Running an Amiga in the 2020s (posted 2020-09-26)
I got an Amiga 500, a 1200 and a 3000 within a few years in the early 1990s. I'm not sure what happened with the 500, but I still have the 1200 and the 3000. I've used the Amiga 1200 for quite a bit the past week, which got me thinking: what should I do to prepare my 27-year-old computer for the next decade of her life? Or, more in general, what's appropriate for different kind of Amigas to keep them running for the foreseeable future?
In order to enjoy your Amiga, you have to be realistic in what you can expect from which model, and which upgrades make sense and which don't. In addition, there's three related issues to pay attention to: storage, backup and communication. I'll go over this for all the mainstream Amiga models: 1000, 500, 2000, 3000, 600, 1200 and 4000.
Amigas without a harddrive
That's probably most A1000s and A500s, and maybe a few A2000s. If you have an A600 or A1200 without a harddrive, I have more to say about that later.
In general, I recommend against pimping the A1000, A500 or A2000 too much. They're always going to be slow even by Amiga standards. So if you have one without a harddrive, I would use it for older floppy-based software. Installing a harddisk is probably going to be difficult and/or expensive, as the industry has moved on from the types used by 1980s Amigas and getting decades old drives "new" now doesn't seem like the best idea.
Floppies are also problematic: the drives will fail at some point, and the floppies will become unreadable at some point. I was actually surprised that my Amiga 1200 only had issues with just one of its original Workbench install disks. However, the floppy drive on my A3000 doesn't recognize anything anymore.
A good alternative is the very affordable Gotek drive. The Gotek USB floppy drive emulator is a device that fits in place of a 3.5" floppy drive, but rather than floppy disks it uses a USB flash drive to store disk images of floppies. With the help of a three-digit display and a couple of buttons you select the desired image file, and to the computer it then looks like a floppy was inserted. Gotek drives work with any computer without the need for drivers. You can take the USB flash drive out of the Gotek to copy image files on and off, so you have storage, backup and communication.
You can either replace your Amiga's floppy drive with a Gotek, or connect a Gotek as an external drive. They can be made to fit in an Amiga 500 (not sure about the A1000, the A2000 should definitely be no problem), but that's not super elegant. You then also lose your internal drive, which you may want to keep for games with copy protection systems that are incompatible with the Gotek.
Alternatively, you can use a Gotek as an external drive. In that case, you'll have to get an Amiga external floppy drive adapter and probably an external casing, making this a more expensive solution. Also, many games want to load from DF0, the internal drive, rather than from DF1, the external drive. But on an Amiga 500 that can be solved with a DF0 selector. I wouldn't modify the case, but see if I could pull the wire for the switch through the ventilation holes on the back of the computer, or maybe put the switch in the trapdoor cavity.
CompactFlash and the Amiga 600/1200 (and 4000?)
The Amiga 600 and Amiga 1200 have room and a connection for an internal 2.5" IDE harddrive, and the A4000 for a 3.5" one. However, with a very simple and cheap adapter (there are many, I like this one), you can use a CompactFlash card as a harddisk in these models. So you can basically upgrade your Amiga to an SSD! Replacing the harddrive with a CF card probably makes sense for all Amigas with IDE support, as 4 GB or so CF card are very cheap, and they'll probably last longer than the Amiga itself. And they don't make any noise. 4 GB is the maximum AmigaOS 3.0 or 3.1 can use, but the recently released 3.1.4 can handle more.
With a small adapter, you can also put a CF card in the A600/A1200's PCMCIA slot and use CF cards to backup your internal drive. And you can easily exchange data with any modern computer through a card reader that supports CF cards. There's also CF-to-SD adapters so you can use the more common SD cards. However, AmigaOS doesn't recognize the data on a CF card in the PCMCIA slot automatically, you need to install CFD133 and fat95.
Replacing a harddrive
Obviously any device can fail, but mechanical/magnetic harddrives are more at risk than most components. Then again, the harddrive could outlive the rest of the computer, so my plan for my A3000 is to keep its current 500 MB SCSI drive until it fails. At that point I'll probably replace it with a SCSI to SD adapter.
So when the time comes to replace a drive, either because the old one failed, or you want a bigger and quieter CF or SD card as your Amiga's harddrive, it's important to have a backup of all your Amiga's data. On an Amiga 1000 or 500 with a 20 MB or maybe 40 MB harddrive, you may be able to do that with a Gotek, but anything larger and the (virtual) disk changes are going to be too much. On the A600 and A1200, you can use a CF card using a PCMCIA adapter for backups.
However, on the "big box" Amigas, the 2000, 3000 and 4000, there doesn't seem to be an obvious way to connect non-ancient storage for backup purposes. So for these, I'd recommend getting an Ethernet card, although that's not super cheap. But this way, you can easily make copies to and from the drive of another computer or a NAS with something like smbfs.
On Amigas that can take Zorro cards I'd prefer that over Plipbox, a parallel-port-to-Ethernet adapter—the Plipbox is ten times slower than a regular Ethernet card but definitely not ten times cheaper. However, it could be a great solution for an A1000 or A500, or for those of us who like to tinker with hardware.
With the A600 and A1200 you can use a PCMCIA Ethernet or even Wi-Fi adapter. A bunch of older ones are supported by the Prism2 drivers. Ethernet hasn't changed the past decades except from getting faster, but PCMCIA Wi-Fi adapters don't support current Wi-Fi security standards.
But... Ethernet cards as well as CF cards in the A600/A1200 PCMCIA slot require drivers. So you need to be able to boot from a bootable drive that has those drivers on it, such as a Network Boot Disk for Amiga. However, be sure to test whether this works for you: I added my apparently somewhat obscure I-Card Ethernet driver as well as the necessary files from CFD133 and fat95 to mount a CF card. If you can't make a bootable floppy, then you'll probably want to get a Gotek, if only to perform this one task. Remember that AmigaOS 2.0 and higher machines can boot from an external drive, but Amigas running AmigaOS 1.x can't.
Electrolytic capacitors and clock batteries
When discussing old computers, you hear the word "recapping" a lot. What that means is replacing the electrolytic capacitors. Those are components on the motherboard that contain a liquid (the electrolyte). For the most part, the electrolyte may dry out, reducing the effectiveness of the "caps", but they may also leak and damage other components and the motherboard itself. When you open your Amiga, you should check for possible capacitor problems.
However, I believe there is a bit of hype here, and even the AGA Amigas are not in imminent danger from ruination by corrosive leakage from their capacitors. It seems that 1980s Amigas such as the A500 have longer lasting capacitors. Between 1999 and 2007 there were some big problems, but that's after the last Amigas were manufactured.
My A1200's motherboard looks absolutely fine to my not very well trained eyes. But if you see any damage, or your Amiga behaves strangely (bad audio, trouble booting, especially when first turned on and still cold), you may want to look into having your Amiga "recapped". Unless prohibitively expensive, I would choose for replacement capacitors with the longest possible life span, and certainly ones that won't leak and damage other components.
In any event, it helps to turn on your Amiga at least a few times a year for some time.
Another part of your Amiga prone to leaking and damaging your motherboard is the battery that powers the real-time clock. (The clock that keeps the time when your Amiga is turned off.) The big box Amigas (A2000/A3000/A4000) have battery backed up clocks on their mother boards. For the all-in-one Amigas those are usually part of a RAM upgrade. Especially the barrel batteries are notorious for leaking and doing bad things to the surrounding electronics and the board itself.
So clock batteries are definitely something to pay attention to. However, they're not all created equal: some are lithium batteries that won't leak. The A1260 accelerator board in my Amiga 1200 has a rechargeable VL2020 lithium battery. The machine has been in storage for almost five years at one point, and the clock will only keep accurate time when the machine is turned off for about a week. However, as this battery won't leak and it's soldered on the accelerator's board, I don't really feel like replacing it.
For a computer that has Ethernet, you can sync the computer's clock with an NTP server using SNTP and SetDST. With that in place, you really don't need a battery backed up clock, so I'm ok with keeping my current battery that's on its last legs. With network time syncing in place you could even remove a battery that's prone to leaking.
And if you pretty much only play games you may not care about the clock anyway. However, don't underestimate the usefulness of file creation/modification dates if you do more than just play games. For this reason, you should always use the "clone" keyword with the copy command in the Shell/CLI, so the copied files inherit the original file's modification timestamp.
Which Amiga, which CPU, how much memory
There's basically three generations of Amiga: OCS (old chip set), ECS (enhanced chip set) and AGA (advanced graphics architecture). Each generation has an all-in-one model and a big box model. So OCS: A500 and A2000, ECS: A600 and A3000, AGA: A1200 and A4000.
There is of course also the A1000, which I'm going to assume isn't too too compatible with much software because of its limited RAM and age, but is by far the coolest of the Amiga line, so if you can get one and run it in its original condition, you have my respect.
I think the A500 is a great machine if you mostly want to play older games. The A2000 is of course more expandable, but what does that buy you? It's always going to be slower than a similarly expanded A1200 or A4000. So I wouldn't get a new (well, "new") Amiga 2000.
Make sure that your A500 has 1 MB RAM, and that should really be 1 MB chip RAM, not 512 K chip + 512 k slow RAM. I wouldn't further upgrade the A500 with fast RAM, a harddrive or a better CPU. If you want those things, get an A600 or A1200 instead.
The A600 is also a good choice for older games. However, there are a few possible incompatibilities. For instance, the keyboard doesn't have all the keys other Amigas have. The advantage of the A600 is that you can easily extend it with a CF card harddrive and use the PCMCIA slot for backups and to exchange files with other systems. However, make sure you get 2 MB RAM, as the drivers for the extra hardware use some memory so a 1 MB A600 can't quite run all the software a 1 MB A500 can.
The A3000 is a really nice machine, where Commodore didn't seem to have cut corners to hit a low price point. But with all the metal it seems to show its age more than even most A500s. I have a CyberGraphx 64/3D graphics card in mine, which is really nice. But even the built-in graphics are more useful than with most other Amigas because of the built-in flicker fixer. That means you can connect the A3000 to a standard VGA monitor and run all your software without any further complications.
Still, I'm spoiled by having a 50 MHz 68060 with 64 MB RAM in my A1200, which blows away the otherwise respectable 25 MHz 68030 in the A3000. Also, RAM for the A3000 was expensive back in the day, and it still is today, so I only upgraded to 8 MB fast RAM. But the main reason why I rarely turn on my A3000 anymore is that the fan is really loud. I have no idea how I was able to stand having that machine on 24/7 in my living room for years to run a BBS. There's probably replacement fans that are much quieter, though.
So I find it both hard to recommend the A3000 and hard to recommend against the Amiga 3000.
In addition to the A500, A3000 and A1200 that I own or have owned, I've also worked with the A2000 and I feel I have an understanding of the A600 as a mix between the A500 and the A1200. However, I've never used an A4000, so it's hard for me to say anything definitive about that model. I suppose it's the one Amiga that's reasonably fast without any upgrades. Pros are that it has AGA and IDE so you can use a CF card as a harddrive, and you can add an RTG graphics card. Then again, the A1200 also has AGA and IDE, and can be upgraded to a faster CPU and more RAM without too much trouble, and its PCMCIA slot allows for cheap Ethernet cards and the ability to plug in CF cards to exchange data with modern computers.
So I'd say that for most people it's between the A500 and the A1200. There were millions of A500s sold, so they should be reasonably easy to get. They run old games really well, and I think if you feel nostalgic, Workbench 1.3 is a nicer trip down memory lane than Workbench 2.0 - 3.1. I haven't checked, but I'm pretty sure that today, an A1200 is a good deal more expensive than an A500. However, the A1200 has so much going for it. You can put in a CF card harddrive for very little money. You can do networking or CF cards using the PCMCIA slot. It has AGA, but if you want to cheap out, it also has composite video and even RF out, which the A500 doesn't have. And OS 3 is simply much more capable than 1.3.
With an A1200, you definitely want to at least upgrade the RAM. Having some fast RAM makes the computer more than twice as fast. There's also a ton of accelerator cards. Of course, by today's standards, every Amiga is slow. I have a 50 MHz 68060, which is close to the fastest 68000 series CPU ever made, and it can just barely play MP3s. So I'd say: embrace the slow performance. A 68030 accelerator is probably the sweet spot if you want more speed: it's a nice improvement over the stock 14 MHz 68020 and the 68030 has an MMU which can be useful in certain situations. But the 68030 is more compatible with older software than the 68040 or 68060.
RAM extensions for the A1200 usually have the RAM chips soldered to the board, so get the full 8 MB if at all possible. The A4000 and accelerator cards for the A1200 (usually) take SIMMs as their RAM, and these are still commercially available here and there, so it's pretty cheap to upgrade to (by Amiga standards) very large amounts of RAM (such as 64 MB) for very little money. And there's no such thing as having too much RAM. (But if there were, I'd say that 64 MB is already extremely generous and I can't think of anything reasonable you'd do with an Amiga that requires more.)
Well, there you have it: the Amiga, the platform that stubbornly refuses to die.