Only a couple of months late, the Falcon now seems to be shipping. This was certainly apparent at the Frankfurt Music Messe where, for example, Steinberg were showing off a version of their flagship CuBase Audio running on the '030, with eight tracks of digital audio — albeit from a very fast hard disk. You'll find more Frankfurt news in The Shape Of Things To Come, so let's look at why the Falcon has built up such a formidable reputation in advance of you actually being able to get hold of one.
The Motorola 68030 processor in the Falcon is a much more powerful device than the humble 68000 which sits inside the ST. Not that the 68030 is anything spectacularly new — you've been able to buy Apple Macintosh II series of computers (and more from other manufacturers) with the '030 on board for quite a few years now. In fact, the latest Macs use the even more powerful 68040 chip, whilst the latest Commodore Amigas use the significantly weaker half-way house of the 68020.
What is special about the new computer from Atari is the way that it echoes the first emergence of the ST about eight years ago — when the Mac had been around for a couple of years, the ST looked like a very similar computer for a fraction of the price. Many Mac users looked at the ST and wondered why they had only 128Kbytes of RAM and a tiny screen in an expensive package. The Falcon does something similar — it leapfrogs the current Macs by adding a DSP chip and VGA-monitor-compatible screen modes. Note that the only way you can get a DSP in a Mac is to add a plug-in board, and the only other well-known computer which features a built-in DSP is the NeXT workstation, a machine designed for use in serious academic research institutions. The ability to use cheap PC Super VGA monitors is a bonus, but it is the DSP that offers the most interesting possibilities...
DSP? Yet another computer acronym to learn, unfortunately. DSP stands for Digital Signal Processing, or Digital Signal Processor, which tells only part of the story. The Falcon's 56001 DSP chip is made by, surprise, surprise, Motorola, and it is specially designed for doing the sort of number-intensive calculations that really slow down an ordinary microprocessor. Chips like the 68030 are pretty good at moving information around: files from disk to memory; graphics blocks on the screen; and chunks of text in a window. But things are different when you need to do something more than just move things around — processing takes time, and the more sophisticated the operation, the longer it takes. Multiplying is a big problem, especially if you want to use more than 16 bits of precision. You can buy special maths co-processor chips, like the 68881 and 68882, but these are expensive and rather dumb. Co-processors just work out whatever you throw at them, and the main processor is still doing most of the hard work of interpreting the answers. In contrast, DSPs can take on whole problems and concentrate on producing an answer.
The 56001 is built for speed. It has a dedicated multiplier section which takes two 24-bit numbers and produces a 48, or sometimes a 56-bit result. Any bets as to where the name of the chip comes from? The multiplies happen fast because they are built in hardware, whereas most microprocessors do multiplication in software — they just keep adding repeatedly. Some things happen in parallel: the program and the data are kept separate, so that the chip does not need to spend time first getting some values, and then finding the instruction which tells it what to do with them. Instead, the instructions and the data are loaded at the same time. The two inputs to the multiplier are kept separate, too, which means that you can just push numbers into the multiplier two at a time, and wait for the answers to pop out at the other side. Despite all this complexity, programming a DSP is much like programming in assembler code, and there is a large amount of support material available for DSP programmers.
Signals are what DSPs are all about. Digitised audio or video signals are merely streams of numbers, and processing these numbers can produce a wide variety of interesting transformations. DSPs form the heart of most rack-mount effects units; they do the dynamic filtering in digital synthesizers; they can equalise telephone lines so that modems can work faster; they produce pseudo-stereo effects from mono inputs; they edit scanned pictures in almost any way imaginable; they handle servo-control of laser printers and hard disks; they recognise speech, synthesize complex sounds, and much more. In these days of 18 or perhaps even 20-bit audio sampling technology, the 24 bits of the 56001 represent a basic dynamic range of about 144dB, whilst the 56-bit output from the multiplier leaves plenty of headroom to make sure that you maintain optimum precision. The DSP runs at 32MHz, which should keep things ticking along quite nicely.
The DSP in the Falcon opens the door to a whole new set of applications that were previously unimaginable because of the processing power that would have been needed. Best of all, because DSPs are used in such a wide variety of end products, they are relatively cheap, and it is this that enables Atari to put them into a low-cost product. The basic Falcon is cheaper now than the original ST was when it was launched, and it has very little competition at that price. The bad news is that with a change of processor and the added DSP, SCSI II, IDE ports instead of DMA port, as well as the new video modes, I can't envisage any way of upgrading an ST apart from a complete swap of the main PCB — and even then your existing monitor will probably not be completely compatible and your hard disk may need modification. This ought to mean a rapid nose-dive of the price of STs, both new and second-hand. (Of course, is the 'deal of the century' still a bargain if you really want a Falcon?)
The Falcon may look like just another ST, but lurking underneath that familiar exterior is a speed demon. I await the results with great anticipation — the jaw-dropping 'power' applications should start appearing around the middle of this year.
Feature by Martin Russ
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