Life Left in Classic Amigas

by Eric Schwartz
From the AmiTech Newsletter, February 2018

With things like the Vampire and other affordable accelerator cards for low-end systems being more readily available, interest appears to be rising in the low-to-middle end of Amiga retro usage lately. Nowadays there are a handful of issues when it comes to using older hardware, generally related to trying to use it in concert with newer hardware and standards. A common issue is that of video, as Amigas, especially older ones, use NTSC and PAL (15 kHz) video scan rates, which has been more and more of a problem as 31 kHz VGA became dominant for computer monitors, then LCD and HD wide screens, along with digital signal cabling like the DVI and HDMI interfaces.

The Vampire card has an HDMI interface, and an “SAGA video card” built in to allow you to output to HD screens much like an Amiga with a dedicated video card. Future core updates of the Vampire intend to implement the Amiga AGA chip hardware, thus making it possible to output common Amiga resolutions and (hopefully) “metal-banging” games and software via HDMI.

Unfortunately, for the moment, Amiga chipset video still goes out through the standard ports, requiring anything from a switch to a separate monitor if you want to work both sides, and you’re still stuck finding a method for viewing 15 kHz video. Many in the “retro” computing and gaming world keep around at least one dedicated CRT 15 kHz monitor, such as the venerable Commodore 1084. If you do some research, you can find a few recent LCD monitors that will accept 15 kHz video signals, as long as you have a good VGA cable adapter for the Amiga’s 23 pin video port. Another option is a scan-doubler or HD up-converter (internal or external) to modify the native signal into one for a modern TV or monitor. (again, you may require an Amiga to VGA cable, or SCART, or component) These up-converters range from inexpensive with quality that depends heavily on what you are willing to accept (like unimpressive picture quality or significant video lag), to high quality and fast response with a price tag to match.

Sometimes waiting around for the Vampire cores to catch up on Amiga chip implementation looks like the best option, but that doesn’t help those using something else, or no enhanced hardware at all.

The other main issue is that of getting files in and out the system from your other computers or outside sources. Back in the day, floppy discs were the only universal standard for moving files in and out of the Amiga, which didn’t seem too bad then since most of the files were under a megabyte. Now with giga/terabytes of storage in the palm of your hand, networks, wireless, and Internet on everything, the old Amigas look like xenophobic isolationists by comparison. Thankfully, there are multiple newer methods for getting things in and out of your Amiga systems, again depending on how much work and money you want to put into it.

A common option for the retro gaming crowd is the Gotek drive, replacing or supplanting an unreliable floppy drive with one which accepts SD cards or flash thumb-drives loaded with ADF disk image files. This is a limited option designed mostly for replacing floppy discs, and thus has a fairly specific use geared toward classic gaming. One of the most versatile options is adding a USB adapter, as not only does this give access to flash drives and other storage, you can also add PC mice, keyboards, and a wide range of other USB hardware. For small-box Amigas like the A500, A600, and A1200, this is usually accomplished by boards like the Subway or RapidRoad, which use the clock port interface on the A1200 motherboard, or on third-party memory/clock cards for the 600 and 500. This is one of the pricier solutions, no to mention a challenge trying to fit the card and cabling inside a cramped all-in-one Amiga case.

Another option is a network card, either wired or wireless. This has obvious benefits, but if your only goal was to get files in and out, it’s a bit indirect, requiring you to access files on another computer or device, or even doing thing like e-mailing attachments to yourself. Amiga network hardware can be pricey, with some of the cheaper options being re-purposed PCMCIA network cards for the interface on the A600 or A1200. One of the less pricey options for large file transfer, at least for 600s and 1200s, is a PCMCIA adapter for memory cards such as Compact Flash. Like any PCMCIA card to be used on an Amiga, you need a 16 bit card to match the stock Amiga interface. Amiga Kit sells one for roughly $13. If you find it difficult or pricey to get CF memory cards, further adapters are available to use common and inexpensive SD cards in their place. These adapters cost about $12 each. Mine is a brand called Digigear, and was bought through (You want the slim version for one that works with Amiga PCMCIA or IDE drive adapters.) They seem to work quite well, though it is recommended to avoid card sizes above 32 gigabytes.

For a while it seemed like classic Amiga was stagnating somewhat, with more attention going to the “high end” systems that ran OS4 or MorphOS. The door seems to have swung the other way in the last couple of years, thanks to more available and affordable hardware options to make the classic systems “just modern enough” to work within the framework of modern monitors or storage technologies. It’s plenty enjoyable to play around with classic Amiga hardware, not unlike fixing up and tooling around in a classic car.