The Hidden Present
It’s December 1992, I’ve had a couple of years using my Commodore 64 and I really wanted a new computer. I’d been longing for a 16-bit computer for a while and couldn’t understand why my parents hadn’t got the hint. You can imagine my surprise when, as an eight-year-old, I walked in to the living room to see an ominously Amiga-sized cardboard box on December 25th that year. It turns out of all the places to hide it the one place I hadn’t checked was in my bedroom. Kudos to my parents for that stroke of genius.
That was when my relationship with Commodore strengthened from being just a C64C owner to also an Amiga owner – the bigger brother with more bits, more power and way more graphics. I was over the moon – a floppy drive (these things were futuristic to me at the time), a real operating system (I didn’t know about GeOS at the time for the C64) and a mouse. This felt like I had arrived in the late-20th century of computing.
For many, however, the Amiga 600 was actually the death knell of Commodore. It was nothing more than the Amiga 500 Plus, released a year earlier, but costing more money. The plus side was the case was smaller, it could use a PCMCIA expansion slot, it could come with a hard disk and even up to 6MB of RAM. But who wanted all that in a low-end home computer? This machine started out as being the cheaper, smaller, better version of the A600 and ended up being filled with features nobody wanted and offering nothing that wasn’t already out there. It lasted a year before it was discontinued just before Commodore themselves went bust. They had newer processors, better graphics and the capabilities to deliver but they still had a 1970s or 1980s mind set where they could keep selling the same computer in different beige boxes. The world had changed and within a year of their demise out came Windows 95 and the world changed forever.
Reliving the Past, But It’s Broken…
It may well be almost 2I years since that cold December morning but I suddenly felt a pang of all things past when I was building my new office recently. There it was – the history of my computers laid bare. A Commodore 64C, a BBC Model B, an IBM PS/1 but what was missing was that 16-bit link in the chain – my Amiga 600. With everything now out on display it felt wrong to not have revisted an important part of my past.
With feverish excitement I’d gone from research to bidding on an eBay item in the time it took me to drink a cup of tea (Assam, hot rather than Earl Grey, hot…). The item eventually turned up (no thanks to Parcelforce who can never find my house) and I left it there for a few weeks pending me having the time to give it justice and do an unboxing.
Sadly, last week the day for unboxing came and it was somewhat underwhelming. I turned the machine on to the noise of a floppy disk seek but no video output. I spent hours trying to determine whether my component or analogue TV (RF) to SVGA converters were functioning only to give in to what appeared to be a lost cause. After some research it turned out it was most likely down to dead capacitors more than fifteen years past their use-by date.
I stripped the Amiga back to its motherboard and there were no obvious signs of capacitor damage (not that there always is – they can just dry out) so I tried a novel approach – putting the Amiga 600 in the dishwasher. The idea was that any “icky bits” from capacitors would become visible and true enough I did get to see some damage. More miraculously the Amiga 600 still worked no worse than before (booting but without sound or video). At this point without the kit to de-solder surface-mount equipment well I decided to give in and order another Amiga 600.
Thankfully the second Amiga was in a much better state – in fact it had never even had its case removed and the warranty void sticker was still present. More amazingly it booted first time – quite a miracle for a machine only 4 years younger than my wife. It soon became apparent that not only had the original Amiga 600 not booted but almost all the software supplied was also toast. I did, however, manage to get into the Wordsworth word processor, the Workbench operating system and a couple of games including an amazingly weird Super Mario-meets-Chupachups platform called Zool which, apparently, was one of the most amazing games of the era on any platform. Saying that it did look a little rubbish now.
Other than realising that floppy disks rot over time it was quite a remember of what the Amiga was in this era. At the time a cheap PC could come in around £1,000 but the Amiga could come in for a couple of hundred quid. For that you got a full GUI comparable with Windows 2.1, hardware that scaled up amazingly well (you can run much later versions of the OS on it and even get a web browser working) and technology that still wasn’t in mass use. Sure it used a previous generation computer and had a massive hardware failure rate but it always felt something special for me. Yes, a Raspberry Pi is way more powerful and fits in my wallet but this is a 25 year old machine released before Windows 3.1.
I didn’t quite have the journey to my past that I wanted unboxing this Amiga but thought I’d ramble about it anyway. It was nice to complete my collection (even if I now have two Amigas) of original computers – but I would have felt a lot better if I’d actually had more of a working system. The moral to learn from this – don’t buy vintage computers from eBay!