For New Readers – What are these things called “Atari ST’s”?


This is the third issue of Low Res and we haven’t even come up with a newbie guide to all the different things we’re talking about with gay abandon. We might know of the subtle distinctions between an STFM and a Falcon 030, but they might not be able to spot the difference from an Oric and a CT60, even if their life depended on answering questions in a tough quiz based on the articles in Low Res.

So to try to make good some of that knowledge deficit and save the endangered newbie tangled up in an unlikely hostage situation, here’s a few notes for the benefit of the one new reader who might have stumbled across Low Res by accident. They may not be familiar with the different generations of Atari hardware and the model numbers we throw around in our articles. This is a very incomplete guide and it tends to stick to the 16 bit ST family of hardware.

Most of them sort of look like this.

‘ST’ is generally accepted to stand for ‘Sixteen thirty-two.’ as in the 32 bit nature of the 68000, with the 16-bit access path.

Atari ST, STF or STFM1985-87, 8 MHZ Motorola 68000, up to 4 MB RAM, 512 colour palette, of which 16 on screen at any one time officially, software hacks to get that up to all 512 then 4096 colours. No hardware scrolling, no blitter, a YM2149 basic sound chip with 3 sound channels, plus one noise channel. Seen generally in a single case design plugged into separate monitor, integral 3.5 inch floppy disk drive, Hard drive is separate external extra ‘ASCI’ non-standard add-on. Is the most common variant around and has the most support with the majority of games and applications written for it.

Atari STE1989, 8 MHZ Motorola 68000, up to 4 MB RAM, 4096 colour palette, of which 16 on screen at any one time officially, software hacks get up to 19200 out of 32768 (12-bit mode). Hardware scrolling supported, graphic co-processor ‘blitter’ on board, DMA 8-bit stereo sound with maximum 50 KHZ digisound replay. This is in addition to the YM2149 and both can be mixed together. Form factor as for STFM. Has stereo sound output and enhanced joypad  ports on the left hand of the machine too. Identical in appearance to the STFM apart from the badge on the case. Is pretty common, does not have so many games or applications written for it. Most developers ignored most of the extra features. A few games and rather more demos were (are still) being written for it in its later life which do take full advantage of the enhanced hardware.

This is a bare description which does not go into detail, but even this cursory view shows that the ‘E’ in STE stands for ‘enhanced’.

Atari TT 1989, 32 MHZ Motorola 68030, Expandable fast-RAM, 4096 colour palette, several more screen modes than base ST including 16 colour VGA and a very high resolution mono mode. More hacks possible and being explored. Sound hardware identical to STE, no blitter. Internal expansion port and generally with a hard drive fitted. Is high-end member of ST family. Is found as separate low profile case and detachable better quality keyboard. A nice machine, rarer than the rather common ST and higher priced accordingly. Tends to be under-explored because of this.

Atari TT - A very tasty looking beast.

Mega-STE 1991, an improved STE in TT-style case, also 16 MHZ 68000. Internal expansion port included, generally comes with a hard drive. Improved operating system TOS v2.05 or 2.06. Otherwise as for STE.

Falcon 030 1993, the final official production machine from Atari. 16 MHZ Motorola 68030, up to 14 MB RAM, 65536 ‘Truecolor’ mode, also includes 256 colour VGA support from 262144 colour palette. Many hacks to increase this. Blitter included, considered to be marginal to system as a whole. Massively improved sound with 16-bit 8 channel audio supported. This has been stretched. Still retains YM2149 for backward compatibility. Notable for versatile Motorola 56001 DSP (digital signal processing) chip. Usefully has internal 2.5 inch IDE hard drive connector, comes with hard drive. Also industry standard SCSI 2 external drive port. Has internal non-standard expansion port. Should have had TT or Mega STE form factor but crammed back into ST/STE style single case (with different coloured keys to tell it apart) as Atari in a hurry and dropping the ball fast at that stage.

Falcon 030 - A wolf in an old sheep's clothing.

There are a fair number of applications of all kinds to make use of the Falcon’s unique features, but not as many as we would have liked due to the early failure of official support and most development being of a spare time nature from then on. Falcon’s were not manufactured for a long time and are quite rare and tend to attract high prices on certain auction sites.

Falcon also tends to attract a lot of hardware upgrades due to perceived omissions on Atari’s part. Ultimate boost comes in the form of CT60 or CT63 which adds a massive Motorola 68060 cpu on a daughterboard with up to 512 MB of modern RAM. Other graphics enhancements are in the pipeline for this system.

Okay, that is a very bare and basic guide which does not go into all the details, and does not cover any of the Atari clones like Medusa or Milan. You will find the majority of articles do concern the machines described above, so there is enough to go on for now. (If someone else wants to go into more detail on the many Atari consoles and their 8-bit computers, then please go ahead!)

Atari Historical Society


5 Responses to “For New Readers – What are these things called “Atari ST’s”?”

  1. calimero Says:

    If STE have 4 audio channel than Falcon have 16 😉 (8 stereo)

  2. MrHabaki Says:

    Falcon rules 😉

    Love the ST/TT, too… but mp3 playback out of the box on a 1992 system rocks!

  3. CiH Says:

    Calimero, as we all know, people have “convinced” the Falcon to replay up to 32 channels on some sound tracker programs 😉

  4. gemini8 Says:

    You might want to add the Mega ST computer series which basically hold an ST with another form factor, external keyboard and slightly upgraded features such as Mega Bus and a standard Blitter chip.

  5. CiH Says:

    That is a good point, the Mega ST was a distinctive family member. I tended to concentrate on the machines with larger hardware differences, such as the STE distinct from STFM, STE from TT and so on. If I do a revision of this article, then yes, the Mega ST ought to be included.

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