This page is my tribute to one of the greatest home computers of all time: The Commodore Amiga 500.
The Amiga 500 was my first “Real” computer, compared to modern day machines. My first ever computer was the Commodore Vic 20, which was soon followed by my Commodore 64. However, the Vic and C64 were mostly “Toy” computers to me from my youth. Oh sure, I had productivity applications and GEOS, and these would get the job done. However, the Commodore 64 was still seriously limited in so many respects. In contrast, the Amiga 500 didn’t seem to have any limits; indeed, it was the stuff that dreams were made of. It was the future!
To compare the Amiga 500 to the Commodore 64, or any other computer of its era, would be unfair. It was a machine that was many years ahead of its time when it was introduced as the Amiga 1000 in 1985. So much so that when Commodore introduced the Amiga 500 two years later (alongside the Amiga 2000), the hardware was left unchanged, yet it still outclassed everything in and even many computers above its price range! The Amiga 500 had no equal. As such, I was very excited to get my very own Amiga 500. In the year 1988, at the age of 17, I sold off all of my 8 bit Commodore 64 stuff, and bravely put that money towards a brand new Amiga 500 with a matching 1084s monitor. It was time for me to grow up, and I was determined to get the best computer ever made.
The Amiga 500 was an exceptional machine in every respect. Up until the Amiga 500, home computer users were thrilled with video games that approached arcade quality, and had accepted as a given that a reasonably priced home computer couldn’t really compete with a dedicated arcade machine. The Amiga 500 not only brought true arcade quality into the home, it was actually used in arcade machines! To this day, Amiga 500 games are a pleasure to play. Realistic colours, high resolution screens, smooth animation, stereo sound…it really did have it all. The downside was that it caused the Amiga 500 to become pigeon-holed as a video game machine.
The Amiga 500 was so much more than a game machine. The CPU was supplemented with custom co-processors, so that, for example, even while displaying a high resolution picture or animation in hundreds or even thousands of colours, the main processor was hardly strained. This was unheard of in 1988! In addition, it came with a very sophisticated multitasking graphical operating system with a very powerful command line. Elements of the OS were resident on a ROM Kickstart chip, while the rest loaded into memory from an 880k floppy. The OS was compact enough that one could also include a sophisticated application along with the complete OS on the same floppy diskette. Early Amiga 500’s came with Kickstart and Workbench 1.2 (as mine did), while later ones shipped with version 1.3. All could easily be upgraded to the latest kickstart and OS simply by replacing the ROM.
It was, for its day, an operating system unlike anything ever seen on a home computer; it was more like what was expected on a powerful and expensive workstation. The graphical elements were in ROM, but it was not a purely graphical-only OS. upon booting, one would see text in a full screen Command Line Interface (CLI) window; it could, for example, prompt for the date and time if the real-time clock wasn’t present, or whatever other parameters were necessary. The graphical part with icons was called Intuition. It wasn’t necessary to load Intuition to use the Amiga, it just made things nicer for those new to the system. Like Linux today, the real power was in the command line.
What really set the Amiga 500 apart from everything else in the late 80’s was its ability to truly multitask; something we take for granted today. On a typical day, I would start by playing some MOD music in my music player, and leave that playing in the background. Next, I’d launch my favourite terminal program to download some new files and .QWK offline mail files from my favourite BBS. While that was happening at 2400 baud, I could open up my word processor to work on some homework. Two things made this remarkable: The first was that each program was written by different people and companies, completely independent of each other, yet they worked together flawlessly. The other was the fact that each program appeared to run as though it had the whole machine to itself! Even though the CPU ran at a rather slow 7.12 Mhz, the co-processors took care of sound and graphical intensive tasks, taking a load off the CPU, making the only limitation the amount of RAM installed. It wasn’t just about doing more than one thing at once, but also about giving the computer a bunch of different tasks to perform in the same frame of time. That’s what made the Amiga 500 a wonderful time-saver!
The Amiga 500 initially shipped with 512k of RAM. There wasn’t much multitasking a person could do with 512k especially with graphics-intensive programs. It was fine for word processing, games, drawing pictures, playing music, and playing around with BASIC programs, but it wasn’t long before many A500 owners ran into the limits of 512k. Thus, a common and inexpensive upgrade for many Amiga 500 owners was the A501, which plugged into the “Trap door” expansion slot on the bottom of the A500, giving it a full 1MB of RAM and a battery backed-up clock. For all intents and purposes, this turned an Amiga 500 into a stock Amiga 2000, but without all the slots.
My Amiga 500 served as my main and only computer from 1988 until 1994; a span of six years! During that time, I had added peripherals; each one dramatically expanding the usefulness of this machine. Besides the A501, I also added the external A1011 disk drive, which allowed me to have my OS on one disk, and apps and files on another. This really cut down on disk swapping, an annoyance common with single disk drive A500 owners. With the addition of an Epson LX-810 dot matrix printer connected to the standard parallel port, I could print out all of my assignments, letters, and resumes. I even got into some desktop publishing! The standard serial port worked with standard serial modems, and I spent a lot of time on Bulletin Board Systems (BBS’s) with my mail order Hayes-compatible 2400 baud modem. It seemed as though there wasn’t anything I couldn’t connect to my Amiga.
One of the Amiga 500’s best kept secrets is its edge connector. It is, for all intents and purposes, a Zorro II slot just like that found in an Amiga 2000, but without the slot. This made it possible for hardware developers to develop things such as hard drives and memory expansion for both the A500 and A2000 computers in tandem, without needing to make a whole lot of changes. For example, many memory expansion and hard disk controller cards were essentially copied over to the Amiga 500.
One interesting piece of hardware I came across for my A500 was a slingshot expansion slot. It effectively gave the A500 a single Zorro II slot. I successfully used an old A2090 hard drive controller with an old 20MB hard drive. The drawback was that it took up an awful lot of desk space. However, it did prove that the A500 was basically an A2000, and its potential really was unlimited!
Alas, such is life that all good things must come to an end. By the early 1990’s, the Amiga 500’s capabilities were starting to become matched or surpassed with PC’s and Macs. By 1994, when Commodore went out of business, my Amiga 500 was clearly outdated. Keeping it up to date was becoming expensive, and the parts were growing increasingly difficult to find. The internet was just starting to become available to the public, so on-line resources such as eBay did not exist. I was pursuing a career in the computer industry, and realized that there was no money to be made with Amiga; it was all PC.
My trusty Amiga 500 had served me well, providing me with entertainment, acting as a global communication tool, and providing me with everything I needed to get my essays and assignments done on time. I had used it well into my College years, most of the time without a hard drive and with a 2400 baud modem. My career path demanded knowledge and skill with PC’s; nobody seemed to care for Amiga skills. I did run a PC emulator on it for a while; as well, I had a CrossDOS utility letting me read and write PC disks. My experience with AmigaDOS prepared me well for the world of MS-DOS (which was a lot simpler and less powerful); as well, the Amiga pepared me for programming. I do confess that I could have accomplished a lot of this with a Commodore 64, or any computer for that matter; but the Amiga always left me in awe. Alas, in 1994, it simply could not keep up to my demands without a considerable investment of money; so it came to be, in 1994, I officially “Retired” my six year old Amiga 500 and built a PC.
While I have long since replaced my first, second, and subsequent PC clones, I’ve always kept my Amiga 500 with me. The box has become ratty, the case and keys have yellowed a bit, but gosh darn, it still works! What a great computer, with some great memories. I’m so glad I got to spend time with the wonderful Amiga 500.
Amiga 500 specifications:
|Amiga 500 Specifications||from page A-2 of the owners manual|
|Central Processor||Motorola MC68000|
|Memory||512K bytes RAM expandable to 1M|
|Disks||3-1/2 inch double-sided double-density microdisks with 880k bytes formatted storage capacity per disk|
|Mouse||Mechanical, .13 mm/count (200 counts per inch)|
|Interfaces||RS-232 serial interface
Centronics (r) -compatible parallel interface
External disk interface
Mouse/Game controller interface
Additional game controller interface
Two audio outputs for stereo sound
Memory cartridge interface
|Supported Monitors||Analog RGB, digital RGB, monochrome (composite video), and standard televisions|
|Power Requirements||99 to 121 volts AC 54 to 66 Hz|
|Temperature Requirements||For operation:
5 to 40 degrees Centigrade
(41 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit)
-40 to 60 degrees Centigrade
(-40 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit)
|Humidity Requirements||20% to 90% relative humidity, non-condensing|