Smart Pascal: Support for next generation Amiga A1222
If you are between 35 and 45 years old, chances are you remember the Commodore Amiga. This was the major computer to have back in the 80’s and 90’s. And if you know your history you also know that it was way ahead of all the other systems out there. Microsoft prides itself on inventing multi-tasking, but truth is that Amiga OS had a full multitasking, window oriented desktop way back in 1984.
Before you think this post is about the old computers, let me just say that it’s not; I realize that most of you will immediately think retro when you hear the word Amiga – but fact is that Amiga is doing somewhat of a comeback these days.
A brand new operating system
AmigaOS was awesome for its time and really was a system from the future. In an age where the average PC was a monochrome green dos experience, and Mac’s were ridicules black and white boxes – the Amiga was like something out of a spaceship. PC’s didn’t even have a mouse, let alone any form of multimedia – and here was a powerhouse of a machine that had a full windowing desktop, bright and crisp colors, co-processors dedicated to graphics, sound and dispatching — people had never seen anything like it.
Sadly, due to some borderline insane management decisions, Commodore went bankrupt back in 1994. You would think that the Amiga just went away after that, but it’s still going to this day. Two decades after Commodore went out of business – people still write software for the platform and some of the coolest hardware you will ever see is released for it every year. It really is an astounding computer and community. I mean, only recently in 2016 at least 5 new games were released for the platform (!)
Needless to say, the old operating system that culminated in OS 3.9 is hopelessly trapped in the past. Which is why the people who bought the rights to the system have spent more than a few years bringing it up to speed (right now it’s at version 4.1). And the result speaks for itself. It really is one of the best looking desktop systems in the world.
Brand new hardware
Say what you want about Amiga hardware but the quality was outstanding. But outstanding hardware from the early 90’s can’t hope to compete with modern computers. We are used to GPU chips that spin millions of pixels around the screen per second without breaking a sweat; 24 bit sound, monstrous 3d graphics processors, multi threading, gigabytes of ram and terabytes of storage space (phew!).
With Commodore long dead and no company officially in charge of hardware, a man called Trevor Dickinson decided that he had enough. Back in the day everyone was waiting for Commodore to release the Amiga 5000 (the Amiga 4000 was the Commodore flagship back in the 90s, sadly that was the end of it), including Trevor. This dream of the next Amiga is something everyone that loved the platform share even to this day. Well, Trevor decided to do something about the situation. He picked up the gauntlet, sharpened his sword and his journey towards a new Amiga began.
Without going into too much nitty-gritty here, Trevor and his colleagues set out to create a PPC based motherboard capable of running Amiga OS 4. And yes, the operating system is presently PPC based. This is due to the fact that in the 90’s both the Amiga and Apple Mac’s used the MC68k line of processors. These were retired and replaced with PPC chips. This made perfect sense at the time. Since Apple used them in their computers – the Amiga could enjoy cheaper hardware and piggyback on Apples success.
Most people today think that PPC is an obsolete chipset, but fact is that they are still in production – largely so, because they are popular for embedded systems. The obscene problems with heating is no longer as pressing at it used to be due to changes in production and materials – and as a consequence the new Amiga uses PPC even now.
I have two monster PPC based Mac’s in my basement so I was a bit timid when I heard that OS 4.x was using PPC. I mean the top of the line powermac is more cooling metal than content. But thankfully that line of PPC chips is a thing of the past.
Two exciting models
There have been a ton of Commodore related attempts to get the Amiga back on the market, every five years or so someone buys the Commodore name and tries to revive the glory days of the Amiga (or so it seems). All of them have failed largely due to internal fighting between the many owners that has rights to various bits and pieces. If there is a reason that the Amiga never managed to get back into market – this is it. The rights to various parts of the system was auctioned off to the highest bidder, with the operating system going one way, chips going another and name and intellectual property. It has been a complete cluster fuck since that horrible day back in 1994.
Trevor on the other hand has solved this the only way a reasonable and sane human being can. Which is to simply abandon and leave the old hardware, the Commodore name and the old machines peculiarities where they belong; In the past. So what if you can’t slap Commodore on the physical machine? The new Amiga was not designed to be a 30 year old computer. It was designed from scratch to run Amiga OS 4 and to be a system based on the same principles as the original; And that is (at least to me) what really counts. I enjoyed the old games and demo scene, but the desktop and programming aspects of the Amiga was always where my heart was.
Besides, kids that grew up in the aftermath of Commodore going under – don’t have a clue what the Amiga was anyhow. Nor do they have any relationship to Commodore as a brand. And considering 20 years have passed -clinging to these old names is ultimately a complete waste of time and money. So Trevor’s being fed up and deciding to build a whole new machine for the updated and modernized Amiga operating system – that makes perfect sense to me.
Unlike previous attempts by various individuals and groups, Trevor’s work is more tangible. In fact, you can go out right now and order the high-end PPC based monster that is the Amiga x5000. This is the most expensive model and it’s going to set you back a whopping €1800. This may seem like a steep price but bear in mind the amount of work and cost of parts – so it’s actually not that bad.
As a modern developer my computer needs have grown exponentially every year. I no longer install my development tools on my actual PC, instead I use VMWare and have all my development platforms neatly organized as virtual machines. The result is that I can no longer buy the cheap or middle-range offerings. My latest PC cost me around €2500. So all things considered €1800 is in the same range as an Amiga 4000 went for back in the day. This is a work horse that professionals use, it’s not a low-end gaming model.
Thankfully there is a cheaper model in the pipeline. I have already pre-ordered the A1222 which retails at around 400€ (give or take vat and shipping). This has a smaller CPU, less ram (you can of course stuff more in yourself) and you have to get your own mini-atx cabinet for it. As the name hints to this is equivalent to a bog standard A1200, which was my all time favorite. My old gem of a machine had a 40 megabyte harddisk, 4 megabytes of ram and an external CS-ROM. These specs are ridicules today, even my phone has more .. well, everything really; but 20 years ago that setup was the bomb.
When people talk retro like I do now, always remember that the Amiga operating system was able to deliver a close to Windows 95 experience. That should tell you something about how fast, well written and efficient the old Amiga was.
This was a machine that delivered an impressive and modern desktop experience even by today’s standards in 512 Kb (yes you read that right, kilobytes) of working ram. Imagine what an OS based on the same principles can do with 4 gigabytes of ram, 32 bit graphics, protected and paged memory, 24 bit audio and all the perks of modern computing.
Where emulation can’t go
Those that follow my blog know that I Amiga emulation and retro computing. So whenever I have time I whip out my Raspberry PI 3b based Amiga and enjoy my Amiga games, desktop and even do a spot of programming. We even managed to get Freepascal 3.x to compile on it, which means I can write applications with all the cool features of modern object-oriented programming at my disposal. On an Amiga 4000 emulated – the mind boggles when you think about this to long.
Sadly you can forget running Amiga OS 4 under emulation on the PI. Sure, it works fine on Windows or Linux – but emulation is only as good as the code emulating it. And while the PPC emulation layer is a monumental achievement and I applaud the original author, it’s not nearly as optimized as the older 68k layer. From what I know it’s still running ad-hoc with no JIT involved (or at least not cache’d). This means that you need a powerful PC to really enjoy Amiga OS 4. Emulation is a bit like bootleg movies, and a poor bootleg will ruin the movie completely. You can get away with a mid-range x86 PC I suppose, but you can forget about ARM or x86 embedded boards.
Perhaps you remember that I tested various embedded boards a while back? Part of my motivation in doing that (and buying HW for €300 on a whim) was to find a reasonably priced x86 or ARM single board computer that could emulate OS 4 without problems. The most expensive and capable of the boards I tested was the UP x86 board that retails at around $150 (I got the biggest model they had on offer). And yes, it did manage to run Amiga OS 4, just not in a way that made it usable or enjoyable. On my kick ass Intel i7 based PC it emulates just fine, but again – it becomes ridicules not buying a real Amiga since emulation will cost me more or the same. I mean, why not go for the real deal if its affordable?
So if a €400 Amiga is what it takes to run OS 4 properly, then I have no problem supporting Trevor’s work and get the real deal.
Freepascal and Smart
While Trevor doesn’t know me personally, I am a huge fan of his endeavour. And one of the things I want to start porting to the shiny new OS 4.x platform is of course – Smart Pascal. If you have ever heard of Turbo Pascal and Delphi (with emphasis on the latter) then you get some idea of what Smart is. Except that we compile for node.js and the browser rather than machine-code.
So before I can port that over I will have to get Chromium run on OS 4, and then link that up with Freepascal. I do enjoy C++ but its not even close to the productivity of object pascal so I prefer to work in that. And since freepascal 3.x has thankfully been ported already that is not a problem. So with a bit of work I think Delphi developers will be in for a treat, and people new to programming will love learning object pascal.
But naturally, not everyone is used to building from the ground up. It will take some work and probably weeks of adaptation before the full might of Smart Mobile Studio runs on the Amiga. But when it does – it will have a huge impact. Because then you can use the Amiga to create cloud servers, mobile applications for ALL platforms and much, much more!
So if being a part of using an operating system from the grass-root and up sounds exciting, why not take a peek at the A1222 or Amiga x5000?
Head over to http://www.a-eon.com/ and have a gander