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Satandisk revolution?
CiH / Alive Team, cih(at)
A brief(ish) note before we get stuck in:- I've had this idea for an article to be taken in conjunction with my SatanDisk review to expand on the possibilities of this type of storage. This was intended for Alive Magazine, but with the disappearance of CXT, I decided that this specific article could not wait indefinitely and passed it to Evil to feature as a special article on the Dead Hackers Website. What further motivated me to get a push on and get it finished was the accidental release or 'escape' of the unfinished 'Hidden Agenda' demo at The Gathering party. Even in its semi-completed form, it seems to inadvertently embody some of the future directions that some ST(e) demos may well be going in the future. That's enough self-justifying, here's the article, and see you at Outline 2009!
A CiH asks, can one storage device possibly alter the paradigm of Atari computing on the ST?
Most of you will have been very much aware of the activities of Jookie and Mikro over the past couple of years. They brought us SatanDisk, popularising a new concept in bulk data storage for the ST, namely a solid state SD-card based solution. Yes, I am aware of things like the ST-IDE interface, and the possibility of doing it that way too. You will also be aware of a next-generation product called 'UltraSatan' which is on the way too. We'll draw a thick clingy veil over the antics of organisations like PayPal throwing unwanted delays into the lead time for production at this point!
SatanDisk and UltraSatan could be seen by some as just another storage device for the ST, but personally I think there could be more to these that could affect some of the future direction of Atari ST computing. I will seek to tell you exactly why during the course of this text.
Going back to the beginning, the mid to late eighties and there were hard disk solutions available for the ST. These tended to reflect the available technology of their time and could be measured in tens of megabytes of storage. Those tens of megabytes tended to be very expensive to purchase and therefore limited to a small pool of high end users. The low storage capacity meant that the user had to be somewhat selective about what they put on there. This meant important applications and data for important jobs and not a lot else. A distinct class divide grew up between the high-end serious users and the much larger community of cheap and cheerful gamers, casual hobbyists and demo fans who were quite happy to manage without any sort of hard disk at all.
Time marched on and the technology for hard disk storage improved. More recent hard disk systems offered more capacity in the hundreds of megabytes or gigabyte range. The prices dropped a bit too, but there still tended to be higher admission prices to the hard drive owners club than most casual users were willing to pay. New categories of people who were turned on to the benefits of hard drive storage might include the serious hobbyist (as opposed to power or business users) and amateur programmers (coders).
So you say that this potted history in two paragraphs is all very well, but what is the big deal about SatanDisk and UltraSatan?
Well for one thing, SatanDisk and UltraSatan are current and available products. The former has been overtaken by the latter, but schematics for both are available for the intrepid self-builder and there is a manufacturing run of the latter due to commence soon. The historical Ascsi solutions are not manufactured anymore and tend to be somewhat hard to find. You have to battle with "collectors" in Ebay-land when one does go for sale. These drives are also not getting any younger, like the rest of our hardware. I would be amazed if many of the very old ones such as the Atari Megafile drives are still working by now? The ST-IDE solution is out there and worthy of consideration and the cheap storage merits of SD-Cards are available there too, but it is not well advertised as such.
Where solid-state really gains legs over the opposition is the fact that it can offer a multitude of gigabytes worth of storage space. The UltraSatan can support up to 8GB. More importantly, the availability of cheap SD cards can multiply this by several times over a single fixed hard disk platter. Effectively you gain more storage space than you will ever need. The sheer plenitude of affordable storage space has implications all on its own, which I will discuss in more detail shortly.
The second killer app feature that SatanDisk and its ilk have in their favour is the easiness of communication with PeeCee's. Unlike most other ST storage media, which presents huge issues being read on modern PeeCee's, the SD-cards used here can be dual-formatted to be read and written to in both ST's and PeeCee's. UltraSatan with its dual card design nicely overcomes the single partition issue limiting the amount of SD-card you can use with your ST. In that case, you set up a low capacity SD-card as the 'transporter' or 'removable' data medium between the ST and PeeCee, and format the second card as high as it can go as a pure ST device.
So now we've got this lovely vastness of SD-card storage, what can we do with it?
To take an example plucked swiftly from the top of my head, you could have 'themed' collections on several individual SD-cards. One I'm intending to make for myself is a 'Best of STe' collection for those games and demos which thrive on the enhanced hardware. There seems to be more and more of a choice these days. I could also set up another card for classic oldies from the D-Bug collective, for those days where I just feel like turning the ST into a games console with lots of stuff to hand and no tedious floppy loading. There is an increasing choice of hard drive fixed games, and even some classic demos. Of course, serious and creative people could stock an SD-card with their choice of coding painting and music-making utilities and project files. In other words, the last example would be somewhat like a normal hard disk!
Moving swiftly on, you could have a series of heavily media-based SD-cards. Someone might be nutty enough to transfer the entire Fading Twilight collection to a card, (but first removing the non ST-playable .XM and MP3 files!) Alternatively, you could have stacks of movie files and pictures in the mother of all slideshows. I'm actually slowly collecting and converting truecolour pictures explicitly for use with enhanced palette image viewers like Photochrome. I will be sharing the best parts of this ongoing collection effort shortly.
Now this is where things get really interesting, as we look at the possibilities for the demo scene in particular.
Looking at where we are now, most new demos are hard disk installable, generally running as a file from the Gem desktop. Most people have this as a preferred option.  Even hardened oldschoolers like Leonard of Oxygene are recognising this and making a HD-friendly version of their defiantly floppy-only productions. The hyper-abundance of storage media combined with easy portability from the PeeCee means that new ideas expanding on this bare recognition are now possible.
We are all tediously familiar with the ongoing debate on the 'holy' memory (RAM) limit for both the ST and Falcon. The acceptable figure for the former being 1 MB since Delta Force was knee-high to a Sammy Joe. This 'holy' limit is being breached increasingly, often going to 2MB. What has not actually been raised before is the unwritten and unspoken holy two floppy disk limit for ST demos. Apart from rarities such as the Phaleon Gigademo and the Japtro by Holocaust, no-one has ever gone beyond the two disk maximum. Both of these examples are memorable because they are so unusual. Two disks have always been considered 'enough' room for ST demos before.
It appears that this previously unchallenged holy limit for data delivery on an ST is under increasing strain and may need a new approach? A recent example was the Dead Hackers Society 'More or Less Zero' demo, where perhaps the holy two-disk limit might not have been quite enough. I clearly recall that there was a little concern expressed with the amount of sampled music allowed to fit it all on there?
With an act of brilliant if coincidental timing, a newer STe demo was shown at the 2009 edition of The Gathering which inadvertently shows that old solutions are being outgrown. This was the incomplete 'Hidden Agenda' demo mentioned at the start of this article. It is worth mentioning that this demo was not originally intended to grow out of the parameters of 'normal' and would be made to fit on floppy and run on a standard STe. At the Gathering, due to the last minute addition of sampled music, the issue of fitting it all in was approached with some degree of backwards logic by some of the coders. In its present form, it can only currently run on a hypothetical emulated STe with 14 MB ram! The more rational solution of spooling the demo a bit at a time from a hard disk into limited RAM seem to have been missed or dismissed at this point?
With a new storage solution such as UltraSatan or even any other hard disk, Hidden Agenda or its successor can forget the floppy and have very large song samples loading in as sections at a time. It could also have even more raw graphics data and movie sequences loaded into a demo and streamed from within. The best part is that you won't need 14 MB of ram. You will also get a much richer experience from a graphics and sound viewpoint than two floppy disks can provide.
The ultimate expression of this could be something like a STe remake of the fabulous 'Lost Blubb' demo, just as a wild idea from the top of my head!
Interestingly, the holy two-disk limit was never an issue on the Falcon, as a hard disk was part of the standard set-up from the start. People making demos for the Falcon felt less constrained by an invisible unwritten 'holy' data storage limit and were more freely expressive with chunkier data files from an early stage.
SatanDisk and UltraSatan can rewrite the holy scriptures of data storage into something less constricting. The clumsiness of moving larger data files is overcome with the easy PeeCee transfer to SD-card. The availability of cheap multi-megabyte and multi-gigabyte storage means you don't have to compromise if you want to put in lots of graphics and sound data into your brainblasting demo.
You might reasonably ask why is this not done with emulators, which in theory have the same advantage as SatanDisk and derivatives? Emulators seem to be taken up by people who most often revert to old habits of usage, treating it as floppy based system from 1990. The easy availability of .MSA disk images compounds this pattern. People who are aware of a hard disk option and code and develop on emulators also seem to treat the environment like their old machine, so there is no new thinking done. Maybe with the cheap, easily portable and abundance storage provided by UltraSatan and Satandisk, it is now time to rethink the possibilities?
In a world of extreme optimisation this won't be for everyone of course, but having superabundant storage media ought to give some people a fresh insight into new possibilities. I'd like to hear your thoughts and views on this.
CiH - April 2009, Possibly for Alive Magazine, reproduced on with full consent and blessing.
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