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Top 10 Atari Tips

Any readers who also peruse Atari World magazine will appreciate that I have had to give up the editorship due to poor health. Unfortunately, after 20 issues, my regular Sound On Sound column has had to follow suit. So, all the best for your Atari future, and although I may be departing from this section of Sound On Sound, chances are that I'll still be writing the occasional article...

Down To Business

It's fair to conclude that most of you who are reading this are Atari owners and users — but why? Is it because you really like the machine in front of you, or because you don't have the necessary finances to move on to a PC or Mac?

The Atari ST is 10 years old, and is certainly showing its age. If you're working on a basic machine, where little has changed since you removed it from its box, then I'm not surprised that you feel a little aggrieved when your pal fires up his Superdoopa 684XD. But there are various things you can do to improve the situation — and here's 10 of them...

The ST's operating system has gone through a variety of enhancements, culminating in the present version, TOS 2.06. This has numerous hidden improvements, including a nifty new desktop on which you can physically place files and applications, and which also supports keyboard shortcuts. For instance, you can show a file's information simply by pressing the letter 's' on the keyboard, and even change the name of a folder — something that earlier versions of TOS prevented. Objects on the desktop can now have different icons, and Function keys can be used to call up your favourite programs.

Disadvantages? None really, except that the NEWDESK.INF file that keeps an account of the visual side of your desktop arrangement can overflow and become corrupted. The answer is simple though — use a shareware product called SHBUFFER.PRG to set the size to 8Kb or so. The only other problem may be that some of your ancient software won't run. The answer here is to buy a switchable version of TOS 2.06 so that you can always access your original TOS for such software.

No, we're not talking about a brain power improvement course, though with the number of floppy disks most of us have lying around this might be a good idea! An ST can handle up to 4Mb of RAM, the Random Access Memory that your computer relies on to carry out every function. Why would you need more RAM? For starters, most modern sequencing packages require more than 1Mb for some of the heavyweight features — Cubase Score 2, for example, needs 2Mb of available memory if you want to access the scoring module.

Another good reason is speed, especially if you do not own a hard drive. Many programs have an auto‑save function that saves your work to disk every few minutes, but this is almost unuseable if you're working with floppy disks. With extra memory, you can set up RAMDisk, a software utility that uses a section of memory and treats it as though it were a disk. You can then set your program to auto‑save to this — and be amazed when it's completed in the blink of an eye. Choose a rest‑proof variant, so that if your program crashes and you have to press the black, warm reset button on the back, the data will still be safe. Also, save to a real floppy disk every half hour or so for safety.

The advantages of having such a device are many. For starters, that huge pile of unreliable floppy disks can be replaced by a huge lump of unreliable metal! Seriously though, around £250 will buy you a 365Mb hard disk with all the necessary software and connection hardware — that's the equivalent of some 500 full standard floppy disks. Hard disks can be partitioned so that a logical problem on one area of the disk will not necessarily damage data elsewhere. Keep a couple of megabytes for the boot partition, about four megs for a 'dogsbody' area, and then divide up the rest of the disk into a number of equal sections. Dogsbody? Well every time you overwrite an existing file, you fragment the data on your disk, so keep an area where you can copy, say, your favourite ST mag's Reader Disks, or the latest set of MIDI files, before deciding where to find them a permanent home.

If such an investment is too much for you, then consider a replacement high‑density floppy drive. Less than £60 will buy you a unit capable of using HD disks and formatting them to 1.44Mb — double the capacity of a standard floppy. Whatever you do, don't format a normal floppy to a capacity beyond 800Kb, as the reliability falls away dramatically, and never use an HD disk in a standard floppy drive.

I've run a data recovery service for some years now, and have rescued quite a few famous artists' albums courtesy of bringing data on a floppy back from the dead, where no back‑up existed. The frustration of working on a project for a period of time and then losing that work is indescribable, until it happens to you.

Whether you work with a hard drive or floppy disks, keep your master disks in a safe place and religiously back up any data, be it from a sequencer, word processor or whatever. That way, your files are likely to be reasonably small in size. Don't bother with a fancy back‑up application, just copy the files directly to floppies, and keep a record of what is where.

If you own a hard drive, how often do you go to the boot partition and change programs' extensions from .PRG to .PRX, and desk accessories from .ACC to .ACX? Why not let a boot manager do the work for you? One of these will allow you to keep 'sets' of data for your different ST configurations — one for sequencing, one for DTP, and so on.

Improve the timing of your sequencer by buying an add‑on MIDI Out expander. Check if one is available for your particular sequencer, or whether one of the third‑party units will do the job. Thirty quid will buy you an extra MIDI Out — that's 32 simultaneous MIDI channels.

Don't work in colour on a standard ST with a sequencing package. There's a very good reason why the big boys don't support medium resolution, and that's because there simply aren't enough pixels on the screen. Medium res gives you 640 pixels wide by 200 high, whereas high res doubles the number of vertical pixels. The result is a display that is far more friendly to your eyes. Look out for a second‑hand SM124 or 125 for around £80.

There's a large black area around the outside of your screen that cannot be accessed, and so is being wasted. The overscan hardware modification makes use of this area, and so gives you an increased number of pixels on‑screen. However, it doesn't work on an STe, and some software won't function correctly. Check with Compo Software, or your local Atari specialist.

If I had to choose one piece of essential software, it would have to be NVDI, the software screen accelerator. This replaces the inefficient Atari screen redraw code with an optimised version. The resulting screen redraws are generally around three times faster, so you don't spend as much time staring into a blank space on your monitor. If you're working with a high‑end word processor or DTP package, you may want to consider NVDI 3, which handles Speedo and TrueType fonts; otherwise go for NVDI 2.5.

Even if you only use your Atari for sequencing, you're bound to be writing the odd begging letter to the bank. I used 1st Word Plus for almost four years when I started out as a journalist, and having now worked with Papyrus, I wonder how I coped!

In conclusion, make your machine a pleasure to work with and you're more likely to want to work — productivity improves if you make positive changes to your working environment.