After last time I thought it would be a good idea to keep you up-to-date with my quest to get back into the Atari life after a short time away. If you remember a couple of issues ago I outlined my Atari life and why I had put it to one side and become part of the PC world for the last five years. In normal terms, five years is a short time, but in the computer world, especially the Atari world, five years could seem like a life time. So I thought now that I had left University and got a normal job, and had some spare time, I would attempt to get my Atari back of my sister (who I had given it to when I got the PC) and bring myself back up-to-date with Atari hardware and software. When I left, I remember reviewing a piece of software called HTML Browser which allowed you to browse HTML pages on a floppy or harddisk, it did not have any online functionality. From what I see, software like this has come a lot further, and I have a lot to learn.
Just to say, two months since the first time that I spoke to you, I still havent got my Atari STe back off my sister! She has now bought a PlayStation (or similar!) and has relegated the Atari to doing the business accounts, Im glad to say that it is doing a good job. She has been doing the accounts on the Atari for the last two or three years now, so I cant really take it off her without a suitable replacement. She is using the shareware package Double Sentry which has not only done her fine for the last years, but it was also there when I ran my own Atari magazine years ago and needed something for the accounts. The only time that my sister has had a problem was when she pressed the Escape key when naming an account and this got embedded within the account name. This messed everything up when printing as it took the Escape to be an escape signal to the printer and used the next byte as a printer code, normally putting the KXP1123 into wide print mode!
Anyway, I get off the point. The point being, I am ready to go with all this Atari stuff, but I dont yet have my faithful Atari with me. It looks like Christmas is the nearest Ill be seeing that! So instead of using the real thing, I had a quick search for Atari emulators and became overwhelmed by what there was on offer. Atari ST emulation is nothing new to me, I had always planned that when I got a PC I would spend an extra £100 and buy a Gemulator card. I never did and because most of my files were in Protext format, I had no need for any Atari software as I could use Protext on the PC. I also remember a year ago I quickly looked at PacifiST and didnt think too much of it as it crashed all over the place.
This time was different however, I had more time and so I made sure that I had a close look at all that was on offer. A search with Excite put me in the correct direction for Gemulator Classic, PacifiST v0.46, STonx, and TOSBOX 0.91. It also pointed me towards images of TOS2.06, more on this later..
I wont go and do a review on each of these, I couldnt say that I knew enough about each of them to write anything worthwhile and informative (maybe another time if you are not yet sick of all this emulator talk). From what I remembered of all the advertising from the Branch Always BraSoft Newsletter before I went PC was that the Gemulator not only emulated the Atari ST, but it also allowed more memory and a larger screen, two areas which I was looking forward to see the results. While I managed to give my emulation the full 8Megs of memory (more than enough for an Atari?) I could not do anything better than ST High Res. I also found that while I could get full access to the floppy drive and I could create virtual drives on my harddisk, I could not access my harddisk directly.
Next on the list was STonx. I remember this emulator as it originated on UNIX and I remember attempting to run it at work, but had second thoughts when I visualised how popular I would be if anyone found out that I was running a beta Atari ST emulator on one of American Expresss main UNIX boxes for European data collection of booked flights and holidays! The documentation for the PC version was very little, briefly covering what compiler was used to do the port, and that was it. Needless to say, it was not very stable and confusing to setup, but as it was an early port then I did not expect too much.
The two emulators that seemed to be the most stable and advanced were PacifiST and TOSBOX. TOSBOX gave the option to not only use unlimited memory (the only limit being the amount within the PC of course!) but also had a number of resolutions, the maximum being 1024x768x16. Not a lot of colours, but a very high screen in Atari terms. Naturally, the larger the screen the slower the emulation, but even at the maximum it ran quite fast, and when using a normal ST screen it ran much faster than a native ST. Another bonus was the option to not only map PC drives, but also PC COM ports, allowing me access to my COM3 (mapping it to ST COM1). The penalty for all this is that only 100% GEM compatible software will run without it crashing, and it is surprising just how much doesnt work.
PacifiST was certainly the most stable emulator, allowing not only GEM software to run, but also popular games complete with sound. This is where the emulation world seems to fall into the dodgy side of computing, as if you have kept up-to-date with UseNet or CompuServe (the old Atari forums) you would have seen all the talk about weather it is ethical/legal to copy old software in order to use on these emulators. I must admit that PacifiST seems to be mostly associated with this, or this is indeed the impression that I have got. I thought it would be a good idea to join the PacifiST mailing list in order to keep myself in tune with what was going on. I did not stay subscribed too long I have to confess as soon my mailbox was full of messages asking for a cracked version of games and applications, follow up messages flaming them for asking for such a thing, and them following up flames on those flames for saying that no-one cares about Atari software now so it is perfectly okay to copy them. I think that anyone online has seen these arguments a number of times, I remember writing about it in ST Apps a number of years ago when emulation first took off and TOS images were appearing on FTP sites around the world. I have to confess that I am currently running all these emulators on TOS 2.06, an image that I downloaded, an image that I have not paid for, an image from an FTP site that offered all flavours of TOS and other ST applications. What made these discussions a bit different however was just how different peoples attitudes were to this area of computing from times I have seen it discussed on a public forum and not a private mailing list.
However, we wont get into such a topic as you soon go round in circles. I did download an image of Gauntlet II to try out Pacifists claims, but to my surprise it ran this brilliant game very well, complete with joystick. The sound was a bit dodgy, but then that could be just me being used to my Soundblaster and not that terrible Yamaha thing the ST has in it! I remember spending a whole Saturday with my sister playing Gauntlet on the Commodore64. Our mother didnt think too much of it, but we got to some pretty high level, rewound the tape back a couple of times to reload levels using harder settings (yep - remember when everything ran off of cassette tapes? It wasnt too long ago I wished I had a fast floppy drive!).
Anyway, to sum up my search for emulators I think I can safely say that the Atari platform is not going anywhere. There is not only plenty of choice of emulator, but there is a great deal of enthusiasm for this area. Both TOSBOX and PacifiST seem to be my favourites, PacifiST because it will run anything and TOSBOX because it will run 100% GEM software very fast and very large! The screenshot shows my PC running STonx, Gemulator, and PacifiST (TOSBOX will not run within a window). This situation is hitting my 32Meg P100 very hard, but even though PacifiST is running a graphical game it is still running at a reasonable speed within the window. Both Gemulator and STonx are running, but very slowing within their own windows.
Time certainly seems to go fast when you get talking about Ataris, and that was something I was going to tell you about. Unfortunately however, I have written much more than I should do before the poor reader gets fed up with hearing from me! I was going to share with you my discovery of an ex-Atari fan I found at work, someone who remembers well learning Assembler on the Atari. Someone who has now become an extra friend(!) and even lent me their collection of early ST User. But this will all wait until next time...