The life and times of the Atari ST series part 2

Growing pains...

Atari STf
It was now 1985 and the ST was available to buy and as far as the rest of the world was concerned, this new wonder machine had been designed and built in around 6 months, though in reality it had been a little over 12 months in development, but even that is a quick turnaround from design to completion. Trouble was that Atari knew what was coming from Commodore as they had the hardware in the lab as the Amiga was snatched from their grasp. While Atari had a price (And memory) advantage over the Amiga, they still had to innovate to keep themselves in the public's mind once Commodores new Amiga launched.

One suggestion was to use the AMY chip in a higher end ST so that it could act as a synthesizer as well as control other synthesizers with the built in MIDI ports, as this chip was also going to be in the 8 bit 65XEM machine, this seemed like a logical step, however during the Tramiels takeover of Atari, the development staff behind this revolutionary chip had been fired, and none of the remaining staff knew how to program the chip beyond the technical demo's that already existed. Other than the 65XEM prototype and a mention in some design notes for an enhanced ST, the AMY chip was quietly dropped from Atari's portfolio and sold to another company.

Shiraz Shivji was working on some advanced idea's for a next generation ST and had started noting down designs and idea's which he hoped to incorporate, while remaining compatible with the existing machine. As the man who effectively created the machine, no one knew how the hardware worked as well as he did. It was a great blow then to the Atari design team when he left the company in 1987, with the design for the new Enhanced ST far from complete. This did not however stop Atari from enhancing the existing ST design.

The original ST had its power supply and floppy disk drive separate from the system, which made the average setup quite messy with several large thick connectors and at least 3 power plugs needed for computer, floppy drive and monitor. TV modulators were added (The STm) and the floppy drive integrated into the system box on the 1040 (The STf), before the 520 eventually had both the TV Modulator and floppy drive integrated into a single case (The STfm). Some early concepts for this design had the floppy drive on the left side of the case with the name badge saying STd, though a quick check on the name STd lead to a quick renaming of the machine.

While the ST series was popular in Europe, it was quite hard to find a retailer in Atari's home country which stocked the machine. To try and remedy this, Atari bought a department retail chain in 1988 to get the whole Atari range within reach of the average customer in the United States, but while they had products and now a distribution chain, they didn't seem to spend any more money on advertising. Also as Atari were known more for the video game industry of old, many people did not consider the ST a serious machine for business. This started to change with the launch of the Mega ST series, which came with a separate keyboard, a BLiTTER chip as standard (Available as an upgrade to existing ST machines) and an expansion port. But with the exception of the BLiTTER chip, there was no real enhancement or departure from the original ST launched a few years earlier, any changes were cosmetic at best.

A prototype EST machine was shown in a German computer magazine, though quite what this machine was is not really clear as any information was just names of proposed new chips and a possible 68020 processor. To make things worse, by this time Commodore had released the Amiga 500, which adopted a similar case style to the STfm and had improved graphics and sound over the ST. By Christmas 1988, the ST was still outselling the Amiga in Europe, but not by much. While at launch the ST was half the price of the Amiga with twice as much RAM, by 1988 the STfm was only a little cheaper that the Amiga and had its processor clocked slightly faster, but RAM was the same and even the base level Amiga 500 had an expansion slot, something only available on the Mega ST.

By the summer of 1989, the Amiga was outselling the ST in most places, Atari had to act fast or they would be left behind. Rumours were starting about an enhanced computer with 214000 colours and digital sound which was to be launched alongside a high end 68030 based UNIX server and a 68020 ST compatible machine. There was also the ABAQ transputer workstation and the STacy laptop, but no firm news on what was going to happen to the ST series.

Then in November 1989, Atari revealed the STe at the TT030. While the STe took the original ST and improved upon the hardware, many felt it had been cut back so it would not outshine the TT030. Both machines had 4096 colours and 8 bit stereo digital sound, though the STe screen resolutions and available colours on screen were no different to the ST's that were already available. The TT030 had some extra screen modes, an industry standard VME expansion bus, built in SCSI hard drive and an interesting modular box design, but it did not have the enhanced joystick ports or the BLiTTER chip of the new STe.

Considering how long Atari had supposedly been working on the STe, many were disappointed by what was finally released. While there was now hardware scrolling, enhanced colour palette, digital sound and easy memory upgrades, its implementation was not ideal and at best it matched rather than beat the now dominant Amiga. Worse still, the machine was not due to launch until 1990, but managed to sneak unannounced into the retail channels during Christmas 1989, which caused chaos when it was discovered that one of the games shipped in the pack would not work on the new machine at all, while a few of the others had problems.

The TT030 was criticized too, it was to be a 16MHz machine, which would have been fine if launched in 1988, but in 1989 or 1990 this was not considered fast enough. Atari 'cludged' the machine to work at 32MHz, which appeased many, though in truth this too was quite slow by 1990. While the processor ran at 32MHz, the board was still running at 16MHz as many of the components would not work properly at the faster speed. As if that wasn't bad enough, some high end professional applications failed to work, including Cubase, Creator and Notator MIDI applications and 1st Word Plus. For the first year of its life, the TT030 flagship failed to sell in the quantities Atari would have liked, though a number of machines were bought by NASA. The STe's woe's had not stopped either with the discovery of a faulty DMA chip that corrupted data saved to hard drives. While Atari made a replacement chip available, this plus the reports of compatibility problems that were still arising did nothing to help the machine sell, and as a result software that took advantage of the STe hardware were nowhere to be seen.

By the end of 1990, the STe had failed to make a dent in sales of the Commodore Amiga 500, however Cubase was now working on the Atari TT030 and a new Mega STE had been announced. 2 new portable machines were also announced, the STylus and the ST Book, though these would not be available until mid 1991. At the same time, rumours of a new 68030 based home computer were beginning to circulate, a machine with the codename of Sparrow, could this be the awaited Amiga killer?