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 GOOD POINTS
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
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.
A SUPER SCREEN
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!
WHAT'S NOT SO GOOD?
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
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.
THAT EXTRA MEMORY
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.
SUPER FAST UTILITIES
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!
EVEN A MANUAL!
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.
|Awkward cartridge slot
Awkwardly placed 'function' keys
Slow recycling time