The Atari ST Story

Apple introduced the $10,000 Lisa in 1983 and the $2,500 Macintosh in 1984. Both used the 68000 CPU. The Atari ST, based on the same processor, arrived in 1985 at just $799 – or $999 with color, which the Mac didn’t have yet.

Atari ST header

Where Lisa and Macintosh had 1-bit black-and-white graphical displays, the Atari ST was the first personal computer with a full color graphical user interface. Unlike Apple, which had developed its own operating systems, Atari licensed GEM from Digital Research, which was also used on some PCs.

Jack Tramiel Buys Atari

Atari had been part of Warner Communications since 1976, but by mid-1984 Atari was losing about a million dollars a day. Jack Tramiel, the ousted founder of Commodore, secured funding to buy Atari’s consumer division from Warner and acquired it in July 1984 with the intent of producing a new computer.

Many engineers and executives from Commodore followed Tramiel to the new Atari Corporation. Tramiel trimmed Atari’s staff from about 900 to roughly 100 who would be employed by the new Atari Corp.

Atari had been funding Amiga and had a contract with Amiga Corporation for its Lorraine computer project that gave Atari exclusive use of the Lorraine technology for video gaming for one year. The contract also required Amiga to deliver Lorraine to Atari on June 30, 1984.

When Commodore acquired Amiga in August 1984, it became a subsidiary of Commodore. Commodore assumed this would void any outside contracts with Amiga, delivered a $500,000 check to Atari (its investment in the Lorraine project), and hoped that would be the end of it.

This threw off Amiga’s production schedule, allowing Atari to beat the Amiga to market. The Atari ST arrived in June 1985, the Amiga 1000 in July 1985.

The Atari ST 520

Atari ST computers run GEM on top of TOS (The Operating System), much as early versions of Windows ran on top of MS-DOS. Atari developed TOS as a fast, DOS-like environment with a hierarchical file system, much like the Mac had.

Atari 520STThe first model released was the Atari 520ST. Tramiel had announced it at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 1985 – and then at COMDEX in May 1985. The final case design gave a nod of the head to the Commodore 128 and Atari XE models. The angled lines and F-key edges were a nice touch, and the extra keys made for a good sized computer.

The problem wasn’t so much the hardware or operating system as Tramiel’s reputation. Atari didn’t have any dealers lined up to carry the new computer, and developers didn’t have a high opinion of Tramiel, not to mention that Atari was a relatively small player in the world of 8-bit computing.

Demo and review machines shipped in Spring 1985, but computers for users didn’t start moving out the door until early July 1985. Still, Atari’s gamble paid off. In November 1985, Atari announced that it had already sold 50,000 units.

Planning ahead, early machines shipped with four empty ROM sockets for a future ROM-based version of TOS. Atari eventually delivered ROMs to existing users, once TOS had settled down, and that helped a lot, because TOS 0.99 otherwise uses up about 206 KB of memory, leaving only about 256 KB for software (video uses the rest). TOS 2.06 is the highest version available for all models except the TT series, which goes to version 3.01, and the Falcon, which supports TOS 4.04 as well as MultiTOS.

Resolution was 640 x 400 with Atari’s monochrome display and either 320 x 200 with 16 colors or 640 x 200 with 4 colors on the color display, in both cases from a 512 color 9-bit palette. Clever programmers could change the palette between scan lines to display more colors on the screen.

The most attractive thing about the Atari 520ST was its price. Its 8 MHz 68000 CPU put it on a par with the Macintosh, but the Mac 512K sold for $3,195 while the 520ST (also with 512 KB of RAM) was $799 with a two-button mouse, floppy drive, and 640 x 400 70 Hz monochrome display. (Early Macs used a 9″ 512 x 342 pixel display with a lower refresh rate.)

Bits and Pieces

The Atari 520ST doesn’t have a lot built in. The power supply is external. So is the floppy drive. All told, you needed to have at least four cables connected to the machine: power, mouse, monitor, and disk drive.

The 520ST had lots of ports on the back: RS-232C serial, parallel for a printer, joystick/mouse, 2 MIDI ports, video, floppy drive, ST cartridge port, and ACSI, a DMA port similar to SCSI and used for hard drives, laser printers, etc. Because of the built-in MIDI ports, Atari ST computers became staples in the recording industry.

The first floppy drives were single-sided 360 KB 3.5″ ones, followed by double-sided 720 KB drives compatible with disk from the IBM PC world. (That said, PCs could not read Atari disks.) The two floppy disk formats created all sorts of problems for developers and users, as single-sided drives could not access double-sided disks at all.

On the plus side, the Atari ST series used the same industry standard 3.5″ floppy drives used in PCs of that era, so upgrading to a double-sided floppy drive is easy.

Because of the similarity of its GUI to Apple’s Macintosh and Jack Tramiel’s reputation in the industry, the ST was sometimes referred to as the Jackintosh, often disparingly.

Atari 260ST

The 260ST was only sold in Europe, where 75% of Atari STs were sold, and with the operating system weighing in at about 200 KB, there wasn’t much free memory for running software on a 256 KB computer. Atari ended up going with 512 MB of memory, making it identical to the 520ST.

Atari had contemplated an even lower cost system, the 130ST, but TOS was too big to run with 128 KB of memory.

Atari 1040STF

Atari 1040STfThe first ST model to ship with TOS in ROM was the 1040STF, which was also the first personal computer to ship with 1 MB of memory. Other improvements over the 520ST include a built-in 720 KB double-sided floppy drive, an internal power supply, and a 512 color palette. The computer is 2″ deeper than the 520ST to make room for the floppy drive and power supply.

Atari 1040STF on cover of BYTE magazine, March 1986

When retail price of the 1040ST dropped to $999 in the US, it appeared on the cover of the March 1986 issue of BYTE magazine as the first computer to break the $1000/MB price barrier.

A reduced memory 512 KB version of the 1040ST was introduced; it was known as the 520STF.

Atari Mega

Atari designed a more modular machine for the business market. The Mega computers have a separate keyboard, and the case is strong enough to support a monitor. It also includes an expansion connector.

To create a very affordable laser printer, Atari designed one with no CPU or memory of its own. It would be drive directly by the Mega. Because TOS was not a multitasking operating system, though, the user couldn’t do any work on the computer while it was printing.

Atari STE

Released in late 1989, the 520STE and 1040STE make some improvements over previous models. The palette is expanded to 4,096 colors, although the limitation of 16 colors per scan line in 320 x 200 mode remains – ditto for 4 colors per line in 640 x 200 mode. A new Blitter graphics coprocessor can quickly move chunks of data from one part of memory to another.

For the first time, memory could be upgraded using SIMMs instead of individual chips, something the Mac Plus had introduced in early 1986. The STE models use the same 30-pin SIMMs as the Mac Plus – 150ns 256 KB and 120ns 1 MB SIMMs are supported for a maximum of 4 MB of system memory.

The STE was the first Atari with PCM audio, although only with 8-bit sampling. This made the STE even more popular in recording studios.

Atari TT030

Atari TT030In 1990, Atari decided to release a high-end Unix workstation, the TT030. Compared to the rest of the Atari ST family, it was a real powerhouse with a 32 MHz 68030 CPU on a 16 MHz bus. (Longtime Mac users will recognize this as the same setup as the Performa 600 and Mac IIvx, which arrived in late 1992 and were widely panned for offering less performance than the Mac IIci, which used a 25 MHz 68030 on a 25 MHz bus.)

Problem was, it took Atari two years to port Unix to the TT030, so it shipped with TOS 3.0, which still did not support pre-emptive multitasking (just like the Classic Mac OS).

On the plus side, the TT030 supports VGA and SVGA monitors – and several new resolution options. Colors are from a 4,096 12-bit color palette:

  • 320 x 200, 16 colors
  • 320 x 480, 256 colors
  • 640 x 200, 4 colors
  • 640 x 480, 16 colors
  • 640 x 400, 2 colors
  • 1280 x 960 monochrome on 19″ display

The TT030 launched in Germany in 1990 and in the US in 1991. It retailed at $2,995 with 2 MB of memory and a 50 MB hard drive. It was discontinued in 1993.

Mega STE

The first ST series machine (the TT030 is a different family) to pass 8 MHz was the Mega STE, which includes a networking port not unlike Apple’s LocalTalk and includes TOS 2.00 in ROM. It was released in 1991.

The 2 and 4 MB versions of the Mega STE include an internal SCSI hard drive and monochrome monitor. The 1 MB version includes neither.

Atari Falcon

Atari Falcon 030Atari’s last new model was the Atari Falcon030 Computer System (a.k.a. Falcon), introduced in late 1992. Like the TT030, it uses a 68030 CPU, but it only runs at 16 MHz, half the speed of the TT030, and it runs the 32-bit chip on a 16-bit data bus. (Mac fans will recognize this as the same kind of compromise found in the Mac LC, LC II, Colour Classic, and Classic II.) Falcon uses the original Atari ST case design, so there is no separate keyboard.

Perhaps the most important feature of Falcon is the Motorola 56001 digital signal processor (DSP), which operates at 32 MHz and samples audio with 24-bit resolution.

On the graphics front, there is a new 12-bit 4,096 color mode, and the colors are selected from a palette of 262,144 colors (18-bit color) at all resolutions.

Falcon is the only Atari computer to support IDE hard drives, and it continues using SCSI as well.

Not long after Falcon was release, Atari released MultiTOS (originally known as MiNT and know called FreeMiNT), which is also capable of running on an Atari ST with 4 MB of memory and a hard drive, although 8 MB of RAM and a 16 MHz 68030 is the recommended configuration.

Atari was working on a Falcon040 built around a 68040 CPU, but the project never got off the ground.

The End of Atari Computers

Atari ended development of the ST computers in 1993 to focus on Jaguar, a fifth gen video gaming console built around the same 68000 CPU as the Atari ST family. It was released on November 15, 1993. This was Atari’s first gaming console since the 8-bit XEGS had been introduced in 1987. Atari sold 125,000 units through the end of 1995 yet had an inventory of 100,000 unsold units. Production came to an end, marking the end of Atari Corp., which was acquired over by JT Storage on July 30, 1996.

JT Storage went bankrupt in 1999, and Hasbro acquired the Atari properties in February 1998, rebranding the division as Atari Interactive.

Further Reading

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