The Amiga 600. (microcomputer) (Hardware Review) (Evaluation)
by Sheldon Leemon
I've been following the accounts of the Amiga 600 in the British press pretty closely, and I've come to the conclusion that the British just don't get it. I'm not really surprised, because after all, Great Britain is where people buy an Amiga as part of a "Simpsons Pack." To be fair, however, their failure to catch on may be because the A600, like the original A1000, is a bit ahead of its time.
I was reminded of this by a recent two-page ad that Apple placed in some of the computer trade magazines, knocking Microsoft Windows. The main point Apple made was that you're much better off with a system that was well designed to begin with, rather than one in which new features are built on the ruins of old code. The trouble is, when I read that ad, I thought of the Amiga, not the Macintosh.
After all, today's Mac didn't spring full-grown from Steve Jobs's forehead in 1984. The original Mac had a tiny black-and-white screen, a 400K floppy, a fixed limit on the amount of memory that could be added, and no sound capabilities worth mentioning. Each step forward (color display, more memory, 32-bit processors, task switching) required a complete rewrite of the operating system, which caused most of the application software to fail. Apple's crowning glory, its Quicktime multimedia system, still won't work on the vast majority of machines that are out there today. This is what Apple calls greatness by design?
Compare the Mac to the Amiga, which started life with a 32-bit operating system, 10MB of RAM expansion space, four-voice stereo sound, and a 12-bit color display. All of the multimedia features that IBM and Apple are busily tacking onto their systems have been present on the Amiga since day one, and Amiga users are happily multitasking on 512K machines running at 7 MHz while Apple and IBM are still struggling to shoehorn a multitasking OS into a machine with a 50MHz processor and 8 megs of RAM. The sad fact is, as much as Amiga owners complain that the hardware hasn't made any fundamental advances since the days of the 1000, the Amiga is in some ways still way ahead of systems like the PC and Mac.
Of course, when design changes finally are introduced, Amiga users still complain. The Amiga 600, recently introduced in Europe, has a built-in IDE drive interface and room for up to two megabytes of RAM, but it is the first 68000-based Amiga that does not include the traditional 86-pin expansion slot found on the 1000. Instead, it has a PC-MCIA/JEIDA interface, whose acronym is bigger than the expansion slot (the first part stands for Personal Computer Memory Card Interface Adapter, and the second part for the Japanese trade group that dreamed it up). People outside the computer industry may not have heard of this standard (I guess that applies to British computer writers as well), but the Japanese have been flogging this technology at trade shows for years. What's so great about PC-MCIA? Read on.
You've probably noticed that laptop computers have been replaced by smaller, lighter notebook computers. Japanese manufacturers decided that a common interface was needed for the smaller, lighter peripherals required by notebooks, and the interface they chose was PCMCIA. The newest PC notebooks have this slot, as does Apple's forthcoming pocket assistant, Newton.
As I write this, Japanese and American companies are readying all sorts of credit card-sized peripherals to plug into this slot. Epson, for example, has already shown tiny hard drives that hold 40-120MB. Intel and others have demonstrated flash memory cards, static memory cards that act like portable RAM disks of up to 20MB. There are also regular RAM cards that can act as expansion memory. I've even heard of little fax/modems that will plug into this slot. When these peripherals become the standard in the PC world, Amiga owners will not only have access to cheap upgrades but to ones that will allow them to exchange data with PCs.
The Europeans have focused on a single type of peripheral, XIP (eXecute In Place) ROM cards. You could put an 8MB computer game on one of these cards, for example, and run it on a computer with only 1MB of memory. While our friends in the EC are busy debating whether game cards will really stop piracy, be too expensive, or be supported by manufacturers, they are completely ignoring all of the other expansion possibilities PCMCIA has to offer.
Another feature of the 600 that is largely overlooked is the built-in IDE controller. An inexpensive internal hard drive is something the Amiga has desperately needed to compete with cheap clones, and, with the 600, it has that. I recently bought a 60-meg 2 1/2-inch IDE hard drive for under $300, and bigger and cheaper models are on the way. Another feature of the 600 that's largely overlooked is its surface-mount design. Surface-mount technology is not only more reliable, but it makes the computer smaller and more portable. This brings us closer to the long-awaited Amiga laptop.