The Vienna PC-Whiter Than White?

Designed as part of an integrated office automation system, this stylish 80186-based micro with superb graphics can function equally well as a stand-alone machine.ViennaPC003

The screen phosphor has been chosen to be as easy on the eye as possible so that prolonged use is less stressful

By Glyn Moody

The Vienna PC is a stylish premium product from the international telecommunications company Northern Telecom. Conceived principally as part of the Vienna Office, a complete medium-size integrated office-automation system, the Vienna PC can nonetheless function as a stand-alone 80186-based MS-DOS micro. It is notable chiefly for the fast high-resolution graphics capabilities of its white phosphor screen. The cost for a system with 256K RAM and a 20Mbyte Winchester is about £5,000.

The Vienna Office represents a major assault on the European market by Northern Telecom, which is the second-largest manufacturer of telecommunications equipment in North America, with total revenues of $4.4 billion in 1984, and 47,000 employees worldwide. The Vienna system, including the PC, has been designed specifically for the European market, and initially is only being sold there.

Apart from its name and the various national keyboards and character sets available, the European slant is also evident in the concern for neat good looks, and in fact it won the European 1984 Ergodesign Award. The overall look of the three-piece setup is smart, and only marginally spoilt by the bulk of the main system box.

At the front of the main unit is the on/off switch and disc drive. The model reviewed here had one 1.2Mbyte floppy and a 20Mbyte Winchester. There are also dual-floppy versions and a 10Mbyte hard-disc model. Apart from the cable which goes to the power supply on the right-hand side next to the fan, the rear panel sports only a couple of RS232 sockets and the main cabling for the terminal.

The terminal port occupies one of five expansion slots. Options available include extra RAM cards, taking the basic 256K up to a maximum of 768K, and two more serial ports. No parallel ports for printers are offered since Northern Telecom tends to sell its own varieties of serial printers, which can handle the full range of international character sets. For example, it sells an ink-jet printer from Siemens for about £600. There is no Reset button, which can be inconvenient.

The keyboard plugs into the VDU rather than the main systems box. It is ultra-thin, with keys that are nicely sprung but which may rock slightly too much for some. The keyboard layout is generous to a fault. In addition to standard QWERTY keys, numeric keypad and 10 function keys, there is also a facility for emulating an IBM 3270 terminal. To this end there are extra markings inscribed on the sides of many keys as well as additional keys. There are extensive soft-key definition facilities.

Paper-white screen

Perhaps the chief point of interest of the new system, and certainly its chief glory, is the screen and graphics facilities. Northern Telecom has made efforts to procure a very high-quality display unit suitable for intensive office work, the visual properties of which match those of paper as closely as possible. The unit chosen has a white phosphor of a creaminess which makes even the Mac’s white screen look garish. Easiness on the eye is enhanced by the 71Hz refresh rate for the screen, which makes for a rocksteady picture. The overall resolution is an impressive 800 by 420 pixels, with a nine by 13 matrix for alphanumeric characters. To save power and the precious phosphor, the screen automatically goes blank after several minutes’ non-use. Pressing the Shift key reactivates it.

Wisely, Northern Telecom has capitalised on this high performance by allocating a second 80186 purely for screen graphics handling. The results are impressive, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the implementation of Digital Research’s Gem. This is available for about £300, which includes the cost of an optical mouse. Like the keyboard, the mouse plugs into the base of the VDU.

Optical tracking

Instead of using the trackerball principle of measuring the movement of the mouse by detecting how much a small ball in the base has rolled, the optical mouse employs a reflective sheet to work out the change in position. On the plus side, problems of dirt and slipping are avoided, but you are restricted in movement to the mirror pad, which may be useful on a crowded desk.

Gem is discussed in greater detail on page 50 of this issue. Whatever your feelings on the wisdom or otherwise of this approach, there is no denying that on the Vienna it looks very plausible. In particular, Gem graphics features, such as zooming, show Northern Telecom’s micro to tremendous advantage. The images are drawn very fast, with excellent Infill routines and clean curved edges.

As a part of the Vienna Office, the Vienna PC is able to run most of the constituent application packages. These include all the usual options like word processing, spreadsheets, graphing and databases. Functioning as async terminals, Vienna PCs can also communicate with the Vienna Office central controller. Eventually it will be able to communicate via Ethernet and Cheapernet.

Paying the extra for MS-DOS, which is not included in the price of the hardware, opens up access to the large number of programs written to run under the operating system. Although the Vienna PC is not an IBM compatible, Northern Telecom claims it is possible to swap some data discs between them.

Northern Telecom has recognised that there is at least one PC-DOS product that many Vienna PC users could well want to use: Lotus 1-2-3. Therefore, it has adapted the program so that the low-resolution colour graphics will work on the Vienna’s high-resolution monochrome monitor.

There is a uniform set of manuals for each of the component parts of the system. The user manual for the Vienna PC itself is well produced and comes complete with tasteful illustrations of Viennese sights but, regrettably, without an index. If it seems rather thin, this reflects Northern Telecom’s desire to keep the user firmly outside the systems box. Even taking the cover off is awkward and for this review we decided not to violate the delicately textured paintwork. Installation procedures are normally carried out by an engineer from the company.

This whole approach reflects the fact that the Vienna PC is conceived of as very much an integral pan of the whole office automation strategy of Northern Telecom. That said, the PC exists in its own right as a serious and viable business system. Its overall design, its speed, and above all its superb graphics facilities are strong recommendations for it.

Verdict

  • Performance – 4/4 (Excellent)
  • Ease of Use – 3/4 (Good)
  • Documentation – 2/4 (Average)
  • Value for Money – 3/4 (Good)
  • The Vienna PC is an up-market MS-DOS machine with an up-market price tag. The graphics on its white phosphor display are superlative.

Conclusions

  • The Vienna PC is stylish up-market MS-DOS micro, originally designed as part of a larger office system but quite able to stand on its own feet.
  • The high-resolution white screen is one of the best we have ever reviewed. It could well overcome the continuing reluctance on some people’s part to come to terms with the dreaded VDU.
  • As befits such a classy system, the price is not cheap at around £4,000. Similarly, the size of the system box means that it is no retiring wallflower.
  • Although it lacks IBM compatibility, the Vienna PC is well enough served by MS-DOS programs and the packages which form the Vienna Office. Provided you are content with functional rather than fancy software, being locked out of the IBM-clone world should prove no desperate problem.
  • Anyone impressed by the Mac approach to micro life but wishing to remain within the MS-DOS fold may well find the fast and effective implementation of Gem very tempting on the Vienna.
  • Minor grouses include the closed box approach and the lack of a Reset button
Benchmarks
The figures below show the time in seconds taken to run the standard Basic Benchmarks – see the January 1984 issue of Practical Computing for details. The Vienna emerges as a respectably fast machine, marginally slower than the RML Nimbus, also an 80186 MSDOS machine, and even closer to the IBM PC/AT.
  BM1 BM2 BM3 BM4 BM5 BM6 BM7 BM8 AV.
Vienna-80186 0.6 2.2 4.8 5.0 5.2 10.0 15.6 16.6 7.4
Sprite-80286 0.5 1.6 3.5 3.5 4.2 7.8 11.6 9.3 5.3
Nimbus-80186 0.5 1.8 3.9 4.0 4.6 8.5 13.2 13 6.2
IBMPC/AT-80286 0.5 1.9 4.6 4.7 5.2 9.1 14.6 13.5 6.8

Specification

  • CPU: 80186 running at 8MHz; a second 80186 is dedicated to graphics handling
  • RAM: 256K as standard/expandable up to 768K
  • ROM: 16K self-test and bootstrap
  • Dimensions: main unit box 13.7in. (350mm.) wide by 16.5in. (420mm.) deep by 8.5in. (216mm.) high
  • VDU: white phosphor, 80 columns by 27 lines, nine by 13 pixels character matrix; overall resolution 800 by 420 pixels; refresh rate 71Hz
  • Keyboard: full QWERTY with numeric keypad, 10 function keys, cursor keys, IBM 3270 terminal-emulation keys
  • Mass storage: 2Mbyte floppies, 10Mbyte or 20Mbyte Winchester
  • Hardware options: optical mouse, ink-jet, dot-matrix or daisywheel printers
  • Interfaces: two RS232s, with optional further two
  • Software in price: none
  • Software options: MS-DOS 2.11, Gem, Level II Cobol, MSBasic, GWBasic, Vienna family of software including word, diary, plan, chart and paint options
  • Price: double floppy, 256K RAM £3,100; 10Mbyte Winchester £3,760; 20Mbyte Winchester £4,563; VDU and keyboard £446; MS-DOS about £58, Gem and optical mouse about £300
  • Manufacturer: Northern Telecom Data Systems Ltd, Maylands Avenue, Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire HP2 7LD.

First published in Practical Computing magazine, August 1985

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Amstrad PC1512-The Clone of Contention

PC1512-001

The new Amstrad machine, says John Lettice, is up and running.

Amstrad has traditionally made larger and larger piles of money not by stating the obvious so much as by doing it. Obviously, there was big money to be made in the home computer market, so the CPC464 was launched. Obviously serious users wanted a complete system that they could use rather than puzzle over, hence the PCW8256 and 8512

The latest move, the launch of the PC1512 series, is probably the most obvious of the lot IBM has dominated the business market for the last five years and has sold stacks and stacks of its PCs simply by virtue of the fact that it is IBM. Other business manufacturers have followed the IBM standard, and until recently, when a lot of small companies decided they could put together IBM clones, sell them for half the price of an IBM PC, and still make a profit, the bigger companies were all doing very well for themselves.

Now the obvious bit here is that it needn’t actually cost any more to produce a business machine than it does to make any other machine, and that if a company were to produce a PC clone in volume it could sell it at a price low enough to make the business manufacturers lose interest in the PC standard fairly rapidly. That’s what Amstrad has done with its PC, and the initial intention is to carve out a large slice of the world market. On first impressions the new machines might just be neat enough and cheap enough to do it.

The machine is simple in construction. It’s smaller and lighter than the IBM PC, but the need for 5.25inch disc drives and IBM standard expansion slots has kept its desktop footprint up to around 15 x 15 inches.

The entry-level machine has a single drive plus monochrome monitor, and the series goes up to single drive plus 20Mb hard disc and colour monitor. The review machine s twin floppy drives look up the whole of the front plate of the machine, and being substantial metal-sheathed beasts extended back across half of the machine’s base unit.

I/O ports are on the left-hand side and around the back. On the left beside the volume control (zero to horrible racket) is the keyboard plug and mouse port. I take it the latter’s placing was dictated by circuit board layout, but while I’m happy to meet my first left handed mouse I’m not sure how the majority of users, who are I believe right handed, will take to it.

Parallel and serial ports are at the rear, with video output and power input (like other Amstrad machines the power supply goes through the monitor) just along from them.

On most PC compatibles the expansion slots are accessed by unscrewing the casing, generally a fiddly task on a crowded desk, but the Amstrad PC uses a hatch to the rear of the top of the casing plus one on the side for access to the cards’ interfaces. Both these are easily snapped in and out.

The monitor is again neatly designed, and is mounted on a tilt and swivel stand that fits into a well on the top plate. Unlike standard IBMs the monochrome and colour versions use the same video output, with the mono simply showing shades of grey instead of colour.

IBMs also have severe limitations on the number of colours that can be displayed at once – which is why PC games generally have odd colour combinations – but the Amstrad can handle 16 in 80 column mode. It’s also compatible with two of the modes available on IBM’s EGA (Enhanced Graphics Adaptor), which is more than you can say for most software packages…

Screen quality is quite good, although not superb, and this leads on to a major disadvantage. Because the power supply is in the monitor you can’t fit third party monitors to the machine without fitting a new power supply or running two monitors. You’d also better be sure of the monitor you want when you buy the machine, because if you upgrade from Amstrad mono to Amstrad colour you’ll wind up with a useless mono monitor.

The machine s keyboard is basically IBM format, although there’s a separate Enter key on the numeric keypad (operation being similar to the one on the PCW), and the Alt, Control, Caps lock and PrtSc (print screen) keys have been moved to slightly more sensible locations.

The feel of the keys is fine, although I’ve seen better on machines four or five times the price of the Amstrads. The keyboard also includes a joystick socket, but this apparently emulates the cursor keys rather than being compatible with point here is that the basic mechanics of I/O flatten out performance considerably.

Screen handling is also an impediment to the Amstrad’s speed. As far as text display is concerned it’s faster than the IBM, but seems lower than the Olivetti M24, which also runs an 8086 at 8MHz. Graphic screens are more significantly slower. The test used here, which I hereby patent, involves F15 Strike Eagle software (see last week’s issue for review) and time taken to run out of fuel. With afterburners engaged the Amstrad took just under three minutes, while the Olivetti turned into a brick at just over two.

The Amstrad, however, is probably still faster than the IBM in terms of graphics. The spectacular differences in Basic speeds (over twice the speed of the M24) can incidentally be ascribed in part to Locomotive’s Basic 2, which is very fast indeed It also runs under Gem, and together Gem and Basic 2 suck up over 470K of the machine’s 512K Ram, but that’s another story.

System software

PC1512-002

This is probably the most valuable, and unnerving, area of the whole machine. The standard IBM operating system is Microsoft’s MSDOS. and this is included. It is, however, also possible to use the machine with a second system, Digital Research’s Dos Plus, which is also bundled, and finally it can be run under Gem, DR’s windowing front end for the PC. Gem isn’t strictly an operating system, but has been pre-installed on a third disc which also includes Dos Plus.

Working out which you’ll use is problem enough, but the confusion is heightened by various bits and pieces that squirt out of the discs as you chug along.

Dos Plus allows a measure of multitasking, and the disc includes a couple of little programs, including an alarm and background printing utility, that take advantage of this. These, however, can only be accessed through Dos Plus, not through MSDOS or Gem. Considering DR wrote both Dos Plus and Gem I’m sure there must be a way to put the two together, but initial phone calls didn’t enlighten me.

Dos Plus and Gem in fact, although worthwhile independently, don’t seem to add up to more than the sum of their parts. Exit to Dos from Gem and you can’t get back to Gem Desktop. Instead you’ve got to put the Gem Startup disc back into A, type autoexec or gem (although the latter appears not to work if you’ve run a program in the meantime) then reload the Desktop disc. It seems to me that DR ought to be able to make the two systems a lot more integrated than this.

PC1512-003

Compatibility

The way to make a machine totally compatible is to make it as slow and horrible as the original IBM. Amstrad to its credit hasn’t done this, but the machine is still almost 100 per cent compatible. Lotus 1-2-3, dBase, Flight Simulator and Open Access all run, and I had no trouble with a fairly wide range of other programs, apart from Sargon 3 chess, which seemed reluctant to return to a text screen after going to a graphics display. The latter also, however, gives trouble on the Olivetti, where it crashes whenever it seems to be losing…

Hardware compatibility is more difficult to judge, but the machine is likely to be able to take most IBM expansion cards, with a few exceptions. It won’t take an EGA because it can’t patch out its own graphics, and extra serial and parallel cards may cause problems depending on which areas of memory they use. The advice here is try before you buy.

Verdict

There are a few disadvantages to the Amstrad machines in absolute terms, but as a total package of software and hardware they’re well up in the front runners among PC clones. Take price into account and they have no competition there. Their competition elsewhere really depends on what you want a machine for.

If you want a fast, non-compromise machine at the cutting edge of technology you’d probably look elsewhere, but the Amstrads make no pretence to being this kind of machine. What they are is cheap, relatively fast machines that run more different software packages than any other micro. At the moment this software is mainly business, but as the support market goes crazy it’s inevitable that software of all kinds will be launched for the PC.

So, the message is. if you want it for business it’s a good buy now (although bear in mind you’ll have to buy extra applications software and a printer) while if you are an enthusiast it may be worth your while waiting until the support starts coming through. Either way, at the price it’s hard to go wrong.

  • Machine: Amstrad PC1512
  • Supplier: Amstrad, Brentwood House, 169 King’s Road, Brentwood, Essex, CM14 4EF

Prices

  • 512K machine plus –
    • Single 360K drive and monitor – £469
    • Single drive and colour monitor – £649
    • Twin drives and mono monitor – £587
    • Twin drives and colour monitor – £764
    • Single drive, 10Mb hard disc, mono – £822
    • Single drive, 10Mb hard disc, colour – £999
    • Single drive, 20Mb hard disc, mono – £940
    • Single drive, 20Mb hard disc, colour – £1,116

First published in Popular Computing Weekly, 25th September 1986

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

Gem Desktop – WIMPS for All

GemDesktop01

Digital Research’s version of Gem runs on the IBM PC and compatibles. Versions for other systems will be supplied by hardware manufacturers.

Digital Research’s Gem brings a uniform Mac-style graphics interface to a wide range of personal computers, including the IBM PC.

By Mike Lewis

The arrival of Gem marks the most realistic attempt yet to bring the marvels of overlapping windows, pull-down menus and multiple founts to a wide range of personal computers. It is a strategically important product, for both programmers and end-users. If it succeeds it will do for graphical interfaces what CP/M did for operating systems.

The comparison is an apt one because, above all, Gem is to do with portability. Just as CP/M allowed software houses to write a program for one computer in the expectations that it would run on many others, so Gem gives them the world of Wimps – windows, icons, mice and pointers – without having to worry about the details of widely differing graphics hardware.

Gem is not itself an operating system, but rather a layer of software that lives between the OS and an application program. The hardware-dependent parts are provided by Gem’s licensees – that is computer manufacturers and OEMs – while writers of application software gain access by means of a programmer’s toolkit.

Software yet to come

What Gem will do for the end-user depends on the extent to which developers of databases, spreadsheets, accounting packages, etc. make use of the goodies that it offers. So far, Gem-based packages have come in a trickle rather than a flood, but it’s early days yet.

In fact, the only Gem offerings to date have originated, not surprisingly, from Digital Research. These include Gem Draw, Gem Paint, Gem Graph and Gem Wordchart, all of which should be available by the time you read this. At the moment, the only established product is Gem Desktop, which is in many ways the hub of the system.

To run Gem, you will need 256K of RAM and a graphics display. A hard disc is advisable, but not vital. The version we tried was for the IBM PC, but it ran quite happily on the closely compatible Compaq Deskpro and Olivetti M-24. Versions for other systems will be supplied by the hardware manufacturers – they already exist for the Atari ST series and the entire Apricot range – but the IBM version is sold by Digital Research itself.

Of course, you will also need a mouse. In fact, Gem can be made to work with various pointing devices, such as joysticks and touch-screens, provided the manufacturer supplies the necessary drivers. We used the two-button Microsoft mouse, only the left-hand button being operative in Gem. In the IBM version you can get by with the cursor keys instead of a mouse, but it is a slow and clumsy alternative.

Installing Gem is simple, the whole operation being carried out by a batch file called GemPrep. If you are using floppies, you end up with two discs: a start-up disc and the disc containing the Desktop program. To start Gem itself, you place the start-up disc in Drive A and type GemRun. You are then prompted to swap discs, after which Desktop takes over the screen. Drive B remains free for other programs and data. You can also start Gem from a hard disc.

The aim of Desktop, in a nutshell, is to replace the DOS command line. It does not replace DOS itself or even Command.Com, but it does provide an easy way of carrying out basic housekeeping tasks without having to remember unfamiliar commands. Experienced users might prefer the old fashioned A> prompt, but a newcomer should find Desktop less intimidating and easier to learn.

The initial Desktop screen shows an icon for each floppy or hard disc and a trash can. There is also a menu bar with four choices: Desk, File, View and Options. To do anything useful, you have to select a disc by moving the mouse pointer to the icon and clicking the button. This switches the icon to a dark picture on a light background, Gem’s standard way of highlighting a selected object.

GemDesktop02

Desktop provides a separate scrollable window for each sub-directory. Each icon in the window represents either a file or another sub-directory. The user is able to move windows to anywhere on the screen, change their size and make them overlap.

GemDesktop03

The Get Info option in the file menu brings up an information box for the currently selected object, which may be a disc, folder, application or document. In this case, it is the floppy disc in drive A which is selected, as indicated by the reversed disc icon.

To see what’s on the disc you open the drive, either by double-clicking the icon or by selecting Open from the File menu. Gem responds by displaying the disc’s root directory in a window, with an icon for each file. These so-called directory icons come in three varieties: folders, which are DOS sub-directories; applications – Bat, Com and Exe files; and documents, which are meant to cover text and data files, but are in fact anything that is not a folder or an application.

Branching

Since a folder is a sub-directory, it can itself be opened to display a further window of icons. Folders may contain other folders, reflecting DOS’s tree-like structure. There is a New Folder option in the File menu which serves the same purpose as the DOS MkDir command, and you can copy files between folders, root directories and other discs.

Copying a file is simply a matter of selecting the icon, then dragging it with the mouse button held down to where you want it to go. Gem warns you if the file already exists at the destination, and also gives you a chance to rename the copy. You can copy entire discs in this way, just by dragging one disc icon on to another. If you drag an icon to the trash can, it is deleted after a suitable warning message.

The most important operation that you normally carry out at the DOS command line is to invoke an application program. In Gem, this is done simply by opening the application’s icon. Before handing over to the program, Desktop invites you to enter a parameter, the name given to a command line tail, for passing to the program. Although the application takes complete control of the screen, when it finishes the Desktop reappears exactly as you left it.

The other type of icon which you can open is a document. The aim here is merely to see what is in it, via the DOS Type command. Bear in mind that a Gem document is not necessarily text, so trying to open a binary file will result in a screenful of rubbish.

Opening a document in this way reveals one of the main weaknesses of Desktop, something which is also evident when you wish to format a floppy or carry out a disc-to-disc copy. In each case, Desktop steps aside and allows the equivalent DOS command – Type, Format or DiskCopy – to take over, exposing the user to precisely the sort of cryptic dialogue that Desktop is designed to avoid.

Having opened a document, it is a trifle disconcerting to see your attractive Desktop display disappear, albeit temporarily, to be replaced by a monochrome text screen, with the contents of the file flashing past and only the Control-S key to stop the scrolling. Would it have been so difficult for Digital Research to have displayed the file in a Gemstyle window and to have given the user a little more control over the scrolling? As it is, relinquishing control to DOS in this way gives Desktop a decidedly unpolished appearance.

Fortunately, these are the only occasions on which Desktop’s dealings with the user are open to criticism. In general, you are never left wondering what is going on and most of the system’s messages are polite, clear and to the point. When you start an operation that might be either time-consuming or destructive, such as copying or deleting a file, Desktop issues an unambiguous warning and gives you a chance to back out. More confident users can switch off this feature.

A particularly interesting aspect of Desktop is the way in which documents with the same file type can be linked to a specific application. Once this is done, opening a document of the relevant type will have the same effect as invoking the application, with the document’s name as a parameter.

For example, you could assign all documents of type Txt to WordStar. Then when you double click on a file named Report.Txt, Desktop will load WordStar which will in turn open Report.Txt ready for editing. To help you remember which documents work with which programs, you can superimpose special icons on the normal application and document icons. Thus there is a typewriter icon which would be suitable for a WP program, and one resembling a sheet of paper for word-processed text.

Resume later

Normally, this link-up between applications and documents survives only for the current Gem session. The same is true of the various toggles and switches which you can set to disable the warning message before file deletions, for instance. However, if you use the Save Desktop function in the Options menu, all these settings are written to disc. The next time you invoke Desktop, the system will be just as you left it.

In any discussion of Gem, there is a strong temptation to make comparisons with the systems that has most furthered the Wimp cause: the Macintosh. Certainly, Gem has a great deal in common with the Mac, at least from the user’s viewpoint. This is no bad thing, because once you have learned how to operate one of these, you will know the other too.

Windows have a near identical anatomy in both systems. By manipulating the various controls around the edge of the window, you can scroll it any direction, move it, alter its size or close it altogether. The only difference is that Gem’s windows also have a Full box: you click this once to make the window fill the screen and click it again to return the window to its previous size. This would be a useful addition to the Mac.

Another small difference is in the use of pull-down menus. On the Mac, you pull down a menu by pointing to it and holding down the mouse button. You may then drag the mouse to the option you want and release the button. In Gem, the menu drops down as soon as you point to it, and the option is selected by a single click.

Desk accessories are also common to both systems. These are mini-applications which can be invoked from their own menu, either from the desk top or within other programs. Gem has just two of them, a clock and a calculator, while the Mac sports seven, including the indispensable scrapbook. Gem also lacks the equivalent of the Macintosh clipboard, a handy means of cutting and pasting between programs.

GemDesktop04

Desk accessories may be invoked from Desktop or within a Gem application. The clock and the calculator are supplied with the package. Programmers who have the Gem Toolkit may add their own accessory programs.  

But it is from the programmer’s point of view that the real differences between Gem and the Macintosh emerge. When you program the Mac, you are locked into a fairly fixed configuration. Access to the graphical interface involves working closely with the hardware and with the Mac’s ROM-based service routines, and this can be quite an undertaking. You can do a lot of Mac tricks in certain high-level languages like Microsoft Basic and Mac Pascal, but these are interpreted rather than compiled and so do not appeal to software vendors.

The Macintosh is controlled by a piece of software called the finder. This, together with the ROM routines, serves as operating system, Wimp manager, and desk top. It is highly machine specific, and adding non-Apple hardware like third-party hard discs generally involves obtaining a modified version of finder.

By contrast, Gem works in co-operation with existing operating systems, its role being confined to servicing programs that want to use the graphics interface. The programmer can communicate with DOS as before, and can continue to use all his or her favourite tools like keyboard enhancers and RAM discs. And you can use any language that permits calls to compiled library routines – although the calling sequence is particularly geared to C.

Highly portable applications

Because all interaction with graphics devices is routed through a set of drivers, Gem programs can be highly portable. This does not mean that you can port Gem itself from an IBM to an Apricot and expect it to work. But once you have Gem on both systems, your application code can be successfully transferred, which is more than can be said for packages that try to do their own clever displays by directly accessing the computer’s screen-mapped memory.

This approach also means that applications written for non-Gem environments can be used in a Gem system without change. Familiar programs like WordStar and dBase will run quite happily whether they were invoked from Desktop or the DOS command line, and they will not be put off by any Gem routines that happen to be resident in RAM. What is more, the user is not tied to Gem and can return to normal DOS operation whenever he or she feels like it.

But although these are important advantages, Gem will not succeed if it merely provides a standard, intuitive mechanism for invoking non-standard, non-intuitive applications. The future of Gem depends critically, on how readily the likes of Micropro and Ashton-Tate incorporate the Gem brand of Wimps into their mass market products.

So far the prospects are good, with around a dozen major houses promising Gem adaptations of their packages. The products include Thorn EMI’s Perfect range, the Pegasus accounting system, Lifetree’s Volkswriter, Plan from Chang Labs, SPI’s Open Access, Compsoft’s Delta, and the Prospect Graphics Library.

It is true that all these represent just announcements rather than actual discs and manuals on dealers’ shelves. But with this sort of muscle behind it, Gem certainly looks like being off to a good start.

Conclusions

  • With its Mac-like user interface, its availability on a range of business micros, and its ability to work with existing applications software, Gem certainly looks like being a winner.
  • At first sight the Gem environment is nice and friendly to programmers, especially those who do not want to work too closely with the graphics hardware.
  • In spite of a few rough edges, Desktop is a highly acceptable alternative to the DOS command line. It can be mastered very quickly and so should appeal strongly to computer novices.

Specification

  • Description: Gem is an operating system extension that lets programmers use overlapping windows, icons, mouse support, pull-down menus and multiple fonts; Desktop uses Gem to perform the common DOS utility functions.
  • Hardware required: IBM PC family or compatibles, Atari ST or Apricot, other versions available soon; bit-mapped graphics display, 256K RAM, mouse or other pointing device.
  • Publisher: Digital Research, Oxford House, Oxford Street, Newbury, Berkshire.
  • Price: Desktop costs £49.95 plus VAT
  • Available: Now

First published in Practical Computing magazine, August 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