Retro Computer Adventures with Atari ST

in Retro Technology3 months ago

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I thought I would cover the upgrades I have been making to my Atari ST machines. Well, I say machine(s) plural, but lately I have been focusing on my Atari 520STFM, and I will explain why as we go.

In summary, these are the highlights:

  • RAM upgrade
  • Hard drive
  • Internal and External Gotek
  • USB
  • Ethernet
  • VGA
  • Wifi

Atari ST History

Taken from the Retro Computer and Video Games Timeline:

The Atari ST was first sub-$1,000 16-bit consumer computer to market, using the 6-year-old Motorola 68000 and the first color mass-market graphical user interface, GEM.

Strangely, in another parallel universe, the first could have been the Sinclair QL in 1984, except they went with the 8-Bit variant of the 68000, and released a buggy, deficient machine, then got swallowed by Amstrad.

Although many retrospectives point out Atari’s own bungled launch, and the bad reputation of Atari and the Tramiel family at the time, due to the first-mover advantage and competitive price, the Atari ST line was quite successful in the home and business across many niche markets, selling over 2.2 million units. In fact, the ST is often referred to as the “Jackintosh” because of comparisons to the far more expensive and less capable contemporary Apple Mac splashily launched a year earlier.

Our History with the ST

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Computer + Video Games, September 1987

In 1988 my big brother saved up his first wages and bought an Atari ST when the price had come down to a more affordable price point (£299), but also at the time he bought the package had been consolidated into a more user-friendly form factor. I'd have been around 14 years old, and at the time our computer was the Sinclair (really Amstrad at this point) Spectrum 128+2, a machine only launched itself in 1986.

As with the rest of the Atari ST range, the machine had a 16-bit 68000 processor, setting it above the computer market of the era, and even the much-trumpeted NES and Sega Master System that were getting all the press at the time.

Unlike earlier ST models, the 520 STFM had a built-in power supply, built-in floppy drive (F in the name), and had a TV modulator (the M in the name). The 520 relates to the 512KB of RAM, as a nod to the Atari XE range, and ST apparently refers to "Sixteen/Thirtytwo" due to the Motorola 68000 architecture of 16-bits for the external bus and 32-bit internally.

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This much power and performance for such a low price was groundbreaking, but after a while many people overlooked the ST in favour of the rapidly-discounted Commodore Amiga.

The problem was in Atari's rush to get their machine to market and build to a low price, they built a competent but low-frills machine. Unlike the Amiga with it's blitter, greater palette, and amazing sound, the ST relied on the CPU to do all the heavy lifting and sound was provided by an aging Yamaha chip that had already seemed passe.

Adding some features into the STE (for Enhanced) model was too little, too late. Despite that, the Atari ST range sold over 2 million units, which is hardly a failure, and is still much loved even now.

Still, the simplicity was and is something that very much appeals to me. I enjoy a machine I can understand inside and out, and I think the 16-bit era was when the ability to do so was vastly eroded.

My Machines

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I have a 520STFM, a 1040STF, and a 520STE. The 520STFM is the workhorse and is there to match the one we had in our teens, the 1040STF will be paired with the high-resolution mono Atari monitor that is hopefully still on the way (gulp), and the STE is for testing code that enables the blitter.

Even in my relatively spacious Canadian home I now can't have all my machines set up simultaneously, but with our forthcoming move back to England, I will have even less space so I imagine the STE and the 1040 will go into some kind of storage. We will see.

Wifi

Other than Gotek drives (see below), getting the Wifi modem from The Backoffice was my first purchase for these machines.

The device is essentially the same as what I make for the C64, except it handily fits right onto the Atari ST and has a 3d printed case. This, along with Taz or other terminal software, allows you to connect to Bulletin Boards and join the social networking of the 1980s - TODAY!

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RAM upgrade

My 1040 ST has 1mb of built-in RAM but my 520STFM came with a memory upgrade daughter board fitted. That board didn't work until I discovered it is a very loose fit - to the point where any knocks on the case will make it very much invisible to the system.

It now works and I hope I will be able to expand the memory further with some chips I purchased from a seller on fleabay!

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Hard drive

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There are many hard drive solutions for the Atari ST, and this is not necessarily the best one, but it was available and is generally well-regarded. It's the ACSI2STM, and allows you to insert an SD card with either an ISO image or formatted correctly to present a hard disk to the ST.

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It does need drivers to be loaded, and I bought the commercial software so I could not only read from the drive but also partition it with HDDRutil.

Which leads me to my other ST hard drive solution that I previously could not get to work. Now I have the commercial drivers, perhaps my (unfortunately named) SATAndisk will be visible on boot?

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External Floppy and Internal and External Gotek

As I mentioned earlier, adding a Gotek is not just a great "quality of life" addition to these machines, for me it was essential because of my three Atari ST units, only the STE has a working floppy drive.

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I did buy an external floppy drive (a Cumana) so I am not entirely stuck using USB sticks, but with an external Gotek lead I now have both internal and external Goteks.

One shame is the ACSI2STM doesn't exactly fit when an external floppy is in use due to the connector being so close to the external floppy cable.
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USB and Ethernet

Quite a surprising one, the NetUSBee allows you to use USB devices on your Atari ST!

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Naturally, this is convenient just for using things like USB mice (of course each device needs a driver), but you can also use USB storage!

If that was not enough, it comes with an Ethernet port, allowing you to transfer files using a web browser interface or to (primitively) browse the web if you get a TCP/IP stack running.

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What Next?

As mentioned, I would like to increase the RAM, partly because loading USB drivers takes up precious memory. Although the STFM has soldered in ROM, I would also like to upgrade the TOS to a more recent version, or even have switchable ROM.

These are machines for running my code on original hardware, so everything I do I would like to be temporary or at least have the ability to switch the upgrade off, but I am pretty happy with where I am at with this guy now.

Sort:  

Interesting story. This is a real practical computer archeology

Thank you 🙏

 3 months ago 

I kinda want to see this in action.

!discovery 47

I'll put a little video together :)


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