The last (and first) of us

James Matson found himself at an interesting (and unlikely) point in his quest to own all the Amiga computers ever released: acquiring both the first and last Amiga models ever to be produced by Commodore.  That strange accident seemed altogether too awesome not to write about…

It’s no secret that I have a soft spot for the Commodore Amiga. Not any one model either, all of them. The purists will argue that a particular model was “the one” or another model was a total market failure not worth consideration.

Not me. I’m for all Amiga’s, and all Amiga’s are for me.

You can imagine my unbridled glee then, when I managed to secure into my collection not one, but two Amiga models I hadn’t owned before. That in itself is no big deal, but what made these acquisitions interesting (and something that only occurred to me after I’d received them) is that I’d ended up with both the very first Amiga model ever released (the Amiga 1000) and the very last one produced by Commodore (the Amiga 4000).

These two machines represent the explosive birth and withering death of the Amiga brand between the launch of the 1000 in 1985 and the 4000 some 7 years later in 1992.  Commodore would declare bankruptcy in 1994.

So what’s it like then? Being an Amiga fan and sitting between these two hunks of Motorola powered computing history? Let’s start with the Amiga 1000. The machine I picked up looked like it had been taken out the back by an Atari Falcon and had the crap kicked out of it. Dusty, dirty and with a warped case, this particular piece of vintage computing had seen better days:

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By the time I had the machine in my games room, a couple of things had dawned on me. Firstly, I would be absolutely gobsmacked if this machine powered up given its cosmetic state. Secondly, I knew less about the Amiga 1000 than I thought I did. When it comes to Amiga knowledge, I was intimate with the 500 and 2000HD (both machines I’d owned as a kid)  but only knew about the 1000 in theory. The guy who’d passed it onto me felt it was probably missing parts and ‘incomplete’ owing  mostly to the appearance of a chunk missing from the front panel as well as a strange piece of loose PCB accompanying the unit:

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 It wasn’t till I did a bit of research online that I learned that by default the Amiga 1000 comes with only 256KB of ram. A paltry amount when you consider the most common Amiga – the 500 – came with 512KB standard. The extra bit of PCB turned out to be a Commodore 256KB expansion module which came standard with most Amiga 1000’s, bringing the machine total to 512KB when installed:

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With that minor mystery solved, I decided to give everything a decent clean.  The keyboard – indeed the whole thing – came up a treat once vigorously worshiped with elbow grease and spray.

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One last bit of investigative tinkering was on my list before attempting to power the thing on – checking under the hood for any obvious signs of corrosion or other damage to components. I was pleasantly surprised to find that for a machine that was nearly as old as me, it was fairly pristine on the inside. I did however spot a couple of very interesting hardware modifications. The first appeared to be some kind of rom switcher (though this remains an educated guess as I still can’t seem to affect any change with the switch set to either position).

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The other more brazen mod was an entire PCB on the inside that had been sandwiched to the mainboard, with a number of chips between the two.

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A quick check of the schematics revealed that U1B to U1E would ordinarily house 256 kbit (64k×4) DRAM for the A1000 but in this one those 64K chips have been replaced by sockets, and upon those sockets were heaped a number of chips that appear to have had their pins joined.  Counting 12 chips in total and making an assumption these were 64K chips, it looked to me that this was a clever way to upgrade the A1000 to a total of 1MB memory (768K ‘on board’ + the 256K expansion module at the front). Only booting it up with tell me for sure whether my expansion suspicion was correct, and I was running out of reasons not to try turning the thing on. 

It was time to see if there were signs of life.

Flicked the switch, and power surged into the unit. Good, power is good. The internal fan began whirring, but I was greeted with no image, no familiar ‘hand holding a disk’ or similar image that indicates any non-hard drive Amiga has booted its internal kickstart rom and is awaiting a disk. Just a blank screen. My heart sank, but again referring to the wealth of Amiga information online, I discovered the Amiga 1000 is the only Amiga to not store the kickstart on an internal rom. No sir, this first iteration of the mighty Amiga required a kickstart disk to be inserted first which would load the kickstart into internal memory before programs could be loaded. My problem here was twofold. Firstly, the disk drive would be highly unlikely to be in working order and even if it was, I had no kickstart disk! I rely on my trusty SD Card based HxC Floppy Emulator to run Amiga software on any of my Amiga fleet.  The HxC works on the basis of an autobooting program (named AUTOBOOT.HFE) which brings you to a menu where you can select disk images to load upon restart. The autoboot menu is the first thing to load via the HxC, so how was I going to get it to somehow boot a kickstart rom first? And what file should it boot?

Again burying my brain in the internets for a while, the solution presented itself. First, grab an appropriate kickstart.rom file (for the Amiga 1000 Kickstart v1.3 r34.5 seemed a good fit, being of the Amiga 1000/500 era). Next, convert it to the HxC Floppy Emulator native format of .HFE, and finally rename the file AUTOBOOT.HFE and place it on the SD Card. Success! The HxC boots the kickstart rom first, and I was greeted by the familiar hand-holding-disk startup screen. It was then a case of swapping to an SD card with a standard AUTOBOOT.HFE menu program on it, and some disk images. A quick test of Turrican (a widely agreed Amiga classic) confirmed the machine was in good working order:

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The next item on the agenda of discovery was to confirm whether or not the extra chippery found under the hood was in fact a ram expansion. Loading up Sysinfo confirmed my suspicions, with a total of 1018KB of ram detected.

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I’d call this a major success story. Not only had I rescued an Amiga 1000 from dusty, dirty oblivion, but I’d saved one that had obviously had some clever work done to it in the way of upgrades to bring it more in line with an expanded Amiga 500.  One last thing  to check before I moved onto the Amiga 4000, was the underside of the 1000 case. For those not aware, the Amiga 1000 – as the inaugural machine – had the signatures of all the designers and coders behind the Amiga etched underneath the lid. The thrill of seeing those names and signatures – including the paw print of Jay Miner’s dog “Mitch” – did not disappoint.

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So should you rush out and grab an Amiga 1000? If you’re a fan of the Commodore Amiga in general and like the games, then you certainly shouldn’t dismiss the opportunity should it arise. The 1000 carries with it a distinctive design and cool factor not often associated with its more abundant successor the Amiga 500, but the 1000 is not necessarily the smartest choice. It’s difficult to expand (unless you come across one like mine) which means you’ll be stuck at 512KB, and most cool gadgets and peripherals (old and new) are designed for the 500 and up. They’re also surprisingly hard to find in the wild,  the Amiga 500 being the most common unit found for sale.  If you find a 1000 for a good price however, grab it – because this is where it all began for the mighty Commodore Amiga, and what’s not to love about owning a piece of that history?

The next delivery to my cave of Commodore delights was the mighty Amiga 4000. In stark contrast to the humble beginnings of the 1000, this machine was the final evolution of Commodore’s Amiga concept. One of two machines released with the AGA (Advanced Graphics Architecture) chipset (the other being the more budget friendly A1200) the Amiga 4000 brought rich new graphics to the platform with 256 colours on-screen, a powerful CPU (either a Morotoral 68030 or 40 @ 25MHz) and 2MB of chip ram (expandable to obscene amounts). The 4000 also represented a move toward mainstream compatibility with the use of the more common IDE interface for hard drives rather than the previous Amiga standard of DMA SCSI.  There was both a desktop and a tower version of the 4000 produced, and interestingly enough the one I picked up was a strange combination of the two.

I present to you, the Amiga 4000 Tower-minator (yes, I’m serious. That’s what it’s called. The Tower-minator)

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The tower-minator is not an official Commodore produce as such, instead it’s an Amiga 4000 desktop that’s been fitted to a custom made (and very cool) tower case. These cases – and there very only a handful produced – were made by Amiga Technology Australia and feature in the BBOAH (Big Book of Amiga Hardware). As the BBOAH site says, this is possibly one of the coolest Amiga towers ever made. Not only does it have the Amiga named carved into the front, but the rear of the tower reveals similar lettering cut into the chrome back complete with the 4000TX model number:

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Isn’t it a beast? A beautiful, gorgeous beast.   The giveaway that it’s a desktop 4000 placed into a tower case are the tell-tale mouse/joystick ports seen below at the base of the tower leading to ‘nowhere’ (they would have lined up perfectly with side of the desktop case in the boards previous life)

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Unlike the 1000 which took a bit of convincing to get fired up and humming along, the 4000 booted up cleanly (and quickly) the first time, leaving me at the desktop of Amiga OS 3.9 (loaded onto one of its internal hard drives). I’m still finding my way around OS 3.9 as all my previous Amiga OS experience has been on far older versions of Workbench (circa Amiga 500 – 2000HD) but so far I’m impressed with the look and feel. Haven’t had much of a chance to try out AGA gaming yet, but that’ll come soon enough and I expect an experience at least as rewarding as that found on my Amiga 1200HD.  For all the lovers of benchmarking vintage hardware (and we know you’re out there) here’s a porn shot of Sysinfo running on the 4000 blowing just about every other Amiga out of the water (though strangely according to the test results, it’s slightly slower than a stock A4000?)

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The fact this 4000 comes equipped with no less than 3(!) CD rom drives has given me access to a whole wealth of compilation game, utility and demo CD ISOs online, so make sure you keep checking back on the site as I review some of the better ones and hopefully uncover some awesome software to try out on your CD-ROM equipped Amiga. Until then, I leave you with a happy group shot of my desk of Amiga win, featuring – left to right – Amiga 3000, 4000, 1000, 2000HD and 600. And they’re just what I can fit on the desk!

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