The Amiga 500
Rhett Anderson, Assistant Editor
The Amiga 500 is poised to break into the home market. Here's a firsthand look at the newest version of this powerful machine from Commodore.
Judging by Commodore's resolve at the most recent COMDEX computer show, the company is convinced that it can make the Amiga into the latest Commodore success story. The company is so convinced, in fact, that it is bringing two machines to market. The Amiga 500 is aimed squarely at the home computer market previously dominated by the 64. The Amiga 2000, along with the PC compatibles that Commodore recently brought to the U.S., is part of the company's effort to secure a foothold in the lucrative business market.
The two new computers replace the Amiga 1000, which won rave reviews and sold respectably, but never gained the critical mass necessary to become a runaway hit. Some sources have claimed that fewer than 200,000 Amiga 1000s were ever made. For a company which has sold over six million 64s, that number was not enough.
Fortunately, the new Amigas retain the 1000's star quality that dazzled the critics. And both have acquired a few new tricks of their own. (For a closer look at the 2000, see the March 1987 issue of COMPUTE!.) Amiga's new two-fisted attack on the market should end the criticism that the Amiga was too expensive to be a home computer and lacked the software base to be a business computer.
How did Commodore manage to reduce the price of the computer so dramatically? By taking a close look at the market and at its computer.
More than any other feature, the price is the greatest difference between the Amiga 1000 and the Amiga 500. The original Amiga was initially offered at $1,295 without an RGB monitor. The computer came with 256K bytes of RAM, expandable to 512K with a relatively inexpensive add-on. Further expansion was available, but expensive.
In contrast, a 500 with 512K RAM carries a list price of $595 without a monitor. The new price—plus a bit of advertising—may be the catalyst needed to make the Amiga a major player in the home-computer market.
Rumors circulated months before the introduction of the machines speculating that the new Amigas would have graphics chips able to provide higher resolution, non-interlaced graphics. These chips are not present in either the 500 or the 2000. Reportedly, the Amiga engineers are still working on new display technologies. Presumably, any new graphics chips will first appear as enhancements for the 2000 (and possibly the 500), and then as standard equipment in new computers.
As it stands now, the Amiga still has the most impressive graphics of any home computer. With resolutions of up to 640 × 400 pixels and 4096 colors to choose from, the Amiga is capable of stunning displays. One special screen mode even allows all 4096 colors to be displayed at once. Without special programming, 32 colors per screen is the limit.
The Amiga's powerful chips allow large amounts of graphics data to be moved and combined quickly to provide animation that is almost of cartoon quality. For the artistically inclined, the Amiga runs the most spectacular paint programs available.
Commodore recently announced that arcade manufacturers are beginning to use a modified Amiga computer as the engine of their latest arcade games. As part of the agreement, Commodore will market the software produced by the arcade-game publishers. For the first time, you'll be able to play exactly the same game at home that you can at the arcade.
The 500 also inherits the musical virtuosity of its older sibling. The Amiga has a dedicated sound chip with four voices. Two voices each are routed to the two phonoplug outputs for stereo sound. Like the Apple Macintosh, the Amiga is a natural for recording and playing back digitized sound. Programs such as Electronic Arts' Deluxe Music Construction Set allow you to write your own songs and hear them played back with digitized trumpets, pianos, flutes, and other instruments. For those who want to use the Amiga for more serious musical work, MIDI interfaces are available for under $50, offering MIDI IN, OUT, and THROUGH. With this interface, you can drive external music machines such as synthesizers.
Another of the Amiga's powerful features is its mulitasking operating system. The computer can run several programs simultaneously. While this may seem like a novelty at first, its usefulness quickly becomes apparent. For instance, suppose you're typing away on your word processor and you discover you don't have enough room on any disks to save your text. Simply pull up the Workbench screen and format a new disk—without ever leaving the word processor.
The Workbench is a mouse and icon-oriented windowing system like that of the Macintosh. The CLI (Command Line Interface) lets you communicate more directly with the operating system. Using a CLI is similar to using the MS-DOS A> prompt. The most recent version of the Amiga operating system, version 1.2, is nearly bug-free, and it's faster and easier to use than previous versions.
The New, Low Price
In order to make the 500 more cost efficient than the 1000, several design changes had to be made. These changes affect the style and personality of the machine.
The most obvious of the changes is the computer's appearance. The Amiga 1000, with its detachable keyboard, and space atop the computer for a monitor, resembles an IBM PC system. The 500 looks more like an Atari 1040ST. The 500's keyboard is physically part of the computer housing, and there's no space on the computer for a monitor. To make up for its relative immobility, Commodore expanded the keyboard, matching that of the Amiga 2000. The new keyboard has an enhanced keypad, cursor keys in an inverse-T layout, and larger function keys.
In another major change, Commodore placed the Kickstart portion of the operating system into ROM. In the 1000, 256K of protected RAM known as the WCS (Writable Control Store) held the operating system, which had to be loaded from disk. Commodore had originally planned to place the operating system in ROM, but didn't feel the software was sufficiently debugged when the 1000 was released. Using the WCS gave the software designers time to fix bugs and improve the performance of the computer. Commodore has evidently decided that the 1.2 version of the operating system is good enough to put in ROM. This commitment should help convince developers that the computer is "finished."
For additional cost savings, new custom chips and gate arrays were designed to take over functions which were previously performed by more common, off-the-shelf chips. For example, the Agnes chip has grown into Fat Agnes by incorporating much of the support circuitry that previously surrounded the chip. More powerful chips mean less complex, easier to produce motherboards.
The Amiga 500 comes with 512K bytes and is easily expandable to one megabyte (1024K). Although the system can be further expanded (up to nine megabytes), users looking for this much power would be better off with the Amiga 2000, which can be expanded to the same amount internally. Readers familiar with eight-bit computers may think that the 256K of RAM in the Amiga 1000 is plenty, but a great deal of the commercially available software for the machine requires at least 512K.
A large amount of memory is especially important in a multitasking computer like the Amiga. The more memory you have, the greater the number of programs and utilities you can have in memory at once. One megabyte of memory allows for a large ramdisk, which can speed up the system a great deal. Programmers using assemblers and compiled languages like C, Pascal, and Modula-2 will almost certainly want at least one megabyte of RAM.
The Amiga 500 comes with two books, Introduction to the Commodore Amiga 500 and Amiga Basic. The first tells you everything you need to know about setting up your computer and using it for the first time. There are chapters on using the Workbench and the CLI, caring for your computer, and adding peripherals to the 500. The BASIC manual is a reference manual that assumes you already know BASIC. Those ready to move beyond BASIC will need the detailed technical reference books available from Commodore.
The Amiga And The Rest Of The World
In general, the 500 is as expandable as the 1000. However, some of the ports have been moved, and two of these have had their genders changed. Here's a quick look at how the 500 gets its power and talks to its peripherals.
The power supply, separate from the computer, contains the power switch. This makes it difficult to turn the machine off accidently. If you do, however, Commodore recommends waiting several seconds before turning it back on again. Resetting the computer by pressing the Control key in conjunction with the two logo keys is preferable to flipping the power switch.
Two game controller ports are located on the back of the computer. These are used to connect joysticks, mice, paddles, and drawing pads to the Amiga. Although the computer can use either analog joysticks (which are standard for the IBM and Apple) and digital joysticks (which are standard for the 64 and Atari computers), the latter have effectively become the Amiga standard.
The 500 has the same RGB monitor output as the 1000. However, unlike the 1000, the 500 cannot use composite color monitors or televisions. It does have a new composite monochrome output which could be used to connect a high-persistance monochrome monitor for high-resolution word processing and graphics.
The genders of RS-232 serial interface and Centronics parallel printer interface have been changed to make them compatible with cables designed for the IBM PC.
The expansion port has moved from the right side of the computer to the left. Although the 500's port is electrically identical to the 1000's, some devices will not connect to the 500. However, it won't be long before manufacturers begin to consider the 500 when they design new products.
One 3 ½-inch disk drive is built into the 500, and another can be connected to the external disk connector located on the back of the machine. The drives are doublesided and store 880K on each disk.
The Future Of Commodore
The Amiga 500 casing features the embossed name Commodore. It also uses a Commodore logo key in place of the left Amiga key of the 1000. Its new sister, the Amiga 2000, lacks any trace of the Commodore name. Apparently, Commodore expects to sell the 500 to the people most familiar with the Commodore name—those who bought the VIC, 64, and 128. The Amiga 2000 is aimed at another market.
The new Amigas are an impressive pair of computers. Home users will appreciate the 500's graphics, sound, and programming power. For the business community, the 2000 brings dazzling graphics and superb sound to the staccato of the MS-DOS world. The combination of developer enthusiasm and market excitement is already resulting in the appearance of innovative and powerful Amiga software and hardware products. If Commodore does erything right, it might just have another 64 on its hands.