The Amiga not-quite-3000

Pure Amiga is based in the United Kingdom. We are blessed with many things here – a temperate climate, a widely understood language, easy access to information, and most notably pork pies. But one thing we don’t have is an abundance of Amiga 3000s.

1990’s Amiga 3000 is hailed as the king, the daddy, the top of the tree and the pick of the bunch. It’s an odd accolade since it’s slower, less graphically capable and harder to expand than the A4000 that followed less than three years later, but somehow it has won the hearts of users worldwide – including both myself and Phil, the other half of Pure Amiga and we’ve both been harbouring a deep desire for one for many years. But they simply do not turn up for sale in the UK very often, and when they do they’re either incomplete, or damaged, or both. There’s a two-pronged attack on the A3000 population as a few of the custom chips are unique (it has a specific Agnus chip, there’s onboard SCSI plus it’s the only Amiga to have an onboard flickerfixer that uses an Amber chip) so they’re often raided for parts, and it also has a lovely clock battery on the board which is eager to leak corrosive fluid everywhere. Oh, and then the final issue is they were often found in businesses, who tend to offload old hardware into the skip, rather than homes where it gets passed down or stored in the loft. All in all, it’s not looking good for a machine that didn’t really sell in huge quantities in the first place thanks to a starting price of £3500 in 1990.

One day, a friend whom we’ll call Andy (mainly as that’s his name) sent a message out of the blue asking if I was still after an A3000. Andy has lots of contacts across the Amiga world thanks to a gorgeous collection of hardware, and if there’s one thing he likes doing is waiting until I’ve had a few beers and then spending my money. What he’d found in this instance was just a mainboard, but a working and complete one. What’s more is there was a second one – missing a few bits and damaged, but including all the really rare parts. Between Phil and I, we hatched a plan to import the two boards from Canada, where the lovely seller Darren carefully packaged them up and sent them on their way.

It did leave us with a conundrum. Part of the appeal of the A3000 is the strangely attractive case design, and this was not only rare but a lot harder to import since it’s made from very heavy gauge metal. Most A3000s were sold into North America and the transatlantic postage rates for a lump of steel will make your eyes curl. Not to worry though, since it’s time for another hero to step forward; Stephen Jones, creator of the A3000 style Checkmate A1500+ case. This case is designed to house a range of Amiga, PC or single-board computers in a case in “a style to compliment the most beautiful Amiga ever made, the A3000” according to Stephen. Essentially it has the same look and feel, but importantly is available relatively easily at a fraction of the cost of importing a vintage case.

There’s only one problem. The A3000 doesn’t fit.

Well, this is turning into an utter rollercoster isn’t it? We’ve got our 3000 board, we’ve got a case that looks like a 3000, but the two just won’t go together because there’s not enough height. Will we ever catch a break? Well the answer is yes, and that needs our final clever person to get involved and this time it’s Simon Marston. Simon is deeply involved with the Retro Computer Museum in Leicester, who have an incredible (and playable!) set of Virtuality VR machines from the 1990s. These have Amiga 3000s at their heart along with some custom boards, and Simon is responsible for keeping them going which means he has a lot of parts, damaged machines, knowledge, and a motive for getting involved. He’s well aware that cases are so difficult to come by so has worked closely with Stephen to develop a kit of parts that will allow the 3000 motherboard to fit inside the Checkmate 1500+ – not only custom metalwork to physically mount the board, but also a new daughterboard (the vertical riser the Zorro cards connect to) which is suitably sized to fit. By designing one that has three slots instead of four, it fits perfectly in the slightly thinner Checkmate case and still allows a very precise 75% of the original expandability.

We now have all our component parts. The motherboard is mated to the new daughterboard which allows it to fit inside the case and cleverly this is where the the modern power supply connects with a standard PC style ATX plug, so no need for any adaptor cables. There’s a comprehensive fitting kit supplied across both the Checkmate, and Simon’s kit, even down to extension cables for mouse, joystick and keyboard and there are clever custom mounts that allow you to use both a Gotek and an accelerator, despite some space limitations. This, along with an SCSI2SD custom mount, have been 3D printed to keep complexity down and can be left out altogether if not needed.

The build is fully documented with a colour instruction manual, and Simon has continued the excellent build quality of the Checkmate case with equally high grade steel parts, laser cut to exact sizes with captive nuts and black powder coating. Whilst it’s a shame to discard some of the Checkmate parts, it does mean that this is fully reversible and all the new parts are screw on, screw off. Equally, no modifications are needed on the mainboard so if you do happen to find an original case, it will still fit.

Included in the kit is a new mainboard tray, which converts the mounting points in the Checkmate case to the holes in the mainboard. There’s a replacement back panel that matches up to the ports and connectors, and still allows space for the SFX-sized power supply. And there’s also a top plate, giving somewhere for drives to mount as well as a support for the daughterboard. This is particually well thought out, with a removable section above the CPU card area giving options to install a more powerful processor, perhaps one that needs a heatsink. It’s been tested with the A3660 card, but sufficient space is provided so that most card should fit. Simon includes clever brackets which can mount a Gotek off-centre to allow vertical space for fans, but if you’re sticking with the stock CPU then the plate can be fitted giving a full 3.5″ drive bay. Note that the daughterboard sits directly behind the centre drive bay of the Checkmate so you’ll only have the use of the right hand bay.

Apart from the new daughterboard, the only other electronic part supplied is a blanking plug which goes into the A3000 power socket. This simply connects a few different pins together – as the whole thing is now powered via the daughterboard, this part is necessary to avoid a failure to start up.

My only comment when building would be – trust Simon when he says an SD card extension should be fitted first! The Checkmate has a removable plate at the bottom of the fascia, and there’s the option of including an SD card reader here to feed into a SCSI2SD card. If you don’t fit it at the start, everything needs to come out. It’s pointed out in the instructions, but who reads those? The rest went together perfectly, all the holes line up and it’s clear which screw needs to go where. There’s even a custom made A3000 badge for the front!

Phil and I went different directions with the builds, where I am currently running the stock 25MHz 68030 and a Cybervision64 graphics card, he went for the ultimate machine – an A3660 68060 accelerator and a ZZ9000 Graphics/Network card. This demonstrated the flexibility of this case design, where the parts supplies were able to be just as capable as Commodore’s original design. Whilst the end result isn’t an Amiga 3000, it’s as close as we’re going to get for the time being and it brings all the same joy to use. The 3000 is a wonderful machine, the scandoubler giving a great picture even if you’re gaming and the 68030 and on-board Fast RAM mean it’s just as capable, and a lot more beautiful, than an expanded 500 or 1200. The scope for expansion via SCSI and Zorro offers futureproofing, and it becomes clear to see why this is the jewel in the Amiga crown.

The end result? We’ll call it the Amiga 2999.

The A3000 fitment kit is built in batches and available directly from Simon Marston. Ask on the Checkmate 1500 Facebook group to find out more.

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