Supra's Hard Disk for XL/XE

Review by Les Ellingham


Issue 29

Sep/Oct 87

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You can't really have a Hard Disk on an 8-bit system, can you? Yes you can!

What is the ultimate luxury addition to your Atari 8-bit system? How about a Hard Disk Drive? Most of you are probably aware of hard disks for the ST and 'business' computers but may not have realised that you can in fact add a hard disk to your existing Atari XL or XE system. The only drawback is the horrendous cost but, if you have already invested a lot of money and time in your system it may well be worth it. There are a lot of serious Atari 8-bit owners who have stretched their systems to the limit, so why not a little further?


The only hard drive available, at least in this country, is the Supra 20Mb Hard Disk drive which is imported by Frontier Software and sells for 749.95. It is small, quiet, easy to use and has a prodigious appetite for programs! 20 Mb means that you can have the equivalent of over 208 single density floppy disks on one drive!

Let's suppose you have persuaded the bank manger that you can afford one of these beasts. It will arrive in a fairly small box, well packed in foam, and inside you will find the drive, a power supply, a copy of MYDOS, plus instructions and an interface to connect it up to your XL or XE. If you have an XE you will need to use the extra board supplied to enable you to be able to still use the cartridge port on the computer. This board is the only disappointment, being a bare circuit board which makes the system look tatty. It really should be cased at this price. The drive itself will surprise you as it is a lot smaller than a 1050! It measures 285mm x 137mm x 70mm and looks really neat in a solid metal casing similar in colour to the 130XE.

Setting up is easy. Find somewhere safe for the drive (they don't like to be knocked about in use), plug the interface to the computer and to the drive, connect up the power to the drive and away you go. Initially you will have to boot up with a copy of MYDOS in Drive 1 but thereafter you can write this to the Hard Drive and you will never need a DOS disk again! The interface, by the way, has a built in printer interface so you could save a bit of money if you add a printer to the system. You will only need to find a ribbon cable which you can pick up for around 7.


If the drive is not already formatted you will need to do this but full instructions are given in the manual. The review drive came ready formatted, so I did not try this out, but experience on a Hard Drive for the ST suggests that there should be no problem. As 20Mb is a lot of space, the drive is divided into four logical drives. They are all of course on the same disk but are treated as totally separate drives by software. The standard division (which cannot be altered) is drives 1 and 2 configured to the same size as a normal 1050 and drives 3 & 4 configured to each hold 9.2Mb. The latter two drives each have 36,800 sectors but these are true double density sectors of 256 bytes. Drive 1 is used to copy your DOS files to, and once done can be used to boot up the system. Any of the drives can then be accessed and used as you would normally use a floppy drive. The major difference is of course speed and the amount of storage. One warning about using drive 1, is to be very, very careful about putting an AUTORUN.SYS file on it. I tried it and as the program was one that you could not exit from there was no way to get to DOS and therefore load any other program!


So how fast is it? I did not try any really fancy benchmark tests but did a few comparisons of a nature likely to be useful. Firstly I tried loading files of various sizes. A BASIC program occupying 144 sectors on a normal single density floppy loaded in 19 seconds from the floppy and just 2 seconds from the Supra! As the files get bigger, so the time saved is greater. A 242 sector binary load file took 30 seconds from a floppy and 3.3 seconds from the hard disk. Some difference! Actually reading and writing data to disk did not show the same type of time difference but was nonetheless impressive (see Table 1). Incidentally NOTE and POINT can be used in the same way as a normal drive to access any sector on any logical drive.


Timings for writing/reading a four letter string ("TEST") to disk (times in seconds).

Number of times




Verify on


Verify off

1000 Write 6 22 13
  Read 8 12 12
10000 Write 65 211 126
  Read 8 130 130


DOS 2.5 cannot access the number of sectors available on the Supra drive so a copy of MYDOS is supplied. This also has the ability to handle sub-directories which is essential for the number of files you will be able to fit on the drive. Whilst MYDOS is perfectly usable, Frontier recommend that you use SpartaDos. The only reason it is not supplied is a problem with Supra licensing the program.


The Supra works like a dream with the 8-bit and could be a godsend to anyone with a large collection of frequently used programs. The only problems I could think about are that it may not be possible to transfer many commercial programs to the Hard Drive (ST owners have that problem too) and you could find problems in backing up the drive. As far as I know there is no software available to back up the 8-bit Supra drive and whilst you can back up each program individually, it is extremely time consuming. A major problem could occur if you have any database software that sets up a database occupying more room than a normal floppy. You can still use it but won't have a back up!

Would I buy one? Well, it is an awful lot of money but it is a superb piece of equipment to use. No more searching for DOS disks, no finding the right disk for your program and some really fast access for programming, especially if you write long machine code routines. As I said at the beginning, if you are sufficiently committed to, and happy with, your 8 bit Atari, it is the ultimate addition. If you can find the money, I would not hesitate to recommend it. Once you have got over the shock, you'll love it!