July 27, 2010 9:13 AM   Subscribe

The first and only time I ever saw an Amiga, Frank Kozik was showing me some ideas for a Butthole Surfers album cover, so I'm pretty sure they were really cool (It really was an AHA! moment, actually). Must've been about 1989 or so.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:19 AM on July 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

Ars Technica has a wonderful series on the Amiga. Parts one, two, three, four, five, and six. Plus the Amiga gaming retrospective.

Such an amazing machine and so ahead of it's time. It's a shame it didn't make it.
posted by 6550 at 9:25 AM on July 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

I programmed on an Amiga 2000. Has it been over 20 years already? Yikes. My memories of the machine:
1. Built-in speech synthesis
2. Deluxe Paint
3. The Video Toaster, a bundle that included LightWave 3D and started me on my career path
posted by Chinese Jet Pilot at 9:31 AM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

t's a shame it didn't make it.

Well... the A500 was hugely successful. They just didn't go much beyond that, or claim the business desktop or anything, and but they pretty much hung on until the OS scene became the PC/Mac duolopoly we see today.
posted by Artw at 9:32 AM on July 27, 2010

Amiga Demo Scene Archive
posted by Artw at 9:33 AM on July 27, 2010

Not knocking the success of the A500 but I meant in terms of becoming a lasting platform that continued to give PCs and Macs a run for their money.
posted by 6550 at 9:35 AM on July 27, 2010

Huh! I could have sworn I got the link for that article from here.

Amiga 1000, Amiga 2000 with GeFORCE 68030 kickass, Video Toasters, the works. Oh man, what great machines. Workbench 1.2! 1.3! Just great stuff.
posted by cavalier at 9:40 AM on July 27, 2010

I've still got my Amiga 3000T, the tower form factor version of the Amiga 3000. I understand these are fairly rare, which would explain why the 5-digit serial number on mine starts with three 0's. It makes me sad that the machine hasn't worked for years, though I have this irrational hope that I might be able to make it work again one day.

From the article:
"Using an app like Sculpt 3D, you could do raytraced 3D animation on the Amiga–as long as you didn’t mind waiting a few hours for each fame to render."
I thought it was worth mentioning that this is still the case on current computers. Higher resolutions and more sophisticated algorithms can easily use up all the performance gains from advances in hardware.

I remember watching a TV documentary about the history of computers, and at one point they were talking to people in various fields about what they would do with a computer 10 times faster than they had today. And 100 times faster. And 1000 times faster. And so on up to 1 million times faster.

Most talked about new types of software that could be built to take advantage of those kinds of performance improvements, or new applications that were not feasible on current machines. But the raytraced graphics guys said something along the lines of "well, we'd be able turn on these six options in our software all at the same time".

What does this have to do with the Amiga? Well, the Amiga 2000 that I had before the 300T was the computer that first got me into raytracers, because it had just enough computing power and graphics capability to make it interesting. So I knew exactly what they meant about always wanting a faster machine.

And now, a couple of decades later, on a quad-core machine that's probably several thousand times faster than the A2000 I started on... I'm still messing about with raytraced scenes that take hours to render.
posted by FishBike at 9:41 AM on July 27, 2010 [6 favorites]

I still have my beloved A500 (with RAM upgrade) and 1084S RGB stereo monitor downstairs. The only part I haven't held onto was the CA-880 external floppy I sold on ebay a few years back. For some reason I just can't part with it, it's like one of my children.
posted by MikeMc at 9:42 AM on July 27, 2010

Portland-filter: The guy VJ'ing old music videos at Beulahland on Sundays was using an Amiga with Video Toaster, couldn't tell you more beyond that.
posted by wcfields at 9:44 AM on July 27, 2010

Shit, I just realized I still have an A2000 sitting in storage. It's got some SyQuest Removable 88MB drive that's totally crapped out. Anybody got a SyQuest drive out there I could borrow? Try and salvage some data? Hmmm.
posted by cavalier at 9:45 AM on July 27, 2010

FishBike: That's basically my litmus test for when computing power has "arrived." Sure, there are all sorts of software (and peripheral hardware) innovations that will redefine how people interact with the machines... but when it comes to raw number-crunching power, raytracing is the line in the sand. Someday games will do it in realtime. When that day comes, we will finally, as far as I'm concerned, be in The Future.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 9:46 AM on July 27, 2010

My dad brought home an Amiga when I was a gradeschool kid. My favorite thing was using Deluxe Paint to make snowflakes -- later I had a BASIC book that I'd type in programs from. We had a couple of computers at school, but I never really realized how ahead of its time the Amiga was.
posted by Jeanne at 9:46 AM on July 27, 2010

When I was at uni there was a mature student comp sci guy in my hall of residence block. I remember him getting an Amiga... An actual computer, with a screen and keyboard not a Speccy or something that connected to a telly... and not in a lab or uni department... it was like Neuromancer had come to life
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 9:49 AM on July 27, 2010

I used to gaze longingly at the shelf full of Amiga games while in Babbage's. Then I'd go over to the PC shelves and pick up something I could actually play.
posted by NationalKato at 9:49 AM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Trivia - Video Toaster was developed by Brad Carvey, brother of Dana.
posted by davebush at 9:55 AM on July 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

***Guru Meditation Error***
posted by battleshipkropotkin at 9:56 AM on July 27, 2010 [15 favorites]

The Amiga: Born a champion. But Commodore fucked it up.
- secret message in, what was it. 1.3 of the OS?

The way I work in Illustrator is shaped by the years I spent working in Deluxe Paint. All five versions of it.
posted by egypturnash at 9:58 AM on July 27, 2010

I used to go to NAB trade shows when the Video Toaster was being demoed (by Kiki Stockhammer herself) and I remember the shocked broadcast video professionals who couldn't believe that such a low cost "toy" was doing what dedicated systems of 10x the price could do.
posted by rocket88 at 9:59 AM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Guru Meditation redux, from the same genius brain that brought us Cow Clicker
posted by avocet at 10:00 AM on July 27, 2010

Heh -- used to have an Amiga 500 when i was a kid and LOVED it. Had my first modem (1200bps!) with it too, and ran a crappy BBS out of my parents house (after midnight to 7am only, of course, since we only had one phone line!).. I knew one friend who did the same kind of stuff, but it took almost another 10 years from that point for the concept of modems and emailing to enter into mainstream vocabulary...
posted by modernnomad at 10:00 AM on July 27, 2010

Trivia - Video Toaster was developed by Brad Carvey, brother of Dana.

Woah. You done just blew up my mind.
posted by cavalier at 10:02 AM on July 27, 2010

I did some of my earliest gaming on an Amiga. I had an NES from the time I was six (in '89), but we had an Amiga for several years after that, probably from '90-'93 or '94, and I had a lot of good times. I spent many hours trying to get further than five or six screens from the beginning of Shadow of the Beast (my tiny hands didn't do well with keyboard based controls when I was so used to the NES controller). There was also an isometric RPG that I've been trying to remember the name of for years. After some actual research, I'm reasonably sure it was The Faery Tale Adventure. And last there was Arcticfox, the best damn first person wireframe tank shooter ever made.

I'm sure there were others, but those are the ones that stand out in my memory. I remember those games significantly better than most of elementary school.
posted by Caduceus at 10:08 AM on July 27, 2010

Interesting to note that Commodore died just as the Amiga was hitting a real renaissance in user interest - actually, that was the problem. This was the mid-'90s, and everyone wanted a computer to browse the web, so there were a ton of first time buyers. At the same time, Commodore released the A1200, which, while a stopgap before they were to roll out new generation hardware, was very exciting to the installed base, especially at its price point.

Demand for the A1200 was completely off the charts - unfortunately, Commodore couldn't manage its supply line, inventory or cash flow. Suppliers weren't getting paid, A1200's weren't getting made, and suddenly there were no A1200's to be had for love or money. Then the suppliers stopped delivering anything to Commodore but lawsuits, and this is in the midst of their best sales run, ever. But what was sold were machines that weren't actually there - and then the big retailers and wholesalers started to ask for their money back, too.

Then Commodore pretty much fell over and died.

Apple, who similarly deals with slow evolutions* of their hardware and the resulting initial demand at rollout handles it by having big, gigantic wads of cash and liquid assets to keep the factories humming while they build inventory. Even when they were bleeding red ink in the '90s, they had at least 5bln in cash, and that was more than enough to see them through the craziness of new product rollouts.

(*compared to everyone else, who tries to crank out a new rev quarterly, and a new product line to replace the old one yearly)
posted by Slap*Happy at 10:14 AM on July 27, 2010 [4 favorites]

The Amiga was incredibly advanced, but in certain respects, they got there by pushing various hardware workarounds as far as they could. For instance : the color cycling mentioned yesterday? The Amiga did that - except that it could change the palette once per scan line. Even more, it could change a single palette color once per pixel - although it could only change either the red, green or blue component of the pixel. (This allowed Commodore to claim that the Amiga could show 4096 colors on screen at the same time.)

(By the way, there are various demos showing realtime raytracing - the most famous (I think) is still heaven seven, back from 2000. It ran perfectly on my old 500mhz P-III.)
posted by suckerpunch at 10:14 AM on July 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

One of my first dates with my husband to be was as a teen-ager in Spring of 1989. We drove up to some very spartan, computer store in an industrial park and he bought an Amiga, I can't remember the price, only that he had a check his dad had made out and I was floored at the cost. He used Amigas all through college (SCAD video production major). His excitement about Video Toaster, waiting for frames to render and driving all over Savannah to find the latest issue of Amiga World are etched (burned?) into my memory. I don't know what happened to his Amigas, he had a few of them. I'll have to find out. Probably in my basement...
posted by pearlybob at 10:19 AM on July 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

Such an amazing machine and so ahead of it's time. It's a shame it didn't make it.

The problem: It used custom hardware to do that voodoo that it did so well. The trick of the Amiga was to make the CPU do as little as possible, by offloading the work to custom ASICs -- the OCS -- Angus, Denise and Paula. Roughly, Agnus did I/O, esp. Memory I/O -- it was fundamentally a DMA controller on steroids. Denise drew the screen, and Paula made sound. There was also a remarkably smart floppy controller, and a remarkably dumb serial controller -- which they bit-banged with, and made it do clever tricks.

In 1985, that let it do amazing things. Combine that with an amazing preemptive multitasking OS, and this was a different world.

In 1990? You could buy better graphics and sound and stick them in your PC. Your Amiga? Well, you needed to buy an Amiga 3000 to get the ECS and improve the graphics and sound. Price at release? $4500.

In 1995? Your average PC or Mac had more CPU, RAM, Disk, Video bandwidth, and if you bought a SoundBlaster, equal sound -- and cost a fraction of the Amiga 4000.

Meanwhile, every time you wanted a better Amiga, you had to rebuild the OS to use the new features, and you had to cut the ASICs. PCs? You put in a card, which talked though standard BIOS routines (supplanted, later, by drivers) and you then had better graphics.

In many ways, the Amiga was the supercomputer of the home market. It was built to the same design, fundamentally, as the CDC 6600 and 7600 -- bolt a bunch of coprocessors onto a CPU, and give it close access to memory. It ran like a bandit, compared to the other PCs of it's time -- when the Amiga 1000 was released, we had the mighty Macintosh 128K and the IBM PC/AT. The Amiga just slew them.

By 1990? The Amiga 3000 was competing against things like the Mac IIfx and the PS/2 Model 90, and the Clones were starting to rise -- the Compaq Deskpro 386 and SystemPro were changing the economics of the PC.

And that was, well, that, for the Amiga. They built Ferraris. Compaq and the others built Fords.

Everyone needed a Ford.
posted by eriko at 10:36 AM on July 27, 2010 [11 favorites]

Man. I can't remember which of my Amiga 500 memories I've mentioned on the site before. I've got a lot. It was a good machine to grow up on.

Nostalgia overload.  Please abuse admin privileges to continue.
Guru Meditation #000003F4,0000B117

posted by cortex at 10:42 AM on July 27, 2010 [79 favorites]

^^show off
posted by Mister_A at 10:44 AM on July 27, 2010

He also edited the post to fix his tags. BASTARD!
posted by ecurtz at 10:47 AM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

(This allowed Commodore to claim that the Amiga could show 4096 colors on screen at the same time.)

Aham, Hold And Modify mode, or HAM mode. There were some good painting programs that used that, and it was good fro showing photos and ray traced animations. Rubbish for games though, and prone to some fringing.
posted by Artw at 10:52 AM on July 27, 2010

Got my start in CGI on my Amiga 500. It was so great.
posted by Scoo at 10:55 AM on July 27, 2010

(Please insert Workbench.)
posted by snuffleupagus at 11:04 AM on July 27, 2010

You know what makes me kind of sad? The various misbegotten hybrids that popped up towards the end of Amiga's reign, like the CD 32 and the CD TV.

Ah... the days when "multimedia" and "CD ROM" were exciting buzzwords that people cared about...
posted by Artw at 11:05 AM on July 27, 2010

Aham, Hold And Modify mode, or HAM mode.

Oh man, yeah. I recall having some paint program that lived off its HAM credentials, something it could do that the version of Deluxe Paint we had (III, probably) couldn't. All DPaint had going for it was being completely awesome in every other respect.

I once spent a couple days with Deluxe Paint doing my own from-scratch rendering of Tutenkahmun, which exercise I remember even at the time realizing had near zero utility—what would I do with a painting in this program? This was before consumer internet and before I had any understanding of file formats. That Amiga was essentially the best Etch-A-Sketch I ever owned, all of the stuff I did in it functionally ephemeral, certainly lost now that the machine itself is dead and buried.

I once did a bunch of graphics with animation in Deluxe Paint as well, for a school presentation project. It was about the Sahel region of the Sahara desert, and my grand plan was to integrate graphics and animation from the Amiga into a VHS video along with filmed talking-heads bits. But I put the editing off to the last day, and didn't bother once before that to test my assumption that the computer would have an RCA video out port.

It didn't. I spent an afternoon tromping around to a couple of video/component stores in the neighborhood but they just laughed it off as unheard of—some panicky fourteen-year-old busting in the door asking about a vague component for a computer that nobody buys. In the end I took our crappy camcorder with no manual focus function and pointed it at the Amiga's monitor in a dark room and grabbed terrible blurry footage of my drawings and animations. It was sort of heartbreaking (and stomach-churning, since I had been counting on the dazzling crisp graphics to really give me a leg up on an otherwise underdeveloped presentation).

I still have that VHS tape somewhere. I need to get my hands on a VCR and capture that thing and stick it up on Youtube.
posted by cortex at 11:06 AM on July 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

Would have loved to have had even an Atari ST back in that late 80s period, let alone an Amiga. Sigh.
posted by weston at 11:07 AM on July 27, 2010

Shut your mouth. The Atari ST is the devil.
posted by Artw at 11:08 AM on July 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

Some video game intros to take you back in time:

Xenon 2: The Megablast
Battle Squadron (sequel to Hybris)
Shadow of the Beast
It Came From the Desert
Bloody Money
posted by Sutekh at 11:09 AM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ah, good old Amiga. It was my second computer after the Apple II, a first year A1000 with the developers signatures moulded into the plastic of the case. My dad had done back of the napkin comparison shopping and picked it over the original Macintosh. I saved my allowance to get a 300 baud modem from Radio Shack and found the one BBS in town, then had to modify the BASIC terminal program to be able to download a real terminal program that could do Xmodem. I had the Pascal compiler which of course could do nothing more than stdio stuff, no access to all the nice graphics and stuff, the Kernel Reference Manuals were fantastic and made me want to learn how to make the damn thing work. I eventually found a book on Forth, and got Mountain Valley Forth from the Fred Fish collection which amazingly enough had an assembler and enough hooks into the Exec and Intuition libraries to get started and it was off to the races. When I made it to college, I found out that the Amiga was the favorite of neck beard Unix folks because it had the same executable format as the 68000 bases Sun3/50 type systems everybody was using back then. Just use the proper headers and link with amiga.lib and you could compile on the big box and use DNET to dump it to your Amiga. By 1988 I would dial up my Amiga into the university computers and then go to work in the NOC and transfer programs to my box back in the dorm (DNET was basically SLIP/NFS/rsh for the Amiga). I ended up with tons of stuff stored on a purloined 12" tape that I would sneak on the drives once nightly backups were finished. Over the years that machine got so hacked, cut traces on the motherboard to put in the audio filter bypass like the A500 had, clipped a resistor to fix a design flaw in the video output of the early machines, built a MIDI interface for my roomies keyboard. Eventually came across a spare shoebox HD from one of the old user lab Suns, a whopping 80MB MFM drive with an Adaptec SCSI adapter board. Then upgraded with a CPU replacement board (LUCAS) for a blistering 16MHz 68020/68881 math co-processor and 4MB of RAM), so much stuff that the cover wouldn't fit unless you removed the RF shielding.

Totally awesome machine, between that and the Suns I learned everything from bare metal hacking to assembly to cross compiling to OS design. I guess it's the reason I've always had such a distaste for Microsoft and Apple, they were so inferior at the time and really they still are if you never knew the joys of real big boy toys. heh.
posted by zengargoyle at 11:10 AM on July 27, 2010 [8 favorites]

Aww, I used Amigas at SCAD too. We used to set them up to render, then covered them with notes begging people not to touch them...and came back a day later.
posted by JoanArkham at 11:13 AM on July 27, 2010

I had the Amiga 2000 as a kid, and did my first 3d renders on it. I remember having to plot the polygons on graph paper, although there was a tool for creaing spheres and cones and such. Oh and there was a scanner that took a vga signal from a camera and painstakingly digitized it, in black and white unless you placed r, g, and b filters over the image in succession. And I also remember convincing my parents that I needed something called a "genlock" so I could superimpose titles and graphics on my videos.
posted by condour75 at 11:15 AM on July 27, 2010

I went to art school, in Utrecht, The Netherlands, in the late eighties, with the desire to become a painter or illustrator. It so happened to be the first art school in the world to have a dedicated computer graphics department. A buddy of mine took me to the lab one day to show me one of their probably 30 or so Amiga computers. That was when I decided to ditch the idea of a painting career and focus on interactive media. Not that many people can say they took programming courses (GFA Basic!) in art school.
posted by monospace at 11:16 AM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I could have sworn that I posted this anecdote already on the blue (or green, or whatever) but I can't find it now.

Anyway, any discussion about Amiga vs. Macintosh has to include the Star Trek IV story, which I read somewhere and can't source at the moment (doesn't seem to be Wired, which was my first guess). The story is that, as you may recall, there's a scene in which Scotty has to teach twentieth-century engineers how to create transparent aluminum, which he needs for a big aquarium in the Klingon Bird-of-Prey so that they can save the whales. The director needs to have a then-state-of-the-art workstation for Scotty to do his thing on, and the visual effects people suggest an Amiga, since they've used it for some of their work. They ask Commodore if they can have one, they'll give 'em a shout-out in the credits, etc. Commodore flat-out says no--apparently, they're afraid that it will make the Amiga look primitive--and when the STIV people try ordering one directly from the company, Commodore puts a hold on the order. So, the Trek people go to Apple, and not only does the company give them a Mac, but it also sends along a tech to make the Mac do whatever Leonard Nimoy wants it to do, thus giving Apple product placement in the most successful Trek movie until First Contact.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:19 AM on July 27, 2010 [4 favorites]

Oh man, yeah. I recall having some paint program that lived off its HAM credentials, something it could do that the version of Deluxe Paint we had (III, probably) couldn't. All DPaint had going for it was being completely awesome in every other respect.

That was probably Photon Paint. HAM mode graphics were incredibly weird to work with by today's standards. Almost all the other Amiga graphics modes just used a set of colour registers (up to 32) each of which could be set to one of the 4096 available colours. Then each pixel was assigned to one of those colour registers.

HAM mode gave you 16 colour registers, and you could set those to any value you wanted and then paint any pixel with one of them directly. But you could also specify that you wanted to carry over the colour from the pixel to the left, and modify just one of the red, green, or blue values.

So if you wanted to paint a pixel a specific colour, and it wasn't one of the colours you'd assigned to one of those 16 colour registers, you had to put one of those 16 colours one or maybe several pixels to left of your target pixel, then modify the red, green, or blue values in successive pixels to reach your target value.

And because you've now possibly changed the colour that pixels to the right were starting from to reach their target colour, you may have to do some re-work over in that direction to get things back on track again.

Hence the need for a completely separate drawing program that specialized in these sorts of things.
posted by FishBike at 11:20 AM on July 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

Trivia: Wil Wheaton 'worked' for NewTek for a while. By worked I may mean hung out. Topeka, KS early 90s.

If I have my ancient memories straight, the Amiga pre-Commodore was designed as a generic arcade machine platform. By the time they made it so beefy in the video and audio realm they noticed that all you needed was a keyboard/mouse and some OS to make it one hell of a PC. This is one of the reasons why the 1000 series had to have a Kickstart disk to basically load the system before you put in the Workbench disk to do anything else.

The custom chip thing is no big deal back then, even the IBM type machines had bizarro graphics and I/O cards, you even needed special cards if you wanted fast serial ports on a PC. But the weirdo graphics chips go back to the arcade design, blobs and sprites and automatic collision detection for shoot-em-ups.
posted by zengargoyle at 11:24 AM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I never have much to add to Amiga nostalgia threads, but I know how much we all love to commiserate.

I had an Amiga 500 that my awesome parents got me as a high school graduation present, and then I bought a used Amiga 2000 literally one week before Commodore declared bankruptcy. It had a 40MB hard drive ("40 megs! I'll never need more than 10, maybe 15."), a modem, and a PC Bridgeboard (basically a self contained pre-386 PC on a card; you could boot into MS-DOS if you wanted)... that machine held its own for an impressively long time, and I probably would have been using it into the late 1990's if I had been able to fit it into the U-Haul when I moved cross country in '96.

It always seemed like Commodore might have made a go of it if they'd been even marginally better at marketing the Amiga.
posted by usonian at 11:27 AM on July 27, 2010

I had a 20MB Hard Drive, which was a revelation at the time - "it just boots! Also I can put all 6 disks of this game on it and play it without swapping!"
posted by Artw at 11:33 AM on July 27, 2010

Shut your mouth. The Atari ST is the devil.

All we had was a TI-99/4a. No expansions. No assembler. Just a tape deck and TI Basic. An ST would have been great.

(Particularly once I got a CZ-101. Built in MIDI ports? Yes, please.)
posted by weston at 11:34 AM on July 27, 2010

P.S. I did a bit of googling and found this old Slashdot comment, which is a slightly different take on my version of the story above. I find it a little dubious, given that, even with a relatively meager budget of $24 million, buying either machine would have been pretty small potatoes and they could have always used it for something else once filming wrapped.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:34 AM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Of course, at the time looking over at the guys with their ugly ass Windows 3.1 machines the idea that it could overtake us was preposterous. Them with their 386s and 486s and X Wing and Wolfenstein... sigh.
posted by Artw at 11:38 AM on July 27, 2010

Trivia - Video Toaster was developed by Brad Carvey, brother of Dana.

That DID blow my mind because I was in a comedy club in L.A. long ago when Dana Carvey was making a "special appearance" working on new material (turns out he was also live-auditioning for a couple SNL producers sitting at the bar). In addition to a Church Lady bit, he did a routine about his Inventor Brother (and I may recall him using the name Brad) hooking up electrodes to a dead frog and making its muscles twitch, then creepily saying "He'll never die again". (He ad-libbed that he'd made his brother's voice sound too much like Jimmy Stewart and would work on that before he did the bit again... still, the Jimmy Stewart voice just made it creepier and funnier)

posted by oneswellfoop at 11:41 AM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I had a 20MB Hard Drive, which was a revelation at the time - "it just boots! Also I can put all 6 disks of this game on it and play it without swapping!"

I suspect I almost destroyed the 20MB hard drive in my A2000, which would have been awful considering the controller card and drive together cost some 4-digit number of dollars.

I had noticed that the drive would start to spin up as soon as power was applied to it, but it sounded like the speed regulation mechanism didn't cut in until a second or two later.

So in a moment of boredom, I guess, I tried repeatedly power-cycling the computer to get that uncontrolled spin-up to happen over and over, without enough time between for it to slow down again. Amazingly, this did actually get the drive to spin quite a bit faster than normal.

Then when I did let it complete its normal startup at the end, I discovered the green LED on the front also had the capability of lighting up red. 20MB drive-speak for "Whut? Where am I? Holy shit I'm going fast!"

In hindsight, this was probably not the best idea ever.
posted by FishBike at 11:41 AM on July 27, 2010 [4 favorites]

Mine wasn't even internal, it was the ugly ass lump on the side of the A500. I think the internal thing was the RAM upgrade (and clock!)
posted by Artw at 11:46 AM on July 27, 2010

My dad brought home an Amiga when I was a gradeschool kid. My favorite thing was using Deluxe Paint to make snowflakes

Oh, man. Me too! I also spent hours playing Emerald Mine and Marble Madness.
posted by the littlest brussels sprout at 11:47 AM on July 27, 2010

Turning on symmetry to draw snowflakes was fine, but what was really fun was using the cycle brush, turning on color cycling and drawing big fat worms of "moving" color.
posted by Artw at 11:49 AM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

but when it comes to raw number-crunching power, raytracing is the line in the sand. Someday games will do it in realtime. When that day comes, we will finally, as far as I'm concerned, be in The Future.

As suckerpunch said, this sort of thing already is feasible in realtime now. It's a matter of the resolution and how sophisticated the raytracing algorithm is.

You want anti-aliasing to get nice smooth edges and prevent fine details from disappearing. Ok, but it increases the computation by a factor of 10. You want focal blur to reproduce the limited depth of field of a real camera. Sure, but there's another factor of 10. Radiance, so that, for example, a red object beside a while wall causes a slight reddish tint to appear on the wall? Another factor of 10. Photons, so that you can shoot beams of light around your scene and have them bounce off mirrors and be refracted properly by lenses? Another x10. And so on it goes.

Maybe these don't all cause a factor of 10 increase in computation, but they all cause some, and the effect is often multiplicative. So using 3 or 4 of these neat features at once can slow things down by a factor of 1000.

I was checking to see if I could figure out which raytracing software I used on my Amiga 2000 (and later, 3000T) and it was definitely DKBTrace. This later evolved into POV-Ray, as described on the early history of POV-Ray page, and that's the ray-tracer I'm using today.

It's sort of neat that I'm still using a descendant of the same software the first sparked my interest in this nearly 25 years ago. And my computer still isn't fast enough for it.
posted by FishBike at 11:56 AM on July 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

Mine wasn't even internal, it was the ugly ass lump on the side of the A500.

Around 94 a friend that had a computer repair shop asked me to handle an Amiga call for him. The client was a local paint store that used an Amiga 500 with a 20MB external hard drive to run a color mixing/matching program.

The hard drive would spin up but not read. After asking a few questions I discovered that the owner had thought the hard drive was too noisy so he opened up the enclosure, unscrewed the top of the hard drive and gave it a shot of WD-40. That hard dive is still in one of my Amiga parts boxes.
posted by Tenuki at 12:22 PM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

It always seemed like Commodore might have made a go of it if they'd been even marginally better at marketing the Amiga

The biggest problem was that Commodore treated its engineers like shit, underpaying them and treating them as replaceable cogs. They had one of the finest rockstar-quality technical teams ever assembled when they bought Amiga, Inc, and they treated them like dirt and drove them all away.

More than any other thing, THAT is what killed the Amiga. If you have a product that's that much better than the competition, even inept marketing can work, and the userbase was an amazingly powerful evangelization force, almost certainly the strongest ever assembled for a simple product you could buy. Hell, there are religions with fewer adherents than the Amiga in its heyday.

I've said many times that if Apple had owned the Amiga assets, the PC would not have survived in its present form. We'd all be using Amiga derivatives now. Apple was badly dysfunctional in many ways, but they understood how rare and important the truly great engineers were.

When you use your computer today, happily switching around between tasks without having to quit a program and launch a new one, running dozens of processes handling all the various things a modern machine needs to do, realize that Amiga owners were doing most of this in the late 80s, in machines that were maybe a thousandth as powerful as what you're running now. Intuition and Exec were the first recognizably modern operating system in home computers.

Amiga owners frothed and foamed and hated on the world because they KNEW it was the right way to approach computing. They KNEW that everything else was just a toy in comparison. And they were right. Essentially all of the important Amiga features (multitasking, great graphics, great sound, abstracted storage drivers, replaceable filesystems, system-level print drivers, vaguely Unixy command line) ended up being absolutely critical to what we consider a good computer. It was so frustrating to KNOW that this was the right way to do it, but not be able to get the rest of the world on board.

If you were dumped onto a good 1990 Amiga machine, you'd still be able to function more or less like you do now. It would be slow, and somewhat crashy, and frustratingly primitive in many ways (the print drivers were especially bad), but you'd be able to organize your workflow and operate almost exactly the way you can in 2010. You'd recognize it as a blurry approximation of a modern machine, and you'd be more comfortable there than on anything else made at the time.

I'm finding it hard to express just how amazing it was. The Amiga team reached just so much farther than anyone else. It's like they knew what computers would look like, a generation later, and did their damndest to jam as much of that as they could onto a seven megahertz machine.
posted by Malor at 12:40 PM on July 27, 2010 [15 favorites]

Artw: "You know what makes me kind of sad? The various misbegotten hybrids that popped up towards the end of Amiga's reign, like the CD 32"

I believe that Wikipedia page does mention that the CD-32 actually had a shot at keeping C= alive for a little while longer given that its Euro sales were brisk. Great things were expected for its US sales year... except that C= fell foul of the ludicrous XOR Cursor Patent ("Method for dynamically viewing image elements stored in a random access memory array") and, by not paying a vig to the patent trolls or anticipating an adverse court decision, received an injunction against importing the CD-32 into the US. Unsold CD-32s began to pile up at the manufactory, and eventually were seized and used to pay production debts. C= management strikes again.
posted by meehawl at 12:43 PM on July 27, 2010

And how, Malor. I can still remember just how seemless dragging the Workbench bar down, or swapping between programs, was. Sure, your occasional pointer became a cloudy "Zzzz", but man, all of those suckers were running in as real a time as you could tell. I really, really do miss that OS/computer.
posted by cavalier at 12:50 PM on July 27, 2010

A1000 and A1200 owner here - both computers still work. We used the A1200 as our home computer up until 1999 - it could run Netscape 2 using Jim Drew's Mac emulator, but we usually used AWeb and Miami to go online natively with it.

Newtek's first product, DigiView, was a slow speed scanner using a black and white security camera and a color wheel that was just about the first program that created HAM images. They later came up with a paint program, DigiPaint, which I think could draw in HAM before PhotonPaint.

No computer since has been as cool and exciting as the Amiga.
posted by rfs at 12:59 PM on July 27, 2010

Trivia - Video Toaster was developed by Brad Carvey, brother of Dana.

Ooh! Dana Carvey was (is? was, at least) a pretty big Todd Rundgren fan. Todd used Video Toasters to create (I'm pretty sure) the first video completely done on a desktop for the song "Change Myself." Newtek was so taken with it that they hired Todd for a bunch of other stuff. I'm sure I've seen pics of him standing around the Newtek booth at an early '90s CES. I also seem to remember Garth wearing TR and Video Toaster t-shirts in one of the Wayne's World movies.

I love this particular derail, and I do love that song.
posted by mintcake! at 2:10 PM on July 27, 2010

DigiPaint was the HAM painting program I used. It was fun, if a little inexact. I also had the DigiView with the little color view, we had a lot of fun messing about with that.
posted by Artw at 2:28 PM on July 27, 2010

Speaking of Dana Carvey, watch his episode of the Kevin Pollock Chat Show. I found him extremely likable and interesting.
posted by davebush at 2:48 PM on July 27, 2010

 Software Failure. Press left mouse button to continue.  
         Guru Meditation Error #0DECAFBAD.DEADBEEF       

(Cortex -- don't forget that the box blinked!)
posted by autopilot at 3:56 PM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

posted by cortex at 3:57 PM on July 27, 2010

Thanks, Artw.

Lot of great nostalgia here. Thanks, everyone!

I migrated from the C64 to an Amiga 1000. Utterly exhilarating, empowering machine. Booting the kernel from floppy. I had a hacked one with mine which gave incredible copper bar effects and music to indicate the desktop was ready to boot. Excited to see the 1.2 kickstart update (£15) which allowed you to drag - drag! - icons around (before that, shifting icons was only indicated by a cursor change rather than real-time updates).

Getting a second floppy was phenomenal. Each application disk would be configured to be self booting and support as much as possible, as you'd pretty much reset the machine to run another major application. PowerPacker would let you compress applications to get more on a disk, and you'd strip down the drivers to get more on that floppy. An entire set of drivers, libraries, command line tools and scripts on a floppy! Somewhere I still have Lattice C (oohs from the back there) which came on six floppies.

A friend fitted a 68010 ('as used in washing machines!') CPU in my A1000 to speed it up 10%, but in reality it just meant lots of hardware-timing dependant copy protection failed. It didn't matter, as there was so much other fascinating things on that machine. I properly learned about machine code there, with the Kuma assembler (and the excitement of using labels, and not calculating jump offsets by hand any more). But also, you had the insane joy of Arexx, which was a forerunner of AppleScript, only properly architected.

I bunked out of my GCSEs to write the graphics column for Amiga Computing in the UK, under the kind tutelage of Jeff Walker. Got to see all kinds of crazy software - got a free copy of CygnusEd, which I loved. And my first taste of Emacs, which I still love. After realising no-one understood computer graphics at university level education ('you're a designer, why do you need email?!?') I got my first job creating 3D animations, using LightWave (which is still around). This was with a UK team, which had to import US VideoToasters and A2000s to support the NTSC-only hardware clocks of the VT. The running joke was that it was the most expensive hardware dongle ever - at the time, it was. We used LightWave solidly and I never saw the rest of the VT interface ever. Remember setting off renders and coming back the next day, or fancying an easy day and running tests with the antialiasing turned on. Carvey and Kiki Stockhammer wipes.

I picked up AmiTCP which got me online - the hilariously named iBrowse as the browser of choice - and spent time picking up software on Aminet. Demos abounded, which I was partly involved in via Amiga Computing and their coverdisks, peppered with demos and 'public domain' software. Better still was getting hold of a CDTV and Fish disk CD, loading the caddy up with Fred Fish's (RIP) software collection, and feeding it into my A1200 through a parallel-cable network (parnet: device driver) from a single-speed CDROM.

It was an incredible ecosystem, swapping pirated software on floppies through the post, glueing software together with high-level scripting, spending £500 on a 20mb hard disk the size of several laptops, and not quite realising how far ahead it all was.

Somewhere I still have my Exec and Intuition programming manuals, which were joys to read and my first insights into the value of interface and human computer experiences. And the spiral-bound Amiga Basic manual, which had a credit to some no-show company called MicroSoft who ported their clunky text-mode version of the language to the platform.

There's still things AmigaDOS could do which nothing else has come close to. Assign a virtual directory to multiple real directories and access files in any of them from one path? Glorious. Fonts: Libs: L: S: C: assignments let you do some incredible hoop jumping customisation.

God, I could wax on about that system all day. Happy happy times. Thanks for the memories everyone!
posted by davemee at 4:12 PM on July 27, 2010 [11 favorites]

I spent my teenage years skirting around a strange sub-culture of the european Amiga demo scene - and davemee basically just posted what I wanted to write.

Artw thanks for this post. I'm going to try to dig out some of the things I wrote for Grapevine way back in the day and see if they're as excruciatingly embarrassing as I expect them to be
posted by Jofus at 4:36 PM on July 27, 2010

Ha! I got the 68010 as well. Eventually it went in favour of the 68020. Don;t recall having many copy protection worries, but, um, there may have been reasons why I wouldn't ever have had those.
posted by Artw at 4:38 PM on July 27, 2010

Heh. I wrote for Grapevine, mainly AD&D stuff (Grapevine was a weird grab-bag). It's probably awful.
posted by Artw at 4:39 PM on July 27, 2010

The 68010 is where I learned that a 10% performance difference is about the smallest amount you'll consciously notice. All these years later, that purchase is still serving me well, in allowing me to ignore the last few percent in benchmarks. :)
posted by Malor at 5:52 PM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Although my memory tells me that my brother's A500 was about 6 feet wide with various sidecars, I can only remember the one - SCSI and memory expansion. (although IIRC we had an external drive connected to it, too.) But he had upgraded the CPU to at least a 68020, and we replaced the ASICs every time a new one came down the pike, and the.. realtime clock + 512k expansion in the bottom of the system? It's been too long, and I wasn't paying for it. I just remember that towards the end it was slightly fragile, but hellaciously advanced compared to the IBMs my friends on BBSs were using.

My favorite memory with that machine is working out color registration from scratch, using PageStream (?) to print to our HP Deskjet 500 that we had refilled with color inks, just running the pages through 3 or 4 times and getting pretty amazing results considering nothing in the paper handling path was designed for accurate registration.

Desktop Publishing is dead to me now - nothing quite matches the WYSIWYG wonder of those early Amiga and Mac programs. Admittedly, we aren't bombarded by horrible fonts quite so often, either....
posted by Kyol at 6:52 PM on July 27, 2010

One great thing about the logical assignments was that when you installed software you didn't have to reboot - you could just run whatever commands that were added to your Startup-Sequence stand-alone and the software would work.

I bought several hardware upgrades for my A1000 - the DKB Insider 1 MB RAM board (from Novi), a Supra 4X4 SCSI hard-drive (20 MB !), and a board whose name I can't remember which replaced the Kickstart RAM board and gave the A1000 1 MB of chip RAM, a Fat Agnus, and a ROM socket for the 512 KB ROMs - I ended up running AmigaDOS 2.1 on it.
posted by rfs at 6:59 PM on July 27, 2010

Oh yeah, I worked for the largest computer dealer chain in LA and we were the biggest dealer in the Amiga launch. And then our first shipment had a 60% DOA rate, and Commodore couldn't ship us replacement units, leaving us with a huge bundle of money tied up in dead computers.

We were the first chain to drop that piece of crap like a hot potato.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:31 PM on July 27, 2010

eriko: "In 1985, that let it do amazing things. Combine that with an amazing preemptive multitasking OS, and this was a different world."

Cooperative multitasking, actually, but still awesome.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 9:09 PM on July 27, 2010

Somehow, I get the serious impression that Mr. Gates is using his billions to build a time machine, with which he goes back in time to screw Commodore and assure the success of the inferior IBM PC.
posted by Goofyy at 10:41 PM on July 27, 2010

Joakim Zeigler, eriko is right, actually. Pre-emptive multitasking. Windows implemented co-operative multitasking at that time. It truly was a thing of glory.

The only fixed address in the system was for the multitasking system executive library, Exec, at address 4. Memory leaking tools used 0xDEADBEEF to identify intrusion and leaks, as there was no cross-task memory protection. Anyone else remember Metascope, the amazing debugger?

The idea of sushi came into my consciousness around this time and I believe it was quite the fashionable thing. The joke was that if Commodore invented it, they would have marketed it as "cold dead fish".
posted by davemee at 10:58 PM on July 27, 2010

That "Amiga Commercial ( 1995 )" on the linked page is horrible—almost an entire minute of Joe Biden trying to find his car in the Gondor airport parking terminal.
posted by blueberry at 11:27 PM on July 27, 2010

davemee: "Joakim Zeigler, eriko is right, actually. Pre-emptive multitasking. Windows implemented co-operative multitasking at that time. It truly was a thing of glory. "

Oh, wow, you're right, I had the idea that didn't show up until later versions of the OS. I might have been confused by the other big OS feature everyone was missing, memory protection, which we never really got.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 12:19 AM on July 28, 2010

Sutekh, I'm still friends with the guy who wrote that very piece of music for SWIV. He was also in the demo group Crusaders. He's scoring for games and film now - sadly, with nary a mod in sight, at Bob & Barn Ltd.
posted by davemee at 12:25 AM on July 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Cooperative multitasking, actually, but still awesome.

I think you're confusing preemption with memory protection, which the Amiga didn't have. All the programs on the machine ran in the same address space, and it was very easy for a program to stomp on another program's memory. This meant that one buggy program could easily take the machine down. And there was no user/kernel privilege separation like you get with modern OSes either. All programs had full control over absolutely everything, and that made the Amiga the first real breeding ground for viruses and antivirus programs.

But in exchange, you could do really neat stuff, easily intercepting system calls to override behavior, or manipulating other programs. And the whole thing ran crazy fast. The multitasking was genuinely useful on a 7.1Mhz machine. It would run in 256K of RAM, but didn't get very useful until 512, and hit its true sweet spot at maybe 2.5 megs.

(Compare that, with, say, Windows NT 3.5, which needed about a Pentium 300 and 64 megs to get to the same overall level of responsiveness. It had oodles more features, but it was not a performance champion by any measure.)

The multitasker was fully preemptive. It interrupted programs and transferred control to new ones without their intervention. The scheduler, Exec, was written by RJ Mical, and it was apparently a thing of beauty; it was able to do a full context switch from one program to another in something like 11 instructions. I don't remember the specific number for sure, but A) it was very small, and B) Motorola ended up putting it in their hardware reference manual as the best known practice.

It actually worked, and was highly useful, on a machine that was maybe 1/100th the speed of an iPhone.
posted by Malor at 12:38 AM on July 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

My father had a knack for listening to a certain type of MIT computer person when it came to choosing computers and thus I grew up with the Amiga 1000 and Macintosh Classic instead of MS-DOS and Windows. However, we later moved to Austria in the mid-90s and there one could still get old Amiga games in their original packaging for about 120 schilling each, not to mention the continued existence of a monthly Amiga games magazine with an included floppy disk. The small computer store that had the games (not the magazines, which I bought from regular newstands) also demoed the Amiga CD32.

Nowadays I run Linux (not a difficult transition after using minority operating systems with rabid fans my whole life and getting things to work on them) and I'm both attracted and repelled by this GTK/Metacity theme.
posted by Gnatcho at 3:30 AM on July 28, 2010

120 schilling = about 11 US dollars at the time, if I remember correctly.
posted by Gnatcho at 3:30 AM on July 28, 2010

Malor, the 7.1 Mhz was actually 7.1591 Mhz, exactly twice the speed of the NTSC colorburst to make genlocking easier. All of the upgrade CPUs (from GVG? my memory is going...) were multiples of this speed -- it wasn't until the Amiga 2000 and Video Toaster that async motherboard designs allowed the CPU speed to be divorced from the NTSC speed.
posted by autopilot at 3:40 AM on July 28, 2010

Malor, the 7.1 Mhz was actually 7.1591 Mhz, exactly twice the speed of the NTSC colorburst to make genlocking easier

Actually, I sort of suspect that was a bonus feature. Using the colorburst crystal as a timing source became incredibly popular for two reasons.

1) Color TVs
2) Color TVs.

Every color TV had one. Every one needed to be quite accurate to make NTSC color work* -- note the frequency on the crystal is 3.5795 MHz. A 10.0000 MHz crystal cost a bunch of money -- 10.00MHz were cheap, but not the far more accurate 10.0000Mhz crystal. But because of Color TVs, millions thereof, and the need for an accurate colorbusrt crystal in each one, 3.5795 MHz colorbust crystals got the boost from economy of scale, and were vastly cheaper.

So, if you wanted an accurate time source that you could afford, you worked a multiplier of a colorburst crystal. This was true until PCs were pushing 25+MHz, and multiplying out a colorburst crystal became impractical. Then we started seeing higher frequency crystals -- and less accurate PC clocks, because often these would be 25.00MHz or 33.00MHz, not 25.0000MHz.

Eventually, crystals generally disappeared, because CPU clocks were too fast.

* Well, sort of work. NTSC=Never The Same Color.
posted by eriko at 6:46 AM on July 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ah, see, I had PAL, so games would frequently have a big strip of nothing at the bottom.
posted by Artw at 9:14 AM on July 28, 2010

The Steve was right though when he saw Lorraine: "Too much hardware" which hampered OS development and backward compatibility. No A1200 or any other false dawns could have saved that. Eriko covered this in more conceptual detail. All its USPs were temporary. I think the Amiga reflected the wonderful funky thinking of the Atari VCS and 800 folk and early computing - use every trick in the book to transcend the limits of hardware and do cool stuff. Trouble is that makes everything break if you change anything hardware or software wise. Its a neat trick but only appropriate for an arcade board or maybe a game console - its no way to build a platform.
posted by The Salaryman at 10:23 AM on July 28, 2010

I think, if they'd preserved the original team, especially Jay Miner, they could have stayed on top of things. Remember, transistor counts and speeds were doubling every 18 months, and that gives you a huge budget for backward compatibility hardware. And even if they had to sacrifice some compatibility, that would typically only be old games, which have the least value of the programs on a given system.

The real strength of the Amiga was its operating system. That was sufficiently powerful and flexible enough that if Commodore had treated their engineers like the rockstars they were, they'd have been able to stay well ahead of anything the PC and Mac were doing. It was so well-thought out that end-users were retrofitting things like TCP/IP onto that basic framework, even though it hadn't changed much since its original release in 1985. There were certainly cosmetic changes in 2.0 and 3.0, but neither version was anything resembling a major rewrite -- they were really just facelifts, with some improvements to work better with the later 68XXX chips.

Remember, the Mac didn't even get real multitasking until 2000.

The Amiga simply had a better foundation to build from, and if Commodore hadn't been a bunch of old idiots who only knew how to sell typewriters, they'd still be a powerful force in the market today.
posted by Malor at 7:59 PM on July 28, 2010

For those who may be interested: a new Amiga, the X1000 running Amiga OS 4 will be available soon. If you're in to concurrent algorithms it should be fun:
The XCore allows fine-grained parallel processing and the equivalent of 256 loosely coupled cores. At least eight threads are available at any one time.
posted by robertc at 12:52 AM on July 29, 2010

The machine was a stunner, especially given that it came from a company previously known for rinkydink home computers such as the VIC-20 and Commodore 64.

posted by FatherDagon at 9:32 AM on July 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

posted by FatherDagon at 9:33 AM on July 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

For those who may be interested: a new Amiga, the X1000 running Amiga OS 4 will be available soon. Real Soon Now.


Yeah, it's been coming RSN for a long long time. It's an industry joke.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:35 AM on July 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

64K, that's like the same amount of memory an elephant has!
posted by Artw at 9:38 AM on July 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yeah, it's been coming RSN for a long long time. It's an industry joke.

The company, A-Eon, has only been in existence since 2009.
posted by robertc at 3:16 PM on July 29, 2010

They've got a good ten years of failing to deliver ahead of them before someone else takes up the baton!
posted by Artw at 3:18 PM on July 29, 2010

The company, A-Eon, has only been in existence since 2009.

They are the latest in a long line of post-Commodore Amiga vaporware vendors. For the last 15 years or so, I have been hearing about how a new Amiga is about to be released Real Soon Now.
posted by charlie don't surf at 5:26 PM on July 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

It does have a very 80s/early 90s looking tower case though.
posted by Artw at 5:36 PM on July 29, 2010

Interesting discussion scuffle on the X1000 wiki page linked above. It mentions AmigaKit as the distributor, which does currently offer AmigaOS4.
posted by snuffleupagus at 6:52 PM on July 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

They also offer this rather respectable looking 700Mhz PPC model, the SAM440EP-FLEX. It's $911.18 w/a 500GB hdd and 512MB RAM and a Radeon 9250.

kinda cool.....

and now I'm wondering if I can get an Amiga OS to run on old PowerMac hardware....

posted by snuffleupagus at 6:57 PM on July 29, 2010

One of my crowning achievements of 1990 was successfully installing Amiga Unix, a port of AT&T System V largely done by Agrajag the Prolonged of the Legion of Doom (under his real name & day job working at Commodore), onto my Amiga 3000. Having a full-fledged Unix box in my own home, a year before Linux was even conceived, was a thing of wonder back then.
posted by scalefree at 4:48 PM on July 31, 2010 [2 favorites]

« Older Life in a dying village.   |   Reporting the Internet: American Blogs 1999-2010 Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments