Another Amiga you don't want


The Amigaphile community is possibly more rabid about its ecosystem than even us OpenPOWER dweebs, so right off I present my Amiga bona fides before getting stuck into it: in this house is a Amiga Technologies '060 A4000T running AmigaOS 3.9, an Amiga 3000 (with the tape drive, so I might even try Amix on it someday), and several A500s.

My disenchantment with the current crop of PowerPC-based Amigas, however, is well-known. At their various asking prices you got embedded-class CPUs at mid-high desktop level prices with performance less than a generation-old Power Mac. (Many used and easily available models of which, I might add, can run MorphOS for considerably less cash out of pocket.) A-EON's AmigaOne X5000 in particular attracts my ire for actually running a CPU that doesn't have AltiVec to replace the X1000, which did. Part of this problem was the loss of availability of the PA6T-1682M CPU, the one and only CPU P. A. Semi ever officially produced under that corporate name before Apple bought them, but there were plenty better choices than the NXP P5020 which wasn't ever really intended for this application.

Since 2014 or thereabouts a "small" Amiga (presumably along the lines of the earlier Sam440ep and Sam460ex family, which used PowerPC 400-series CPUs) was allegedly in development by A-EON and unveiled in 2015 as the original A1222 "Tabor" board. At that time it was specced as a mini-ITX board with 8GB of RAM and most controversially another grossly underpowered embedded core, a QorIQ P1022 at 1.2GHz. Based on the 32-bit e500v2 microarchitecture, it not only also lacks AltiVec but even a conventional FPU, something that for many years was not only standard on PowerPC CPUs but considered one of its particular strengths. As an embedded CPU, this was forgivable. As an embedded CPU in a modern general-purpose computing environment, however, this was unconscionable. Even by Amiga standards this was an odd choice and one with potential impacts for compatibility, and one a G5 or high-end Power Mac G4 would mop the floor with.

The original Tabor was apparently manufactured in a small batch of 50 for testers. Between then and 2018 it's not clear what happened on A-EON's end, but their hardware partner had a change of management and various other components needed updating. Strangely, the CPU was not among them. Today, six years later, people may now publicly pre-order the "A1222 Plus," with no change in specs other than changing some board components, and expected to ship Q2 2020. If you're lucky and they're not sold out, your $128 will get you a AAA Bundle Package with some software and a certificate in a pretty box as a 20 percent down payment on the "special low" $450 purchase price. If you get your $128 in after they're gone, then it's just a deposit. The AAA Bundle Package was supposed to be available December 24 but the website wasn't even up until January 11.

I'm willing to make some allowances for a cheap(er) modern Amiga because like our OpenPOWER systems, getting the price down some expands the market (ergo, Blackbird). However, that $450 price is almost certainly not the intended MSRP (nor has it been reported what that eventual MSRP is), and for low production volumes the CPU is not the major cost of a system. I don't know what actual considerations went into its design, but if A-EON chose this CPU deliberately as an attempt to make the price of the system lower, they chose wrong.

I certainly don't want to pick on other boutique systems unnecessarily. After all, in many people's minds the Talos II I'm typing on is itself a pretty darn boutique system, and one where the out-the-door price can easily eclipse even the priciest AmigaOne configuration. If people want to have their fun and pay a crapload of money for it even if other people think it's junk, then as long as it's not hurting anyone else praise the Lord and pass the credit card.

However, this is not that situation. Amiga has a long history in computing consciousness and most computer nerds would at least recognize the brand. Similarly, people still remember Power Macs, and while recollections vary in accuracy and fondness, there's a rather pernicious and commonly-held belief that Apple's migration to Intel somehow "proved" the inferiority of Power ISA. Today, along comes yet another underwhelming PowerPC-based Amiga to confirm their preconceived notions: because it's Amiga, it sticks in people's minds, and because it confirms their own beliefs about PowerPC, it reinforces their unjustified biases. Regardless of the fact that POWER9 systems like this one outpace ARM and RISC-V and compete with even high-end x86_64 offerings, the presence of Tabor and X5000 et al simply gives the resolutely underinformed yet another stick to beat Power desktops with. These Amigas suck compared to PCs, they reason, so OpenPOWER must suck too.

At the very least modern Amiga systems need to beat these decade-plus-old Power Macs to be even vaguely taken seriously. If they must go embedded then at least an e6500-series processor would do better than anything that they're running, and while I certainly do appreciate the considerable AmigaOS porting work that would be necessary, going with a minimally-redesigned reference design board for a POWER8 or POWER9 in big-endian mode could still free up development resources for such a task that would otherwise be sunk into yet another quixotic product. As it is, these Amiga systems don't do the Amiga community any favours, and from this outsider's view their performance even seems to be going backwards. If cost were the main consideration, there are other ways of dealing with it, and it's a certainty that Tabor's eventual price will be much greater than $450. Given all that, plus the protracted gestation time for "Tabor Plus," don't the Amiga owners who would be willing to buy such a machine deserve something with a little more zip?

The Amiga community needs new hardware, to be sure, and A-EON has at least filled the business opportunity however slow and abortive its progress in doing so; whatever small number they end up producing this time I imagine they'll eventually sell. That doesn't change the fact that weaksauce systems like this being sold as desktop machines continues to tar the architecture as underpowered and does nothing to expand the market beyond the shrinking circle of faithfuls. When there exist today at this very moment Power ISA workstations that can be every bit as utilitarian and functional as Intel workstations, the last thing any of our two communities need is yet another Amiga that people don't want.

Comments

  1. Props for bringing up the elephant in the room here. Even worse, I've heard that these embedded chips are the end of the line for PowerPC from NXP, so these machines are dragging down the overall Power ecosystem for next to no benefit.

    I also have concerns the same mistakes are being made with the stuck-in-design-phase PowerPC laptop project. Damage to the Power software ecosystem from people learning not to compile their software with floating point or Altivec or VMX could be fairly severe.

    What's maddening about the whole thing is that we could probably get a proper OpenPOWER laptop / mobile class chip made if the various people trying to use the NXP devices just got together and pooled financial resources...

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    Replies
    1. Not likely to be nearly enough, it wuld be big effort to make something basically usable and massive one to make something barely competetive.

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    2. AmigaOS (MorphOS, MacOS, BSD) on POWER9. Sounds like a good discussion for RaptorCS forums. Perhaps even something hardware....CAPI style, kind-of ?

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    3. The lack of a clear roadmap for NXP's Power Architecture parts is troubling, though they're still used a lot.

      Sadly, there's a long way to go before current POWER has low enough power consumption to be a credible mobile CPU. It's really meant as a piledriver CPU and designed as such. I have it on good authority POWER9 won't be suitable, but there was some cautious chatter that POWER10 may make some progress on it.

      Still, these are desktops, so such considerations shouldn't currently apply.

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