Many years ago, I experienced the Atari ST (sorry can’t remember the specific model) over at a friend’s house. Richard (who I have sadly lost contact with a long time ago) introduced me to this 16-bit computer originally released in 1985 designed to take head on the IBM PCs of the day and the Apple Macintosh at a much lower price point. In fact, the marketing struck gold with the line “Power without the price”.
I am going to blame, well not blame let me start again… I was inspired (yes let’s go with that!) by Atari ST fan ctrl-alt-rees, (yes that’s better) for his fantastic coverage of the series of computers on his YouTube channel and the recent Game & Gadget Podcast he joined as a guest as we talked over the Atari ST strengths and weaknesses with a strong dose of nostalgia.
It was at this point I realised I didn’t have a single retro computer in my collection, lots of consoles yes as they are easier to store with the reduced footprint, however no computers (unless you count a Windows 98 PC). With this feeling of retro loss, I decided to explore ebay, you know the moment don’t you retro collecting fans, “I am just going to have a look” and end up bidding for something you believe you won’t get. Then you receive the confirmation you are the winner!
I won the Atari 520 STFM, with the listing detailing the floppy drive unit wasn’t working. This is often the case with nearly 40 year old computers that feature a floppy disk drive as more often than not the drive belt made of rubber deteriorates with its age, leaving a less than pleasant gunky residue. Once mine arrived, this was one of the first things I checked and it was no surprise to find what remained of the drive belt, partially coating the wheel and the rest in various small gunky bits the length of the drive. I carefully removed the black goo and ordered a replacement belt.
The Atari 520 STFM booted to the GEM desktop without any issues, which gave me a lot of hope. It takes a while to boot with no floppy disk recognised, so be patient. This is a stock Atari 520 STFM, no upgrades or modifications. Often you will find a RAM upgrade, but just the standard 512KB RAM here, which is where the 520 gets its name, although 512 didn’t sound as appealing as 520 so they went for this instead – marketing!
The FM is often confused with a type of music chip, but actually this relates to the internal floppy disk drive (the standard Atari 520 ST was external) and this newer model also features a built-in RF TV output. I will instead use an RGB to SCART cable for much clearer display results on my CRT TV.
The case itself was like most retro purchases, mucky… very mucky. I have seen much worse, my recent Acorn Electron being one example, but still there looked to be some kind of minor spillage and the usual dirt and grime. There was an Atari 520 STFM there, but you needed to squint to imagine its former beauty.
So the cleaning began, by opening up the Atari ST bit by bit and seeing what exactly was inside. The obligatory dead assortment of creepy crawlies of course was found almost instantly, but generally the inside faired very well. The vast majority of the dirt was on the exterior of the case and the case alone.
Taking all of the components out of the case, I was able to give it a very good clean indeed. The grill on the top portion taking the longest of time, vigorously brushing each grill element with a toothbrush to get rid of some of the tougher marks and then baking soda and yet more careful rubbing to remove something incredibly sticky on the top right of the edge.
It was a pain, but the results were well worth the effort with every stroke of the bristles lifting yet another layer of whatever it was. After a good rinse down, it was clear that there was very little yellowing at all and the original grey was coming through lovely. The dirt may have actually helped protect the case ironically or I was just very lucky.
The keyboards are always another area where goodness knows what collects over the years. You try to not imagine the dead skin, spillages and body sweat that may have accumulated down there between each of the keys as it will make your job that much harder with the inevitable facial expressions you will pull otherwise.
Removing each key from the keyboard, giving each their own individual brushing, rinsing and then a good dry. Then a nice little scrub of the exposed section under where the keys once sat. The delight of seeing the results is hard to beat.
Replacing the floppy disk drive belt was also straightforward and after a test, yes it’s all working wonderfully again!
Having a working floppy disk drive is wonderful, however it was also recommended to me to look at a Gotek floppy disk drive emulator.
This replaces the floppy disk drive and instead you can plug in a USB drive with as assortment of Atari ST floppy disk images, using the buttons on the unit to select the image of choice.
This is very convenient indeed! If fitting internally within the Atari 520 STFM as I did, note that the length of the Atari ST power cable inside is tiny, so you may need an extender so it reaches the power input of the Gotek drive.
It is thanks to the Gotek drive I have been able to explore the vast Atari ST library with ease and experience what I have been missing all of these years by not actually owning an Atari ST myself until now. It’s certainly true, the Yamaha YM2149F sound chip doesn’t compete with an Amiga and in fact struggles to compete with the Commodore 64 SID chip too, but it doesn’t lack charm either with its bips and boops.
With the restoration complete, I can proudly state I am the owner of an Atari ST, which has joined my growing retro computing collection. It’s been a grimy start, with sticky gooey deteriorated drive belts to remove and replace not to mention the disgusting case and keyboard to deal with. Now though I am left with a stunning example of 16-bit computing, that dared to challenge the competition and in many ways did.
There is so much to explore within the games library alone and at some point I wish to experiment with the built-in MIDI ports for connecting to external music hardware, an Atari ST feature exploited by musicians to great effect back in its glory days.