Release Your ST’s Potential

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

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

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

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

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

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

Words work

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

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

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

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

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

Business dodges

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

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

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

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

See it move

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

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

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

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

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

Desktop lay

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

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

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

Play the game

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

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

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

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

Get down on it

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

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

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

Learn the lingo

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick and choose

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

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

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

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

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

Just £300 to spend

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

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

Pay the price

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

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

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

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

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

Vital statistics

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

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

First published in New Computer Express, 11th March 1989

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