Decision Guide: AMIGA

NCG_AMIGA2

(Updated 8/2016)

Not a intended as a beginner’s guide, but rather a reference developed to help already established retro collectors and hobbyists ease into new system collecting.   This time, TheBitPlanes takes a look at the Amiga.

Often, when retro collectors and hobbyists have mastered their home computer or video game system(s) of choice, they look to expand into collecting other systems.  The problem is, each system has such deep, well-established online communities that clear answers to the simple “where to begin” collecting questions can sometimes be overwhelming.

If you are an experienced collector who wants to also get into Amiga collecting, this guide is for you.  The main question it aims to answer is “What system should I be looking for, and why?”

A quick history of the system

Amiga was the final name given to the Lorraine project, a technology platform invented by Hi-Toro, a Los Gatos venture capital startup formed by games industry veterans from Atari, Activision, and others.  You can read a detailed history of Amiga and the Lorraine here: http://www.amigahistory.co.uk/prototypes/lorraine.html

Hi-Toro eventually changed its name to Amiga (the Latin “Amica” being already taken) and it’s from this that the computer gained its name.

Amiga didn’t have the size and clout to go to market with a game system, workstation, or PC based on their technology, so they shopped their company around, eventually accepting a buyout from Commodore Business Machines.  Commodore worked with Amiga to rush to market the Amiga Personal Computer in 1985.  That computer was lauded for its futuristic capabilities which were surprisingly tough to describe to consumers of the day, but in hindsight it’s clear that Amiga was the first “multimedia” personal computer.

Commodore saw the Amiga as a potential 3rd alternative in a world rapidly becoming dominated by IBM-PC clones and Apple Macintoshes.  But the Amiga quickly became an artistic niche computer and elitist gaming rig.  So Commodore retooled and re-released Amiga in two distinct from factors, the low cost home-computer Amiga 500 and the expensive, business-ready Amiga 2000.  The original Amiga computer was retroactively named the Amiga 1000, which suited its physical form factor and its cost, somewhere between the Amiga 500 and the 2000.

Commodore followed up with several more models, each designed to try and win a specific market segment.  The Amiga 3000 and later the 4000 were positioned to compete in the business world – particularly in the field of graphic art production.  Large companies and government bodies adopted Amiga for supporting roles in work environments (NASA for example used Amiga computers to process and store telemetry data from launch vehicles such as the Space Shuttle.) At the same time, the Amiga 600, 1200, CDTV, and CD32 were made to compete in the home computer market, which itself was eroding quickly against the rebirth of dedicated video game consoles.

Commodore had at its height nearly 10% of the personal computer market, which would have been enviable nowadays, but was not sufficient to achieve the breakaway momentum required for a computer ecosystem to stay viable into the 1990s.  In 1994, Commodore went bankrupt, with a number of firms fighting over the scraps.  Several companies have since laid claim to both the Commodore and Amiga names and technologies, but since the late 1990s, none are in any way affiliated with Commodore or Amiga.

What do I need to know before I start collecting?

Most collectors who are just now getting started are interested in the Amiga first as a gaming platform.   So this guide will focus on the hardware prerequisites for gaming on an Amiga.

To be a usable game system, an Amiga needs, at minimum:

•  Firmware revision (known as Kickstart) 1.2 or greater,

•  2 disk drives and 512KB RAM

-or-

1 disk drive and 1MB RAM

Great news – any Amiga either already has this or can be upgraded to this easily!

The above requirements will let the Amiga play something like 70% of the games you are likely to find, and quite a bit of other software too.

But why not 100%?  There are some differences between Amigas and regions that make them more or less capable when it comes to gaming. Chief among these factors:

Region and video standards: Amigas pre-date modern HDTV, and generate older broadcast-style television signals.   Like many dedicated home computers and video game consoles of the past, Amigas come out of the box ready to operate with either PAL televisions and monitors, or NTSC televisions and monitors.  Some games are designed such that they only work (or work best) in PAL or NTSC.  So this means if you buy a game in the US, it may play differently or not at all on an Amiga in the UK.  This is similar in some way to the region lock you see on videos today, but it wasn’t intentional.  It’s simply caused by video timing differences between PAL and NTSC televisions.  The good news is that this is not normally a huge problem.  If a game was in any way popular, it was released in both PAL and NTSC formats.  Additionally, many Amigas have the updated chipsets required to switch modes from one region to the other, and many Amigas that lack this ability may be retrofitted easily.

Amiga’s Custom Chip Set: Speaking of chip sets, Amigas had 3 major chipset revisions; The original (called OCS), enhanced (ECS), and advanced (AGA).  Some games, primarily games made exclusively for the AGA chipset will not work at all with the earlier chip sets.  This probably accounts for something like 10-20% of released games, mostly in Europe.

Other factors: Some games require special capabilities, such as hard drives, better CPUs, or even dedicated graphics boards.  These games are relatively few and far between, and many surfaced well after the Amiga was discontinued. Some early games may have been written poorly enough that the addition of more advanced hardware will cause them to fail!

 

So all Amigas can play games.  Which Amiga should I look for?  Which is “best?”

It depends on what your collecting style is.  Skip to the bottom of this article for some specific recommendations.  Amiga owners don’t generally agree on a “best” Amiga, so read on for a list of Amiga models and general collecting considerations for each:

Amiga 1000 – pros and cons

Uses the 68000 processor: Nearly all games are compatible with this CPU, but a handful of games either need or would benefit from an upgraded CPU.

Uses the OCS chipset: A handful of games require or benefit from at least 1MB chip RAM (which is part of the ECS chipset), which is a near-impossible upgrade for this system.

Switching between NTSC and PAL video standards is not possible due to limitations of the OCS chipset.

AGA chipset games (coded for the Amiga 1200/4000 or CD32) will not run.

512KB RAM: Insufficient for some games. A RAM upgrade of some kind (of any kind) is recommended.

Note -  be aware that the Amiga 1000 actually had only 256KB of RAM, and acquired the second 256KB by means of an expansion mounted in the front of the machine under a removable cover. It’s unlikely you will ever see an Amiga 1000 without this expansion already installed, but it is theoretically possible.

Hard drive: No hard disk drive (and hard to find in the wild) means you likely will not be installing games to HDD.

Reliability snapshot:  The A1000 is the oldest Amiga it’s possible to obtain, with some components stamped with 1984/1985 date codes, That said, most A1000s are still operating today.  Nearly all chips are socketed and many are interchangeable with those in the A500 and A2000, making spares relatively common. Weak points include the internal floppy drive, which is prone to old age related issues and UV yellowing of the all-plastic outer case. Keyboards are scarce, so make sure you get an Amiga with its keyboard and cable, and make sure both work.

Upgrading the A1000:

Special note: The Amiga 1000 introduces Amiga’s implementation of SOTS (slap-on-the-side) expansion bus and devices.  This bus (known as Zorro I or just “Zorro”) auto-configures (plug and play), draws power from the system, and has access to the entire computer bus.  But there’s a problem!  Many Amiga 1000’s suffer from bus noise and require hacks to clean up the signal sufficiently to allow side expansions to operate without trouble.

Special note 2: The Amiga 1000’s serial and parallel ports are the opposite gender from all the other Amigas.  More importantly, the pin-outs are slightly different.  Normally, this would not be an issue since nobody is likely to be hooking a dot matrix printer or a 1200 baud modem to their collectible Amiga, but lately a number of clever add-ons (MAS MP3 audio, Plipbox parallel Ethernet) have been released that could breathe some life into those unused ports.

CPU upgrades: It’s compatible with many A500 CPU “accelerator” upgrades, as well as accelerators made for the A1000, but both of these can be rare, and if using an A500 accelerator, make sure it will physically fit in the differently shaped space inside the A1000.

RAM: As mentioned before, most have 512KB already  – 256KB on the motherboard, and another 256KB in a dedicated expansion cavity on the very front of the machine. A few could conceivably still just have 256KB on the motherboard, but by 1987 nearly all users had at least the additional 256KB upgrade installed. Upgrading beyond this is relatively hard, as dedicated RAM boards that fit inside or attach to the side are getting scarce.

Disk expansion: Hard disk expansion requires a dedicated slap on the side SCSI box made for an A1000 (or possibly A500 if you don’t mind a very kludge-y looking setup) but these are rare.  It can also use some of the internal IDE hard drive solutions made for the A500, but be mindful of space differences.

The A1000 has a single 880K DS internal disk drive suspended in a custom mounting bracket.  Additional floppy disk drives can be obtained cheaply and plugged into the back of the unit.  Amiga drives draw power from the port directly. Though any internal floppy drive from any Amiga should work in the A1000, only drives made for the 1000 will line up with the openings of the computer case!

Chipset limitations: Being the original Amiga, the A1000 unsurprisingly uses the original chip set (OCS).  Upgrading this to ECS is nearly impossible. ECS is necessary if you wish to increase the amount of RAM the Agnes chip can access, which is useful for a few games that load increased visual or sound effects, but more importantly to toggle between PAL and NSTC video formats.

The only known ways to upgrade an A1000 to ECS is with the addition of a retrofit board – either the Rejuvenator, a daughterboard that replaces the existing Amiga WCS daughterboard (American Amigas only!), or the 1990’s Phoenix/2000’s GBA1000, both of which are entire replacement motherboards!  Any of these boards are incredibly rare, and seldom found in working order unless owned by another collector.

Monitors: The Amiga 1000 uses a dedicated Commodore-Amiga RGB monitor, or one of several 3rd party RGB monitors made around the same time.   TV output is also possible either using a SCART connection (in Europe) or the RCA composite video out jack on the unit.  Be advised, the composite video while full color, is also bit fuzzy and therefore not a good long-term solution.  Modern VGA devices like PC monitors and flat panels may be hooked up directly, but only if you have a “scan doubler” or “flicker fixer” device either attached to the RGB port, or a special daughterboard fit into the Denise chip’s socket on the motherboard.  Both these devices are somewhat scarce, and the daughterboard solutions are generally designed for use in an A500/2000, so might have problems fitting into the 1000’s space without an additional adapter of some kind.

Like all Amigas, the 1000 has stereo audio output jacks.

OS/firmware: North American Amigas use a daughterboard called the WCS (write control store) which is a dedicated 256KB card with circuitry that allows the kickstart firmware to be loaded from floppies.  Once loaded, this 256KB memory area is protected, so rebooting is possible.  This allows the Amiga 1000 to boot any 256KB kickstart image from a floppy disk (Kickstart version 1.0, 1.1, 1.2, or 1.3). Kickstart 1.3 is sufficient for compatibility with the vast majority of games.  Note: this 256KB does not count against the overall system memory – it’s separate.  So technically an Amiga 1000 with it’s front RAM expansion fitted can be said to have 768KB of total RAM.

Because Kickstart firmware revisions 2.0 through 3.1 all consume a 512KB footprint, the Amiga 1000 cannot normally load newer Kickstart versions into the WCS.  Third party companies offered add on boards to allow the 512KB Kickstart ROM from an Amiga 500 or 2000 to be installed, though these are very rare to find now.  If you do find and install one, the 256KB memory previously reserved for holding the older Kickstart images becomes available as regular system RAM to your Amiga.

Little known trivia: Most think the Amiga displays its games in 32 colors (at least without hacks, interrupts, the use of the AGA chipset, or the Amiga’s famous 4,096 color HAM mode.) Actually, there are several Amiga games that use 64 colors out of the 4096 color palette. Many don’t even advertise this fact! SimCity for example uses 64 colors, to more closely match the IBM VGA version. Very early Amiga 1000 units require an updated “Denise” chip to access the 64 color mode. This is a drop in replacement, still fairly readily available. All other Amiga’s have this chip already.

2016/17 Rarity: Complete systems can be found with relative consistency in the US and Canada. In Europe and Australia, the systems are rarer.  Because the PSU is internal (and not switching) and the video output cannot switch between PAL/NTSC, if you want an A1K it’s best to get one made for your region.

Amiga 500 – pros and cons

68000 processor: Nearly all games (except AGA) are compatible with this CPU, but a handful of games need or can benefit from an upgraded CPU.

OCS or sometimes ECS chipset: Because a handful of games benefit from at least 1MB chip RAM, it’s best to buy a late manufactured Amiga 500 with at least the 1MB Agnes chip already installed. If the system does not have this chip, it can be hacked in with some small degree of effort. (normally: obtain the chip, pop it in, and possibly modify one or two traces.) The 1MB Agnes chip is the cornerstone of an “ECS” chipset Amiga.

Switching between NTSC and PAL is not possible unless the 1MB Agnes is installed.  If it’s installed, then booting into the other region’s mode can be done by inserting a special disk.  You also need a monitor that supports 50Hz (PAL) and 60Hz (NTSC) vertical refresh rates.  Most Amiga monitors are capable of this.

512KB RAM: Insufficient for some games. But nearly all A500s come with an extra 512KB already in the trapdoor. So this is often a non-issue.

AGA games (coded for the Amiga 1200/4000 or CD32) will not run.

No hard drive means you likely will not be installing games to HDD. Hard drives are not impossible to find, but are scarce and may be pricy.

The power supply is external.

Reliability snapshot:  Most A500 are still operating today.  Chips are socketed and most are interchangeable with the A1000 and A2000, making spares relatively common. Weak points include the internal floppy drive, which is prone to old age related issues, some models of the power supply, and UV yellowing of the plastics. Unlike the Amiga 2000, the A500 had no real-time battery installed that could threaten to leak, but there is a real-time battery on the self-contained RAM expansion located in the trapdoor under the unit.  If this battery has leaked, there is a small danger that the acid has damaged the RAM expansion.  If you obtain an Amiga 500 that will not power on, in addition to pressing the socketed chips to re-seat them, consider removing the RAM expansion to see if the fault lies there.

Upgrading the A500:

The A500 continued the A1000’s Zorro bus implementation. Many of the most powerful upgrades were designed to be simply attached to the side of the main unit.  Unfortunately, physical form-factor changes meant that while most A1000 devices could theoretically attach to an A500, the location of the slot (moved from high on the right to lower on the left) meant that it was impractical or even impossible to use an A1000 Zorro expansion port device on an A500.

CPU: Upgrades are moderately difficult to find – it may be upgraded by opening the case and swapping the 68000 chip with a small accelerator board, or by slapping an accelerator expansion onto the side.  Both of these kinds of accelerator types are getting scarce, but aren’t unobtainable.  A 68010 processor may be dropped in place of the 68000, but this gives little real-world benefit as it still runs at the A500’s CPU clock speed of 7.14Mhz.  Clock-doubling hacks were also commonplace early in the A500’s life, but these also gave little real-world benefit and caused system timing issues, particularly with the Amiga’s floppy disk drive.

OS/firmware upgrade: Most Amiga 500s have Kickstart 1.2 or 1.3 on a single ROM chip on the motherboard.  This chip may be pried out and replaced with a 2.04 or 3.1 Kickstart ROM chip, which is still obtainable.  For ultimate game and demo compatibility, some users have a small daughterboard containing 2 or more ROM chips (often 1.3 and 3.1) hooked to a switch that allows toggling between the two firmware revisions.

Monitors: The Amiga 500 uses a dedicated Commodore-Amiga RGB monitor, or one of several 3rd party RGB monitors made around the same time.   TV output is also possible either using a SCART connection (in Europe) or the RCA composite video out jack on the unit.  Be advised, the composite jack is greyscale only, so not a good long term solution.  Outputting to TV may or may not allow you to toggle video regions (NTSC or PAL) as this is highly dependent on your television.  Modern VGA devices like PC monitors and flat panels may be hooked up directly, but only if you have a “scan doubler” or “flicker fixer” device either attached to the RGB port of the 500, or a special daughterboard fitting into the Denise chip’s socket on the motherboard.  Both these devices are somewhat scarce. In many instances, Amiga 500s were shipped with a multi-purpose video output adapter that could output both an RF signal (for ancient TVs) and a color composite signal.  This small external unit is still relatively common.

RAM: As mentioned before, most have 1MB already – either on the motherboard, or a combination of 512KB motherboard/512KB in trapdoor beneath the machine. Upgrading beyond this can be moderately hard, as dedicated RAM boards are getting scarce. RAM upgrades may be fitted to the side of the unit, inside the trapdoor, or directly into the 68000 processor socket.

Drives – adding a hard disk drive can be moderately hard as it requires finding a dedicated slap on the side SCSI box made for an A500, or an internal laptop IDE hard drive controller that is fitted to the 68000 CPU socket.

The 500 has a single 880K DS internal disk drive which is cross-compatible with those used in some other Amigas, thought the outer shielding is shaped differently.

Many users now elect to bypass floppy/hard disks entirely in lieu of a floppy disk drive emulator that accepts common memory cards loaded with Amiga disk images.

Chipset: The chipset may be upgraded from OCS to ECS by upgrading the Denise and Agnes chips to their ECS equivalents.  Additionally, a system with the ECS chipset may be fitted with a 2MB Agnes chip, giving breathing room for some advanced games to load more audio/visual effects, or for doing video audio work.  2MB Agnes upgrades come on small boards that are relatively rare.

Upgrading to the AGA chipset is currently impossible, though as of this writing, one or more “complete system overhaul” products are in development that may offer this.

OS/firmware: Most Amiga 500s have Kickstart 1.2 or 1.3 on a single ROM chip on the motherboard.  This chip may be pried out and replaced with a 2.04 or 3.1 Kickstart ROM chip, which are still obtainable.  For ultimate game and demo compatibility, some users have a small daughterboard containing 2 or more Kickstart ROM chips (often 1.3 and 3.1) hooked to a switch that allows toggling between the two firmware revisions.

2016/17 Rarity: Complete systems can be frequently found online and even at yard/garage/stoop/boot sales in the US, Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and other parts of the world. More A500s were produced than any other Amiga.

Amiga 2000 – pros and cons

68000 processor: Nearly all games (except AGA) are compatible with this CPU, but a handful of games need or can benefit from an upgraded CPU.

OCS or sometimes ECS chipset: A handful of games require or benefit from at least 1MB chip RAM – the cornerstone of the Enhanced Chip Set. Best to buy a late manufactured Amiga 2000 with at least the 1MB Agnes chip already installed. If the system does not have this chip, it can be hacked in with some small degree of effort (normally: obtain the chip, pop it in, cut or solder one trace.)

Switching between NTSC and PAL is not possible unless the 1MB Agnes is installed.  If it’s installed, then booting into the other region’s mode can be done by inserting a special disk.  You also need a monitor that supports 50Hz (PAL) and 60Hz (NTSC) vertical refresh rates.  Most Amiga monitors are capable of this.

1MB RAM: This will be configured as 512KB CHIP RAM/512KB FAST RAM, or 1MB CHIP RAM.  Either way, this is sufficient for most games.

AGA games (coded for the Amiga 1200/4000 or CD32) will not run.

Some Amiga 2000s were shipped with hard drives, and hard drives were common additions to many Amiga 2000 systems.

Variants: A2000, A1500 (Europe only), A2000HD, A2500, Video Toaster. There were no official tower variants, but the system’s popularity in professional production environments meant that you will sometimes see a 3rd-party “towered” A2000 or even an A2000 converted to a rack-mount form factor.

Reliability snapshot:  Most A2000s are still operating today.  Chips are socketed and most are interchangeable with the A1000 and A500, making spares relatively common. Leaking of the real-time clock battery was relatively common in this system, and if you find one that has been sitting, expect the that battery may have ruptured and leaked.  Fortunately, only extreme cases of leaking will render the system unbootable owing to the lack of critical components and traces near the battery’s location.  Other weak points include the internal floppy drive, which is prone to old age related issues, and UV yellowing of the front plastics (the main housing a painted metal.) If the A2000 came with a hard drive, be aware that it may also be failing now due to age. The keyboard is different but interchangeable with that of the Amiga 3000.

Upgrading the A2000:

The A2000 moved from the external Zorro bus implementation of the A1000/A500 to a more traditional internal card slot array, named Zorro II.  This meant that multiple expansion cards could be housed in the 2000’s case.  Despite the gender and shape differences, Zorro and Zorro II were theoretically cross-compatible, and occasionally an A500’s side-mounted expansion device is nothing more than a half-length Amiga 2000 Zorro II card housed in an external Zorro II-to-Zorro case.

The A2000 also included some 8 and 16-bit ISA expansion slots (allowing access to a select few ISA cards designed for the IBM-PC), a dedicated processor slot to make CPU upgrades easier, and a dedicated video slot used to enhance the Amiga’s built-in graphic capabilities in various ways.

CPU: In addition to the Zorro II expansion slots, the 2000 had a dedicated processor slot designed to easily accept accelerator boards.  These boards often also include extra RAM and hard disk controllers.  They are still surprisingly common – particularly 68020 and 68030 boards, and of course many have found their way into the Amiga 2000’s still out in the wild.  The 2000 can also accept some Amiga 1000 or Amiga 500 accelerators directly in its 68000 processor socket, but not all of these fit, and they are rarer and more hassle than the dedicated 2000 processor cards.  A 68010 processor may be directly dropped in place of the 68000, but gives little real-world benefit as it still runs at the A2000’s base clock speed of 7.14Mhz.

TIP: If you bid for an Amiga 2000 online, make sure you see pictures of the back of the machine. Avoid machines with missing slot covers, as this is a sure sign that the system had upgrades that were subsequently stripped out!

Monitors: The Amiga 2000 uses a dedicated Commodore-Amiga RGB monitor, or one of several 3rd party RGB monitors made around the same time.   TV output is also possible either using a SCART connection (in Europe) or the RCA composite video out jack on the unit.  Be advised, the composite jack is greyscale only, so not a good long term solution.  Outputting to TV may or may not allow you to toggle video regions (NTSC or PAL) as this is highly dependent on your television.  Modern VGA devices like PC monitors and flat panels may be hooked up directly, but only if you have a “scan doubler” or “flicker fixer” device either attached to the RGB port of the 2000, a special daughterboard fitting into the Denise chip’s socket on the motherboard, or a flicker-fixer card inserted into the A2000’s dedicated video slot.  All these devices are somewhat scarce. The RF/composite color video adapter commonly shipped with the A500a multi-purpose video output adapter that could output both an RF signal (for ancient TVs) and a color composite signal.  This small external unit is still relatively common.

Many Amiga 2000 computer users have added dedicated 3rd party video cards which seamlessly pass though Amiga graphics when playing games, and offer enhanced graphics when working in applications.

OS/firmware: Like the A500, the Kickstart firmware ROM (normally revision 1.2 or 1.3) can be upgraded using a single ROM that is relatively easy to find.

RAM: As mentioned before, most have 1MB already.  Upgrading beyond this can be done by adding an upgraded CPU card that contains RAM, or a hard drive controller that contains RAM, or a dedicated RAM card.  Many of these are still surprisingly common.

Disk drive: many Amiga 2000’s come with 2 880KB DS disk drives already installed, and if they don’t, Amiga 2000 compatible internal disk drives are not too uncommon.  High density Amiga drives are also available, but beware of sellers offering “model 357″ high density drives, as these are frequently modified PC units that will only read an Amiga low density disk.

Many users now elect to bypass floppy/hard disks entirely in lieu of a floppy disk drive emulator that accepts common memory cards loaded with Amiga disk images.

Hard drive – as mentioned above, hard drives were very common.  If you find an Amiga 2000 without a hard drive, it should not take too much effort to find a hard drive controller card and give it one.

Chipset: The chipset may be upgraded from OCS to ECS by upgrading the Denise and Agnes chips to their ECS equivalents.  Additionally, and ECS system may be fitted with a 2MB Agnes chip, giving breathing room for some advanced games to load more audio/visual effects, or for doing video audio work.  2MB Agnes upgrades are on small boards that are relatively rare.

Upgrading to the AGA chipset is impossible.

OS/firmware upgrade: Most Amiga 2000s have Kickstart 1.2 or 1.3 on a single ROM chip on the motherboard.  This chip may be pried out and replaced with a 2.04 or 3.1 Kickstart ROM chip, which are scarce but still obtainable.  For ultimate game and demo compatibility, some users have a small daughterboard containing 2 or more ROM chips (often 1.3 and 3.1) hooked to a switch that allows toggling between the two firmware revisions.

2016/17 Rarity: Complete systems can be frequently found online and sometimes at yard/garage sales in the US and Canada.  The A2000 can actually be quite a good bet for North American collectors, since it had a brief run as the de-facto computer used in many school districts and television stations making mildly-upgraded systems fairly common to find. The 2000 is extremely scarce in Europe, with the exception of Germany, where it’s a bit more common.

Odd fact: There exists a very early Amiga 2000 which lacks some of the expansion slots, the ECS, and other features of the more common A2000.  For this reason you may occasionally hear the “standard” A2000 referred to as the B2000 (in other words, the Amiga 2000-B.)  The early Amiga 2000-A had very small production numbers, and was distributed in limited quantities mainly in Germany and the US, so you are unlikely to run into one in the wild.

Amiga 3000 – pros and cons

68030 family processor (16Mhz or 25Mhz): Some poorly coded older games will not run. A handful of newer games will run better due to the speed boost imparted by this chip.

ECS chipset: A tiny handful of poorly coded older games may not run due to the system’s 1MB/2MB of CHIP RAM.

A tiny handful of games benefit from this system’s 1MB or 2MB CHIP RAM.

AGA games (coded for the Amiga 1200/4000 or CD32) will not run.

Switching between NTSC and PAL is possible, provided you have a compatible display.

Onboard SCSI hard drive: allows installation of many games to the HDD.

Onboard flicker-fixer: A VGA or flat panel monitor with VGA input may be directly connected for clearer video. All Amigas with ECS or AGA chip sets can output at least one video mode that is compatible with a VGA style monitor, but normally, these “productivity modes” are slow, limited in their usefulness, and don’t support games.  The A3000’s flicker fixer is an on-board implementation of a card that Commodore and others sold for the A2000 that promoted all Amiga video output to VGA spec.  While most Amigas had 3rd party add-ons to available that could perform this function, the Amiga 3000 is the only Amiga ever released that had this circuitry built-in.

RAM: 2MB minimum.

Variants: A3000, A3000T, A3000UX (later models, particularly the A3000T may be found in the wild with more advanced CPUs)

Reliability snapshot:  Chips are socketed and some are interchangeable with the A500 and A2000, making semi-common. Leaking of the real-time clock battery was relatively common in this system, and if you find one that has been sitting, expect that the battery has ruptured and leaked.  Unfortunately, the battery’s location near the flicker-fixing circuitry means that real damage to the system’s ability to output to VGA devices may have been done.  In some cases, the damage even goes beyond this to other critical traces, rendering the motherboard dead.

Other weak points include the internal floppy drive and the included SCSI hard drive, both of which are prone to old age related issues, and UV yellowing of the plastics (though the main housing is painted metal.) The keyboard is different but interchangeable with that of the Amiga 2000.

Like the 600 and the 1200, the LED board containing the power and drive activity lights is prone to failure, often caused by brittle solder joints.

Upgrading the A3000:

The A3000 upgraded the Amiga 2000’s Zorro II bus implementation with a faster, but backward compatible bus called Zorro III. Zorro III’s speed and address space changes made high speed devices such as ultra-wide SCSI and high-speed video cards possible.

Like the A2000, the A3000 also included some 8 and 16-bit ISA expansion slots and a dedicated video slot used to enhance the Amiga’s built-in graphic capabilities in various ways.

Special note: The A3000 is almost certainly the most difficult Amiga to upgrade.  In addition to removing the PSU and special mounting sled used by the floppy disk drive(s), users must unhook the PSU from the motherboard molex connector, the floppy and HDD cables, and even remove all the installed cards including a daughter board bus expansion card before performing any but the most trivial upgrades or maintenance.

CPU: The 3000 had a dedicated processor slot designed to easily accept accelerator boards.  This slot is mostly compatible with the processor slot of the Amiga 4000.  Boards for this slot are somewhat uncommon, but still obtainable.  68030 boards may not give any speed benefit, as the Amiga 3000 already contains a 16 or 25Mhz 68030.  68040, 68060, and PowerPC accelerator cards can help some games, but are mainly for productivity use.  The Amiga 3000 cannot accept CPU upgrades made for the 500, 1000, or 2000 series, as the A3000 has no 68000 processor socket to replace, and no A2000 processor slot.

Monitors: The Amiga 3000 uses a dedicated Commodore-Amiga RGB monitor, or one of several 3rd party RGB monitors made around the same time.   The Amiga 3000 has no composite TV output, the first and only Amiga to lack this.  This is likely due to the 3000’s role as a serious computer.  That said, it more than makes up for this with its on-board VGA output, which works with modern displays and many flat panels.

The RF/composite color video adapter commonly shipped with the A500 should also work, but there’s probably no reason to bother.

Many Amiga 3000 computers users have added dedicated 3rd party video cards which seamlessly pass though Amiga graphics when playing games, but offer enhanced graphics when working in applications.

OS/firmware: Early Amiga 3000 units shipped with an odd firmware called SuperKickstart 1.4.  In nearly all cases, this was immediately updated to 2.0, and therefore Kickstart 2.0 is one of the most common firmware revisions found on old A3000s.  Similar to the Amiga 1000, the 3000 loads its firmware off disk (but in this case, the hard drive) then reboots, using its Motorola MMU to hold the firmware image in protected memory.  This could be a problem if the hard disk drive were to fail.  If that happens, the 3000 will simply prompt for a SuperKickstart disk.  An A3000 may also bypass this disk-based Kickstart altogether by placing two ROM chips into a socket already on the motherboard.  This upgrade is still obtainable, and the odds are good that any Amiga 3000 you encounter in the wild has already had the upgrade performed.

RAM: As mentioned before, most have 2MB already.  Upgrading beyond this can be done by adding an upgraded CPU card that contains RAM, a hard drive controller that contains RAM, or a dedicated RAM card.  Some of these are still fairly common.  Cards made for the Amiga 3000 and 4000 give access to larger and faster RAM banks, but RAM and hard drive cards made for the 2000 would also work (they would be seen as slower 16-bit RAM.)  In addition, Amiga 3000s have free banks of RAM sockets that may be upgraded by directly inserting RAM chips (either DIPP or ZIP package RAM) and therefore can be upgraded to a maximum of 18MB without the need for any dedicated expansion cards.

Disk drive: Many Amiga 3000’s come with one or two 880KB disk drives already installed, and if they don’t, Amiga 3000 compatible internal disk drives are not too uncommon.  Note that the eject button is has a unique shape and the eject button used on drives intended for other Amiga computers will not fit or will look odd. Some Amiga 3000’s have Amiga high density disk drives.  These drives are far less common and prone to becoming fouled over time.  Often they can be restored with a careful cleaning.

Hard drive – As mentioned above, all Amiga 3000s shipped with some kind of SCSI-II hard drive already installed.  If you find an Amiga 3000 without a hard drive, it should not take too much effort to find a drive to replace the missing one.

Chipset: The chipset is ECS and cannot be upgraded to AGA.  Depending on individual preferences, the Agnes chip may be set to 2 MB mode or to 1MB mode with the additional 1MB moved to another location of the motherboard escaping the overhead of being mapped to that chip and therefore acting as slightly faster “FAST” RAM.  Neither of these distinctions is too important.  If you end up with a 3000 you can use it as-is or read up online to tinker with the system to get even more performance from the RAM.

2016/17 Rarity: Complete systems are less common than most Amigas, but can still be found online in the US and Canada, and less frequently in Europe.  Like the  A2000, the A3000  was used in many television stations an some business in the US.  Variants of the A3000 (A3000UX and the floor-standing A3000T) are globally rare.

Amiga 600 – pros and cons

68000 processor: All games (except AGA) are compatible with this CPU, a handful of games need or can benefit from an upgraded CPU.

ECS chipset: A tiny handful of older games may not run due to the system’s 2MB chip RAM. But some games benefit from the added chip RAM.

AGA games (coded for the Amiga 1200/4000 or CD32) will not run.

Switching between NTSC and PAL is possible, provided you have a compatible display.

An internal IDE hard controller and cavity allows cheap laptop IDE hard drives to be used, in turn allowing installation of many games to the HDD.

No numeric keypad means a small number of games that require players to use the keypad can’t fully run.  This includes some flight simulators as well as some games that allow two or more players to take individual banks of keyboard keys to control their character. The A600 is the only Amiga to lack a numeric keypad, but this also makes it the smallest Amiga.

The power supply is external

Variants: A600, A600HD

Reliability snapshot:  Many chips are not socketed, but are instead surface-mounted.  This means if a chip becomes damaged, it must be de-soldered from the motherboard to be replaced. For this reason, there are probably more faulty Amiga 600’s out there than most other models as user’s who cannot service them themselves sell them off.  Additionally, the Amiga 600 was released when capacitor quality was on the decline, and as a result, odd behavior due to leaking/dry capacitors has occasionally been reported.   There is no real-time clock and therefore no real-time clock battery to leak acid onto the motherboard.  Other weak points include the internal floppy drive which is prone to old age related issues, and UV yellowing of the plastics.

Like the A1200 (and the Commodore SX-64), the 600 keyboard’s electrical traces are printed on a Mylar sheet that wears out easily, causing banks of keys to fail to register.  It also uses a delicate connector (similar to a modern laptop) to connect its keyboard to the motherboard, and you may find yourself needing to remove and carefully re-seat this connector frequently if you open the case often.  Like the 1200 and the 3000, the LED board containing the power and drive activity lights is prone to failure, often caused by brittle solder joints.

Finally, the 600’s case is partially held on by clips which break unless treated very gingerly.

Upgrading the A600:

CPU: Owing to the surface-mount nature of the 600, the CPU has been very hard to upgrade, with very few options.  Very recently, there has been a jump in 3rd party hardware development for the A600, and new, very capable accelerators have become available.  They are still somewhat uncommon however, and no other Amiga accelerators work in an A600.

Monitors: The Amiga 600 uses a dedicated Commodore-Amiga RGB monitor, or one of several 3rd party RGB monitors made around the same time.   Owing to its market role as a home computer and video game system, the Amiga 600 does have a composite color video out that is compatible with televisions.  External “scan doubler” or “flicker fixer” devices that attach to the RGB port may be used to connect the Amiga to a modern VGA flat panel monitor, and there is at least one internal flicker fixer device that attaches internally to do the same.

OS/firmware: The Amiga 600 shipped with firmware 2.05 in most cases.  The 600 may also be upgraded to kickstart revision 3.1 by placing one ROM chip into a socket already on the motherboard.  This upgrade is common and still obtainable.

RAM:As mentioned before, most A600s will have 1 or 2MB installed.  Upgrading to 2MB may be done via a trapdoor RAM expansion on the units underside.  The A600 also accepts 1, 2, or 4RAM upgrades in the form of a PCMCIA RAM card that may be slid into the units side (this is similar to the A1200, and replaced the more robust side expansion bus of the A500. Upgrading beyond this can be done by adding a specially designed upgraded CPU card that contains RAM.

Disk drive: The internal disk drive is 880KB, and more drives may be added by attaching external drives to the drive port on the back of the machine.

Hard drive – As mentioned above, the Amiga 600 shipped with an IDE controller already installed.  2.5” laptop drives were a common upgrade (and already included on A600HD models) and today, many A600 users simply buy a compact flash card and a CF->IDE adapter to create a quiet, reliable, low power solid state drive mounted inside their A600.

Chipset: The chipset is ECS and cannot be upgraded to AGA. If RAM is installed in the trapdoor slot, the Agnes chip sees 2MB of RAM, which can benefit some games by providing more breathing space to load additional sound and graphics.

2016 Rarity: Complete systems can be found online in the US, Canada, Europe, Australia, and other parts of the world.  The system is far more common in Europe than in the US/Canada, as Amiga was fading rapidly in the North American market during the early 1990s.

Amiga 1200 – pros and cons

68EC020 processor: Some poorly coded older games will not run while a handful of newer games will run better due to the speed boost over the earlier Amigas.

AA/AGA chipset: A tiny handful of older games may not run due to 2MB chip RAM. Some games benefit from the added chip RAM.

AGA games (possibly an additional 10% of all released Amiga games) will run on this system. These games generally have more colorful graphics than other Amiga games.

2MB RAM: Should be adequate to run almost any game.

Switching between NTSC and PAL is possible, provided you have a compatible display.

An internal IDE hard disk drive controller and cavity allows cheap laptop IDE hard drives to be used, in turn allowing installation of many games to the HDD.

Adding an external CD-ROM drive may allow compatibility with some CD32 games.

The power supply is external.

Variants: A1200, A1200HD

Reliability snapshot:  Like the A600, many chips are surface-mounted rather than socketed.  This enhanced initial reliability but also means if a chip becomes damaged, it must be de-soldered from the motherboard to be replaced. Additionally, the Amiga 1200 was released when capacitor quality was on the decline, and as a result, odd behavior due to leaking/dry capacitors has been occasionally reported.   There is no real-time clock and therefore no real-time clock battery to leak acid onto the motherboard.  Other weak points include the internal floppy drive which is prone to old age related issues, and UV yellowing of the plastics.

Like the A600 (and the Commodore SX-64), the 1200 keyboard’s electrical traces are printed on a Mylar sheet that wears out easily, causing banks of keys to fail to register.  It also uses a delicate connector (similar to a modern laptop) to connect its keyboard to the motherboard, and you may find yourself needing to remove and carefully re-seat this connector frequently if you open the case often.  Like the 600 and the 3000, the LED board containing the power and drive activity lights is prone to failure, often caused by brittle solder joints.

Upgrading the A1200:

CPU: The Amiga 1200 already has a 14Mhz 68020 family CPU, which gives a mild speed boost to some games.  The CPU lacks an MMU, math co-processor, or dedicated 32-bit RAM, all of which are useful on an Amiga.  Unlike the A600, the 1200’s trapdoor expansion bay accepts not only RAM expansions, but a multitude of processor accelerator cards.  A common upgrade was a card that contained a real-time clock, a match chip (sometimes), and 32-bit fast RAM (often 4MB) at a cheap price that effectively doubles the responsiveness of the 1200.  These are commonly found in used 1200s today, and are still relatively common in the wild.  Other processor upgrades gave the A1200 68030, 68040, 68060, and even PowerPC processors, resulting in very fast systems.  Some of these cards even included enhanced hard drive controllers and even video cards.  But for games, even a stock A1200 is usually adequate.

The Amiga 1200 had an extra trick up its sleeve – a special port called a clock port, originally designed to accept a real-time clock board, has been used to give the A1200 all sorts of useful enhancements, including USB ports!

Monitors: The Amiga 1200 uses a dedicated Commodore-Amiga RGB monitor, or one of several 3rd party RGB monitors made around the same time.   Owing to its market role as a home computer and video game system, the Amiga 1200 does have a composite color video out that is compatible with televisions.  External “scan doubler” or “flicker fixer” devices that attach to the RGB port may be used to connect the Amiga to a modern VGA flat panel monitor, and there is at least one internal flicker fixer device that attaches internally to do the same.

OS/firmware: The Amiga 1200 shipped with firmware 2.0 in most cases.  The 1200 may also be upgraded to kickstart revision 3.1 by placing ROM chips into sockets already on the motherboard.  This upgrade is common and still obtainable.

RAM: As mentioned before, most A1200s will have 2MB installed.  Upgrading to 2MB may be done via a trapdoor RAM expansion on the unit’s underside.  The A1200 also accepts 1, 2, or 4MB RAM upgrades in the form of a PCMCIA RAM card that may be slid into the unit’s side (this is similar to the A600, this PCMCIA port replaced the more robust side expansion bus of the A500.) Upgrading is usually best done by adding an upgraded CPU card that contains RAM to the underside of the unit.

Disk drive: The internal disk drive is normally 880KB, and may be upgraded by attacking external drives to the drive port on the back of the machine. Occasionally, the disk drive is 1.6MB (Amiga high density) but this is relatively uncommon.

Worth noting: The Amiga 12000 was produced by two different companies – Commodore Business Machines and later ESCOM.

A1200s produced by ESCOM (primarily in Europe) have slightly tweaked motherboards that accept a standard floppy disk drive from a PC (rather than the rarer Amiga-specific disk drives) and it uses this as the internal drive.  This drive may not work with some games or other software that bypasses the Amiga OS.  If you get one of these 1200s, you may need to perform modifications, including replacing the disk drive entirely for maximum game compatibility.

Hard drive – As mentioned above, the Amiga 1200 shipped with an IDE controller already installed.  2.5” laptop drives were a common upgrade (or already included on A1200HD models) and today, many A1200 users simply buy a compact flash card and a CF->IDE adapter to create a quiet, reliable, low power solid state drive mounted inside their A1200.

Chipset: The chipset is AGA, and no further upgrades to the Amiga exist beyond this chipset.

2016/17 Rarity: Like the A600, complete systems can be found online in the US, Canada, Europe, Australia, and other parts of the world.  The system is far more common in Europe than in the US/Canada, as Amiga was fading rapidly in the North American market during the early 1990s.

Amiga 4000 – pros and cons

68030 or 68040 processor: Some poorly coded older games will not run due to changes in these newer processors.  A handful of newer games will run better due to speed boost.

Trivia: Late model Amiga 4000 towers actually shipped with Motorolla’s super-scalar 68060, making it the Amiga the only major computer platform to release with a 68060 as a factory option.

AA/AGA chipset: A tiny handful of older games may not run due to the increased CHIP RAM. On the other hand, some games benefit from the added CHIP RAM.

AGA games (possibly an additional 10-20% of all released Amiga games) will run on this system. These games generally have more colorful graphics than other Amiga games.

2MB RAM should be adequate to run almost any game.

Switching between NTSC and PAL is possible, provided you have a compatible display.

An internal IDE hard controller and drive allows installation of many games to the HDD.

Adding an internal or external CD-ROM drive may allow compatibility with some CD32 games.

Variants: A4000/030, A4000/040 A4000T

Reliability snapshot:  Many chips are not socketed.  This enhanced initial reliability but also means if a chip becomes damaged, it must be de-soldered from the motherboard to be replaced. Additionally, the Amiga 4000 was released when capacitor quality was on the decline, and as a result, odd behavior due to leaking/dry capacitors has been occasionally reported.   The real-time clock battery of some models uses the same leak prone package as that of the 2000 and 3000, and unfortunately, like the 3000, acid leaks that have not been caught have a tendency to eat away at important areas of the motherboard, leading to an unstable or nonworking Amiga.  Other weak points include the internal floppy drive which is prone to old age related issues, and UV yellowing of the plastics (though the case is primarily painted metal.) The keyboard is compatible with that of the A2000 and 3000 – but the connector is the newer PS2 size and shape (rather than the A2000/3000’s AT/XT shape) and thus they are only interchangeable after applying a commonly found adapter.

Upgrading the A4000:

The A4000 upgraded the Amiga 2000’s Zorro II bus implementation with a faster, but backward compatible bus called Zorro III. Zorro III’s speed and address space changes made high speed devices such as ultra-wide SCSI and full motion capable video cards possible.

Like the A2000, the A4000 also includes some 8 and 16-bit ISA expansion slots and a dedicated video slot used to enhance the Amiga’s built-in graphic capabilities in various ways.

CPU: The 4000 has a dedicated processor slot designed to easily accept accelerator boards.  This slot is mostly compatible with the processor slot of the Amiga 3000.  These boards are uncommon, but still obtainable.  68030 boards do not give any speed benefit, as the Amiga 4000 already contains at least a 25Mhz 68030.  68040, 68060, and PowerPC accelerator cards can help some games, but are mainly for productivity use.  The Amiga 4000 cannot accept CPU upgrades made for the 500, 1000, or 2000 series, as the A4000 has no 68000 processor socket to replace, and no A2000 processor slot.

Monitors: The Amiga 4000 uses a dedicated Commodore-Amiga RGB monitor, or one of several 3rd party RGB monitors made around the same time.   The A4000 does have a composite color video out that is compatible with televisions.  External “scan doubler” or “flicker fixer” devices that attach to the RGB port may be used to connect the Amiga to a modern VGA flat panel monitor, and there is at least one internal flicker fixer device that attaches internally to do the same.  Many Amiga 4000 computers users have added dedicated 3rd party video cards which pass though Amiga graphics when playing games, and offer enhanced graphics when working in applications.

OS/firmware: Amiga 4000 units often shipped with firmware 3.0.  This may be upgraded to 3.1 by replacing two ROMs with newer ones that are still fairly readily available.

RAM: As mentioned before, all have at least 2MB already.  Upgrading beyond this can be done by adding an upgraded CPU card that contains RAM, or a hard drive controller that contains RAM, or a dedicated RAM card.  All of these are still fairly common.  Cards made for the Amiga 3000 and 4000 give access to larger and faster RAM banks, but RAM and hard drive cards made for the 2000 might also work (they would be seen as 16-bit RAM).  In addition, Amiga 4000s have free banks of RAM sockets that may be upgraded by directly inserting SIMM modules and therefore may be upgraded to a maximum of 18MB without the need for any dedicated expansion cards.

Disk drive: Amiga 4000’s generally come with one or two 1.6MB high density disk drive already installed, with a bay available for a second.  Either of these bays may also accept am 880KB Amiga disk drive.  Amiga 1.6MB disk drives generally have no trouble reading low density Amiga disks, including copy-protected Amiga games.

Hard drive – Like the Amiga 1200, the 4000 shipped with an IDE controller already installed.  Most also have some kind of IDE hard drive fitted, so it’s rare to see an Amiga 4000 without one. Today, many A4000 users simply buy a compact flash card and a CF->IDE adapter to create a quiet, reliable, low power solid state drive mounted inside their A4000.  SCSI drives are not an option unless a dedicated SCSI hard drive controller card is added to the system.

Chipset: The chipset is AGA, and no further upgrades to the Amiga exist beyond this chipset.

2016/17 Rarity: Complete systems are less common than most Amigas, but can still be found online in the US and Canada, and less frequently in Europe.  Like the  A2000, the A4000  was used in many television stations in the US.  Two different tower variants and the lower powered A4000/030 are all globally rare owing to small production runs.

 

What should I look for?

Hopefully, you have a good grounding on what the various Amiga models have to offer.  We didn’t get into the CDTV or the CD32, as these units require additional effort to be converted back into “Amiga computers” so fall outside the scope of this guide.

The takeaway here is that nearly all Amiga computers you are likely to find will play 70% or more of all the games you are likely to obtain.

If maximum game compatibility is your goal, the Amiga 1200 is hard to beat.  It’s less likely to have the acid damage seen in the big-box Amigas, has the desirable AGA chip set, and it’s pretty much guaranteed to have the horsepower to run anything.  It’s also one of the easier Amigas to upgrade. In Europe, the 1200 and 600 seem to be the most commonly found Amigas, and this is a point in their favor as the existing Amiga community is most active in Europe.

Keep in mind however, games make up only half of the Amiga experience.  Many Amiga enthusiasts love the system because of its incredible customizable multitasking operating system, or because it had a rich suite of applications that were unlike those in the MAC and PC world.  For example, advanced image processing and photo manipulation software was commonplace on the Amiga in the years before Photoshop appeared.  High-end Amigas could also emulate Macintosh computers quite easily. So if you also want to explore the serious side of the Amiga, you may be better off with the A3000 with its built in ability to output to any VGA monitor, or perhaps the very powerful A4000.

The Amiga 500 and Amiga 2000 would be a good bet if you can get them cheaply.  They don’t have the bells and whistles of the 1200, but they are reliable and at this point in their life, they’ve probably already been upgraded a bit.  They often come with big collections of game disks too.

Alternatives to disk-based gaming: As the Amiga becomes older, many users are moving away from floppy-disk based gaming.  A popular method of accomplishing this is to accelerate an Amiga and add hard disk storage, then run games using WHDLoad, a special degrader/firmware/re-mapper that allows users to copy entire games to the hard disk.  With WHDload, users can launch and play the games from the desktop and even gracefully exit and return to the desktop at will.  If this strategy sounds good to you, look for an Amiga that you can readily upgrade.

If you’re still undecided, we’d recommend you look at Cloanto’s Amiga forever.  This emulator package installs on a Windows PC (or can boot form CD on any Intel system) and lets you experience gaming on the Amiga, right down to the disk loading noises and monitor scan lines.  It’s a great way to get into Amigas cheaply and learn the operate the machine, so when you head into the real hardware already armed with knowledge.

 

 

One Response to Decision Guide: AMIGA

  1. andrea carino says:

    interessante

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