W. B. Yeats included the line “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold” in his famous poem “The Second Coming”. Many ascribe the inspiration for this work to the atmosphere of post-war Europe, but I’m positive Yeats was talking about floppy disks.
The staple media during the 80’s and 90’s, the magnetic storage of the floppy disks of the day has just about run its course. Sad news for retro computer gaming buffs, who regularly come across games stored on 5.25″ or 3.5″ disks which no longer work due to the deterioration of the media itself.
I know this pain all too well.
Having purchased a bulk lot of Amiga disks – including boxed games – along with a couple of Amiga 500’s, I was torn up to discover upon inspection that most of them had been stored in a damp place and suffered all kinds of nasty mould damage. I still managed to harvest a chunk of working games out of the lot – but for how long? They’ll likely fail too, it’s the inevitable journey of the floppy disk.
So what’s a retro gamer to do? Well, there’s emulation of course, but we all know that never feels quite the same. Game speeds don’t match up, you’re not using original input devices (e.g. legitimate Commodore joysticks) and the whole experience really isn’t recreated. Another option, is to do as I did and invest in the HxC Floppy Emulator. This brilliant little device is made by a chap in Poland, and has the ability to mimic the workings of a floppy drive from a huge array of retro computers including the Commodore 64, Atari range, Amiga’s and Amstrad. The kicker is, instead of using floppy disk media, it allows you to run floppy disk images straight from SD card. Bam! In one hit you have done away with the entropy of the floppy disk and stepped into the almost infallible world of flash card storage.
The way it works is simple. Into one end of the PCB, you re-route the floppy data cable and power connector from your chosen computer, and in the other end goes your SD card – loaded up with all the games you want to play. The set up is more involved than that – which I’ll get to in a moment – but that’s the basic principle. It’s an SD to Floppy cable data converter. Neat! This turned out to be the perfect solution to my desperate need to play Amiga games as often as possible, and in true blog fashion I detailed the steps of setting it up so you can get an idea of what’s involved, and whether it’s something you’re interested in.
First up, I picked a victim computer to test on. My Amiga 600 seemed like the best choice. Small, portable, in great condition and compatible with a fair chunk of Amiga titles. While the HxC floppy emulator is undoubtedly designed to be fitted inside the case at some point, short term I was happy to have mine attached in a rough fashion. First step, was to up end the Amiga 600, as I needed to pop the case to get to the floppy cables inside.
Would you believe the warranty seal was still intact? I felt like I was disturbing some ancient crypt as I popped the screwdriver through the seal. Hey, it’s for a worthy cause!
I had my HxC floppy emulator and specifically purchased SD card sitting close by and ready to be installed. Note the funny shaped SD card. It’s actually called a ‘UD’ and has a USB connection sticking out one side. Extremely handy for people like me who don’t have card reader in their PC, this allows me to just plug it directly into USB to download floppy images, then use the SD end into the emulator.
With a bit of ‘levering’ on some plastic tabs around the A600 case, the case popped open, and as you can see it was pretty easy to gain access to the internal floppy drive cables.
It’s a pretty simple affair to get the HxC connected, but make sure you read the instructions online carefully! You’ll need to ensure you set jumpers correctly for the drive(s) you want to emulate, and it’s also important to know which way your floppy ribbon cable goes onto the board (as it’s different for different machines) and what the led indicator lights on the PCB refer to (it will make diagnosing teething issues a hell of a lot easier). I learned quickly that connecting to an Amiga 600 is not the same as an Amiga 500, the 500 needing to have the floppy ribbon cable reversed at the end connecting to the motherboard in order to function properly.
As you can see, I went for the rough and ready ‘hang it outside the case, but only on the left side, yeah that’s the crip side’ look. If you’re more handy with case modding, you’ll want to fix it inside the case, with a window for the LCD. Once installed, it was back to my main PC to prepare the SD card. A few things to note, firstly – read the documentation carefully. I can’t stress this enough. Because the HxC is designed to run on multiple different machines, you’ll have to be aware of the particular settings for your vintage computer as well as how to set the SD card up so that it boots the way you want (via a customisable config file placed on the SD card). There is a program you can download that allows you to customise the config file entirely, but you’re far better off initially using one of the ‘pre baked’ config files ideal for what you want to achieve. We picked one that auto loaded a ‘floppy manager’ (basically a game chooser GUI) when you run the HxC connected to an Amiga.
After you’ve configured the SD card, you just need to convert your floppy images into the HxC native .hfe format. Thankfully, this is super easy – in the case of my Amiga 600 I was using a ton of .adf files, and the same program that allows you to customise the config file also allows you to batch convert any number of disk files to .hfe format. Once I’d converted a few hundred games, they were loaded on the SD card, and it was back to the Amiga to fire it all up and test!. Well, sort of. It turns out a few hundred games is a little too ambitious. For some reason, the hardware doesn’t like you putting too many images onto a single SD card. While I couldn’t find a hard limit anywhere in the documentation, you’ll know if you’ve put too many games on the card if the emulator starts to exhibit odd behaviour like not saving your game choices after reboot, or failing to scroll properly through the game list. Having 20 or 30 disk images seems to be well within tolerance.
The HxC is a thing of beauty when it’s fired up and ticking away. Interestingly, just because it’s running an SD card, doesn’t actually make any of the load times particularly fast, as the data still has to travel along the floppy cable.
Pictured below is the floppy chooser menu. Even if you’re only emulating a single drive (DF0 in the case of the Amiga) the floppy chooser allows you to assign a floppy image to a number of ‘slots’ in the HxC, and if you need to swap disks during use, you just press a button on the PCB to swap from one slot to the next. Very handy!
So, the moment of truth, did it work? Yes, yes it did!
It’s a fantastic device, and I’m having immense fun trawling through a library of Amiga games to play the way they were intended to be played – on an Amiga, and a 1084S monitor. It’s a worthwhile investment for me (costing $100 approximately) and I know I’m going to get hours and hours of use out of it. If you’re happy running emulators, that’s fine to – but for anyone who is really digging that original experience on an Amiga, Atari, Amstrad, Commodore or any number of other retro computers, check out the HxC Floppy Emulator, it may just save you from all the pain and frustration of floppy media.