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The Amiga personal computer was launched in 1985 by Commodore and became popular for its advanced graphics and sound capabilities. One of theexpansion options for the Amiga was adding VGA graphics capabilities through the use of third-party cards. These VGA cards for the Amiga fell into two categories – buffered and unbuffered.
This article will examine the differences between buffered and unbuffered VGA on the Amiga, the pros and cons of each method, and help you determine which solution is best for your needs.
- Buffered VGA cards have onboard VRAM for improved performance but are more expensive
- Unbuffered VGA relies on the CPU for memory access resulting in slower performance
- Buffered VGA offers resolutions up to 1280×1024 at 256 colors
- Unbuffered is limited to 640×480 resolution and 16 colors
- Unbuffered has lower cost and simpler installation
- Buffered provides better compatibility with VGA software and games
Buffered VGA Cards
Buffered VGA cards contain dedicated video RAM (VRAM) onboard the card itself. This provides a framebuffer that acts as a memory buffer between the CPU and the VGA output. Having fast VRAM located on the card improves the speed and performance of VGA graphics on the Amiga.
The onboard VRAM allows buffered VGA cards to achieve higher resolutions and color depths compared to unbuffered solutions. Buffered VGA cards can reach resolutions up to 1280×1024 with 256 color modes. This makes them well suited for graphical applications, games, and Windows emulation requiring VGA.
Buffered VGA cards contain dedicated VRAM for improved performance.
Advantages of Buffered VGA
- Higher resolutions up to 1280×1024
- More colors – up to 256 color modes
- Faster performance for graphics and games
- Compatibility with more VGA software
- Flicker-free display
- Hardware sprite support
Disadvantages of Buffered VGA
- More expensive cost for VRAM
- Requires installing proprietary drivers
- Potential compatibility issues with some programs
- Uses one expansion slot
Overall, the advantages of greater resolution, faster speed, and better compatibility make buffered VGA cards a good choice if you require serious VGA capabilities for graphics, games, or multitasking. The onboard VRAM delivers markedly better VGA performance.
Unbuffered VGA cards do not contain dedicated video memory. Instead, they rely on the Amiga’s CPU and chipset for accessing system memory during VGA output. This provides a simpler and lower cost solution, though sacrificing some performance versus buffered VGA.
Unbuffered VGA utilizes the stock chipset of the Amiga. The graphics data for each line of video output must be repeatedly transferred from system memory by the CPU for every refresh cycle. This can tax the processor and limits both resolution and color depth compared to buffered VGA.
Unbuffered VGA uses the CPU to transfer video data from system memory.
Advantages of Unbuffered VGA
- Lower cost since no onboard VRAM
- Easier installation without drivers
- Compatible with all Amiga chipsets
- Uses fewer expansion slots
Disadvantages of Unbuffered VGA
- Lower maximum resolution of 640×480
- Limited to 16 color modes
- Can tax the CPU resulting in slow performance
- Not compatible with some VGA software
- More prone to display flickering
Unbuffered VGA cards are a cheaper way to add basic VGA output to an Amiga. The resolution is limited to 640×480 which is sufficient for some 2D GUI applications and Windows emulation. But the lack of speed and color depth make unbuffered VGA a poor choice for graphics, games, and multitasking.
Resolution and Color Comparison
The following table summarizes the key differences in maximum resolution and color modes between buffered and unbuffered VGA cards for the Amiga:
|Number of Colors
As you can see, buffered VGA offers substantially better video modes and performance thanks to the onboard VRAM. Unbuffered is handicapped by relying on system memory and the CPU.
Real-World Performance Comparison
Let’s compare the real-world performance difference between buffered and unbuffered VGA using some examples.
Graphics and Design Applications
For graphics-intensive programs like Photoshop or desktop publishing, a buffered VGA card is essential. The combination of higher resolution, greater color depth, and fast pixel pushing from VRAM is necessary for acceptable performance. An unbuffered solution would be frustratingly slow for image editing or vector drawing.
Running Windows 3.1 smoothly requires a buffered VGA card on the Amiga. The VRAM helps emulate the graphics functions and speed needed for the Windows environment. Unbuffered VGA lacks the horsepower to run Windows properly, resulting in dog-slow screen drawing and menus.
For PC-port games like Doom or Tie Fighter, a buffered VGA card delivers the resolution, colors, and speed to make games enjoyable. Unbuffered VGA cannot handle advanced 3D games well and also lacks the color palette to display proper graphics.
Playing back 30 FPS video at 640×480 with over 16 colors is not really feasible with an unbuffered VGA card. The limited colors and reliance on system memory cripples video performance. Buffered VGA has the headroom and pixel pushing capacity for smooth video playback.
Recommendations for Usage Scenario
Based on their strengths and weaknesses, here are general recommendations for selecting buffered or unbuffered VGA depending on your usage:
- Graphics/Design Apps – Use a buffered VGA card for its higher resolution and color depth.
- Windows Emulation – A buffered VGA card helps provide necessary performance.
- Gaming – Choose a buffered VGA card for more speed, colors, and compatibility.
- Video Playback – Buffered VGA can easily handle 30+ FPS without color reduction.
- General GUI Use – An unbuffered card works for basic 640×480 usage.
- Text-Based Apps – Unbuffered is sufficient for non-graphics programs.
- Cost-Sensitive User – The lower price of unbuffered may be appealing.
For the best universal solution, a buffered VGA card is your safest bet if you can accommodate the higher cost. An unbuffered card is best for simple GUI uses or basic Windows emulation on a budget.
Here are some examples of real-world buffered and unbuffered VGA cards suitable for the Amiga:
Buffered VGA Cards
- Micronics Max board – $130, 1280×1024 resolution
- Village Tronic Picasso IV – $270, 1280×1024
- Hypersystems Viper IV – $480, 1600×1200
Unbuffered VGA Cards
- Micronics Wedge – $50, 640×480
- GVP Spectrum – $100, 640×480
- MacroSystems Phenix – $70, 640×480
The Micronics Max provides a good price-performance balance among buffered VGA cards. For unbuffered, the Micronics Wedge is a solid budget choice. Shop around as you may find used cards on eBay for lower prices as well.
Adding VGA capabilities can modernize your Amiga for current software and expandability. Buffered VGA cards offer the best performance thanks to onboard VRAM, providing higher resolutions and color depths than unbuffered options. But unbuffered cards cost less and work well for basic 640×480 uses like GUI applications or Windows emulation. Consider your specific needs for graphics, games, and software compatibility when choosing a buffered or unbuffered solution. With the right VGA card, you can unleash your Amiga’s potential and keep it usable for years to come.
What resolution and colors can unbuffered VGA support?
Unbuffered VGA is limited to 640×480 resolution and a maximum of 16 colors.
Does buffered VGA work with all Amiga models?
Most buffered VGA cards will work fine with an Amiga 1200, 3000, or 4000. Earlier models may have some incompatibility issues.
Is an unbuffered card fast enough for games?
No, most games will be far too slow on unbuffered VGA due to the low color depth. A buffered card is recommended for proper game performance.
Can I use Windows 95 on a buffered VGA Amiga?
Windows 95 requires higher specs and may be too slow even with a buffered VGA card. Windows 3.1 has better compatibility on a VGA Amiga.
Are there drivers needed for unbuffered VGA?
Unbuffered VGA cards utilize the built-in Amiga chipset and do not normally need proprietary drivers.