The Atari as a “workhorse” system in 2012

Posted: July 10, 2012 in Good Bloggy!
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,


So, as it has come to moving house (albeit only accross campus), I was faced with the startling realisation of just how many DVDs I have. To save space, I long ago decided to discard keeping the individual cases in favour of bulk folders – with the benefit that several hundred DVDs now fit on half a shelf. However, it was only when running through them, making sure that everything was present and correct for moving, just how difficult it was to find anything in paticular. There was no system. Time then, to undertake that most loathed of tasks, creating a digital catalogue system for my movie collection, yay! Just like being back on the first year of my Software Engineering course many years ago…

To make the task a little more paletable I decided to create and run it on the TT, using Phoenix. And this made me think just how much I do use my TT as a daily system. Most of my university assignments are written on it, using Papyrus X. Scanning and image editing for same asignemnts is done using GT-Look2 and Photoline. Graphing of data is handled by 3D-Calc, and Phoenix handles my inevitable database requirements. So, how does a standard Single TOS setup on a stock TT meet those requirements in 2012?

Surprisingly well! A 19 year old Atari can actually be more responsive and simpler to use, and shouldn’t be overlooked for offline work. I wasn’t intending to write this, but I’ll take the opportunity here to consolidate several posts I was goign to make about application software into a series of mini reivews to try and convey what it’s like using this system for typical undergraduate work.

Word Processing: Papyrus X

Papyrus X hasn’t been widely embraced by the Anglophone community, which is a shame, as it is not only by a clear mile the most modern and professional word-processor on the Atari, but in many ways is more usable and powerful than it’s counterparts on the PC. The two deciding factors for me were the in-line spell checking, like in AbiWord or MS Word, which makes finding and correcting errors a whole world easier than in older version, but also the excellent file compatability, being able to save and read MS Word 97-2003 *.DOC format and *.RTF format, amongst a host of others.

It works beautifully with NVDI to give good printer and TrueType support, so I can port over specialised fonts, whilst table creation and editing abilities are strong. Overall the interface is cleaner and less cluttered, and the control over formatting and page layout  far more precise and managable than in MS Word.

All in all, I found I could create a document more quickly, and with a more professional layout on the Atari with Papyrus than on my PC with MS Word or OpenOffice. The biggest downside is the lack of dedicated drivers in NVDI for my Samsung laser. Although it can print well using LaserJet drivers, NVDI does not recognise the duplexing unit in the printer, so cannot take advantage of double sided printing.

Image Scanning/Editing: GT-Look2 and Photoline

Image scanning is done using an Epson GT-6500 SCSI scanner. Dedicated Atari driver support is available using GT-Look2 scanning software, with files imported into Photoline for editing.

Photoline is outstanding software, and has the very rare advantage of making fully supporting the 256 colour TT-Low resolution, givig better ability to work with complex images. Whilst not as powerful as fully loaded moern version of PhotoShop, it has all the most commonly used tools, a large number of configurable filters, brushes, sponges and stamps. Anyone who has used GIMP should be right at home. As well as university assignemnts I imported a load of digital photos from my EOS DSLR and was able to do the normal cleaning up I would have done in GIMP on Photoline.

The real drawback here is not witht he software, which is very professional – especially given it’s 1997 vintage, but with the TT stock hardware. Even taking advantage of TT low doesn’t compensate for the lack of a decent default screen resolution on the TT. A modern graphics card solution is desperately needed, such as a VME to PCI adapter to take advntage of the Radeon 8xxx drivers now out there.

The fast TT-RAM makes handling images of XGA size or larger simple enough, but the the lack of CPU horsepower is evident. I’m not sure wether or not Photoline takes advantage of the TT’s FPU (math co-processor), but either way certain operations, such as reducing colour depth and introducing a complex dither pattern brought about some foot-tapping. On the plus side, Photoline loads in a fractionof the time GIMP does, so for quick simple edits of a single image, it is still far preferable to waiting for the painfully slow booting of Windows and Gimp, compared to the virtually instant-on of Single TOS, and few seconds to boot Photoline (about 5 sec).

Graphing and spreadsheets: 3D-Calc

3D-Calc is, like Excel, a spreadsheet where each file can have multiple sheets or layers. Like excel it also has the abilty to graph datasets, which is where it is of use to me. I find the graphing feature of 3D-Calc far more user-friendly than Excel, and I am able to produce and export graphs for use in Papyrus (or for use in PowerPoint) more quickly and with less fuss. The functionalty is very flexible, able to give 2D or 3D graphs, in a all the usual falvours (bar, line, pie, scatter etc.). Graphs can be exported as Atari *.IMG or Windows compatible *.PCX.

The only drawback is that graphs can only be in monochrome, tough multiple patterns are supported, and that only the standard system font is used in graph labelling.

Databases: Phoenix

Phoenix is a relational database system with a full graphical interface that gives a nod in the direction of MS Access. It i simple and intuitive, so is possible for a new users to develop a basic database (such as my DVD catalogue) without having to resort to the help system, and is intuitive for anyone familiar with the basic principles of database design. It is also powerful, with support for secure, multi-user access over a network.

Developing masks (a front end user interface) for a database project is also extremely simple and flexible, and again anyone familiar with Access would be right at home, albeit a bit less frustrated as the designer application is rather more intuitive.

The downside is that Phoenix onlz allows projects to be saved in either its own format or the extremely restrictive ASCII database format. Not even the otherwise ubiqutous D-Base III makes an appearence. This is suprising given that Phoenix is relatively new, dating from 2007. Papyrus X, by contrast, supports a wealth of formats, making Phoenix’s restrictve export options seem all the more “WTF?!”

The Bad

I specifically mentioned earlier the use for the Atari for offline tasks, and there is a reason for that. Working online with the Atari is, frankly, an exercise in familiarising oneself with the intricacies of network protocols, and the art of compromise. Getting the hardware for Ethernet support on an Atari is simple. The NE2000 ethernet controller has established itself as a sort of de-facto standard for the Atari platform since the early 2000s, and it has appeared in a variety of forms over the years.

However, the software is another matter. In all it’s long life, TOS has never had a TCP/IP stack that is either comprehensive or simple to use. STING has no DHCP support, and is only partially GEM based, most configuation taking place through manual editing of configuartion files. Setting up STING is (contrary to popular belief) perfectly possible – its just bloody difficult.

Web browsing is particularly problematic. I do feel that this is the biggest challenge the platform faces, and I hope that when time and experience allow my programming skills to be dusted off and brought up to date that this is where I can be of most use. My dream for the Atari, is to help develop a new IP stack for Single TOS with DHCP and IPv6 support that is fully GEM configurable and even has a GEM installer. Wouldn’t that be awesome?! 😀

PS: – This post was written on the TT in good old Marcel, before being uploaded to WordPress with an IBM ThinkPad 😉

  1. Dal says:

    This is an excellent overview of how an Atari can ally be used for the bread & butter stuff even today. Thank you very much – inspiring!

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