More on Amiga: software, Basic and IBM compatibility. Sheldon Leemon.
Commodore has the hottest new computer around, but you won't find the word Commodore or its company logo anywhere on the machine. You can't blame them, though, for trying to disassociate their bargain basement image from a premium product like the Amiga. After all, the performance of the machine is much more important than the name. I was in love with this computer when it was still the product of an obscure manufacturer of game cartridges and joysticks; at the time it was known only by the code name Lorraine. And it always makes me a little queasy when I hear somebody ask if it is compatible with his 1541 disk drive or 1525 printer.
To start Amiga off on the right foot, Commodore held an elaborate press conference on July 23 at Lincoln Center in New York, which gave many of those unfamiliar with the machine a first glimpse of its raw power. Even long-time Amiga watchers were somewhat surprised by the announcement that Commodore plans to offer optional software to allow the machine to emulate the IBM PC. The press conference covered most of the basic features of the machine, but some nagging questions remained unanswered. The most concern centered around who was going to sell the machine. Only a couple of dealers were announced by name, and many publications made much of the fact that the big chains like Computerland and Entre were not going to handle the Amiga.
To strengthen his company's sales position, CEO Marshall Smith hit the road immediately after the launch. The mission of this Commodore caravan was to press the flesh with computer retailers in 37 U.S. cities. If the meeting I attended was any indication, it doesn't appear that Commodore will have a problem finding enough dealers to make the machine readily available by Christmas. The only real problem may be getting computers to those dealers in sufficient quantity in time for the holiday season.
For me, one of the most important results of Commodore's Magical Mystery Tour was that a few precious demo machines found their way to my local dealers' showrooms. This meant that after a two-year wait, I was finally able to get some hands-on experience with the machine. The first thing that I did, of course, was to run the graphics demos. Though the images were impressive in their own right, there was a particular trick I wanted to try.
The Intuition Operating System (which may be called something else by the time you read this because of a possible trademark conflict with a PC program called Intuit) lets you "pull down" the screen of any application, revealing the Workbench screen behind it. So while some of the fancy animation demos were running, I moved the mouse to where the scroll bar would be and started to drag. Much to my gratification, the demo screen "slid" down, while the animation continued to run with only a slight disruption. This amounts to having the Operating System fine-scrolling the display autonomously, a feat that I consider pretty amazing.
From the graphics demo programs, I moved on to the early demo copies of the various application programs that Commodore intends to market. The most complete program I had was Text-Craft, an introductory word processing package. It is very easy to use and has a unique "format template" function that does all of the formatting for many standard types of documents. GraphiCraft is a full-featured drawing program, but what impressed me most was not any special feature of the program, but rather the ability to work with 32 colors at the same time.
MusicCraft, the "simple" music program, provides an impressive array of features. It allows you to compose, to custom tailor the waveform and tone of each voice, and to use the computer keyboard like a piano keyboard. Tinkering with the tone was particularly interesting; there are lots and lots of "switches" that let you make minute adjustments of the sound, and you can even specify the waveform by drawing its shape with the mouse. The program comes with a whole array of pre-set instrument sounds that you can load in and modify or use as-is.
The version of Basic that came with the evaluation machines was not the Microsoft version that Commodore says it will ship with the machine, but is extremely interesting to play with just the same. This version was written by Metacomco, the British firm that wrote the multi-tasking Operating System and DOS for the Amiga, and which reportedly also wrote the interpreter upon which Atari ST Basic is based.
Because much of the graphics muscle of the Amiga comes from the hardware processors used to speed up the display, it stands to reason that manipulation of bit-map graphics would be fast even from Basic. But knowing it and seeing it are two different things. Those of you familiar with the Basic used by the IBM PC or the Commodore 128 know that those interpreters have bit-map graphics commands that allow you to "save" the image of a rectangular screen area to a Basic variable array and redraw the image elsewhere on screen. But as anyone who has used the PUT and GET or GSHAPE and SSHAPE commands knows, the image is not redrawn nearly fast enough for animation, and in the case of a fairly large image, it may take quite a while to draw. On the Amiga, GSHAPE restores the image as fast as could be done by machine language bit manipulation on other machines.
One of the Basic demo programs has you "capture" a rectangle of color by selecting the upper left and lower right corners of the image with the mouse. It then redraws the saved image where the mouse is pointing whenever the mouse button is pressed, in effect turning the image into a drawing pen. The program is only a few lines long and operates quickly enough to allow you to draw smooth lines as quickly as you can drag the mouse. I defined a narrow "pen" and wrote my name in script with no problem. A larger pen composed of a block of 16 colors about the size of a Rubik's cube was reproduced just about as quickly.
The sound capabilities of the machine are also fully supported by Basic. One of the programs on the Basic disk reads in a data file containing sampling information for a tom-tom, and lets you play this extremely realistic-sounding instrument from the keyboard. Using the built-in software speech synthesizer from Basic is a snap. The NARRATE command uses a phonetic text string for input (the word computer, for example, is rendered phonetically as "kumpyuw4ter"). Those of you familiar with the SAM program for Atari and Commodore computers will recognize that the phonetic system is exactly the same as on those machines. But if you prefer plain English, the TRANSLAT$ function will make the translation automatically, allowing you to command the computer to speak a sentence as easily as to have it print the words to the screen.
One of the most impressive programs on the Basic disk shows how the language provides access to the full range of system resources by allowing you to call Operating System functions directly. This program opens up five different windows and has a different Basic program operating in each. As with any system window, each display can be sized, moved around the screen, and made active by clicking in the window. One of the five programs is a simple Basic text processor that works much more quickly even with four other programs running at the same time than would most such Basic programs running alone.
As I said before, the Basic version I saw was not the one being shipped with the machine. But I was told by a Commodore representative that the Microsoft Basic version that would be supplied with the computer would have comparable features. I hope that it will also have a little better editing facilities than the Metacomco Basic, which does not even support full screen editing.
Finally, I had a chance to play with the fabled IBM emulator. First, I attached an external 5.25" drive that looked suspiciously like a 1571 (in fact, I was told it was a 1571 with connectors for the Amiga added). Then, I started the machine normally, loading the Operating System and DOS from the internal 3.5" drive. From the DOS command line, I ran the EMU4 program, that is also on a 3.5" disk. The screen turned black with green letters, and a message told me to insert PC-DOS into the external drive and press any key to boot DOS. I did so and was first greeted with a message that told me there was 395K of memory available to the emulator (on a 512K Amiga). Then came the familiar PC-DOS sign-on screen. Interestingly enough, the internal drive (which was now drive B:) could be used to read disks from PC-compatibles that use 3.5" drives (like the HP portable). In fact, it was possible to format 3.5" disks in PC format and to transfer programs from 5.25" to 3.5" disks. Thus, it is quite possible to run the emulator with only 3.5 disks (or even the Amiga hard disk), once you have transferred DOS and your programs. But when you format the smaller disks for PC compatibility, they will hold only 360K instead of their normal 880K, and the machine will be unable to read those disks when it is in Amiga mode.
When I inserted a Lotus 1-2-3 program disk, the program loaded normally. You could also say that it ran, but it might be more appropriate to say that it walked. The operation was said to take place at about 60% IBM speed, which looked about right. Also, it was not possible to operate the graphics section of the program, because the emulator, in its current primitive state, will run only programs that are compatible with the IBM monochrome adapter. WordStar ran, albeit slowly. This was to be expected, because it is one of the programs advertised to work. So I switched to programs that were not on the list.
When I tried to run my original copy of Microsoft Word, a heavily protected word processor, I got a message that said "The weed of crime bears bitter fruit. Now trashing your pirate disk." I assumed this meant the program thought my original was an unauthorized copy and quickly pulled it out of the drive before the wrath of Microsoft was visited upon the innocent.
Next I tried one of my own programs, a Yahtzee dice game that I had written in C. Much to my surprise, even though the program does direct reading and writing to screen memory, it ran. It acted as if it had a bit of brain damage, though, leaving non-fatal garbage on the screen at times, and scoring one hand a minus 27,306 points. A simple text editor written in C wouldn't load and locked up the machine entirely, so I decided that Sidekick was probably out of the question.
Armed with this experience, I was able to confront a Commodore representative with some reasonably intelligent questions about the emulator. What about programs that use the graphics adapter? Though the current emulator will not run them, the final version will (it is interesting to note that MacCharlie, a $1700 hardware PC emulator for the Macintosh will run only monochrome programs). As for the slow speed of the emulator, I was told that modifications to the software would improve the speed to about 80% of IBM's, and that a small hardware board called the Accelerator would bring the emulator up to full speed.
Despite careful questioning, I still have no firm technical details on the hardware card. I know only that it is a simple, inexpensive board that plugs into the expansion port on the side and is said to speed up memory access. From that description, it seems safe to rule out a board that contains Intel chips like the 8088 or 8087, as had been rumored. As for copy-protected disks, Commodore-Amiga says only that it will try to deal with each such program on an individual basis.
For true believers like me, however, the question of PC-compatibility is largely a charade. Sure, we recognize that many people would never even hear about the great features of the machine if it didn't have the emulator. After all, plenty of prospective computer buyers first ask "Is it IBM compatible?" and if the answer is negative, they just stop listening. But from an objective standpoint, the Amiga needs a PC-emulator like the AT needs a Vic 20 emulator.
Amid all the hoopla about the great graphics and sound of the Amiga, one simple fact often passes unnoticed. With an 8 MHz processor, special hardware to speed up the display, up to 8.5Mb of RAM, true multi-tasking, and an open bus for the addition of hard drives, the Amiga is a power user's dream come true. Graphics and sound demo programs are flashy and take relatively little time to set up, so such demos make up most of the software we have seen on the Amiga so far.
As a result, many people already think of the Amiga as a toy computer or a game machine. But if there were Amiga versions of Lotus 1-2-3, Multimate, and dBase III, IBM users would be forced to consider a machine that could run all three at the same time, and run each faster and better than the PC. The day that I can run that kind of demonstration on the Amiga will no doubt come. And, if that still doesn't impress them, I'll show them how I can play a quick game of Pac-Man while my spreadsheet recalculates.