The Falcon030 Vs The Amiga1200

The Falcon030 Vs The Amiga 1200

Since they were launched during the final months of 1992, opinion has been split as to which is the better machine, and favour often falls within the machines own camp, with Atari fans preferring the Falcon and Commodore fans the Amiga. Here I intend to put factory original machines up against each other, then add a few enhancements and see how things change.

While each machine has its own strengths, they also have weaknesses too which can balance things out in unexpected ways, but first let's look at the on paper specifications of both machines side by side:

  Amiga 1200 Atari Falcon030
Case type All in one computer in keyboard All in one computer in keyboard
Processor Motorola MC68EC020 Motorola MC68030
Speed 14MHz 16MHz
Bus width 32 bit 16 bit
FPU None (Available with several 3rd party upgrades) Optional MC68881 or MC68882 co processor
Battery backed clock No (Available as 3rd party upgrade) Yes
Standard RAM 2MB Available with 1MB, 4MB or 14MB but most machines shipped with 4MB
Colour palette 16,777,216 colours 262,144
Sound 4 channel 8bit stereo 8 channel 16bit stereo with 3 channel programmable sound generator
Floppy Drive 880KB Double Density 1.44MB High Density
Hard Drive Optional 2.5 inch IDE drive Optional 2.5 inch IDE drive
External Connectors Video (RGB)
Mouse
Joystick
Serial
Parallel
Audio Left
Audio Right
RF Connector for TV
Composite
External Floppy
PCMCIA

Video (Different monitor ports available with adapters, eg VGA)
Mouse/joystick
Enhanced analogue joystick
Serial
Parallel
RF Connector for TV
RS432 LAN
MIDI
Cartridge
Microphone
Headphones
DSP connector
SCSI II

Internal Expansion Trapdoor expansion
Clock Port
RAM socket
Internal Processor bus connector
Operating System Kickstart on ROM, Workbench on disk TOS 4.0X in ROM, MultiTOS on disk
Chipset Custom Amiga AGA chipset Custom Atari chipset
Support Processors Custom AGA processors, including BLiTTER MC56001 DSP
BLiTTER

Styling

Both machines carry on the styling of their predecessors, though the Falcon is a little too much like it's predecessors for comfort. Other than new port positions and a colour change it is exactly the same as the STfm and STe computers (And in some cases the same colour as the ST series as well!), while the Amiga 1200 brings the profile of the older Amiga 500 up to date with sleeker lines and also a more compact form factor.

Sadly the Falcon leaves the primary joystick ports in the same inconvenient place as the STfm and STe of old, under the keyboard with ports that can be damaged with frequent plugging and unplugging of devices! The keyboard though does feel that bit better than my old STfm one, though not quite as good as my STe, and woefully short of the standard of the Mega ST and Stacy keyboards. It is better than my Mega STE and TT keyboards though, but that is just my opinion. The keyboard on the Amiga is far better than the one on the Amiga 500+ I used to own, though comparing it to an Amiga 3000 keyboard I recently had chance to try, the quality was let down a little, but then again the A3000 cost a lot more that the 1200 ever did.

Both machines also gave a nod toward new standards coming to the computer market, the Amiga had a PCMCIA card slot like the Amiga 600 before it, and the Falcon adopted the SCSI II interface for easy addition of fast hard drives and CD drives. Both machines adopted the small form factor IDE port for internal hard drives and could house laptop style 2.5 inch drives, with a little ingenuity they could also house fill size 3/5 IDE drives though this did need custom hard drive mounts making, along with IDE adapters fitting into the now cramped case, especially in the Amiga 1200.

Test Machines

For the test, both machines were at the level of having hard drives fitted, though many of the factory fitted drives have been replaced with faster and higher capacity models than the 40MB or 80MB drives that often shipped. Also boot times can be affected by additional loader programs, so boot times into the OS will not be compared. Once at each machines own desktop though, the shipped utilities can be quickly compared. While the Falcon has its operating system in ROM, the multi-tasking version ships on floppy. There is a good reason for this (Other than it wasn't ready when the Falcon first shipped!), many professional applications would not work well with this new system, especially timing critical programs like Cubase and Logic. For these to run properly, the more common ROM based operating system was used while power users who needed the new functions could install the new operating systems on their hard drives. Even with this installed, there was always the option to boot into the single tasking OS with the use of a control panel applet, which could also configure other options on the machine, like the advanced sound system and the new high speed serial port.

The new Amiga Workbench also received a makeover, with a professional look that could well have influenced some parts of other operating systems still in development at the time, with clean well designed icons and a more consistent feel to the whole desktop. Multi-tasking had always been a part of the Amiga OS, though this was the first home machine to ship with a decent amount of RAM to take proper advantage of it, shipping with 2MB chip ram from the start. Like the Falcon, initial marketing had suggested a 1MB base machine, but also like the Falcon, no actual shipped machine had this amount of memory (Though the initial shipments of Amiga 1200 manuals do mention the option to upgrade to 2MB of chip ram!)

Why did neither of these machines ship with a base configuration of 1MB? Well if they had done that, it would have been a real marketing disaster. While the ST needed 16KB and the Amiga's up to the Amiga 600 needed around 32KB to buffer the screen, the advanced screen modes of the new machines would have needed around 256KB, add onto that additional memory taken up for the OS and hardware registers, the amount of RAM left to load a program would have been close to 256KB, even the Amiga 500 left more RAM available for applications than that, so the minimum shipped configurations were 2MB for the Amiga 1200 and 4MB for the Falcon.

Now that little diversion is complete, we will carry on with the comparison...

On the desktop, it is down to personal preference which one is better, in terms of using the OS, there is very little difference in the perception of speed. The Falcon can open windows quicker in some screen modes while the Amiga can open them quicker in others, however it won't make you type any quicker, for that you need to upgrade the component between the keyboard and the chair.

Need for speed

As there are few cross platform applications we can use for comparison (Other than some trackers and a few other programs), the best comparison is games, however again there are not many that are cross platform. Frontier Elite II works well on both machines, but as neither had 3D accelerated chipsets, this relies totally on the CPU and the effective system speed. As the Falcon has the faster and more advanced CPU, it does do screen updates faster than the Amiga, but not that much faster. The reason is that while the CPU is on paper faster and better than the one fitted to the Amiga 1200, it is hobbled by being put on a data bus no better than the one in the Atari ST, a 16 bit data bus and a 24 bit address bus. This effectively cripples the chip, forcing it to do 2 operations to get a 32 bit value. It is only the better CPU design and the marginally increased clock speed that allow the Falcon to get ahead.

Graphics

Amiga demo graphics

Bringing things back to a more frantic pace, the Amiga has sprite support and collision detection as part of its graphics hardware, while the Falcon relies on programming for this, though this time around the Falcon ships with a marginally improved BLiTTER chip, though it is not quite as functional as the BLiTTER chip that the Amiga is equipped with (Arguably it lacks features that the original Amiga 1000 BLiTTER had, making it pretty redundant in the Falcon architecture and included more for backward compatibility with STe games). However in the Falcons defense, it can use the DSP for graphic operations and with skillful programming, can create displays that equal the Amiga 1200's impressive displays, even though the Falcon has a smaller colour palette.

Sound

Throughout the 80's the Commodore machines had the advantage on sound, first with the Commodore 64's SID chip and later the Amiga's Paula chip. With 4 channel digital 8 bit sound and stereo output, the Amiga created the tracker scene using digital samples as sound sources. While other platforms caught up, the Amiga moved on by using the cleaver programming tricks that other platforms were using to get 4 channel digital sound, and getting 8 channels of 8 bit digital sound.

But by 1992, this was no longer impressive as PC's had sound cards capable of 16 bit audio (Though still expensive) and the Apple Macintosh was starting to make waves with digital recording packages of its own. Atari was king of the MIDI studio, saw what was happening and beefed up the Falcons audio from 8 channel 12 bit stereo sound in the development machined to 8 channel 16 bit stereo sound in the shipping machines. On top of this was the MC56001 DSP chip, which was used in many of the advanced audio processors of the time. This put the Falcon on level pegging with the high end digital recorders of the day but at a fraction of the price. It also came in under the Apple Macintosh and Windows PC's of the day, which in addition to the system cost also needed additional dedicated hardware adding, which again was more expensive than the Falcon.

But for both the Amiga and the Falcon, this meant nothing without applications to support this brave new hardware...

Luckily there were software companies willing to fill the void.

While the sound hardware of the Falcon was being talked about in the Atari and music press, a small company announced the first Direct To Disk recording software fot the Falcon, though it was not the expected Cubase Audio announcement from Steinberg... D2D Systems announced their recording package to the world and stated it would be ready to ship as soon as the Falcon was available. On the Amiga front, much had been made of the enhanced graphics capabilities, and a special AGA version of Deluxe Paint was announced among many other graphic and animation packages.\

Games were also announced, but more for the Amiga than for the Falcon, One game that was available on both platforms was Frontier, Elite II which for the time was an impressive game on both platforms, but on unmodified machines, the Falcon version was faster as it relied on the processor and processor speed to do the object calculations. However graphically they looked very similar, though this may be because the game was designed to run across the range, meaning it would also work on the Amiga 500 and the original ST series (Something to note though, Frontier also works really well on the Amiga 4000 and the TT030).

Frontier

In Use

So what are they like to use? Well both base machines feel snappier than the machines they superseded, with the Falcon feeling more responsive, in part down to the simpler operating system but also due to the better processor. With graphics programs, while the Amiga has the greater colour palette, the Falcon packages often made use of the DSP to either simulate a greater palette and/or to run filters and effects on the picture. While the graphics processing of the Amiga gives an edge, the better processor and where used, the DSP allow the Falcon to keep up and even pull ahead with some processing tasks. Generally though, when it comes to game based graphics, the Amiga has the edge, not only for enhanced colour, but also for sprite capabilities.

Many Amiga owners expected that the sound capabilities of the next generation Amiga's would be uprated, however other than minor tweaks which came about with the higher processor and bus frequencies, the sound system of the new Amiga's was unchanged. The Falcon however built on the sound capabilities of the ST and STe range by adding the DSP and giving 8 channels of better than CD quality sound. As both machines also made use of dedicated Direct Memory Access (DMA) channels, using the sound capabilities to their fullest had little impact on either machines performance. Applications and games that used the sound hardware on both machines allowed them to run at pretty much full speed, though by the 1990's the sound on the Amiga was beginning to show up as a weakness. Even discounting the Falcon, high quality soundcards were appearing on both the PC and the Mac, making the once superior sound of the Amiga sound weak.

Having said that, the tracker programs pioneered by the Amiga were beginning to come of age, with many surpassing the 4 channel 'limit' of the Amiga hardware. With the additional processing power of the new machines, mixing of sound could be done by the microprocessor effectively creating trackers of 8 channels or more on the new Amiga's and the Falcon. This of course had an impact on the machine as the processor was doing more work and when pushing more channels with higher quality, sadly the Amiga shows the strain more than the Falcon, though even the Falcon can struggle when using 16 bit sound if the DSP is being used for real-time effects.

To sum up, for the most part the machines are evenly matched, where one of them has an advantage in one area, the other machine makes up for it in another area. The big weakness in the Amiga shows where the processor is heavily used while the Falcons big weakness is when the graphics are used without the additional grunt of the DSP.

For some 'Power' Amiga users though, the stock performance of the Amiga 1200 was a disappointment.

But that's not the end of the story,..

Upgrades

While the Falcon could have its memory upgraded by swapping the supplied memory board, the Amiga was shipped with the maximum amount of 'Chip' RAM that could be used. Chip RAM is the same as ST RAM in the TT030, or the memory bus in the Falcon. While both the TT030 and Falcon could be expanded to 14MB of ST RAM, the TT030 could have what was called TT RAM added, which allowed higher access speeds, on other systems this was known as Fast RAM, and on the Amiga this was no different. Upgrading the Falcon to 14MB with the standard Atari upgrade board didn't really do much. In fact using it with Cubase Audio actually reduces performance compared to the stock 4MB machine. Using any of the 3rd party upgrades speeds up the machine, however it is still the slower ST RAM bus that the Falcon is using.

While the Amiga Chip ram cannot be expanded, Fast RAM can be added through the Amiga's Trapdoor, which on the earlier machines was used for Real-time clock upgrades as well as processor and RAM upgrades. While the 1200 had a dedicated clock port, the trapdoor was still included and was used for RAM and processor upgrades, however the cheapest option was the addition of Fast RAM, and this alone had a profound effect on the machines performance.

With a Fast RAM upgrade fitted, all the shortcomings of the machine vanish, the performance is more like what you would expect of a next generation Amiga, at least for power users. By comparison, you then realise just how crippled the Falcon really is, no easy access to Fast RAM, 16 bit data bus and when using high resolution graphics with large colour palettes the machine started to show its weaknesses.

But the Amiga was more forward thinking that the Falcon when it came to peripheral expansion as well as RAM expansion, as the Amiga had the PCMCIA slot which became popular on PC laptops as a means of adding various interfaces and devices. The Falcon has an internal expansion slot, however this only brings out data and address lines that are shared with the ST's MC68000 processor, meaning that the Falcons expansion bus is not that much different from the expansion bus of the original Mega ST. The Falcon does have some advantages though, in that it has both internal IDE and external SCSI II for adding hard drives, while the Amiga has IDE but requires an additional interface to add SCSI. However while the interface is a SCSI II connector and shares the SCSI II protocols, the poor implementation often means that the SCSI interface on the TT030 is faster.

It is an irony that these machines, both of which were released in 1992 can access drives up to 128GB on the IDE channels without modification or special software so the computer can see the drive. PC's of the time by comparison needed software adding so that the BIOS could access more than 120MB, never mind more than 120GB. Admittedly the stock operating systems cannot make use of this, however later operating systems such as MiNT on the falcon and later editions of the Amiga OS could make use of larger drives.

Summing Up

Both machines have their merits, but out of the box for processor intensive applications, the Falcon is the better machine. However adding Fast RAM to the Amiga turns it into something that the Falcon could have and should have been, and suddenly for processor intensive tasks, the machine with the 'poorer' processor takes a lead. Adding RAM to the Falcon makes a difference, but as this RAM is still shared by the entire system, and as the TT030 and the Amiga 1200 show, better system speed is gained with a TT RAM or Fast RAM bus.

Having said that though, the 3rd party RAM expansion boards improve performance with applications that depend on RAM fir buffering, such as Cubase Audio and other disk recording systems, though not to the degree that dedicated Fast RAM does.