The Amiga 300

The Amiga 300 is officially a model that doesn’t exist. You won’t find it on any old adverts, in a museum, or on the shelf of your collection. Or will you? There is a chance you have one, but you just don’t realise. As one has just come into the Pure Amiga workshop for a bit of refurbishment, we thought it an ideal time to find out a bit more about it.

Back in 1990, the Amiga 500 was getting a bit long in the tooth. It had been on retailers shelves and selling well since 1987, and by this time had successfully fought off the Atari ST competition, but it was in need of an update. Most games now needed a memory expansion as they were getting more complex with increased use of sampled sounds, larger levels and more detailed graphics and in fact doubling the stock RAM to 1MB was considered so necessary that magazines were flooded with expansions and most savvy shopkeepers would put together a little upgrade pack with the memory board and an external floppy drive to take the pain out of playing the latest games.

Late 1991 saw the announcement of the A500+ which consisted of the A500 shell, keyboard and floppy drive but a reworked mainboard that included twice the RAM as well as the “Enhanced Chipset” – a new revision of the Denise chip responsible for the video output that could give you higher resolutions, and a new Fat Agnus chip gave a full 1 megabyte of Chip RAM on board. This once more meant that the bare machine you bought was capable of running 99% of games, although the new Kickstart revision introduced some compatibility issues; you no longer needed a RAM expansion but a switcher to maintain Kickstart 1.3 compatibility was the new top seller! It also had a nod towards the home office users with a battery backed clock, but otherwise the hardware was identical to the outgoing A500 and in fact there had been a prolonged crossover period where A500s were sold with A500+ boards thanks to typical Commodore stock management techniques.

But as the public queued in computer stores across the world to buy this updated model, little did the they know that Commodore had already planned the replacement, and they just needed this new model to cover the holiday season. Waiting in the wings ready to be announced at CES in March 1992 was the new, sexier, Amiga 600. So the A300 never existed, right?

Wrong. As you can see here, it not only existed but it’s not even particually rare and we’ve seen perhaps a dozen through the doors for repair. The story goes that in the early 1990s Commodore were on a cost-reduction drive and wanted to replace the A500 with a more affordable, identically capable machine that would be targeted directly at gamers. It would be smaller, with the removal of the numeric keypad, and cheaper to make thanks to surface mount technology. Gone was the technically marvelous Zorro-esque expansion port, but there was a double-whammy of new technology in the form of a PCMCIA slot for memory cards, and IDE for hard drives.

This machine was christened the A300 which reflected its new position in the lineup – cheaper than the A500 meant a lower number. But during the prototype stage it became clear that things weren’t going to plan, and surface mount technology plus all the development needed for the new connectivity meant there was no way Commodore could sell this for less than the A500. A quick and dirty name change was required and it became the A600, and debuted at £299 – the same recommended retail price as the outgoing A500+ and realistically £50-70 more thanks to retailer discounts typically offered on the older machine. Whilst not ideal, Commodore could market it as “new!” and keep the momentum of sales going, and there were even reasons to upgrade from A500s with the extra built in RAM, internal hard drive potential and a built-in colour composite output and modulator instead of the rather ungainly external unit of the older machine. Against all odds it sold well with over 65,000 units sold in the first six months and this provided Commodore with an income whilst the similarly styled A1200 came to market later in the same year, and then the enterprise class A4000.

Magazines were on board to help push the A600 as an upgrade over the A500+, citing hard drives and even games coming on memory cards in the future

However this quick name change wasn’t quick enough, and a large batch of mainboards were already coming out of the factory, with the screen-printing giving away the truth (and exposing the poor decision making of Commodore). So, what makes an A300 special? It’s surprisingly complete for a “first attempt” with none of the wire fixes that most A1200s have, although the initial run of “Gayle” chips (which replaced Gary from the A500, and added IDE functions) have an issue that was detected so early, the mainboards were modified with a spot for a small programmable chip to correct the error. It seems this was cheaper than scrapping the entire run of Gayles.

There’s also a definite sign that it was rushed to market, in that the early versions like this often had a kickstart chip that didn’t support hard drives, despite all machines having the IDE connector. We assume the scsi.device implementation wasn’t quite finished, and if your chip revision is 37.299 then the bad news is this affects you. The very next revision, 37.300 can boot from hard drive without issue so it’s a simple swap, and needs no other modifications and these days you can even go a bit further with upgrades to 3.1, 3.1.4 and 3.2 available.

Elsewhere, it looks like the designers hadn’t finalised the types of capacitors to be used and many of the pads that come with the surface mount electrolytic cans we expect to see, were only sized for tantalums. That results in an incredibly difficult capacitor replacement job with tight access, but as these are now thirty years old it’s not something that should be put off. Here at Pure Amiga we’ve seen a number of these models for capacitor replacement and thankfully the progress in capacitor technology means you can fit physically smaller replacements with the same characteristics – 5mm instead of the usual 6.3mm – and suffer no ill effects. Incientally do visit our repairs page if you need this job doing – it’s a tricky task but we’re not afraid!

But that said, unless you open your A600 up there’s no indication that you have one of these earlier, rarer machines. The keyboards, floppy drives, cases and accessories are all fully interchangeable with later machines and this suggests the initial design was completely successful and needed no adjustment over the life of the machine. This is in contrast with other machines where you need to know what revision you have before buying things like memory upgrades, or there were obvious changes to the design such as the evolution of the A500 case badge. This also means there’s no downside, there’s no reason to hurridly upgrade to a later machine. Here at Pure Amiga we’ve even got an Apollo 630 accelerator on a Revision 1 A300 which works flawlessly and is really pushing the base hardware to the limit with a 50MHz 68030.

But after a couple of revisions, the A300 name was lost for ever, and from Rev1.3 the June Bug boards had A600 printed on them. The truth was brushed under the rug and we suspect it was something never spoken about in Commodore HQ. Since then the A600 has hit rock bottom, where the lack of easy Fast RAM expansion really hurt its appeal to enthusiasts (and we suspect they also harboured resentment for it “killing” the iconic A500), but has since started to grow again in popularity and now has a number of affordable upgrade paths such as the Furia, and clip-on RAM. Add in a Compact Flash card, and WHDLoad and you’ve got a really cool little machine that is perfect for gaming.

Apart from flight sims.

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