A-Max II Plus. (Macintosh emulator for Amiga computers) (Hardware Review) (Evaluation)
by Steve Peterson
If you need to use Macintosh software because that's what your business or school uses, it's logical to assume that you need to buy a Macintosh. But if you've already got an Amiga, the added cost of a Mac is a lot of money to spend, especially when you'd rather not add another computer to your desktop (and create another hole in your credit card). Wouldn't it be nice if your trusty Amiga could somehow run Macintosh software? Well, ReadySoft has the answer: A-Max II Plus, the Macintosh emulator for your Amiga.
There are really two versions of A-Max: A-Max II and A-Max II Plus. This review covers A-Max II Plus, but most of it also applies to A-Max II. A-Max II consists of a cartridge that plugs into the floppy drive port of any model Amiga and some emulation software. A-Max II Plus consists of a card that plugs into your A2000 or A3000 and the same emulation software. In both cases, you must supply your own set of Macintosh 128K ROMs. These are the ROM chips that are found in the Apple Macintosh 5 12Ke and the Macintosh Plus. Many Apple dealers carry these ROMs as upgrades for the earliest Macs, which used 64K ROMs. They can also be found at some Amiga dealers and Mac spare parts suppliers. Expect to pay about $150 for a set.
With A-Max II, you must plug an external Apple-compatible floppy drive into the cartridge in order to read and write standard Macintosh-format disks. A-Max II Plus adds a couple of advantages--your Amiga drives become capable of reading and writing Macintosh-format floppies, eliminating the need for an Apple-compatible drive, and you get a pair of standard Macintosh serial ports.
Installation of A-Max II Plus was more of an adventure than installing most cards. You must handle the Macintosh ROMs gently, being careful not to bend the pins. Plugging in the card is simple, but connecting the cables isn't. The A-Max II Plus card is connected by cables to the floppy drive chain; this is how it controls Amiga drives so they operate as Macintosh drives. The floppy drive cable runs under the power supply, so some patience is required to fish it out and connect it to the A-Max board. My first attempt failed; it turned out that the length of cable supplied by ReadySoft was plugged in backwards, and the instructions in the manual incorrectly identified the drive cable connectors (though the illustration was correct). A few quick reconnections, and A-Max worked perfectly.
The new version of A-Max emulation software provides you with extensive choices, allowing you to set screen resolution, serial and parallel port assignments, memory options, and other things. Among other nice features, A-Max takes advantage of new ECS screen modes, and it lets you set up a scollable virtual screen that's larger than your real screen.
ReadySoft supplies drivers for most popular hard drive controllers (including those made by Commodore, GVP, ICD, Supra, IVS, and Xetec), so you can set up a partition on your hard drive for Macintosh software. And a hard drive is essential; the only way you can run Macintosh software from floppies is to use an older version of the Macintosh system--and a stripped-down version at that. It's possible, but I wouldn't recommend it for serious work. As an example, Word, Excel, PageMaker, and Macintosh System files alone will take up about 20MB. If you're going to use the latest Macintosh system software, you should have at least 4MB of RAM in your Amiga and devote at least 20MB of your hard drive to the Macintosh side of things. Alternatively, you can plug a Mac hard drive into your Amiga's external SCSI port.
One of the big advantages of A-Max II Plus is the inclusion of two Macintosh-standard serial ports. Generally, you'd use one as the modem port and one as the printer port. However, the printer port is also AppleTalk compatible, so you can connect your Amiga to a Macintosh network. Once on a Macintosh network, you can share files with other Macintoshes or share a printer. Or you can configure one of the ports for direct MIDI connection, assuming you have an adaptor from the mini-DIN 8 plug to a MIDI plug.
A-Max is much better if you have a deinterlacer of some sort, because Macintosh windows all have an annoying set of single-pixel-thick lines at the top which tend to flicker like crazy in interlace mode. If you don't have a deinterlacer, you can compensate by turning down the brightness and contrast. Or look into some Macintosh INITs that change the tops of the windows (like NeVR or WindChooser); you can find them on networks such as CompuServe and GEnie.
For some reason, A-Max II Plus refused to work in hires interlace overscan mode on my Amiga (672 x 460), though that mode worked fine with the earlier version of A-Max. The screen just showed an odd sort of video snow, though the Macintosh software seemed to be working despite the display problem.
ReadySoft also includes a handy file transfer utility, which can move files between Amiga and Macintosh partitions and does some elementary file conversions (IFF files to one-bit PICT files, for instance). This is invaluable for graphic artists who need to move images between platforms, though a copy of Art Department Professional comes in really handy for advanced conversions between graphics file formats.
The big question, of course, is this: How compatible is A-Max with Macintosh software? In my testing, it seemed about as compatible as any Macintosh is these days. (With about 20 different varieties of Macintosh on the market, there are some incompatibilities between Macintosh models.) A-Max is compatible with all the major software I've tried, including Microsoft Word 5.0, Excel 4.0, and a host of utilities. I've noted some problems with various INITs, but those sorts of problems are not uncommon at all on Macs and are more than likely related to the fact that I was running Macintosh System 7.
The A-Max documentation doesn't offer much help when you're trying to install your Macintosh software. Your best bet is to find a friend who is familiar with the Macintosh to help you, or ask your user group or dealer. Many Amiga dealers who sell A-Max are familiar with setting up the Macintosh part of the system, and they can help you.
There are some drawbacks to A-Max: no color support, and no support for drawing pads, trackballs, extra monitors, or Macintosh NuBus cards. But if you really need those sorts of things, you should buy a Macintosh anyway.
A-Max is a terrific deal for someone who already has an Amiga and needs Macintosh compatibility. If you need to run Mac software such as Excel or Word to be compatible with your office, this solution is cheaper than buying a Macintosh. If you want to integrate an Amiga into an existing Macintosh network and share printers and files easily, A-Max is a great way to go.
The A-Max II Plus board is a clean, well-engineered board, complemented by equally well-designed A-Max II software. The documentation, while thorough, was a bit confusing. Overall, though, A-Max II Plus is a bargain for many Amiga users--it lets your Amiga provide all the basic Macintosh functions at a fraction of the price of a Macintosh.