XE Under Examination - Atari 130 XE

More memory, better graphics and improved sound for less money, the 130XE is aimed to appeal to a mass market, says Stuart Cooke

Atari 130 XE Front View

The smart design makes an asset out of the cooling grill

If you were to ask the country's top microcomputer programmers which machine they thought was the best, the majority would say the Atari. Even those who are well known as Commodore 64 programmers would prefer to use the Atari if it was feasible.

Until now Atari's reputation for very highly-priced products and extremely over-priced software has put software houses off since there was no mass market to but their wares. However, things are about to change. Atari has launched the 130XE personal computer with 128K RAM for a staggering £169.99.

With software houses such as US Gold importing US titles at realistic prices and Atari dropping its software prices, the machine looks set to go far.

First Impressions

Despite its futuristic styling, the Atari 130XE is extremely reminiscent of the old Atari 800 computers. The main differences are fewer joystick ports, these are now on the side of the machine and have been cut from 4 to 2 and the function keys have been moved above the keyboard.

The cartridge port has been mvoed to the rear of the machine and there is only one. On the old Ataris two were needed because Basic was provided on a ROM cartridge. With the 130XE (and the earlier XL's) Basic is installed inside the machine on ROM.

The similarities to the older machines don't end with the actual layout of the product - the 130XE is totally software compatible with the Atari 400/800 and XL range of machines. This means that there is a wide range of software already available, although in some cases it is quite pricey - but this is changing.

Unfortunately the standard Atari peripheral connector has been used. Whether you want to use disk drives or a cassette tape, you will have to buy Atari's own; your old battery operated cassette player is no good at all. Even so, the fact that the standard Atari interface is used means that a large number of disk drives, printers and other peripherals are already available, so you won't have to wait for them to be developed.

In Use

The first and probably most surprising thing you notice about the 130XE is that the expected 128K or RAM is not available for use. The machine behaves as it is was a 64K Atari, if you wish to use the extra memory you will need to refer to a two page section at the rear of the manual.

Atari 130 XE Back View

Two games controller sockets are provided instead of the traditional four

On many of the older Atari machines there was a fairly common problem with the graphics and sound. You could tune the TV to give you excellent pictures with very poor sound quality, or excellent sound but with very poor picture quality. This was most annoying when playing games because you often had to turn the sound right down when the background hiss became unbearable. This problem seems to have been cured on the 130XE and both picture and sound are of excellent quality, even on my cheap colour television.

Documentation supplied with the machine can be described as both excellent and poor, depending who is looking at it. If you a beginner who has never used a computer then it is fine. You are taken through most of the available commands at a steady pace with lots of little examples to type in so you can see the commands in action. Once you have gone through this, or if you are already past this stage, the manual is of little use.

Believe it or not, the Atari 130XE has eight sprites available for use. These are predefined graphics characters that can be placed anywhere on the screen and moved around with ease. It is even possible to move them under and over objects on the screen. Atari prefers to call these sprites Player Missiles.

You would expect such an important facility to be extremely well explained so that owners of the machine could use them with ease - and you'd be wrong. The facilities that these sprites offer are only mentioned within the example program section of the manual. The supporting text merely states: "This program uses a technique called Player Missile graphics to create a pink monster that moves across your screen"; followed by a program of 18 lines, full of POKEs to memory, with no comments.

The appendix that deals with the extra 64K of RAM states that the extra memory is usually transparent to the user and is accessed by a method known as bank-switching. This means you can take a 16K section of memory and swap it with another section. The explanation is quite technical, and novice micro users would be well advised to stay clear of the extra 64K until they feel at home with the machine and understand the meaning of the words bit and byte.

Atari 130 XE Right View

The peripheral and cartridge ports use standard Atari add-ons

The extra memory is, however, an exciting thing for experienced programmers. It can be used to store information for a database or spreadsheet. Games programmers will be able to produce arcade games with an extremely large number of screens, and adventure programmers should be able to write some very large adventures. But how long will we have to wait for the software that makes use of this superb facility?

In order to fully test out the compatibility of the new machine with the old Ataris, a number of pieces of software were tested. Software typed in from magazine listings worked without a hitch. Atari home computer cartridges and cassette software worked perfectly.

The machine is actually a joy to use; the keyboard has very little travel but is still reasonable to type on. The main problem is the very small carriage Return key and the unfortunately positioning of the CAPS LOCK key directly beneath it.

The keyboard layout is exactly the same as on the Atari 800 machines. This has probably been done to make the machines totally compatible. It would have been nice if the cursor keys could have been moved though - you have to press the control key with the -, =, + and * keys.

The graphics facilities of the machine are extremely good: 16 graphics modes and 256 colours are available. There are 16 main colours and the other colours are obtained by adjusting the luminence of the colour. However, only five of the main colours can be used at any one time. Text is displayed as 40 columns x 25 lines and five different text modes are available. The maximum high resolution screen is 320 x 192.

Within the Basic there are commands to deal with most of the graphics and sound facilities of the machine, and of course colour is spelt the American way, COLOR. Having graphics commands resident in the machine is certainly one up on Atari's major competitor Commodore.

Atari 130 XE Right View

Verdict

The Atari 130XE should certainly be a winner. With 128K of RAM, superb graphics and sound facilities, a plethora of software already available and a very attractive price tag, other manufacturers must be getting worried.

Specifications

Software: Atari Basic, compatible with Atari 65XE and 800XL computers
Processor: 6502C, 1.79MHz
RAM: 128K
ROM: 24K
Display: 11 graphic modes, 256 colours, 320 x 192 highest resolution, 5 text modes, 40 x 25 text display
Sound: 4 voices, 3 1/2 octave range
Keyboard: 62 Keys, including 5 Function Keys
Interfaces: Cartridge, TV, monitor, 2 controller ports, serial I/O connector
Price: £169.99