Outpost: Atari; new computers and peripherals; Plato; rumors. David Small.
While sales of the Macintosh have not approached those of the IBM PC, there is another factor to be considered in assessing the popularity of the two machines: more people use--really use--Macintoshes than use IBMs. The PC to me represents the Bad Old Days of Computing, complete with disk operating systems, file allocation tables, and other bits of tripe that made computers difficult to use and all but impossible to learn to use. So you tend to find IBM machines dedicated to one application (most commonly, Lotus 1-2-3). Macintosh users, in contrast, tend to use their computersin widely varied ways; the Mac is a natural for many applications.
Wait a minute . . . this is the Atari column, right? Why am I raving about the MAc? Ah, the Mac is a great idea with one sticking point: the price. Right now, the best price you can get for a Mac is around $1600, and that is for the 128K, Skinny Mac. To get the most out of the Mac, you need the 512K machine, which will run you $2500 (if you shop around). This is just too much for a computer "for the rest of us." Tramiel's Surprise: The New ST line
Now enter Jack Tramiel, who darn well knows a good idea when he sees it (like the Mac's user innovations) and also knows how to build an inexpensive machine (like the Vic 20 and Commodore 64).
And witness, a very few months later, the Atari 130ST and the 520ST computers with Macintosh-like capabilities. The (projected) price? For the 128K machine, called the 130ST, $400, not $1600, as for the Mac. And for the 512K machine, the 520ST, and incredible $600, not $2500.
When these prices became known, many computer experts said, "great, if he can do it." This is a disguised compliment to Tramiel; had anyone else in the industry announced machines with these capabilities at such prices, we would have heard a flat "it can't be done."
The machines feature an operating system (the part of the computer that deals with you) called GEM. If you have ever seen a Macintosh, you have seen GEM. If you haven't seen a Mac, check out our July 1984 review.
The Atari machines feature a mouse and the desktop concept implemented in color. What does this mean to you? The new Atari machines will be very easy to learn how to use. They will have the ease of use of the Macintosh at a price long associated with the Atari name.
Atari's 130ST and 520ST use the Motorola 68000 microprocessor, a fast and efficient chip, and clock it at 8.0 MHz, which is really fast. The 68000 is a joy to program; if you already know 6502 or 6800 assembler, you will find the transition easy. The 6800 has the genius of a simple instruction set with many options for each instruction. This keeps the number of available instructions manageable.
The 68000 is faster than the IBM chip for two reasons. First, it is clocked much faster (8MHz vs. 4.77 MHz). Second, the 68000 talks to the world 16 bits at a time; whenever the IBM has to communicate, it does it in two 8-bit pieces, which slows it down considerably. The 68000, by the way, is the same chip Apple picked for the Macintosh.
By the way, the current Atari chip runs at 1.79 MHz and is 8-bits only. That is a speedup of four times in clock rate alone. Now add the doubling of 16-bit operations and the overall efficiency of the 68000 . . . and you thought your Atari was fast!
Both of the new ST machines have color video with several modes: 320 x 200in 16 colors (roughly the same as the current Atari machines), 640 x 200 in four colors (like graphics 7 with much higher resolutin), and 600 x 400 in one color (like graphics 8 with much higher resolution). Atari will sell you an RGB color monitor (XC 141) to use with these machines for around $320 (640 x 200) or a monochrome monitor (XM-128) for the 640 x 400 one-color mode for around $170.
The machines are said to have both Centronics parallel and RS-232 serial ports built in; that means that no extra interface is necessary for these machines. (A sigh of relief is heard). Peripherals
The disk drive for the ST line (SF 354) will be the 3.5" type so familiar to Mac users. It has 500K of storage; the 810 and 1050 have 88K and 128K, respectively. The price, however, may knock your socks off--$100 for a drive. Thus, we are talking about a powerful Macintosh-like product for under $500, complete with disk drive. There is also mention of an SH-317 10Mb hard disk, but no price is mentioned.
Right now we can dispense with two common questions. Will the new Atari machines run BIM software? No. Will they run the old Atari software? No, but . . .
The reason I qualified the second no is that Atari announced two other new machines which are "100% compatible with the XL line of computers." They are the 65XE and the 130XE. The 65XE has 64K of memory, and the 130XE has 131K. The New Old XE Line
These are Atari machines that you will know and be comfortable with immediately; the primary changes are internal to cut production costs. One difference you will note immediately is that the "parallel expansion bus" that used to be on the 800XL machine is gone on the 65XE; it will be present on the 130XE, however.
The 6502 processor used in these machines is the same fast, reliable chip used in the previous Atari lines. However, it is given 131K of memory to access in the 130XE model, whcih offers potential for higher speed and more memory-intensive applications. (Remember, though, that the 6502 cannot access more than 64K directly at any one time; the other 64K is accessed by temporarily turning off a piece of the "regular" 64K memory and turning on the "alternate" 64K memory instead.) Also bear in mind the "numers game"; normally, a machine with two sets of 64K dynamic memory chips is called a 128K machine, as in the 128K Macintosh or 128K Commodore. In reality, the memory (in decimal) comes out to 131,072 bytes--so Atari one-upped the competition and named the new machine the 130XE, to get a number slightly higher than theirs--typical Tramiel competitiveness, and who knows how much difference it might make to a computer neophyte purchasing a machine? And, of course, the 512K machine is advertised as the 520ST.
The 65XE machine will cost around $100, which is the current price of the 800XL, and the 130XE machine will sell for $200. These prices seem likely to undercut the competition (Commodore) by some 50%.
Also announced was a portable computer with 128K and the same 6502XL compatibility, called the 65 XEP. Complete with a built in 3-1/2" disk drive and color monitor it sells for around $400.
What about peripherals? There are many. I have mentioned the 3.5" disk drive for the ST series. But the most exciting is a promise of a $400 15Mb hard disk for the ST line by June. That's right, $400. Apparently the ST machines already have a hard disk controller (the expensive part of a hard disk) already built in.
New printers include the XTM 201, XTC 201, and XMM 801, inexpensive dot matrix printers with both color and non-impact versions, running at 20,20, and 80 cps respectively. The XDM 121 is a 12 cps letter quality daisywheel printer.
Projected shipping dates? April 1 for the XE line; May or June for the ST line. Rumors
Digital Research has apparently been working with its GEM (Graphics Environment Manager) operating system for a while; GEM works with CP/M-68K, DR's operating system for the 68000 chip. Tramiel had been carrying on discussions with DR for quite some time about this and decided to implement his ideas with his new Atari Corporation.
There was some mention of the Mindset computer being added to the Atari line. Apprently the story was that the new machines were not "brought up" at Atari until three days before the Consumer Electronics Show. So the Mindset was "held in reserve" as a 16-bit color computer in case the 130ST and 520ST didn't pan out. Sounds like the Atari engineers put in a lot of overtime. Bringing up a 68000 prototype computer in six months is a stonishing speed.
Very hot rumor: the ST series will be able to run Mac software. (For those of you who are knowledgeable and point to the copyright Apple ROMs (prestored programs) that are part of the Mac, remember the MacWorks package for the Lisa has this same information on disk.)
Another hot rumor: The ST may be able to read Mac disks directly.
A final hot rumor: You'll probably find CP/M-68K available for the ST line very soon, which means there will be fast, efficient Pascal, C, Fortran, CBasic, and such available. Plato
Also worthy of mention is that the Plato cartridge for the XL series of machines is being released finally. If you have been looking for an easy-to-use communications net and for a place with some high quality educational software (100,000 contact hours), it would be a good idea to check out Plato. Plato is a mainframe computer in Minneapolis that has been around for ten years with an astonishingly good selection of courseware--everything from math drills and sentence structure for kids to how to fly a 747 (a simulator that United Airlines uses). The Plato Learning Phone, designed by two software engineers at Atari, Vince Wu and Lane Winner, lets you access Plato for $7.75/hr. (local phone call)--a rate competitive with CompuServe and The Source, certainly. You need either a Microbits 300/1200 baud modem (the 1200 baud modem ought to be announced by the time you read this) or an 850 interface and anyone's 300 or 1200 baud modem.
I've been on Plato since 1978 and highly recommend you look into it. It takes the term "user-friendly" to new heights and is the first computerized society. Infinity
Atari has also announced a $49.95 software package which is said to compete favorably with Lotus 1-2-3. The price is an indication of another Atari promise: "We won't sell software for over $50." There will be more on Infinity in a later column, rest assured. Conclusion
What does this mean for new computer users? I believe that Atari finally has created what Appel always advertised: "The Computer for the Rest of Us." It has the innovative, easy-to-use Macintosh user interface but none of the high Macintosh pricing.
Now is a better time than ever to get into computers; finally, a computer that comes to you instead of forcing you to come to it.