Write It!

by Rob Anthony

 

Issue 27

May/Jun 87

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You don't need 16 bits for word processing. Rob Anthony explains how you can get all you need from an Atari 8 bit system.

   better than the Amstrad?


Few people, it seems, realise quite how powerful Atari 8 bit computers are when it comes to word processing. They are, potentially, even better than the Amstrad word processor, as that machine can only handle one printer. The Atari system has the ability to address documents to any of 8 printers, which can all be turned on and waiting. I have 3 on-line at any one time, they are the 1027, the 1029 and the XMM801. When using Basic or SpeedScript (from Compute!) I can address my documents or listings simply by using either "P5:" for the 1027, "P6:" for the 1029 or "P7:" for the XMM801 (incidentally, this trick doesn't work with the older 400/800 models, but the 850 interface does support the facility, showing Atari's forethought). The 850 interface responds to "P1:", so it can be used for a third party printer using the serial or centronics ports.

This versatility could be very useful but, unfortunately, very few word processing programs recognise the facility. This is possibly due to the fact that the 400/800 models were restricted, although it could be due to the fact that few third party printers use the same control codes for their various functions. All the Atari printers however either use or ignore the same codes, so I can see no reason why future programs should not be designed to include the feature.

Another feature lacking on most word processors is the International Character Set (ICS). I do not understand why it is not included as standard on all word processing programs. In fact I know of only one, SuperScript, which does support the ICS although SpeedScript can be modified (my version has been changed to not only do this, but also to use the 130XE Ramdisk, enabling me to hold several document files in memory at once). Anyway, let's start at the beginning.

WHAT IS A WORD PROCESSING PROGRAM?

Quite simply it is a program which will allow you to use a computer to create, edit and print text in a more flexible fashion then a normal typewriter. It enables you to create a document which can be changed as often as you like. It will also allow you to store that document on some form of recording media so that you can recall the document at a later date and edit it still further.

A good word processing program will allow you to chain document files together, allowing you to write the 'Great British Novel' and print it all out in one go. This is achieved in one of two ways. AtariWriter, for example, prints the first file very quickly, but then loads from any chained files one buffer full at a time, keeping the disk drive active. Others print the first file, then erase it and load the next file in total. This second method is much better as it allows you to spread your document over several disks, but you do have to be vigilant otherwise the program will stop printing with an error if it can't find the next file in the chain!

Most programs will automatically number the pages for you, at your request, and will also allow you to put headers or footers (which can include the automatic page number facility) on each page, containing any text you might want repeated there. You can also ask them to start the page numbering from anywhere, or even ask them to start with any number you choose.

Another facility which is pretty vital is the ability to give you a preview of the printed document on the screen. This is a very definite requirement in my case, I simply do not have the time to wait for a printer to finish printing a page and I usually have to tidy up the output so that I don't end up with headings on one page and relevant paragraphs on another. Another reason for this facility is that most programs insert a character in the text (several in some cases) to represent such facilities as underlining and bold print etc. If you are trying to tabulate your text under column headings then you will have to make allowances for these characters, which are not printed on paper. The only way to do this without a preview would be to count the number of extra characters on the screen and subtract that number of extra characters from the position of the columns. The best way to check you have done it correctly is to immediately preview the page you are working on.

If your program can't centre text automatically, then you will have to do some mathematics to work out how many spaces you need before the text you want centering, so if the program can do this for you, it can save you quite a bit of time.

Almost every word processing program can right-justify your text, so that the left and right margins are equal. This involves putting extra spaces between some of the words to space them out a little better. To do this yourself would be very tedious, and most people wouldn't bother.

All word processing programs come with some sort of manual. Some of these are better than others, but they usually explain what the program can do, and how to do it, with a reasonable degree of clarity. Some of these manuals are paperback, small and difficult to hold open when you are trying to type a document, others are spiral bound, which is much better. The AtariWriter manual is stored on the flip side of the diskette, which is one idea that could save manufacturers a fortune in printing. It also allows you to print the manual in any way you prefer. You could even edit it to clarify some of the more obscure points.

Word processing programs are, necessarily, very sophisticated and because of this there are good and bad programs, but they are all useful, even if all you want to do is write to friends and relatives.

Some word processing programs will also allow you to change the type of printer you want your document to be printed on, allowing for a greater variation in print styles. I find this facility most important as I run a word processing service, using the Atari system exclusively, and the ability to change printers means I can offer my customers a draft quality printout, which they can then change if they wish and return to me for editing and printing in final, letter quality, form later.

WHAT IS A PRINTER DRIVER?

This is a part of the word processing program, usually stored and loaded separately. The program uses this as a sort of template to enable it to use a printer of your choice. Some are more superior than others in this respect, as a number of the less powerful programs store a selection of printer configurations within the main body of the program, which limits the scope of the program and also takes up room in the computers memory, reducing the amount of text you can edit in any one document.

Some programs come with a method of creating your own printer driver, which allows you to add more printers to its repertoire. If you want to create your own driver then you will have to have the printers manual close to hand. The PaperClip printer drivers are very sophisticated, allowing you include such fanciful things as microspacing. It does this so you can include pictures and other goodies in your documents. This does mean you will have to read and understand your printers manual quite well, but if you belong to an Atari user group you will usually find someone who knows all about printers and they will be able to help you. If you use the same word processing program they may even be able to supply you with a custom made driver.

THE PROGRAMS

There are, or have been, numerous word processing programs on the market and therefore I can only mention a few of my particular favourites.

SpeedScript first appeared in Compute! magazine a couple of years ago, but its success prompted them to release it in book form (a disk is available direct from Compute!) which requires you to type it out, using their successful MLX program, which is also printed in the book. The book also contains the source code, which will be of interest to machine language programmers. Since publishing the book, Compute! have continued to support the program with the publication of a character set editor and support program, which allows you to design your own character set. I have changed mine to include
the ICS and other characters which are available on Atari printers, including the arrow keys. This program is extremely flexible, it allows you to print to any device, including the screen, editor, disk and cassette recorder. Its files are DOS 2/'2.5 compatible so most other programs can load them. Its downfall is that it can't right-justify text, which is quite a serious omission. Also it can't scroll the text, so checking where to put new page markers can be a little tedious.

AtariWriter has a few problems, the program (at least the early versions) doesn't support the ICS, but there are various tricks, which involve embedding control characters in the text, that will at least allow you to print the characters. You can't have more than one printer on line at any one time but, with AtariWriter Plus, you have a good range of printers to select from. Commercially produced drivers are available, which help increase the scope of the program. AtariWriter has a host of features built in, but nothing you shouldn't expect from a good word processor.

HomeWord is another word processing program which cannot readily access the ICS, although you can insert ASCII characters anywhere in the text. An unusual program this as it uses icons on the bottom half of the screen to access the various functions. When entering text a graphic description of the page you are on is illustrated in the bottom right hand corner. This is very helpful, but even more helpful is the preview facility. It is the only program I have come across which allows you to preview a document in 80 columns, all on screen at once. To achieve this it uses a tiny, half size, character set, which is quite readable even on a colour T.V., a major plus point this. Unfortunately it does not appear to have a very good selection of printer drivers although this, again, may be due to the fact that I have an early version. I like this program, even though the files are not standard DOS. I strongly recommend 2 or more drives (maybe newer versions will allow use of the Ramdisk) as all the major functions are stored on the HomeWord master disk. This too I approve of as it allows the programmer to pack sophistication into a relatively small amount of memory, although it does mean extra wear and tear on the disk, which is copy protected. It may surprise you to learn that most commercial programs in the business world are made up of separately loadable subroutines, even though it can slow down the operation of a particular application. Perhaps the programmers of Home Word would like to take up my earlier suggestions as this program has great potential.

  Two of the best programs

PaperClip is probably the most sophisticated word processor you will find, and if you don't intend to prepare any foreign letters, or write about money then I can tell you this is the program for you. The files are standard DOS compatible. They have managed to achieve this by insisting you plug in a 'dongle', which sits in a joystick port. This also gives you the advantage of being able to back-up the entire master disk, store it away in a safe place and work from the back-up - very commendable. One particular feature which stands out, is that it has the facility to take a file from disk and print this absolutely as is, including all, if any, control characters. When that has finished it will continue to print the current document. This is terrific if you have a spread sheet file you want to include, or even a koala graphics picture. Included on the disk are 25 different printer drivers, and there are also lots of other little goodies, like a separate, stand alone, screen dump program, which takes advantage of the sophisticated printer drivers. There's also an AtariWriter to PaperClip conversion program and a program which will help you create a printer driver to suit your own printer in the unlikely event that one isn't there already. Probably the best program on the market at the moment, but it's a shame about the missing ICS. Newer versions also support the extra memory of the 130XE.

SuperScript is my current favourite. It handles the ICS as though it were second nature, the characters are included in its own character set, so when you want a '' sign you get it on the screen. It comes with a spelling checker, a must in my business, and, like PaperClip, it can do simple math for you. My version has 11 printer drivers. To help you create new ones you can load one as a text file and edit it with the word processing program itself. When editing text the program uses menus at the top of the screen to help you insert printer commands, such as underlining, and access the various functions of the program itself, like search and replace. You can by-pass the menu by using the first letter of each command, or by assigning keys to do a selection of previously defined keystrokes. The program will automatically load the printer driver of your choice if this is named 'DEFAULTS' on a new disk. The files are fully DOS 2/2.5 compatible, so you should have no problem if you want to use its files on other DOS compatible programs. I personally find this program to be the best for my purposes, and this article was written using it.

THE ATARI PRINTERS

As I mentioned earlier the Atari XL/XE range of home computers are the only ones which can support a battery of printers. Although they can't output to them all at the same time, you can address your document or listing to any one of your choice. Again, there are limitations. You can't change the address of a printer as you can with a disk drive, by moving a switch on the rear of the device, but you can connect, say, 3 different Atari models and, by using the 850 interface, 1 third party model of your choice. I think here would be a good place to discuss some tips which will help you get the best from your Atari printers.

The Atari 1027 is the current Atari letter quality printer, although SuperScript has a printer driver for an XDM121, which I presume Atari will release in the future, probably when the current stocks of 1027 are depleted. Remember the XMM801 suddenly appeared on the market without any advanced warning or advertising whatsoever (and then suddenly disappeared! Ed.).

To get the best from my 1027 I use a left margin of 7 and a right margin of 67. This allows me to insert A4 paper flush with the left edge of the paper guide. If you don't do this the paper will swivel, making the print slant down the page, giving a greater gap at the bottom right of the page, than at the bottom left! The 1027 does not support bold, enlarged, condensed or sub and superscripted characters, nor will it double strike. It does support the ICS, but does not have an alternative font, although I can see no reason why a replacement font could not be manufactured as the print head roller is held on by 2 tiny Philips screws. I suspect, however, that potential sales of such a replacement would be to small to warrant manufacture. Although the 1027 doesn't support these extra facilities, it will ignore any commands it receives from the computer requesting these facilities, so it is possible to use the XMM801 or 1029 printer drivers without fear of the machine going into spasms. It is not possible to load more than 1 sheet of paper at a time into the 1027 as it strikes the paper from behind, forcing it against the relevant character on the roller. To enable it to run a little faster it will print bi-directionally, but it isn't logic seeking. A line of text is exactly half a centimetre deep, so it's possible to measure any gaps in your text to enable you to insert charts or photographs, simply by counting the number of RETURN's you need to type. I also recommend a few bottles of Rexel ENM ink, which you can use to replenish the roller.

The Atari 1029 printer is very definitely a dot matrix, low quality, printer. I use it only for screen dumps and free draft quality printouts. My customers complain that it is difficult to make out certain characters sometimes, and it does require it's own printer driver. It supports elongated text and the ICS. In its favour it is quite fast and because it has a tractor paper drive it can be left alone to print a document without intervention. I can't give you much in the way of tips, except that you can get ribbons quite cheaply from Boots, although I think there is less ribbon inside them then the standard ones. The ribbons don't last very long, so it is a good idea to get them re-inked, and there are one or two services advertising this at a third of the cost of a new ribbon.

The XMM801 is, without doubt, the best all round performer in the Atari range. Based on the Epson range of printers, it supports all the normal facilities. It can print in expanded and condensed styles, and can even combine the two to give a slightly larger than normal font. It supports microspacing and proportionally sized characters and has two independent fonts - Pica & Elite. It has an alarm buzzer, which can be sounded by sending the proper character. It is potentially better at doing screen dumps then the 1029, but I haven't been able to work this out yet. If you buy the ST version of this printer, you could connect it via an interface and have access to italics and a few other little bits and pieces. If you want a good all-rounder then this is the printer to get, but if you want to do serious word processing I would suggest you get a decent letter quality job as well. Don't use a fabric or nylon ribbon replacement, the first time I tried it, at the request of my dealers as they had no carbon ribbons in stock, it jammed the print head. The printer was immediately replaced.

   A third party printer might be better?

CONCLUSIONS

I have not found a better home computer for word processing than the Atari XL/XE range. The unique
input output structure of the operating system makes them enormously flexible. That same input/output architecture ensures that you have tremendous graphics facilities as well.

If you already own an Atari computer, but are thinking about buying a separate machine, then don't. By careful selection of printers and programs you can do word processing, commercially, at home or in the office more than satisfactorily. As most programs allow you to include files from other applications you have great flexibility. Remember that your Atari computer has literally thousands of programs available, and a lot of these are fully professional business programs. Select a good retailer and you will have no problems for many years to come.

Atari computers do not become redundant. Atari has a policy of upward compatibility in its 8 bit range, so a computer bought today will still run, with only 1 or 2 exceptions, all the software written for the original 400/800 machines. No other manufacturer can make this claim, although a few are now beginning to catch on.

In America hard disk drives are now available, and I can see at least one or two crossing the great divide. Certainly, if they are cheap enough, I will buy one.

Another thing to bear in mind is cost. At the time of writing, the 130XE costs just 130, the disk drive another 130. The Atari 1027 will also cost you 130, but Silica Shop will sell you a package for 349. Add, say, the XMM801 at 175 and you could have a two printer set up for less than 525. The 800XL computer disk package is still available from a few Currys/Dixons shops for under 120, so you see you could get a working system much more cheaply. A very good value third party printer to look for is the Quendata DWP 1120 (available from Twillstar), which has a standard centronics port and optional tractor; single sheet feeder for only 169, add an interface and your finished print quality will be outstanding.

If you want to get into the business of word processing then remember that the finished print quality decides how well you do, presentation is the all important factor. Most customers couldn't care less what you do it on, but do care what their document looks like.

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