LGR – Atari ST Computer System Review

[typing] Let’s travel back to the year 1985. Legendary electronics company Atari
is about to release a new 16-bit computer, right before legendary electronics company
Commodore has released theirs. It may have looked like simple
capitalist competition to an outsider, but it didn’t take much digging to see that things
had been chaotic between the two giants for years. Previously, in 1983, Atari and Commodore
were at each other’s throats. Both had spectacular 8-bit machines, and the tension was growing
between the companies daily. Jay Miner, as well as many other
key hardware designers at Atari, had plans for a Motorola 68000-based
computer to succeed the Atari 8-bit line. But Atari had other plans, and rejected the idea, resulting in Miner and many others leaving
to create the computer on their own, eventually dubbing it the Amiga. The great video game crash of
that same year was in full swing, and Atari was losing money fast, and was soon up for sale. At the same time, Jack Tramiel of Commodore
was having internal issues at his company, while trying to develop their
own next-gen 16-bit computer, and he was soon dismissed. Seeing that Atari was up for sale, Tramiel purchased Atari, and promptly fired pretty much everyone, and brought in his own people. One of those was Shiraz Shivji, who was well known for
working on the Commodore 64, and work quickly commenced on
Atari’s new 16-bit home computer. The result came in June of 1985 with the Atari ST, so-named for its Motorola 68000’s
CPU’s 16-bit external bus, and 32-bit internal bus. The Atari 520ST was the first
model in the line of ST computers. It featured no internal disk drive or power supply, but the plus side to this was that its awesomely
designed chassis was very lightweight. Much like the recently released Macintosh,
it had a graphical user interface, known as The Operating System, or TOS. In a story that is almost the
exact opposite of the IBM PC, Microsoft’s operating system,
Windows, was turned down in favor of one from Digital Research, dubbed by DR the Graphical Environment Manager, or GEM. What became known as the Atari TOS made file management, graphical manipulation and configuring your computer a breeze, very similarly to the much-lauded Apple Mac OS. In fact, it was so similar to the Mac that the Atari ST became known
to many as the “Jackintosh,” for its relation to both the Macintosh and Jack Tremiel. In 1986 came the 1040ST series of machines, which included a built-in power supply, and was upgraded to 1MB of RAM and sold for $1,000, making it the first personal computer to break the elusive $1,000 per MB price point. It also came in variations like the STf, which included a built-in floppy drive, and the STfm, including both a floppy drive and an RF modulator to allow the machine to display on a TV. There were also 1040ST Mega variations, which saw some popularity in Europe, and were geared toward the professional
market with a new form factor, external keyboard and internal expansion bus. Then in 1989 came the STE line of machines, an enhanced series of ST computers with higher quality graphics and sound, an updated operating system, among other things. This unfortunately also brought
along some compatibility issues with certain programs and games. Also in 1989 came a rather peculiar
machine known as the Atari STacy. This was essentially a portable Atari 1040ST, which ran on twelve standard C-cell alkaline batteries. However, when it was discovered that all
those batteries only lasted about fifteen minutes, interest in the machine quickly faded. Lastly, in 1990 and 1992 came
the Atari TT and Falcon computers. Both of these had upgraded 32-bit 16 MHz 68030 CPUs, more RAM, better graphics, hard drive options, and a bunch of other awesome, expensive stuff. And by 1993, it was all over, and the final Atari computer left the assembly line so Atari could focus on their new Jaguar console. I’m sure that was worth it. Ha ha. I got my Atari 1040STfm for the cost of shipping, as it was generously donated
by the totally awesome Borin81. This one comes from Sweden, and as such contains a Swedish-language
operating system and keyboard layout. I’ve never actually used an
American or any other ST system, so I’m not sure if there are any
other significant differences. Here in the US, you can expect to pay around $60-120 for a complete ST system, depending on the model, what it comes with,
where you buy it, what time of year it is, how big of a crap you took that morning, etc. On the outside, of course, you’ve got the keyboard, with a full numeric keypad, cursor keys, and the highly unique-looking function keys in a row, diagonally, above the other keyboard keys. There’s also this cheese grater thing on the top, which allows the innards to cool and gives it an extra-funky aesthetic. It does not grate cheese. With all this slanting everywhere, I can’t help but love the look of the Atari ST. And I think it’s neat Atari
reintroduced the 8-bit line computers as the XE series to match up with the ST’s look. On the right side of the unit,
you’ve got the integrated 3½-inch floppy drive, which initially used single-sided 360K disks, but on later models like this one
use double-sided 720K disks. If you are a PC guy, then these numbers
will probably sound familiar to you. Yes, you can in fact use IBM PC
microfloppies on the Atari ST. In fact, the double-sided drive can
even read IBM-formatted floppies without any trouble at all, which I’ll cover in more detail later. The downside to this built-in floppy drive is the joystick ports had to be moved. But instead of putting them
somewhere that makes sense, Atari put them in what I consider
to be the stupidest place possible: underneath the computer. Why Atari did this, I will never understand, because it is quite possibly the most
annoying joystick placement I have ever seen. It’s simply painful to insert a joystick into its port, and that’s totally what she said. It makes the cord stick out from the front
of the machine in the most awkward way, It’s even worse if you have to
swap joystick ports to play a game, which happens quite often, because then you have all sorts
of cords in the back of the machine that make it uncomfortable to lift it up and swap ports. And it’s not just joysticks you have
to worry about with these ports, it’s the Atari ST’s mouse. I mean, with a graphical user interface,
it’s pretty much a requirement, so you can’t just ignore plugging this thing in. No, you have to deal with those stupid joystick ports any time you want to use the mouse, which is probably all the time. There’s one other thing that
really annoys me about these ports. Unlike pretty much every other machine
that I’ve seen that uses DE-9 ports, you can’t use controllers that *aren’t* Atari controllers. At least in my experience, controllers like
the Sega Genesis just do not work at all. Sorry, I can’t help but harp on this.
I hate these joystick ports! Thankfully, the rest of the design makes sense. On the back, you’ve got an RS-232c port for a modem, Centronics printer port, ACSI port for hard drives and laser printers, an external floppy drive port, RF video output, RGB monitor output, power switch, standard three-prong port for the power supply, and a reset button. And finally, on the left side,
there’s a couple of neat additions: the rarely used 40-pin cartridge port and MIDI input and output ports. The cartridge port was meant
to take 128K ROM expansions, but I can’t find many things that used it at all. However, the MIDI port saw all
kinds of usage back in the day, and really put the Atari ST on the map for amateur and professional musicians alike. In case you don’t know, the Musical
Instrument Digital Interface, or MIDI, is a digital interface for musical instruments. It allows you to use any MIDI device
together with other MIDI devices, like the Atari ST in this case. So you can hook up your piano, drum
machine, sequencer, sampler device, or whatever else that uses MIDI, and use the Atari ST to both
send and receive information. So with its graphical user interface,
powerful CPU and MIDI ports in every machine, the ST became a staple in recording
studios the world over for years. Well that’s enough of the outside.
Let’s see the inside, where you’ve got the classic
Motorola 68000 CPU running at 8 MHz. This was an extremely popular CPU back then, and is essentially the same processor
used in contemporary machines like the Macintosh and Amiga. Working with the CPU are the custom Atari chips– Shifter, Glue, DMA, and MMU– which control all sorts of things,
like memory allocation and graphics. You also have 1MB of RAM in this particular machine, as well as a 192KB ROM which contains The Operating System. Earlier machines only had a 32K ROM, since The Operating System was
instead supplied on a floppy disk But since TOS is on a chip, you’ll have to swap chips if you want to upgrade the system software. For instance, if I wanted an English-
language UI instead of Swedish, I’d have to swap these for compatible English ICs. For sound, the Atari ST comes with a variation of the classic General Instrument
AY-3-8910 sound generator, in this case the Yamaha YM2149. This provides three voices covering eight octaves and a single noise channel, and is very similar to the sound chip
used in machines like the Sinclair 128, Amstrad CPC and various MSX computers. Finally, you have the graphics system, which outputs in a 640×400 monochrome mode, and either a 640×200 or 320×200
resolution color graphics mode, with either four or 16 simultaneous colors out of a selection of 512, respectively. Of course, clever programmers could achieve
more impressive variations of color and resolution through tweaks and tricks. One big hurdle you’ll have to deal
with is how to display…the display. Unless you see an “M” on the end of the computer’s title, your only option out of the box is to hook
the machine up to an Atari ST monitor. The monitor connection sends both
video and audio signals to an RGB monitor. Which is nice, if you have one, since you don’t have to worry
about PAL or NTSC video signals. But if you don’t have a monitor, like me, you need to use the RF modulator output. Not only does the image quality suffer from this, but you’ll also have to make sure you have
the equipment to handle the video signal. Since this machine hails from Sweden,
it outputs PAL video. So I use a USB capture device to
display PAL RF video on my PC. At least I will until I can get a proper ST monitor. The power supply on the 1040STfm
is integrated into the unit itself, which makes the computer much
heaver than it might normally be, but it also makes it much less of a
cluttered mess when it’s all hooked up. Just grab any three-prong cable
like the kind you find on all PCs and many other electronic devices nowadays. However, it’s not a switching power supply, so keep in mind that you’ll need to
convert your power to the proper voltage if you’ve got an imported machine. As you should know by now,
the Atari ST uses a variant of the GEM OS known as The Operating System. The version mine comes with is the
Swedish localization of Version 2.06. I don’t speak Swedish, but I known enough to be able
to read most of the user interface and thankfully it’s simple and intuitive enough
that you can probably figure it out anyways. It’s got your standard GUI
features like dropdown menus, drag-and-dropping, scrolling, icons,
windows, selecting files, etc. You also have the disk drive
exploring and formatting options a trash can for file deletion, and various customization options
for the user interface itself. One thing that really bothers me is the fact that the default color scheme is white and lime green. This is probably one of the single most displeasing
pairing of colors I’ve seen on a computer screen. Thankfully, you can change the color, and even choose from various patterns, much like the Macintosh OS of the time. Running games on the ST couldn’t be easier. Just insert a disk, turn the machine on and it’ll probably start up. If not, you might need to
browse the disk contents in TOS and choose a program file to open the game. And as for the games themselves, you’ve got a giant crapload to choose from. Just like any other popular computer
back in the mid-to-late ’80s, you have games from all over
the world in every genre imaginable. I am simply unable to adequately show the
massive variety of Atari ST games in this video, so here are just a few of my favorites. [male voice]
Sector 1 As for acquiring these games,
it really depends on where you live. The Atari ST was really popular in places
like Germany, Sweden, the UK and Canada, but not so much in the USA. So if you are in America, the largest selection
of games are going to have to be imported. This means most of the games are probably
going to be designed with a PAL machine in mind. And although I’m not aware of any major
PAL-to-NTSC compatibility problems, just keep in mind that there may be some
issues if you’re mixing territories around. Thankfully, if you happen to get
your hands on any disk images, it’s stupidly easy to write them if you
have a PC with a 3½-inch floppy drive. Yep. Writing Atari ST disks on an IBM PC
really is as simple as dragging and dropping. All you need is a 720K double-sided floppy disk, and the eloquently named
“Floppy Imaging and File Transfer” program. Just insert your disk, choose the image file, write it to the disk and you’re good to go. And as always, emulation is an option for those of you who don’t mind going
impure with your vintage computer usage. The excellent Steam Engine is my emulator of choice, and it very accurately emulates the
breadth of the Atari ST computer line with grace and finesse. But really, this is like looking at adult
entertainment instead of having a real girl, and that’s rather silly if you have the option. So that brings us to the final question: Is the Atari ST worth buying or not? Well the Atari 1040STfm,
which is all I can really speak for, is definitely worth considering. It’s got a ton of great games. Many obscure ones, many not-so-obscure ones, arcade classics, lots of Atari conversions and such. Lots of homebrew. And there’s also a really easy way
to get them onto the computer, which I mentioned earlier, and that’s
making your own floppies on a PC. So it doesn’t get much easier than that. And then there’s also the MIDI, which it’s got built in,
if you like to mess with MIDI or you like old school MIDI…stuff, and think this is interesting,
then that might be a selling point to you. But there are some downsides,
and I cannot ignore those. The first being that the graphics
aren’t exactly the most spectacular. They’re okay. But compared to some other
systems that were out at this time, you’re not always getting the
best ports of games available, as far as graphical fidelity goes. The same goes for the audio. It’s okay. It’s decent enough. It works. But it’s nowhere near up to par
of something like the Amiga. And that’s just unfortunate, because, for whatever reason,
when I’m playing a game on here, sometimes I know there’s a
better conversion available. I’m like, “well, why am I not
playing it on *that* machine?” The only other thing that really bothers me,
of course, is the stupid joystick ports. I friggin’ hate them. And then, it’s not a problem on mine, but it you have a system that
doesn’t have an “M” on the badge, that means that you *have* to use an Atari monitor. There’s no way to hook it up to a TV, so that adds some expense. There’s also some more expense if you’re in America because the games weren’t as popular here. The computer wasn’t as popular here,
so you’re probably going to have to be importing them. And, um… Yeah, that’s pretty much it. I mean… some of those are nit-picky, like the graphics and stuff. Okay, maybe I can get over that. But it’s mainly the availability of the games, the availability of other hardware peripherals and things here in the US. If you’re in Europe, this might not be much of a problem. Either way, I would still give the Atari ST a look, if you’re into 16-bit vintage machines. But I also might shop around a little bit
before making your final decision.

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