My Thoughts on My NetUSBee
Posted February 7, 2020
Recently I purchased a little accessory for my Atari TT030: a NetUSBee adpater for its cartridge port. I had been trying to work with ARAnyM, an Atari virtual machine, on a number of computers, and I had grown entirely too frustrated to continue. I continually get the feeling that Atari-related software is developed to a "barely working" state, and ARAnyM is no exception. I knew I still had a function TT030, but I despised its mouse, keyboard, and lack of networking.
I purchased a NetUSBee from Amiga on the Lake in January. AOTL is a relatively new retailer near Syracuse, New York that carries some Atari hardware, including this gadget. It provides USB and Ethernet support for Atari ST/TT/Falcon computers. The device was promptly shipped (the next day, actually, on a Sunday), and the product is very well built. I was excited to replace the terrible keyboard and mouse on the Atari while adding Ethernet.
The fun started as soon as I plugged it into the TT030. The quick version is that my TT030's cartridge port was a bit messed up. Two pins are supposed to deliver 5V on the port, and only one was able to do so. I ended up disconnecting the floppy drive and hotwiring the dead pin to the floppy drive power cable instead. Suddenly the little gadget came to life.
My first task was to set up the keyboard and mouse. Using MiNT, my prefered operating system, I was appalled to see that I would have to upgrade to an alpha release to use a USB keyboard and mouse. This little surprise left me highly annoyed, but I proceeded with the upgrade. After a long period of configuration, I did actually get the keyboard and mouse working. Or at least it sort of worked...
The TT030 is, by today's standards, incredibly slow. It appears that it handles USB by polling the USB controller every 20ms (or something like that, I'm not sure). However, when the TT030 becomes preoccupied with other work, such as a screen redraw when you run a program in a terminal, the TT030 doesn't have time to poll the USB port. This miss isn't a big deal with the mouse; it eventually catches up. The keyboard becomes extremely confused, though. For example, if you hit enter in a text editor, the redraw requires all lines below the current to be moved down. GEM apparently triggers the line feed and subsequent redraw when "key down" occurs. Because redraw is occurring, though, the USB stack isn't re-polled in time to see the "key up" event. So now the Atari, after the redraw finishes, thinks the damn enter key is still down ! This triggers the texteditor to line feed again, getting the system caught in a miserable cyclewhile I bang on the keyboard to get it to stop. I actually broke a footoff the USB keybaord in a frustrated key-slapping session.
Basically, the NetUSBee device doesn't support USB keyboards. It is completely unusable even with the latest software. It is nice using a modern mouse and having (extremely slow) networking...
I assume that the keyboard support isn't good because most Atari machines have built-in keyboards. Only the TT and Mega/MegaSTE machines had separate keyboards, and I'm not sure any of those are particularly common amongst Atari hobbyists. However, it does seem like the handful of remaining Atari users are quite complacent about Atari's terrible keyboards and mice, which were both bad even when these machines were new. Other than this NetUSBee software data point, I also remember reading that the Firebee, a somewhat expensive Atari clone, only had working Atari mouse and keyboard ports even though it had USB and PS/2 ports. That little revelation baffled me. I would have thought replacing Atari keyboard and mouse ports with alternatives that didn't suck would have been a top priority.