Thursday, September 10, 2015

exxos

Exxos is pretty much a hardware genius who is always thinking of interesting ways to make our favourite retro computer even better. He has rescued old websites like Atari Music, UVK and also hosts ST Format cover disks along with the entire FloppyShop archive.

Yep, he never seems to stop and will certainly be the only guy I'll trust to upgrade my own Atari ST. Chris is superb, a genuine guy with a legendary technical knowledge of the internal workings of our Atari computers! So I thought it was time that we all got to know a little more about this soldering-iron geek. Now, this is a pretty big interview so go and grab yourself a coffee, sit back, relax and read. I hope you all enjoy this as much as I have?

My thanks to Chris for taking the time off from his busy schedule to write (waffle on!) and produce one heck of an interview! Don't forget that coffee folks and enjoy the reading about one of the biggest players on the scene today.


Mr Exxos, please tell us about yourself.

Hello Steve :) Well my real name is, as most know, Chris Swinson aka exxos. I should point out that I am not the company EXXOS who some confuse me for :) My handle is all lower case as not to confuse ;) I used to work in electronics repair for about 10 years. This was the leisure industry, So all kinds of fruit & arcade machines to juke boxes I have repaired over that time. My main area was Audio systems, From CD players, to higher power amplifiers to electromechanical juke boxes. I also ran the company BBS system, which was a dial-up network for depot's around the UK to download software updates. That system sucked, so I re-wrote the software myself in VB6. Things which took hours to do, now took just moments. Also the Eprom software was useless, so all that was re-wrote as well. The company sure had its money worth out of me that's for sure. I had awesome time and learned to repair thousands of types of electronics equipment. Got to know a lot of interesting people, some of which I still keep in touch with on Facebook. Some sadly I have heard passed away over the years.

Towards the end of my time in the industry it just become too repetitive for me. I really wanted to work on designing my own hardware than repairing other peoples "junk". I saw so many items fail due to manufactures "cost cutting" or "cutting corners" that a lot of otherwise good equipment would fail often over silly little things. So I learned a great deal on a lot of equipment and why it failed. I also kept coming to blows with the , lets just say, "upper management". It wasn't just myself though, I think about 90% of the staff walked out in the last few years I was there due to similar issues. It was the type of problems where the managers would come up with something stupid, then when it all failed, the "workers" would get it in the neck for it. Some quick examples, was where one manager decided we had to push more paper work and document every fault we did during the day. Then they complained that production went down 50%, basically because we was spending so much time filling out paper work, we hadn't got enough time to do repairs. There was also things like they decided we wasn't allowed  to walk though the "old reception area" to get to our workshop, which was basically just 2 flights of stairs from walking into the reception area. They decided we had to walk to the other end of the building to clock in, then we had to walk all the way back again, then walk up 2 flights of stairs.. Basically the first day I got into the workshop 2mins late. Of course one manager followed me right across the building then went into my supervisors office for a good telling off for being late. Yes I was, first time in several years, basically because I had a extra 10min walk around the building!

The company was ran on agency workers, or temps, most didn't turn up the second day. As we were the electronics experts, it was our job to help out all the other workshops with all the technical problems. As the company had lost the majority of its skilled staff, we had to help out all the temps to the point that we was never in our own workshop and repairs basically stopped. So we then got in in the neck because nobody was doing repairs anymore. Of course these issues were endless. I had had enough of it all. We all got made redundant during a company take over. Which I think came at the right time. I was out of work for a few years, times were hard. I had to sell pretty much all my Atari gear to pay bills. I started up my own electronics company called CPS Electronics, where I designed some small audio circuits and designed circuits for people, even the PCB's and produced them. I was busy doing PCB's in my etch tank for various hobbyists to telecommunications companies. I brought a lot of electronics kits by Cebek and Velleman and had them on sale on my site. Things were starting to look up.. until it all came crashing down.

Sales dropped off, I was spending more and more money on stock and basically drove myself into bankruptcy. At the time I was taking phone calls helping people out. Though after a week of talking on the phone and not one single sale I decided to give up on phone support. I just couldn't afford the time and just had no time to do anything else. As for the sales, Basically ebay ruined that. With cheap parts and PCB's & services being accessible via eBay, it pretty much put me out of business overnight. So I joined the eBay revolution. I abandoned CPS Electronics all together and just started selling cheap electronics goods on eBay instead. My girlfriend and I moved into refilling ink cartridges and we had a really nice eBay company going. Though again, eBay ruined all that with ever increasing charges and making the sellers jump though impossible hoops.

Main problem was while we could refill the cartridges, we couldn't reset the chips. So the printer would show no ink, all people had to do was press OK and it would print fine. In fact the HP printers had a rubber pump so when the ink level dropped to low, it would go soft and a sensor would tell the printer they were out of ink. I spent weeks doing data sheets with easy screenshots, basically all saying "press OK". 90% of people just didn't "get it". I even wrote a website so people could follow step by step what do it, and nobody ever used it. So then the disputes started.

I was fighting disputes every hour of ever day. Not only that, other sellers were buying stuff to leave bad feedback as my items always came out in the top 3 searches on eBay. Then there was the idiots who would order a yellow cartridge, get a yellow cartridge, say they wanted a yellow one, even sent proof we sent a yellow one, then open a dispute because they wanted a yellow one and didn't get it. While fighting logic like that... well! So every single dispute was just nonsense. No help from eBay, all I got was suspended for a week because my DSR ratings fell so low. It actually made myself rather ill and I just couldn't cope with the stress of it anymore. I was being conned by buyers all over the place. Mysteriously 50% of packages "never arrived". So eBay would refund the buyer out of my money. I would lose the money and the item. Strangely, we started sending "signed for" and all these disputes vanished overnight. Clearly with eBay blaming me for issues and losing money with all the stress, I decided to close shop and never went back to selling on eBay. CPS electronics closed and I started "future technologies" which was basically a electronics design company. It was short lived and while the site is still up, I no longer get any work and really don't want to go back to it anymore.

Around the time I started my eBay shop, I also started an Audio company "HTM AUDIO UK".  I spent my time designing and looking for the best digital audio designs. I spent years and a lot of cash evaluating all kinds of hardware. I sold a lot of amplifier modules on eBay and also some theatres in London are using my audio technology. They were my main customer but with stocks going down and no other outlet since the closure of my eBay shop, then I regrettably had to close HTM Audio in 2014. I have started selling some modules in my Atari store as there is a few left still. I hope one day to finish my ultra high power design, but currently I just don't feel motivated to work on the audio side of things.

Around the time my father was busy, he was a self employed carpet cleaner. In the mix of things I decided to start up my own carpet cleaning company. Later my father regrettably was diagnosed with a rare type of cancer and passed away in early 2014. So I took over his company and merged which is what I do now to make my living. Some may think a big, "WTH" going from electronics to carpet cleaning? Though after going for a few interviews and companies basically treating me like un-employed scum, I decided I just wasn't going to work for any company ever again. I want to be my own boss, make my own decisions and do things 100% my own way. Not only that, sitting in the same seat and the same bench for years, I just couldn't do it anymore. I needed to get out and about, meet new faces and get some exercise. Considering, I don't like people, don't like going places, and don't like exercise, I thought moving into this was the right thing to do. I now have a successful carpet cleaning company. The customer base isn't a "bunch of idiots" like on ebay. Mostly people who want to have their carpets clean are more "up market" people. I can be in a small flat one day and in a huge mansion the next. I love being free to be my own boss, I can work the hours I want as well. The electronics side isn't lost. My last modification was to add wireless to my equipment. I mean, in the this day and age, who wants to keep walking up and down 3 flights of stairs to turn the stuff on and off? So I likely have the worlds first remote controlled carpet cleaning machine. Awesome!

One thing not mentioned is, I was heavily involved with Tesla Coils in the late 90s and early 2000 era. Though while I was a member of some groups travelling down to Corby and later to Nottingham (I live in Staffordshire) and a lot of mailing lists. Problem there was some of my ideas got ripped off by others and I never got any credit for anything. That and a huge fallout with a lot of members over various things, the groups basically all fell apart. The events and mailing lists are still going, at least as far as I am aware. Though all the "old skool" guys like myself have all long since left. My goal is ultimately to replicate Tesla's wireless transmission of power experiments. This hasn't been done in over 200 years and it remains sceptical by "everyone" that the experiment is impossible to work how Tesla mentioned in his notes. This isn't the "wireless power" like "wireless phone charges" or other toys like that. I am talking serious wattage over great distances.

As many know, I have been trying to build a shed at my girlfriends for the past few years so I can once again start up my experiments. Last time I powered up was in the house. I managed to fry my dads radio tuner, basically because it had a antenna.. which picks up radio power.. only my radio power was a tad to high and fried it. Also I fried my mums TV, oddly that also had a antenna. An unexpected side effect was the mile long telephone cable which ran to the local phone exchange. The BT guy never figured out why the card in the exchange was melted when they are apparently protected against lightning strikes. As to what killed the exchange remains a mystery.

Of course it was cool to watch all the metalwork in my workshop sparking to everything else. I once had my carpet glowing purple, that was awesome, talk about your hair standing on end! High voltages are just awesome. Can light up lamps without any wires, statically charge things several feet away and then get them to light up lamps. The whole thing is just awesome. I really want to get back into these experiments, and with digital cams being affordable in recent years I want to document my work better this time. There is some work on my website though it has not been updated for a long time.


Which Atari computers are you using?

The odd thing is, I don't actually use any working Atari at least currently anyway. I just don't have the time :( My trusty STFM had a video fault a year ago, so its been in bits. That was really 1MB RAM and my 1.44 floppy upgrade. It was a really old machine. Though once I get some time I plan on updating it and bringing it back to life. That machine was at my girlfriends were we mostly played games.


What is your own Atari hiSTory?

I got a 2600 way back, it was my first "computer". I loved that thing. I still have it with 4 or 5 games I think. I remember playing pole position to the point that it wasn't so much what score I could get, but how many times I could loop back around to 0000000. After while I wanted something better. I was probably around 14 at the time. I saved like crazy to buy a STFM. I found it was on offer at a local computer shop, so managed to buy it. Thanks to my father for putting the last few quids towards it! Later I brought my Falcon 030 and that was pretty much it I think. A long time after buying my STFM, I got distracted into wanting to do hardware for it. My first design was a 1.44 floppy kit. Basically it resulted in me killing that machine. Though as ST's were flooding onto eBay I could buy machines for less than 10quid and fiddle that way. That's pretty much what I still do all these years later :)


Are you retro gamer?

I used to years ago. Not so much in recent years as all my time is taken up with work or hardware development. I loved games like, Super Cars 2, Termodroid, Squareoff, Dungionz, Starquake, Xenon, Vroom, Chuck Rock, Castle Master. That game took me 25 years to finish, my girlfriend helped a bit ;) Back in the day, games were expensive and cash was limited, so mostly I was doing a few swaps with game menus like automation. Though I had very few games back then. A lot were free on cover disks.


Your website is huge!

STOS is the main section on my site, I try to keep everything STOS related all in one place. The games, I could do more pages, but with larger indexes and others hosting them, then I don't think its worth taking up the drive space with re-hosting the same stuff. My site actually comes to around 35GB!

I wrote the Floppyshop site as a searchable index where people could search and download PD. Almost everyone will have a copy of the collection, but just having a copy isn't using the stuff. I felt a lot of PD was simply "lost" so The Floppyshop page was born.  Sadly the page got practically no hits and wasn't ever used. I had almost completed "FAST PDL" and wanted to upload that, though with time being limited and no interest, that project was abandoned. I have Automation and a lot of other game menus on my site. Years ago I uploaded them all onto funnet FTP. It was all on dial-up and think it ended up costing me around £400 in internet & phone charges to do that. I had little money back then, so I really struggled to pay it off. I tried selling PD CD's and tracker CD's, but they never sold.

I have cloned some sites which are important. Recently I hosted the UVK2000 site and took over atarimusic.net which is a total mess to say the least. I barely got it running on my sever, and its a wonder it ever worked at all. I spent much time debugging that site, getting it in some form of working order. Though there is that much wrong with it, I started coding a new site. Though same old story, lack of time, I had to put it on hold. Though I wonder if its really worth investing the time fixing the site and updating it if nobody is ever likely to use it. It probably will get done eventually, though its not high up on my to do list. I've basically been rescuing sites lately it seems. I've taken over hosting for the STEEM Engine emulator. Steve does a great job maintaining it and when he ran into hosting issues, I helped him out. I use Steem a lot myself and its to important for it not to be easily accessible.


What's the fascination with STOS?

The main reason I wanted a computer was to write my own games. I remember looking though Argos year ago, seeing a few pages of Atari ST's in various "packs". I went for the discovery pack as it had STOS "the game creator" so its the one I went for. Oddly there was only 1 Amiga for sale that I remember, which looked a bit "dull" software wise so I never went into Amigas. So you could say if Argos never had the discovery pack with STOS included, then I may not have ever kept with Atari's.

I did do some programs. Though they got rejected by the PD houses, basically because there was to many typos or spelling errors in stuff. They were programs like "Data Card" which was like a address book type program. The only stuff which saw light was MEGA Diskzine where I did 4 issues, with help from a few others. With STOSSER vanishing at the time, I wanted to do my own zine and keep the programming aspect in STOS, but also add Tesla coil type stuff, sci-fi or anything odd strange or cool. So MEGA was born. I barely got issue 4 out, contributions were next to zero. I was doing most of the work myself and about that time I had started full time work, So I simply didn't have time to do the coding anymore or write articles. I have a epic amount of STOS projects I started but never finished. Mostly I always hit the "ST is just to slow" to do anything I wanted. So later, when I got my Falcon, I started coding that and I always liked the game "Plop" on the ST so wanted to do a Falcon version. I contacted the guys who wrote Plop asking if I could get the source code, basically those guys were far from helpful and basically got told to bugger off in the end. So I did a Falcon port called "Its great". The playing screen was in 256 colours in 640x200 I think and I spent most of the time coding the AI. Due to lack of time, the game got abandoned although the last build is actually on my site still.

In the late 90s, I realised that the Atari machines were just not popular anymore. The Falcon just seemed to vanish along with the Atari mags, game houses the whole lot basically vanished over night. I built my first PC, 286, DOS thing and after some time later I got programming in VB6 where I started to port over my "its great game".  Though again, lack of time and really lack of motivation to finish it, it never got finished. Though about 2 years ago I did sort out a lot of old backup CD's and resurrected the game and fixed some bugs and compiled it. Though the A.I needed a lot of time to program, so it once again got put on hold. I did the odd tracker and chip tune back in the day, though later I moved over to the PC for music (shame on me I know). But I was a tracker guy, so I wanted something more powerful. All my released tunes are on my website.


Do you have a favourite upgrade?
Anything exotic planned?

I think my favourite  must be the 1.44 floppy kit. It marks the first kit I designed and got working and its even still produced today. While most of my work is in the boosters, I of course like the V2 for example. But once something is designed and finished, I somehow start to hate the thing. Its old, I could do better, I want to add more features. So Its design pretty much goes out the window and I am always thinking 2 or 3 steps ahead into the future.

I have so many things on the go currently I can't keep up. My own designed PSU has become popular, so with people asking about a more Falcon specific version, I have designed and got the PCB's made for that. Though no time to build one up and do the testing yet. I also have designed a MEGA STE PSU, but that had to go on hold as it's proving difficult to squash the whole design into the PSU case.  So I am not sure what to do about that currently. so its taken a back burner for now. I also have designed and basically built a STM PSU. Those external types are failing as well, so I have not forgotten about those. I already brought a stock pile of bits to go into production, but again, lack of time to work on it. At some point I was doing Falcon video adapters, for VGA and Scart.. again, lack of time to do the work on it. I also have a new Falcon RTC module under design. Again this is doing slow due to lack of time. Though likely that may see the light of day over the next few weeks.

As many know, I am still working on the CPU boosters. I recently went into production with the V1 STE booster which runs at 32MHz. I've basically hit the limit speed wise of the 68000. So I have drifted over to the 020 and 030 CPU now. Ultimately I want something along the lines of a 50MHz 030 CPU, with 32bit access to ROM & Fast-RAM. Though this project is riddled with issues like you wouldn't believe. Likely there will be some 030 32MHZ 16bit boosters appearing first. Then once that design is stable, move over to 32bit. Again lack of time is the main issue, as all my free time is going on building PSU's and putting together the STE boosters. I think a 32MHZ 030, even with 32bit ROM & Fast-RAM likely wouldn't take to long to do. In fact I've already designed it, but I am held up with some PLD programming issues so I need to solve that first.. again lack of time is the main hold up there. Going back to the STM, I designed some more universal TOS 1.4 upgrade kits. Though finding the time to assemble and test them is proving difficult. So I am not sure when they will be on sale.

I would like to design a lot of things, like a simple 030 booster for the Falcon (yes 030). Clocking it to 50MHz with fast-ram would be a nice little simple booster. Though when you look at all the hardware I am producing now, with what I am trying to develop, I am just not going to live enough years to complete it all :)  I'd really like to see some drop in replacements for the main ST chips, like MMU done in FPGA. Then the chips can be operated faster, and things like ST-RAM can be clocked a lot higher easily along with a 32MHz CPU. That would be awesome. Though someone else would need to develop the cores for it, as, I don't have time :)

I do plan to double clock the ST-RAM (and have done it actually last year) which gives a solid 200% boost. Though I want to mix that with possibly a 32MHz 030.. But that is a long way off. Likely once all current projects are completed, hopefully the ultimate ST booster, then it will likely be the end of items I will produce. Though this is likely 10 years worth of work currently... So many ideas and projects I want to do, though I have a day job like everyone else, so all this is done in my free time which is getting less and less it seems. I've not had much chance to work on the boosters much since last year now. I also seem to be getting distracted into helping people out with upgrading and repairing their machines. So while I am happy to help, while I am doing that work, I simply don't have time to work on other projects. So I think some tough choices will have to be made in what actually gets into production and what doesn't in the future. I am after all, only one person :)


England's own Jookie / Lotharek? Tell us more!

I don't really know why I do this stuff lol. I guess I just love to design stuff and seeing it working in a computer just gives me a warm fuzzy feeling. I think its an addiction. Like when I produce the first 16MHz booster, I though yayyyy I've done it, its stable, now onto 32MHz... It never ends. Just seeing those benchmark results pushing up higher and higher just wants me to push them up ever more.

I'd like to get the super speed hard drive working properly that I have been working with P.Putnik for a while. Though we are both so busy that the project always takes a back seat. We have jookie producing Ultrasatan so it's not like there is a huge rush or demand for more drives. One thing I try and avoid is producing stuff that others are doing. For one it's not really fair on jookie if I produced a hard drive, though it's a bit pointless basically re-inventing something which is already been produced. Similar with lotharek and likely others also. So it's one reason I am not in a hurry to finish the hard drive off. It does run super fast, a lot faster than any other drives, but with possible DMA issues, its hard to get reliable write operations. So while I could produce a slower drive, its nothing new as it were. If I can produce a drive which is super fast, then that would be something people could be interested in.

One thing which really doesn't help, is when others start producing items the same as I am doing and possibly selling them cheaper. Here I am talking about PeST, a project which enabled the use of a PS2 mouse on the Atari. I had a fair amount of sales with that, and its what funded my developments back then. Problem being, when I started to move away from ebay, my sales started to drop. Not only that, I think some polish guys started selling a similar adapter and it basically put me out of business. Of course I was making some money from those sales, but it was being invested in other developments at the time. So it halted progress for a long time as I simply had no funds to continue work. Though its one reason I started moving onto boosters as people would be less likely to try and start selling some sort of “clone”. In a way, its good that people are producing hardware for these old machines but pretty much all the sellers are just in it to make a few quid profit. For me, the money I make on sales of items goes back into the “project fund pot” so the more sales, the more cash I have to produce more hardware. I don't just pocket the money and that's it, it all gets invested into more developments. While money is tight for a lot of people, I can understand them going for a cheaper product, but its also a slight kick in the teeth as I am trying to support the community and a lot of people just buy something else instead.

For example, if I sold some Atari part for £5 more than anyone else, most will go for the cheaper item. Its just human nature to find the deals, I do it all the time. Though that extra £5 on my sale is considered a donation. Where that money is invested into future developments. I mean its not like my items are £100's more than anyone else's. Just a pity there wasn't more people willing to send a burger or a coke my way kinda thing. A lot of people complain there isn't any new hardware developments for years then, when there is , they don't help support it. Don't get me wrong, there have been a lot of sales over the past few weeks with the V2 Booster going into production recently. Also the STE booster going into production along with the new PSU's. The V2 booster sales funded the ST PSU project, The ST PSU funded the Falcon PSU etc. So you can see how it all works. If it wasn't for those guys buying my items, then likely I would have given up and closed shop a long time ago. So big thanks to those customers as they really help fund more productions which at the end of the day, helps more people and gives me motivation to continue.


Your girlfriend deserves a medal for all the silicon clutter!
How many Atari ST's are dismembered?

Well, I don't live with my girlfriend, its why I am not around on weekends. I've taken over her space with all the Atari stock, she doesn't mind one bit. She has the stock which is for sale, and she packs the orders and posts them for me. No surprise I just don't have enough time to pack orders and make trips to the post office. So everyone in Atari land should be thankful she posts the stuff for me.

I'm not sure how many ST's I have. Probably about 10 STE's, maybe 30 STFM's and then about 30 various motherboards. In general it seems to cost about £35 for each machine as a general figure.  So around £2,500 probably in machines alone. If you priced up all the upgrades as well, that would be tough. Things like the V2 booster, they are about £65 each, If I have 20 of them its £1,300 worth of stock. Similar with the 4MB MMU RAM upgrade kit, they are about £65 as well. I think I totalled that stock to over £2,000 a while ago. So if you factor in I have on sale around 40 different items, some are not expensive parts though, then you could probably take a guess of what the stock is worth In total. I would guess somewhere around £15,000 of current stock. Though that doesn't include the huge piles of PCB's everywhere either. A lot of “stock” items are built up as I get orders for them, so I could have 100 PCB's but only 20 made it to “stock”. I could probably take a guess that if everything was put into stock it would be around £50,000.

I can't keep huge stock levels, as if you price up every single part, for every single upgrade, then the cost would be far greater than I could afford.  I think a lot of people don't realise the costs involved with it all. I'm paying around £200-£300 in parts every month for keep the kits I sell in production. I spent about £100 yesterday just on transformers. Also around £200 couple weeks ago for ROM's for the STE boosters. So while I do try and keep a small stock of everything I produce, I just can't afford to keep huge stocks of everything, plus with my day job I just don't have time to spend a couple weeks building up a 100 of something. Though with items not being in huge demand, My aim is to build small batches of items. That way I can get bulk buy some parts a little cheaper to keep costs down. There is no use in having 50K worth of stock if only a handful of items sell so I have to be very careful.


Where did Atari go wrong?

Oh gosh. I think this has been a huge debate for a long time. Lack of expansion seems to be popular. Though the ST did have the cartridge port which could do a fair few things. Atari knew expansion was needed as they produced the MEGA with a expansion port. While the ST wasn't born with PCI slots to easily update it (PCI wasn't invented for some years later aka sarcasm maybe) I think Atari limited the ST's design too much. Everything is just so tangled up that if Atari had some better forethought and built the ST with the idea that one day people might want a faster CPU, then maybe there would have been a lot more hardware add-ons produced by 3rd parties such as Fast-technologies etc. If people could have just cut the clock pin on the CPU and ran a higher clock speed and have it all work fine, then I think a lot more powerful machines would have appeared and maybe the ST range would have lived a little longer. This backs onto my second point. I heard the Falcon was basically a 030 bolted on the STFM's bus... If Atari also produced a 030 addon upgrade for the ST, then likely they would have sold a lot. Atari also added better graphics, which was much needed, a DSP for sound stuff, so the Falcon updated the ST's design into the next generation. In that respect they did a really good job. Atari should have been clocking 50MHz 030 and have released it at least 2 years sooner.

I think Atari fell into a type of "trap" which is something I try to avoid myself actually. Why do a ST 030 booster when we can have a whole new machine? Why stop at that even, lets spend more time on updating the video hardware. Why stop at that? Lets add a DSP to help those audio guys out, let people play tracker tunes on it without taking up CPU time. Lets updated this, and that and take several years doing so until we get a awesome machine that we want. The fundamental problem is, waiting too long to produce hardware, and producing hardware on a "as perfect as possible basis".

Take my hardware for example. I've only just developed the simple 32MHz booster. Four years ago I was producing the 16MHz simple booster. I had to design the 16MHz one first, make sure its stable, then build on that for the 32MHz design. If I had just jumped right to the 32MHz design, then it would have cost me all the research time and cost on the 16MHz stuff for starters. People would have had to have waited 4 years before they saw any hint of a booster. Even after sales of the 32MHz kit, I wouldn't get the money back which I invested with the 16MHz stuff. So after 32MHz sales, I would have no funds to develop the next series of booster. Also Atari had in the mix the STE, MEGA, MSTE, TT and also Jaguar. They had a really hard time in working out what would sell and what wouldn't. Of course its easy to say this 30 years later. Atari had problems with IBM PC's and the war of the consoles.  By the time Atari finished faffing about with all the machines, it was to late. They produced the Falcon which was just to little to late. If they had produced a ST addon card, a 030, with a DSP, then at least it would have given the ST series a speed boost. The DSP likely would attract music makers and even programmers to make us of it. Then if they kept it compatible with the upcoming Falcon, then software could be run on both machines then bring in the Falcon with its better video modes.

It goes back to lack of expansion really. If the CPU could run faster easily, then a lot more addons would have been built. Though in my eyes, Atari made one tiny little mistake in that respect, and basically caused a brick wall in CPU boosters. Of course back in the day there was no way to speculate that people would want a faster than 8MHz CPU. If Atari had "over clocking" in mind right from the start then I would think Atari machines would have lived a lot longer.

As for the PC side of things. Atari got people coding, but the hardware not being easy to update I think made it hard work for computer geeks of the time to do anything with them. The geeks wanted to upgrade and Atari couldn't deliver on that. Then IBM machines came out with huge ISA slots to upgrade anything really. More RAM, a plugin ISA card, better video, another ISA card. CPU's not so sure about back in those early days, though likely they could be overclocked or CPU's updated for faster versions without to much trouble. Of course Atari had the MEGA machines with a expansion slot and more room for it. I don't know the time lines back in the day. Though I would suspect Atari saw the IBM's as easy to upgrade, and becoming popular so they went over to a similar desktop looking machine. Though by which time, the IBM's had already had a huge foothold in the market so it was likely to late for Atari to seriously compete but its all speculation really.

Overall the Atari couldn't easily be upgraded which was the first nail in the coffin. Then when Atari did start with the 030 CPU, the second nail was they never produced it as a add-on kit. I think the geeks in the day would have loved to hack in a 030 into their ST's. It would have kept interest for hardware and software developers for a lot longer. Nobody has a crystal ball as to what will sell and what doesn't. Atari made the best choice they could probably make back then. They gave us the ST line of computers and they are sill around even today. If you asked a STE user do they want a “super STE” with an 030 CPU and no other upgrades, or a Falcon with lots of enhancements, but this would take 10 years longer, then you can probably bet people would want the “super STE” as they could always upgrade to a Falcon at a later time anyway.


What do you think of the current scene?

I think The Atari world hit a bit of a slump until fairly recently. There has always been a community, though it's not like the peek of the computer boom in the 80s kinda thing. There are more hardware guys about today like jookie developing hard drives for us. I think that has helped as people can download games images and play thousands of games.

I think sites like AtariCrypt are really good to have. Review games on there, there is like a billion games to which who knows what they are or if they are any good. So games being reviewed with videos and images I think really will help people out in the long run. For me, I have seen some interesting games which at some point I would like to have a go at. (Wow!! I never expected to read this. Thanks - Steve)

I think as people buy their First Atari ST, if the first couple games they play are just random, and the chances are they will be, lets just say, bad games. Just not enjoyable to play. It's likely going to put that person off and they may not bother with the Atari ST again. Though if there are sites reviewing games, good ones which are fun to play, then chances are those new Atari people will keep coming back for more and more games. But it's not just games, there are music people out there using MIDI stuff. I'm not sure if people would bother to do word-procession or print letters out these days, so I think Games and Midi are what people would most likely to use their machines for.


Does the Atari ST have a future?

I actually started a thread on just that on a forum not long ago. My concern is: as the ST's are failing, due to bad PSU's etc, in 10 years time there is likely not going to be any working Atari ST's. If they are maintained, like a new PSU etc, then the machines life is greatly extended. I think its important to keep these machines running, which is why I build things like new PSU's as its one of the most common things to fail. As you know, I have a lot of machines, and I was seeing PSU's fail all the time. It turned into a small epic where I now have a stack of about 30 PSU's all needing fixing. As many know, I want to increase the speed of the ST. While games were great, a lot of them could run smoother and faster to give a new depth of game play. Things like castle master run a lot faster even with a 16MHz boost and it's a lot more enjoyable to play without the 1 screen update every 2 seconds type of game play. If the old games were “even more enjoyable” to play, then that would be  good thing. Maybe in times to come, people will tweak games to make use of the faster CPU speeds in such kits.

I'd really like to see those FPGA guys develop a 100% “drop in” replacement for the various Atari chips. If the MMU could be updated to support SRAM and higher CPU speeds, then it would bring a huge gain in speed to all Atari apps and games. Though currently, its somewhat disappointing that nobody really wants to develop such cores. It's not something I have time to get into myself and I'm sure there are people who could do it, but a shame that people don't share the future vision of updating the original hardware. It also saddens me that the Atari docs of the custom chips have been lost. If us hardware guru's had the original schmatics of the MMU, GLUE, SHIFTER, DMA etc then we could port them over to a PLD, then update them, add more features. That would be totally awesome. Though I have basically given up looking for such diagrams. It looks like our old Atari's will have to stick with whatever boosters I can come up with. Next step as said before, is overclocking the MMU for faster ST-RAM access. I really wanted to avoid overclocking chips. All my booster designs so far use faster more capable chips. Though with no real alternatives to the MMU, overclocking is the one way forward.

The Atari community needs new blood, new young blood that is to keep going. Gamers shouldn't need their fancy high resolution 3D graphics to have fun. The Atari ST has a huge games list and I think there is far more variety than on today's PCs. Most games just seem to be running around shooting things but on the ST we have games like Pushover, Chuck Rock, Xenon and so many more which are still fun to play even after 30 years. I think the younger generation needs to see that they don't need a powerhouse to have fun gaming. Somehow think the Atari games will live on for a long time yet :)


- LINKS -

- I'm sure you all want to check out his website right now!
- Itching to see what he sells and is currently developing? I bet you are, then clickety click right here.
- Take a look at his FloppyShop website which is simply an AMAZING resource!!
- Don't forget to keep your Atari ST clean and free of those horrid virus' with the latest UVK!
- Here is a TV appearance which nicely follows up on the amazing interview with Chris Swinson!
- my MEGA ST thanks to Chris for this interview! AtariCrypt has many more to read right here. :-)