The Bold Move Forward: The Atari Jaguar 64

    By Junko Yoshida,
    From "Electronic Engineering Times", July 5, 1993

    Copyright 1993 by CMP Publications Inc.  All rights reserved.
    Reprinted under the "Reasonable Use" interpretation of the
    1976 Copyright Act.
Sunnyvale, Calif -- Atari Corp. will score a new level of videogame perf-
ormance this fall with the introduction of Jaguar, a 64-bit RISC-based
system offering realtime 3-D shaded surfaces with texture mapping.
The $200 system, able to tap into the growing network of cable and
telephone video services, will take videogames into a graphics realm once
the province of midrange 3-D workstations. In yet a further departure, the
system will be built by IBM Corp.
Jaguar, billed as an interactive multimedia system, is based on an Atari-
designed proprietary 64-bit RISC processor and its proprietary digital
signal processors. The cartridge-based system features 24-bit true color
graphics, shaded 3-D polygons and realtime texture mapping.
Atari claims that Jaguar offers four times the processing power of the
current 16-bit videogames form Sega and Nintendo, and believes it is even
more powerful than the coming 32-bit ARM CPU-based machine from 3DO Co.
"If a spaceship goes around a moon, or a person walking on a street turns
on the next corner, every object, every detail in such scenes is reproduced
in shaded 3-D images with texture. It's truly amazing stuff," said Atari
president Sam Tramiel.

Dense ASICs
The system's graphics performance is compared by the company to that of the
3-D engines in midrange Unix workstations. And like those engines, Jaguar
is based on advanced, very dense digital ASICs.
Jaguar's core consists of two chip sets, one holding the 64-bit RISC
processor and the other containing DSP hardware. "But the partitioning
between the two chip sets is ambiguous," said Richard Miller, vice
president of research and development at Atari, as the two share some
functions. The two sets apparently pack a whole range of components,
including controllers, video processors and encoders, leaving outside the
core only "a very small amount of TTLs and DRAMs," said Miller. They were
designed at an Atari facility in England, said Tramiel.
The 64-bit RISC processor is capable of processing video data at a high
rate, handling various video effects as well as full-motion video com-
pression on its own, Miller claimed.

Lots of bandwidth
Atari would not disclose any more about the core ASICs, such as gate counts
or data bandwidth, but Miller pointed out that Atari engineers had to
concentrate most of their design efforts on bus bandwidth. "Graphics eats a
lot of bus bandwidth. What's available today for other 64-bit processors
such as PowerPC is only just enough for what we want to do," he said. "What
we designed is right up on the level of expensive 64-bit processors."
To meet its cost goals, Atari had to push ASIC technology to the limit. The
chip sets will be manufactured by "one of the top four silicon vendors in
the world" using the "smallest geometry" available, said Miller. It is
believed that with Jaguar Atari has become one of the early customers for a
major Japanese 0.5-micron ASIC process, but the company would not confirm
Clearly, manufacturing volume is essential to the Jaguar plan. The company
intends to introduce an add-on PC card featuring the company's proprietary
64-bit RISC processor, said Tramiel. "It could also help minimize the cost
of our chip sets," he said.
Atari is also considering licensing the chip set to other silicon vendors,
but has not determined any details yet, said Tramiel.
The future holds more integration. But before working on the ultimate, a
system on a chip, the next step for Atari's engineering team is to shrink
what is currently a set of rather large custom chips further, reducing the
whole system to "one processor, one DRAM, one ROM and one custom chip,"
said Miller. The company is looking at both synchronous DRAMs and Rambus
DRAMs for future use, "but we are waiting to see some of the standards
issues get settled first," he noted.
Miller does have a technological wish list. "First," he said, "we'd love to
have 0.3-micron process technology as soon as possible for custom ICs.
Second, we'd like to see some form of synchronous DRAMs appear as a
standard commodity DRAM, and, naturally, a very high bus bandwidth to
produce higher video performance. The existing improvements for faster bus
interfaces so far have been very disappointing for us. Lastly, I'd love to
play the Atari Jaguar system on a 10 x 10-foot display. I'm waiting for a
very low cost, low power, large-screen-size display, using probably not an
active matrix but FED-type technology."
In the long run, Jaguar is designed not just as a cartridge-based game
machine. It will use a 32-bit expansion port to connect to cable and
telephone networks, and a digital signal processing port for modem usage
and connection to digital audio peripherals.
This I/O structure reflects Time Warner's 25 percent stake in Atari. "In
the course of our product development, we've had frequent discussions with
Time Warner. It has set the direction for our machine to have cable and
telephone connections," said Leonard Tramiel, vice president of operating
The company designed and built a 16-bit prototype home-entertainment
machine two years ago, said Sam Tramiel, but scrapped the plan in favor of
a grand attempt to leapfrog the 16-bit systems that were then coming onto
the market. But when Atari engineers stated to look for enabling
technology, "there were no RISC processors and no DSPs that fulfilled our
requirements, especially at our cost," said Miller. Atari's design team
even had to develop its own HDL simulation tools, he said.
"People tend to forget that, unlike business users, consumers do have much
higher expectations in video quality, speed and cost," Miller said. "In
order to match that demand, we had to really push the technological
envelope, driving the chip counts down, designing the system to be highly
manufacturable and depending on the smallest geometry process technology."

Atari will also push the envelope in another way, turning its back on tra-
ditional East Asian manufacturing sites and calling on IBM to build Jaguar.
IBM, working with a 30-month contract worth $500 million, will be res-
ponsible for component sourcing, quality testing, console assembly,
packaging and distribution, and will build the system at its Charlotte,
N.C. facility. The motherboard will come from an IBM-approved manufacturer,
said Herbert Watkins, director of application solutions manufacturing at
IBM Charlotte.
For IBM, producing the Atari Jaguar system makes it for the first time a
major OEM for highly cost-competitive, mass consumer-electronics products,
Watkins noted.
"To manufacture one of the most sophisticated game machines in the world,
we needed someone who understood a high-volume, fast digital machine," said
Miller. "IBM was a natural choice."
According to IBM, the prototypes of the Atari Jaguar system will come out
in July, ramp-up models in August and mass-production versions in
September. The system will be available first on a limited basis in the
fall in the New York and San Francisco areas. A national rollout is
scheduled for next year.
 -- Additional reporting by Roger Woolnough.