Remembering… Atari ST

Atari STThis week, we celebrate the birthday of a 16-bit favouriteThe arguments in the school yard between the Spectrum owners and the C64 owners didn’t stop at the end of the 8-bit era. By the time everyone had ditched their childhood 8-bit computer, the talk of the school was which 16-bit home computer you had: Atari ST or Amiga?The Amiga was the better machine, technically years ahead of its time and with a far better operating system. I was an ST owner, and I’ll concede that fact to the Amiga owners – sad but true.

The ST, though, wasn’t without its highlights. It had better audio capabilities than the Amiga, and the CPU was clocked a little faster too. You could hook up a Roland keyboard and have all sorts of electronic musical masterpieces sound off thanks to some clever software. My cousin was something of a wannabe synth expert, who’d clearly been watching Top of the Pops too much, but even his limited skills managed to deliver when he connected his synth to the ST.The ST may not have been the all-powerful games machine that the Amiga was, and it’s largely known as the ‘failed’ one of the two 16-bit giants that went toe to toe, but it was loved by its users and it brought them their first proper GUI mouse operated system after the Spectrum. And since it’s now 30 years old, we thought it deserved a bit of a celebratory thanks.Apparently, according to Landon Dyer, an on-the-ground engineer at Atari, it was on a Friday afternoon in July 1984 that a rumour spread stating Jack Tramiel had bought up Atari.Atari at the time was losing money to the tune of around a million dollars a day, a sizeable amount by anyone’s standards. Warner Communications, which then owned Atari, eventually sold the Consumer Division to Tramiel and his legion of suits, which in turn became Atari Inc.The success Atari had previously had with its older, cartridgebased consoles was hoped to continue long into the 80s, but the recession in 1983 put a stop to that. There was also the fact that home computing was born, thanks to the C64 and Spectrum, so the big names at that time had to come up with the next generation of hardware and software.The Motorola 68000 CPU was the heart of the ST project, a processor that was faster and more powerful than the then-current crop. Add half a megabyte of memory to the equation, a vast selection of ports, fast access storage (in the form of the floppy disc) and some custom hardware such as ST Shifter, ST Generalised Logic Unit, ST Memory Management Unit and ST Direct Memory Access and the 520ST was born.Added to that, of course, was the operating system. TOS was hard coded to a ROM chip, and together with the impressive GEM windowed desktop, the Atari ST was the home computer on everyone’s lips. However, 18 months later, the Amiga 500 was launched and the poor ST lost out to the gamers who demanded a more arcade-like experience.Amazing connectivity, the MIDI support, Dungeon Master and Jeff Minter’s contributions.ST BASIC was broken, and it took a few OS versions later to fix it. A faulty floppy drive was a regular occurrence.The Atari ST was my first 16-bit computer and I loved it. The games were an amazing leap from the Speccy, and it kept me happy for many years until I upgraded to a PC.Landon Dyer’s blog is an immensely amusing and informative read. Check it out at• The ST evolved to the STF, STFM, Mega ST, STE, Mega STE, TT030 and Falcon 30.• The lack of built-in hardware for moving the screen was a nightmare for coders.• Amazingly, there was a CD-ROM drive planned for the ST, the Atari CDAR-504.• has some amazing chiptunes available, all done on an ST.• Jean Michel Jarre, Eurythmics, Fatboy Slim and even Madonna used an ST.

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