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Recalling the rise of 16bit era, an era that in my memories was defined mainly by Motorola 68k cpu computers: The Mac, brought the GUI interface. The A bomb, the Amiga, with its custom chips-coprocessors, colourful graphics, stereo sound, pre-emptive multitasking OS and probably other stuff which I forget. And also Atari ST. Well, it had midi ports embedded, making it successful among musicians. I also remember its crisp 70Hz 640x400 monochrome monitor, very easy on the eyes, paired with a nice, legible 8x16 font. But did it bring any novelty, like the aforementioned two (Amiga, Mac)?

PS: I also remember IBM PC with its 8/16bit 8088 cpu as a lousy machine with only one nice feature: Its expansion slots!

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    I'm an Amiga/m68k guy and even I would not say something like "The 16-bit era was defined mainly by computers based around the Motorola 680000 CPU". Intel had 16-bit stuff for ages by this point though nothing that would impress many Amiga/ST guys before the 486 era. Then again in the day all my Amiga friends thought of the m68k as 32-bit and didn't think of upgrading to an 020 the same way as upgrading from a Speccy or C64 to an Amiga or ST. – hippietrail Jul 2 at 3:38
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    "The 16-bit era was defined mainly by computers based around the Motorola 68k CPU" - yeah, sure, if you completely ignore all the IBM PC's and clones (which were 16-bit systems), which outsold those 68k-based systems by factors of a few tens of thousands (guesstimated). Pay no attention to that elephant in the corner - it is of no consequence whatsoever!!! – Bob Jarvis - Reinstate Monica Jul 2 at 18:23
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    Regarding platforms defining 16bit era (according to me of course!): Probably in North America things were different, but in Europe (I started by recalling my memories) PCs in the 80's were expensive and didn't appeal to home users. The first 16bit computers that massively entered homes were Amigas & Ataris - Macs were also expensive. QLs and other models mentioned, were niche players. That's why I consider these models as the one who defined 16bit era, in Europe at least. PCs started to enter homes in the 32bit era, in vast numbers after 386SX cpu was introduced, the cheaper variant of 386. – Krackout Jul 3 at 7:46
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    @Cody Gray. I'd suggest to notify/discuss with whoever asks if you intend to make so many alterations to a question. Thank you for the title, it's better. For some spelling corrections also. But the question was turned to something else - written by someone else. Even my british spelling of colourful couldn't survive! – Krackout Jul 3 at 7:51
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    Hmm, probably you are right about it, it was not so clear. I made a slight change, hope it clarifies it. – Krackout Jul 3 at 8:21
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As well as being the first colour Mac-like, the Atari ST was absurdly competitive on price, being the first mainstream 68000-based home computer. The Amiga wasn’t relaunched for the home market until 1987*. As a result it is the original home of a wealth of innovative game software — especially in Europe it was often the lead platform for games until the late ‘80s, and even after that it was usually the better platform for 3d titles.

The Atari ST was available with 512kb RAM and the monochrome monitor for $800 in 1985. When it came out later that year, the Amiga had no monitor, 256kb of ram and cost $1,285; you were at very close to $1,600 with a colour monitor.

The Atari ST was the first range to offer 1mb of RAM for less than $1,000, by a safe distance. You could buy one of Atari’s laser printers plus the ST, and DTP software for quite a bit less than Apple’s LaserWriter alone.

Amongst the games software, Eye of the Beholder is commonly cited, as is Another World; nowadays people also tend to mention Alpha Waves, also labelling it the first 3d platformer.

In terms of hardware, I guess the main forward-looking piece is the fully DMA’d implementation of SCSI that drew from a pre-standardisation version of the spec and is therefore usually called ACSI. The Mac wouldn’t gain any SCSI support until the Plus in 1986, and in that implementation it polls a status register then polls a byte, much like how other simple machines read floppy disks; I don’t think Apple ever added DMA drive access to a plain 68000 Mac, though models after the Plus did gain a blocking read so that you don’t have to spin on the status register.

The ST’s DMA controller also drives the floppy disk which was a first for a home computer but I think the IBM PC and clones were already there in terms of machines that you could find in ordinary retail channels.

* this claim has caused some comment controversy; see below. My claim is that the Amiga was originally launched as a professional machine, and an example contemporaneous source is The LA Times:

... Commodore--which just began shipping the Amiga--will have to do better than Apple did with its Macintosh or IBM did with the PC in their first years on the market. The Amiga, which starts at $1,300, is intended to compete with more expensive personal computers such as those two.

...

Because the Amiga, which has won praise from technical reviewers, is a more sophisticated and expensive machine than the more familiar Commodore 64 and the newer Commodore 128, the company isn’t peddling it through K mart and other discount or toy-store chains.

Selling through specialty stores also serves to upgrade the company’s current image as a maker of cheap computers to play games on, which is the part of the computer market hit hardest during the industry’s current weakness.

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    So its main novelty, sort of, was its low price. It's an interesting point, although I'm asking for technical or conceptual novelties and innovations, like the ones Amiga and Mac introduced. – Krackout Jul 1 at 17:26
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    @RichF I was counting the A1000 as the business-market launch, the A500 as the pivot to the home. My broad strokes understanding of the history being that Commodore intended it as such, being a three-box design that they sold to traditional computer dealers, not to the Walmart/Target-type distribution channels. – Tommy Jul 1 at 18:30
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    @Tommy I agree there was an initial push for the professional market, but they were pushing games, graphics, and sound from day 1. I also agree that the A500 was more clearly aimed at the home market, but in my view that was always one of their desired goals. To be completely honest, I did get my C=128 at Target in 1985 and my Amiga 1000 at a computer store. – RichF Jul 1 at 18:36
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    @Tommy: “the first 68000-based home computer”? the TRS-80 Model 16 (1982) and the Sinclair QL (1984) might disagree. – scruss Jul 1 at 18:53
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    My understanding is that the built-in MIDI was a definite help in selling to musicians. – Vatine Jul 2 at 15:22
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Tommy's answer mentioned it just "en passant":

You could buy one of Atari’s laser printers plus the ST, and DTP software for quite a bit less than Apple’s LaserWriter alone.

but that was indeed one innovation that was brought by the Atari: bare laser printer without own rendering controller, using the computer to replace it. A technique that came much, much later in the Windows world with the so called "GDI Lasere Technology".

This allowed to sell the laser printer for significantly less than the concurrency.

================

Atari also pioneered CD-ROM with the CDAR-504, earlier than most other. It flopped, because the market was not ready yet, but it is one of the first to have.

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    And a technique that, while it made some sense at the time, has been a horrible thing ever since. Once I had a customer, thinking they were saving me trouble, buy a laser printer and connect it themselves to replace another one. It didn't work. Why? They didn't ask me and saved (literally) < $ 20 by buying the cheaper model with GDI-only. The more expensive (but not by much) had full PCL necessary for their shared medical records and billing systems. Had to replace it - waste of my time and their money. – manassehkatz-Moving 2 Codidact Jul 2 at 14:21
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    @manassehkatz-Moving2Codidact: The idea makes even more sense today as it did back then. The key insight is that it's cheaper to get a 25% faster CPU than it is to add a similar processing capacity to an external device in the form of an independent microcontroller, and that faster CPU is also useful for other tasks. Saving $20 is indeed not worth it, that sounds like two models which shared the same hardware and merely had a marketing difference. – MSalters Jul 2 at 15:21
  • @MSalters The devices, and I still see this today, likely had some minor differences beyond just pure marketing. In the olden days, that better CPU, RAM, etc. was quite a bit. But today (and already 15 - 20 or so years ago when I had this particular incident, can't find exactly when it was right now) the incremental cost is tiny. Similar to the difference between a scan/print/copy machine and a fax/scan/print/copy machine (which needs a modem and phone jack added but uses the same CPU/etc.). The difference for GDI vs. PCL is possibly just extra RAM + different firmware. – manassehkatz-Moving 2 Codidact Jul 2 at 15:32
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    Not to mention that the laser printer was a very long horror story to early adopters. THe software was buggy as hell, crashed the system without any reason at random times. A friend who used Ataris for all his office employees (way into the 90s and otherwise quite happy) had to buy a separate system just acting as printer controller, spooling from diskettes. – Raffzahn Jul 2 at 16:30
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    @MSalters In fact, next to all printers are used that way today. They simply get a bitmap to print, Font rendering is done on the PC anyway. Or when was the last time you had to look for a printer font? – Raffzahn Jul 2 at 16:34
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The sad thing for me is that the ST's blitter chip didn't make it in time to be included on mass production as part of the base spec.

I was fortunate to visit Atari during the early ST years and saw the blitter chip running on a prototype system.

If they had included it from the start it would have been a very capable system at a price point that was unbeatable.

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The perception of 'new' is maybe an individual one as...

Recalling the rise of 16bit era, defined mainly by Motorola 68k cpu computers

When ignoring the TI 99/4 (and PC (*1)) that is.

The Mac, brought the GUI interface.

Not really. It was already on sale since 1981 by Xerox (and others) (*2) as well as offered in form of the Apple Lisa, which wasn't so much more expensive as the mac. Consider that, at the time when the Mac came with a single drive and 128 KiB at 2500 USD, the Lisa 2/5 was sold with four times the memory (wich was pricey at the time), larger screen and 5 MiB hard disk for 5000 USD - dropping even further with the MacXL.

The A bomb,

The what?

the Amiga, with its custom chips-coprocessors,

Which is essentially just a souped (*3) up Atari 800 chipset (*4), so nothing basically new here (*5).

colourful graphics,

See Atari 800.

stereo sound,

See Apple II sound cards, like the Mockingboard A of 1983 (*6).

pre-emptive multitasking OS

Many computers had that already decades before, not to mention MP/M for standard S100 boxes. Oh, and for the home computer segment for sure the Sinclair QL, did beat the Amiga not only by time but in quality as well (*7).

Having that out of the way, the Amiga OS did in fact set a true first by being the first Multimedia OS outside research (*8). Amiga OS did not only allow to play multimedia, but moved it from a special (application) mode into a generic feature with seamless integration, and right into mainstream. A feature others, like Windows, BeOS or MacOS, only gained more than a decade later.

That's a first that'll stand the test of time.

and probably other stuff which I forget.

I'd have a hard time to come up with any other.

And also Atari ST. Well, it had midi ports embedded, making it successful among musicians. I also remember its crisp 70Hz 640x400 monochrome monitor, very easy for the eyes, paired with a nice, legible 8x16 font. But did it bring any novelty, like the aformentioned two (Amiga, Mac)?

Now, if you consider any of the above parts (GUI, Graphics) as new, then the Atari's screen mode was for sure revolutionary. While such screens were known with professional system, it was a first on the "affordable" price segment.

I'd say, the 'new' in the all examples mentioned is the affordable part. Scaling existing features to enable a mass market.

PS: I also remember IBM PC with its 8/16bit 8088 cpu as a lousy machine with only one nice feature: Its expansion slots!

A feature IBM copied from the Apple II - which can be considered in many details the blueprint for big blue's PC :))


*1 - Yes, the 8088 is for all context a 16 bit system. Bus width is about the least significant factor, or would you consider a 68030 working on an 8 bit bus (which it can without additional logic by simply tying DTACK0/1) an 8 bit CPU? The 8088 is a smart choice, as it's only 25-30% slower than a 8086 at the same speed, but saving on components.

*2 - Sold in considerable numbers as 8010 since 1981, as well as several thousand by Siemens as EMS 5800 since 1982. Heck, there is even one to be see within Commodore's Amiga department- the large screen in the corner.

*3 - After all it was designed by the same team as the preceding Atari chipset - and intended to become an Atari machine.

*4 - ANTIC, C/GTIA and POKEY became Angus, Denise and Paula, maintaining essentially the same organisation of

  • DMA/Address Ggeneration (ANTIC/Agnus)
  • Video generation (GTIA/Denise)
  • Audio/Joysticks/Serial and other I/O (POKEY/Paula)

*5 - In fact, there were tricks the Atari Chipset could do (at lower resloution), impossible for the Amiga - like anything charset related.

*6 - The board used/shown is a 1:1 modern replica. only difference is a standard stereo connector.

*7 - Using multitasking on the Amiga was comparable clumsy and error prone, while the QL could do it with a few lines in BASIC.

*8 -That is outside specific applications, supported by add on hardware. All the elements from DMA for video generation all the way to Genlock have been made as early as the first bitmap video cards for micros.

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    You're right about TI 99/4; but IBM PC was 8/16 bit, 8088, not full 16bit (8086). GUI is Xerox's innovation indeed, but it never got out of Xerox essentially, they didn't believe in their own innovation! Apple Lisa had limited acceptance, so I consider GUI to reach the masses through Mac. Regarding Amiga, I really can't think of any such mouth-watering machine at that time. Probably parts were found in other systems, but as a whole (graphics, sound, OS) there was nothing like it I believe. It took years to reach it. – Krackout Jul 1 at 19:51
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    Concerning Note 6, I disagree. Multitasking on the Amiga was very popular and robust, because of 2 reasons. 1) ARexx made communication among multiple processes extremely simple, compared to the raw IPC ports of the vanilla Amiga OS. I honestly cannot say how that would compare to QL Basic, though. 2) Vendors strove, and largely succeeded, in making their applications robust and friendly in a multiprocess environment. The Amiga users and press and even other vendors forced their hand. HW protection would have been nice, but lacking that, talented developers did very well. – RichF Jul 2 at 6:33
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    "essentially just a souped up Atari 800 chipset", "was designed by the same team", "tricks the Atari Chipset could do, impossible for the Amiga" -- this all feels like a downplaying of the amiga chipset, with hardly any technical facts presented. – lvd Jul 2 at 17:12
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    Yeah, comparing the Amiga chipset to the Atari 800 is ill-conceived and lazy writing. Prove it or remove it. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Jul 2 at 23:08
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    @Raffzahn You’re the one making the claim, and you know perfectly well it’s a bold one. You know that requires bold proofs. This trollish response only lives up to my expectations. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Jul 3 at 6:51
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The A bomb, the Amiga, with its custom chips-coprocessors, colourful graphics, stereo sound, pre-emptive multitasking OS and probably other stuff which I forget.

I've never heard Amiga being called the "A bomb", especially as both the Atari and Mac would display bombs as error messages with Atari even showing mushroom clouds in the very early version of TOS ;-) The Amiga with her Guru Meditation is probably the last computer that should be called "A bomb"...

Colourful graphics and stereo sound are not an innovation, both are just an evolution of previous computers. The flexibility of the graphic and sound system was a strength, although the first was present in Jay Miner's previous work, the Atari 8-bit computers. The Amiga also wasn't the first computer with a preemptive multitasking os.

And also Atari ST. Well, it had midi ports embedded, making it successful among musicians. I also remember its crisp 70Hz 640x400 monochrome monitor, very easy on the eyes, paired with a nice, legible 8x16 font. But did it bring any novelty, like the aforementioned two (Amiga, Mac)?

Both MIDI ports and the mono display were innovative and were seen as such in the 80's. There were external MIDI interfaces for other computers but including them as standard and having a flicker free display created a whole MIDI ecosystem. MIDI was also used for the 16 player deathmatch first person shooter MIDI Maze.

I don't think it's helpful to always ask which computer "did it first". Neither of the 68k machines appeared out of thin air. Bringing certain features to the masses (multitasking, midi etc.) is a novelty in itself.

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