Atari's ST Laptops Compared...

Atari's ST laptops compared

How do Atari's laptops compare to PC laptops?

With the advances in mobile computing over the years, I thought it would be fun to compare the Atari STacy and ST Book with a range of laptops available more recently.  To make the differences in PC laptops comparable over the same time, I am also comparing the Zenith Z-Sport 386SX laptop, a good representation of the competition at the time the ST Book was released.

First, a comparison between the Atari's and the Zenith.

First off, power saving features.  Here, Stacy loses out as it has no power saving features at all.  It is essentially an ST with an LCD and (On most models) an in built hard drive.  The ST Book on the other hand, has a control panel add in that allows you to set the hard drive power down time.  Power on the rechargeable battery is up to 8 hours, with a RAM based hibernation feature, allowing you to boot back to the desktop within seconds, once power is restored.  The state can be held in RAM for up to 4 weeks, so plenty of time to get power back before you lose everything. in practice though, this feature is limited to a few days, but it is still useful and was unique when the machine was launched in 1992.  The Zenith has some power saving options in the machines BIOS, these are hard drive power down and screen power options, such as switching off the backlight.  Battery life is around 4 hours, comparable to the Stacy, though in practice, slightly better.  The ST Book has no backlight, though the screen unit is a low power device anyway, accounting for around 5% of the total power consumption, unlike the Stacy, where the screen takes over 40% of the power, due to the backlight.

Both Stacy and the ST Book have a built in system for controlling the mouse, Stacy has a trackball, while the ST Book has the 'Vector Pad', the Zenith relies on an external trackball or mouse, without either of these, you can only use keyboard commands or shortcuts.  The keyboards on each machine is also quite different.  Stacy has every key that is on the standard ST keyboard, with the function, cursor cluster and numeric keypad keys being an unusual miniature style that may not suite everybody.  The main keyboard however, is a full travel keyboard, similar in quality to the MEGA ST keyboards (Though many think slightly better).  The ST Book opts for the PC laptop style keyboard, with the numeric keypad accessible with the use of an Atari key.  The keys are a flatter, short travel type, though better than many of today's laptop keyboards.  They have quite a positive response, though not as nice to use as the Stacy keyboard.  The Zenith is similar to the ST Book keyboard, though the travel is shorter and can feel uncomfortable after prolonged use.

When it comes to size and weight, Stacy loses out completely.  It's not until you have one of these machines in front of you, that you realise just how big they really are, bigger than some PC desktops available today, and at 15lb including the battery, it is not that portable!  Next the Zenith, at about 6lb including battery, not too heavy, has a footprint slightly smaller than an A4 sheet of paper, and is almost 2 inches thick with the lid closed.  Lightest of this lot is the ST Book, at only 4lb with the battery, it has a similar footprint to the Zenith, but is only half as thick with the lid closed.

Last part of this comparison, boot times!  First off is Stacy, booting in around 15 seconds from hard drive, followed by the Zenith at 2 minutes and then the ST Book, which took just over 2 minutes.  OK, the ST Book could have been sped up by quitting the device discovery in TOS 2.06 (The long black bar that gets shorter), but doing this at the wrong time will stop the machine booting from the hard drive, causing it to crash (There is no floppy drive, only a ROM drive assigned the letter P).  To sum up, the ST Book compares very well against the laptops available around the same time, while Stacy fares less well.  The ST Book had some advanced features for the time, some still stand up well today as we shall see...

But how about a comparison with some more modern laptops?

There are 2 machines I'll be comparing with, the first is my former Cubase SX Audio laptop, the second is a Compaq Evo laptop that I used at work.  Coming up against a 2GHz and a 2.4GHz machine, neither the Stacy or the ST Book can compete with only 8MHz processors, though the lack of extra software inbuilt into GEM makes the machines seem almost as fast as these Windows XP machines, perhaps Microsoft could learn something from this?  Unlikely.

Again, with power saving features, Stacy loses out, though the ST Book still has an advantage.  The hibernation features on laptops depend on a hibernation file on the hard drive.  This mode is triggered under certain conditions, and the current status and RAM contents are dumped into the hibernation partition and the machine closed down.  This seems good in theory, but as I have discovered, in practice, this may not always work.  If the battery is a little unreliable, it is possible for the machine to run out of power while the hibernation partition is being written.  This results in a corrupt file and great difficulty booting back up as Windows tries to recover from this file and hangs.  The only option is to start in safe mode and delete the hibernation partition, losing any information that may have been in the system RAM when the machine shut down.  The other possibility is bad sectors on the hard drive, resulting in the same effect, loss of data and difficulty booting up.  Also, depending on the system RAM size, the start up time can be 30 seconds to a few minutes, as the ST Book keeps the last state in RAM, once power is restored and the machine switched on, you are back at the point when the power failed, no loss of data and no corruption, just start working.

Battery life on the Cubase laptop and the Compaq Evo is about 4 hours, not bad compared to Stacy (3 to 4 hours at best), but still way behind the ST Book (up to 8 hours).  I'm sure that with modern battery technology, the ST Book would last a lot longer, and with the ST Book's battery technology, today's laptops would last 1 hour at best!  As battery's have improved, power demands have increased, making the advances seem smaller than they really are.

All the machines have mouse control built in, Stacy with the trackball, ST Book with the Vector pad and the newer machines have the now standard glide pad.  Out of them all, Stacy comes last as the trackball can be a little cumbersome sometimes, followed by the Vector Pad of the ST Book, this can be tricky to use for accurate pointer positioning, sending the mouse further than you would like or not as far as you want.  Not as nice as the glide pads on newer laptops, but great for their time.  Again, the keyboard of the Stacy comes out best, followed by my Cubase laptop, then the ST Book and last, the Compaq Evo.  Quite frankly, the Evo is the most expensive of the machines, but is let down by the keyboard.  It feels unresponsive, no feedback at all from the keys, so you can be typing away, only to find you are missing characters.

Screens are quite different, all the machines, except the ST Book, have external monitor ports for additional resolutions that may not be possible on the built in LCD.  The Stacy has a maximum resolution of 640 x 400, which is also the only resolution available on the ST Book, but Stacy can access the other ST resolutions via the external monitor port.  Both the PC laptops can have screen resolutions of 2048 x 1280 on external monitors, but the native resolutions of the screens are 1024 x 786 on the Cubase laptop and 1400 x 1024 on the Compaq Evo  Also, the Atari's are both monochrome screens, the PC laptops can display over 32000 colours.

Again, on size and weight, the Stacy loses out, but the ST Book is on it's own.  It is the smallest and lightest of this group, with the Compaq coming second, bigger and heavier than the ST Book, but smaller than the Cubase laptop, which is almost as thick as the old Zenith with the lid closed, and a larger overall footprint than the Compaq Evo.

So how do the machines compare?

  Atari Stacy Atari ST Book Zenith Z-Sport Cubase laptop Compaq Evo
Keyboard/Mouse 96 key +  trackball 82 key + Vector pad 86 Key 86 key + glide pad 86 key + glide pd
Resolution 640 x 400 640 x 400 640 x 480 1024 x 768 1400 x 1024
Ports MIDI In/Out, Centronics, serial, floppy drive, cartridge, monitor, joystick/mouse DMA port Midi MIDI In/Out, Centronics, DMA 120 pin expansion port Centronics, serial/mouse, monitor USB x 4, Centronics, VGA monitor port, Firewire 400, PCMCIA USB x 2, Centronics, Serial, VGA monitor port, 2 x PCMCIA, docking bay port
Battery Life 3 to 4 hours max up to 8 hours 4 hours 3 to 4 hours 4 hours
Power Saving None Drive powerdown Drive/screen powerdown Drive/screen powerdown Drive/screen powerdown
Hibernation None Up to 4 weeks in RAM None To hard drive To hard drive

Considering it's age, the ST Book compares well with today's laptops, offering longer battery life, an option to use standard AA battery cells for power, potentially faster boot times and better data saving features in the event of total power loss.  Of course, if you require any use of colour, the newer laptops such as the Cubase laptop and the Compaq Evo win, with the Compaq having a higher screen resolution and the option to spread the desktop over 2 monitors by using the external monitor port alongside the in-built screen.

The STacy is really a desktop replacement, giving the full functionality of the ST desktops in a luggable form, ideal for musicians on the move who depended on the ST Range, but not really an ideal portable solution due to it's weight and size!