Archive for the ‘Hardware’ Category

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

May 15, 2010

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!)


Links:
Atari Historical Society

UltraSatan in use, some quirks and workarounds.

December 28, 2009

Many of you lucky readers will have recently taken delivery of a brand new UltraSatan SD-card drive for your ST. Quite a lot of people will have also had the pleasure of owning the predecessor SatanDisk for some time before. Both of these devices were the modern answer to a lot of people’s ST bulk storage prayers. Of course the path to storage heaven was not a completely smooth one. It’s not really debris-strewn but there might be the odd pebble of discontent that you may stub your toe on. Here are a few of mine, but fortunately there are workarounds for these as I’ll explain.

It is worth noting at this point that I am using a very specific configuration for my UltraSatan enjoyment. This is an early series STe, Tos 1.06 (the version with the low res booting bug), I also have Tos 2.06 and MagiC as bootable options to give me enhanced functionality on the desktop too. It is expanded to the full amount of 4mb RAM. There are no other modifications that have been done to the machine. The experiences I’m describing may be unique to my set-up. Other people’s mileage may well vary. A preliminary run with Felice’s Mega STe with his UltraSatan didn’t generate these issues at all, for example.

Okay, so let’s tell you a bit more about these sinners!

For utility software in general,  where there were hassles, these tended to be with programs with some kind of custom  non-GEM  file selector. The elderly TCB Tracker comes to mind as being a  pig, sometimes  co-operating,   sometimes  not. Most people won’t care too much but I did actually (de)compose some stuff with it, so it’s of interest to me to listen to some very old tunes occasionally.  MusicMon,  in  its  early  1.0 incarnation  did  not want to talk to the SatanDisk or UltraSatan at all. Again this is not the first choice of a lot of people, but this old version has served some very specific purposes for me and has been used as a composing tool (or should that read “composting tool”?)

I also fancied  some real C64 SID-sounds on my STe, so Cream’s Playsid V2 was the logical choice. This  worked up to the point where it locked up on the file selector after the first tune was played, sometimes even before that.  There is an easy workaround for this though,  where you can install .PSD files to the application and run it just fine by clicking on the soundfile. But what about the rest of these things that are bugging me? Patience, all will be revealed soon enough.

For something different, I ventured into the world of using cunning programming tricks to display high-colour pictures in a fair resemblance of their  high-coloured glory.  For this, we have Douglas Little to thank. My first attempt was with the  Targa (TGA) viewer provided with Apex Media,  which has been shown to work just fine  on  an STe/floppy combination before.  With both the SatanDisk and UltraSatan, it appeared to hang without trying to convert and display a targeted picture. There was no difference between using drag and drop Tos 2.06, and the more laborious command-line to .ttp for Tos 1.06.  This is possibly another casualty  of  the  non-gem file  handling?   However,   my  second  attempt  with  the  more specifically written for the ST family picture viewer ‘Photochrome’ worked fine, but then  again, this program  did  revert  to a recognizable GEM  menu  when  loading  in something.

There was a conclusive workaround which sorted out all the issues described above. Very simply, having the full 4mb allows you to indulge in setting up a ramdisk. The Hybris reset-proof version did the job for me. Once this is installed on the desktop, you copy the difficult program or picture files into the ramdisk and run as normal, job done! Remembering of course if you are doing any work you would like to keep, to copy the files across to the more permanent storage before you switch the machine off!

We’re moving onto games and demos now. There were some issues raised which I’ll go into now. For example, some  of the D-Bug conversations tended to be happier and not produce a row of bombs if  a large chunk of memory was not occupied with a Tos  2.06  image file  to  start  with.  So  I tended to run these under the  plain  Tos  1.06 environment.  From reading around,  I discovered this may be a bigger memory issue,  as the Falcon 030 aimed portovers apparently need as much of the 4mb they  can get their hands on?  I hadn’t got around to tweaking the HD-Driver memory useage to minimum as yet as that hasn’t come up as a major problem so far.

I did have issues with a handful of demos. The most prominent was with ‘Breath’, the Mystic  Bytes Error in Line 1999 entry. this freezes or stops after the first static picture, although the music plays on. The other demo which behaved in an inconclusive manner was ‘Hallucination’ by the Reservoir Gods. This drifted to a stop prematurely. Once again, Hybris ramdisk came to the rescue, enabling both of these demos to run through perfectly once they were copied there.

Having a Tos 2.06 Rom image in memory can cause problems of its own. The Pacemaker demo by Paradox was found to really   need to run in Tos 1.06 mode,  otherwise it lost the blue part of the palette!

Most other things that I tried seem to be just fine with SatanDisk and UltraSatan. Having a SDHC card in the latter case seems to make no difference. I was unable to reproduce these issues on the sole other machine that I’ve tried so far, which was Felice’s Mega STe.

As always, this is an open format publication with comments enabled, so let’s hear about any experiences you might have had with the UltraSatan and your solutions to any issues.

CiH, for Low Res Mag, October 2009, written live from the Alt Party!

Using joypads on the Atari ST

August 30, 2009

The modern gamer is used to joypads in one form or another. The impact of 3rd generation video game consoles like the NES or the Sega Master System is tremendous. More importantly many younger gamers don’t even remember the classical joystick with switches. We oldtimers prefer them but regardless if you ask a seasoned gamer or an occasional gamer. If this person is not already used to oldschool joysticks, most of them dislike classic joysticks and will ask you for a joypad of some sort for playing on your ST.

Playing on the PC with an emulator makes the situation very easy. Just buy a suitable gamepad with USB connector, plug it in and any emulator worth to be used for gaming will allow you to use it. Starting from 7€ up to any price imaginable, you can find plenty of suitable joypads in your preferred computer hardware store.

But how about using joypads if you want to enjoy the games on the real hardware? How to connect joypads to the ST instead of the classic joystick?

The first solution is to get an old Sega gamepad for the Sega Master System. Those simply work by plugging into the ST’s joystick ports.

From Atari themselves there are at least 2 gamepads available which are suitable for use with the ST.

Atari Jaguar Powerpad Controller

Atari Jaguar Powerpad Controller

The first solution is the Jaguar powerpad. If you have an Atari STE or a Falcon 030, you can plug them into the extended joystick ports and they will work. However this solution has a drawback. Any software or game which wants to use them this way has to provide a special code to read the new ports. If the game does not support the STE extended joystick ports with Jagpads you are out of luck. This also applies if your ST simply does not have the Extended Joystick Ports, like the Mega STE or any STFM.

To make use of the Jaguar powerpad on any ST and with any ST game with joystick support one has to find a way to connect the jagpad to the ordinary joystick port. However neither plugs do fit nor are the joysticks of the same electrical construction. Luckily it is relatively easy to achieve a proper signal mapping. Take note that all fire buttons will act as the same fire button. It is impossible to map them to other functions.

Schematic for Jagpad to Atari ST adaptor

Schematic for Jagpad to Atari ST adaptor

The Atari Extended Joystick Port FAQ  [1] includes a entirely passive circuit which allows to connect the jagpad to a standard joystick port. Building this adaptor will give you the benefit to use the Jaguar powerpad on all computer systems with the DB9 connector.

World of Atari at [2] seems to have professional Jagpad adaptors for sale as well.

The second solution from Atari is the CX78 Joypad. This special joypad was marketed in Europe together with the ill-fated 7800 console but it basically works with the Atari ST as well. However it has a drawback. The pin usage on the CX78 joypad is slightly different to take care of the 2 separate firebuttons of the 7800. These signals confuse the IKBD, a small microcontroller in the Atari ST which processes all keyboard and joystick input. As soon as you plug a CX78 into an Atari ST, the machine will show strange behaviour on keyboard input. For some games, esp. selfbooting ones which do not require keyboard interaction, this is ok but for others, like the notorious Automation menus, you might end up to be unable to launch your game with the CX78 plugged in.

Atari CX78 joypad

Atari CX78 joypad

This problem could be solved by building an adaptor which will leave the non-standard signals unconnected from the ST, e.q. just routing GND, the 4 directions and the combined (or one) fire buttons to the ST.

A professional solution for connecting a joypad is also available. The JeST device allows to connect Playstation joypads to the ST and other old computer systems with the DB9 joystick standard. However I didn’t receive mine yet so I can’t comment on its special features yet. A future article will deal with the JeST. In the meantime, you can find out more at [3] or alternatively at Atari-Forum.com

This device should be handy for all gamers who also have a Playstation at home which gets as much use as the Atari ST.

A neat trick is to take a non functional old joystick and a working USB joypad. Even if the USB part is defective, the mein push buttons of the pad are likely to be intact. Just solder some cables from the USB pad internals to the appropriate contacts on the ST joystick. If done properly, it should simply work as intended, bypassing the buttons of the old joystick and using the buttons from the gamepad instead.

As a last resort you can build your own because any joystick or joypad. On the ST this is simply a set of 5 switches which ground the control lines for the four directions or the fire button if pressed.

Also I’ve seen hacked MSX joypads rewired to work with an Atari 800XL so basically this should be possible to do for the Atari ST aswell.

Be creative – there are many ways to connect a joypad instead of a classic joystick!


Links

  1. The Atari Enhanced Joystick Ports FAQ
  2. World of Atari
  3. Logicsays