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9Jul/200

Atari Portfolio

This item popped up on eBay recently and I was very happy to have my offer accepted. The unit came even with a serial adapter! I quickly found 3 AA batteries and inserted them...

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The Atari Portfolio is an IBM-compatible 'Palm-top' PC from 1989. If you were paying attention whilst watching Terminator 2, then you would've noticed it was used to break into an ATM. You can even still download the software they used to fake the hack. The unit itself is just bigger than a VHS cassette, but the profile changes once you attach the serial port adapter.

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The unit is DOS 2.x compatible, with a few apps already built in. There's a text editor, spreadsheet, calendar and phone book. When I read that it had these features, I instinctively just typed edit on the command line when the unit first powered up. The response of Bad command or program not found came as a slight surprise, but then I thought that it must have another name as it's not official MS-DOS. I then tried ed, editor, nano, emacs, vim... all to no avail. It wasn't until I looked a little closer at the keyboard that I saw that 'Editor' was the Atari-text (the function that executes when the Atari button is held down) under the E key! Nice! It's actually multitasking?

Using the text editor

Just because I found this slightly harder-than-expected, here's a quick primer. The text editor is actually really cool and can be opened by pressing Atari+E. Use Fn-1 (aka. F1) to get to the File menu to start a new file, open a file, etc. F2 gives you a help menu and I seriously recommend that you go through the items in the list. There's a ton of shortcut keys that'll come in handy. F3 is the clipboard menu with options for copying and pasting. At any time, Escape will exit menus and even exit the app right back to the command prompt.

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Note, when opening files: if you don't know the file name then just type an asterisk and press enter to get a list of 'openable' files from the hard drive. For fun, I created a simple text file with a random sentence and saved it to C:\. This became useful when testing the serial port.

Note that, at any point in time, Fn + O will turn the unit off. Spacebar will wake it back up.

Initiating serial communications

My unit came totally blank, so I had to fumble my way through getting files transferred over to it. For those playing at home, what follows is the most-simple step-by-step process to get it up and running. These steps were borrowed and modified from Paul Rickard's blog post titled Atari Portfolio Serial Interface: How To Get Terminal Software.

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Firstly, we'll need a cable to connect your PC to the Atari. I happened to have a USB-Serial adapter that W10 was happy to use, so I plugged that in and grabbed the relevant converters to get from DB-9 to the DB-25 Null-Modem adapter that I had in the junk box.

Download and extract CoolTerm and get it up and running. Set the 10ms delay option and choose a low BAUD rate with no hardware controls.

coolterm-port-settings coolterm-delay-settings coolterm-no-settings

Power up the Atari and open Set Up via Atari+S. Configure the serial port to BAUD 300, leaving the other settings alone. Make sure you select Initialize! at the end. Next , open the Editor and type a sentence, saving the file to C:\. It'll default to unnamed.txt. With CoolTerm open and connected, type the following:

copy unnamed.txt com1

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coolterm-recvd

If you're in luck, the file will have been spat out to the CoolTerm console. If not, then go over everything again... specifically making sure that your cabling is correct!

Transferring actual files

For those that have a valid connection, you can now try and transfer files. Using the DOS copy method above, I tried to copy files bigger than 1kb, but it always failed. Even with CoolTerms transmit delays, I couldn't successfully do it. This is probably the reason why Paul has used xload/xterm. So, the next step is to set up a proper terminal app on the Atari. To do this, you'll need to download both xload and xterm and extract them somewhere.

We'll first use the basic DOS copy command to get xload.com over. It's a tiny file that does the same as DOS copy, but has the ability to copy larger files. To get this over, type the following in the Atari, but don't hit enter:

copy com1 xload.com

Now, on CoolTerm, choose Connection -> Send Text/Binary File. Set the filter to all files and find xload.com. Select it, but don't hit Open just yet. You'll want to hit enter on the Atari, wait around 3 seconds and then hit Open on CoolTerm.

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The Atari wont flinch, but you'll hopefully have a transfer window in CoolTerm flash past (it doesn't stay open as the file is so small) and the file will be transferred. A few seconds later, DOS will drop you back to the prompt and you can list your files to see what copied over. If you have an xload.com with a size of 178 bytes, then you've succeeded. Type xload and see what happens. If it has failed, or it's the wrong size, then repeat the steps above until it works!

With xload now on your Portfolio, you can use CoolTerm once more to send the larger xterm.com file. xload will only ever copy serial bytes to a file called xterm.com, so don't try and use it for anything else. So, in CoolTerm, select to transfer a file and get ready to hit Open on xterm.com. On the Atari, type xload and press enter. Once you see the screen below, hit Open on CoolTerm. Note that at this point you have the option to switch the BAUD on both units to 1200... I left it at 300 for safety-sake.

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After a successful copy, you should have xterm.com in your C:\ at a ginormous size of 1984 bytes. Type xterm and hit enter... crossing your fingers at the same time.

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Nice... trashed binary. I re-did everything again and sent exactly the same... maybe I left it a second longer between hitting enter on xload and choosing Open on CoolTerm...

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Yessss! We have a terminal application. xterm on the Atari supports XModem file transfers, but I couldn't work out how to do this with CoolTerm. I was on Windows 10 and managed to find two applications that can do XModem: Hyper Terminal and ExtraPuTTY. For fun... we'll use the former:

hypertrm-test

Hah. It still runs on W10... so ugly. It'll throw crappy errors at the start, telling you that you need a modem installed... just ignore/skip/cancel where appropriate.

hypertrm-modem-1 hypertrm-modem-2 hypertrm-test

Configure your serial port exactly as you'd done in CoolTerm, turning off any flow control. You can then open xterm on the Atari, choose F2 and send the files from Hypertrm via XModem.

hypertrm-send hypertrm-send-file hypertrm-sending

If it's working, then you'll see the dots across the screen... if you don't send via XModem, then the guts of the file will be printed out to the Atari and shit will get weird!

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Transferred and executable!

Games and other software

Most Atari Portfolio software is compressed as LZH. 7-Zip had trouble with most of the files I downloaded, so I had to grab an archiver and do the extraction on the unit. As that there's very little spare space on C:\, this became quite a shuffle. For example, there's a file called yankee.lzh which plays the Yankee Doodle Dandy tune. To decompress it, you'll need lzhe.com on the Atari as well. Transfer both files using xterm and then try and extract the files by running lzhe yankee.lzh. It'll fail on the last file as xterm + xload + lzhe + yankee.lzh + half of the extracted files take up the entire internal storage. To fix this, delete xterm as you don't need it anymore. Leave xload as it'll help when you need to bring xterm back. Inside the LZH file is ptune and it's documentation. The .doc file is actually useless to us, so delete it and then use the editor to create a file of the same name with 0 bytes in size. When you then try to extract the contents of Yankee again, it'll ask to overwrite, but just say no. Finally you'll have yankee.bat that, when executed, will play the tune (poorly) and present the lyrics...

All of this shuffling would be circumvented if I had a memory card in the left-hand slot!

Memory cards

Atari chose the Mitsubishi Bee Card as their memory card type. This card allowed sizes ranging from 32Kb to 128Kb. Any memory cards with larger sizes were 'banked' and required powering off, switching banks and rebooting. The Bee Card was also used in MSX and Korg/Roland music equipment, and so you'll find that there are a variety of options when trying to source cards. There are also home-brew multi-cards, such as this one, if you have the cash and if COVID won't stop your shipments.

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