The Amiga 4000 Tower: Expansion and Future Considerations

Additions and new developments

By Michael Webb, Editor-in-Chief, MikeWebb@CompuServe.COM

Expansion is an interesting subject for Amiga users these days. Of course, our machines have always been unbelievably expandable; even my "lowly" A500 can still run most current Amiga software. Its fraternal twin, the Amiga 2000, meant in the first place to be expandable, can already run at 68060 speeds, and will soon be able to be as fast as recent PowerMacs.

The future is almost upon us, however (how's that for a truism?), and we don't yet know what we will see from Amiga. It will be interesting to see what we might have to do to keep our current machines, well, current, as new Amiga technology (we hope) evolves.

This is especially true for people with a very new Amiga, like the A4000T. It is currently a very powerful machine, but as I did with the A500, I intend to keep it as my primary system for a very long time, possibly ten years or more. In doing so, I will probably expand it a great deal, assuming products remain available.

What to Do?

I guess the important question is, What should an Amiga user buy now that will remain useful and compatible with future Amiga hardware and software? For lack of standards, third parties have developed their own methods for RTG. And fortunately, CyberGraphX and Picasso 96 appear to be fairly compatible, and have gained/are gaining widespread acceptance. But will a future AmigaOS RTG standard be compatible? Understandably, there is no central Amiga standard for 680x0/PPC multiprocessing. Will upcoming Amigas be compatible with current machines equipped with phase 5 PowerUp boards? What about other emerging 680x0/PPC standards? Now "Retargetable Audio" is available in the form of AHI, but who knows what to expect on that front from Amiga in the future.

We've covered only three areas here, and already it has become quite confusing. Every Amiga user should be aware, although not paranoid, of the potential for current products to be incompatibile with future standards. I believe Amiga has stated that they intend to work with companies like phase 5 that have pushed the envelope in the absence of central development, however, so this could be good news for those thinking of buying something like a PowerUp board.

So What am I Going to Do?

An A4000T is quite a jump from an A500 in many ways, but probably the most striking difference is in size, and therefore room for expansion. While the A500 has a bomb-bay door for 512 kB RAM and a left-edge connector for everything else, the A4000T has a slew of slots, sockets, and bays. I have many expansion options open to me, and mindful of these as well as the ideas expressed above, I have figured out a possible course of action (as finances allow) for the relatively near future.

Over time, I'll probably add memory, an old IDE hard disk I have sitting in a closet, a dedicated disk for Mac emulation, an internal CD-ROM drive, etc. This is all fairly standard stuff. The first interesting question comes in on the subject of graphics.

AGA is indeed somewhat limiting for the software I run, so eventually, I may find myself in the market for a graphics board. It's nice that, even with the market in its current condition, we have choices in this matter. The choice, however, is not an easy one. Apparently, both the CyberVision 64/3D and Picasso IV boards are powerful, capable boards, but to me, neither one appears to be the clear-cut winner overall. The Picasso seems to be a more powerful board, with a variety of expansions slated for availability in the future, while the CyberVision includes 3D hardware right now, and costs less. Cost is actually not so simple a matter with these boards, because once you take into account the price for the CV64/3D's display enhancer, something I consider a virtual necessity for use with an Amiga chipset, the board's price advantage over the Picasso, which includes the display enhancer, is greatly diminished. Of course, if you absolutely do not need a display enhancer (meaning you use only modern, well-behaved applications, and simply do not care to use your Amiga's chipset for graphics ever again), then the CyberVision has a sizeable price advantage.

One must consider RTG software, however. The CyberVision uses CyberGraphX, the more well-established standard; the Picasso uses Picasso 96. If you are the type that opposes companies going against the grain like that, than this alone might be reason enough not to buy the Picasso IV. Personally, I am not deeply troubled by Village Tronic using their own software, especially as it is API-compatible with CyberGraphX, but I dislike it for one "small" detail: it lacks screen-dragging. Some might question me for using such a criterion, but screen-dragging is, in my opinion, one of the Amiga chipset's greatest abilities, and I use it all the time. As great as the Picasso IV is, I'm not sure I'm willing to give that up for it. CyberGraphX, on the other hand, does allow screen-dragging.

Of course, a CGX driver for the Picasso IV is or soon will be available, and that could add some new possibilities to this fray. I'm not ready to make up my mind either way just yet, so it will be interesting to see what develops.

Ah, but there is a different sort of option soon to be available. phase 5 is developing a special graphics board for their PowerUp boards, and it seems to be performance-oriented, between using the PERMEDIA2 processor, and having a rather direct interface to the CPU's on the board. A good board? It sounds like it. But phase 5 hasn't provided a great deal of information about it, and frankly, it's hard to know exactly what it will do. Plus, one must purchase a PowerUp board before the CyberVisionPPC, and that's no small expenditure.

Conveniently enough, PowerUp boards are the next subject I would like to cover. The 68060 is essentially a plateau, since we can't expect any, say, 68080 accelerators to come out in the future. Any new Amigas we see will probably use the PowerPC, and phase 5 has already made a strong start in that direction. As it stands now, if I want to make my Amiga go faster, the PowerUp board is the option. And we don't yet know just where it will stand in relation to all-new Amigas. Will they be software- and hardware-compatible? This remains to be seen. But in my case, the software I use from day to day wouldn't yet benefit from a PowerPC anyway, so I see little reason for me to even think about buying one just yet. Eventually, however, especially if the prices come down, I may seriously consider it. I'm definitely stopping to feel which way the wind is blowing, however.

In general, what we probably have to be is cautious, and informed, consumers. At the same time, we shouldn't suspend spending for fear of buying something that might not fit with standards in the future, because this would hurt the market, and make things even more difficult for the Amiga. It's probably safe to assume that something with a good deal of support now will remain fairly well-supported in the foreseeable future, even if it's not the main way of doing things. That is probably actually the worst-case scenario, as we might see a good deal of collaboration between Amiga, and the companies that have helped to keep the Amiga alive.

It's interesting to have a new Amiga in these times. If nothing else, since it is new, I know it will remain useful to me for some time, simply for what it does now; and chances are, through expansion, I will be able to make it do even more in the future. There certainly are plenty of sensible options; let's hope it stays that way.