Monday, 1 October 2007

Amiga Forever?

The Amiga will always have a special place in my affections as the first serious computer that I ever owned. Before that I'd been a Sinclair Spectrum owner, so moving from an 8bit machine with tape storage to the 16bit floppy disk powerhouse that was an Amiga 600 was quite an experience.

At the time the Amiga completely outclassed the PC. It had a fully multi-tasking operating system, needed less memory to run, had better graphics, better sound, cost less, and certainly had the edge when it came to games. There was also a massive user-base (over 1.5 million users in the UK alone). The fact that the Amiga has been resigned to the bargain bin of history whilst the PC has become the computer of choice for most of the planet is a tale of mismanagement and stupidity that defies logic and easy explanations.

Between the buy-outs, lack of new products, in-fighting, more buy-outs and so forth there has been very little joy for Amiga fans during the last ten years or so. The PowerPC based Amiga boards are like hens teeth to acquire, MorphOS (an AmigaOS style operating system for PowerPC) is nearly impossible to obtain at the moment, generally speaking things haven't been looking too bright for the old 'Miggy.

Recently there has been an upsurge in interest in the venerable Amiga, with rumours of yet another buyout, new Amiga hardware and an updated AmigaOS on the horizon and I'd love to be able to say that this is an exciting time for Amiga, but, well we've been here before.

One Amiga product that is available is Cloanto's Amiga Forever. This is an emulated Amiga environment (using UAE as the emulator) with legally licensed Amiga ROMs and Operating System. You can get it in a variety of packages ranging from a downloaded zip archive to a DVD release, which also comes with a second DVD containing Amiga related film footage such as the Deathbed Vigil which chronicles the last days of Commodore.

The first DVD as well as containing the emulator, ROMs and system files is also bootable and uses KX-Light, a cut-down version of Linux to autostart an Amiga 3.x based Workbench (the Amiga equivalent of Windows) with all the trimmings. I say 3.x rather than 3.1 or 3.9 because due to licensing issues the version of the OS is a mix of parts from 3.1, 3.5 and 3.9. You also get a small selection of ready-to-run emulated games, and Amiga Kickstart releases from 1.0 up to 3.1 and the required ROMs to emulate an Amiga CD32, which was a short-lived CD based Amiga console.

One really good thing about this is that because it uses the Open Source Amiga emulator UAE, you can download the latest version of the emulator free of charge, and it is also cross-platform. Personally I run it on Linux, but it works just was well on a Mac or using the default Windows set-up.

UAE itself uses a JIT code translation engine (Just In Time - it translates the Motorola 68000 code into x86 native assembly on the fly) and when you are using Workbench it really gives you the feeling of using a top-of-the-range Amiga workstation.

Time has not been kind to Workbench. Although Workbench 3.1 stood up well when compared with Windows 3.1 and even gave Windows 95 a run for its money, comparing it with a modern Windows XP, OSX or Linux desktop manager isn't really fair, as Amiga Forever is basically giving you an OS from ten years ago - so many of the trimmings that we take for granted like anti-aliased fonts are absent.

On the other hand a TCP-IP stack has been installed, and a basic web browser provided. Productivity software like Turbo Text and Personal Paint are installed, but again, don't stand up well when compared to the likes of Open Office and The Gimp.

As a nostalgia trip Amiga Forever is great. Being able to run an emulated Workbench at 1024x768 with 256 meg of memory shows what Amiga would have been capable of if the hardware development had been done at the time.

Who knows, maybe one day there will be a modern Amiga type computer, with an up-to-date Workbench equivalent.

As a footnote to this, there is an Open Source re-implementation of AmigaOS / Workbench.

AROS (the AROS Research Operating System) intends to do for the Amiga what Linux did for Unix. By this I mean they are re-implementing the entire Operating System from the ground up using all their own code but retaining source code compatability with the original. Their site is well worth a visit for those interested in where the future may lie for Amiga fans.

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