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Article #48 (74 is last):
Newsgroups: freenet.sci.comp.atari.product.8bit.reviews
From: aa700@cleveland.Freenet.Edu (Michael Current)
Subject: Animation Station / hardware
Posted-By: xx004 (aa700 - Michael Current)
Reply-To: aa700@cleveland.Freenet.Edu (Michael Current)
Date: Fri May 15 18:22:52 1992

Reprinted from the Pandora BBS (614)-471-9209



           Sept. 7, 1986
      (Reviewed by Art Canfil)

  I just bought an "Animation Station"
(from Suncom), and have been fooling
around with it this weekend.  It's
impressive in both it's strengths and
flaws, and I'd like to share some of
both with the BBS users here.

  The package retails for $79.95, and
includes both hardware (a Koala-like
pad), and software ("DesignLab").
There are versions of Animation Station
for several popular microcomputers.
This review will deal only with the
Atari 8-bit version.

  First the hardware:

  The Animation Station pad is similar
to the Koala pad or the Atari touch
pad.  It measures slightly larger than
a Koala Pad.

  The most important physical
difference between the AS and the Koala
is that the AS sensor pad is
rectangular, like a TV or monitor
screen, not square, as with the Koala's
sensor pad.  This means a much more
realistic "feel" for freehand artwork.
(It also meant that I had to readjust
my coordination to compensate for a
couple of years using the Koala Pad.)

  The AS pad has two buttons -- the top
one is called "UNDO", and the bottom is
called "DO" -- and these sets of
buttons are conveniently placed on both
right and left sides of the pad.
(Equally handy for the "Lefties" out
there!)

  On the back side of the pad is a
handle-like extension that swings out
to allow the pad to tilt up at a handy
angle on a desk or table.  (I
personally keep the handle closed,
preferring to use the AS pad in my
lap.)

  The AS pad also has a tiny switch at
the lower-right corner, which is
supposed to allow the pad to emulate
"paddle, keyboard, mouse or joystick
control" (according to the slickly-
printed box's claim).  This comes
perilously close to being a damned lie:
the few games using paddles might be
played with the AS pad, I suppose,
though rather awkwardly.  But special
software would have to be written for
the AS pad to function as "keyboard"
(huh?) or as a "joystick"!  Certainly
the pad does  substitute for a
joystick in the existing programs I
tried.  (As for it emulating a mouse, I
won't comment, having never had reason
to use a mouse with an 8-bit Atari.)

  One last functional item regarding
the hardware half of the Animation
Station package: when using software
other than that included with the
product (I used MicroIllustrator), the
pad behaves as follows:  Whenever the
stylus is lifted, the cursor zooms to
the upper-right hand corner of the
screen.  (With a Koala Pad, the cursor
disappears when the stylus is not
pressing the sensor pad surface.)
Because of the way MicroIllustrator
works, this makes the AS pad very
awkward to use, and tends to leave
nasty, unexpected lines between the
last place one was drawing and the
upper-right corner!  This would
probably be a major handicap when using
many other programs, as well.  Flipping
the "emulator" switch back or forth
seems to have no effect.  (As far as my
experiments have been able to
determine, the emulator switch does
nothing at all!)

  The cream-colored case appears as
tough as a Koala Pad (tough as nails),
and the cord length is adequate.  A
nice plastic stylus is included, and
the pad has a hole for its storage.

  In summary of the hardware:

  A very much improved sensor pad,
ergonomically speaking.  But there's a
serious hardware problem in that the
pad thinks it's always being pressed.
And Suncom makes claims about the pad's
utility which would tend to mislead
most potential purchasers.

  Now for the software:

  The included DesignLab software and
data files (by Baudville, Ltd.)
impressed me immediately with their
power and intuitive design.

  I have a copy of RAMbrandt, as well
as MicroIllustrator (a.k.a. "Atari
Painter" and "Koala Painter", I
understand).  RAMbrandt is the "power"
painter's tool, but I find it buggy in
some areas and so un-intuitive to use
that it's a pain in the rear.
(The fact that it makes files in FORTH
disk format, for instance, means I
spend lots of extra time laboriously
translating file formats -- and
sometimes making fatal mistakes.)
MicroIllustrator is highly intuitive,
generally a pleasure to use.  It
appears to be entirely bug-free.  But
M-I doen't have many "bells and
whistles".  Not even a "spray" brush,
or the ability to move stuff around on
the screen (windows and stamps).  Nor
does M-I have "text" functions.  (You
have to go into "magnify" and make your
letters from individual pixels.)

  But DesignLab has many "power"
features, yet is very "ergonomic" and
"intuitive" (techno-babble words for
"easy to use").

  DesignLab allows many fine aids for
painting, as well as several handy
shape table files which can be loaded
(and the shapes then rotated and/or
flipped).  The shape files are
especially useful for the non-artist in
us all.  Font files can also be loaded,
and then one can hit the "text" icon,
place the cursor anywhere on a PIC with
the pad, and start typing from the
keyboard.  The software supports screen
dumps using Epson, Gemini, Panasonic,
or Okidata Okimate printers.  The whole
PIC can be scrolled in any direction on
the screen, in a wrap-around manner.
Available hues and luminosities are the
same as with MicroIllustrator, but
mixing can be done with the four main
selected colors by user choice.
Windows can be defined on the screen,
then moved, or even saved as window
files on disk.  And on, and on...  And
almost everything is done without
having to put down the AS pad to hit
the keyboard.

  I was so impressed by the whole
hardware/software combination that I
immediately called several friends
about my fantastic buy.  Later, after
two days of using the DesignLab
software, my feelings are much more
mixed.

  Problem 1: The PICs produced by the
D-L software are not compatible with
either MicroIllustrator or
MicroPainter.  I was able to load D-L
PIC files onto my screen using
"SEEPIC", and dump to my Epson without
trouble.  Using MegaFont II, I was able
to do a screen dump to my Epson, by
telling M-F II that the D-L PIC was
"graphics 7+/8".  MicroIllustrator
refused to load D-L PICs at all,
claiming "file too short"(!)  The only
way I could "load" a D-L PIC into
RAMbrandt was by telling the program
that the file was in "Micro" format.
But when loaded, it did strange things
to RAMbrandt, and an Epson screen dump
from that program gave me four
disjointed parts of the PIC (some parts
were missing).  FADERII goes entirely
insane when it tries to load a D-L PIC.
 RainbowDOS can load a D-L PIC as a
Micro-Painter file, but trying to load
one as a Koala file causes RainbowDOS
to go berserk.  Lastly, Digit-a-View
will load the file, but produces the
wrong color values.

  Problem 2: All PIC files produced by
D-L are 62 (single density) sectors
long, regardless of the PIC's
complexity.  In contrast, a rather
complex M-I PIC file is about half as
long, and many run to less than a third
of that.  (I understand that M-I files
are in a "compacted" form.)  The large
files mean expense in both floppy disks
and connect time when uploading or
downloading these PICs.

  Problem 3: Bugs.  Not many, but they
run from irritating to disasterous when
they pop up.  For instance: the "fill"
function usually won't entirely fill a
complex shape.  Also, some functions
such as "fill" and the "oval" commands
have to be tried twice before they
actually work.  Worst, the disk I/O
sometimes "goes south", leaving one
with a PIC which can't be saved.  Not
even a directory listing can be made
when this happens.

  Problem 4: No provision is made for
creating or saving your own shape or
font files.
(But Suncom plans to  extra shape
file disks.)

  That's enough.  All I'd like to say
now is that this flawed product may
look very good after some hardware and
software bug fixes.  But consider the
pros and cons before paying your $80
for this intriguing product.

  A footnote: I like the product so
much even with its flaws, that I'd like
to see some good software hacker make a
program to convert files back and forth
between D-L, M-I, and M-P formats
(including a compression routine to
pare down the long files).

  Another, longer-range dream of mine
is to establish a standard for
medium-res (TV-limited), four-color
graphics, for use in most popular 8-bit
computers.  Some paint programs are
available for several machines, but I
have no idea if the data structure of
the files is compatible even with the
same-named program.  (Are Color
Computer MicroPainter files compatible
with MicroPainter files on the
Atari???)

  I plan to eventually start a BBS for
getting people with "incompatible"
systems together, and specializing in
cross-system graphics exchange (I call
this proposed public-domain standard
"ISIS" -- Inter-System Image Sharing),
and perhaps using the BBS for
exchanging "minimal BASIC" programs
runnable on most computers.

  Please contact me with comments on
this review, as well as the ideas I
snuck in at the end.
-- 
 Michael Current, Cleveland Free-Net 8-bit Atari SIGOp   -->>  go atari8  <<--
   The Cleveland Free-Net Atari SIG is the Central Atari Information Network
      Internet: currentm@carleton.edu / UUCP: ...!umn-cs!ccnfld!currentm
     BITNET: currentm%carleton.edu@{interbit} / Cleveland Free-Net: aa700





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