Reviewer: Jack Schofield
Magazine: Your Computer
Date: June 1985
WHATEVER ELSE you might say about the new Atari 130XE, it's great value. You get a 6502-based micro with 128K of Ram, 11 graphics modes, five text modes, four sound channels, a very good full-stroke keyboard and a penny change from £170. That's £60 less than the official price of a slow, less stylish Commodore 64, and half the going rate for a fast 32K BBC Model B.
Fortuitously, Atari has ended up with the best of both worlds. The customised chips, which provided sprites, a 256-colour video display and sound in the days when firmware had to compensate for the very high price of Ram allow good graphics in only 8K of screen Ram, but you also have more memory than you know what to do with.
The 130XE has two standard joystick ports, a cartridge slot, a reset key, an on/off switch with red indicator LED, a serial bus, an expansion port and a composite video monitor output as well as a TV connector.
On the serial I/O port, SIO, you can hang a daisy-chain of existing peripherals including the 1050 disc drive, various printers, touch tablets, track-balls, light pens, the dedicated Atari stereo cassette deck. - ordinary recorders not allowed - and the Minor Miracles WS-2000 modem. Compared with the cost of expanding an Electron or Spectrum Plus to a similar level, the Atari 130XE is actually cheaper.
Furthermore, matching 3.5in. - not non-standard 3in. - floppies, cheap hard discs and printers are claimed to be on the way.
The 400/600XL/800 compatibility also allows the new Atari to run a vast range of existing software and peripherals. The machine comes with a brief list of about 800 programs already available.
I tried a number of games on the 130XE, from K-Razy Shoot-Out, a 1981 classic version of Berzerk, through Zaxxon and Pole Position to Drop Zone, a sparkling new rewrite of Defender. Everything ran correctly, though an XL Translator program is needed for some early software.
The most noticeable difference from the previous Ataris is that the video display signal is much stronger. It produces an image that is sharper and has much higher contrast. This is a particular benefit with the AtariWriter word processor and VisiCalc spreadsheet. However, it is less kind to the cruder graphics of some older games, including Defender.
All round, the 130XE is smart and well made, but there are a few points I don't like. For example, the function keys are not as handy on the top as they were, on the 800XL, down the side.
Also the top right f-key is a system reset or "warm start". This is unprotected, which is going to cause some people anguish with a few programs outside Basic.
The "enhanced" cartridge slot has unprotected plastic pins which are going to get broken off. As the slot is in the back, instead of on top, you may have to lift the machine to slot a cartridge in. The real reason it has been taken round the back is to save on the expansion port. This used to be a full pin-out from the mother board. Now the expansion port is just the cartridge slot plus the missing lines to a small extra port. These points may seem trivial, but the Atari 800 and 800XL were in these respects better designed.
The only other real limitation of the new machine is the Atari Basic. Although this is friendly, offers syntax checking on line entry, and was considered very good when it first came out, it was written in 1979. Atari has fitted the latest further-debugged Revision C Rom of the original, but people now deserve a faster language with better control structures, such as Optimized Systems Software's Basic XL. OSS wrote Atari Basic, and its compatible XL upgrade should have been built into the machine instead.
Optional programming languages include Microsoft Basic, an excellent Logo, Forth (various), Pilot, Tiny C, C-65 and the most brilliant language of all, Action! This is a highly-structured, compiled language which is somewhat like C crossed with Pascal, is almost as easy to write as Basic, but runs almost as fast as assembler.
When it comes to the Atari's extra memory, you have to appreciate that you can't simply bung a extra 64K of Ram chips into a 64K machine. The 6502C can only address 64K, so when you allow for the Basic, what you have is under 38K - roughly the same as the Commodore 64 and Spectrum.
To make the extra Ram accessible, Atari has added a new custom chip called Freddy, as memory manager. The extra Ram is available in 16K pages which are accessed according to the formula
POKE 54017,193 + 4*ADDRESS + 16*MODE
That won't scare readers of this magazine, but it will bother Uncle Ernie who thinks Print Fre(0) should give 131,072 bytes free.
So far there is no commercial software that can use the extra Ram. Atari is planning to launch an enhanced version of its popular word processor, AtariWriter Plus, and more serious software to utilise it. Examples are a productivity range of iWord, iCalc, iBase, iPlot and iLan, a home finance program Silent Butler, and a do-everything wonder package modestly called Infinity. Networking is planned. I wouldn't expect any of these Real Soon.
However, these developments show that Atari is now heading in a different direction - towards the more serious, more experienced user, and away from its reliance on games. Of course this is also the direction of Commodore, which has built CP/M into its forthcoming C128 replacement for the antiquated C64, and Amstrad, with the repackaged 664.
Atari has also produced a new disc operating system, DOS 2.5. This has the power and ease of use of DOS 2 and none of the disadvantages of the enhanced-density DOS 3. It comes with a "silicon disc" program which allows spare Ram to be used as a virtual disc drive, greatly speeding up disc operations. .
- The Atari 130XE is a well designed, well finished micro.
- Being 800XL compatible, the 130XE is well supported with existing software and peripherals.
- The Atari 130XE costs £169.99 inc VAT. On its price/performance ratio - bits per buck - and facilities this makes it, in theory, better value than any other machine on the market. In practice it will be a while before the extra Ram is exploited by any commercial software.
- In the long term, the Atari 130XE will appeal to those well-heeled buffs who want to do word processing and other serious stuff.