Outpost Atari. (column) John J. Anderson.
Among the hot topics in this month's edition of the Outpost, we will address two of the most frequently-asked questions about the Atari--one concerning hardware and the other concerning software. I'll show and tell you a bit about my recent trip west, and we'll talk a little politics as we did last month. We'll do a little dreaming, too. That's a busy docket, so let's get going. First the softer and fuzzier issues.
Quo Vadis Atari?
Last month I frankly shared with you my disappointment with some of the attitudes and decisions that have recently emanated from Atari. Some of my complaints had to do with the issue of compatibility: I felt Atari had blown it by not making its next-generation games machine compatible with its computers, as the categories are in fact beginning to merge, and in their hearts the 400 and 5200 are the very same machine. I suggested that Atari then compounded the error by creating a new computer that isn't very compatible with its own predecessors. I went on to criticize Atari's apparent hostility to third-party hardware and software development for its machines.
Last week, in a very soggy Sunnyvale, I aired these grievances to various folks at Atari. They listened politely, disagreed often, but did respond with one bit of good news--the Atari 1200 XL is going to undergo an overhaul. Just how extensive a redesign is to be inferred here in not clear yet, but the intention is to start listening, and that is a good intention indeed. Atari does not wish to be perceived as insensitive to the voice of its customers. It could certainly stand to prick up its ears a bit in the Home Computer Division, and now appears to be doing so.
The Thinking Man's Atari
Exactly what would we like to see in the way of an Atari 1200 XLE (E for enhanced)? Well, Atari, we're sure glad you asked, and we hope you're listening hard. We think you have the makings of a good machine in the 1200, but that somewhere along the line you lost the core philosophy that made the 400 and 800 the machines they are. And you need to take steps that will move the 1200 up not only into that core category, but beyond it. Don't sweat it--we can tell you exactly how:
The 1200 has a superlative keyboard, and that extra 16K is sure handy. It was nice of you to boost the chroma, but don't forget that many of your customers will be using the monitor output, and the current chroma level is ruinous to closed circuit reception. You went too far in reworking the operating system, as not even the Atari Word Processor will boot on the bowdlerized OS as it now stands. You must make a U-turn on this score. All, as opposed to hardly any, of the software we now run on our 400s or 800s, should run on our 1200s. Why the heck shouldn't it? The machines are just too darned similar to justify incompatibitity! This syndrome is beginning to seem chronic.
While you are at it, bring back controller jacks 3 and 4 (you can put them on the righthand side). We have games such as Asteroids from Atari itself, that call for the extra ports, and we can drive parallel printers from them. The monetary savings from dropping them were mere pennies, anyhow. Then redesign that ROM cartridge jack so our third-party cartridges will fit. Did you really do that on purpose?
Now you're back on the right track. Let's take a look at the connectors that should be available on the back panel of the new 1200 XLE. For starters, let's stick on a bus slot that corresponds to RAM slot 3 on the modular Atari 800, so we can plug in expansion boards, or maybe even an expansion chassis, for multiple boards. That way we can gain easy 80-column capability, bank-selectable RAM, and other capabilities yet undreamed of. Here is a novel thought: let's actually encourage outside hardware development. Remember, that's a big part of what made those fruity fellows down the street from you so popular.
Next to the expansion bus, we should find the parallel port. A Centronics style connector would be really civilized. Let's face it, guys. We loyal fans might just want something a little hotter than an Okidata Microline 80 hanging off the side of our 1200 XLEs. This is not meant as a slight to Oki--but how about a 92 as opposed to an 80? Or something like the Mannesmann Tally MT 160L--the difference between 40 and 160 cps.
It should not matter to you guys what printers we want to hook up--just give us a standard parallel port, and we'll take it from there.
Oh, and the sight of an RS-232 serial port would bring tears to our eyes. But no, we shouldn't even suggest it to you. It would be too good--too generous-- too thoughtful. Why, if you did that, we could attach the modem of our choice to our 1200 XLEs, in much the way we hooked up our parallel printers . . .
Hey, you know what would be savvy? If you built Microsoft Basic into the unit. That way the Atari Basic cartridge would remain standard, while at the same time Microsoft software would finally become economically viable on an Atari machine, as every owner of a 1200 XLE would have Microsoft Basic. And how about an RCA phono jack for audio output? Many of us would like to hook our 1200s up simultaneously to monitors and external amplifiers--something which is now tricky to effect from one DIN.
Unreasonable demands that would make the cost of the 1200 skyrocket beyond all market limits? Absolutely not.
They could be addressed for a reasonable additional cost. Unreasonable demands that could not realistically be crammed onboard the 1200? Absolutely not. We have snooped around the 1200 board, and believe that these features could be fit into the sexy 1200 XLE case. Unreasonable demands that would at the very least dictate a total redesign of the Atari 1200? Probably. But fellas--if you had only done things right the first time . . .
Send "Em a Message
Fellow Atarian, I urge you to write Atari now and let them know how you feel--they claim to be all ears. Attach a copy of "The Thinking Man's Atari' portion of this column to your letter if you want. Maybe, just maybe, Atari will come around. Their address is P.O.Box 427, Sunnyvale, CA 94086.
It is commonly known that in addition to the capability of driving sound through a television or monitor speaker, the Atari has an on-board speaker, similar to the Apple. This speaker serves nearly without exception to flag admonitions of one sort or another, such as a record or playback state on cassette, or an illegal entry in a word processing or similar program. It also provides the chirp of "keyclick' on the Atari keyboard.
The only problem with the on-board speaker is that it drives you crazy. Some programs exploit the speaker so sadistically it makes you wonder whether the programmer was hard of hearing. I even find keyclick distracting--perhaps it is necessary on the 400, but not the 800. The Atari 1200 XL has no internal speaker, by the way, and pipes keyclick out to the TV, where a volume control beckons. One of the commonly asked questions I get at the Outpost is how to shut the darned thing off. As I mentioned last month, I know of no way to do it through software. One answer is to drop the speaker right out of the unit, which is a relatively simple task. But it does have an air of permanence about it.
What could be simpler than the installation of a single pole, single throw switch to cut out the speaker when desired? The snag: the thought of snipping wires or drilling holes in my pristine Atari 800 made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. Also, though the warranty on my machine had long since expired, I wasn't happy with the idea of doing anything that couldn't be undone. Service people can be put off quickly when they see user modifications. I determined, rather wistfully, that I would live without a speaker.
Then, while engaged in the hobby of staring at all the little packages on the wall of the nearby Radio Shack, I made a fascinating discovery. I saw a product called "two prong connectors,' catalog number 274-342, $2.49 for a package of six. I noticed that the fit would be quite close to the connector used on the Atari speaker. And wow, you sure can obtain really tiny toggle switches nowadays. "SPST micro miniature toggle switch,' catalog number 275-624, $1.59. So small, it can mount between the vent slots on the bottom of the 800. I could then envision a switch modification that was utterly reversible. If ever I need to bring my Atari in for service, the modification can be slipped out in under five minutes.
If you wish to modify your Atari 800, you will need in addition to the products listed above, about two feet of bell or other light wire, a flat blade and Philips screwdriver, soldering iron and solder, and a bit of electrical tape.
Snip the wire into two 10 lengths. Then, take one of the wires and snip it into two 5 lengths. Strip 1/4 of insulation off the ends of all leads. Twist the shorter wires onto the longer wire as indicated in Figure 1. This will make the modification easier to slip in and out later. Next, solder two connectors and the switch to the wires as indicated in the diagram. Unscrew all collars around the neck of the switch. Notice you are using only the socket connectors, not the plug connectors. Leftovers can be saved for another project.
Now you are ready to begin the operation. Disconnect your Atari, and flip it over onto something soft, like a pillow. Unscrew the five screws that hold the bottom panel, and lift it toward you. Notice that the controller ports must be cleared to remove the panel.
Can you believe how small that speaker is? Thank goodness you don't depend on that measly thing for all your sound effects. To disconnect the speaker, pull gently on the connector. Once the speaker is disconnected, remove it from the machine.
Orient the connector so that it matches the view in Figure 2. Using a screwdriver or a toothpick, press down on the silver tongue on top of the plastic connector, as you gently pull the wire from the side. Don't force anything! When you have pressed the tongue down far enough, the contact will slide right out. Pull both contacts out of the plastic container.
Next, take the bottom panel you earlier removed and hold it so that the vents are at the bottom, as shown in Figure 3. You will mount the switch in the lefthand vent, where there is room to spare, and nothing nearby to short accidentally. Insert the flat blade screw-driver in the slot where the switch will be mounted (it's a good idea to stay over toward the left--this will make the switch easier to reach). Gently twist the screwdriver to spread open the slot, then press the neck of the switch through. The plastic will have to bend a bit to accommodate the switch. Put on a washer, then screw on the switch lock nut to fasten it in place.
Final installation will be facilitated by repositioning the back panel so that the computer looks like an open valise. This way, the wire between switch and speaker will not be stretched. First, press the speaker contacts into the middle connector, as indicated in Figure 4. The speaker can now be repositioned in its spot. Gently connect the far socket to the speaker leads from which you removed the original plastic connector. Spreading them a bit will insure a tight fit. Finally, tuck the wire away under the keyboard post and away from boards and the speaker itself. There is more than enough room on that side of the computer to keep the modification from interfering with any other components.
It is a good idea to tape the original connector to the modification wire itself. Then, should you wish to put things back the way they were, the original connector won't be lost in a drawer somewhere.
Screw the back panel on, plug things back in, and run a test by typing CONTROL-2, which rings the bell, with the toggle toggled. The chirp of keyclick will also be gone--if and when you want it to be so.
Listen: the sound of silence.
Autorun Your Basic Programs
One of the most frequently asked software questions we get is how to make Basic files autorun. You won't find it in the DOS manual, so don't waste your time looking as I have. But thanks to John Humble of Mercer Island, WA, creation of autorun files is now made delectably easy.
Listing 1 will take just a few minutes to type in, and makes any Basic program into an AUTORUN.SYS file. First it asks for the name of the file you want to make bootable. Then it checks to see whether an autorun file already exists on the disk in question. If it does, the program asks whether you wish to overwrite that file. Then it finds the program you indicated, and makes it into the AUTORUN.SYS file, using our old friend, the dynamic keyboard method.
John also sent us Listing 2, which is a very short and sweet menu program. Put this program onto a disk full of other programs, then use the program in Listing 1 to make it autorun. The program will read the directory from the disk, and store each title in a string. The titles are then printed on the screen with a letter in front of each one; running them is as simple as pressing the letter of your choice. Good job, John, and thanks.
Next month: compacting data into graphics characters, and the complete program listing of a deluxe self-modifying title card generator from our January competition. Catch you then!
Table: Listing 1.
Table: Listing 2.
Photo: In the display room at Atari's Sunnyvale headquartets. All of Atari's new machines, coin-op, home video, and computers can be seen here.
Photo: The computer demonstration center features an interactive videodisc to guide a new user through a tour of the 800. Coupling of the Atari with a laserdisc is now being offered to the outside world, as well.
Photo: A cart chock full of 1200s waiting to move next door for final assembly.
Photo: Components that can be stored on rolls are "stapled' right on to the boards using machines like this one.
Photo: John Loveless, of Synapse, where a lot of exciting things are planned for the Atari. They are the folks to beat.
Photo: Figure 1.
Photo: Figure 2.
Photo: Figure 3.
Photo: Figure 4.