Paul Overaa sees what the new Atari laptop, The Stacy, has to offer
The Stacy, Atari's new laptop portable computer, has come straight in amongst the leaders from a musician's viewpoint - Paul Overaa takes a look to see just what's on offer!
It's hard to under-estimate the effect that the ST/MIDI combination has had on Atari's fortunes. If MIDI was the turning point for the computer-music industry in general, it was equally a turning point for Atari's marketing fortunes as well. For the great majority of musically minded computer users the ST is not just a choice, it is THE choice.
Why? Basically it's because the ST range is affordable. Apple's Macintosh (and it's software) is great and sells well in the States, but typical set-ups are just too expensive for most UK pockets. The Amiga, a machine which contains much magic under the lid (and is undoubtedly powerful), just doesn't seem to be attracting a sufficient amount of quality MIDI/music software. Improvements in the area of Amiga MIDI software are slow in arriving, and a couple of (hastily done?) ports of ST packages have done little to change opinions in this area. I personally felt happier with the Amiga's chances prior to the release of some of the more recent packages!
With only 512K the ST was always under pressure as far as the larger sequencer packages were concerned. At 1 meg there's actually far less of a problem, and the new MEGA ST range has solved most people's RAM worries completely, enabling the ST range to cater for almost everyone's needs. The inevitable conclusion is that, barring an unprecedented level of price cuts in the Mac and it's software, there is no obvious contender to knock the ST from it's UK throne. This situation ensures that software companies continue to write for the ST, and that in turn means that buying an 1040 ST, or a MEGA ST, continues to remain a very safe option for the MIDI musician.
If you now take a MEGA type ST with the usual 720K floppy drive, offer 2 - 4 megabytes of memory and a 20 or 40 megabyte hard drive, stick on a high resolution LCD screen and pack it into a case which is the size of a portable typewriter you'll end up with Atari's new Stacy portable - essentially a MEGA ST that you can carry in one hand!
There are several reasons for looking at the Stacy in detail. The difficulties of transporting and using conventional computers on stage etc., has resulted in the appearance of units like Elka Orla's CR-99 and MIDITEMP's rather pricy MP-44. These units, coupled with a conventional computer system have thrown the computer portability issue straight into the limelight.
So how is the Stacy going to fare in the light of this current turmoil? To answer that let's firstly have a closer look at the hardware itself.
The Stacy weighs about 15 lbs and measures 37.5cm wide x 33cm deep x 8.2cm high. The charcoal grey case has a lid which hinges about 2/3rds back to reveal the LCD screen and keyboard controls. The hinge is spring loaded, so you can adjust it's position for comfortable viewing and once adjusted it'll stay put.
One of the best things about the Stacy is that the main keyboard keys, (i.e. the QUERTY typewriter keys) are full size. Above these are the ten function keys, the help and undo keys and the cursor keys. Some compromises have had to be made with the non-QUERTY keys and the worst hit, the numeric keypad, is now reduced to calculator size. Below the numeric keypad, which is situated at the top right of the keyboard, comes the trackball device. In case you've not seen a trackball unit it's basically a mouse with the ball turned upside down - instead of moving a mouse around, you move the trackball around with your thumb or finger. The main advantage is that the trackball unit can be used in situations where you haven't got either the room or a flat surface for mouse based operations. Trackballs take more getting used to than the mouse does and almost everyone hates them at first - they're more awkward for cut & paste operations and even worse than mice for drawing with. The Stacy has solved this potential problem nicely by letting you plug in a mouse and use that instead if you wish.
Here's a word of warning... if you've not used a trackball and you try the Stacy in your local computer/music shop - DON'T be too disappointed. You really do need to experiment with the trackball for several hours before making up your mind that it should have superglue poured into it - trackballs are dead useful on a portable, you do get used to them... and even if by some chance you didn't, all you'd need to do is to switch to a conventional mouse instead!
Internally the Stacy uses the low power CMOS version of Motorola's 68000 chip. Around the sides of the case are a mass of well protected interface connectors - serial and parallel ports, MIDI IN and MIDI OUT, cartridge/joystick and mouse ports, external monitor socket and the SASI and floppy ports.
Two options are available as far as the power supply is concerned - the mains adapter or batteries. Alkaline batteries are going to be an expensive option (12 C batteries at a time) because even though the stated lifetime is 5-35 hours on the Stacy no-one I know has even managed 5 hours without the battery light coming on - that works out at almost £3 per hour in batteries! If you really do need non-mains operation help is at hand because a NiCd pack will soon be made available.
Two configurations of the Stacy are available at the moment and these are being called the Stacy 2 and the Stacy 4. The Stacy 2 has a single floppy drive together with a 20 Meg hard disk and 2 Meg of RAM, the Stacy 4 has a floppy drive, 40 Meg of hard disk and 4 Meg of RAM.
Stacy's screen deserves a mention. It offers monochrome display (blue on a silver grey background) with a 640 x 400 pixel resolution. It's a clean display which is easy on the eye and although not the best portable display I've seen (here the portable Mac wins hands down) there is little for anyone to complain about. The brightness and contrast controls are situated on the right of the screen together with speaker volume control and the disk-drive/battery indicator lights. For the times when a colour display is needed you just plug in an external monitor.
I've tried quite a selection of ST software on the Stacy, ranging from games and utility packages to C compilers. On the music side I've used a collection ranging from old favourites (like Dr. T's KCS and Steinberg's Pro 24) to the very latest Trackman and MIDIman software (which incidentally, I'm growing fonder of by the minute).
As far as actually using the Stacy goes, I did, to be honest, have a few problems at first - mainly because the documentation/software didn't come until a week or so after the machine itself had arrived. After a day or so of teething problems things settled down nicely and now, me and Stacy have become very good friends. As far as existing software goes there looks as though there will be few, if any, additional problems to contend with.
As far as portables for the musician are concerned the Stacy is a brilliant machine which scores highly because of the massive amount of software available for the ST/MEGA ST range. With a hard drive (which seems to be quite happy being carted around) and up to 4 megabytes of RAM you've got a lot of computing power under the lid. When you consider that the Yamaha C1 will cost you three grand, and it'll cost half as much as that again to acquire Apple's amazing Macintosh portable, the Stacy looks set to be a winner because the 2Meg RAM - 20 Meg hard disk version is going to sell at £1299 (plus VAT) and even the Stacy 4 which has 4 Meg RAM and a 40 Meg hard disk is only £1799 (plus VAT).
If all ST and MEGA ST owners didn't have their existing machines then the Stacy would sell like there's no tomorrow. Certainly for musicians who are currently thinking about buying an ST or a MEGA ST, going for the Stacy instead (plus perhaps a colour monitor if there's some extra cash available) makes a lot of sense.
Whether a sufficient number of existing ST users will be tempted to move to the new portable is a question which is less easily answered. The extra portability which most musicians need can be achieved with less expense by acquiring a straight MIDI playback unit. Elka Orla's CR-99 is in the running to provide existing ST owners with a solution to the portability problem but more sophisticated units, like the MIDITEMP's MP-44 MIDI player (which retails at almost nine hundred pounds) do not really provide a particularly cheap alternative to lugging an ST around. When you enter the latter price league I think you've got to remember that the Stacy would, for relatively small additional outlay, provide far more flexibility than the MIDI playback unit approach - it offers the power to actually duplicate a MEGA ST system on stage using identical software to that used at home or in the studio. This means that there will be less for you to learn about, and more importantly... you'll get that all important back-up in case of problems. Let's not kid ourselves... even the best gear sometimes goes wrong and, when it does, 'sods' law dictates that it'll be at the most inconvenient time possible!
With a true duplicate system, if the worst comes to the worst and a fault occurs with your main ST system you'll always have the Stacy available. Likewise if the Stacy goes down you'll still have the main ST system to use which can run exactly the same software!
These are benefits well worth considering for two very good reasons: Firstly many of us are reaching the stage where 'no computer' literally means 'no gig', and secondly most ST musicians don't just use their ST's for sequencing and MIDI/music applications... they get used for everything from wordprocessing to accounts, database, and spreadsheet handling. A Stacy will give you the advantages of true 'duplicate system' back-up. MIDI recorders etc., and any number of non-ST type options, will not offer this all important safety factor!
Atari would be well advised to get the Stacy into music shops where musicians can see it and compare it to the very expensive alternatives. Irrespective of any battles it might fight with other business orientated laptops it looks as though it's going to be a winner from the musicians viewpoint. If you haven't guessed already... I like the Stacy very much indeed. In fact I've already started saving!
Prices: Stacy 2 £1299 + VAT, Stacy 4 £1799 + VAT
Contact: Atari UK (Contact Details)
Review by Paul Overaa
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