Unbeknownst to many, a debate goes on in the Atari community. Often in secret, it is argued over and over again… What is the best path of hardware upgrades for Atari users. I’ve seen it argued on atari.org message forums and as well I’ve seen it argued on usenet.

The way I see it, is that there is three basic paths.

1) Emulation. PowerPC macs are able to run MagiC Mac and thus Atari software at lightning speed over the real Ataris, but at a significant penalty. Nifty Falcon demos, applications, DSP programs, and non-GEM games will not run on MagiC-Mac. In fact generally only the typical and at times boring selection of AES apps will run on MagiCMac. The positive side to this is that there are just not that terribly many applications that will not run. The negative side is that the applications that will not run are the ones that usually give the Atari it’s true flair, style, and spirit.

2) A clone. A clone offers a new platform, available to be custom tailored to what the designer wants. While this can offer compatibility, in practice it doesn’t. It creates a whole new platform that the original atari community is excluded from, esentially furthering you from the easy support path. Considering a clone is basically your most expensive path, not many people (that I know) have clones and software specifically for them is far and few between unless it comes straight from the manufacturer. A clone, although you are paying a premium for it will not be able to run your hardcore non-AES ST/TT/Falcon games demos and trackers.

3) An upgrade board. Upgrade boards such as the Nemesis, AB040, and now CT60 have long been the favored solution of die-hard Atari users. Why? With the flick of a switch (generally) you can regain complete compatibility to run your old games, demos, sequencing software or whatever else you would like to run on your Falcon or PAK’d ST(e). At the same time, even under acceleration a large percentage of compatibility is retained. An upgrade like the CT60 provides the option of continuing to use your original Falcon, just at a massively upgraded speed. You still have your DSP, you still have your Atari feel. The CT60 opens up the door to new upgrade paths, such as PCI busses and more. It also supports up to 256 megs of high speed SDRAM. I know a large number of people on the CT60 list and I am looking forward to the CT60 demos and software that will be produced. I also look forward to running atari-source.com on my Falcon once I get my CT60. A mission requiring me to compile mysql and PHP for MiNT.

Unfortunately, while my obvious bias makes the choice obvious, it really depends on what type of users you are. The MagiCMac path is probably the absolute cheapeast path. A Quadra 800 is a fast 040 Mac and is available for sub $100 USD prices on eBay. While it provides the least compatibility, the majority of applications will work, even AniPlayer. You won’t need the DSP as much because your machine will have the raw horsepower it needs, standard. You also have the added benefit of easy ethernet as iConnect passes MacTCP through, giving your Atari a nice ethernet connection. There’s certainly significant benefits to emulation as well as disadvantages.

What about a Clone? This is a touchy subject, because unfortunately I do not have, nor can I afford a clone. Clones tend to be extremely expensive and will provide the same horsepower emulation will at 10% of the cost. However clones offer enhanced compatibility and additional upgrade cards and support for them. An example of this would be the Deese DSP card, which provides an enhanced DSP that is many times faster than the Falcon DSP on a PCI card. It is also highly compatible with Falcon DSP applications. Many clones have a full PCI bus or even an AGP bus and have specific drivers for inexpensive PCI devices such as network cards, USB, etc. Unfortunately these drivers will only work on the clone they are written for usually.

There is another stance however that working with a clone lowers your level of support and commonality with the rest of the Atari community. What if your clone breaks? What if the maker of the clone goes out of business? Your driver support and new supported hardware devices may quickly grind to a halt.

An option like an upgrade board which provides the most compatibility is in my opinion the best bet. Why? Because even if it isn’t as fast as Medusa’s newest machine or even if it doesn’t offer the same amount of features, the compatiblity that your retain is valueable. Your support base remains large and you become nothing more than a Falcon owner that has an expansion. In addition the upgrade boards tend to be supported by software authors just as much if not more so then clones. While this could all change very quickly in the future, the decision of which path to go depends soley on what kind of user you are. Just like the debate of whether or not you would like to use STiK, STiNG, or MiNT.