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What the STE should've been under the hood

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I know a lot of us have debated in various threads on how the ST could've been better from the start had Atari Corp done certain things differently and/or made it more like a "real Atari" [aka like updated Atari 8-bits or the subsequent Amiga, bla bla]. I was just looking at the specs for the Atari Games' Super Sprint arcade game from circa 1985 and I'm thinking the Atari [Games] System 1board is everything that the eventual STE should've/could've been...

 

Motorola 68010 at 7.16Mhz

6502 - probably a typical "Atari" 6502C - running at 1.79Mhz

Dual POKEY

YM2151

[optional TI speech chip]

336x240 resolution with 256 colors out of 1,024.

 

That was originally built in 1984. Makes me wonder if the graphics chip was from the former Atari Inc Advanced Corporate Research division or if it was some off-the-shelf chip(s).

 

The later System 2 board increased the graphics resolution to 512x384 and also used a rather oddball DEC CPU.

 

Now all of that hardware together couldn't have made it into the original RBP ST model in 1985 at the original price points but it could've been done for the STE whether released earlier than 1989 or not. [the TI speech chip would've probably been unnecessary].

 

Seems a lot of engineering talent did make their way over to Atari Games Corp following the break-up of the original Atari Inc in July 1984. It also - for me - puts into question why Atari Coin/Games would've ever considering using the Amiga Lorraine chipset other than for lowering component costs. Sure, System 1 only has a pallet of 1,024 colors as opposed to the Amiga's 4,096 colors but having 256 colors displayed at once at that resolution certainly beats the Amiga's 32 [not counting the HAM tricks]. And sprite power was certainly no problem for System 1 based upon the arcade titles built for it when compared to the Amiga.

 

Wonder if anyone has ever tried getting TOS - or Workbench - to run on a System 1 Board. :)

 

Here's the Wikipedia summary:

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atari_System

 

 

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Maybe I'm in a minority but I think ST was pretty fine as it was, originally...sure few minor things should have been different or at least modernized bit more quickly. But it's not like other contemporary machines were perfect, all of them were hurriedly developed and contained various quirks and shortcomings - original IBM PC was a horrible contraption which would have died a slow, agonized death if it wasn't for IBM brand name.

 

Atari's punchline for ST was 'Power without a price' and that's the philosophy they should have followed with STE, or in fact, there never should have been STE. They should have kept it simple. Stick a 68020 on ST, 1Mb RAM minimum and HD disk drive. Maybe some minor upgrade on graphics. Put this out ca. 1988, call it 'ST020' or something to maintain brand continuity. Keep custom chips at minimum. Should be possible to have pricetag comparable to Amiga 500. At the time Macintosh II costed like $5000 so it would compare very favourably.

Edited by chepe
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The original ST was fine, except the sound chip. The YM was a step back from the Pokey in my opinion.

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The original ST was fine, except the sound chip. The YM was a step back from the Pokey in my opinion.

Very well then. I myself have no problem with the Atari STe existing, but they really should have made at least a couple more graphics upgrades to it: Allow for up to 64 simultaneous colors on screen without having to use programming tricks, and also slightly more variety of hues. For sound on the STe, they should have either gone with building an AMY Blitter sound chip for it, or used the Yamaha 2151 FM along with making an optional adlib sound module,that would have come in the form of either a cartridge to insert into the ST cart port or a special module that plugs into the modulator port of the STE, and the modlue has a pass-through port so that cables and such that make use of the modulator port can still be used with the STe. :thumbsup: :thumbsup: :thumbsup: :spidey:

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Having a FM sound chip for music playback like the Genesis would have been nice, while using the DMA for sound effects. Even if commercial games don't (wouldn't) support it then it could still be used as a MIDI playback device for stuff like Cubase.

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The YM chip was probably the best commonly available one which could be easily bolted on ST. Sure custom chip like Paula would have been nice, but Atari was under huge pressure to get the machine out to generate cash flow because even with injection of Tramiel capital, they only barely made it. Those times, you needed to quickly build up 'critical mass' of customers to wake up software developers. One of the best ways to ensure that was to make sure that the machine was 1) available 2) affordable.

It only went seriously wrong later, when they began to worry about matching Amiga, when they really should have been worried about PC and consoles. Somewhat strangely, Commodore fell into exact same trap. Both companies fell victim to the tunnel vision.

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Sorry but I love the ST as is, I have a bias towards the STE as I own these and love them. Everything is cool imho. The masters that create the chiptunes do a marvellous job and there's some awesome STuff released over the decades, and it seems to keep on getting better and better. I agree with many comments here. Especially what Chepe says there about not looking at the PC. Those faster and faster and faster cpu's out do any custom chips.Ah well, we cannot turn back the clock but I know I love my STE regardless. Especially as it's on besides me right now with Hunter loaded up - so that's my next "task" ;D

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Sorry but I love the ST as is, I have a bias towards the STE as I own these and love them. Everything is cool imho. The masters that create the chiptunes do a marvellous job and there's some awesome STuff released over the decades, and it seems to keep on getting better and better. I agree with many comments here. Especially what Chepe says there about not looking at the PC. Those faster and faster and faster cpu's out do any custom chips.Ah well, we cannot turn back the clock but I know I love my STE regardless. Especially as it's on besides me right now with Hunter loaded up - so that's my next "task" ;D

 

Wasn't you playing Hunter like weeks/months ago ?? lol

 

The ST as it was is fine by me. We didn't know there "was" anything else until later when it had been produced. Maybe the next motorola CPU 020 perhaps, larger memory, 1.44 floppies. I wish my first 286SX25 have a 4ghz quadcore in it, oh well ;) The STE came out with easier to upgrade RAM, better sound, blitter etc etc. The STE would have made a awesome first Atari but things don't happen like that in the real world. You can imagine the very first ST's about, separate disk drives, PSU etc. People saying back then, oh I wish it was a "all in one" machine. Then the new kids on the block brought a STF and thought, oh I wish it had a double density drive built in.. and on it goes. Lets all go build a 20 core STFM make the most awesome machine ever and then go wonder why nobody ever brought one.

 

If only I had £1 everytime one of these threads started.. I could have designed a "Super ST" by now... :)

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Hey, I've got nothing against STE :) - I never had one myself but I gather its sound capabilities were great at the time. I just don't think it was the best possible move from Atari to release: it wasn't great enough upgrade for existing ST users to change into (I personally never considered it myself), and it costed more than old ST models, thus losing its prime advantage over Amiga.

My point was just that these 'what-ifs' always seem to get fans excited about what powerful custom chips they would have liked to see in ST, and Atari itself sorta went down that route in later years, but that was not what made ST popular, and IMO Atari should have stuck with the original philosophy. Keep it simple, keep it cheap.

Edited by chepe

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The main problem with the STE was that screenshots did not look any different than ST screenshots. And the specs didn't exactly scream "superior to the older model" either (IIRC the SIMM sockets were not even mentioned), so people stuck with the cheaper STFM.

A 256 colour mode could have mended that, even if only in 160x200 to keep the CPU load low.

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I see that most of us don't like the chip set for Sound, I'm not fan of it myself but lets see for most part of the STe I like it, I would had like to seen a STe with a smaller foot and RTC with a battery "I hate the time stamp on the ST/STe its all over the place" All so I'd would had like to seen the Developers of the time had made more use of the Blitter and added options to use the enhanced joystick ports too.

Edited by walter_J64bit

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Hey, I've got nothing against STE :) - I never had one myself but I gather its sound capabilities were great at the time. I just don't think it was the best possible move from Atari to release: it wasn't great enough upgrade for existing ST users to change into (I personally never considered it myself), and it costed more than old ST models, thus losing its prime advantage over Amiga.

My point was just that these 'what-ifs' always seem to get fans excited about what powerful custom chips they would have liked to see in ST, and Atari itself sorta went down that route in later years, but that was not what made ST popular, and IMO Atari should have stuck with the original philosophy. Keep it simple, keep it cheap.

 

Well, it was too incremental a change and too late coming in 1989. ST owners at the time - and I was one of 'em - complained about the high price considering it was still the same 8 Mhz 68000 and a lot of the rest of the features didn't blow away the Amiga. VGA was doable then, or they could've at least matched the Amiga's 32 colors on-screen at once, but they did neither. My point is had they looked at the Atari Games System Board 1 from 1984, it would've been a realistic roadmap to use in order to improve the ST for the STE model.

 

I wasn't saying Corp should've had all of the same features as the System Board 1 with the original 520ST from 1985 because that would've been completely unrealistic at that price point. Had they got the AMY working and used it in the ST as Shiraz Shivji intended, that would've been cheaper than attempting to use a YM2151 - and the TI Speech Chip - which was also unavailable since Yamaha was using it in their music computers exclusively. But they didn't get it working and apparently didn't approach its original designers to contract with them to get it working so they went with the YM2149 instead due to its price and the impending deadline to finish the system.

 

I'm perplexed that Corp with the STE insisted that it could only be upgraded to 4MB RAM when it later became known that STs could upgrade to a maximum of 14MB. Seems they shot themselves in the foot with that since the Amiga fans crowed away about how their computers could upgrade to 8MB.

 

I disagree about the use of custom chips. The Amiga - and STs - ultimately failed against the PC because multimedia expansion cards kept improving on the PC side while Commodore failed to improve the Amiga's custom chips significantly in the face of such competition.

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I'm perplexed that Corp with the STE insisted that it could only be upgraded to 4MB RAM when it later became known that STs could upgrade to a maximum of 14MB. Seems they shot themselves in the foot with that since the Amiga fans crowed away about how their computers could upgrade to 8MB.

Hmmm, I've never heard that one. I do remember 4mb RAM limit, strange if they underclaimed it? I mean, it's not like many people had even 4mb but it's always good for bragging rights.

 

Well, it was too incremental a change and too late coming in 1989. ST owners at the time - and I was one of 'em - complained about the high price considering it was still the same 8 Mhz 68000 and a lot of the rest of the features didn't blow away the Amiga. VGA was doable then, or they could've at least matched the Amiga's 32 colors on-screen at once, but they did neither. My point is had they looked at the Atari Games System Board 1 from 1984, it would've been a realistic roadmap to use in order to improve the ST for the STE model.

 

I wasn't saying Corp should've had all of the same features as the System Board 1 with the original 520ST from 1985 because that would've been completely unrealistic at that price point. Had they got the AMY working and used it in the ST as Shiraz Shivji intended, that would've been cheaper than attempting to use a YM2151 - and the TI Speech Chip - which was also unavailable since Yamaha was using it in their music computers exclusively. But they didn't get it working and apparently didn't approach its original designers to contract with them to get it working so they went with the YM2149 instead due to its price and the impending deadline to finish the system.

 

I disagree about the use of custom chips. The Amiga - and STs - ultimately failed against the PC because multimedia expansion cards kept improving on the PC side while Commodore failed to improve the Amiga's custom chips significantly in the face of such competition.

What did Atari System use for graphics? Was it entirely ran by CPU?

I do note that CPU was downtuned to 7.16mhz, apparently to make it compatible with sound chips. I don't think this architecture would have been too useful for ST, even if Atari Games had been willing to license it to Corp.

 

Developing new custom chips was expensive, for everyone equally. However, PC world had economies of the scale working for them. In 1988, PC sales were something like 10 to 11 million worldwide - TEN TIMES more than ST & Amiga sales combined. Even if only fraction of them equipped their machines with VGA cards, it still meant that much more PC graphics chips were made than (already inferior) Amiga/ST chips...Commodore & Atari needed to hit a home run on their next attempt because they had resources to develope new chipset only once. Both of them missed, wasting resources on 'deck chair rearrangement' upgrades like STE and A600.

I remember when Amiga 1200 came out, it was quite attractive for its seemingly cheap pricing. However, it came with no monitor, no hard drive, only 14mhz CPU...if you added up monitor and hard drive, for about same cost I could have bought 386 w/SVGA which was superior to A1200 in pretty much every respect. Commodore and Atari had not only lost their performance advantage, they had lost their price advantage.

Hence I arrive to my original point - Atari should have concentrated more on upgrading CPU and memory rather than matching Amiga's chipset. I dunno what compability problems 68020 would have brought, presumably some. But it would have been great marketing value in 1988-89 timeframe. And 1mb RAM should have been minimum, even for STE. Already in ~1990, Amiga 500's were seldom even sold without 1mb RAM.

Another issue was mass storage. DD floppies were becoming obsolete in around 1990. I remember playing some late Amiga games, it was horrible pain even with 2 disk drives. Commodore made a huge mistake when they failed to upgrade mass storage for Amiga 1200.

Edited by chepe

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Hmmm, I've never heard that one. I do remember 4mb RAM limit, strange if they underclaimed it? I mean, it's not like many people had even 4mb but it's always good for bragging rights.

 

 

What did Atari System use for graphics? Was it entirely ran by CPU?

I do note that CPU was downtuned to 7.16mhz, apparently to make it compatible with sound chips. I don't think this architecture would have been too useful for ST, even if Atari Games had been willing to license it to Corp.

 

Developing new custom chips was expensive, for everyone equally. However, PC world had economies of the scale working for them. In 1988, PC sales were something like 10 to 11 million worldwide - TEN TIMES more than ST & Amiga sales combined. Even if only fraction of them equipped their machines with VGA cards, it still meant that much more PC graphics chips were made than (already inferior) Amiga/ST chips...Commodore & Atari needed to hit a home run on their next attempt because they had resources to develope new chipset only once. Both of them missed, wasting resources on 'deck chair rearrangement' upgrades like STE and A600.

I remember when Amiga 1200 came out, it was quite attractive for its seemingly cheap pricing. However, it came with no monitor, no hard drive, only 14mhz CPU...if you added up monitor and hard drive, for about same cost I could have bought 386 w/SVGA which was superior to A1200 in pretty much every respect. Commodore and Atari had not only lost their performance advantage, they had lost their price advantage.

Hence I arrive to my original point - Atari should have concentrated more on upgrading CPU and memory rather than matching Amiga's chipset. I dunno what compability problems 68020 would have brought, presumably some. But it would have been great marketing value in 1988-89 timeframe. And 1mb RAM should have been minimum, even for STE. Already in ~1990, Amiga 500's were seldom even sold without 1mb RAM.

Another issue was mass storage. DD floppies were becoming obsolete in around 1990. I remember playing some late Amiga games, it was horrible pain even with 2 disk drives. Commodore made a huge mistake when they failed to upgrade mass storage for Amiga 1200.

 

I'm not sure which graphics chips Atari Games used in System 1. I'm not finding decent documentation. They must've been either off-the-shelf or stuff done by Atari Inc Advanced Research. As for the cost of developing custom chips, mind you Atari Games had much less revenues and resources to work with than Atari Corp did. They did seem to snag or retain more Atari Inc engineers than Corp hired. After all, in the home market [where they were known as Tengen], they designed the Rabbit chip to defeat the NES encryption plus they designed their own MMC chip too. And while Namco was their corporate parent at the time, they didn't receive decent funding nor resources from them other than the cost of their legal defense against Nintendo of America.

 

Sure, PC sales outstripped the ST and the Amiga by 1988 but they weren't captured by a single vendor. The PC vendors didn't get rich off the deal; Intel and Microsoft did. Neither of which developed powerful graphics or sound chips then. Creative Labs wasn't bigger than Atari Corp nor Commodore and they arguably used off-the-shelf parts for their wares.

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I acknowledge that the CPU speed issue was addressed much too late by Atari with the Mega STE - and third party solutions like the one Atari put into that machine were already on the market for the DIL CPUs in regular and Mega ST models when the 1040STE came out.

 

The 520/1040STE had upgradeable RAM (bog-standard SIMMs), but the fact was never even advertised.

 

The DD FDD issue was addressed by Atari (again much too late) with the AJAX (which could even be clocked to 32MHz to work with ED FDDs - yet these never became popular), the WD1772 was only capable of HD access if 100% overclocked, and this only worked somewhat reliably when using the -02-02 revision of that FDC. Commodore had a much worse problem, since they couldn't simply upgrade PAULA they had to buy special, expensive FDDs that ran at half the speed in HD mode.

 

 

 

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Commodore had a much worse problem, since they couldn't simply upgrade PAULA they had to buy special, expensive FDDs that ran at half the speed in HD mode.

So that's why A1200 didn't get a HD disk drive? Reason I heard was that HD drive wouldn't have fitted to the selected chassis - which sounded stupid, but Commodore did stupid decisions like that all the time so it sounded believable. They also left hard drive out of the baseline A1200 on the basis that "we couldn't decide what size it should have been", or at least that is what they said at the time.

 

I forgot that Mega STE had 16mHz 68000. Maybe that would have been plausible for regular STE as well if changing to 68020 was too expensive. Or did it require cooling fan?

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My first ST was the Mega STe, and most games had to have the CPU clocked down to 8mhz (it also auto-booted at 8mhz, so unless you had a hard drive, or the disk had a standard TOS format, then you couldn't even really start a game in 16mhz). The point about the normal STEs having SIMMs was something I only learned in the last week or so. I had no idea, I thought the only ones to use SIMMs were the TT030 and the Mega STe! I remember upgrading to 4mb of RAM and then playing Ultima 6 out of a RAM disk. Load times were awesome!

 

But I agree with everyone, the STe should have probably had the TT video modes at the very least. Instead they opted to upgrade the color palette, and add stereo sound. The worse part is, almost all the developers coded for the lowest common denominator, so it is a rarity to find software coded specifically for the STe, TT, Falcon.

 

That's one thing Commodore got right, they somehow managed to get a good chunk of things written for AGA. Besides the Ishar series, I can't think of many games that were written using the enhanced features of STe/Falcon. Pretty sure if there had been some games coded for even the TT's resolutions, they would have looked amazing at the time. Granted the TT030 was never marketed at all as a games machine, and it was Atari's failed attempt at getting into the 'workstation' market.

 

*sigh* I need to clean up my Mega STe's motherboard, stupid mice had their way with it, now I don't dare turn it on 'til I purge it...

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The point about the normal STEs having SIMMs was something I only learned in the last week or so. I had no idea, I thought the only ones to use SIMMs were the TT030 and the Mega STe!

Atari almost seemed like hostile to the idea that customers added RAM by themselves...in Amiga 500 RAM upgrade was the simplest thing, and eventually almost everyone had 1mb, and most games were designed to take advantage of it.

 

That's one thing Commodore got right, they somehow managed to get a good chunk of things written for AGA. Besides the Ishar series, I can't think of many games that were written using the enhanced features of STe/Falcon. Pretty sure if there had been some games coded for even the TT's resolutions, they would have looked amazing at the time. Granted the TT030 was never marketed at all as a games machine, and it was Atari's failed attempt at getting into the 'workstation' market.

Unlike STE, Amiga 1200 was big enough upgrade that it got people replace their old Amigas with it. I bought one myself because I wasn't ready to invest to PC world yet and wanted a transitional machine. However I could see writing on the wall already. In 1993, average good PC game took 10 to 15 megabytes and biggest games took over 20. Even if A1200's hardware could run games like this, putting them to DD floppies was hopeless.

So what happened was that Amiga diehards rushed to buy A1200, once they had one, nobody else was interested in the machine because it couldn't play PC games and was too pricey just to play console grade games.

Edited by chepe
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But I agree with everyone, the STe should have probably had the TT video modes at the very least. Instead they opted to upgrade the color palette, and add stereo sound. The worse part is, almost all the developers coded for the lowest common denominator, so it is a rarity to find software coded specifically for the STe, TT, Falcon.

 

And IMHO that was due tot he fact that there was not an obvious advantage of coding specifically for the STE - by the time it was published, most coders had perfected coding for the ST. A 256 colour mode would IMHO have changed that due to the obvious advantages for in-game graphics.

 

I'd also have liked the overscan capabilities that were available as ST hacks implemented into the STE hardware - overscan with 400x232 in ST low mode (and possibly 400x232 or 200x232 in 256 colours) and 700x480 in ST high without the significant slowdown of software solutions would hav ebeen a plus.

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Atari at least had the foresight to put in a HD floppy drive in the TT030 (at least I think that was stock) I recall having to upgrade the MegaSTE to one though. My A4000D had one in it as well, though I don't know if that was added afterward (my guess is that it was).

 

There were definitely a lot of short comings in the STE and AGA lines. Kind of funny that the STE tried to upgrade to where the Amiga already was (both graphical and audio) but because it was, as mentioned, not that big of an upgrade from the ST, it was never really taken advantage of. Probably why a lot of the initial games were written on the ST, and ported to the Amiga, while later on it was the other way around and the Amiga games became superior.

 

If they'd released a 1040TT, that would have been pretty amazing in the 90/91 time frame and could have potentially saved the Atari computers. Oh well, it's always fun to dream of a different world where Atari and Commodore were still around.

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Just my opinion, but upgrading from earlier Amiga's to the A1200 is more

equivalent to upgrading from an ST to the *Falcon*., not the STe. It's not

really a good comparison.

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Sure, but ST brand was probably unsalvageable by the time Falcon came out. The timeframe to do something to seriously update ST was in 89-90 and Atari didn't. Commodore was arguably also late with A1200, but managed to get at least initial, promising burst of sales which guaranteed some chipset support from software producers, before everyone realized the machine was obsolete. I think Commodore might just have made it, or at least survived for 4-5 more years if they had managed A1200/CD32 thing bit better.

 

In fairness, home computer market of 80's/early '90s was notoriously dynamic and hard to predict. Few people in 1990 would have thought, at least in Europe, that in 4 years Commodore and Atari would both be kaputt.

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Yeah, the TT030 should have been the 'in between' system from ST to Falcon. Atari's focus though was bounced around (same with Commodore) who both thought it'd be great to get (back for Atari) into video game consoles. Of course Commodore went back in time and slapped the Amiga chipset into a game console, which was sort of the original intentions. Unfortunately CD32 was banned from US sales, and the Jaguar simply had a lot of issues, lack of marketing, (hell I talked to people at the time and they'd actually ask me who Atari was, they were out of the game console business for so long, it was all Nintendo, Sega at the time), developers not finishing things on time, and / or the development tools were horrible (at least from what I'd read, PS3 sort of had the same issue, but Sony threw tons of money at that). I'd read stories of some development houses being given Jaguar Development kits, and then not even starting development on the popular game they had. Atari shot themselves in the foot by creating the Falcon, then basically ditching it less than a year later for the Jaguar, which they didn't have the marketing clout to be successful with. Not to mention everyone made fun of the whole 'Do the Math' ads. What would have been nice in a 'After Falcon years' would be a Jaguar based ST system. Would that be a SS (16-64 bit system, because of the various chips/buses in the Jag?) Ha, the Atari SS (not related to the Nazis in any way...)

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Commodore rant (which also applies to Atari somewhat):

Commodore had many successful machines but never really seemed to understand why. They were obsessed about 'price brackets' not unlike say car manufacturer: "We need a mini car, sedan, mid-size...". When they had a successful model they produced it as long as possible, then developed a successor for it, even if they already had a better machine in production. Because they were obsessed about the idea that there were markets for computers in many price ranges, including very cheap ones. And to certain extent this was true but Commodore took it too far: when you are already producing cheap C-64, what is the point of even cheaper C-16 since almost anyone can already afford the C-64? Same idiocy led to Amiga 300/600 debacle and many others. Commodore wasted resources designing machines which were already obsolete, instead of designing ever better computers and letting the old models take over "cheap price" bracket.

Pricing was certainly important, that is how ST got a head start after all. However, people were ready to pay a little extra if it genuinely brought them better capabilities. My dad bought me 520STFM ca. 1989. At the time C-64 was still in sale and was much cheaper. However nobody I knew in my hometown bought a C-64 after that even if it was only half the cost of ST. Everybody bought Amiga, ST or PC.

And that is what went wrong with Atari and Commodore in their last years: they saw their ever more powerful competitors and correctly noted that their marketing advantage was that their computers were cheaper. But they became too obsessed about pricing, it doesn't matter how cheap your computer is, if it's obsolete nobody will want it even for free.

By the time Atari figured it out with Jaguar they no longer had the resources to pull it off. I'm sure Jaguar would have worked out much better if Atari had used few more million of dollars and 3-4 months more to figure out the architecture, work out bugs etc. But they didn't have that time or money and rushed the product out. Pretty much same for CD32, which IMO could have worked too.

Edited by chepe
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Btw, I remember someone claiming that much of ST software was hard-coded for 68000 which made backwards compability difficult (supposedly even 68010 would have given compability issues) and discouraged Atari from upgrading CPU, leading for 16-bit bus for Falcon etc. Any truth in that? Hows the software compability between ST and TT?

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