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COMMODORE IS BACK IN PICTURE AS GRAPHICS ENTER SPOTLIGHT

Just as the 1980s saw a revolution in office word and number management, the '90s will witness a transformation in picture handling. Graphs, drawings, photos, even movies will become as easy to create, archive and retrieve as letters and ledgers are now.

Remember Commodore, whose hundred-dollar no-frills computers turned a generation of science-track high schoolers into computer junkies? Now that graphics are in the spotlight, Commodore's back in the picture. After some fast executive reshuffling, it seems determined to give Apple and IBM a run for their money.Commodore wasn't dead all these years, though its dismal press non-relations seemed like an ongoing suicide attempt. More than five years ago, it brought out the Amiga 1000, a non-compatible (with IBM or anything else) designed just for graphics.

You didn't read about that Amiga here. It was good. Our son the graphics engineer swore by his $2,000 1000. But its near-dearth of sales kept us concerned about Commodore's health. We didn't want readers stuck with dead Amigas a year or two along the way.

Few computer companies know how to finish a product before selling it. But most know that constant hype is the key to big sales. Without that, few consumers buy. With few buyers, few software companies write software for the machine. Without software, even a Commodore is of no value.

Nonetheless, for five years, off and on, we requested a test machine and didn't even hear an echo. Suddenly, Commodore is alive and kicking. They actually phoned to ask if we'd like to test the 2000. In fact, they said, they'd prefer to send us the newer, better 2500/030. They even followed up to make sure the machine arrived.

If they keep this up, they'll convince us that they can stay alive for at least the next three years, which is about the half-life of a personal computer.

When it comes to graphics, even the Amiga 1000 was a beauty for its time. It had about the power of a Mac SE, but made much prettier color pictures (and the nicest sounds, too). Along with very fine built-in color graphics, it came with a graphics coprocessor.

Coprocessors are very important in making computer pictures. They're enormously more complicated than text or numbers. Putting one drawing onscreen works a processor chip very hard. A coprocessor takes that load off the main chip that's running the rest of the machine.

Apple sells its Macintosh family without a coprocessor. It's available, but at extra cost. Most IBM compatibles, too, come without coprocessors.

That's why graphic artists bought the Amiga 1000. But almost nobody else did and not enough of them. Commodore's next models, the $1,000 500 and the $2,000 2000, lost more friends than they won. The 500 was essentially the 1000 at half its price (which alienated quite a few 1000 owners). The 2000 sold at the 1000's price and had a bigger case for adding circuit boards.

Why was that important? Because Commodore now had a board that let Amiga owners run IBM compatible programs. That finally eased the software shortage.

The new 2500/030 being tested in our West Coast office is lovely but a costly $4,700. It's mostly a 2000 but has 2 megs of memory, a Commodore controller card, a 40-meg hard drive, and a factory-installed 68030 micro-processor replacing the 2000's 68000 chip. Comparing the 68030 to the 68000 is like comparing today's 80386 chip in IBM compatible PCs to the first IBM PC's chip. To put it another way, the 2500/030 approximates the Macintosh IIcx's processing power.

What do you do with all that power? Graphics. For that, it beats out the Macintosh line. Until Apple delivers a reasonably priced machine with built in color-graphics support, this 2500 is a better buy. And many top-quality paint and animation programs are available for the Amiga.

Take three-dimensional animation. A picture that most Macs (and the Amiga 1000) take many hours to build, the 2500 does in under an hour. Since one second's worth of animation requires 24 pictures on film (30 on videotape), time is of the essence.

There's one strong reason not to buy the 2500 - at least not yet. It makes us think Commodore still harbors a death wish. Almost as soon as they put the 2500 on the assembly line, they showed us their next model, the 3000. At first glance, it seems to have even better graphics plus a very big bonus - a 32-bit bus that will speed graphics data through the system even faster. This could give it twice the speed of the 2500. Commodore is putting a lot of money into promoting the 3000. And it's pricing it at only $3,300, $1,300 cheaper than the 2500.

So why spend $4,700 on the 2500? Commodore hopes readers will pay the difference to get more slots for adapter cards than the 3000 has. We're not so sure, since you'll need some of those slots for graphics hardware if you want to bring its performance up to the 3000.

Something tells us that the price of the 2500 will drop way down very soon. If it slips to $2,500 or less, run out and buy! If not, wait for our test results on the 3000.

Remember the early '80s, when computers were touted as the answer to every management problem known to man? It took eight years of living with the fool things for most people to realize that they're only as good as who-ever's running them.

It'll probably take almost as long for folks to find out that computer controlled graphics isn't for everyone. Is it for you? Keep in touch and we'll help you find out.

You can read back issues of this column at the electronic library, NewsNet, reachable via computer plus modem over phone lines. For NewsNet information, (800) 345-1301. (C) 1990 P/K Associates, Inc. 3006 Gregory Street, Madison, WI 53711.