Building the perfect A2000: Part 1

The Amiga 2000 was released in 1987, and enjoyed a worldwide success thanks to a combination of low initial cost, and high potential. It was sold as a more expandable A500 – the same basic hardware of a 7MHz 68000 CPU and the Original Chipset (and later Enhanced Chipset) providing the same graphics and sound as its smaller cousin.

But by adding expansion slots – empty from the factory – and housing it in a much larger case, the market for add-ons from both Commodore and third party manufacturers exploded in a short time and if you were lucky enought to own one of these fine machines, you benefitted from an almost infinite range of configurations.

Here at Pure Amiga we decided to take a look at this potential, and asked ourselves the question: What would an upgraded A2000 look like, in the mid 1990s? How would it have been expanded over time to open up new possibilities, and would it still be a pleasant machine to use? How much would it have all cost? Plucking the target year 1994 out of thin air, we wanted to represent what would have existed in that moment, around 18 months after the A4000 launched but at a point where there would still be a large number of active users and plenty of hardware on the market. The aim would be end up with an Amiga 2000 that is more than capable of serious productivity, or creative use, and we wanted to document how it would have grown over time – starting with the basic machine, what would have been added first, what dependencies were there, and how much would it have cost?

Before we delve into the detail, let’s remind ourselves what we’re working with. As mentioned earlier, a simplistic way of thinking about the A2000 is an A500 in a chunky case and indeed they were designed in parallel and both announced in early 1987 for two different markets. The A500 was always intended to be a home, and home office machine where the 2000 was intended for professional use and that was evident by the expansion ports provided; instead of the simple trapdoor memory slot and single edge expansion of the smaller machine, the A2000 had rows of empty Zorro slots so where A500 owners would have something like a hard drive on the side of their machine, it slotted neatly inside the 2000 and still had room to spare. Yet in a moment of genius, the Zorro slots and the A500 edge connector were very closely related so expansions could be developed for both with very little effort.

There are other benefits of that extra space, of course. More internal drives including a 5.25″ bay. An internal power supply capable of providing juice to those expansions with a single switch to power it all up, unlike A500 upgrades that often needed their own power brick. Even more slots to break out connections for the CPU, and the video output. And finally, some ISA slots – more often found in PCs of the same era – that can be used in certain situations for cross compatibility with IBM PCs.

Calco Computers advert, Amiga Computing October 1988

To do this experiment, we need some rules. Even today, in 2021, there is new hardware being developed for this computer – but we’re not allowed to use it. Hardware must have been on the market, either new or secondhand, in our spotlight year of 1994. That means no modern FPGA solutions, no fancy shortcuts with USB thingies or HDMI wotsits. Our second rule is it must all work together – we’re building a final solution, not just trying out random hardware. The goal is a fully working, upgraded machine that can hold its head high alongside the “new” A4000 of the era.

Stage 1 – The donor machine

The usual selling sites were consulted, and a problem was immediately encountered – the A2000 is a heavy beast, being constructed entirely of heavy gauge metal, and many sellers were unwilling to ship, especially internationally. Pure Amiga is UK based, and whilst the A2000 wasn’t as rare as the A3000 on these shores, the A500 outsold it massively here so it became quite a balancing act of finding one at a good price, in a place that wasn’t going to cost a fortune to ship to the UK, from a seller who was willing to package it up for the journey. There were also many upgraded machines, which sort of defeated the object – how could we go on a journey of discovery if someone had already made choices for us?

Eventually Amibay turned up a suitable candidate. It appeared to have been part of a house clearance, the seller didn’t know much about it but had checked that it powered up OK, showed a display and passed basic tests such as loading a floppy, the mouse pointer moved and so on. It was in Denmark but thankfully this experiment started in a pre-covid, pre-Brexit world and it wasn’t too extortionate to ship.

And at this point ladies and gentlemen, the need to properly consult photos was revealed. As I unboxed my new purchase a week or so later, the excitement was somewhat curtailed by the rather worn appearance, the missing screws and the frighteningly random nature of some of the modifications that had been made. There were holes drilled in the case, a rather interesting sticker, and what on earth was happening inside to need two extra LEDs in the front panel?

Detective work began with a complete strip-down. The case was completely empty in terms of expansion cards, but had clearly been used for some fairly serious kit at some point. From what I could see, the switches on the rear led to a kickstart switcher (that had been removed), and other wires led under the mainboard. Investigating further, those wires connected to the back of jumpers that limited the onboard memory to 512KB, and another that ended in bare wires – perhaps to disable a long-since-removed expansion. It seems someone really wanted the option of having maximum compatibility with older software, although what posessed them to solder to the back of jumpers rather than connect to the top of them, is anyone’s guess.

Other interesting modifications was that the 5.25″ drive tray had been hammered flat, the uprights that normally hold the drive in place had been bent horizontally and had holes drilled in. That, plus two extra LEDs in the front panel leads me to think that this must have had three hard drives at one point, with two sat side by side in that large bay. On the exterior, there were two sizeable holes drilled in the side of the case and almost every screw thread had been stripped.

A step back was taken – this was not a good donor. It was electrically sound, it worked, and importantly the battery had been removed, but it was never going to be a machine I was happy with – the holes, the need for a new drive tray, it really needed a repaint, and those screw threads were going to be troublesome. I wanted to represent a machine that someone was proud of in 1994, not that had been mistreated. I’m sure there were very good reasons for those modifications, and they were probably neccesary for whatever tasks it had been used for, but I wanted something to be proud of. It was relocated to live with a friend of Pure Amiga who intends to take it in a different direction, and the hunt began again.

And ended about an hour later. As if by magic, a “collection only” A1500 appeared on eBay, just around the corner from my office; by now we were in the midsts of covid lockdown, and this no doubt helped the price stay well within budget. For the unaware, the A1500 was Commodore UK’s attempt at two things – a lower cost A2000 which achieved that by shipping without a hard drive, and also to annoy Checkmate Digital, who had created an “A1500” expansion case for an A500. As such they’re rarely seen outside of the UK, and since Stephen Jones relaunched the Checkmate A1500 to great success they’re also quite difficult to Google! But rest assured we haven’t broken any of our own rules at this early stage; if you peel the A1500 sticker off the front it even says A2000 underneath. The mainboard also displays the true origins – these machines were literally pulled off the production line and diverted to stores before hard drives were fitted.

The seller agreed to hold on to it for a few weeks until the office opened again, and soon it was in the boot of my car on its way home. The A1500 was in a much better condition; it had been opened at some point as the battery had thanfully been removed at some point before it could do much damage at all. Otherwise though it’s mostly untouched and forms a much better starting point than the 2000.

  • Current 2021 spend: £155
  • In our experiment, the year is 1988 and we’ve spent £1095

Stage 2 – More memory

The Amiga 2000 came with 1MB of Chip RAM as standard, enough really for playing games and very light productivity – for our purposes we’re definitely going to need some more. An A2000 owner would have chosen that machine for specific reasons, where the A500 was on sale for a shade under £400 in 1988, the A2000 was a cool £1000 – and remember out of the box it had exactly the same specifications. You needed vision, purpose, and deep pockets to make that choice, and if you were just going to play games you’d have walked out of the shop with an A500 and several hundred pounds still in your bank account. The A2000 was built for productivity, and productivity needs memory. Anything you add over the initial 1MB will be configured as Fast RAM – not available to the custom chips, so it won’t provide better resolutions or different sound, but perfect for larger applications to store data in.

It’s at this point that the big box design starts to make sense, because unlike the fingernail-sized multi-gigabyte chips we enjoy today, in the early 1990s memory expansions were huge. If you wanted more than half a megabyte of trapdoor expansion on your A500 it probably sat outside, connected to the side expansion port, taking up desk space (and probably preventing other expansions from being added) but we have the luxury of being able to hide it inside the case. And instead of having a dedicated connection like the trapdoor, it’s our first glimpse of the genius of the Commodore engineering team as memory connects to the Zorro slots inside – a single type of expansion capable of memory, graphics, storage, communications and more. And this is quite necessary, as in 1994 RAM wasn’t exactly as compact as it is now…

Back to our experiement, and a SupraRAM 8MB board was purchased, this being a full length card taking up a Zorro slot and fixing to the expansion slots at the rear of the machine. We still have four other slots to use so losing one to this isn’t a major issue, and arguably it’s a better solution than the A3000 would use later in Commodore’s history which saw you carefully inserting the individual memory chips directly onto a rather cramped mainboard. So are we now running at full speed? Well, no – that’s not really how this works. Unlike later 32bit Amiga 1200s, the 68000 in the A2000 can run full speed without additional Fast RAM so all we’ve really accomplished at this stage is a larger number in the memory display on the Workbench title bar! Like we said…. you need to have vision.

Oh, and yes. Deep pockets. Whilst that Supra board only cost £70 (and the word “only” is doing a lot of heavy lifting there, given that equates to nearly £9000 per gigabyte), in 1989 when this was a relatively new computer that would have set you back just short of £1000 (or £128,000 per gigabyte!)

  • The current 2021 spend is £225.
  • In our experiment, the year is 1989, and we’ve spent £2094.

So with a rather eye-watering cost and not much to show, let’s draw this part to a close. What have we accomplished? Laughably little – we have a sizeable machine taking up a great deal of desk space, and currently it can’t do anything you couldn’t manage with a £399 Amiga 500. As we keep telling you, you need vision!

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