In 1986, a group of NASA engineers faced a difficult choice in solving their data processing woes: continue tolerating the poor performance of PC architecture, or pony up the cash for exotic workstations. It turns out that the Commodore Amiga was an intriguing third choice, except for the fact that, paradoxically, it didn’t cost enough. Oh, and Apple wanted nothing to do with any of it.
Steeped in history, NASA’s Hangar AE is a hub for launch vehicle telemetry and other mission communications, primarily during prelaunch phases for launches at Cape Canaveral. Throughout the late 20th century, Hangar AE supported NASA launch vehicles in all shapes and sizes, from the Atlas-Centaur evolutions to the mighty Titan family. It even supported user data from the Space Shuttle program. Telemetry from these missions was processed at Hangar AE before being sent out to other NASA boffins, and even transmitted worldwide to other participating space agencies.
Coming down from decades of astronomical levels of funding, the 1980s was all about tightening the belt, and NASA needed budget solutions that didn’t skimp on mission safety. The Commodore Amiga turned out to be the right choice for processing launch vehicle telemetry. And so it was still, when cameras from the Amiga Atlanta group were granted permission to film inside Hangar AE.
Back in the late 1980s, Commodore pulled the masterstroke of selling several models and generations of Amiga that were all powered by essentially the same speed 68000 and associated chipset. Sure, there were differences in the RAM and other options you could fit and later models had a few extra graphics modes. Still, the entry-level A500 did substantially the same as the high-end A2000. No matter, we the fans all wanted a 2000 anyway, though we typically found ourselves unable to afford one. It’s 2021 now though, so if you never achieved the dream of owning your own A2000, now you can build one of your own! It’s the task [Drygol] has taken on, with an A2000 made entirely from new components, save for a few salvaged Commodore-specific chips and connectors.
At its heart is a beautiful recreation of the original PCB that we’re guessing will be of great interest to owners whose NiCd batteries have leaked and corroded their originals. It’s all through-hole, but the sheer size of a motherboard still makes it a daunting prospect to solder by hand. There are a huge quantity of decoupling and ESD components that all have to be held with tape before the board is flipped over for soldering, and then all the chips are socketed. A Fat Agnes address generator was fitted on a RAM expansion daughterboard, leading to some significant problems as it proved not to be compatible and had to be removed.
The whole is put in a very low-profile PC case with appropriate risers for the Zorro slots, and then in goes a set of upgrades probably not seen in the same place since about 1993. We don’t recognize them all, but we can see accelerators, a floppy emulator, an HDD emulator using a CF card, and is that a network card we spy? This machine is still a work in progress, but we can guarantee it would have been an extreme object of desire thirty years ago. See it in action in the video below the break.
PiStorm is a Motorola 68K CPU emulator, running on a Raspberry PI 3A. The Pi uses its GPIOs to interact with a CPLD chip, which acts as the logic glue to allow the modern single board computer to emulate the Amiga’s original processor. However, it’s more than just an easy way to replace or upgrade a CPU. It also offers additional features, like retargetable graphics acceleration, SCSI disk emulation, and the ability to run whatever Kickstart ROM you so desire.
The technical details on the electronics side are unfortunately a bit light, as the page on the [Iontank] site simply says all of the internals were replaced with “solid-state hardware” and an Amiga emulator. To us that sounds like a Raspberry Pi is now filling in for the Amiga’s original motherboard, but that’s just a guess. The page does note that they went through the trouble of making sure the original mouse and keyboard still worked, so it stands to reason a couple microcontrollers are also along for the ride doing translation duty.
While we don’t know much about the computers, [Iontank] do provide some interesting insight into developing the faux CRTs sitting atop the non-Amigas. There were some promising rear-projection experiments conducted early on, but in the end, they decided to use a standard LCD behind a milled acrylic lens. This not only made for a perfect fit inside the original monitor enclosures, but gave the screen that convex depth that’s missing on modern flat panels.
Folks who like the take the old Amiga out for the occasional Sunday drive usually do it because they have wistful memories of the simpler times. Back when you could edit documents or view spreadsheets on a machine that had RAM measured in kilobytes instead of gigabytes. But even the most ardent retro computer aficionado usually allows for a bit of modern convenience.
Enter the mouSTer. This tiny device converts a common USB HID mouse into something older computers can understand. It even supports using Sony’s PlayStation 4 controller as a generic game pad. While the firmware is still getting tweaked, the team has confirmed its working on several classic machines and believe it should work on many more. Considering the prices that some of these old peripherals command on the second hand market, using a USB mouse or controller on your vintage computer isn’t just more convenient, but will likely be a lot cheaper.
Confirmed retrocomputing superfan [Drygol] is a member of the team working on mouSTer, and in a recent post to his retrohax blog, he talks a bit about what’s happened since his last update over the summer. He also talks a bit about the challenges they’ve faced to get it into production. Even if you’re not into poking around on vintage computers, there are lessons to be learned here about what it takes to move from a handful of prototypes to something you can actually sell to the public.
We especially liked the details about the mouSTer enclosure, or lack thereof. Originally [Drygol] says they were going to have the cases injection molded, but despite initial interest from a few companies they talked to, nobody ended up biting because it needed to be done with relatively uncommon low pressure injection. While 3D printing is still an option, the team ended up using clear heatshrink tubing to create a simple conformal protective shell over the electronics. Personally we think it looks great like this, but it sounds like this is only a temporary solution until something a bit more robust can be implemented.
In the world of retrocomputing it’s the earliest models that garner the most interest, usually either due to their rarity, or sometimes just because of their flaws. The Commodore Amiga 1000 is a case in point, it was the machine everybody wanted but its A500 home computer sibling made the Amiga a success story. Peripherals for the 500 are plentiful then, while those for the 1000 remain a rarity. Thus it’s a treat to see an A1000 peripheral appear in the present day, in the form of a memory, clock, and SD card expansion called the Parciero. It packs 8Mb of SRAM to give the Amiga some truly quick fast memory, something that would have used an eye-wateringly expensive brace of chips back in the day but now has just a single package.
We like the description of the Parciero’s case as “about the size of a harmonica that’s been run over by a steamroller“, but it conceals the effect of the march of technology. Amiga enthusiasts are used to their peripherals being chunky affairs full of through-hole chips. Its creator [David Dunklee] is a retired senior US Space Force officer, and we appreciate his humour in the silkscreen layer. It’s a small-scale commercial product, but in a field so select as Amiga 1000 owners it’s unusual enough to make it noteworthy to all retrocomputer enthusiasts by virtue of its mere existence. We congratulate him for helping keep that little corner of vintage technology alive.
If you had an Amiga during the 16-bit home computer era it’s possible that alongside the games and a bit of audio sampling you had selected it because of its impressive video capabilities. In its heyday the Amiga produced broadcast-quality graphics that could even be seen on more than a few TV shows from the late 1980s and early 1990s. It’s fair to say though that the world of TV has moved on since the era of Guru Meditation, and an SD video signal just won’t cut it anymore. With HDMI as today’s connectivity standard, [c0pperdragon] is here to help by way of a handy HDMI upgrade that taps into the digital signals direct from the Amiga’s Denise chip.
At first thought one might imagine that an FPGA would be involved, however instead the signals are brought out via a daughterboard to the expansion header of a Raspberry Pi Zero. Just remove the DENISE display encoder chip and pop in the board with uses a long-pinned machined DIP socket to make the connections. The Pi runs software from the RGBtoHDMI project originally created with the BBC Micro in mind, to render pixel-perfect representations of the Amiga graphics on the Pi’s HDMI output. The caveat is that it runs on the original chipset Amigas and only some models with the enhanced chipset, so it seems Amiga 600 owners are left in the cold. A very low latency is claimed, which should compare favourably with some other solutions to the same problem.