The!Cart

In October 2013 a new flexible Atari 8-bit cartridge named The!Cart was released. Watch the video below to see what it can do. I support the project with documentation, video tutorials in this youtube playlist, the The!Cart Studio software to create cartridge images of up to 128 MB and support for printing shells.

The!Cart - Features

In the beginning of the video game and home computer era, software was primarily released on cartridges. They had many benefits for the consumer:

  • Simple to use - plug and play in the original sense of the phrase.
  • No additional hardware like disk drive was required. That was very important at a time when a disk drive was several times more expensive than the computer.
  • No loading was required, the program is instantly available when the machine is powered on. Compared to disk or even cassette drives cartridges are infinitely fast.
  • No DOS or command line input required.

Cartridges also had benefits for the software producer:

  • Mass-production using mask ROMs was cheap.
  • Hardware is hard to copy with reasonable effort, so using cartridges inhibited piracy in the beginning.

With the advent of inexpensive disk drives and disks it all changed of course because it became more attractive for the software producer to release the software on disk. At least until the race between copy protection and crackers was lost. Nevertheless, all the benefits for the consumer are still highly desirable today. And besides that there are software titles for which the original program is only available on cartridge, for example OSS Action! or SpartaDOS X. Even new titles are sometime released as cartridge-only versions, for example Space Harrier and Atariblast. In most cases these programs are cartridge-only, because they leverage the possibilities have having several kilobytes up to megabytes of ROM space directly available to the programmer via bank switching. Many software producers in the 80ies even created their individual cartridge hardware and bank switching schemes for the best fit to their software requirements.

And this is where The!Cart comes into play. The unique key feature of The!Cart is the hardware level emulation of 35 different bank switching schemes. No other hardware can currently do that. Combined with the 128 MB of Flash ROM allows you to put basically every ROM release that ever existed for the Atari 8-bit computer on a single cartridge. Via the menu with the Google like search you can easily find the right entry in up to 15.000 ROM files and run the program instantly without any loading.

Besides the native emulation of ROM cartridges, including Atarimax Maxflash compilations, the menu system of The!Cart also supports the emulation of ATR disk image files as read-only disk drives. This way you can basically run any disk based program also from The!Cart, provided it does not need to write back to the disk. This disk image emulation puts The!Cart also in the category of mass storage media. I've put together an overview of the most prominent mass storage media and their properties. This can help you compare and choose which fits best for you. The SIO port based products can be combined with the cartridge slot based products. Of course I cannot put every detail into the overview. So if you have further questions, just post them in The!Card thread onAtariAge

Product Atarimax
Maxflash
8mbit
The!Cart Ultimate SD SIDE SIO2USB SIO2SD
Producer Atarimax mega_hz electroctrains Lotharek ABBUC Lotharek
Plugs Into Cartridge Slot Cartridge Slot Cartridge Slot Cartridge Slot SIO Port SIO Port
Primary Storage Medium Built-in Flash ROM Built-in Flash ROM External SD Card External CF Card External USB Stick External SD Card
Natively Emulates ROM Image ROM Image ROM Image Hard Drive Floppy Drive Floppy Drive
Size 1 MB 128 MB Up to 32 GB (FAT32)
Up to 1 MB per ROM Image
Up to 8 GB
Separated into Partitions
90k to 16 MB per Disk Image,
Many Disk Images per USB Stick
90k to 16 MB per Disk Image
Many Disk Images per SD Card
Transfer Protocol Direct Memory Mapping (8k)
No Bank Switching Emulation
Direct Memory Mapping (8k, 16K)
Emulation of 35 Bank Switching Schemes
Direct Memory Mapping (8k, 16K)
Emulation of 38 Bank Switching Schemes
Memory Mapping (8K)

SIO

SIO

Loading Speed Instantly Instantly Very High Very High High (with SIO patch) High (with SIO patch)
Menu System Yes, comes with Image Creation Software Yes, comes with Image Creation Software Yes, comes with Cartridge Yes, comes with DOS Yes, comes with DOS Yes, comes with DOS
Menu Entries Up to 75 Up to 15.000 Up to 20000 per Directory,
Multiple Directory Levels
Up to 64 per Directory,
Multiple Directory Levels
Up to 64 per Directory,
Multiple Directory Levels
Up to 64 per Directory,
Multiple Directory Levels
Supports XEX Files Yes (Directly) Yes (via AtariMax Emulation) Yes (Directly) Yes (Directly) Yes (Directly) Yes (Directly)
Supports ATR Files Yes (Read-only Emulation) Yes (Read-only Emulation) No Yes (Native) Yes (Native) Yes (Native)
Writeable from Atari Yes Yes No Yes Yes Yes
Writeable as File System No No No Yes Yes Yes
Estimated Price 2017 37 EUR 59 EUR 74 EUR 52 EUR 120 EUR 72 EUR

The!Cart - Questions and Answers

Does The!Cart work with all Atari 8-bit computers?

  • It has been tested successfully on Atari 400 (48k), Atari 600 XL, Atari 800 XL, Atari 1200 XL, Atari 130 XE, Atari 65 XE.
  • On the Atari 400 and Atari 800, the cartridge slot lid can only be closed with new smaller The!Cart (2017). If you have a The!Cart (2013), you have leave the lid open and somehow lock the power switch.
  • One problem that was found is an incompatibility with the Atari 800. This incompatibility is not specific to The!Cart but is due to a difference in the pin-out of the Atari 800's left cartridge slot, compared to all other Atari 8-bit machines. The problem can be solved with a very small modification that makes the Atari 800's left cartridge slot compatible with all other Atari 8-bit machines. Click Atari 800 Fix in the menu to read the details.

Does The!Cart have gold plated contacts?

  • The!Cart (2013) did not have gold.
  • The!Cart (2017) does have gold plated contacts.

How limiting is it if you have SIO2USB or SIO2SD instead of SIO2PC for the transfer process?

  • Everything is optimized for the best speed on whatever hardware you have.
  • Transfer speed is the highest if you use SIO2PC with AspeQt. There a single 128 MB ATR file is created. AspeQt supports up to POKEY divisor 0 with 8k sectors and you can leave the whole thing unattended since no disk change is required.
  • A 100% full The!Cart results in 9 ATR files. If you have one of the SIO2USB/SIO2SD devices you can put as many of the ATR files in the virtual disk drives as the device supports. At least 4 are typically supported. If the SIO device supports SIO high speed, i.e. POKEY divisor 3 with 256 bytes sectors, the flasher will automatically use that. 
  • If only parts of the space are actually used, the respective ATR files and sectors are skipped while loading by flasher. 

How many floppy drives does flasher support for reading the image data?

  • The flasher software supports reading from up to 15 drives named "D1:...D9, DJ:-DO" like in SpartaDOS. At most 9 ATR files are created and you can put them in any of the available drives. If an ATR is not found in any of the drives, you will be prompted to insert it into one of them.

Is there a limit to how many times the Flash ROM can be flashed?

Can all disk based games be loaded?

  • It is in the nature of emulating disk drives from ATR images and loading XEX that 100% compatibility cannot be reached without changing the operating system. The reason is that the loading must be somewhere in the RAM and no matter where you put it - there will be one program to use exactly that memory area.
  • The loader of The!Cart is very compatible and allows for on-the-fly patching for individual files if required.
  • In addition you can use the very good ATR and XEX loader provided with the Atari Maxflash Studio and put the resulting Maxflash image onto The!Cart.
  • With these options combined, The!Cart reaches almost 100% compatibility.

Can disk based games like Ultima save their state on the cartridge?

  • No. The!Cart is a cartridge emulation, not a drive emulation. You can load ATR files with the build-in loader, but they are read-only. Only the flasher program can alter content on the cart.

What are RD4/5, S4/5, and CCTL and what do the related LED lights mean to a less technical user?

  • CCTL indicates there is CPU access to the cartridge control area (bank switching is going on).
  • RD4/RD5 indicate that the computer currently does see/does not see the The!Cart and if it is seen as lower 8k, upper 8k  or 16K cartridge.
  • S4/S5 indicate that there is CPU access to the lower 8k / upper 8k of the cartridge.

What are some of the advantages you feel The!Cart has over similar products?

  • Ultra fast Google-like search over up to 15.000 entries.
  • Hardware level emulation of 35 cartridge bank switching schemes.
  • Compared to Atarimax Maxflash: Almost 128 times the space and Atarimax Maxflash can be emulated as well.
  • Compared to Ultimate SD: Faster browsing and loading.
  • Compared to any SIO or Harddisk-Emulation: Zero loading time for ROM software, practically unbeatable loading speed for disks.

What are some areas you would like to improve?

  • Hardware
    • Have a proper shell. A 3D printed shell model is now available for download and on request, see links below.
    • Reduce the size of the cartridge. The!Cart (2017) is in the making and will be a little smaller, so it will fit into the Atari 800 finally.
  • Software:
    • Add support for directly loading XEX files without having to wrap them into ATR files or Atarimax Maxflash images.
    • Add support for directly playing SAP files. Imagine http://asma.atari.org on The!Cart with the Google like search - it'd be like Spotify on the Atari :-)

What should a interested buyer of The!Cart know before purchasing?

  • It's probably not the single solution you want. It very convenient for gaming, for other things like data exchange or saving stuff you should still have a SIO2USB, SIO2SD or similar in parallel.
  • No ROM emulating solution (Atarimax Maxflash, The!Cart, Ultimate SD) can technically be 100% compatible with all SIO based disk software. Yet here The!Cart is the best level compatibility.
  • To keep the price low, The!Cart is shipped without a shell. You can print you own shell based on the 3D models provided below. 

The!Cart Shells

The original The!Cart was delivered with a rather cheap shell in order to keep the overall price low. Sven Pink from the A.B.B.U.C. created a first version of a new 3D printed shell back in 2015, but it was never officially released to the public. Only one prototype was printed back then, which I own. Click on the images to see them in full resolution.

The!Cart Shell, front, closed The!Cart Shell, opened, PCB fitted The!Cart Shell, opened, PCB remove

Sven was lacking the time to and I was lacking the skills and equipment to continue the design. So I decided to release the files in 2016 in their current state. Then Bernhard obtained his own 3D printer and started improving the models and creating shells.

OpenSCAD 
Shiny Print

Click here to download the OpenSCAD (".scad") and stereo lithography (".stl") files for printing your own shell for the first version of "The!Card". The archive is constantly updated. If you manage to get usable results and maybe create improved versions of the model, I'd be happy to add pictures of your shells here update the download accordingly. You can also visit the corresponding The!Cart Shell thread on AtariAge for questions and feedback. Here's the video on how to move the PCB from the old shell into a new 3D printed shell.