Introduction: Secrets of NeoDesk 4 - by Al Fasoldt
What Gribnif's NeoDesk 4 desktop can do for you
16 July, 2019 by
Introduction: Secrets of NeoDesk 4 - by Al Fasoldt
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Power, grace and style on an Atari

Until the introduction of Gribnif Software's NeoDesk 4, users of the Atari ST, TT and Falcon were left on the sidelines of the revolution in multitasking desktops for personal computers. NeoDesk 3, the previous version of Gribnif's alternative desktop, already supported multitasking, but only in the most basic way; as long as the computer was running Geneva, Gribnif's multitasking replacement for part of the Atari operating system, NeoDesk 3 was able to launch a new application while a currently running program remained active. But NeoDesk 3's own operations -- copying, deleting and formatting, for example -- did not multitask. And NeoDesk 3 did not have two other features that have made the best desktops on PCs so attractive -- a modern 3D look and feel, and a way of organizing and managing programs by groups.

NeoDesk 4 changes everything, and corrects an imbalance between the premiere desktop environment for the Atari and Microsoft's Windows. But in creating NeoDesk 4, Gribnif did not imitate Windows or fashion an Atari version of the Macintosh interface. NeoDesk 4 is more flexible and more intuitive than either of its popular counterparts. It is even able to perform some functions that Windows 3.1 and the Mac cannot ordinarily do.

And, almost as a tribute to the lean and efficient way Ataris have always operated, NeoDesk 4 occupies only as much memory as you want to yield over to the desktop. You can even run NeoDesk 4 comfortably on a 1-megabyte ST, although it will run more quickly and smoothly on systems with more memory. 

GUI things and why they are important

A graphical user interface is nothing new. We like to point out with considerable pride that the ST arrived on our desks with a built-in graphical user interface long before most users of IBM-compatible personal computers had even heard of icons and windows. But the ST's GUI -- yes, it's pronounced "gooey" and not "Gee You Eye" -- followed the Mac's by a year. The ST's graphical environment was designed by Digital Research as almost a sideline in its efforts to create a GUI for PCs. This PC system, the Graphics Environment Manager, was stripped of much of its power and many of its features before it came to market, after a legal dispute between Digital Research and Microsoft, which was then developing its own graphical system called Windows. Microsoft complained that GEM was too much like Windows, and so Digital Research changed GEM. But the new owners of Atari Computer, casting about for an icon-and-windows interface for the exciting new 520ST, managed to convince Digital Research to leave the Atari version of GEM unsullied, and so the ST came to life with a GUI of its own, vaguely similar to the PC version of GEM. (That version disappeared from the marketplace in an avalanche of Windows.)

A graphical user interface does not have to use icons and windows, but that is how most of them have developed. It is easier to describe such a system as an "object-oriented" interface, because it allows the user to manipulate objects that perform actions -- actions that are, in most cases, analogous to what happens in "real life." Instead of typing commands onto the screen, the user instructs the computer to do any task by selecting an icon and doing something with it -- double-clicking on it or dragging it to another icon, for example. Rather than typing commands such as "XCOPY C:\BIN\FOO *.* /S A:" onto a blank screen, the user of an object-oriented interface merely deals with things -- objects of one kind or another, all represented by icons -- on the computer screen.

The way these icons were placed on the screens of the first experimental object-oriented interfaces in the late 1970s and early 1980s made the screens look a little like the desks in a typical office. They had icons for filing cabinets (disk drives in the computer system), for folders (directories on a disk), for a waste basket (the bit bucket, or the act of erasing a file), for a pile of notes, and for many other things. These early interfaces also had windows that opened up to show more icons or to hold running programs.

The metaphor of the computer-as-desktop is just one way of representing the way we deal with a personal computer. It may not be the best way, but it stuck. With the introduction of the Apple Macintosh in 1984 and the ST and Commodore Amiga a year later, the notion of a desktop on the screen began to gain popularity among users who had always viewed the standard PC command-line interface as crude and inadequate. In the IBM-compatible area, Microsoft's Windows took a halting step in that direction in its first two versions and then went a lot further in Windows 3.1 and in the latest version, Windows 95. IBM, creator of a hybrid interface called OS/2 1.0, also adopted the same sort of desktop in OS/2 2.0, 2.1 and OS/2 Warp and, at the same time, the GeoWorks company invented its own Mac-like interface for PCs -- one that actually surpasses the Macintosh in a dozen ways.

By the mid-1990s, "object-oriented" computer desktop interfaces had become, at last, the standard way of working with a personal computer. 

What NeoDesk 4 offers that the standard desktop doesn't

Until recently, the ST's desktop interface, although easy to use, has been the weakest of all these systems. Although it uses icons and windows, the ST's GEM did not gain many of the full functions expected in an object-oriented interface until the release of version 2.05 of the ST's built-in operating system, known as TOS (for "The Operating System"). This was followed by version 2.06 when Atari added support for 1.44-megabyte floppy drives. A similar TOS-based GEM, which appeared as TOS 3.01 and was incremented to version 3.06, is built into the TT, and a newer TOS, version 4.xx, has been engineered into the latest Atari, the Falcon030.

But the GEM desktop built into the latest versions of TOS, while superior to the original version, lacks all the advanced features of the ranking monarch of alternative desktops, NeoDesk 4. Among the advantages of NeoDesk 4 are these features:

  • Support for the Geneva, the multitasking replacement for the Atari Application Environment Services (AES). NeoDesk 4 was created as the perfect shell (desktop environment) for Geneva.

  • Program and data-file groups. These groups let the user organize aliases (virtual copies that take up little space) of any kind of object, making both program launching and data-file organization exceptionally easy.

  • NeoDesk Program Information files (NPIs). These provide ultimate control over how every program or data file is handled by allowing the user to customize the action of specific programs for particular functions.

  • Background file operations. NeoDesk 4 is able to copy, move and delete files and folders completely in the background, while other desktop tasks are going on. When NeoDesk 4 is run as the desktop under Geneva, it can even perform these operations while any other multitasking applications are running.

  • Background formatting of floppy disks. This does not require Geneva.

  • Desktop windows that contain their own GEM menu bars. This vastly simplifies desktop operations and extends the intuitive nature of GEM is a way that puts Microsoft Windows and the Macintosh desktop to shame.)

  • Display options that include the use of different fonts for separate parts of windows and the ability to employ scalable vector fonts in place of fixed-size bitmapped fonts.

  • Choices of text-only and icon-based display modes for file-and-folder and group windows. Large or small text can be used, in any suitable font, and display modes (text or iconic) can be mixed among different windows.

  • Operation as a desk accessory. NeoDesk 4 can be loaded as a desk accessory instead of a program. It retains all its functions as a DA, and can be closed into the Desk menu just as any other accessory can be.

  • Operation within a fully resizeable GEM window. NeoDesk 4 can be contained within its own window, an especially handy arrangement for systems with large-screen displays.

  • Flexible file-and-folder search operations that can use both simple wildcard specifications and powerful Unix-style Boolean operators.

  • Advanced control over how much memory NeoDesk 4 takes for its own operations. Free memory can be displayed in a windowed dialog box at all times if desired.

  • A choice of desktop background patterns. These can be simple wallpaper (repeating small patterns), tiled images or large black-and-white or color pictures that fill the entire desktop. All major Atari-specific graphics formats are supported, as is the universal format for Microsoft Windows desktop pictures.

  • Full compatibility with all display modes of every Atari made, including ST low resolution, both standard ST resolutions, all four TT resolutions, all resolutions of the Falcon030 and all extended resolutions provided by add-on graphics cards and big-screen devices and software. NeoDesk 4 supports all color-plane settings from monochrome to True Color (16.7 million colors, available on some graphics cards).

  • Animated icons that can be separately tailored to the three primary color modes of Atari computers -- monochrome, 4-color and 16-color screens. There is no limit, apart from available memory, on the number or variety of icons that can be installed in NeoDesk 4, nor is there a limit (apart from desktop real estate) on the number of icons that can be placed on the desktop.

  • A powerful icon editor. It can import icons in many different formats, including the icon formats used by Microsoft Windows.

  • Accessories that act like programs. Desk accessories that are written to communicate with NeoDesk (STeno, STalker, CardFile, EditPlus, MemFile and many others) can be placed on the desktop just as programs can. Dropping a text file to the STeno accessory icon, for example, will open the STeno accessory with the text file ready to read or edit. Dropping another text file onto the same icon while STeno's window is open will update the window with the new file.

  • Built-in keyboard shortcuts for many desktop operations, including hotkeys for launching programs, accessing drives and opening NeoDesk-compatible accessories.

  • A powerful macro facility. Macros can be as simple or as complicated as desired, and can include window resizing and movement.

  • A recoverable trash can.

  • A control panel that provides a screen saver, a corner clock and configurable blitter options, among others.

  • Full control over the GEM environment for all applications running under NeoDesk 4.

  • Limitless installation of "Installed Applications" (programs that automatically run when their data files are opened). Each application can have two different data-file types associated with it by setting up applications from a NeoDesk menu, but any number of others can be added to each application by merely editing NeoDesk's information file. 

Up with upgrades

NeoDesk, developed by Dan Wilga and sold by Gribnif Software, has undergone many revisions. The first modern version was introduced as NeoDesk 3, although the first multitasking version of NeoDesk was released as NeoDesk 3.04. NeoDesk 4 is based on NeoDesk 3, but is a major upgrade in every sense. Gribnif offers users of NeoDesk 3 a special upgrade price when they switch to NeoDesk 4.

So why not just read the NeoDesk user manual, pal? 

NeoDesk 4 comes with an extensive, well written manual. This is intended only as a supplement to that manual, written from the perspective of an experienced user and NeoDesk beta tester. (A beta tester is someone who tries out software while it is being created). As with all good software, there is no single "correct" way of using NeoDesk 4; instead, each user is likely to find what works best in each unique situation. It is with that understanding that I present this personal perspective. 

Um, what user manual? I think the dog ate mine.

NeoDesk is one of the most prized packages in the world of Atari software. If you are a satisfied user of NeoDesk 4 but have not paid for it, you probably do not have a user manual. Gribnif has a simple solution: If you send the company money, it will send you a manual. Along with the manual will be the legitimate NeoDesk 4 software. What could be more simple and more satisfying in an ethical sense? (If you are an unsatisfied user of NeoDesk 4 but have not paid for the software, you are still morally obligated to purchase it. And you will probably discover that owning any piece of software changes your perspective on how much time you should spend learning how to use it.) 

Author's note:

Because of its length, this document is in two sections. "A Guide to NeoDesk 4," which you are reading now, was published in March of 1995. "Tips and Tricks of NeoDesk 4" will be available in the summer of 1995. For additional background, read "Secrets of Geneva" and "Secrets of NeoDesk 3," available in the ST Roundtable libraries of GEnie and from other services. Some of the material in "Secrets of Neodesk 3" is included in this document, but I have tried to keep "Secrets of NeoDesk 4" as fresh as possible.

This may be freely distributed in any form, but only if it remains intact. You do not have permission to edit this or use it commercially in any way.

If you have comments or questions, and especially if you find errors in this work, you can reach me at these addresses:

Al Fasoldt 

Syracuse Newspapers

Box 4915 Syracuse, NY 13221

GEnie: a.fasoldt 

America Online: AlFasoldt


This is Version 1.0, written in March 1995 at the computer center at Countless Pines, Baldwinsville, New York.


Why half a loaf may not be better than none 

NeoDesk 4 was born to mate with Geneva. Gribnif Software created Geneva, its multitasking environment, when NeoDesk was still at version 3. This version was quickly updated to support Geneva's multitasking -- allowing NeoDesk 3.04 to run multiple applications when Geneva was running -- but it was clear that NeoDesk 3.04 was an aging and inflexible companion for the lean and powerful Geneva. The need for a modern multitasking desktop was fulfilled in NeoDesk 4, which takes advantage of Geneva in dozens of ways.

To put it plainly, running NeoDesk 4 without Geneva is like eating the frosting without the cake. Although NeoDesk 4 is able to multitask its own desktop file-and-disk operations without Geneva, it cannot do them at all while another application is running unless Geneva is present. NeoDesk 4 can, for example, format a floppy disk while it copies files from one folder to another whether or not Geneva is running, but limiting multitasking to that kind of operation turns the NeoDesk desktop into little more than a multitasking file manager and single-tasking program launcher.

Geneva is much more than a multitasking environment, of course. Technically, it is a replacement for the Atari's Application Environment Services, which provides the "look and feel" of the computer's operating system, among other things. Geneva's enhancements include the ability to put any program or desk accessory to sleep (freeing up the display and the processor's resources), a new set of program flags to control how each application is run, the ability to tear off GEM menus so they can be floated on the desktop, flexible control over system fonts and type sizes, assignable hotkeys to bring any running application to the foreground (or to open any desk accessory), complete keyboard manipulation of all menus, an advanced file selector that offers copy and delete functions in addition to unparalleled search operations, a 3D look for all GEM dialog boxes, single-keypress actuation of dialog and alert choices and much more -- all in addition to its built-in multitasking.

This is not to say that NeoDesk 4 cannot be successfully employed without Geneva. On Ataris that do not have even the moderate amount of extra memory (much less than 200 kilobytes) that Geneva requires, or on Ataris that are dedicated to a single task (running a BBS, for example), a Geneva-less NeoDesk may make sense. And everyone who owns Geneva and NeoDesk and uses a boot manager (software that lets you choose which programs and accessories are run at bootup) probably will have one or two configurations in which Geneva is bypassed in order to play older games or run odd software that won't behave on a modern system.

But my message should be made as clearly as possible: If you own NeoDesk 4 and have not yet added Geneva to your Atari, you are missing out on the single most significant advance in Atari computing since the introduction of the ST itself. And you are also likely to be disappointed in many of the sections of this guide to NeoDesk 4, because it generally addresses NeoDesk 4 as the indispensable partner of Geneva.


Get a load of this 

NeoDesk's main software module is a file named NEODESK.EXE. Ordinarily, the ST, TT and Falcon cannot run executable files ending in "EXE," but Gribnif apparently chose this non-standard filename extension (in the Atari world, at least) to make sure that another, much smaller, module named NEOLOAD.PRG would have to be run first. When NEOLOAD.PRG is run, it launches NEODESK.EXE.

Why did Gribnif adopt this unusual way of launching NeoDesk 4? The answer lies in two other functions of Neoload. In addition to serving as the launcher for the main NeoDesk software, Neoload monitors the status of the Atari's operating system in order to report on system memory registers whenever the OS crashes, and it holds off running NEODESK.EXE until all desk accessories have finished loading.

The system-monitor function of Neoload is not, by itself, unusual. Other system monitors are available, including one that is very similar to the monitoring function of Neoload. The information that it lists on the screen after a crash is primarily useful to a software developer, although Neoload has a secondary function of providing a graceful recovery from minor system crashes. (However, you should always save your work and reboot after any system crash, even one that has been intercepted by NeoDesk 4's system monitor, because memory locations may have been corrupted, and there is no way to restore them otherwise.)

It is the third function that matters most. This function operates only when NEOLOAD.PRG is run from the AUTO folder when the computer boots up, and can be the source of confusion over how NeoDesk 4 works. If you are auto-running NeoDesk 4 without placing a copy of Neoload in the AUTO folder -- in other words, if you merely install NEOLOAD.PRG file in the NEODESK4 folder as the GEM auto-boot application in TOS 1.04 or above -- Neoload may launch NEODESK.EXE too soon, before the computer's desk accessories finish loading. If this happens, NeoDesk 4 or some of the desk accessories can lock up or behave erratically.

To prevent this, you must place a separate copy of NEOLOAD.PRG in the AUTO folder of your boot disk. (It can be placed last or near the end of the list of files in the AUTO folder; the placement doesn't matter much. Just keep in mind that the computer's operating system runs programs in the AUTO folder not in the order they are normally listed in a file-list display, but in the physical order they are listed on the disk. NeoDesk can show you the actual order of files and folders if you choose the "No Sort" option in its file-display menu, and it will let your change the order in that same menu.) Special code in Neoload delays the running of NEODESK.EXE until after all desk accessories have been initialized. The process goes like this: First, the copy of NEOLOAD.PRG in the AUTO folder installs itself in memory; then when the operating system tries to auto-run the other copy of NEOLOAD.PRG (the one in the NEODESK folder), the Neoload that is in memory intercepts the second running of Neoload, and instead runs NEODESK.EXE itself after the accessories have been installed

NEOLOAD.PRG is actually run only once in each session (the time between boot-up and shutdown), no matter how many times you may quit NeoDesk and load it again. You can easily see this for yourself. Try running NeoDesk the regular way (from the AUTO folder using Neoload as described above, or by running NEOLOAD.PRG from the Atari desktop) and then copy the NEODESK.EXE file to a second file named NEODESK.PRG. If you quit NeoDesk, you can double-click on NEODESK.PRG from the GEM desktop and re-run NeoDesk. The copy of NEOLOAD that is still in memory provides a hidden launcher for the program, even when the name has been changed. 

Memory is made of this

NeoDesk 4 can run on small-memory STs if its memory use is constrained through a dialog that allows the user to specify how much RAM NeoDesk should take up. On systems that do not employ a multitasking environment, even more memory can be retained for running programs if NeoDesk is configured to unload its own desktop code each time a program is executed. (This is done from the "File preferences" menu.) On such a system with a fast hard drive, NeoDesk 4 will reload fairly quickly after each program ends, but users with older, slower hard drives and those who have only one or two floppy drives are likely to find this process distressingly slow. In such situations it may be better to leave NeoDesk set to remain in memory except when running large programs. NeoDesk 4's "Install Application" dialog and its NeoDesk Program Information (NPI) files both provide a way of specifying how NeoDesk 4 should behave for each application, and they should be suitably adjusted for programs that need all available memory.

However, configuring NeoDesk 4 to unload its code when executing programs is pointless in a multitasking environment. NeoDesk would unload its code and run the program and then immediately load its code again. (After all, "multitasking" means NeoDesk itself and other applications are running at the same time.) Users of Geneva can maximize available memory by cutting down on the number of desk accessories that are loaded on bootup. Accessories run in this normal fashion always take up memory, whether they are being accessed or not. Because Geneva (and NeoDesk, when running under Geneva) are able to treat desk accessories as freely loadable programs, you can free up considerable RAM by placing the icons for your desk accessories on the desktop or in a group window and running them only when they are needed. 

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