One body, two brains. (Commodore's A2386 386SX Bridgeboard) (Hardware Review) (Evaluation)
by Mike Nelson
Ever since the Transformer program was released for the Amiga 1000, the Amiga has been able to effectively run MS-DOS software, although with varying degrees of integration between Amiga and PC software. Now, as the MS-DOS world eagerly awaits the first successor to the 486, Commodore has finally unleashed the A2386, a 386SX Bridgeboard.
I must admit to having steered as far away as humanly possible from the murky world of PC compatibles. I must also confess to really trying my utmost to trip up the Bridgeboard and its software, but I failed miserably. I tried the card in an A2000 with both Commodore A2091 and ICD Novia hard drives, as well as an AdSpeed 14-MHz 68000. This was running under AmigaDOS 2 with the Datel Action Replay cartridge in the processor slot.
The 386SX Bridgeboard takes up only one slot in your Amiga, unlike the earlier 286 board, which was so big that it blocked a second slot. I was supplied with a VGA card, which all PCs apparently require, as the basic graphics are so depressing. The board includes software to emulate the CGA PC display on an Amiga Intuition screen, but it's a bit on the slow side. Installation into the A2000, A3000, or A3000T is a simple matter of ripping off the case and locating the board in one of the two bridge slots. You'll need to decide which disk drives you want to use with the Bridgeboard, and then there's lots of wiring which needs to be connected. Commodore has a commendable minimal approach to the Bridgeboard, and using some extremely clever software called Janus, it can share resources with the Amiga. You can share one of your Amiga's internal floppy drives with the Bridgeboard, reading both Amiga and PC disks in it. If you're lucky enough to have one of Commodore's rare high-density floppy drives, you'll be able to read 1.44MB PC disks, the format most PC software ships on now. Otherwise, you may want to connect a second PC-only high-density drive.
You can install a PC hard drive controller in one of the Amiga's ISA slots, or you can tell the Janus software to use your Amiga's hard drive space for storing MS-DOS files. You don't have to partition your drive and format it under MS-DOS. Janus creates massive files which correspond to boring PC hard drive names like C and D. The practical limit for each of these emulated drive partitions is around 37MB.
The installation software and instructions in the manual are pretty clear, and you're guided through the potentially tricky process of getting the supplied MS-DOS 5.0 software onto your designated C drive. The PC board really takes care of itself, as it works totally independently of what the Amiga is doing. (Unless it gurus and resets, but Amigas rarely do that nowadays, do they?) You genuinely have two computers in one box, but you only need one keyboard and one mouse.
The Janus software is very cleverly designed. You run a program called PC Color or PCMono and click on its window to send your keyboard input into the 386 world. PCColor can also try to simulate CGA graphics on the Amiga's monitor, but I'd really recommend a VGA card, as the software is a little on the stressed side when it's run on a 68000.
Once the board is installed and Janus is loaded, you can use the Bridgeboard just like a real PC. I installed Windows 3.0, as I rapidly became totally unimpressed by the command line. Do PC owners really have to think up filenames with only eight characters in the title? Does the 1992 version of MS-DOS honestly only run one real program at a time? Amazing!
The system runs reasonably well, but the interface to the Amiga adds a significant overhead to the proceedings; it can take ages to do I/O. The A2386SX can use the Amiga's printer port and mouse, but you'll have to add expansion cards to use a modem or other peripherals with the PC side of things.
There's too much to this board for detailed description, but suffice it to say that for the U.K. equivalent of about $700, you're getting a 386SX-based PC with 1MB of RAM (expandable to 8MB) and a pile of cunning software to interface it seamlessly with your Amiga.
Epic. We've been waiting years for the release of this Wing Commander-esque release from Ocean. When I finally got my hands on it, I was quite disappointed, as the game is incredibly difficult to get into. It's a 3-D "fly around and blast aliens to bits" type of game, in a sort of simplified Wing Commander vein.
That's all well and good, but the instruction booklet is pretty tough going. It's one of those typical "boy meets girl, and the sun goes supernova" types of scenarios, and you basically have to fly around in your Epic fighter zapping Rexxon (why not ARexxon?) bad guys with a variety of weapons on a series of increasingly tricky missions. It takes some getting into, but diehard strategists and would-be Skywalkers will have a ball.