Now that the hubbub is dying down after the introduction of Atari's ST and Commodore's Amiga, those long-awaited, powerhouse, new-generation computers, perhaps it's a good time to reflect on their relative merits. Although not much software is yet available to show them off to best advantage—a few adventure games, utilities, and applications programs so far—some conclusions can already be drawn.
We've been writing and editing Amiga and ST books and articles here for some months, and our staff is already segregating into camps. We've had camps, of course, for years: Apple enthusiasts, Commodore fans, Atari aficionados, IBM devotees, and assorted other, smaller, clusters of allegiance. It all makes for some spirited exchanges on the relative merits of the competing technologies and, we like to think, energizes our writing and programming.
For example, one of the major responsibilities of our programming staff is transporting programs between machines. We'll transport an arcade game with excellent graphics from its original home to several new computers with varying screen, color, sprite, character, and sound capabilities. This sort of thing throws the differences between computers into high relief.
The Amiga and the ST are quite similar in many respects: Each has a 68000 chip; 512K RAM (although the Amiga is advertised as having only 256K RAM, since the rest is reserved for storing the disk-based operating system); 3½-inch disk drive; mouse; windows; pull-down menus; RS-232 port; parallel printer port; and high-resolution color graphics.
The most striking difference, perhaps, is the price: with color monitor and disk drive, the Amiga costs $1,800, $800 more than the ST. For this extra money, you get multiprocessing, which allows you to run more than one program at a time. The Amiga also offers a more complex sound system with four voices in stereo to the ST's three in mono. The Amiga has 640 × 400 and 640 × 200 resolution modes with 16 simultaneous colors, a 320 × 200 mode with 32 colors, and a total palette of 4,096 colors. The ST has a 640 × 400 monochrome mode, a 640 × 200 mode with 4 simultaneous colors, a 320 × 200 mode with 16 colors, and a total of 512 colors.
Thus, some of the specs would favor the Amiga if, for example, you need extraordinary degrees of color or resolution. Some argue that differences between color number 3,067 and 3,068 are extremely difficult to detect and that this palette represents overkill; others disagree. The Amiga has specialized chips dedicated to memory moves, fills, and other graphics and sound techniques. This frees up the 68000 to do other things while graphics are being manipulated (an important consideration on a computer with a bitmapped, graphics-oriented display). On the other hand, the ST allows the 68000 to run somewhat faster than does the Amiga.
An ST disk holds 360K, the Amiga 880K (although double-sided ST drives with 720K are an option). The Amiga has built-in speech synthesis, but the ST has a built-in MIDI interface for controlling external synthesizers and drum machines. The ST has a built-in hard disk interface; the Amiga requires an additional interface.
Many of the differences between the machines can be eliminated, however, by upgrading, adding peripherals, cards, or options. For example, Commodore will offer a plug-in MIDI interface, and, doubtless, speech synthesis will be made available for the ST. Commodore has announced and demonstrated IBM compatibility via a software emulator, opening up a huge software base. Of course, ST developers are likely to be working on this, too.
While not claiming that the COMPUTE! staff represents a microcosm of the computer marketplace, we have heard effective defenses of both computers. One of our ST partisans says that the disk I/O is faster; software is in greater supply; the operating system and hardware have been around longer and are therefore more fully tested; the machine is easier to understand; there's more speed except for graphics-oriented computing; the keyboard is excellent; the debugger is better; nobody needs multitasking (who could stay in control while simultaneously supervising a spreadsheet and calling a bulletin board?); anything you want that the ST doesn't have you can add; and so forth.
An Amiga owner insists that his computer can expect a great deal of software very soon (the ST was released earlier, and much of its current software comes from Europe where the Amiga has yet to be introduced); the Amiga is hardly an untested technology—it's been in development for three years; the difference in the clock speeds is rendered irrelevant because of the layers of systems, software, languages, and applications above a clock; such things as area fill are built into the Amiga hardware which further counters any clock differences; adding on things not built into the machine results in a pile of extra cords and extra expense; built-in speech means that all programs can use that feature without worrying about compatibility; multitasking is quite useful—having more than one program resident in RAM avoids disk-swapping or rebooting and also allows unrelated software to act as if it were an integrated package.
Rising to the occasion, the ST proponent counters that provisions for multitasking are possible in the ST as well. And so it goes.
At user groups, in magazines, and on telecommunications services around the country, advocates urge one another to get realistic and accept the fact that machine A is obviously better than B. Any comparison of them is contrapuntal; any argument designed to demonstrate the superiority of one can be met by an equally convincing counterargument. It's not surprising that this debate has vitality. After all, the COMPUTE! staff has been working closely with many different machines for years and, with rare exceptions, our Atari camp has never been able to convert the Commodore camp and vice versa, not to mention the solidity of Apple, IBM, and other allegiances. It appears that the ST and Amiga have raised new flags and are likely to perpetuate the friendly face-off that's been an energizing force in personal computing for a decade.