Sunday, July 16, 2017

What made the Amiga special? A 5-star review of The Future was Here

This is a review of The Future Was Here: The Commodore Amiga (Platform Studies), a book I enthusiastically recommend.

Growing up I read many times about the amazing powers of the Amiga, particularly for gaming. I always wondered what it had that my 386 didn't. Turns out by then my 386 was probably a better computer (combined with a Sound Blaster and a Super-VGA card) than most Amigas, albeit at a much higher price. Prior to that generation of PC clones the Amiga had a legitimate lead, however, even without factoring in the price.

The Amiga's advantage was special purpose hardware for graphics and sound that allowed very impressive visuals if you were willing to work within the constraints (which were significant). An illustrative example: scrolling the background at reduced speed relative to the foreground was implemented just by changing the offset in video RAM that the display drew from. This would have scrolled everything except for a clever trick: the background used a limited palette that didn't overlap with the colors used for the foreground, and you could specify different starting offsets for different colors (technically, bit-planes). This kind of trick allowed very fancy, multi-layered games way before CPUs were fast enough to draw each frame of animation from scratch. By the days of the 386, however, CPUs had gained a lot of speed, allowing you to draw much more of the screen on each frame, offering the flexibility to go way beyond the hardware tricks of the Amiga.

If you found that interesting, then you will enjoy the Future was Here. While some technical details -are glossed over, by-in-large it makes clear why the early Amiga was so much better than the early PC, and why the Amiga was eventually outclassed by the much more generalist IBM PC clone market. It also has a lot of interesting history about the rise and fall of the Amiga, and a nice survey of what kinds of software it was able run, often way before the other computers of the day had anything comparable. Always wondered what was so "deluxe" about Deluxe Paint? Or what the Video Toaster was? It's all here. I do wish for a little more technical detail, but to be fair no other book out there comes close to this one in describing just what made the Amiga special. If you read just one book about the hoops early programmers had to jump through, this is the one.

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