Reviewed by Les Ellingham


Issue 16

Jul/Aug 1985

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I have to admit that when Silica Distribution Ltd offered to loan me a 130XE for review I was extremely concerned. It wasn't that I did not want to see the machine, it was just that I had grave doubts about whether I could write a review of what is basically an 800XL in a new case, with a bit more memory for which there is no software! Now I have no doubts. Whilst I would never have recommended that anyone trade in an 800 for an 800XL, I would certainly advise owners to think about trading in for a 130XE. It' s not that you get a great deal more, it' s just that what you do get is quality, top quality.

I will assume that most of you are already familiar with one of the existing Atari computers and will not therefore go into detail about what the machine can do. The basic machine is an 800XL with some changes in the chips and circuits which merely allow the machine to run more smoothly and efficiently. There are no extra graphics modes or commands although the machine comes with Revision C BASIC which should iron out all the remaining bugs. The major changes are the casing, the keyboard, the cartridge slot and the screen display. Some are good, some are not. Let's start with the good.


The first obvious change is the style of the casing which is smaller than before and is finished in light grey with an ivory keyboard and with ventilation slots and 'function' keys set at 45 degree angle. It certainly looks classy and design-wise will hold its own against any computer you care to name.

Okay, so it looks good but what does it feel like? Beautiful, just beautiful. General consensus amongst those who own several computers is that the keyboard is very good indeed. The keys are 'dished' in that they curve away and up to the top row which at first looks as though it may be difficult to handle, but in use it is simplicity itself. The keys have an excellent feel and, whilst I am not a totally competent typist they allowed entry of text at a much faster rate than either an 800 or an 800XL. It is certainly a keyboard that a qualified typist/word processor would feel at home with. The 'function' keys look as though they could be dangerous because set at that angle it looks too easy to press the wrong key by mistake and as System Reset is right next to Option that could prove fatal. In practice however I found that there were no problems, it was actually quite hard to press the wrong key. The position along the top of the keys is not as convenient as before especially when using Atariwriter as it is virtually impossible to press the Select or Option keys with Insert or Delete without changing hands over or doing some contortionist tricks.


The screen display is brilliant! I have spoken to several people who use more than one computer and they have all confirmed that the clarity of the video image of the 130XE is amazing. The colours are less saturated, which may require some adjustments to your set, but in return you get an amazing quality image. I had been displeased with the screen image on my 800 for some time and had thought that my TV (a 10 year old Sony) was on its last legs. But hooking up the 130XE dispelled this. The difference in quality was as great as using a monitor with the 800. If you had been thinking of buying a monitor, you may be better off looking at a 130XE first!


Now on to the bad points. The cartridge slot is at the rear of the machine just right of centre and quite low down and is, frankly, a real pain. It defeats part of the object in having a compact unit for you have to allow five or six inches of space behind the computer to plug and unplug ROM cartridges and most of the time you are forced to pick up the machine to see what you are doing. Maybe it is no problem if you plug in a game and play away all night but if you are using Atariwriter and a few utilities it becomes extremely tedious to keep trying to find just where that slot is.

The other irritation I found with the machine is that it takes a long, long time to recycle when switched off and on. Cassette users will probably not notice but if you try to reboot a disk by just flicking the switch off and on, nothing will happen. It takes something like five seconds to set itself up again and, if you are used to a quick flick of the switch to re-boot, this is a long time to wait. You literally have to sit and count to five or get extremely frustrated and annoyed.


The major difference with the machine is of course the extra 64k of memory. Lest you be misled, this does not mean that you can type ? FRE(O) and get something like 128,000 because, being an 8-bit micro, the 130XE can only access 64k at one time. Atari's solution is to enable the extra 64k to be bank-switched in 16k blocks to either the main processor or to the ANTIC video chip or both. This means that the processor can continue to run your main program whilst graphics information is displayed from the top 64k of RAM. Very clever and with a lot of potential.

Accessing the extra RAM is very easy from BASIC requiring just a single POKE and a small mathematical calculation. This is clearly explained in the manual (What an Atari with a manual? Yes, but more of that later!). I had thought at first that the extra 64k would be something of a white elephant but having seen how it works all sorts of intriguing possibilities are opened up. The most obvious is the storage of extra program information such as used in text Adventures or graphics which could cut down or eliminate disk swapping on larger games. For cassette users it would be possible to use the top 64k as a 'disk-drive' thus opening up many of the random access capabilities of databases and the like. Information could be stored, worked on, sorted or randomly accessed from memory and saved to tape only when it was in a finalised condition. Many of the more serious applications which are cumbersome or impossible for tape users will be made available and this is even within the realms of the 'do-it-yourself' BASIC programmer.


The most immediate advantage of this extra memory is already with us in the shape of DOS 2.5. This new Disk Operating System has a 'RAMDISK' option which allows the top half of memory to be set up as Drive #8 which means that you can have DUP.SYS resident in memory for immediate access. Halfway through a BASIC program and need DOS? Just type DOS, use the utility, and go back to your BASIC program without accessing a physical disk! The top half of memory can be used exactly like a disk drive. You can save or delete files, rename them and generally do what you can with a physical disk When you are happy with your 'memory disk' just copy the contents of 'Drive #8' to Drive # 1. What a time saver!


What else? Oh yes, you actually get a manual. 130 pages of information about the 130XE with example programs, explanations of the BASIC words and more. It even gives you a sample program of Player Missile Graphics which the 'old' Atari didn't even seem to know existed. Not the best manual in the world - you will still need to go on to other books - but at last a positive step in the right direction.


Several steps in the right direction is just what Jack Tramiel seems to be achieving. First class styling, extra memory ahead of the competition, a reasonable manual and the promise that future Atari label software will use the full potential of the machine. Atari are looking ahead whilst still thinking of existing owners. Most of the available software will run on the 130XE and if it doesn't, the Translator works just fine.

From a sceptical beginning I am now hooked on the 130XE, despite its one or two drawbacks. Nothing would have made me part with my beloved old 800 for an 800XL but going back to it now seems like jumping off a thoroughbred to take a ride on an old, but loyal and faithful carthorse.


Price 169.99




Screen Display
Extra Memory



Awkward cartridge slot
Awkwardly placed 'function' keys
Slow recycling time