Building the perfect A2000: part 3

This is the third instalment of our A2000 project build. Only just joining us? Find part 1 and part 2 here.

Stage 4 – Kickstart

It would have been a frustratingly short amount of time after we added the hard drive, that things began to look noticeably out of date. Mid-1991 saw the release of the Amiga 500+, and as we’ve covered elsewhere it was quite a modest hardware upgrade over the regular A500. However on the software side of things it featured Workbench 2, backed up by Kickstart 2.04, and this bought a brand new look and feel with the iconic blue and orange swapped for grey and black, with lighter blue highlights. Now some may see this as a bold, and perhaps backwards move since the original colour scheme was chosen for high readability and the new grey colour scheme was a lot more anonymous. Perhaps chosen for more corporate use, in an office full of drab cubicles and monochrome furniture it potentially fitted in better, but it certainly lost some of the appeal. What it gained was more of an application framework, a structure to help developers work with the standard look and feel and this was enhanced by more of a 3D appearance to controls such as buttons, file requesters and menus.

It was also the first nod from Commodore that they were more willing than ever before to allow developers into the operating system. In 1.3, developers could tweak away to their heart’s content and patch things into the OS, but actually this wasn’t sustainable and if the upgrade to 2.0 taught us anything it’s that if you build your software empire on hacks and undocumented features it will all come crashing down around you when the foundations alter. Many games and demos simply refused to work on the newer Kickstart and in fact one of the most common accessories with an A500+ or the later 2.05-sporting A600 was a degrader disk, or even a Kickstart switcher, that would let their new machine run older software that expected to find certain routines and software features in certain places. It seems odd now but magazines in the 1990s were packed with letters full of scorn for Commodore for breaking games, daring to force developers to play by the rules.

Kickstart switchers were one of the must-have accessories

But it wasn’t all ruining things and running away. What Commodore provided was the basis for an operating system that was easier to plug into – for example, Preferences had grown from one program to a whole folder full, giving developers a place to house the controls for their hardware and software. It introduced Commodities, which were plugins designed to expand and improve on various Workbench features, and there were now standard file requesters rather than developers having to code their own. All of a sudden, users found that installing a new piece of hardware was much more intuitive – the settings program would live in Preferences, the controls would all look familiar, and with the introduction of the software-only revision to Workbench 2.1 it would even be in their native language thanks to the introduction of Locale.

So, we need to be running Kickstart 2 to go much further with our project, since a lot of the hardware we’re potentially looking at in the future will need to find Workbench 2 to install – remember, developers are lazy and if you give them an easy way to do something, they’ll snap your hand off! But it would be nice not to totally walk away from what we’ve built so far, and do remember that a lot of games still need that 1.3 environment to run so it would be really nice if we can keep that around if needed.

For this we can be a little bit naughty and use a part we rescued from the original A2000 we bought back in part 1 – you’ll no doubt remember the bank of switches on the back, and one of those was wired into a kickstart switcher. This switcher sits in the kickstart socket on the mainboard, and a remote switch on the end of the cable is used to toggle between the two installed kickstart chips. Flick it one way and power on, and the familiar blue and orange glow fills your eyballs. The other way, the cold hard grey of the future. Flick it whilst the power is on and strange things happen; don’t do that. But for a relatively low outlay, this might be the most cost effective upgrade we’ve done so far and brings Project 2000 kicking and screaming into the nineteen ninetys.

Sadly there’s no easy way to dual boot the Amiga, but it is possible to run both versions of Workbench on the hard drive with a few cool commands. This little script finds out which kickstart chip is active (using the “version” command built into ROM) and then diverts the rest of the startup-sequence. It works surprisingly well, enough that we’ve written a little guide here to help you if you want to do the same. For the rest of this article, just assume we’re running in our spangly new Workbench 2 environment unless we mention otherwise. The downside of all this is that there’s no easy way of moving partitions around on the Amiga so a full format – after a backup – was required, and we also need to partition down our 42MB drive to give both Workbench versions their own place to live. Workbench 2.0 takes up about 6MB compared to the original 1.6MB.

The switchers retailed for around £25, and the Kickstart 2.0 chip would have been around the same. So we’ve spent just £50 and done the Kickstart upgrade, what’s next?


Stage 5 – the processor

It was sort of inevitable really. It’s late 1991, and we’re still running on a 7MHz 68000 processor. Not the end of the world and we’re still able to happily run our word processors and graphics packages but things are starting to creak a little… new software is coming on more disks, it has more features which means a bigger code base and we need a bit more grunt to keep up. The other way to look at this, is that this project is all about keeping our Amiga 2000 relevant and up to date and flicking open any magazine will show that a newer, more spritely sibling has now been available for nearly a year and offers some key upgrades.

The Amiga 3000 was targeted directly at professional users; graphics designers, artists, publishers and so on. Those key upgrades were mainly focused around the processing power, with a 68030 processor included on the board as well as up to 2MB of Chip RAM directly available to the custom chips, and a potential 16MB of Fast RAM also on hand to the system if you had deep pockets. This wasn’t a cheap system by any stretch but it was ferociously powerful, with that processor already offering around 6x the speed and then also a Floating Point Unit kicking in when there’s serious maths to be done such as 3D rendering. So as we’re looking at the next upgrade for our A2000 it’s hard not to focus on the huge gap that had been opened up in the processor area, and this is where our next stage takes us.

Luckily, the Commodore designers had our back here. When they were designing that gigantic case with all the expansion slots, they also found room for a dedicated CPU expansion port which takes all the signals on the CPU socket (which is identical to the A500) and presents them on a nice edge connector. This makes slotting in a new processor as easy as we found the RAM or SCSI cards – well, almost. Although it’s the same type of connector, it’s a different size and not keyed which means it’s completely possible to plug in a CPU card the wrong way around if it’s not been designed with care, with expensive results. A perfect example of checking your work before you flick the power switch!

Much like when we chose a SCSI card, we have plenty of options and some will definitely stand out more than others. The familiar names of GVP, DKB and CSA are all present and correct as well as some companies who used more than three letters for their name, such as Supra and Commodore themselves. There’s a whole bunch of different specifications and capabilities to research – some have SCSI onboard, others may have a faster processor. There might be RAM on board, or there might be sockets to add your own. Once more, if you enjoy sitting with reviews surrounding you making notes, you will absolutely be in your element here.

You’ll no doubt be drawn to the prices in that advert – we’re looking at big numbers here, a sign that this wasn’t a casual purchase. For a machine that only cost £1095 in the first place three years ago, spending another £700+ needs to be justified but it’s testament to the expandability, and the original ethos of the A2000 that this is even possible and in fact there’s not much in the way of a bottleneck generated thanks to the custom chipset design and RAM-on-board design of these expansions. In many older PCs, a processor expansion such as an Intel Overdrive would highlight difficulties in the RAM speed or expansion slot capabilities and often it was much easier to bin the whole lot and go with a whole new machine (or at least a mainboard). With the Amiga, the Zorro slots that were overkill for our old 68000 suddenly come into their own, and the RAM is usually on the same card as the processor.

For our 2000 build we’ve decided to go with the Apollo 2030 Turbo which features a 50MHz 68030 processor, and matching 68882 Floating Point Unit. This card, manufactured by ACT Electronik in Germany was one of the first examples of the Apollo range which went on to great things with 68040 and 68060 cards for later Amiga models. Apollo were famous for their value, often undercutting the equivalent GVP cards for example which would have really sold this to someone browsing magazine reviews or adverts especially when they saw the onboard SCSI. It also featured a pair of 72-pin SIMM sockets which meant you could pick up a PC magazine and buy cheaper memory than the bespoke 64-pin SIMMs that GVP used. Yes, you read that right; we’re just about to introduce a third way to add RAM to our Amiga, as well as the 8MB Zorro card we have fitted and the currently empty sockets on the SCSI card, our accelerator has memory sockets too. There are some technical differences in how this RAM is applied though, and briefly speaking if you add it directly to the CPU card it’s faster (as it doesn’t have to communicate through the Zorro slots) and the 8MB limit that also applies on Zorro cards isn’t a limiting factor; the 32bit memory bus on the CPU card can address much more and certainly in the 1990s you’d run out of money before hitting the limit of the hardware. We don’t have to throw the existing RAM away though, as we can have multiple blocks in different parts of the overall memory map and the Amiga is generally pretty good at using it in order of speed.

The card slides neatly into the CPU upgrade slot. We’ve left the SCSI disabled for the moment; as our hard drive is mounted to the SCSI card we added last time and we have two floppy drives installed, we don’t actually have anywhere else to install a hard drive so the GVP card stays. But those SIMM sockets are calling us – we can’t just leave them empty can we? Cast your mind back to that A3000 mentioned earlier and its 16MB of Fast RAM…. well, we’re meant to be keeping up here so it would be simply rude not to match that. With 8MB already on our Zorro board it means we just need a pair of 4MB SIMMS to bring it up to fully populated A3000 levels.

This, it should be said, is not a cheap upgrade. At around £900 at the end of 1991 for the bare 50MHz version of the card it’s nearly matching the purchase price of the original A2000 just a few years earlier – and the extra 8MB of memory we’re adding is an additional expense at around £350 per 4MB SIMM. But if our self-imposed aim is to keep pace with the latest Commodore technology then an A3000 at release in 1991 was nearly £2500, and whilst we’re about to go over that with this latest addition it potentially makes more financial sense than selling up and starting over. And we’re genuinely head to head on specifications – in fact our processor is twice as fast at 50MHz compared to the 25MHz that the top specification A3000 was available with (a more affordable 16MHz version was also available). We match the newer machine with SCSI for a hard drive, and two floppy drives. There’s the same amount of Fast RAM, and the latest operating system which is more than the A3000 came with at launch as it needed a convoluted “Super Kickstart” system with the ROM image held on hard drive thanks to the final revision launching so late. Really the only things we lack are the Enhanced Chipset pioneered by the A3000 (and more widely used in the A500+ and A600 models), and the potential for 2MB of Chip RAM which would take the addition of something like a Megachip but would realistically be of use only if we were dealing with graphics-heavy programs running at higher resolution.

Thankfully, the modern day spend isn’t anywhere near that. The Apollo cards aren’t as prized as some such as GVP models so this set us back £220 on Amibay. The real winner here is the price of RAM – 8MB in two 4MB modules was less than £10 on eBay, down from around £700 back in the day.

At this point we should probably show you some self-indulgent screenshots. Sysinfo is here as the de facto standard because everyone loves a red bar chart and the “Motorollin'” comment (sadly absent here!), but AIBB is also a useful representation of how far we’ve come. On the three AIBB tests shown, the five bars represent (left to right)

  • Our newly expanded machine, with its 50MHz 68030
  • A Stock A2000 with 7MHz 68000
  • An A2000 with Commodore A2620, a 14MHz 68020 card included for a “budget” option
  • An A2000 with Commodore A2630, a 25MHz 68030 card
  • A stock A3000 with 25MHz 68030, our target machine to keep up with.

In all cases higher is better, and we’re really showing a clean pair of heels here. Standard maths is between 40% and 800% better, and if we want to prove a point then when it comes to complex maths, our FPU gives us a 4000% advantage over a stock machine. Interestingly the memory tests are also good, showing the benefit of hosting the RAM on the card itself.

What does this mean in the real world? Well, in the last episode we installed Pen Pal as an example of how our new hard drive would be used for productivity. If we return to that application and load one of the sample documents with a page of text and a single image, the 68000 powered machine did so in 8.91 seconds. After the upgrade, it was down to 4.99 seconds – around 40% faster. It’s not just numbers though, the whole machine feels a bit snappier with apps loading quicker and less visible redraw but that’s hard to quantify other than just feeling nicer to use.

For specialist graphical use, the Floating Point Unit comes into its own. I used Vista Pro 2, a period-correct landscape generation tool, to create a typical scene. With the seed 8675390, medium texture quality, double size polygons and a scattering of pine trees, our 68000 machine took 31 minutes and 4 seconds (and a cup of tea for me whilst I waited). The 68030 card knocked that down ever so slightly, once the FPU-specific version was installed, to 2 minutes and 6 seconds – 14 times quicker, and barely time to nip to the fridge for a beer.


Summary

Make no mistake, this was a big jump and the bank balance will testify. We’re now at the end of 1991, and our spend of around £1650 in this update takes us to nearly £4500 in total since we bought the machine. We are a fair amount higher than an A3000 would have cost in 1991 but remember we’ve had a few years of use in the meantime, plus our resulting machine is around twice the speed and has the Fast RAM that would have still cost you £350 per 4MB for the Zip memory the 3000 used. We’ve got 16MB now, so you can add a mind-bending £1400 for that on top of the £2395 A3000 base price for a comparative price of £3795

I think we can just about justify this method of upgrading rather than starting over – it’s hard to say what it would have made on the secondhand market if we sold it in 1991 and bought a 3000 but Amiga used prices were notoriously meagre in the 90s with people starting to offload their productivity machines in favour of PCs.

Importantly, our machine is now much more useful for business purposes – especially data-heavy such as database use, graphics or even just swapping between multiple applications to do a bit of file management whilst you smash out your next novel.

  • Our 2021 spend has been boosted by £230 for CPU and RAM, and £50 for the Kickstart switcher for a total of £605
  • At the end of 1991, our machine would have cost £4354

Join us in the next installment to find out where we go next…

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