The Mega ST Vs The Macintosh SE

Atari's Mega ST next to Apple's Macintosh SE

The Atari Mega ST Vs The Apple Macintosh SE

There comes a point when you just have to do it, and you can’t put it off any longer.  Something that you’ve dreamed of doing for decades, but have never had the chance to do properly, at least not until now.

What am I talking about?

I’m talking about comparing the Apple Macintosh SE with the closest equivalent Atari made, the Mega ST, that’s what. First though, a little history on both machines and why they are both so similar.  

Both machines use the 8MHz Motorola MC68000 processor and have a maximum RAM ceiling of 4MB, which considering the processor can access up to 16MB, seems a little stingy to say the least.  Both machines have high quality mono displays and both machines have native support for colour.  With that last statement, I imagine many will recoil in horror shouting, “What did you just say?”

Yes, you read correctly, the Macintosh SE has native support for colour, was the first (And only) 68000 based mac to do this and also has a similar colour depth to the ST at 3 bits per colour. Though like the ST, the SE could not do this on the mono screen, tt could however drive a colour display directly from the graphics subsystem with a suitable adapter installed, and with many of the graphics cards that were made for the machine at the time, drive a higher resolution colour display than many PC’s of the time.

Something that seemed to be a thing of these machines time, angular mouse design. 

The Mice

ST Mouse ProfileSE Mouse Profile

The mouse for each machine seems to have been designed with a ruler, a protractor, and very little else.  While they are ok for short-term use, using them over an extended period of time can be uncomfortable.  That said, the keyboards on both machines are excellent, and the Mega ST’s keyboard is often described as the best keyboard Atari ever made (Personally I think the one on the Stacy is better, but that’s my opinion).

The Keyboards

What else do the machines have in common?  Well they both were the first machines to introduce a processor direct expansion slot to their respective families and both were released around 1987.  So you see, they are pretty similar and ideal candidates for a face off!

Round 1 – Expansion…

In the Atari corner, we have the venerable Atari Mega ST, complete with mono monitor running TOS 1.04.

In the Apple corner, we have the Apple Macintosh SE, with single floppy drive and a 40MB hard drive, running Mac OS 7.0.

As mentioned above, both machines have an expansion slot, which connects directly to the Motorola MC68000, in effect on both machines they are what Apple would call a ‘Processor Direct Slot’, bringing the processors address, data and control lines out for a card to connect to and talk directly to the processor.

Mac SE Ports

Mega ST Ports

They also have serial ports, though Apple use the slightly more convoluted RS422 standard, Atari stick with the RS232 standard, and also included the usual parallel printer port and the ASCI interface from the rest of the ST series.

This however is where I think Atari missed the point with the Mega ST as the SE includes a standard (For the time) SCSI 1 interface, all be it with the more chunky connector, but still a better and more standard interface.  By the time the Mega ST’s were being designed, it was pretty obvious that SCSI was becoming the standard for connecting high speed and high storage devices, so missing this of what Atari were pushing as a professional machine, was in hindsight a mistake.

However, we’re not done on this section yet…

While the Atari machines had built in MIDI, the Apple Macintosh had to use additional interfaces to talk to the music world, this connected to another RS422 port which was generally set aside for networking (In fact later Atari machines would implement this same port, namely the TT030, Mega STE and Falcon030 and be able to utilize the same interfaces).

Round 2 – Form Factor

You have to hand it to Steve Jobs when it comes to the design of the original compact Macs, 2 cables emerge from the machine, one to provide power and the other to connect the keyboard (Ok, a 3rd if your connecting a MIDI interface).  The Atari on the other hand has a power cable per device, in this case 2 (3 if you add a hard drive), plus the monitor cable and the keyboard cable.  Thankfully in both cases, the mouse plugs into a port on the keyboard, but when it comes to neatness, compared with the SE the Mega is a mess.

But on the plus side, you don’t have to have the monitor on top of the base unit, whereas with the Mac, there is little you can do.  Want the monitor higher up?  Sure, but remember the floppy drive may be more difficult to reach!

When placed side by side though, the SE does look a little like a toy computer, and compared with the ST’s 640 x 400 screen resolution in high resolution mono mode, the Macs 512 x 342 resolution does look a bit restrictive.

Side By Side

But the default settings on an Atari SM1224 mono monitor mean that the display has a comparatively huge black border around it, making the actual picture smaller than the picture on the SE’s screen, even though the screen resolution is higher.  Quite why Atari seemed to think we needed such a large border is beyond me, but I have yet to see an Atari mono monitor of the time factory shipped with a smaller border.

Which brings us on to…

Round 3 – The display…

It has to be said that the displays of both the Mega ST and the Macintosh SE are both clear and crisp, even after all these years.  Even though the SE has a disadvantage when it comes to the number of pixels it has, the use of the available space is very efficient.  In use you generally don’t notice as applications for each machine are optimized to the available screen space.  In fact with the 2 machines side by side, to the casual observer it looks like the Mac has the bigger screen, simply due to the lack of border around the viewing area.

Which nicely brings us on to…

Round 4 – The Operating System…

It is generally regarded that the Apple Macintosh Operating System was the benchmark by which other Operating Systems either stand or fall.  Certainly at the time of the SE and Mega ST’s release, this was considered true.  Microsoft’s Windows was a rather poor implementation that ran on top of DOS, hardly something you would consider capable of world IT domination.

Atari’s TOS/GEM combination was a pretty good contender, even though it lacked many of the Mac OS’s features, such as multi-tasking, which by now was standard rather than optional on Mac OS.

ST Mono Screen

TOS also did not grace the ST with a large number of interface icons, neither did it give an easy way of adding more.  The Mac OS on the other hand allowed such things to be associated with files as part of the file systems resource fork, which made things nice to look at, but made file transfer notoriously difficult initially, as no other common file system allowed for resource forks, and Mac users often had to find ways of rebuilding or making these resources if a file came from a PC (Or an ST).  Later versions of the Mac OS made things easier, though it could still catch out the unwary.

SE Screen

Speed wise, in use the Mac OS on the SE is a little slower to do certain operations, such as open windows.  It feels a little slicker in other operations and even though there is only a single button on the mouse, the whole machine is simple to use and find your way around.

The ST feels quicker, even though the underlying hardware is almost the same, though it has to be said that some of this speed comes at the expense of some of the Mac OS’s nicer touches, such as remembering where icons are placed in each window.

That of course, is a nice to have feature, and not the be all and end all of computer use, but there is another thing that slows the Mac OS down and allows the ST to speed ahead…

The whole of the ST’s operating system is held in ROM, if you boot from a blank floppy the ST will take you to a desktop and await your commands.  If you do that on a Mac, you will get folder icon with a question mark over it.  This is because the operating system is held on either floppy or hard disk, and the ROM is a set of common routines, such as window drawing, menu generation, Icon types and routines for handling resources.  Working in this way allows you to build a bigger operating system, but require less memory as the common routines are always available in ROM, and the only RAM required are space for variables and contents, not for drawing routines.

The Mac, although seeming slower has a more ‘comfortable’ feel to it in the way it feels more complete than TOS 1.04 does, but then the original Mac OS was developed over a few years, while the ST operating system was put together quite quickly, seemingly in a matter of months.

More information is available at http://www.folklore.org on the development of the Mac OS, and at http://www.dadhacker.com/blog/?p=995 and http://www.dadhacker.com/blog/?p=1000 for the development of TOS.

Round 5 – Overall impressions…

So which one is actually the best?

Well to be honest that is a subjective question, much as I love the ST series, there is something about the SE that puts it above the ST in use, however that’s more the feel of the operating system.  By the time the SE launched, the Mac OS had progressed a great deal from the version shipped with the Mac 128K back in 1984, but other than a few refinements in TOS, the addition of the Blitter chip and a more business like case, the Mega ST wasn’t that much different to the original ST launched not long after the original Mac.  The SE is faster than the original 128K Mac, in part due to the extra memory, better and more advanced custom chip design and also due to improvements in the OS, but in use the Mega ST still feels that bit faster, even though the underlying hardware is pretty much the same speed.

But for me, when it comes down to it, I have to prefer my first true windowed OS based computer, the Atari ST, the machine that set me on the path that led me here.  Not necessarily because it is a better machine, but because it feels right for the way I like to work.

Your opinion of course, may well vary. That's what forums are for...