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/// The Atari Falcon030: A Closer Look
By Robert Glover
You may be asking, "Why are you reviewing an Atari computer in an Amiga
magazine?" Good question. And I have two [hopefully] good reasons for you.
First, Atari's [not-so] new Falcon030 is considered to be a challenger to
the Amiga 1200, and secondly, because I'm an ex-Atari owner. As you may
recall, I sold off all of my Atari equipment and bought an Amiga 1200 back
in January, after the Falcon had been delayed several times. (Its original
release date was September, 1992). It seemed only natural to take a look
at the machine I had intended to purchase, when I decided it was time to
move on. Now I'll take a closer look and decide if I made the right
The Atari Falcon030 looks almost exactly like one of its predecesors, the
1040STE. The "classic" ST case has lived on, the only updates being a gray
keyboard (as opposed to white on earlier machines) and a rainbow-colored
name plate. Aside from that, the machine looks identical to a 1040STE.
The STE's ANALOG joystick ports are on the left side of the machine, before
the cartridge and MIDI ports. Across the back (in no particular order) are
the printer port, serial (DB9), LAN (AppleTalk style mini-DIN), power
connector, power switch, SCSI-2 (Apple mini-connector), DSP, headphones,
microphone (stereo input), video, TV. On the right side of the machine is
the high density floppy disk drive. Underneath, in typical 1040STE fashion
are the mouse and joystick ports. This is where they have been located
since the 1040ST's debut in 1986. Why Atari is still placing these ports
in such an awkward position is beyond me.
The Falcon030 is available in four variations -- 1 meg of RAM and no hard
drive, 4 meg of RAM and no hard drive, 4 meg of RAM and an 80 meg hard
drive, and 14 meg of RAM and an 80 meg hard drive. Retail prices range
from $799 to $1899. Actual street price is generally $100-200 less.
The Falcon's maximum memory capability is 14 meg. Unlike the Amiga, the
Falcon has no specific video (Chip) RAM. All memory can be used as either
system or Chip memory. There is no true "Fast RAM" in the Falcon. In
fact, the Falcon's memory bandwidth is only 16-bit. But to make up for
it, the CPU can fetch twice as much memory per cycle, so in effect, there
is no loss of speed. This is another design mystery. Furthermore, there are
only three possible memory configurations -- 1 meg, 4 meg or 14 meg. And
the only way to upgrade is through Atari's custom memory boards. There are
reportedly one or two third party boards allowing the use of conventional
SIMMs, but the memory configuration limitations remain. This is another
design mystery. The original ST and STE line was limited to 4 meg by the
design of its MMU (Memory Management Unit). The Falcon's MMU is limited
to a max of 14 meg. The "missing" 2 meg are set aside for hardware
locations, OS space, and internal expansion work-area.
Like the Amiga 1200, the Falcon's internal hard drive must be a 2.5" IDE
unit. The machine has been shipping with a Conner 2088, 80 meg drive, which
is adequate for most users. Another option is to connect an external SCSI
or SCSI-2 hard drive, since the machine has SCSI-2 built-in, a nice
standard feature, missing from the A1200.
Since the Atari ST line was introduced in 1985, the operating system has
been TOS (The Operating System) and GEM (Graphics Environment Manager).
Shortly after the ST's birth, Digital Research, the makers of GEM, were
sued by Apple. (Remember the "Look & Feel" debate?). DRI caved in and
rewrote GEM. GEM II, its successor, was awful. Fortunately, Atari was not
required to use GEM II. But unfortunately, it meant DRI would do no more
updates to the original GEM. So GEM has remained much the same, until just
a few years ago, when Atari started improving on GEM itself.
GEM is, as its name implies, a graphical user interface. It is much like
the Macintosh or Amiga in operation. Disk drives are represented by filing
cabinets, double clicking on one of them will open a window with icons
representing programs and data. Drop-down menus contain various options,
from sorting, viewing as text or icons, screen mode preferences, etc. The
Falcon's version of TOS (which actually contains GEM) is 4.04. This newest
version has many, many new enhancements to improve the look and function of
the OS. Windows now have a shaded 3D look, their color may be customized
by the user. Backdrop patterns may be edited directly from options in the
drop-down menus. Icons may be up to 16 colors, and be "animated" in the
same way as on the Amiga. However, icon size is limited to 32 x 32 pixels.
My biggest beef with the Falcon, and honestly, all machines before it, is
the fact that many of the drawing routines in GEM are SLOW. I mean REALLY
slow. Using GEM on an 8 MHz ST is painful once you realize how slowly
windows and menus are drawn and erased. But in 1986, software screen
accelerators appeared. These programs intercepted calls to various drawing
routines and patched in their own, much faster ones. The result was a
dramatic increase in responsiveness. Imagine adding a bottle of Nitrous
Oxide to your 1984 Ford Escort. It made that much of a difference.
The problem is, even though the Falcon has been available since January
overseas, and since June here in the States, there are no widely
available screen accelerators that will run in the Falcon's new graphics
modes. So the machine feels much slower than it actually is. It's not
unusable, but compared to my Amiga 1200, it's damn annoying.
The Falcon ships with several software packages. The standard single-
tasking TOS 4.04 is in ROM, but a multitasking kernal called MultiTOS is
included as a soft-loaded extra. MultiTOS is a completely preemtive
multitasking OS with adaptive prioritization, just like the Amiga. It
also features hardware memory protection. It has two problems right now...
First, since there are no screen accelerators yet, loading MultiTOS only
slows the system down further. Secondly, using it without memory
protection will eat 800K of RAM. Enabling memory protection will eat
another 800K. So on a 4 meg machine, MultiTOS is nearly useless, since
you have a little more than 1 meg free after booting.
Atari Works is a really nice integrated business package featuring a word
processor, spreadsheet and database (anybody see the similarity to
Microsoft Works??). It's a top-notch package, probably the best thing to
ever come out of Atari in terms of software. SpeedoGDOS is a new version
of the old GDOS (Graphical Device Operating System). It's one of GEM's
greatest assets, but has been the bane of most Atari users' existence, due
to difficulty of setup and use. SpeedoGDOS adds what was missing from GEM
when DRI died -- scalable fonts and virtual device drivers. SpeedoGDOS
supports Bitstream fonts for compatibility, as well as older GDOS fonts
from years past. Lastly, there is a nice little D2D (Direct to Disk)
recording program that uses the machine's built-in DSP to record directly
to the hard disk at rates of up to 50 kHz in 16-bit stereo. There are
four tracks, allowing for tapeless CD quality recording with non-
The DSP is the Falcon's greatest asset. The Amiga and Atari have been
similar in that the're niche machines. The Amiga's niche is animation and
video. The ST has always been a music machine, primarilty due to its
built-in MIDI ports. Now, with the addition of a Motorola 56001 DSP, many
music studios will use the machine for direct to disk recording, and for
editing and manipulation of music tracks. Aside from the DSP, the Falcon
has two other sound systems. The original Yamaha PSG (Programmable
Sound Generator) is a three-voice chip (the same as in the old TI99/4A)
is there for compatibility with older ST software, and because it pulls
double duty as a floppy disk controller and passes data to the printer
port. There is also a very nice DMA sound engine which features 8-bit PCM
(Pulse Code Modulation), and can play samples back at rates up to 50 kHz.
Sound quality from is actually slightly better than the Amiga's Paula chip,
but the DMA setup cannot manipulate sounds without processor intervention.
This means that playing a MOD file at 50 kHz will bring an 8 MHz 68000 to
its knees, and a 16 MHz 68000 will run at half speed. But with the DSP,
that won't make much difference once some DSP-based MOD players are
Which brings us to why a DSP is so neat. The DSP in the Falcon is rated
at 16 MIPS (Million Instructions Per Second) and 96 MOPS (Million Operations
Per Second). With this kind of power, programs that are written to use the
DSP will run extremely fast, and take a lot of load off of the CPU. For
example, the DSP can act as an extremely fast FPU (Floating Point Unit). A
good example here is Fractal Generation. On my A1200 with a 25 MHz 68882,
it took about three minutes to generate one 250x250, 256 color fractal. On
the Falcon using the DSP, it was generating them about five per second.
Now that's FAST. Similarly, a DSP-based MOD player would take all of the
load off of the CPU. The DSP could be used to decompress JPEG files, and
could do it in maybe a second or two for even the larges JPEGs.
The Falcon's graphics capability is finally up to that of current PC's, and
even approaching that of AGA Amigas. You still get all of the old ST
resolutions -- 320x200 in 16 colors, 640x200 in 4 colors, 640x400 in 2
colors. But now you have the new modes, of which there are two types: VGA
or Broadcast (NTSC). The VGA modes are 640 or 320 by 240 or 480. The x240
modes use line doubling). These modes are available in up to 256 colors.
The Broadcast modes are 640 or 320 by 200 or 400 (the x400 modes are
interlaced). These modes are available in up to 256 colors, or in "True
Color" mode. True Color is the Falcon's maximum color setting -- 65,536
colors on screen with no palette -- only 65,536 colors are available.
Compare that to AGA's HAM8 mode -- 262,144 colors on screen out of a
palette of 16.7 million. That sounds like a dramatic difference, and it
is. We compared some JPEGs rendered in equivelent resolutions in HAM8
on my A1200 and in True Color on the Falcon, and compared them side by side,
both on NEC 3D monitors. There were noticable color swirls in some areas
where shading is important (skin tones on the face of a woman for example).
True color is nice, but it's not going to compare to a 24-bit palette.
All NTSC modes can be overscanned to 20% of their horizontal and vertical
dimensions. VGA modes can be overscanned, but rather than having a larger
picture, the screen scrolls virtually. It's also worth noting that there
are freeware hacks that allow a really wild NTSC resolution of 1600x600
(interlaced) in 16 colors, and another that lets you adjust the overscan
beyond VGA's 800x600. Keep in mind that the number of colors and scan rate
affect the amount of overscan available.
Just how expandable is the Falcon? Well, that remains to be seen. The
machine includes two internal expansion connectors. One is a 16-bit
bus designed with a 386SX emulator in mind, and the other is the RAM
expansion connector. The 16-bit limitations of these slots probably will
not slow down hardware developers too much, but it will prove a difficult
job when it comes to adding faster CPU's and some true 32-bit Fast RAM.
One drawback of all past Atari's, and will no doubt be true in the case of
the Falcon, is that accelerators have always been expensive. A 68030 board
for the Mega STE, a 16 MHz 68000, is about $600. A similar board for the
A1200 is $400 or less, and we have several to choose from. There is only
one for the Mega STE, and if memory serves, the developer that makes it is
about to go under. There are rumors of a fast 030 board in Europe for
under $200, but that's with no CPU. No other details are available.
Is the Falcon easy to use? Absolutely! I was a little overwhelmed
when I got my A1200. There are so many things to learn in AmigaDOS that
simply aren't present in TOS: Shared libraries, datatypes, device drivers,
monitor drivers, startup-sequences, etc. On the Falcon, all you do is place
your autoboot (WBStartup Drawer) programs in a folder called "AUTO" on your
main hard disk partition (or boot floppy) and place any desk accessories
(like on the Mac) in your root directory, and you're ready to go.
How does the Falcon compare to the Amiga 1200? I'll have to admit some
bias here, having owned an A1200 for nearly eight months. I much prefer
my Amiga 1200. The operating system is superior, the multitasking is top-
notch, and the software support is much better. The Falcon has been
available in Europe since January, yet there is only ONE program that we
know of that will load JPEG image files and support the Falcon's video
modes -- True Paint from HiSoft -- and it's so bug-ridden that the program
is virtually unusable. There are lots of demos and screen hacks, but no
serious Falcon-specific software is available yet, aside from music
The only Falcon games are direct ports of IBM games using cheesy 320x200
256-color graphics. In time, I'm sure the Falcon will have equivelents of
ADPro, ImageFX, DPaint IV, and so on, but until then, Falcon owners will
feel frustrated when they see an AGA Amiga in operation.
Would I buy one? If I had the money to support two computer systems, yes.
Mostly because I like being in on the new stuff. I like learning as and
growing with the machine. But until the currently supply of Falcons with
4 meg of RAM and a hard drive are supplemented by the 1 meg/no hard drive
version, I'll wait. It's far more cost-effective to buy the base model
and add your own hard drive (especially when you can add an external SCSI
model that's larger and cheaper than an internal IDE unit), and to buy a
third-party memory board. I can pick up some used 4 meg SIMMs on Usenet
a lot cheaper than buying one of Atari's boards. So, for about $1500, I
could have a Falcon with 14 meg of RAM and an external 240 meg hard drive,
or an internal 120 meg unit. But unless I come into some serious money,
I'd rather put that $1500 toward an Amiga 4000.
The Falcon is a really neat machine, for a natural evolution of the ST
line. But it just cannot compare to an AGA-based Amiga. The Falcon's
only real advantage at this point is the DSP. But since we all know
there will be DSP-based Amigas in the next six to eight months, we can
relax. It'll take Atari at least that long to make enough money off of its
new Jaguar video game system to be able to market the Falcon in the manner
in which they promised.
One final note. Let's say you want to buy a Falcon, but you have no dealer
close by. So you decide to mail order it. WRONG. You can't. Atari has
completely prohibited the sale of Falcons by mail. That also includes
calling up a legit retail dealer and having him ship it to you. No can do.
You have two choices: Either drive to your closest dealer (my closest
Atari dealer is 200 miles away) and buy it, or you will have to fill out a
special form and send it to Atari to be completed and approved, then
sent to the dealer, authorizing him to sell you one by mail. Complicated,
isn't it? That's typical of Atari's practices. It's also the most
assanine things I've ever seen. Sure, they want to keep what few dealers
they have left from dropping support due to cutthroat mail order prices,
but at the same time, the majority of the US population is nowhere near
a dealer. That would explain why Falcons are not selling that well.
With that said, I'll close up. I'll admit that I have a certain bias
toward my A1200, but I've also tried to be as fair as possible in covering
the Falcon's capabilities and limitations. To answer the question I posed
at the start of this review, yes, I made the right decision to leave Atari
and buy an Amiga.