How To Become An Atari ST Power User (Part 2)
The second part of the series in which Martin Russ explains how to get the most out of your Atari ST computer.
The first part of this series detailed some of the hardware that any prospective Power User should consider purchasing to get the most out of their computer. With the traumatic 'major surgery' part of upgrading your ST out of the way, we are now free to look at the software. Power User software can be divided into two major categories: Utilities and Musical Environments. Utilities are the equivalent of hardware gadgets — they improve the way that you can use your ST by adding a useful facility. Musical Environments will be covered next month.
Unlike the hardware accelerators described last month, software accelerators work by optimising the most frequently used parts of the ST's operating system, typically the graphics routines. Turbo ST is well worth its £30 or so for the way it speeds up screen updating, and the slightly slower shareware Quick ST is excellent value for money, but only for programs like word processors or text editors. Because most quality music (and games) programs already include replacement code to speed up the performance of the graphics, software accelerators usually make almost no difference, and in some cases they may even make the ST unstable and prone to crashing.
Apart from the obvious improvement to the redrawing of windows (when using the ST's Desktop to move files around), some public domain music software and most non-musical/non-games applications should run noticeably faster, so the value of a software accelerator will depend on what you will be doing with your ST. I do a lot of file management and programming, as well as writing, so I find Turbo ST indispensable. Conversely if your ST spends 90% of its time running a sequencer or sample editor, then you can probably find a better use for the money.
The versions of the ST's Operating System released before the STE came out about 18 months ago had simple file selector dialogue boxes with one or two problems. To change the drive you wanted to access, you had to clear the pathname field and then retype the drive name and click in the shaded area at the top of the list box. Pressing the 'OK' button before selecting a file did not cause a re-read of the drive, but instead closed the file selector without selecting a file! Naturally enough, a large number of replacement file selectors have been developed to solve this problem, and these range from enhanced versions offering extras such as dedicated drive buttons, to complex and overgrown creations which do searches, printouts, create folders, and more — more like a replacement for the entire Desktop.
Even for committed Power Users, some of the more powerful commercial versions offer too much. I usually use the very stable HiSoft File Selector V1.9 which is available free with most of their software (it adds drive buttons). Most public domain libraries will have a good selection of alternatives. Of those I have looked at, Charles F. Johnson's Little Green Selector (LGSELECT) features a much larger file list box and comprehensive sorting/finding options, whilst Martin Patzel's shareware FSELECT seems simpler and easier to use. Both of these are shareware, so they actually cost about £15 — public domain versions tend to be simpler and less stable.
In the latest versions of the ST's Operating system (TOS 1.4/1.62) there are improved file selector dialogue boxes which add drive buttons and interpret the 'OK' button as a drive re-read command if no file is selected. Even with these improved file selectors, for sessions where I will need to manipulate several types of file, I use one of the more complex add-on file selectors which can store several different file suffixes (.MID, .SNG, .SEQ etc.) which makes looking for specific files easier.
When you are running a GEM program, you can only access the program's menu bar and the desk accessories. The file management facilities of the ST's Desktop are not available, so creating a folder or formatting a disk is not usually possible, and so you need to quit from the program temporarily only to return later. Saved! by HiSoft is a superb commercial example of the utility desk accessories which let you execute most of the Desktop operations from within any program which supports Desk Accessories. They can be very useful for saving time and dealing with unforeseen problems like needing a formatted disk to save a sequence or MIDI file. Similar programs are also available as shareware or in the public domain: Les Kneeling's DOS_ACC is very good (and programmed in the UK!)
When you first use a mouse-controlled computer interface, it can take some time to get used to the correspondence between mouse movements and the pointer movements on the screen. After a while, your hands begin to learn where the menu options are and you become quite nimble in your use of the GEM system. This is followed by a period of increasing frustration as you notice that the mouse is not as responsive as you would like — your mind is ahead of what your hands can do to move the mouse fast enough. Once at this stage of familiarity and frustration, the ideal solution would be to 'speed up' the mouse, and this is exactly what mouse accelerators do.
For slow and small mouse movements, the operation is as normal, but when you move the mouse rapidly the movement of the pointer on screen is multiplied so that less overall mouse movement is needed. This acceleration makes the mouse much easier to use for the experienced user, and can speed up use of the ST's GEM interface considerably. There are many different mouse accelerators in the public domain, and choosing one is just a case of finding one which suits you. I use a desk accessory called Speedmouse, but Promouse is also popular, and I have heard good reports about MOUSEACCM33. Atari have their own mouse accelerator, called MACCEL, which is unusual because it is not a desk accessory, but a program which resides in the AUTO folder.
Because many programmers are Power Users, there is a trend for them to put mouse accelerators inside major programs, so you may find that your Musical Environment (see Part 3) already has one.
Trying to keep track of the contents of a large number of floppy disks can be difficult, and it is all too easy to attempt to save just one file too many to an already almost full disk. Some programs recover neatly from the Operating System's rather terse error message Alert Box; others fall over and crash! To provide some extra protection against this, and to remind me if I have not saved a file properly, I use a neat little accessory which intercepts the error message and displays an alert box on the screen informing me of the error so that I can take remedial action.
Sentinel sounds too simple to be useful, but it sits there quietly until needed, at which point it springs into action; I wouldn't be without it. Preemptive disaster protection!
Bytefree is a complementary program which tells you how full your hard disk is. Mine teeters permanently on the brink of overflowing, and so this program shows me where I need to prune files. Unlike the rather slow 'Show Info, option from the File menu, BYTEFREE is incredibly fast — for my 30Mbyte hard disk a complete scan takes only a couple of seconds.
All this mention of the GEM Desktop brings me to the alternatives. Anyone who has used a Macintosh will tell you that GEM's user interface is nowhere near as sophisticated and smooth in its operation as that of a Mac. There are several ways to make your ST more Mac-like, ranging from collections of simple utilities to complete replacement desktops.
Neodesk 3 is a commercial replacement for the GEM Desktop, and it offers most of the icon-rich, flexible display of the Mac for about £35. Gemini is a similar shareware equivalent from Germany. They really come into their own for serious program developers, authors, and anyone wanting to back up and manage large numbers of files. A more flexible approach is shown by DCdesktop, which is an excellent commercial suite of small programs designed to allow specific enhancements and customisations to the desktop instead of a single large program, but it can take quite a lot of experimentation to discover which features you need to include and which you can leave out.
Of more immediate use to anyone who works with both Macs and STs is Ratrap, a program which makes the ST's menu bar work like the Mac's — so you need to click and hold to make a menu appear. There are even public domain utilities for the Mac which do the opposite function and make it ST-like! For real Mac-fanatics there is Fontrix, which lets you change the ST's system font to one which looks much more like the Mac's own — it should also be familiar to users of Steinberg software. Fontrix is not restricted just to Mac lookalike fonts — you can install just about any style. I sometimes use one I designed called KLINGON.FNT, and there are no prizes for guessing my influences.
With a boot drive full of utilities, some sort of overall control starts to become essential if you want to remain in control of the ST. What you need is some way to determine exactly which handy utility programs, essential desk accessories and other utilities will be loaded when the ST powers up. Superboot is just such a program — once installed it allows you to choose which DESKTOP.INF settings file, desk accessories and Auto-Run programs will be loaded from the hard disk as the ST boots up. This lets you quickly choose not to load all those frivolous extras into memory when you are about to start a serious editing/recording session with your sequencer, or to load a different set of utilities when you are in low resolution, and so on.
You can set up function keys to load programs, and there are welcome screens, sampled sounds and even password protection. I cannot contemplate using my ST without Superboot to assist me.
There are many other boot managers, offering different mixes of facilities and user interfaces. Superboot suits my purposes, but shop around and find one which you can live with. Almost all boot managers are public domain or shareware, so a good PD library should have a wide selection. I have built up a good relationship with Goodmans International (they have several of my non-music programs for the ST in their catalogue) and thoroughly recommend their high quality service.
An alternative approach to using a boot manager is to load the DAs only when you want to use them, rather than on boot up, by using a DA Loader. These are usually small DAs which occupy very little RAM memory and do nothing until you want to use a 'real' DA, at which point they allow you to load the DA and use it, then throw it away and release the RAM memory when you have finished. All the advantages of a DA, without the need to waste RAM memory space all the time! The down side is that not all DAs like being run inside a DA Loader, so you may not be able to use it for everything, and some DAs can't be ejected from the DA Loader, which forces you to reboot to get rid of them.
I use the Chameleon DA loader (which has no connection with the excellent generic librarian of the same name). It seems to be stable with almost all DAs, except those which use MIDI at the same time as a sequencer, and a few others which hook deeply into the operating system.
Anyone else's disks should be automatically suspect. You should check any new disk you acquire for virus contamination before booting from it, with the possible exception of commercial games software. It is important to keep your anti-virus software up to date so that it can cope with the latest viruses. It is all too easy to get a virus infection and even easier to spread it to other ST users, so an anti-virus program is an essential acquisition for the Power User.
My personal favourite in the noncommercial area is George Woodside's Virus Killer, which has a very neat graphical interface and can detect, eradicate and repair the damage caused by many of the known virus programs. It is frequently updated, which is a good sign that it is responding to new viruses. You should make sure that you are using the latest version, because one of the problems with old versions of virus programs is that they can fail to detect more recently released viruses, and so you think you are virus-free when in fact you are infecting all your disks.
Anyone using an anti-virus program on a disk from SOS Software may get a surprise: some of the disks produce a warning that they are 'system disks' which have 'executable boot sectors', which is normally a pointer to a possible virus... In fact, what is actually happening is that some of the SOS disks include a program to bypass any connected hard disks when the ST is booted up — the virus killer is detecting this program but is uncertain as to its purpose. Because there are a large number of perfectly safe programs which can behave similarly (many games programs have similar boot-up programs) it is difficult for an antivirus program to detect all of them; conversely a good anti-virus program will recognise real viruses.
The ST's 'Format Disk...' option from the File menu is not exactly fast or flexible. There are many alternative disk formatting programs available, but some of them do not format entirely within the rules and you can end up with damage to your data or your floppy drive. Beware of any program which claims to put more than about 800kbytes on a double-sided floppy disk — although this may be possible under some circumstances it can be very dependent on the quality of the floppy disk you are using, and you may lose important data. DCformat is probably the most comprehensive ST disk formatting program available and it enables rapid, reliable and verifiable formats of blank disks.
It does not allow you to perform silly formats with more than 10 sectors per track, or more than 82 tracks, but it does cater for the rapid read 'twisted' disk format, and can even create IBM DOS boot discs. For the record, the 'official' MS-DOS disk format is 80 tracks with 9 tracks per sector.
Copying files from the desktop by dragging icons is OK for one or two files, but for large numbers of files it can become prohibitively slow. Assembling a disk's worth of files and then copying it in its entirety is a much more efficient scheme. FCOPY (currently at version 3) is probably the most widely used copying program for the ST, and allows fast backups of unprotected floppy disks. This is the program that Sound On Sound use to copy the SOS Software disks for distribution, and I use it to make quick copies of my public domain disks for sending to PD Libraries (many of whom also use the program).
Well-behaved ST programs clear the RAM memory before they use it, but so does the Operating System — unless you tell it otherwise. Stopping the clearing of the same area of RAM memory twice can save quite a bit of time when a program loads. Pinhead is one of several similar programs which enable you to speed up the loading of programs globally by exploiting this fact. Makefast works on an individual program basis, and is useful when some programs object to being forced to clear RAM memory.
Disk caches are another way of using RAM memory to save time. You may have noticed that the ST seems to spend a lot of time reading the floppy or hard drive whenever you are using the file selector. Each time you go to a new folder the drive access light blinks and you wait for the screen to update. Caches (pronounced "cashes") aim to prevent some of this repeated access by storing the disk directory information in RAM, thus improving the response of the ST by making it faster. Some hard drives come with caches as standard, but there are also some designed for floppy drives. The catch is that the RAM memory you assign to a cache cannot be used by programs — you lose storage capacity but gain speed.
The world of ST gadgetry advances at a rapid pace, and is very hard to keep up with. I am certain of only one thing — at least one useful widget will have eluded my searches and not been described in this article. Watch the SOS software pages for more information on new utilities in the coming months.
The final part of this series will look at more software, in the form of Musical Environments. 'Musical Environments' is a tidy way of describing the large number of programs dedicated to musical applications. Rather than concentrating on the pros and cons of individual programs, we will look at examples of several programs working together in a coordinated way that make them useful and/or interesting. I will also finish off with a bumper collection of hints and tips, which you can add to those buried in the text so far.
HiSoft, (Contact Details).
System Solutions, (Contact Details).
Goodmans International PD Library, (Contact Details).
SOS Software, (Contact Details).
Feature by Martin Russ
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