User group support, Dos 2.5, Scuttlebytes, a first impression of the 130XE, and a super enhancement. (Outpost: Atari) (column) John J. Anderson.
User group support, DOS 2.5, Scuttlebytes, a first impression of the 130XE, and a super font enhancement
Well, XEs are shipping in earnest now and STs are about to; it might soon be safe to posit that Atari is back on the track. One of the things I am happiest to see from the born-again folks this second time around is strong and serious user group support. After all these years, Atari has finally realized the importance of their user groups nation-and worldwide, and seems to be making an effort to connect with them.
I was most impressed to see that the ST series made its hands-on debt within selected user groups, and that Jack Tramiel took one to a meeting of the notoriously hard-nosed Boston Computer Society for a good natured roast. My old friend Neil Harris of Atari Explorer has made a superb effort to extend telecommunicative user support online and has made Atari's presence consistently felt both on the CompuServe Atari SIG and Creative Computing Online. After screaming myself hoarse years ago at the "old' Atari in this column and elsewhere, it is extremely gratifying to discover just how different the "new' Atari has attempted to be. Could someone have been listening?
Meet the New DOS
It may seem as if we're losing ground, what with DOS 3.0 now yielding to DOS 2.5, but in this case, a little backward movement has resulted in a great leap forward. Say hello to DOS 2.5, which offers the increased capacity of DOS 3.0 along with DOS 2.0 compatibility.
If you have a 1050 drive, DOS 2.5 will open up 1010 sectors per disk, as opposed to 707 under DOS 2.0, and you can read disks of either format from both versions of the DOS. Under DOS 2.0, tracks are blocked into 18 sectors each. Under DOS 2.5, fully 26 sectors are squeezed out of each track. Your 1050 drive can distinguish between format densities automatically at boot time.
Although DOS 2.0 ignores all sectors beyond its standard 707, it will read those sectors compatibly. More important, old format disks will read compatibility under DOS 2.5. This is were DOS 3.0, among other failings, was at its worst. Because of its incompatibility, DOS 3.0 never really caught on with 1050 owners.
Atari will ship DOS 2.5 will all new 5.25 drives. But in tangible evidence of its attitude shift toward user group support, Atari has given David Duberman (late of Antic, now with Atari), the goahead to post DOS 2.5 and related files on the CompuServe Atari SIG. Obtaining 2.5 will cost only your connect time. To that I can only say "Bravo, fellas'!
When DOS 2.5 meets an Atari 130XE, however, the fireworks truly begin. One of the files present along with DOS 2.5 is a RAMdisk, which checks to see whether your drive is hooked up to a 130XE. If you are, DOS 2.5 defines the top half of RAM as "drive 8,' and allows it to function as a super-fast disk drive. The RAMdisk has a directory and 499 "sectors,' and you can use it along with regular disk drives without problems. The RAMdisk file copies DUP.SYS and MEM.SAV into RAM, and moves the DOS pointer so that DOS can be invoked at any time without disk access. Very handly indeed.
I first wrote under this subhead back in 1982, and the first rumor I ever reported was that Atari planned a Model 600. So the rule is to take this section with a grain of salt. Honest, dear readers, they really did plan a Model 600 at the time . . .
The first juicy one was reported by Dave Peyton on CompuServe, who had it that Jack Tramiel might be contemplating the purchase of Delphi, the online service belonging to General Videotex Corp. Seems number-one-son Leonard Tramiel spent fully three days meeting with Delphi brass up in Cambridge, MA, an "exceptionally lengthy' stay, according to Dave, merely to set up an Atari service on the network. If such a sale were to transpire, it could mean a much-needed boost for Delphi, which has struggled to make its service competitive with the likes of the Source and CompuServe.
At this juncture I'll make a prediction: some day a truly flexible, inexpensive, and easy-to-use network for home users will appear--one that actually understands the needs and wants of its subscribers. That system will prevail in a dramatically short time. For the resource does not reside in the service, but in the users themselves. All they seek is the cheapest and best forum through which to get in touch with each other. If Jack wanted to turn his mind to that topic, he could make Delphi the pre-eminent home user's network in a matter of months.
The next juicy rumor also appeared on CompuServe and was reported by John Edwards, the gist being that Atari may already have decided to scuttle its low-end models in both the 8-bit and 16-bit categories. His sources told him that plans to market the Atari 65XE and 130ST have been "permanently shelved.' Sounds pretty feasible.
We have noticed the almost negligible announced price differential between the 65 and 130 XEs ($40) and had doubted such a structure would make sound marketing sense. In the case of the 130ST, it is quite likely that the Macintosh, ST computers will require a minimum of 500K to be truly useful. Unlike Apple, Atari may not choose to release a low-power version of its new machine. In as far as it may be a decision to trim the product line to conserve precious monetary resources, we applaud the move. Damn the torpedos and full funding ahead for only the truly deserving models.
Edwards also reported, and I have subsequently confirmed, that Atari had without much explanation pulled out of Summer CES (the Consumer Electronics Show). Again one might at first thought assume this to be a cost-cutting move, as Atari's presence at such events has in the past cost upward of six figures. But it could also presage a repositioning of Atari. In the past they have sat out of Comdex in favor of CES, thereby forsaking the business show for the home show. Now they have executed an about-face, and have decided to stake Comdex and let CES pass. Could it be that the Atari is really more than just a games machine?
But the heart-stopping Atari rumor of the month unexpectedly came over Kobe beef and Suntory with Kay Nishi (Mr. Microsoft Japan) in Tokyo. He had heard that a good many ST contracts with the Far East were on indefinite hold and guessed that meant severe monetary troubles for Atari--troubles that could end up scuttling all their best laid plans. After I had finished involuntarily blowing a bit of my drink out my nostrils, I ventured the hope that his sources overstated the case.
Meet the 130XE
This weekend at my local dealer I logged my first flight time with a 130XE and overall was favorably impressed. The keyboard is unfortunately still far from perfect--it feels slightly rubbery, and travel is actually somewhat excessive --you can press a key, think you've pressed the key, and not have registered a character. The RESET key is disturbingly near the BREAK key and is as easy to press as any other key. I surely hope the ST sports a keyboard superior to this one.
But the RAMdisk system honestly works, and it is truly refreshing to have access to DOS at all times without lengthy disk accesses. Other programs also load neatly into the RAMdisk. Compatibility seems complete, and it is unlikely the need will arise for another software patch like the translator disk we saw when the 400/800 series gave way to the XL series (although you may find yourself using the original translator disk now and then). The machine worked flawlessly, with fine display quality, and the dealer reported only one unit D.O.A. out of a total of eight he had received over the past two weeks. His retail price: $149.95.
Let's face it, Atarians. The default character set provided on the Atari is not the most beautiful thing in the world. Sometimes I get tired of it, and then I load a custom set. Listing 1 provides you with one of my favorities. It is fancy enough to seem special, while maintaining high legibility. Give it a try!
Atari Corporate BBS
In addition to their participation in CompuServe and possible participation in Delphi, Atari now maintains its own bulletin board on one of the few Model 1450 XLDs ever built. There are now four lines available, so it is much easier to get through than it had been initially. The number is (408) 745-5308, and the BBS is up 24 hours a day.
Table: Listing 1.