If you were the type of person who might have read Hackaday had we been around in the late 1980s or early 1990s, it’s a reasonable guess that you would have had a 16-bit home computer on your desk, and furthermore that it might have been a Commodore Amiga. These machines gave the best bang for the buck in those days with their impressive multimedia capabilities, and they gained a fervent following which persists to this day. [Carl Svensson] was one of them, and he’s penned a retrospective on the demise of the platform with the benefit of much hindsight.
The heyday of the Amiga from its 1985 launch until the days of the A1200 in the early-to-mid 1990s saw Moore’s Law show perhaps its fastest effects for the consumer. In that decade the PC world jumped from the 8088 to the Pentium, and from a PC speaker and CGA if you were lucky, to a Sound Blaster 16 and accelerated SVGA. By comparison the Amiga didn’t change much except in model numbers and a few extra graphics modes, and when a faster processor came it was far to little too late.
There’s a well-worn path with some justification of blaming Commodore-s notoriously awful management for the debacle, but the piece goes beyond that into the mid ’90s. His conclusion is that what really killed the Amiga was that the CPU price reductions which defined the x86 world at that time never came to 68k or PowerPC lines, and that along with the architecture zealotry of the fan base meant that there would never be the much-longed-for revival.
He also takes a look at the other home computer platforms of the era, including the “all its killer architecture managed to kill was, sadly, Atari itself” Atari Falcon, and the Acorn Archimedes, which also lives on for enthusiasts and is perhaps the most accessible survivor. From here having also the benefit of hindsight we can’t disagree with him on his assessment, so perhaps it’s best to look at the Amiga not as the platform we should rightfully still be using, but the great stepping stone which provided us a useful computer back in t he day without breaking the bank.
The Commodore 64 has been pulled apart, reverse engineered, replicated, and improved upon to no end over the last four decades or so. The Amiga 500 has had less attention, in part due to its greater level of sophistication. However, you can now order a brand-new Amiga-compatible PCB if you’re looking to put together a machine from surplus parts.
The design is known as Denise, and is apparently the work of an anonymous Swedish designer according to the Tindie listing. It’s not a direct replica of any one Amiga machine. Instead, it’s best described as “a compact A500+ compatible motherboard with two Zorro2 slots and a few additional features.”
Denise is just a PCB, though. No emulated chips or other components are included. To use the PCB, you’ll need a full set of Amiga custom chips and a suitable Motorola 68000-series CPU to suit. It can be used with either OCS or ECS chipsets. At this stage, it’s only verified to work with the 2MB version of the Agnus chip, though the creators believe it should work with a 1MB “Diet Agnus.” Some modern conveniences are on hand, too. A pair of microcontrollers will allow the use of Amiga or PC keyboards, along with Amiga or PS/2 style mice, including support for scroll wheels.
The first mice simply transferred the rotation of the ball through rollers to switches or optical sensors which passed pulse trains to the host computer. From the relative phase of these pulse trains the computer could work out what direction the mouse was going, as well as how far it had moved through counting the pulses. Since this was the simplest mouse interface, many of the 16-bit era machines used these signals. The PC meanwhile lacked such a port, so companies such as Microsoft had to place a microcontroller in the mouse to do the position sensing, and send the result over a serial interface. This evolved over time into the USB HID mouse interface you are probably using today.
Unfortunately for owners of quadrature mouse driven machines, real quadrature mice are a little thin on the ground these days, thus the adapter is a seriously useful device. At its heart is an STM32 microcontroller, and it’s been through a few updates and now supports mouse wheels. Your Amiga has been waiting for this!
Back in the days of 16-bit home computers, the one to have if your interests extended to graphics was the Commodore Amiga. It had high resolutions for the time in an impressive number of colours, and thanks to its unique video circuitry, it could produce genlocked broadcast-quality video. Here in 2023 though, it’s all a little analogue. What’s needed is digital video, and in that, [c0pperdragon] has our backs with the latest in a line of Amiga video hacks. This one takes the 12-bit parallel digital colour that would normally go to the Amiga’s DAC, and brings it out into the world through rarely-used pins on the 23-pin video connector.
This follows on from a previous [c0pperdragon] project in which a Raspberry Pi Zero was used to transform the digital video into HDMI. This isn’t a hack for the faint-hearted though, as it involves extensive modification of your treasured Amiga board.
It is of course perfectly possible to generate HDMI from an Amiga by using an external converter box from the analogue video output, of the type which can be bought for a few dollars from online vendors. What this type of hack gives over the cheap approach is low latency, something highly prized by gamers. We’re not sure we’re ready to start hacking apart our Amigas, but we can see the appeal for some enthusiasts.
The MouSTer is a device that enables modern USB HID mice to be used on various retro computers. The project has been through its ups and downs over years, but [drygol] is here to say one thing: rumors of the MouSTers demise have been greatly exaggerated. Now, the project is back and better than ever!
The team has been hard at work on quashing bugs and bringing new features to bear. The headline is that the MouSTer project will now offer mouse wheel support for Amiga users. This is quite the coup, as mouse wheels were incredibly obscure until the late 90s. Now, users of Commodore’s finest machines will be able to scroll with abandon with modern HID mice.
While the progress is grand, much is still left to be done. Despite the name, the MouSTer was never intended to solely serve Atari users. Future goals involve adding support for ADB mice for retro Macs, DB9 mouse support for even-older Apple machines, and DB9 mouse support for older PCs. The team is eager for there to be one MouSTer to rule them all, so to speak, and hopes to make the ultimate retro computer mouse adapter to serve as many purposes as possible.
We first looked at the MouSTer back in 2020, and it’s great to see how far it’s come.
Despite the huge strides in computing power and functionality that have been achieved in the past few decades, there are still some things that older computers can do which are basically impossible on modern machines. This doesn’t just include the ability to use older hardware that’s now obsolete, either, although that is certainly a perk. In this two-part restoration of an Amiga 500, [Jeremy] shows us some of these features like the ability to directly modify the audio capabilities of this retro machine.
The restoration starts by fixing some damage and cleaning up the rest of the machine so it could be powered up for the first time in 30 years. Since it was in fairly good shape he then started on the fun part, which was working with this computer’s audio capabilities. It includes a number of amplifiers and filters in hardware that can be switched on or off, so he rebuilt these with new op-amps and added some new controls so that while he is using his MIDI software he can easily change how it sounds. He also restored the floppy disk drives and cleaned up the yellowing on the plastic parts to improve the overall appearance, as well as some other general improvements.
These old Amigas have a lot going for them, but since [Jeremy] is a musician he mostly focused on bringing back some of the musical functionality of his childhood computer, although he did build up a lot of extra features in this machine as well. These types of audio circuits are not something found in modern computers, though, so to get a similar sound without using original hardware you’ll need to build something like this NES audio processing unit programmed in Verilog.
My first love was a black wedge. It was 1982, and I had saved up to buy a Sinclair ZX81. That little computer remains the only one of the huge number that I have owned over the years about which I can truly say that I understood its workings completely; while I know how the i7 laptop on which this is being written works I can only say so in a loose way as it is an immensely complex device.
Computing allegiance is fickle, and while I never lost an affection for the little Sinclair I would meet my true electronic soulmate around eight years later as an electronic engineering student. It no longer graces my bench, but this was the computer against which all subsequent machines I have owned would be measured, the one which I wish had not been taken from me before its time, and with which I wish I could have grown old together. That machine was a Commodore Amiga, and this is part love letter, part wistful musing about what could have been, and part rant about what went wrong for the best desktop computer platform ever made. Continue reading “A Love Letter To My Lost Amiga”→