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A4000 Review

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I've been chomping at the bit to speak out and right now I just don't care about the non-disclosure agreements. We have been beta-testing the A4000 and another model which may be called the A1000 Classic, A800, or possibly some other name. Both are based on the AA chipset and should be able to hold their own against other machines on the market, but there are still a few areas where they are lacking.

The A4000 is pretty much an A3000 with an 040 on the motherboard, the AA chipset instead of the ECS, and beta 2.1 ROMS. Ours has 16M fast RAM and 4M chip, expandable to 64M and 16M respectively. ZIP RAM like that in the A3000 is used, but there is a chance that production machines will go to SIMMS. Our machine has a 105M Quantum hard drive and a true full- speed high-density floppy. The expansion slots are Zorro III and appear to be identical to those on the A3000. I am not positive, but the cpu slot looks to be the same as the one found on the A3000.

The other machine is housed in pizza-box style case 3" high and 15" wide and deep. It has a 16MHz 030, the AA chipset, 2.1 ROMS, and sockets for up to 16M fast RAM and 4M chip RAM. It has the same floppy drive as the A4000, but the hard drive is only a 52M Quantum. There is a daughterboard with two Zorro III slots and one inline video slot, but it looks to be very cramped in there. The cpu slot is in the same orientation as that of the A3000 and A4000, but there is not much clearance. It is a very nice compact package and manages to look even "sexier" than the A3000/A4000.

Both machines sport the same I/O ports, starting with the same ports found on the A3000. The floppy drive and serial ports are now stacked in the same way as the SCSI and parallel ports, as are the RGBA, VGA, and audio ports. There is a microphone port that works with the built- in digitizer, with 8bit 22kHz sampling possible. Not exactly CD quality, but better than the toy CODEC samplers found on the NeXT, Mac, and others. The keyboard and mouse ports are on the rear of the machine, with the joystick ports stacked vertically. This stacking leaves just enough room for a pair of MIDI ports and another port that was covered with a plastic cap on both of our units. We pried it off and it looks like a PCMIA slot, but we've not been able to confirm this. Given that the A600 has one, this would not be a bad idea, but it seems odd that it was covered up like that.

The new mouse looks to be the same as the pregnant mouse, but the A3000 came with a three button and the other machine a two button. Both had standard A3000 keyboards. The most shocking thing about these machines is how much they feel like existing Amigas instead of a new breed.

The AA chipset is a real improvement over the ECS, but it may not be enough to keep the Amiga competitive for another 7 years. Some of the chips are similar to those in the ECS, but none look to be drop-in replacements for existing machines. Agnus, Denise, and Paula have been improved and all three are now surface mount chips roughly the size of the fat Agnus. There are three other chips that have tape covering the names, but one of them is certainly an Amber type de- interlacer chip. It has what 1M of VRAM in order to handle the increased color depths and de-interlaces all but the highest resolution modes. We peeled back the tape a bit on the other two and one is named Lisa, the other was just a number. The Lisa chip appears to be responsible for the graphics, but its relationship with Agnus and Denise is not so clear. The other chip may be the rumored DSP chip, but none of the software we have mentions it specifically. There is an A/D chip for the microphone and two D/A chips for the audio in the same general area, so they are probably related.

Amiga owners will be surprised at some of the features of the AA chipset and disappointed with others. The resolutions supported are similar to those of the ECS, with the addition of the 800x300, 800x600 interlaced, 1280x480, and 1280x960 interlaced. The Amber de- interlacer works with all of the modes, but most SVGA monitors can't handle the non-interlaced 1280x960 mode. All modes can be up to 8 bitplanes except for the 1280 modes, which are limited to six. The palette is 24 bit, but there is a way to simulate 12 bit for compatibility with some older software. A pleasant surprise is the SuperHAM mode which uses 10 bits to allow for pseudo-24 bit color. This works in the 320 and 640 modes and is nothing short of spectacular, with the bonus of being able to handle up to 30fps for some amazing animation. The 800 and 1280 modes have 8 bit 256k color and 6 bit 4096 color HAM modes, respectively. There is still a problem with fringing on raw images, but the better programs seem to do a pretty good job with reducing the problem. The sprites now change to match the resolution of the screen, so pointers look much more professional. They may be up to 64 pixels wide, with no height limitation. There are still only eight per scanline, but the number of colors is up to 16 in all modes except for 1280, which is only four. All in all, these Amigas have graphics that hold their own against offerings for the PC and Mac, but they won't be able to last for another seven years without improvement.

We have not done much with the audio, but 16 bit four channel sound in up to 56kHz is available. A neat trick is that up to 8 8 bit channels at 56kHz and up to 16 8 bit 28kHz channels can be emulated. We don't have any software that takes advantage of these modes with the exception of the digitizer, but there is a lot of potential.

The 2.1 OS is pretty much the same as what has been posted on the nets, but it really looks awesome on the new displays. We have found the 800x600 256 color Workbench to be very nice and snappy enough to be useable. The blitter may have been improved, but it does not feel like it is 4x faster as some like to claim. There are only a few programs that don't work on these machines, and all of those are pre- 2.04. If the developers have followed the guidelines set by Commodore, they should not have any problems.

There will probably be more than a few folks who are pissed off by me letting the cat out of the bag, but it looks like something is needed to keep more people from joining the mass exodus. These machines are stable enough for production, but the higher-ups seem to have their heads up their asses and won't release them. I guess I really should not even bother trying to figure out Commodore's idiocy, but it is frustrating to see such potential wasted.