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Sunday, 4 August 2019

Atari Falcon 030


As an Atari STE owner back in the day, I was one of those people who drooled at the Atari Falcon before and around the time of its release in 1992. I read ST Format reports and snippets of information from Atari newsletters with great interest. The Falcon was promoted as a really bad-ass multimedia computer, beating Amiga at its own game.

When the computer finally came out, I had little chance of acquiring one, and already the magazine reports made it sound a little less than it ought have been.

Now, finally, I have some first-person experiences of this rarity.


The first physical impressions are that it weighs a ton, doesn't look that different from an ST, there's a noisy, monotonous fan inside, the keyboard is not that great and the port for the bad mouse is still below the computer (and upside down).

It also turned out that 16Mhz is not a huge leap when the new graphics modes would have needed some more heavy lifting. This is already something I recall from using a plain Amiga 1200: "Is this really it?"

Plain ST games would not demonstrate a monstrous speed increase, Frontier is now about bearable but that's it.

Frontier, one of the go-to games for testing Ataris.
The Digital Signal Processor was a saving grace for direct-to-disk recording, and with the already-established in-built MIDI ports the Falcon became a bit of a cult among musicians.

The DSP could deliver the needed punch for many kinds of games and applications, but it was not very simple to program and apart from the audio applications there was not much productivity software or games for it anyway.

More recently, skilled people have showed what can be done and there's a rather wicked-looking engine for displaying Quake 2 and Half-Life 1 levels, utilizing the DSP.

When the Landmine tried to play a sound the MP3 player messed up and did not recover.
Also, mp3 songs can be played in the background while still using the desktop. How's that for a 1992 computer?!

Theoretically, for a fleeting period in time, all the power for an Amiga-beater was inside that casing, but nothing helped people exploit the better parts of it around 1992. Then Atari computer division went down and adios, Falcon.

Oh, about the crappy photographs: I could have used a desktop accessory for making snapshot images out of the desktop at least... but I was not prepared to move and convert them around for the time being.


First things firST

Nice that I can use the VGA monitor adapter block to connect the Falcon to a modern display. The picture is not especially sharp on my display but I can live with it.

I got rid of the Atari mouse and connected a PS/2 optical mouse through a micromys adapter. (One that has C64, Amiga and Atari ST modes)

This Falcon came with IDE harddisk and 4MB of memory. I intend to look into using a Compact Flash/SD-IDE adapter but it'll have to wait a bit. Doing that and swapping the 1.44Mb disk drive to a Gotek might not only improve the computer but help reduce the weight somewhat... not that it's meant to be moved a lot.

Which brings me to a point. These days I'm a bit frightful about a computer that has physical hard drives but no "software shut down" to ensure the drives are stopped! (Ok some drivers come with head park software).

Universe-on-a-floppy
Luckily the Falcon floppy drive was in working order. After formatting a HD disk on Falcon I could copy files to it on the floppy-drive equipped Linux Mint.

I could also copy the aforementioned Frontier over to the Falcon. It didn't run just like that, I had to CONTROL-ALT-DEL from the desktop with holding CONTROL down.

Then, if you're lucky the Falcon will boot without any drivers and there will be sufficient "low" memory for running Frontier.


TOS, utter tosh?

Looking at GEM/TOS I am surprised how little has changed from the Atari STE days.

As I had a "bundle" of software ready on the IDE drive, I could have a head-start in exploring different kind of programs without having to install much.

The first impression is that the GEM/TOS is perhaps even slower than before and not that much has been done to improve it. Switch on the software-based MultiTOS and it'll get even slower.

The early-to-mid 1990s desktop experience, complete with a modplayer.
I could get the modplayers and mp3 player up an running, trying out some utility software in the meantime. It was a nice moment, but the environment did also crash and glitch a lot. The sound tended to conflict between applications like the FalconAMP and Landmine (minesweeper clone), keyboard clicks got stuck in a loop one time and so on and on.

But I have to recall that using the Workbench of the Amiga was a long process of weeding out software that didn't work, and learning my way around situations that could potentially crash the computer. So the same likely applies here: if I really had a motivation to use the Falcon for months and months the software collection and my practices of using it could develop and I wouldn't encounter these problems.

The 4MB of memory is not luxurious when it comes to using the multiTOS, I saw that at times much less than 2MB was left available when trying to run a couple of apps together.

Turning off the new-fangled GEM options using the CONTROL reset trick does show the desktop can be faster compared to an Atari STE.

Apparently more flexible video modes are possible but the desktop allows only a few combinations. Note that the Falcon modes easily eat up far more memory and speed than the 32k of ST modes. The difference between a 256-colour 640x480 and 16-color mode was about 300 kilobytes.


Instead of descriptive or explicit resolutions a somewhat confusing "40 columns/80 columns" and "double line" terms are now in use:

40 columns: 320 pixel wide
80 columns: 640 pixel wide
Double lines on: 240 pixel height
Double lines off: 480 pixel height

The higher resolutions are available as 2 or 16 colour modes, whereas the lower resolutions support 256 or even 65536 ("true") colour modes.

I recall the day when the prospect of having such a luxurious amount of colours in an image was in itself fascinating and something to be desired!

The ST-compatible legacy modes are Low resolution (320x200x16), Medium resolution (640x200x4) and High Resolution (640x400x2).


Yet...

It may sound I'm very negative about the Falcon, but in truth it's kind of growing on me.

The computer has that Atari ST feeling, a kind of simplicity and straightforwardness. Bit like when you look at MS-DOS and think "why wasn't this enough?" except it's graphical.


What I am glad about is the amount of options for connecting and transferring files. PC-compatible HD floppy, RS-232, IDE...  I'm thinking about the Apple Macintosh where you have a quite closed system and very limited choices for transferring data into it.

I also got over the somewhat clunky-looking and slow desktop, especially when I noted that using the ST compatibility modes makes it faster.



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