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Remembering the Commodore Amiga

The story of how I discovered the Commodore Amiga in the 1980s, and what it meant to me.

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Commodore Amiga 1000
Amiga 1000, with its 'pizza box' case and separate keyboard. (Photo by Kaiiv licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)

Magazine Reviews

The original Amiga was launched in 1985, when I was still at college. I often used to read magazines in the library there, and remember discovering articles in Practical Computing and Personal Computer World — both of which covered the Amiga, as well as the Atari ST.

Compared to the 8-bit computers that I was familiar with, this new breed of more affordable 16-bit machines, which featured the powerful 68000 microprocessor, seemed incredible. It felt like the beginning of a new era.

Commodore Amiga PCW Magazine August 1985
The first Amiga, on front cover of Personal Computer World Magazine, August 1985. More

Even though the Atari ST sounded very good, it was the Amiga in particular that really captured my imagination. But it was much more expensive than the likes of the Commodore 64 which I owned back then, so I resigned myself to the fact that it would be a long time before I could afford such a machine.

Custom Chips

Having a 68000 processor clocked at just over 7 MHz made the Amiga quite impressive to begin with. But it was the custom chips that really made it something special. In the original machine, they were called Agnus, Denise and Paula, and they were at the heart of the Amiga’s sound and graphics features. (Chips in the earlier Atari 800 had some similarities to those in the Amiga, and were developed by some of the same people — most notably Jay Miner.)

Sound

The Amiga’s sound hardware had four channels — two for the left output, and two for the right. Each channel could play 8-bit digital audio (sampled sound). This allowed an almost unlimited range of sounds to be generated, compared to 8-bit computers which just generated tones, sometimes with a choice of a waveforms.

Graphics

The original Amiga could display 320 x 256 in up to 32 colours, or 640 x 256 in up to 16 colours. HAM mode allowed all 4096 colours to be displayed at once, with certain limitations. For NTSC machines, the resolution was 320 x 200 or 640 x 200.

The Amiga could go to higher resolutions using overscan — up to 736×580 (PAL) and 736×482 (NTSC). It could also synchronise to an external video signal (genlock), which was later used by add-ons such as the NewTek Video Toaster, for video production and editing.

One of the Amiga’s chips included a blitter, which allowed image data to be manipulated and moved quickly. The 68000 processor could then perform other tasks at the same time. The Amiga also had a co-processor known as the Copper, which enabled a wide variety of effects. By programming the Copper, things like multiple graphics modes and colour palettes could be used at different places on the screen.

Like the Commodore 64, the Amiga had sprite graphics. One of the sprites was used for the mouse pointer. The Copper allowed sprites to be reused.

Operating System

The Amiga had a preemptive multitasking operating system. In addition, it had both command line and graphical user interfaces. The colour GUI was called Intuition. The Amiga’s Copper co-processor allowed it to display multiple ‘screens’ at the same time, each with its own windows. Each screen could have a different graphics mode, and be slid vertically or hidden. (These days, that terminology might be confusing — all the ‘screens’ actually appeared on the same monitor.)


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Working with the Mac

In 1986, a year after reading those magazine articles in the college library, I started work. My employer had a number of Apple Macintosh computers — so I got familiar with the mouse, and the graphical user interface. The Mac was even more expensive than the original Amiga (later known as the Amiga 1000), so I knew I couldn’t afford one. Despite its relativey high price, the original Mac didn’t have a colour display. That made it a little less appealing as a general purpose home computer.

Commodore Amiga 500 Computer
My Amiga 500 today, at just over 31 years old. More

Cheaper Amiga

Moving forward another year, one of my work colleagues mentioned that his brother had bought an Amiga. I thought he was joking, because I’d not heard much about the Amiga for a couple of years, and thought it would still be expensive. But it turned out that he’d bought a new, lower cost model — the Amiga 500. The new model featured a built-in keyboard, rather than having it separate like on the Amiga 1000.

The Amiga 500 was still a bit too expensive for me at the time, but I wanted more than my Commodore 64 could deliver. So I could hardly believe my luck when I saw an advert in a local newspaper, for a second hand Amiga 500. I phoned up, and quickly arranged to buy the machine. (There was no eBay in those days!)

Amiga 500 Setup from Around 1989
My Amiga 500 setup from around 1989. More

Big Step Up

It was quite big change, to suddenly go from a cassette-based 8-bit machine, to one with a floppy disk drive and a 16/32-bit processor. The Amiga had 512 KB of RAM — eight times more than the Commodore 64.

I remember my brother-in-law making a remark about there not being enough RAM to hold the contents of a single 880 KB floppy disk. But I was just glad to have all that storage space.

I used the Amiga for a number of things. Like most people, I played quite a few games. Some of my favourites were Marble Madness, F/A-18 Interceptor and Stunt Car Racer.

AmigaDOS and Floppy Disks

As well as playing games and using the Amiga’s GUI, I liked AmigaDOS and the command line interface. I remember optimising the startup sequence on various floppy disks for different purposes, using the command ed s:startup-sequence. Unfortunately, the Amiga’s floppy disks soon seemed to become fragmented, resulting in a lot of time wasted with the head seeking across the disk surface. I bought a utility called BAD (Blitz A Disk), which could reorganise a disk for best performance, and it made a huge difference.

Add-Ons

Before long, I purchased some add-ons, such as a 512 KB memory expansion, which also included a real time clock. That took the machine up to 1 MB. I also added an external floppy disk drive. I later changed the RAM expansion to a ‘KCS Power PC board’, as shown in one of the photos. The board allowed me to run MS-DOS software, such as AutoRoute, as well as functioning as a 512 KB memory expansion and clock. It had an NEC V30 processor (similar to the 8086), and could run at about 11 MHz.

Kuma K-Seka Assembler Manual for Amiga
I used K-SEKA for 68000 assembly language programming on the Amiga. More

Programming

Amiga BASIC was quite good, but a little slow. So I spent some time learning 68000 assembly language programming. Most people I knew used DevPak, but that was too expensive for me, and I used the K-SEKA assembler instead. I also bought a number of books, including the set of four official reference manuals, which cost about £100!

CAD for Electronics

I bought a package called X-CAD Designer, which I used mainly for electronic schematic diagrams and printed circuit board layouts. As well as using it for my own projects, I produced most of the diagrams for the British Amateur Electronics Club (BAEC) newsletter, for a few years in the early 90s. Later, thanks to the PC emulator add-on, I used PC-based packages, such as EasyPC.

Commodore Amiga 500 Computer and Accessories
Thirty years later: my Amiga 500, with its external power supply, home-made MIDI interface & sound sampler, external second floppy drive and mouse. More

Sound Sampler

I was interested in sound, and had spent years experimenting with electronic circuits, having also studied electronics at college. So I made my own audio capture circuit or ‘sound sampler’ as they were often called back then. It wasn’t particularly complex, but it enabled me to capture sounds for the Amiga to replay. A work colleague asked me to built one for his brother, which I did.

I also experimented with sound effects such as echo, by writing my own software, as well as using a package called Perfect Sound.

I used have fun recording extracts from TV shows using the Amiga. I’d then transfer them to the Mac at work, and set them as alert sounds. It must have driven my colleagues crazy, to keep hearing things like Mutley’s laugh, along with clips from The Beverly Hillbillies, Reginald Perrin, Dad’s Army and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea!

MIDI Sequencing with Music-X

Initially, I made music on the Amiga using a program called Sonix. A feature I particularly liked was the ability to draw a waveform using the mouse.

Later, I bought a music software package called Music-X, which was quite an investment at around £200. After building my own MIDI interface, I used the Amiga to sequence external MIDI keyboards, such as the Yamaha PSS-680 and PSS-790. Music-X was powerful and easy to use. It even allowed custom MIDI protocols to be used, for greater control. I think it was way ahead of its time, and deserved to have been more widely known.


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Expensive Accelerator Card

In 1990, I added an accelerator card made by Solid State Leisure, which had a 68020 and 3 MB of fast 32-bit memory. It cost £1000 — which was over three times the amount I’d paid for the Amiga in the first place! But it made my machine about five times faster.

Amiga 500 SSL B5000 68030 Accelerator KCS Power PC
My Amiga 500, Solid State Leisure B5000 68030 accelerator card and KCS Power PC IBM PC compatible (in red). More

The first accelerator card had a fault, so the manufacturer swapped it for a newer 68030 model. I found it necessary to add a fan, which I placed in a box on top of the Amiga. Without that, it would crash after about 10 minutes. I also purchased a hard disk, but sent it back due to compatibility problems with the accelerator.

Amiga Format November 1990
My Lib Counter utility was on coverdisk 16, which came with Amiga Format magazine in November 1990. More

Amiga Format Cover Disk

I wrote a few utility programs for the Amiga, one of which — Lib Counter — was published on the cover disk of the November 1990 edition (Issue 16) of Amiga Format magazine. Strangely, it wasn’t an especially useful program, compared to others I’d done. But for some reason, the magazine wanted it. Unfortunately, it would take about another five years, and several letters, before Future Publishing would finally pay me the £40 or so that they owed me for it!

I’m not sure if it makes me laugh or cringe now, when I look at what I put in the Read Me file, which accompanied my Lib Counter utility. I remember being contacted by just one person in response to it — an elderly Amiga user who was local to me. He wasn’t interested in my software, and just wanted help with his word processor! I ended up going to his house, where he also told me his life story, and how he’d been happily married for decades. (I was single at the time, and when he found out, he suggested that I needed to do something about it! It was quite awkward, and I didn’t go back again…)

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Later Models and the Decline of the Amiga

The Amiga 500 was the only model that I used. It had what was known as the Original Chip Set (OCS), which was also used in the original model (the 1000), as well as the 2000. In the early days, they were impressive machines. My machine had Kickstart 1.2 and Workbench 1.2 initially, and I later upgraded to Workbench 1.3.

As time went on, improved chipsets such as ECS and AGA were used in later Amiga models. These offered more advanced features, in an attempt to keep the Amiga up to date. I was tempted by the Amiga 1200, with its AGA chipset. But in standard form, it was slower than my accelerated Amiga 500. I was also concerned about compatibility. And in some ways, it seemed like too little, too late. Newer versions of the operating system were also produced, but I didn’t upgrade beyond Workbench 1.3.

By the early-90s, my main computers were Macs, and Windows PCs. They offered higher performance, as well as good sound and graphics. Commodore seemed to have fallen behind, and it was sad to see the gradual demise of the Amiga. The company went into receivership in 1994.

Conclusion

I still have the Amiga 500 that I bought in 1987, and apart from one or two keys being unreliable, it still works — along with most of my old floppy disks!

I learned a lot from my time with the Amiga. And when I think of 68000 assembly language, it’s the Amiga that comes to mind.

It’s good to play a few of the old games from time to time, and remind myself how good packages like Deluxe Paint were.

Do you have memories of using the Commodore Amiga?
Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Related Articles

Memorable 1980s Home and Personal Computers

Remembering the Atari ST (also compares the ST and Amiga)
Remembering the Atari 800
Remembering the Original Apple Macintosh
Remembering the Commodore 64
Remembering the IBM PC and Compatibles

External Links

Amiga Format Issue 16 November 1990 Coverdisk
The Amiga Museum
Amiga 500 (Wikipedia)
Amiga 1000 (Wikipedia)
Amiga 2000 (Wikipedia)
Amiga 1200 (Wikipedia)
Jay Miner (Wikipedia)


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