Peripheral Information

Review of the Atari 810 Disk System

Ron Jeffries and Glenn Fisher

The Atari 810 disk system is very easy to install: unpack it, read a couple of pages of the Operator's Manual, plug in two cords, turn it on, insert a diskette, and you are up and running. (If, and only if, you have 16K or more memory. Otherwise, the screen does strange things, including producing some fascinating patterns.)

The Disk Drive Operator's Manual shipped with the early units is actually only an 11 page looseleaf booklet. The information in the booklet is clear, with an excellent diagram that should make it possible for almost anyone to set up the disk system correctly. Maybe that seems minor, but things haven't always been this way, folks. On the other hand, 11 pages is not enough to say all the things that need to he said to a person that just bought their first disk. We didn't have any real problems, but then again the Atari isn't the first disk we've used. As of late January, the Disk Operating System (DOS) Reference Manual isn't yet available. Atari has done a great job getting a "total system" out, including disk and printer. But documentation seems to be much harder to get out the door than either hardware or software.

The disk drives are nicely packaged in injection-molded plastic cases. You can stack two disk drives, and even put the 820 printer on top and still have a stable arrangement that takes only a 10 inch by 14 inch area. There are small indentations on the top of each disk cabinet that provide a solid platform for the one stacked on top of it. Everyone who has seen our unit has commented on how attractive the packaging is, and how it looks like a consumer product. One fact of life with the Atari is that there are lots of cords to connect everything together, as well as to supply power. Since Atari uses separate UL-approved power adaptors for everything except the cassette recorder and the 820 printer, you soon find that there are a lot of power adaptors to put somewhere. On the other hand, having the transformers separate from the disks and the computer probably contributes to their compact look.

To load the DOS, the 810 disk is turned on and the Master Diskette (containing the DOS) is inserted. The Atari computer itself is then turned on, which automatically drags the DOS into memory, After about ten seconds, the message "READY" appears on the screen. Now, when you type the command "DOS", a menu will appear:




"Run Cartridge" means "leave DOS." At least for now, the DOS can't be used unless you are using the BASIC cartridge. Later on there may be other languages. One that we hope to see soon is an assembler and editor for working with 6502 machine language.

A good feature of the Atari DOS is the ability to "lock" a file, so that it can't he deleted, renamed, or written into. This can be very handy if you have an important file that you want to protect. (As an aside, we've heard that the same people that wrote the Apple DOS worked on the Atari version. Guess what? Apple is the only other micro system we know of that has a "lock" capability.)

"Write DOS" is how you make new copies of the DOS. Unlike some systems, the Atari DOS is a normal file, instead of being hidden away in some secret location on the disk. Each diskette can hold 709 sectors of 128 bytes each. The DOS takes 64 of these sectors, leaving 645 sectors, or about 86K bytes, for your files.

Alas, all is not sweetness and light. First, the DOS uses about 9K of your memory. So, on a 16K Atari, when you first turn on the system you'll have about 4300 bytes left of the 16K. (Here is the math: a "pristine" 16K Atari has 13326 bytes of memory available for your program. The rest is used by BASIC, the operating system, and as screen memory. The Atari DOS comes configured for four drives, and when it is loaded into the computer you have 4328 bytes left. If you change a couple of parameters to tell the system you only have one drive you can free enough memory to have a total of 4622 bytes available.)

There is a short BASIC program that you can run which throws away most of the DOS, leaving only the ability to Load from and Save to the disk, as well as access the disk from BASIC programs. However, when you do this, you can't even look at the directory of the disk without running a special program, nor is it possible to save this small DOS so that you can "boot" from it, since the ability to write a DOS file went away when you threw out the menu. So, if you want to use "Tiny DOS," each time you boot the system you'll have to run the BASIC program. In this "stripped down" mode you have about 9.4K available.

What can we say? Well, although the menu seemed friendly and handy at first, when you consider what it costs in memory, it may not he worth it. A more important issue is which DOS functions are crucial, and which can be shunted off into a separate "disk utility." Given the tight memory situation, we'd vote for the following as essential DOS functions, with everything else exiled to Siberia: directory, delete file, and, of course, load and save files. These important DOS functions would ideally be direct commands, such as "DIR" or "CATALOG" for the directory.

Atari file names can only be UPPER CASE letters and digits. Why they chose such a restricted set is a mystery, since only comma, period, colon, asterisk and the question mark have special meaning to the DOS. File names consist of eight characters followed by a three-character "extension." Eight-character names are too short to be really meaningful. Just because CP/M and DEC made that mistake doesn't mean it should be repeated. Commodore allows 16 character names, and they can contain almost any characters you like.) Speaking of UPPER CASE, the 800 itself has a "feature" we find frustrating: it doesn't understand lower-case BASIC keywords!

To summarize, we find many things about the system that we like, as well as some things that aren't what they could have been with a little better planning and design. Atari has put together a good system, one that we think will sell like gangbusters. It's available now, at obscure places like Sears and J.C. Penneys and the like, as well as your friendly local computer store.

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