Retro Home Computers – Atari MegaST

Atari ST
1989 – 1993

Atari MegaST Retro Computer

Above: Atari MegaST

In late 1989, Atari released the STE with improvements to the multimedia hardware and operating system. The STE featured an increased colour palette of 4096 colours from the ST’s 512, though the maximum displayable palette of these without programming tricks was still limited to 16 in the lowest 320×200 resolution, Genlock support, and a graphics co-processor chip called Blitter which could quickly move large blocks of data (most particularly, graphics sprites) around in RAM.

It also included a new 2-channel digital sound chip that could play 8-bit stereo samples in hardware at up to 50 kHz. Two enhanced joystick ports (EJP) were added, two normal joysticks could be plugged into each port with an adaptor, with the new connectors placed in more easily-accessed locations on the side of the case. The enhanced joystick ports were compatible with joypads from Atari’s Jaguar console. RAM was now much more simply upgradable via SIMMs.

Despite all of this, it still ran at 8 MHz, and the enhanced hardware was clearly designed to catch up with the Amiga.

Software and Hardware Conflicts

The STE models initially had software and hardware conflicts resulting in some applications and games written for the ST line being unstable or even completely unusable (sometimes, this could be solved by expanding the RAM). To make matters worse, the built-in floppy disk drives could not read as many tracks on a floppy disk as the built-in floppy disk drives on older models.

While this was not a problem for most users, some games used the extra tracks as a crude form of copy protection and as a means of cramming more data onto the disk, and formatting as many as 86 tracks on an “80-track” disk was a common space-expanding option in custom formatting utilities. Furthermore, even having a joystick plugged in would sometimes cause strange behaviour with a few applications (such as First Word Plus).

Very little use was made of the extra features of the STE: STE-enhanced and STE-only software was rare, generally being limited to serious art, CAD or music applications, with very few games taking advantage of the hardware as it was found on so few machines. Quality did, however, seem to substitute for quantity, as the coders who took advantage of the new abilities used them to their fullest. The Falcon also has a rich selection of games. In fact Atari Falcon still has an active gaming community today.

The last STE machine, the Mega STE, was a STE in a grey Atari TT case that ran at a switchable 16 MHz, dual-bus design (16-bit external, 32-bit internal), optional Motorola 68882 FPU, built-in 3½” floppy disk drive, VME expansion slot, a network port (very similar to that used by Apple’s LocalTalk) and an optional built-in 3½” hard drive.

It also shipped with TOS 2.00 (better support for hard drives, enhanced desktop interface, memory test, 1.44 MB floppy support, bug fixes). It was marketed as more affordable than a TT but more powerful than an ordinary ST.

In 1990, Atari released the high-end workstation-oriented TT (32-MHz, 68030-based TT030). Originally planned with a 68020 CPU, the TT included improved graphics and more powerful support chips. The case was a new design with an integrated hard drive enclosure.

The Final ST

Atari Falcon

Above: Atari Falcon

The final ST computer was the multimedia Falcon (also 68030-based, operating at 16 MHz, but with improved video modes and extensive custom chip provisions, particularly high-quality audio DSPs). Although 68030 microprocessor was capable of using 32-bit memory, the Falcon used a 16-bit bus which impacted performance, but also served to reduce its cost. In another cost-reduction measure, Atari shipped the Falcon in an inexpensive case much like that of the STE. After-market upgrade kits were available that allowed the Falcon to be put in a desktop or rack-mount case, with the keyboard separate.

Atari Falcon

Above: Atari Falcon

Released in 1992, it was cancelled by Atari the following year. In Europe, C-Lab licenced the Falcon design from Atari and released the C-Lab Falcon Mk I (the same as Atari’s Falcon except for some slight modifications to the audio circuitry), Mk II (as Mk I but with a 500 MB hard disk) and Mk X (as Mk II but in a desktop case).

ST Line Cancelled to FOcus on Jaguar

In 1993, Atari cancelled development on the ST computers to focus on the Jaguar. Following the exit of Atari from the computer market, Medusa Computer Systems manufactured some powerful 3rd-party Atari Falcon/TT-compatible machines that used 68040 and 68060 processors, based around multimedia (particularly audio, but also video), CAD and office uses.

Despite the lack of a hardware supplier, there is a small active community dedicated to keeping the ST platform alive. There have been advancements in the operating system, software emulators (for Windows, Mac & Linux), and some hardware developments. There are accelerator cards, such as the CT60 & CT63, which is a 68060 based accelerator card for the Falcon, and there is the Atari Coldfire Project, which aims at developing an Atari-clone based on the Coldfire processor. Milan Computer of Germany also makes 68040 and 68060-based Atari clones that can run either Atari TOS 4.5 or Milan Computer’s MultiOS operating system.