Desktops

You've switched on your computer and the Desktop appears. A plain screen with a couple of drive icons and a few menu options to manage files and launch programs. If that sounds familiar you're probably using the TOS Desktop, built into all Atari machines. If not, you may well be using one of the many Desktop replacements available.

Whichever category you fall into the next few pages may prompt you to re-evaluate your Desktop requirements. Replacing the Desktop can transform the way you work with your machine.

Unlike some system enhancements it's easy to replace the Desktop. Simply run the replacement Desktop application at bootup, using a boot manager (XBoot, Superboot, Stoop) or launch it from the built-in TOS desktop just like any other program. Some Desktops require Auto folder extras but these are straight forward to install.

"The TOS desktop works for me, if it isn't broke why fix it?" That's fine but all the Desktops reviewed on these pages offer features over and above the very latest Falcon TOS 4.04 Desktop - bare in mind though that they all trade functionality for memory.

Desktops have come a long way since the launch of the ST back in 1985. Our expectations are higher. Keyboard shortcuts, copy and move files, file masks in windows, Drag&Drop icon handling between windows and the Desktop are all considered as standard and first came together in TOS with the introduction of version 2.0.

It took Atari five years to get from TOS 1.0 to TOS 2.0 and it is during this era the replacement Desktop was born.

Neodesk was the first commercial Desktop replacement and it took the US and UK marketplace by storm. Dan Wilga originally wrote Neodesk because he wanted a Desktop capable of supporting local environmental variables. Neodesk is still under development today and the current release, Neodesk v4, is still popular, especially in North America.

Meanwhile on mainland Europe various desktops were under development including KAOSDesk, TeraDesk and Gemini - which emerged as the programmers choice. Gemini featured an integrated command line interface, called Mupfel, and introduced the AV-Protocol to enable the Desktop to communicate with Desktop accessories (refer to boxout). Gemini is currently hovering just below v2 but rumours of its demise are premature. Nevertheless it has lost ground to the competition and slipped down the rankings.

With the introduction of the multitasking operating systems (MiNT/MultiTOS, MagiC then Geneva) Desktops needed to be multitasking aware and some fell by the wayside.

MagiC included MAGXDesk and Geneva only worked with Neodesk so we had to wait for third party programmers to muscle in and give us a choice. Even today Geneva only works reliably with Neodesk but the basic MAGXDesk was soon surpassed by Ease, and adopted by the MagiC developers as their top end Desktop.

This could easily have been the end of the story except a relative newcomer called Thing appeared offering features to tempt our jaded taste buds. Thing provides the basic desktop functions and allows external modules to take over tasks such as icon and font handling, search, printing and file management functions enabling users to create a customised DIY desktop. To enable all the individual programs to work together Thing implemented the Drag&Drop, Font and AV-Protocols.

There's no shortage of contenders offering advanced features including animated colour icons, Kobold support - to speed up file management, background image support and dozens of other desirable features. So we've had to take a straw poll and narrow the contenders down to our "Gang of four": Ease 4, MAGXDesk, Neodesk 4 and Thing 1.09.

NoDesk would have been the fifth contender, it's considered by its users as the most powerful replacement desktop program ever written - but then they would say that wouldn't they? Unfortunately an up to date English version didn't materialise in time so we've left it out.

Instead of churning out a traditional round-up style review concluding all the contenders are excellent - which they are, we've decided to highlight the best and worst aspects of each Desktop and leave you to decide what priority to place on individual features.


Integrates seamlessly with Geneva.

Neodesk can also be used with TOS, MagiC or MultiTOS. Format and disk copy operations can be carried out as background tasks when running with Geneva.

Powerful install application.

Two different versions of this function are built into Neodesk 4. A standard Install Application, as found with other desktops, and Neodesk Program Information Files (NPI). These offer options to set up local environmental variables, send the program extended parameters, the processor speed, and whether the program should be run in singletasking mode on a multitasking system. There's also direct support for the TT CaTTamaran add-on board.

Powerful built-in search.

This feature is on a par with the best stand-alone search utilities. It's possible to search for file masks (called Templates in Neodesk), a specific filesize, creation date or time and look for file attributes. Group files can be created from search results (see below).

Can run as a Desktop accessory or in a GEM window.

Built-in icon editor.

An excellent, but proprietary, icon editor.

Group file support.

Group files make it possible to store executable files in one location for easy selection. This avoids the clutter of Resource, INF and other support files. Neodesk doesn't actually move the files it creates an alias file which launches the original file. Groups are created by dragging files, folders and programs to a group file window. For example, you could create a Comms group and drag all you comms software to it. Thing also offers this feature.

Menus and tools in windows.

Neodesk windows are equipped with pull down menus to perform most desktop tasks. There are icons to select all, switch between text and icon display, duplicate window, copy to parent directory, delete file and get file info. Window navigation can also be performed by clicking on the path displayed in the window title line. Windows can also be split into two sections and each section scrolled independently of the other.

Built-in context sensitive help.

Ultra configurable.

Most dialogs and windows are non-modal with editable colours and button styles. You can limit the amount of memory available to Neodesk, vary the date format, disk format options and just about every other feature you can think of!

Macro support.

The macro recorder can be used to automate repetitive tasks such as copying files, running programs, closing and opening windows. Basically if you can manually perform a task in Neodesk then you can also automate it!

Built in re-order.

Objects inside Windows can be re-ordered by simply Drag&Dropping them to the desired position. This is particularly useful for the Auto folder.

Desktop notes. Text can be entered directly onto the desktop in any font, size or colour. Ease offers a similar feature.

Recoverable trashcan. Makes it easy to recover deleted objects, we think if you're going to delete a file then do it, otherwise don't!

Widgets.

If you use the Neodesk Control Panel you can have a corner clock, caps lock indicator and screen saver. There's even a printer queue manager supplied.

Auto-locator in windows.

Just start typing in the name of the desired file and Neodesk starts selecting objects which match the entered characters. Thing and MAGXDesk also a similar feature


Unconventional interface.

Love or loathe it Neodesk's interface isn't standard.

Insists on icon labels.

It's odd the desktop with the most powerful built-in Icon editor insists on displaying icon labels. Icons typically replace text so being forced to have a label seems crazy. Ease and MAGXDesk also require icon labels.

Needs two Auto programs.

NEOLOAD.PRG and JAR??.PRG are required. Neodesk refuses to run without the Jar program.

No window iconification


Here we see Neodesk's Install application, Install desktop icon, Set window colours and Keyboard short cuts dialog. Notice the window with menus has been divided into two showing opposite ends of a directory without enlarging the window.


Modular.

Thing can call external programs to carry out some tasks. The author didn't see the point in re-inventing the wheel which leaves you the option to specify your preferred utilities to view files, print files, search, format disks, add desktop notes, handle files and run TOS programs in a window.

Auto-locator in windows.

Also available in Neodesk and MAGXDesk.

Extensive Function key support.

Using the [Shift], [Control] and [Alternate] keys in conjunction with the function keys 40 slots are available to launch programs, open files, windows etc.

Tools menu.

Up to 10 Group files, programs, files, or folders can be added to this drop down menu and assigned descriptive text labels. Ease and MAGXDesk offer variations of this feature.

Accessories can be loaded and unloaded on the fly under MagiC.

Double-clicking on any desktop accessory installs the program in the desktop accessory drop down menu. Programs can be removed by selecting any entry with the [Control] key held down. MAGXDesk offers the same feature.

Parent icon and hot closer window navigation.

The parent icon provides an easy way to copy/move files to the parent directory. The window closer icon can be used to close the window with a single click - even inside deeply nested folders. Alternatively a left click and hold action activates the "hot closer" which steps up through the directory tree automatically. Release the mouse button at the desired location.

Multiple installed applications for one file mask.

Normal Desktop behaviour allows applications to open several file types so why not the other way around? Thing offers this. For example with *.GIF installed as a file type in as many programs as desired. Double clicking on a GIF file displays a scrollable list of installed applications ready for you to select depending whether you want to view, edit or print the file. An extremely powerful feature.

Group file support.

Similar to the Neodesk feature.

Full AV-Server.

Thing is a near complete AV-Server (see boxout). Full documentation of supported calls are included. The other contenders claim to support the AV-Protocol by implementing the commonplace VA_START message. No other Desktop includes documentation of supported calls.

ST-Guide context sensitive on-line help.

Non modal dialogs.

Thing dialogs can be left open on the desktop or iconised without halting desktop operation. Neodesk dialogs are also non-modal.

Right mouse button support.

Thing fully supports the right mouse button. Optionally a single right mouse button click is interpreted as a double left click. Ease also supports this feature.

Real-time scrolling.

A right mouse click and hold action anywhere inside a window allows real-time scrolling.

Change resolution on the fly.

This sort of works on my Machine under MagiC but it isn't reliable. I can't change resolutions under TOS...?

Auto sizing windows.

The window fuller icon can optionally size itself automatically to neatly surround all the objects in the window. Ease also offers this function.

Try before you buy.

Thing is Shareware - the only non-commercial Desktop reviewed.

Icon labels optional.

Icons are originally designed to replace text so why bother with a text label?

Environmental variable support/local.

Intelligent File masks.

On opening the file mask dialog Thing checks the topped window and displays masks for all available file types.


Partial 3D-look only in colour resolutions.

Thing assumes all users are using long filenames.

So you have to be careful not to enter extra characters. Most of us use the standard 8+3 filename/extender format and ideally Thing should adjust the field length to suit the file system in use.

Quirky long filename support.

The standard limit is 64 characters, Thing only offers 32 characters and these must not contain any space characters.

No icon editor.

Thing icons are in standard RSC file format but you'll need to use Interface, a commercial resource file editor, or the re-released ORCS to edit Thing icons. Of course if you already own Neodesk or Ease you can use their icon editors!?


Thing showing its Tools menu, the main Thing Setup dialog and the Application dialog. Notice the desktop icons have no text labels. The small window at the top right is a group file containing Everest LIS files.


Low memory overhead.

In our tests MAGXDesk leaves over 500Kb extra free memory for applications compared with the other Desktops. The exact saving depends on other utilities and installed icons.

Cunning icon handling.

MAGXDesk works with standard resource (RSC) format files and extracts the icon information for any icons used and saves the data separately. This minimises the memory required.

Integrates perfectly with MagiC 5.

An integral part of MagiC.

Can be unloaded from memory under MagiC.

Thing, Ease and Neodesk? can be unloaded from memory when running programs under TOS but only MAGXDesk can be removed from memory under MagiC. This means an even greater memory saving using MAGXDesk.

Long filename support to 64 characters.

MAGXDesk supports long filenames up to 64 characters including space characters. Thing supports long filenames up to 32 characters with no spaces.

Accessories can be loaded and removed on the fly under MagiC.

Thing offers the same feature.

Easy Drag&Drop icon assignment.

Icons are assigned using Drag&Drop actions between the Install Application dialog and a window containing the available icons. MAGXDesk updates its icons on leaving the dialog and only consumes memory for installed icons.

Neat use of menu bar.

Sort setting displayed in the menu bar to right of last menu. Now they've started a trend a caps lock indicator and other indicators would be useful.

Change resolution on the fly.

Under MagiC using CHGRES.PRG this works.

Symbolic links (Aliases).

These are the equivalent of Thing and Neodesk Group files but offer more flexibility as they can be placed anywhere. To create an alias hold down the [Alternate] key and Drag&Drop the alias to its destination. If Kobold support is active temporarily disable it in the Preferences dialog otherwise it doesn't work. Aliases can be distinguished from "real" objects because the icon label is italicised.


Only works with MagiC.

Mostly modal dialogs.

Most dialogs are modal flying dialogs which means you can move them but have to exit the dialog before you can do anything else. The Format and Copy dialogs are non-modal - to support MagiC background DMA file operations.

Limited window navigation.

There are no features designed to navigate folders or manage windows.

Shutdown in the Options menu.

Dunno why, but it's silly. Every other modern GEM program uses the File menu for this sort of thing.

Limited configuration.

All the basics are there but it's in the junior league compared to the other Desktops. On the other hand it's very easy to set up.

Cannot mix text/icon windows.

Either all the windows display icons or all the windows display text. Neodesk, Thing and Ease can all mix and match windows.

Cannot label desktop objects.

Icons dragged to the Desktop retain the full filename and cannot be renamed independently of the original object. Neodesk, Thing and Ease can all change Desktop icon labels.


Select image for full size screen shotMAGXDesk comes free with MagiC and the current version is well worth a second look. All the preferences are tucked neatly away in a single modal dialog. Notice the small window above the iconised objects contain aliased programs.


Drive/path popup.

This feature is unique to Ease and provides an easy way to navigate around your folder hierarchy. Click and hold over any drive icon and after a delay the File Tree popup appears.

Can select objects from more than one window to move/copy/delete.

Normally selecting an object in one window deselects any selected icons in other windows.

Accessories can be removed on the fly.

By holding down the [Control] key when selecting the accessory.

Desktop notes.

Double clicking on the Memo icon displays the Memo pad for up to five lines of text using any font, size or colour. A variable width border in any colour can also be added.

Full 3D look interface.

Tools in window status line.

Ease includes three extra tool icons in each Window status line, a close always icon, an icon which toggles between text/icon mode display and an auto-size icon which adjusts itself to display the contents of the window.

Built-in icon editor.

The Ease icon editor can load and save standard resource RSC files. Basic editing tools are included. Neodesk also includes an icon editor.


Requires icon labels.

Slow/quirky icon handling.

On launching Ease there's a considerable delay before the Desktop appears, especially when changing resolution. Even though the built-in icon editor can load and save standard RSC files it works with its own CNF format files.

Can't change resolutions on the fly.

No long filename support.

Coming in Ease v5 - allegedly.

Modal dialogs.

Once an Ease dialog is opened the system is blocked until you exit the dialog again - bad news for a Desktop in a multitasking environment!

Awkward image handling.

To load a background image it has to be renamed with a specific filename dependent on the colour depth and placed in the Ease directory. Other desktops can load a background image from anywhere via the file selector.

Non-standard iconisation.

Instead of a standard iconise icon in the window title line Ease offers an Iconise option in the Window menu which places an icon representing the window on the Desktop. This icon remains even after the window has been restored and has to be deleted manually.


We intended to include one of the stylish 3D dialogs but because they are modal we wouldn't have been able to show you the File tree popup. Notice the selected files in different windows.


Still not sure which Desktop is best? Here are some purely personnel comments from four regular replacement Desktop users.


[NeoDesk]
Contact:Titan Designs on 0121-693 6669
E-Mail:100345.2350@CompuServe.COM
Price:£59.95+pp with Geneva £79.95+pp
[Ease]
Contact:System Solutions on 01753 832212
E-Mail:ssolutions@cix.compulink.co.uk
Price:£49.95+pp
[Thing]
Contact:InterActive
E-Mail:jconnor@cix.compulink.co.uk
Price:Try before you buy. £13 Registration
[MAGXDesk]
Contact:System Solutions on 01753 832212
E-Mail:ssolutions@cix.compulink.co.uk
Price:Supplied with MagiC at £69.95




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