; these machines do not concern us here.

The most obvious examples of these fully programmable machines are the personal computers to be seen in most department stores or electrical shops. Most have the ability to do whatever the user tells them, with varying degrees of usefulness. What separates them into the market sectors to which each is sold is the software or programs available from manufacturers.

Some manufacturers choose to sell their machines as business tools and provide, say, accounting software, while others are sold as games machines – often accompanied by educational material. Certain technical factors contribute to which market a particular machine attracts – style is often important in this.

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Economic reasons

A few machines have tried to make the transition to become a truly general-purpose computer. There are sound economic reasons for any manufacturer attempting to create such a machine – you have a bigger market and can sell more machines. It seems that when planning products, companies assume that every family conforms to the statistical norm and has 2.4 children, a certain income and Daddy makes all the decisions.

Part of the rationale behind making a computer which is both a videogames machine and a business machine is that the father can justify the expense of buying the kids a toy by using it as a serious computer. Having had an Atari 400 and an Atari 800 at home for some time, I can assure anyone thinking along those
lines that they will be playing the games with the children – or rather, instead of the children.

Of the 10 or so people who visited my home while these machines were there, three were computer programmers, one was a dentist, two were doctors and none showed the slightest interest in anything other than one particular videogame called Star Raiders.

The major difference between the 400 and the 800, apart from price, is that the 400 has a touch-sensitive keyboard while the 800 has proper keys: the 400 also has a more limited memory size.

Supplied with the machines were two floppy-disc drives, a tape recorder – a floppy-disc is much faster for the storage of programs – and a mountain of software. The machines have 48K of memory, which means that there is a good deal of capacity to hold software. Lifting a flap on top of the machine reveals a slot – two slots in the case of the 800 – into which program cartridges can be plugged. This is the third method of entering software into the Atari.

As far as game playing is concerned, the disc drive seems redundant since most of the games from Atari are on either tape or cartridge. The disc drives seem to be a concession to the notion of serious business use. Discs are very useful in most business applications: in effect, they are the systems filing cabinet.

In the case of the Atari system, I found them to be rather difficult to integrate into a program – which may have been my fault for attempting to use commands with which I was more familiar, but which the machine did not seem to recognise. In my defence, I would say that the manual for the drives is not helpful.

The tape drives are a joy. Loading a program from tape can be a tedious procedure, since it takes a considerable time for a program of any useful length. While loading, the Atari plays a soundtrack and a pleasant American voice gives useful instructions. My only complaint is that the tune is the same on each of the cassettes, and it becomes very irritating.

Having both the digital information of the program and an audio soundtrack is very useful for educational programs. One of the cassettes is a tutor in the Basic computer language, designed to enable anyone who has bought the machine to learn to program. This particular tutor is very impressive, since it can “talk you through”.

In fact, most of the educational software supplied is of a better standard than I have often seen. For example, there is a geographical tutor which draws the states of the U.S.A. and asks you to name them, and their capitals. Because the map is drawn in colour, interest is sustained throughout. It also appealed to adults – I now know that the capital of Florida is not what I thought it was. The software, like the hardware, is very well finished. A great deal of thought has obviously gone into devising programs which would illicit the best response from the user.

Star Raiders, as the name implies, is a space game. In fact, it is a greatly-improved version of Star Trek, one of the original computer games. In full colour, with an amazing variety of noises, your starship travels throughout the galaxy destroying assorted aliens who fight back in a most realistic way. It is without doubt the best video or computer game I have seen, and the army of admirers who spent whole nights playing it in my front room will no doubt agree.

Videogame age

Which brings us on to the question: “Have videogames come of age”? I have to say that I do not think so. Although assorted technical factors have brought them – at least potentially – in to everyone’s reach, there is something about the fact that they are visual games which makes me feel that they have to be made more realistic still.

Much is spoken about technology convergence, and with good reason. There are, however, few technologies which have not been integrated with games. When I can buy – or when I can afford to buy – a version of Star Raiders which uses holographic techniques and convinces me I am fighting in galactic space, then I shall say that videogames have come of age.

First published in Your Computer magazine, June/July 1981

Atari 520ST – A Hands-On Report

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“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.

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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