The Amiga Years

It’s hard to believe that about 30 years ago, I owned a Commodore Amiga A500. It was the Powerplay Pack from Gordon Harwoods. This comprised of an Amiga 500 with TV Modulator, Commodore Mouse, Batman, Deluxe Paint II and 10 additional games, but I can’t remember the titles, although they did keep me happy for many hours until I bought some more software. To be fair my parents bought the Amiga through credit finance via HFC Bank and I really appreciated their kindness. Just before the Amiga purchase was approved and delivered, I had started my first ever job and couldn’t wait to return home. On the day of the Amiga being delivered, I offered to work a little later and didn’t get home until after 8pm. Imagine my surprise when I set everything up and found it didn’t work. After checking the cables and plugs, the results came back just the same. Most people would have rage quit or swear, but I just literally cried. I was so tired and after all that excitement the anti-climax was an utter failure!

Two pieces of software I had with my original Commodore Amiga A500. The above are replacements.

I had to wait until Saturday morning that week to call Gordon Harwoods informing them know about my dilemma. Even this was frustrating, as I had to use an old rotary phone to dial a 10 digit number and after many engaged tones I finally got through. So, their plan was to box up the Amiga and Power Supply and give it to the courier who would then swap the new Amiga for the old one. I was at work that day and when the courier arrived they said to my sister at that time – “ I haven’t been given any instruction to take the old one “. This was puzzling! I could have phoned Gordon Harwoods again, but I just stuck the old Amiga box under my bed and just waited for a phone call or letter. I wasn’t contacted and heard anything more, so I visited my local Citizens Advice Bureau about the matter. They suggested perhaps for me to keep the Amiga until a request for return of goods was asked for. But after six months, I heard nothing. So, I made a few calls about Amiga repairs and found out that the 68000 processor had failed and got a replacement for about £50. I then gave the Amiga to my nephew and all he had to do is buy a TV Modulator and Mouse, which he did and had some happy computing years with it.

A photo of me from the 1990’s, taken in the evening after I had finished work.
This is the original Disk Drawer Cabinet that my late father made, now owned my Jools ( Exotica / RetroPie ).

You’ll be pleased to know, that after my first Amiga computer, I had some very happy computing years, with an A590 20MB external hard drive and 1MB of RAM that was bought from Diamond Computers on Tottenham Court Road, London with cash from another job I had in the early 1990s. Months later I added a Commodore 1084S colour Monitor that I bought from a Home Shopping Catalogue then upgrading to an Amiga 500 Plus, an Amiga 1200, that needed a Datel Electronics Goliath Power Supply which was basically a PC power supply in a nice metal case. This was because the Accelerator Card and hard drive etc consumed more power. Plus I bought lots of software and even bought an external SCSI PCMCIA CD-ROM Drive with Squirrel Interface. The Amiga years ended in 1996…

Until now…

Over the last couple of months, I have gained a lot of inspiration with nostalgic memories from years ago, the Amiga years. I’ve watched lots of YouTube videos by various creators, like Jan Beta, Neil from RMC Retro, Modern Vintage Gamer, The Retro Shack, Mr Lurch’s Things and others. To the point of thinking, should I or can I get hold of an Amiga again? As with all old computers, the first port of call, would be to get the machine checked over and with all certainty get the capacitors replaced. A 30-year-old machine isn’t going to be kind in operating like it was new again and the power supply could well be a ticking time bomb to blowing or frying a few chips here and there.

So, in early June, I managed to win a small boxed bundled Amiga A600 for £205, plus shipping on eBay. I could well have looked elsewhere but managed to get lucky with a relatively clean machine. My initial plan was to send the Amiga A600 away to be checked and the capacitors replaced and order a new power supply. The Amiga A600 has its good and bad points, but the footprint of the machine is smaller and I wasn’t particularly bothered about not having a numeric keypad. There are of course modern-day upgrade solutions in the form of, solid-state hard drives via Compact Flash or SD Cards, Accelerators and Fast Memory, plus a rather neat RGB to HDMI output via an adapter board and Raspberry Pi Zero that sits on the Super Denise Chip.

The Commodore Amiga A600 on the day it arrived from the eBay seller.

I decided to send my Amiga A600 away to Mutant Caterpillar Games so the capacitors could be replaced and the disk drive looked at as well. I also wanted the RF Modulator and top RF shielding removed, as this isn’t really required in 2021. Whilst all this was happening, I had to decide what kind of upgrades I wanted, extra memory for sure, a compact flash hard drive and perhaps some other bits and bobs. Not forgetting a replacement power supply from Electroware!

Back from Caterpillar Games after the capacitors had been recapped.
Amiga A600 ready for upgrading…

The initial plan is to use the Amiga A600 for watching demos, gaming and playing around with utility applications. I have used emulators for many years and now the opportunity has arisen to own and tinker with real hardware again, the nostalgic feelings are back once again. I don’t think I will ever have another chance to have my very own computers from the past, apart from just using a computer in a Retro Computer Museum, so what a better way of making the most of the time now.

In addition to the upgrades, I decided to swap out the Kickstart 2.0 chip in favour of a licensed Cloanto Kickstart 3.1 chip. Unfortunately, my initial order was lost in the mail and I ordered another from a different seller, guessing after about five days that the original order was lost forever. Despite this, the additional order arrived in less than seven days from Ireland. I had ordered another item from the same seller, a licensed Cloanto Compact Flash card with Workbench 3.1 upon it. So now we are pretty much set!

Amiga Forever Workbench 3.1 Compact Flash and Kickstart 3.1 ROM.

Now comes the exciting and slightly nerving process of putting all of the upgrades into the Amiga A600 and see it burst into life for the up and coming nostalgic trip.

It’s so nice to see Workbench on a real Amiga again. I know it will take me a while to get back into using again, but hopefully, I won’t have forgotten everything.

Workbench 3.1 through HDMI with RGBtoHDMI

The benefit of the Amiga now is, not only does it have plenty of RAM, but it has the addition of two potential video outputs, RGB to SCART with audio and RGB to HDMI. The latter needing a bit of a boost to aid it, but also the need for separate audio to an external speaker or if your TV supports it, separate audio too.

Although most would prefer the stock video output, with the RF modulator literally out of the picture, we have at least a choice. Using a CRT TV or Monitor years ago, was the best solution and for many still is. But why not embrace the fusion of yesterday’s technology with today’s?

Installation

Overall putting everything together, seemed to go smoothly, but as with my previous retro computer project, the Commodore 64, a learning curve presented itself. The easiest installation both hardware and software related was the IDE Compact Flash adaptor with an Amiga Forever Workbench 3.1 Compact Flash card.

Now, the most frustrating and scariest step was removing the Kickstart 2.0 ROM chip and replacing it with the Kickstart 3.1 ROM chip. I decided to use the gentle levering method with a flat screwdriver on one side and then the other. Luckily, I manage to remove the chip with very little pin bending, which was corrected with a chip pin straightener. Inserting the Kickstart 3.1 ROM chip was done as carefully as possible with the aid of a magnifying glass and gentle pressure around until it was seated correctly. Phew!

Amiga Forever Workbench 3.1 and Kickstart 3.1 ROM from Cloanto

I didn’t realise that Fast RAM existed for the A600, especially in this size, the A608mini is pure genius. It simply clips onto the 68000 processor. At first, I had a problem configuring the memory module with the jumper setting clip and then finally got it working so I could have 4MB out of 8MB RAM and access to the PCMCIA port. This added a welcome boost to the memory and storage access capabilities.

A608mini 4-8MB RAM Expansion

The 1 MB Chip RAM expansion I installed via the trap door underneath the A600 proved a little tricky at first with a few yellow screens appearing when the Amiga was switched on, but after re-inserting it a few times everything settled. I think the contacts on the expansion slot may have been the problem. They definitely looked clean with no corrosion or marks, perhaps it was a bit of dust?

Amiga 600 1MB Chip RAM Expansion

The RGB to HDMI solution plan I had was to use the RGBtoHDMI adapter that pairs up with a Raspberry Pi Zero to provide nice clear picture quality but without sound. This isn’t a problem, as I have some audio cables and an external speaker to provide sound. I decided to buy an additional flat ribbon type of cable and secure the female end onto the motherboard, so I can plug in an HDMI cable from the outside of the Amiga A600. Not only is better, but the ribbon cable won’t interfere with the other components. I found this neat piece of kit on eBay by chance and had to wait for the seller to make another batch before I could buy it. It is quite literally, plug and play and I love results.

RGBtoHDMI with Raspberry Pi
RGBtoHDMI seated on top of Denise with a Raspberry Pi Zero upon it for good measure.

One of the most important add-ons for the Amiga, aside from a hard drive or memory would of course be a Mouse. Even though I did get a Commodore Mouse with the Amiga A600, I decided to buy a device called MouSTer and use a wireless Mouse with it. This ingenious device allows for most USB devices to be used with an Amiga. If you plug an empty USB memory stick into the MouSTer whilst in a port, it will create a MouSTer folder with the current configuration settings, which also includes the current build number. Updating the firmware couldn’t be easier, but downloading and copying the current FW file to the MouSTer where it will be updated. There are some well-documented notes within the configuration file as well, as to what each setting does and what it can be set to.

The MouSTer and wireless Logitech Mouse

Software

Apart from Workbench 3.1 being installed, I checked out a few utilities on Aminet, like File Master 2 and found Directory Opus 4 after finding it elsewhere online. Other programs installed were Pro Tracker 3.15 with some Music Modules and Hippo Player. I did eventually work out how to install WHDLoad via YouTube videos and had the Kickstart images and ROM.key file from my Amiga Forever emulator installation. I think I must have bought Amiga and Commodore 64 Forever several times over the last few years. Now, WHDLoad didn’t install correctly via the installer and I had to manually copy the relevant files across. Thankfully, this worked and I now have a small number of games to play and a few demos to watch. It didn’t take that long to figure everything out, it’s just remembering where all the files and folders need to be in order to work. So now I can just test and try the software until I have the system I need and want.

Conclusion

The last week has been quite an adventure with fact and fault finding in order to get certain things working. I must admit that my level of tolerance has been pretty high considering and even if this is the last retro computer I shall ever own, it will be a retro computing story to tell another day.

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