Atari ST: First impressions

A few months ago I got an Atari 1040 STF. I knew nothing about it when I got it, except that it was a similar to the Amiga.

Atari 1040 STF

The Atari ST, the Amiga and the Macintosh were computers released in the mid 80’s, all of them based on the Motorola 68k, and all of them came with a windows-based GUI.  This was a revolutionary step compared to the 8-bit machines which were CLI text-driven.

The base “ST” model includes:

  • 8 Mhz Motorola 68000 CPU
  • Yamaha YM2149 3-voice square-wave plus 1-voice white noise (mono)
  • 512Kb or 1Mb RAM (520 vs 1040 models)
  • 3 video modes:
    • 320 x 200 x 16 colors (from a 512 color palette).
    • 640 x 200 x 4 colors (from a 512 color palette)
    • 640 x 400 x 2 colors (I believe this is only B/W)
  • Midi In / Out: Apparently a killer feature for musicians.

Compared with the 8-bit home computers like the C64/C128, the Atari ST is a good improvement. From only 64K/128K RAM to 512K (or 1024K) RAM, an 8 Mhz CPU (vs. 1 or 2 Mhz) and Midi. But there are no hardware sprites (no blitter), and the music is chiptune, like in the C64. The C64 SID chip might be even better. The video modes are OKish. Having a 320×200 @ 16 colors from a palette of 512 is nice, but not that impressive. It is worth noting that the Atari ST (like the Amiga and the Macintosh) don’t have “text video modes”, they only have “graphic” ones.

The ST line

“Atari ST” is both the a line of computers (eg:  like the “Amiga” line of computers), but also a model (eg: like Amiga 500). The Atari ST line includes the: ST, STF / STFM, STE, TTs and Falcon.

  • ST: Meaning Sixteen / Thirty-two, the 68000 external bus width / internals.  Released in June 1985.
  • STF: Like the ST, but with a Floppy drive built-in. Released in 1986.
  • STFM: Like the STF, but with a RF Modulator built-in (useful to connect to a TV). Released in 1986.
  • STE: The “E” for Enhanced: Better sound chip, a 4096 color palette, a blitter and perhaps something more. Released in 1989.
  • Mega STE / TT: A business version of the STE. Released in 1991. TT means Thirty-two / Thirty-two.
  • Falcon: Even better than the STE. Supposedly the Amiga killer. Released in 1992.

Peculiarities

Back in the day you needed two different monitors to view all supported video modes. But you couldn’t plug them at the same time. Either you have a monitor for the High-res mode (640×400 @ 2 colors), or another one for the Low-res (320×200 @ 16 colors) and Med-res (640×200 @ 4 colors). There wasn’t a monitor to support all 3 resolutions.

The Atari SM124. A high-res only monitor

Nowadays, it is possible to have one monitor for all resolutions. You basically need:

Atari 1040 STF + Modulator, Multisync monitor and cable. Supports all 3 video modes.

The other peculiarity is the location of the joystick / mouse ports. Imagine the worst possible place to put them… well, you are not even close. They are placed under the machine. Apparently the basic ST model has them at the right, like in the Atari 800 and the C64. But, in the STF, in order to make space for the floppy drive and the power supply they redesigned the layout and place the joystick ports under the case.

I guess a committee decided to place the joystick ports under the case.

Nice surprises

When I get old stuff, in particular old computers, I’m interested in its history.  Was it used for gaming, composing music, development… or not used at all? Who used it? Was the machine upgraded? Using official kits, or 3rd party add-ons? When was the last time it was used? In which country / city was used? Does the diskettes (or hard drives) contain source code and/or binaries made by the original owner? Etc.

Atari 1040 STF with modulator, upgraded to 2.5Mb RAM and some with dual TOS + battery.

In this case, I believe, the machine belonged to an amateur (or professional) musician + developer. The machine came with many programming books (C and assembly) and with software to compose music (including Steinberg’s Cubase). The machine was upgraded to 2.5Mb of RAM using a 3rd-party kit. A kind of dual TOS is installed (but only one TOS is being used) with a (dead) battery.  And the modulator was installed as well.

Books + software about programming and music. I love old book!

Maintenance

Like any old machine, specially when it was left unused for 20+ years, I did some minimum maintenance:

  • Floppy drive: was not working. Cleaning the header + adjust a lose wire/spring did the trick.
  • Power supply: I recapped it.
  • Keyboard: removed all keys + cleaning.
Clean keyboard
Recapped power supply

Gaming

I only tried a few Atari ST games, and so far, the one that I liked most is Super Sprint.

You can download a big collection of ST games from here:

If you want to burn floppies from floppy images, pay attention to the image extension:

  • “.st”: Ideal to burn floppy images. Mostly cracked / unprotected games.
  • “.stx”: Original floppy image, including protected games. Not possible to burn floppies with these images. But emulators support them.

And in order to burn ST floppy images you should use this tool: http://atari.8bitchip.info/floimgd.php

Transferring ST images to a floppy disk

And the emulator that I’m using is Hatari. Works on Mac, Linux and Windows.

Demoscene

The Atari ST has a active demoscene. Not the most active one, but not dead either. I would say somewhere in the middle between the C64 (the most active one?) and the IBM PCjr (almost non-existent demoscene).

I haven’t watched that many demos yet. So far, this is the one that I liked most. And it targets the 520 ST, the most limited of the Atari ST line:

The Atari-Forum has a subforum to discuss demos, and programming.

Development toolchains

So, now that the computer is running, the important question is, what are the available developer tools. The machine was powerful enough to host native C / assembler compilers. But I’m mostly interested in cross-development. So far, this is what I found:

  • Vasm: A nice cross-assembler
  • Vbcc: A C cross-compiler
  • gcc: Gcc 8.2 or gcc 4.6.4 + needed binutils. No further introduction is needed.

Most probably I’ll start using Vasm + Vbcc. Too early to say whether they are what I need.

Final thoughts

Yes, go and get one Atari ST for this holidays!

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