Viewpoint - Do You Need a 16-Bit Computer?

Phil Cardwell raises a few controversial points


Issue 32

Mar/Apr 88

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Whilst browsing around the 1987 PCW Show, looking at the latest batch of ST software, a startling thought entered my mind 'Do I need a 16-bit computer?'. This thought preyed on my mind, almost converting a dedicated 8-bit fan to the way of the ST! After a great deal of deliberation I made my decision, to be revealed later, but for now I'll go over the factors that were given due consideration.

Price of a set-up was an initial factor. This works out about equal, though bargain hunters could make the 130XE and a 1050 disk drive a winner hands down. The cost of a 520 STFM constantly being brought down as dealers fight for trade, and the XE price increase by Atari, made this a very marginal argument. It could also prove the point that Atari want to give the 8-bit side less commitment and the ST's more support.

The 'Power without the Price' slogan brings us to the speed and power concept. There have been a lot of myths about the ST's operational speed, so lets have some facts. Theoretically, the ST should execute programs between 5 and 20 times faster than an 8-bit, dependant on the application being run. Without getting too technical, speed depends on the language being used and how well that language is implemented. As an example ST LOGO runs at approximately the same speed as 8-bit LOGO! Given that most people are BASIC programmers, lets clear the air in that department. With the exceptions of complex calculations and considerable disk Input/Output operations, ST Basic is no more than 25% faster than public domain Turbo-Basic or OSS's Basic XL/XE.


How about the theories that the ST's can run larger programs? True, but can you imagine the limitations of a 1 meg XE? It could be done. Then there is the one about the ST's capability to display better graphics. False. Everyone thought that the demo's that were displayed on the ST's public debut, were, to say the least, fantastic. These demo's encouraged some 6502 programmers to show the Atari community that the 8-bit computers can produce graphic displays that match the quality of the ST's. Evidence of this is found on PAGE 6 Library Disk #42 Special Demos, which contains exact replicas of the ST demo's one is even an improved version! Also on the graphics topic, we can't forget the fanatics who are looking for the `ultimate' games machine. To them, I have only one thing to say: I have yet to see an ST game that can satisfy me as much as level 63 on Rescue on Fractalus! Sound played a minor role in my decision. The ST's supposedly 'lousy' sound chip does match POKEY, and having heard digitised music on both machines I decided to ignore this factor!

These points don't mean that everyone should rush out and purchase an 8-bit system. I am simply doubting whether people can benefit from the, as yet, unrealised capabilities of the ST. And even when that full potential becomes reality, how many users will need more power than can be obtained from an XE? Business, scientific, technical users, etc., will need the extra speed and power, but can you justify the extra expense if all you do is write a couple of letters each month and keep track of your personal finances. With 512/1024K are you writing a letter or your biography?


Down to the nitty-gritty from the would be programmers point of view. How easy is to program the computers? Atari BASIC is straightforward, switch on and its there, but with ST BASIC you have to learn (or should that be master?) the GEM environment, to load and use BASIC to the full. Do you need multiple pop down menus to write a program? What about actually writing programs? Without graphics, programs can be written with relative ease on both machines. With simple graphics, it's the same case, a snip on both computers. Moving sprites? The beginner would find it slightly difficult on the 8-bit, but then again, it's nearly impossible on the ST. Somehow the XL/XE won this round.


Software was a hard battle. Do I fork out in excess of 25 for an ST title from my local W.H. Smiths or do I gamble a 10 cheque with the Post Office, for a mail order 8-bit title because W.H. Smiths don't think it would sell if they did stock it. Thought was also given to the price I would have to pay for a blank disk and disk boxes, but with 'disk wars' continuing between the big distributors, I am keeping an open mind on this item.


Anyway my final decision? To stick with my faithful 800 XL. For now an 8-bit system is more than adequate. I may change in years to come when the ST is more firmly established and the majority of the 'fast buck' dealers have gone, but at this moment in time, I for one do not need in excess of 512K to write a letter or keep track of my cheque book. An interesting foot-note is whether I have touched an open nerve in the ST camp? Will they sit back and sulk, knowing I'm right, or will they write in trying to add more controversy? We shall have to wait and see.