Atari ST - What a computer.

Martin Döring, May 24th of 2022

In 1985, when the first Atari ST appeared, it was a small price sensation. A year earlier, in January 1984, the first Apple Macintosh was introduced, but at a price of over $2,500, which was completely unaffordable for individuals or children. The Atari, on the other hand, was advertised with the slogan "Power without the price," and the latter was $800.

Like the Mac, the Atari had a graphical operating system with mouse control, window management, menu system, three-voice sound, and a choice of a low-resolution color monitor or a very sharp 640x400 pixel black and white monitor. I had that one and we were always proud of the good picture, back then.


But what could be interesting about such a computer today? What was new and innovative back then is mostly outdated today: The Atari had no real multitasking, it could load up to 6 additional so-called desk accessories, but could only run one main program at a time. The internal sound chip was simple and the sound only in mono. The floppy drive had to be connected externally at first and a hard disk was available at some point - with gigantic 20 or 40 MB storage capacity. Internet did not exist yet.

The memory of the first ST models was 512 KB RAM and the operating system was built in ROM with a size of 192 KB. The memory management chip (MMU) was built to manage a maximum of up to 4 MB RAM.

But: Almost all games ran with 1 MB RAM at that time and even application programs, like the word processor Signum 2 or the MIDI sequencer Cubase 2.0, managed with 1 MB main memory at that time. Even the operating system, even with functions for the file systems and the complete graphical user interface, fit completely into this small ROM. How many gigabytes does Windows 11 need on the hard disk again?

By the way, all programs were completely distraction-free, because nothing else was running. So today ideal for stressed managers ;-)

These programs were usually written in the very efficient programming language C or even directly in machine language tailored to the processor.

We have forgotten efficiency

And that is what we can learn from these 37 year old computers today, efficiency. The operating system had fixed usable routines and the programs didn't need shared libraries (DLLs) because, where only one program could run at a time, nothing had to be shared. The programs were small and the whole system was simple.

The graphics were also simple: there were windows, menus and widgets. The latter were all buttons, sliders, indicators and other graphical elements in the windows.

It's amazing, isn't it, that back then people could do desktop publishing, spreadsheets, and create book publications with all the trimmings with these lowly equipped machines. And today, a Windows 11 needs:

How would it be if we had today's resources available for the programs of that time? And that's what makes retrocomputing so interesting: On the one hand the return to resource saving and efficiency, on the other hand the use of today's cheap technology as a replacement for the expensive and clunky devices of that time.

Isn't that interesting? Plus the possibility to make sure that almost any software created for the ST at that time (or today) can run on hardware or software emulations until all times without having to fear that the next OS upgrade will make a program or a connected device inoperable.

I find these thoughts very interesting and think that we could also learn a lot in terms of environment and resource conservation, if we would think more about why we could do everything back then on computers that had less power than the microprocessor in our coffee machine today.