An Unbiased MagiC versus MiNT Comparison

Preface:

In my travels throughout the Atari community, there has been quite a bit of heresay regarding two of the most popular operating environments, MagiC and MiNT. Huge debates and even spirted fights have been sparked by loyal users defending their platform of choice. It is without a doubt, that at some point throughout these arguments, facts are contorted and perhaps presented in a misleading way. The simple fact is though, that any person can turn on a computer, use it, operate it, and take note of how things run, how fast they are, and how flexible it is. In this debate I intend to compare hand in hand MagiC versus the many MiNT setups there can possibly be. While each has advantages and disadvantages, I can only note, that neither of these systems are perfect in any capacity.

I offer to this debate 8 years of Atari computing experience, several years of MagiC experience. I am a Unix Systems Administrator by employment, and have also recently installed a MiNT system completely by hand. I have used vfat, Ext2, and Minix... Just as well I have used AES 4.1, N.Aes, XaAES, and Oaesis. From an Atari platform standpoint, I have owned most Atari computers ranging from 520 ST to Falcon030. I am on the waiting list for a CT60, I have already performed several modifications to my Falcon. I currently own and use a Clab Falcon MK2 and an Atari Mega Ste, both in custom-made tower cases. A TT030 with a Nova and CaTTarman is readily available for me to play with in my house.

MagiC
MagiC is an operating system currently being distributed by Application Systems Heidelberg, a German company. It is a complete multitasking rewrite of the TOS kernel from the ground up, which, from my understanding was done mostly in 68K assembler for the ultimate in speed and efficiency. The MagiC kernel in itself is the start of what is a pretty amazing piece of software. When using MagiC, you'll notice that everything feels faster than Single TOS itself, yet you are on an ultra-preemptive multitasking system. MagiC without a doubt is the fastest way to use your Atari computer, and the performance advantages become increasingly evident by using progressively slower machines, such as a 4 meg ST.. MagiC more or less has NVDI incorporated into it, or at least the NVDI speed enhancements. The AES was also written from the ground up, and has no external shell other than a file selector which allows you to load another program if the desktop happens to crash or be killed. As for the desktop, MagXdesk is the most intelligent desktop I have seen for many systems. Everything about it, copying, deleting, etc is multi threaded. Mg-Copy can stay resident for even more speed. MagiC can copy and delete files faster than a pricey PC would seem to be able to. All of this occurs in less than 1.5 megs of RAM to get the system running. A number which is nothing but a fraction of a fully usable MiNT system. Another interesting detail is that the MagiC kernel is actually more preemptive than Linux itself. This would be the reason, most likely, that FalcAMP does not run properly on MagiC. FalcAMP most likely depends on a certain TOS interrupt or call that takes complete control over the system, if only for a millisecond, it wants that processor time and it wants it now. Under MagiC, however, anything is preemptable, which creates a problem for an application that depends on that not being the case. Since FalcAMP has no buffering, unlike AniPlayer, if you do something as simple as move the mouse, FalcAMP is pre-empted and the music slows down/breaks up. Some people have accused MagiC of providing "fake" speed. They say that the system is not actually faster, just the VDI or something else. This is plain wrong. While MagiC is not indeed "magic," it is however fast at every service that it provides for your programs. The desktop is fast, the AES is fast, and the kernel is fast. Yes it won't help your system play an mp3 properly, or render pages fast in CAB, but pretty much everything else about using your system, you'll notice, is much much faster. They key argument is that the important services that MagiC provides are greatly faster than they are under SingleTOS or MiNT.

A typical usage of MagiC, and you'll note that even with memory protection, the system is still crashable, regardless of how rare it may be. MagiC is the multitasking system that is most usable on a 4 meg machine, which is everything below the Mega Ste. There's plenty of free RAM. The system is quick, and responsive and for most things, you'll more or less feel like you're using a very fast, very current, low resolution Mac system. Another feature built into the MagiC kernel is the CTRL-ALT-ESC menu. This menu allows you to change programs, kill frozen programs, and everything else. Because MagiC is MagiC, it will pre-empt pretty much any crashed program and you can almost always get control of your system back. MagiC crash recovery is pretty exceptional as I generally don't have to reboot for quite a while even if I am running buggy software. Usually my problems are hardware difficulties that carry right over into other operating environements.

Unfortunately the benefits of MagiC can be quickly devoured by it's weaknesses. Since MagiC is not an open system, and development seems to have more or less ceased, no improvements can be implemented. Improvements such as complete MiNT compatibility or ext2fs or maybe even a journaling filesystem. Imagine running your MiNT system on MagiC's kernel, complete with all MiNT extensions. The TCP/IP stacks for MagiC don't seem to work anywhere near as well as MiNTnet or unix networking in general. I almost always switch to MiNT if I would like to do a large file transfer at 115.2Kbps. MagiC's command line portion is crap. It provides the same tired DOS command set and interface to the filesystem. MagiC's command line can't even read it's own long filenames. So it's easy to see that if you want instant speed and gratification, MagiC is the choice, but the system powerfulness is pretty sharply limited by not having the MiNT extensions. An important thing to remember is that with MagiC 6.2 came an almost complete set of MiNT extensions. The path that the MagiC development, albeit slow is moving towards complete MiNT compatibility.

MiNT
MiNT is an extension to the standard Single tasking TOS environment that atari computers come with. With MiNT comes a flexible unix environment easily allowing many unix programs to be ported and a complete and powerful unix environment to be created. But instead of Xfree being on that one function key, instead it's an AES. It is absolutely the perfect harmony of TOS and unix. MiNT networking is excellent, implementing unix networking in the form of MiNTnet, MiNT is able to handle 115.2Kbps transfers on a falcon without issue. The wonderful pppd connects on every boot without ever ever fighting with me. Ext2fs is fast, flexible and offers a secure environment for multiuser access. With MiNT comes remote access to your atari with secure shell, telnet, ftp, secure copy and every other possible unix utility. Apache web servers with extensions like php are even available. All while having an AES to play in at that same time. Unfortunately this operating environment is also a double edged sword. With all of these features and flexibility comes a painful speed penalty, with the system responsiveness being much slower than singleTOS, painful for a diehard MagiC user. Because MiNT's memory protection is much better than MagiC's, the wonderful side-effect is that most of the time you can't use it! Most programs do not run properly at all under MiNT's memory protection rendering it effectively useless. Until very recently, MiNT was an absolute pain to install, requiring you to install a very outdated system and then upgrade everything from there. This though is no longer the case, as MiNT has a fantastic installer called Easymint from http://mico-mint.atari.org. What else is wrong with MiNT? Well the AES of choice N.AES costs a reasonable amount of money, and it is neither stable nor fast. Thing desktop, although asthetically pleasing is neither fast nor wonderfully stable. The file copying in Thing have been known to irritate me excessively. While copying files you are locked out of the desktop, and the system spends so much time updating it's progress bar on slow graphics routines that the file copying is excessively slowed compared to MagiC or simple cp in a text environment. Other AES's are being produced such as XaAES and Oaesis but they tend to be buggy and crash often as they are still in beta. It's worth noting that XaAES is much further along than Oaesis as the system with Oaesis crashes when I do ... well ... anything. A fully loaded MiNT system uses far more of your precious RAM than MagiC does hands down. In fact, MiNT is simply not usable on a 4 meg machine, without simply running an AES and forgetting about all CLI utilities. MiNT also cannot support shared libraries in the same facet that unix does so they more or less used MagiC's version of SLB support instead. MiNT also has no swapping, which would help incredibly.

Verdict:
MagiC and MiNT surely both have their advantages and disadvantages. MiNT is pretty slow to use on a standard Falcon, and is a bit better on something like a Mega Ste (which has no ram to run it). There are two main things that need to be addressed when comparing these two systems. One being the development track of each, and the second what type of user you are. MagiC can easily be likened to a Windows 9x system providing the same feature base, but on an altogether better system. MiNT can be likened to a unix system providing the same feature base, but at a speed and RAM penalty. The current development track seems to suggest that MiNT will outpace MagiC easily if it hasn't already. MiNT is without a doubt what is going to be well supported in the future. Having Unix experience can land you a nice job as a systems administrator, and I surely don't know of anyone who would have had that happen :) One must draw their own conclusions about MiNT and MagiC versus what they need, but for me, I want the feature set of MiNT but not at the speed and RAM penalty. The final verdict? I am on the CT60 list of buyers, waiting patiently.

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