Reviving The Dream

I bought my first Amiga in 1992; it was an A2000, with a SCSI HDD and a Janux/XT board. At that time, I was about to conclude my studies and I needed a computer to prepare documents and research required for the final exams. I still had my C128, but using it for the given tasks was out of the question for many reasons. In the US the “Amiga dream” was long gone (except in the hearts of a few enthusiasts), but here in Europe things were different so, unlike all of my colleagues and schoolmates who opted for PCs or Apples, I had decided to stay loyal to Commodore and well determined to go beyond my old (but still beloved) “8-bit universe”.

Sadly, despite my good intentions, my first “Amiga experience” didn’t last long. After getting the degree, life and duties kept me away from it for so many years and, when I finally went back, next-gen boards and OSs made me opt for a brand-new Sam440 with a blazing AOS4.1 instead.

AmigaOS4.1 running VICE (C128)

Don’t get me wrong here: I like and respect all Amiga “flavors”, but I felt like AOS4 suited my needs best. It was about 2008 when I started localizing software (at first) and developing games (afterward), up to the point which, partly due to the stagnating next-gen scene and mainly due to my will to “go back”, I decided to retrieve my old machines and revert to the “classics”.

So, roughly one and a half years ago, I started to consider which of my machines should become my new playground: whether my old A2000HD or the stock, pre-owned, A1200 I previously had put my hands on via eBay. Even though I had no memories associated with it, the latter seemed a better bet since it still had a working hard disk (the SCSI one on the A2000 had jammed) and, above all, it had a faster CPU and it was small enough to be considered somewhat “portable”. I dug it out of the basement, resisted the urge to turn it on, and started with a thorough cleaning and retrobrighting process. The more I cleaned the more I was hyped up so, also thanks to the awesome weather we were having in Italy, the A2000 keyboard underwent the same treatment. I was touching the sky with my finger …

A1200 cleaning
A2000 keyboard retrobrighting
A2000 keys cleaning and retrobrighting

Once the cleaning process on the A1200 was completed, it was time to put it into use. It was with so much disappointment that, despite apparently starting up, what I could get was no more than a blank screen no matter which TV set I tried. Thinking back, I could have also experimented with my Philips monitor (the one that equipped the A2000HD since the early 90ies), but I was so sure the TV set had been working before that I missed that. A few hours later I was surfing the net for solutions and, since the equipment was old, I bought new capacitors and had the A1200 recapped. Also, just to make sure the problem wasn’t related to failed microprocessors, I replaced the Kickstart ROMs with new ones. A good friend told me that I was trying too hard and maybe the problem was the TV cable but, again, I had memories of a working unit, so I didn’t take the advice.

Dusty A2000 motherboard
A2000 Janus PC Emulator

To relieve the stress, I also retrieved the A2000 from the basement and started working on it. The HDD was jammed and the motherboard was covered with dust, but there was no leaking or other signs of decay. I was still hyped up and even more so since a brand new 8MB fast RAM board plus an SDbox were heading my way to be mounted on the A1200.

A1200 8MB fast RAM
A1200/A2000 parallel SDbox

The first bad news arrived when the A1200 was still showing a blank screen even after recapping. Maybe it really was a problem with the cable? I was so puzzled …

Puzzled!

There wasn’t much more I could do at that moment with the A1200, but I had a few game floppies that could help me to cheer up, so I plugged my A2000 into the socket and turned it on. I was not prepared for what happened next, since all I got were sparks from the power outlet and the electricity went out in the entire apartment. I really felt my heart sinking … what did I do to deserve this fate?

Desperate!

The next few hours were miserable, despite friends reminding me that you can’t kill the Amiga. A solution would have been found, sooner or later, yet my proposal the get back to classics was at stake. I was afraid that the longer I postponed the start of this new endeavor, the most difficult it would have been. Summer was ending and, with it, the little spare time I got.

I have never been a fan of social media (especially Facebook) but that night I browsed its “marketplace”. Imagine my surprise when my eyes fell on a page saying an A500, sporting a memory expansion and Gotek board, was available just 60km away. The price was fair as well. I got in touch with the guy the next day. On the phone he greeted me with something like “May Gary, Paula and Denise be with you” and we agreed to meet the following weekend. He lives in Tuscany hills, and the drive to reach his place was one of the most pleasant of the last years. You can here enjoy a glimpse of the “Devil’s bridge” in Borgo a Mozzano, near the city of Lucca, dating back to one thousand years ago.

Devil’s Bridge, Borgo a Mozzano (LU)

When I reached my destination the A500 was waiting for me. We tested it and had a nice little chat about old and new things. When we finally parted, a new bond was tied: Amiga never fails! I drove back home with a lighter heart, and a couple of hours later I was testing the A500 in my studio. Death is only the beginning!

A500 in the shop
Gotek interface detail
Exploring the library
Amiga OS4.1 and 1.3

It was now time to heal those two injured soldiers, so I headed to Bassano del Grappa, near Vicenza, to visit Enrico at Acube Systems.

Old wooden bridge in Bassano del Grappa (VI)

Without even talking, the very first thing Enrico did was connect the A1200 to a monitor using a different cable. The computer booted up right away showing an elegant 3.1 environment. My worries were gone in a second, and that was good, but I also never felt so stupid in my life. Why didn’t I try that option myself before?

The next few hours went by in what seemed minutes and, during that time, the A1200 underwent the following treatments: brand-new Kickstart 3.2 ROMs were installed; split cables for data and power line were added to the motherboard in order to connect an external IDE CD-ROM driver; AOS3.2 was installed; missing floppy drive mounting bracket was installed; general conditions of the system were checked. Also, the A2000 was disassembled and inspected. The motherboard looked ok, but Enrico needed time to test the power supply so restoration was postponed to another time.

Adding extra power and data cables
A2000 PSU and motherboard testing

A few days later, he got back to me saying the PSU was just fine, so the sparks I had seen at my place, with the resulting black-out, must have had a different origin. Just to make sure and to avoid further problems, I reached out to the offending power cord and threw it in the garbage bin. In the end, the motherboard was fine as well, so we also upgraded the A2000 with new ROMs and new AOS. As said, the SCSI driver was long gone, but its controller board was still equipped with an additional 2MB of RAM, so we put it back in the case. Finally, with the contribution of the guys at Retro Giovedì (Retro Thursday), an IDE-LAN Zorro2 interface was added. Even the A2000HD was now alive and kicking!

One must think the end of the story is approaching, but this is not the case. Once home I obviously started tinkering with the systems: the A2000HD, being slower and with less memory, was going to be a gaming machine (at least for the time being), whilst the A1200 was about to become my new development gear. PPaint (regularly acquired from Cloanto with the AmigaForever suite) and AMOS Professional were installed and, with that, the first timid experiments were initiated. There was also time for gaming on both systems, as you may notice…

A1200 gaming
A2000 gaming
PSU output testing
PSU output testing

Soon after, though, a series of different misbehavior occurred on the A1200, ranging from a complete freeze of the machine (not a Guru Meditation error, but a proper and total freeze) to sudden loss of TV signal and consequent black screen, only recoverable after a reboot. While the signal problem was scary but happening just from time to time, the freeze was constantly manifesting, thus preventing any real attempt at developing. There was a possibility that these problems were related to an unreliable power supply, so I bought a tester and recorded the outputs. As you can see in the picture, despite not having perfect Voltage outputs the A500 PSU had better performance than the A1200 one. I then switched the PSUs but, since the problems did not stop, I ended up buying a brand-new one.

Sadly, despite the new hardware, freeze events kept occurring, so the focus was shifted to the RAM expansion. I bought most of my new hardware (and, specifically, the 8MB expansion) from the guys at Amigastore, very professional and dedicated Amigans, so I deemed it unlikely for the problem to be the board itself. Yet, after removing it I didn’t experience any other freeze, while the video output was still giving problems, even though rather rarely. Of course, an A1200 stock unit is not very useful as a dev machine: AMOS started but with an error (“out of memory: cannot open menus”), while PPaint wouldn’t even run. I was biting the dust again.

You can’t kill the Amiga, they say, but they often forget to tell you that sometimes it can still be a pain where the sun doesn’t shine, so I decided to ease it off with something else: my loyal and truly beloved C128. Taking inspiration from an artist who likes to work with old Acorn computers (BBC, mostly), I took some time off to develop a simple program able to draw code-generated landscapes. My art is not as refined as I would like it to be, but still, I managed to achieve some decent results, IMHO. Also, I developed free educational software to teach the Katakana alphabet while having fun.

Landscape generator (C128, multicolor bitmap)

Chars’ Attack! Learn your Katakanas. (C128, 80 col mode)

In the meantime, I kept tinkering with the expansion board in order to polish the contacts, a matter often reported to be the main cause of misbehavior, and, although still far from perfection, it looks like my efforts paid off since the A1200 no longer freezes (please knock on wood, keep your fingers crossed or do any other black magic you are aware of to prevent it from happening again).

"Death is only the beginning" sweatshirtYou may now wonder which road I am about to walk next. First off, the video-related problems are still under investigation so, while I am organizing my development resources for the A1200, I am also in search of a spare machine just in case mine was somewhat beyond repair. Also, I would like to test it with an accelerator (a 030 unit might be a nice trade-off between cost and performance). As far as the A2000HD goes, the IDE drive we fitted in seems to be too big for it in terms of capacity (200GB) and it might be the reason why the machine crashes while using the Workbench. In addition, a standard 68000 with barely 3MB of RAM is of no use and, even though I am not currently considering it as a dev machine, I will probably end up in buying an accelerator with extra memory on board. Only time will tell how things will turn up but stay assured, my fellow Amigans, you’ll be the first ones to know. As Mr. Dave Haynie use to say: “Death is only the beginning.”

I wish to thank all the friends out there who provided support in terms of equipment, expertise and/or simple advice. Even though I couldn’t quote all, you know who you are. Long live the Amiga!

All pictures (except bridges), drawings, and story by g0blin.

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