Building the perfect A2000: Part 2

If you recall in the last installment, we sourced a machine to use as a base, then sourced another better machine to replace it after the sheer horror of what was inside became evident. We also added some RAM, bringing our retro spend to over £2000 (although thankfully we’d spent just over a tenth of that in modern pounds) and concluding that there was still much work to do. Well, in this installment we’re going to hopefully add some useability with a bit of storage to give us the space to install some programs, and streamline the process of booting into Workbench. To do this we’re going to move time on a little bit and look around 1990 to 1991, so our machine could well have been used for a year or two in a relatively stock condition with just that extra memory pepping things up.

One of the main selling points of the Commodore A1500 was the twin internal floppy drives, and the addition of the second drive over the A2000 was actually done as a cost-saving exercise as it meant the basic machine could be sold without a hard drive but still offer the user a little bit of flexibility. Whilst on the entry level A500 the double drives was usually seen as a bonus for games, with some point and clicks in the late 80s coming on 4 or 6 disks (and later well into double figures!), for a computer like this it was more than you could have your Workbench disks in, and then swap in and out your applications disks such as art packages, word processors etc. Or, perhaps you’d boot from a program disk and have your data in the second drive, your saved files. That sort of thing is going to get tiring quite quickly though, with the slow speed and low capacity meaning it was never going to be a serious alternative to the hard drive in the long run. So let’s up the game, and add exactly that…

Dual disk drives made up for the lack of a standard hard drive. Slightly!

Stage 3 – Hard disc drive

There’s no hard drive interface in the A2000 as it came from the factory so our first step is going to be choosing one of the many that were available in our era of interest. These occupy one of the Zorro slots, alongside the RAM card we installed previously, meaning we’ll be able to read and write much faster than floppy access. They’re almost exclusively based around SCSI technology too, although some older models may be able to use the “XT-IDE” type of drive (a direct descendent of modern IDE, and therefore SATA drives as used in PCs) or ST-506 which goes back even further. However if we were choosing a card around 1990 then SCSI was firmly established, and indeeed a scroll back through some Amiga magazines shows a fair amount of choice.

Something that immediately becomes obvious is that you’re almost certainly going to be buying more than you need, at least for our current needs. The controllers tend to offer full internal and external SCSI, and often RAM too (or the space for RAM – remembering we’re still in the era of ferociously priced memory so the default option was always going to be zero megabytes). This is not a bad thing, although the 1990s buyer may resent the extra perceived cost in adding functionality they weren’t going to use, hopefully they would be talked around and even be thankful in the future. Another common sight is the “hard card” type of expansion, where the hard drive would be mounted to the card directly before being slotted into the machine instead of the drive being installed in the chassis and needing a cable run to it. This is made possible by the impressive depth of the A2000 chassis, and a full-length Zorro card can easily accomodate the hard drive plus the controller itself in many cases. Earlier models such as Commodore’s very own A2090 (and the later A2091 which added auto-booting) didn’t manage this feat however and were perhaps a little too early for the relentless miniaturisation of electronics to have had much impact. Remembering we have two floppy drives though means we’re already a drive bay down, with only the 5.25″ bay available, and it seems a shame to lose that so let’s rule out the Commodore cards and look to third party manufacturers.

So it’s 1990, and we’re picking up magazines or perhaps popping into a dealer to get some advice. Two big names that would have been immediately suggested are GVP (or Great Valley Products) with the Impact HC8+, and Alfa Data, who made a product called the Oktagon 2008. On paper they’ve got similar specifications, with space for a 3.5″ hard drive mounted to the card directly and both internal and external SCSI connections. The internal port would be used to connect to the drive (and optionally onwards to other internal devices, if we choose to later) and the external 25-pin port is provided on the back of the machine for future expansion, perhaps using a tape drive or one of the other removable media devices available around this time. The benefit of SCSI being a cross-platform standard is we can then branch out from our beloved Amiga magazines and buy components elsewhere; Apple in particular had already embraced this type of bus and were helping to popularise the drives and bring prices down. However first of all we need the controller, and that is Amiga-specific of course.

The differences in the two cards we’re looking at really come down to the provision for RAM and the specific types used with the GVP taking 30-pin memory modules as used in IBM PCs of the time, and the Oktagon taking “Zip” chips that by this point in history are a little outdated. We could question whether this is of any interest to us since we spent nearly a thousand pounds in the last installment (around a year ago in our retro build) adding 8 megabytes of RAM to the system, but then again despite the eye watering cost of that move it may be that we could use a little more RAM in the future so those empty slots won’t be wasted in the long run.

Oktagon 2008 (left) and GVP HC8+ (Right)

This is a typical choice a hardware buyer in the late 80s, early 90s would have had to make; if anything there was too much choice and especially if (like me) you researched every point of the products to compare you were quickly headed down a rabbit hole. Magazine reviews could help, but often these devices didn’t feature in the mainstream titles who captured more market by reviewing games and accessories for the casual user. So we end up with gut feeling – looking at the adverts reproduced earlier on in this article, Alfa Data were marketing the Oktagon alongside mice, floppy drives and scanners which was their “bread and butter” range. GVP on the other hand had a range of hard-hitting devices; two different SCSI cards (with and without RAM), accelerators, RAM expansions and PC-compatible bridgeboards all designed for big-box Amigas. It was certainly a more reassuring range, and made you feel that you were buying from a business who knew your beloved A2000 inside out.

Otherwise, there are plenty of similarities. Both cards have a ROM on to enable auto booting, something missing from the original Commodore cards. As of Kickstart 1.3, which the A2000 shipped with from 1988 onwards, the computer will discover drives connected to an autobooting controller and boot from the highest priority partition it finds. Price wise there was little in it too, the Oktagon controller retailed for 450DM in 1991 (equiavlent to £230) and whilst it’s hard to find a price for the bare GVP card, this HC8+ model was retailing for around £600 with a 40MB hard drive on, and a bare 40MB hard drive was around £350 so a bit of counting on our fingers means there’s only about £20 in it. Just the small matter of the hard drive to add…

Aaah yes, you’ll need a hard drive! Otherwise you’ve just shelled out a load more cash for zero benefit and you’ll have that look on your face like you did at the end of the previous installment when you realised RAM on its own does very little; and just like the end of part 1, we’re about to see some big numbers because hard drives are an example of how costs have plummeted in the computing world. A browse through some 1990-1991 magazines shows that you’ll be paying around £300-350 on top of the controller for a 40MB hard drive, £450 for an 80MB and beyond that you probably just need to drop your Porsche keys on the counter, pull your filofax out and get your PA to arrange a bank transfer. The good news is that those sizes are perfectly usable, when an application such as Deluxe Paint or PenPal take up a single floppy disk and the files they create are equally tiny. Our machine is still using Workbench 1.3 so the entire operating system came on two disks, and really the second of those was optional in many cases.

So here we are, with a GVP HC8+ and a 42MB drive ready to go, procured from Amibay for just £100; this represents a late 1990 spend of around £600. Whilst this might be mocked up for fun many years after the event, it’s interesting to note the controller and drive we got for this experiment still has the warranty sticker on, sadly long since expired, but this is exactly what a dealer would have sold you and also why it was so difficult to find a price for a bare GVP card; they encouraged dealers to sell their cards as a matched set with a warrantied, pre-installed drive. It slots into a free Zorro slot, the front panel LED is connected and that’s it – both the power and data cables are pre-connected, and on powerup the autoboot ROM takes over and takes you into workbench around 15x faster than you were previously used to.

It really was that easy – one of the reasons that GVP supplied these already assembled is that they could pre-install Workbench, meaning you were set up and ready to go (although it’s likely a friendly dealer would offer the same service on the Oktagon) however a floppy disk was supplied with a tool called Faaaasttprep in case you wanted to go back to square one and reformat the drive, or increase the storage space later either with an additional drive or a replacement for the 40MB model.

In this experiment we were lucky enough to source a drive with a working installation on straight from the early 90s, with some real gems installed, so we won’t be formatting that until we’ve had a good look around. For the benefit of protecting the previous owner’s identity some 30 years after the fact we won’t show any detailed contents, but there’s a whole range of installed programs such as ProText, SuperBase (which seems to have been used to run a Video Rental Store), GBRoute and of course Amiga staples like Deluxe Paint and Scala. What really struck us as we browsed through this is the care and attention (and sometimes lack of style) that went into program icons. Each was designed to pop off the screen, the orange highlights drawing your eyes from the blue backdrop, begging for your attention. The icon for SID, a file manager, takes up a huge chunk of the screen for example. It also gives us a confirmation that users wouldn’t have used hard drive space for their own files – there’s precious little in the way of personal data which was presumably on floppy disks, just the programs themselves are on the hard drive. It could be that Workbench 1.3’s limited file handling made floppies easier to handle too; incredibly, the reason you always get an empty folder on the Workbench disks is that there is no “new folder” function and instead you have to duplicate the empty folder and rename it.

Back to the story, at this point back in the day you would now commence installing your software and in this era that was normally no harder than putting a floppy disk in the drive and dragging the disk icon on the hard drive to create a new folder; very few programs came with an installer, but it’s testament to the design of Workbench and the Amiga OS that most programs are self-contained like this.

Now we have a machine that boots straight into a graphical operating system, and really has every program we’d want to use installed with enough RAM to even swap between them in the way that the Amiga was famous for back in the day. We can make music, write letters, create 2D and even 3D art albeit quite slowly. We can browse maps, organise our files and run our business. Finally, the Amiga 2000 is the productivity powerhouse we were looking for. And it doesn’t take away anything we may have got used to either, simply turning the machine on with a disk already in the drive will boot from floppy so we aren’t forced to copy everything to the new hard drive, avoiding filling it overnight. The general idea is you would put your most commonly used programs there, maybe prioritising the multi-disk applications such as a Word Processor which may have come with a fonts disk, and perhaps another one with clipart on, yet you’d still maintain your meticulous disk boxes with carefully organised sections for the programs and tools you used less often.

To round this off and put it to the test, I installed a period-correct application in the form of SoftWood Inc’s Pen Pal which comes on two disks, plus an update. This in itself would cause an issue for floppy users, with you having to make a backup of the original disk to apply the updated files but in the case of our new hard drive it’s really simple. Pen Pal comes with an installer script (which if nothing else reminds us how far user interface design has moved on, being a little basic but good enough) which creates a directory on the hard drive, and copies the contents of both the original disks. The update files are then dragged over, replacing the older files. Loading time is obviously greatly improved and we can be WYSIng our WYGs within about 20 seconds of power up, in this time a floppy-powered machine wouldn’t even have started showing anything on the screen.


Summary

Total 2021 spend is now £325
In our experiement, we’re now in mid to late 1991 and we’ve spent £2694


We have a much more usable machine – the hard drive means we now just turn on and get on with things. All our data is help inside the machine, and certainly for 1991 we still have a very capable machine that has many advantages over the consumer-focused A500 and we’re starting to see the advantage of internal, not external accessories. However, magazines would start to be publishing rumours of the new machines launching soon, including a big-box that would be directly replacing the A2000. It’s perhaps time we bring out the big guns, if we want to remain competitive in the light of new blood.

The big question perhaps is would any games be good enough to take up that precious space? Would you devote 4MB to Monkey Island to avoid swapping disks?

Join us for Part 3 to find out what comes next!

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