PRINTERS AND SPOOLERS
The more you spend, the more you save...
As a professional programmer, your basic product is your time. The efficiency with which you use that time determines the number of jobs you can complete in a given period, which, in turn, determines your income. Your time is valuable - you cannot afford to waste it.
When we recommend certain time-saving accessories to fellow programmers, some of them are horrified at the cost. However, when you program for a living nearly anything that increases your efficiency is cost effective.
SAVE BY SPENDING
For example, the most expensive item that we recommend as a programming tool is the Corvus hard disk with 10 megabytes of storage capacity. It costs $3000, but it runs ten times faster than the Atari 810 and stores 128 times as much data.
Think of $3000 as 10O hours, or two-and-a-half weeks of your time, at $30 per hour. In one year you'll save considerably more than 100 hours by using the Corvus. After all, in the course of a typical game's development hundreds of assemblies are accomplished, and each of these is delayed if it has to wait for access to a floppy disk. The Corvus can pay for itself by saving you that 100 hours of waiting for disk access.
A NEED FOR PRINTING SPEED
Now let's look at printers? with speed as our primary criterion. Think of the number of times you've had to sit and wait impatiently for a printout to finish being printed. We used to waste a lot of time just watching the print head do its thing, because there was nothing else we could do. The computer was tied up, and besides, we couldn't tell what else needed to be done until we'd seen the hard copy.
THE OKIDATA'S ADVANTAGES
We recently decided that we needed a faster printer than our trusty, but relatively slow, Epson MX-80. We ended up with an Okidata Microline 84, for the following reasons:
- It's a 132-coIumn printer. Most assembler listing lines exceed 80 columns, especially if the program is adequately commented.
- The Okidata's speed is 200 characters per second (cps), and it features bi-directional seeking.
- It has a fast linefeed. This feature deserves further explanation, since it's the main reason that we didn't simply buy a faster Epson.
If you listen to an Epson while it's printing, you'll hear a "zzt," a pause, a "zzt", another pause, and so on. The "zzt" sound accompanies the printing process while the pause indicates that the Epson is slowly advancing the paper. It actually takes it longer to advance the paper than to print a line!
The Okidata, on the other hand, produces a sound more like "zzt-zzt- zzt." It feeds the paper very quickly. So while the Okidata is rated at 200 cps, and the Epson FX-80 at 160 cps, the real difference between the two is much greater than 40 cps.
The Okidata's correspondence-quality printing looks very good. To achieve this effect, it overprints each line several times, which fills in the gaps between the dots. Keep in mind that a true daisywheel printer in this price range (about $1000) prints very slowly -- about 10 cps. The Okidata's correspondence mode, on the other hand, works at 50 cps.
The Okidata has a friction feed for non-tractor paper, such as letterhead. The MX-80 only handles tractor-fed paper. These considerations were the most important ones for us in choosing our office printer. We've never regretted the decision or the $1000 we spent for the Okidata.
THE ATR 8000
Our next goal was to free up the computer during the printing process. Normally you can't do anything with the computer until a printout has been finished. But by attaching a device known as a spooler between the computer and the printer, you can start to use the computer almost immediately after beginning to print.
The ATR-8000, along with its many other capabilities, can act as a printer buffer. When you start to print, the ATR accepts data from the computer at about 960 characters per Second - or as fast as the computer can transmit it through the serial port. The ATR stores the data in its own memory. Meanwhile, a second driver in the ATR begins to dump its memory to the printer. Thus, ATR acts like a dam, filling at 960 cps and draining at 200 cps. The 64K ATR can hold 52,000 characters, while the 16K ATR holds about 12,000.
Once the Atari has finished sending data to the ATR, you can use the computer to do something else while the ATR continues to print automatically. If your text exceeds the buffer's size, you'll have to wait until 52K or less remain to be printed, but at least you won't have to wait for the entire printout.
There are other spoolers on the market. However, none of them can match the ATR's many capabilities at the same price, which is why we recommend the ATR so strongly. Also, if you're looking for a printer interface, you should consider the ATR before purchasing an 850. It'll cost you more money, but you'll be much happier with the ATR in the long run.
Our cost for all of this equipment was about $1500, which is equivalent to about 50 hours of programming time. But by using the ATR and the Okidata in combination we easily saved that much in only one month of heavy use.
Epson printers have a strong reputation for durability and reliability. The Okidata matches this standard easily. In over a year of heavy use, it has never failed us. In fact, we found the Okidata's tractor feed to be slightly superior to that of the MX-80, because it is more trouble-free. The Okidata's only drawback is that it's rather noisy. If you can do so, it's best to keep it in a separate area, where the noise won't disturb you. One final tip: when the Okidata's ribbons wear out, insert a half-twist on either end and use the bottom, fresh part of the ribbon. This will double the ribbon's useful life.
ON A BUDGET?
If $1500 is a little more than your budget can handle, we can recommend some lower-priced alternatives. The Okidata 92 printer, which retails for $595, offers 80 columns (132 in condensed mode) and prints at 160 cps. Again, it's effectively much faster than the Epson FX-80 (also rated at 160 cps), because of the faster paper feed. The 92 also has a very nice correspondence-quality mode.
In terms of interfaces and printer buffers, we still strongly recommend the ATR-8000,despite the expense. In the application noted above, the ATR was used only as a printer interface and spooler, but it can be expanded in so many different ways that it is an excellent investment for your system. If you cannot afford the 64K model ($500), get the 16K model ($ 350) and upgrade it when you can.
We hope you enjoyed this month's column. Please write to "Beyond the Basics" (formerly "Systems Guide"), in care of ANTIC, if you have any questions or suggestions. We enjoy hearing from you, and have learned a great deal from your letters. Please don't be offended if it takes us some time to answer; it's difficult to respond to all of the mail that comes in, but we do try.
David and Sandy Small are professional programmers who work extensively with Atari computers and Atari-compatible peripherals and software to produce commercial software for the Atari. In Beyond the Basics (formerly Systems Guide), they share discoveries, insights, experiences and secrets of professional programming that should be of interest to others who are at or near their level of practice.