Almost An Amiga For Not A Lot

If you ask someone old enough to have been a computer user in the 16-bit era what machine they had, you’ll receive a variety of answers mentioning Commodore, Atari, Apple, or even PC brands. If your informant lay in the Commodore camp though, you’ll probably have an impassioned tale about their Amiga, its capabilities, and how it was a clearly superior platform whose potential was wasted. The Amiga was for a while one of the most capable commonly available computers, and became something of a cult within its own lifetime despite the truly dismal performance of the various companies that owned it. Today it retains one of the most active retro computer scenes, has an active software community, and even sees new hardware appearing.

For Amiga enthusiasts without the eye-watering sums required to secure one of the new Amiga-compatible machines with a PowerPC or similar at its heart, the only option to relive the glory beside finding an original machine is to run an emulator. [Marco Chiapetta] takes us through this process using a Raspberry Pi, and produces an Amiga that’s close enough to the real thing to satisfy most misty-eyed enthusiasts.

He starts with a cutesy Amiga-themed Raspberry Pi case that while it’s not essential for the build, makes an entirely appropriate statement about his new machine, We’re taken through the set-up of the Amibian emulator distro, then locating a set of Amiga ROMs. Fortunately that last step is easier than you might think, even without trawling for an illicit copy.

The result is an Amiga. OK, it’s not an Amiga, but without the classic Commodore logo is it any more not an Amiga than some of the other non-branded Amiga-compatible boards out there? Less talking, more classic gaming!

We’ve covered quite a few Amigas on these pages. Getting an A500 online was the subject of a recent post, and we brought you news of a new graphics card for the big-box Amiga’s Zorro slot.

Getting The Amiga 500 Online

If you were lucky enough to have a Commodore Amiga or one of its competitor 16-bit home computers around the end of the 1980s, it’s probable that you were doing all the computing tasks that most other people discovered a few years later when they bought their first 486 or Pentium. So in the mid 1990s when all your friends were exclaiming at Paint Shop Pro or their Soundblaster cards you’d have had an air of smugness. Multitasking? Old hat! Digital audio? Been there! Graphics manipulation? Done that!

There was one task from that era you almost certainly wouldn’t have done on your Amiga though, and that was connect it to the Internet. The Internet was certainly a thing back in the late 1980s, but for mere mortals it was one of those unattainable marvels, like a supercomputer with a padded seat round it, or a Jaguar XJ220 supercar.

Later Amigas received Internet abilities, and Amiga enthusiasts will no doubt be on hand to extol their virtues. But the machine most people will think of as the archetype, the Amiga 500, lacks the power to run most of the software required to do it. If your 500 with its tasteful blue and orange desktop colour scheme is languishing though, never fear. [Shot97] has produced a guide to getting it online.

It’s important to understand that an Amiga 500 is never going to run a copy of Chrome or play a YouTube video. And he makes the point that any web browsers that might have surfaced for hardware of this class delivered a painful browsing experience. So instead he concentrates on getting the 500 online for something closer to the online scene of the day, connecting to BBSs. To that end he takes us through setting up a PC with  Hayes modem emulator, and connecting it to the Amiga via a null modem cable. On the Amiga is a copy of the A-Talk terminal emulator, and as far as the Amiga is concerned it is on a dial-up Internet connection.

The PC in this case looks pretty ancient, and we can’t help wondering whether a Raspberry Pi or even an ESP8266 module could be put in its place given the appropriate software. But he has undeniably got his A500 online, and shown a way that you can too if you still have one lurking in the cupboard. He has also produced a video which we’ve put below the break, but be warned, as it’s nearly an hour long.

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Repairing Flex Circuits By Accident

A while ago, [drygol] was asked to repair a few old Amiga keyboards. The key switches worked fine, but in the past decade or two, the flexible PCB ribbon connector has been mistreated, and was in an unworkable, nonfunctional state. The fragile traces underneath the green epoxy coating were giving way, but [drygol] found a few cool ways to repair these flex cables.

The end of this keyboard cable was beyond repair, but the Commodore engineers were gracious enough to leave a bit of slack in this keyboard connector. After cutting off the most damaged section, [drygol] had a strip of plastic, a few copper traces, and a green coating that had to be removed. The first attempt to remove this green covering used methanol, but that didn’t work. The next chemical attempt was with an epoxy solvent that contained nasty chemicals. This was applied to the end of the flex cable, with the remainder of the cable masked off by Kapton. It worked remarkably well.

In removing the Kapton masking tape, [drygol] discovered this green film sticks better to Kapton than it does to copper and plastic. A mechanical solution was found, allowing these keyboard cables to be easily repaired.

Of course, this was only half of the problems with these flexible circuits. Over the years, a few cracks appeared in the traces. To repair these broken traces, [drygol] turned to silver glue and a few laminations of Kapton to make this keyboard cable whole again. It worked, and the ancient keyboard was returned to service. Great work, and a fantastic observation for anyone with one of these keyboards sitting around: just grab a roll of Kapton to repair these circuits. It can’t get any easier than that.

Amiga Zorro HDMI Graphics Card Hits The Market

If you were a computer enthusiast in the late 1980s or early 1990s, the chances are that one of your objects of desire would have been a Commodore Amiga. These machines based on the 68000 line of processors and a series of specialized co-processors offered the best compromise between performance and affordability at the time, with multitasking, a GUI, and graphics capabilities that were streets ahead of their competition.

The Amiga story is littered with tales of what might have been, as dismal marketing and lacklustre product refreshes caused it to lurch from owner to owner and eventually fade away from the mainstream in the mid 1990s. But it’s been one of those products that never really died, as a band of enthusiasts have kept a small market for its software and hardware alive.

Workbench as you may not have seen it before.
Workbench as you may not have seen it before.

Earlier this year we showed you a prototype of an unusual graphics card, a modern GPU implemented on an FPGA board that brought up-to-date HDMI monitor support to the Zorro expansion slots found in the big-box Amigas. It’s thus very interesting today to find that the board made it to market, and that you can buy one for your Amiga if you have a spare 189 Euros (now sold out but taking pre-orders for another production run). Producing any niche electronic product is a significant challenge, so it is always positive to see one that makes it.

As well as HDMI output the board features a micro SD card slot that is mountable as an Amiga volume, and an expansion header that is toured as “Hacker friendly”. Best of all though, the whole board is open-source with all resources on a GitHub repository, so as well as reading our coverage of the prototype you can immerse yourself in its internals if that is your thing.

It’s always good to see a new piece of hardware for an old computer see the light of day, though it’s fair to say this development won’t revive the Amiga platform in the way that the Raspberry Pi has for RiscOS. Still, the mere fact of an open-source Zorro FPGA implementation being released should mean that other cards become possible, so we await developments with interest.

[via forums.xilinx.com]

How An Amiga Graphics Business Ran In The 1990s

If you have ever used an eraser to correct a piece of pencil work, have you ever considered how much of an innovation it must have seemed when the first erasers were invented? It might seem odd to consider a centuries-old piece of stationery here on Hackaday, but there is a parallel in our own time. Digital image manipulation is such a part of everyday life these days as to have become run-of-the-mill for anyone with a mobile phone and the right app, but it’s easy to forget how recent an innovation it really is. Only a few decades ago your only chance of manipulating a photograph was to spend a lot of time in a darkroom with a photographic developer of exceptional skill, now children who have never known a world in which it wasn’t possible can manipulate their selfies with a few deft touches of the screen.

[Steve Greenfield] pointed us at a detailed description of the business he ran in the 1990s, offering digital and composite photography using an upgraded Amiga 3000.  It caught our attention as a snapshot of the state of digital image manipulation when these things still lay at the bleeding edge of what was possible.

His 3000 was highly customised from the stock machine. It featured a Phase 5 68060 accelerator board, a Cybervision 64 graphics card, a then-unimaginably-huge 128MB RAM, and an array of gigabyte-plus Fast SCSI drives.  To that he had attached a Polaroid SCSI digital camera with a then-impressive 800×600 pixel resolution. The Polaroid had no Amiga drivers, so he ran the Shapeshifter Mac emulator to capture images under the MacOS of the day. The fastest 68000-series Mac only had a 68040 which the early PowerPC Macs could only emulate, so he writes that his 68060-equipped Amiga ran the Mac software faster than any Mac at the time.

His stock-in-trade was attending sci-fi conventions and giving costumed attendees pictures with custom backgrounds, something of a doddle on such a souped-up Amiga. He writes of the shock of some Microsoft employees on discovering a 60MHz computer could run rings round their several-hundred-MHz Pentiums running Windows 95.

His business is long gone, but its website remains as a time capsule of the state of digital imagery two decades ago. The sample images are very much of their time, but for those used to today’s slicker presentation it’s worth remembering that all of this was very new indeed.

In a world dominated by a monoculture of Intel based desktop computers it’s interesting to look back to a time when there was a genuine array of choices and some of them could really compete. As a consumer at the start of the 1990s you could buy a PC or a Mac, but Commodore’s Amiga, Atari’s ST, and (if you were British) Acorn’s ARM-based Archimedes all offered alternatives with similar performance and their own special abilities. Each of those machines still has its diehard enthusiasts who will fill you in with a lengthy tale of what-if stories of greatness denied, but maybe such casualties are best viewed as an essential part of the evolutionary process. Perhaps the famous Amiga easter egg says it best, “We made Amiga …

Here at Hackaday we’ve covered quite a few Amiga topics over the years, including another look at the Amiga graphics world. It’s still a scene inspiring hardware hackers, for example with this FPGA-based Amiga GPU.

Amiga 3000 image: By [Joe Smith] [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Digital Images And The Amiga

There was a time in the late 80s and early 90s where the Amiga was the standard for computer graphics. Remember SeaQuest? That was an Amiga. The intro to Better Call Saul? That’s purposefully crappy, to look like it came out of an Amiga. When it comes to the Amiga and video, the first thing that comes to mind is the Video Toaster, hardware and software that turns an Amiga 2000 into a nonlinear video editing suite. Digital graphics, images, and video on the Amiga was so much more than the Video Toaster, and at this year’s Vintage Computer Festival East, [Bill] and [Anthony] demonstrated what else the Amiga could do.

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Bootstrapping an Amiga 2000 Graphics Card Because Vintage is Pricey

If you have a computer on your desk today, the chances are that it has an Intel architecture and is in some way a descendant of the IBM PC. It may have an Apple badge on the front, it may run Linux, or Windows, but in hardware terms the overwhelming probability is that it will be part of the Intel monoculture. A couple of decades ago though in the 16- and early 32-bit era you would have found a far greater diversity of architectures. Intel 3-, and 486s in PCs and clones, Macintosh, Commodore, and Atari platforms with the 68000 family, the WDC 65C816 in the Apple IIGS, and the Acorn Archimedes with an early ARM processor to name but a few.

In the tough environment of the 1990s most of these alternative platforms fell by the wayside. Apple survived to be revitalised under a returning Steve Jobs, Atari and Commodore withered under a bewildering succession of takeovers, and Acorn split up and lost its identity with its processor licensing subsidiary going on to power most of the mobile devices we take for granted today.

Surprisingly though some of the 16-bit platforms refused to die when their originators faded from view. In particular Commodore’s Amiga has lived on with new OS versions, new platforms, and community-supported hardware upgrades. News of just such a device came our way this morning, [Lukas Hartmann]’s MNT VA2000, a graphics card for the Amiga 2000 using a GPU implemented on an FPGA.

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