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Old 29 June 2002, 17:06   #1

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Lost Computers - The Acorn Archimedes

When people talk about the top desktop computers of the late eighties/early nineties, the usual contenders emerge – Amiga, Atari ST, Mac, PC.

Although the Amiga was technically a very advanced machine for its time, by 1987 a very worthy competitor hit the scene that decided to skip 16-BIT and head straight into 32. It was developed and produced in my home country of England and it was indeed a beast. If you have never lived in the UK you’ve probably never experienced this machine.

The most powerful (for serious applications) and definitely the most underrated computer of this time was the English designed and built 32-BIT Acorn Archimedes. It was the first RISC computer ever sporting its custom ARM CPU (providing power above all it’s rivals hitting 4-5 MIPS), had an excellent multitasking operating system ahead of it’s time, internal IDE controller as standard, internal PSU, displayed 256 colours on screen at once on high res 640x*** non-interlaced modes (up to 1152x*** in 2 colours or more depending on VRAM) and blasted out 8 voice 48 kHz stereo sound with the ability to place every voice freely anywhere between the left and the right channel.

Much like the Amiga’s superior hardware when it first emerged, it was underrated by the consumer market due to its expensive price and “serious” user tag. It had much success in schools but failed to capture the imagination of home users, mainly because the Amiga/Atari-ST hard already flooded the market with their cheaper prices and vast array of games. Due to this fact, this computer continued to receive great support through educational software but little in the way of games emerged. Those games that did appear tended to be simple efforts or perfect ports of the Amiga versions, but the extra capabilities of the Archimedes – more sound channels, higher res and extra colours - were rarely used.

It’s very hard to compare the Arch and Amiga from a technical point. The arc was never meant to be a games machine, lacked a blitter/copper and was better suited for serious and 3D applications. The extra speed from the Risc design and fast memory access usually allowed the Arc to power it’s way past it’s 2D gaming weaknesses, but I can’t help thinking how a few dedicated video chips could have turned it into one kick-ass games machine had the budget allowed.

Many of the several Archimedes models that emerged were ahead of their competition by some margin in the “serious/business” users bracket including the RISC OS – apart from being run completely from ROMS (no disk needed, zero boot time!) it wasn’t pre-emptive (it waits for the user to lead it), featured full multitasking and you can easily move files and data between compatible applications (and most of them are compatible) by using a unique drag and drop system. It also supported 3 mouse buttons. The mac, PC and Amiga weren’t even close to the RISC OS in these early times. Even though technically they were miles ahead of any competitor with the unique RISC design the exact same Commodore effect hit Acorn - bad marketing and a lethargic development schedule more or less killed the company.

So here is my thread to let the world know that the Amiga wasn’t the only technically brilliant machine to lose out to moneybags Microsoft and IBM. The Acorn Archimedes was developed on a shoe string budget, incorporated an efficient and state of the art RISC design and had one of the best OS of it’s time. Even on this limited budget, they continued to produce machines up until late 1998 although development had slowed down considerably and plodded along after it’s lightening start. After producing computers for 20 years including the BBC Micro and electron, eventually Acorn went the way of Commodore.

If life was fair and technical achievement decided success, we’d be living in a Commodore Amiga, Acorn Archimedes dominated world. Both these machines deserved continued success. It’s just a shame the technically weaker designs won.

Below is a screenshot of the early RISC OS 2 and an Acorn A3000. More expandable computers with separate keyboards were available too. I still had WB1.3 on my Amiga while using these operating systems at school! In 1992 they got replaced with the A3010, then the A5000. Finally, all schools ditched the Archimedes and brought in PC’s.

If anyone’s interested, I’ve seen A7000’s going for as little as £50-£100 around the net. Don’t know if they’re still in stock, but these were some kick-ass RISC machines! If only Acorn had decided to add dedicated gaming hardware to this lightening fast design.

Now I’ve introduced you to this lesser known machine, how about someone doing a thread on the Sharp X68000 made known to me by Akira – apparently a very successful and from the sounds of it powerful game-dedicated computer from Japan.

If Acorn had combined the Archimedes lightening fast Risc design with Sharp’s hardware game features (hardware sprites, hardware scrolling, genlocking, up to 16 perspective or playfields) I shudder to think of the possibilities!
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Last edited by Bloodwych; 29 June 2002 at 17:12.
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