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Baking Carrot Biscuits - Making Use of Old Amigas
Calum Tsang firstname.lastname@example.org
[Perhaps some of you remember Mr. Tsang from his tongue-in-cheek yet
practical series on having fun with old Bridgeboards. We're fortunate to
have him back, with a tongue-in-cheek yet practical look at making use of
the Amigas of yesteryear...-Jason]
With all the recent introductions of new A1200's and A4000's from
Escom/Amiga Technologies, many people are buying new Amigas, or even older
ones with souped up expansion options. Maybe you were using an A500 with
one floppy before you got your riproaring A4000T60, or perhaps you were a
pioneer with your Amiga 1000, but have steadily progressed to each new
model revision. Whatever your current machine, many Amiga users have older
systems now relegated to a closet or sitting unused on a desk somewhere.
I'm one of those people who hate to see computers wasted, especially
capable ones like the Amiga. Even when it's as old as a Commodore PET or
Apple II, there's plenty of life still left in most of the personal
computers we've worked with in the last twenty years. While I don't
actively use a PET or a II, nor do I recommend anyone to buy one at this
stage, there are certainly many uses for them. Maybe you have an old Amiga
lying around, and will get an idea from this article.
Let's first look at some ideas for old Amigas, then examine where to find
hardware for your used Amiga setup. No matter what you choose to do, the
first place you should stop is your local Amiga user group. This is often
the best source of tips, advice and deals that you can find. Also,
remember to read Comp.sys.amiga.hardware for problem solving and
troubleshooting information and other similar Internet resources. Finally,
usergroups and libraries often have back issues of old, yet useful,
magazines like AmigaWorld and Transactor for Amiga.
These are just a few ideas I have, but I'm sure there are more! By the
way, I'm an avid fan of the Secret Life of Machines, so some of the later
suggestions get kinda odd.
Idea 1: Using the Amiga as a Simple Home/First Computer
Believe it or not, home computing often doesn't require a Pentium 75 with
16MB of RAM and a quadspeed CDRom drive. A lot of simple tasks found in an
average household don't require multimedia features. For instance, writing
school reports and business correspondence or dialing up to a internet
service provider to check for email from relatives are not Windows95
exclusive tasks. Wordprocessing and terminal emulation are relatively
This use is well suited towards expanded A500's and A2000's, with 2MB or
more, and a small hard disk. Some of the latest software, like
FinalWriter, still runs on these machines, albeit slower. If you have a
non expanded A500, a 1MB system with two floppies is adequate, perhaps for
something less intensive, like an older version of FinalCopy. I'd say,
unless you have small children, a 1084 or similar RGB 15 Khz monitor is a
must. Otherwise, you'll be stuck using a TV, which is neither easy to read
nor a friendly option with TV watching siblings.
It's an attractive solution to families with small budgets. I know that
not many households can afford a $3500 computer but computer literacy is
becoming more and more a must for children. An older Amiga maybe enough to
bridge that gap temporarily, and put in some basic computing skills like
keyboarding. Other folks that could benefit, could be younger children and
seniors, who are often new to computers and can easily benefit from the
skills found in even simple applications.
Don't forget your local elementary school-sometimes computers get lost in
the funding shuffle, and donating a low end Amiga could mean a welcome
class room addition-not for playing games, but for example, for grade 1
students to use DeluxePaint to draw pictures, or for grade 4's to write
short stories. Not everyone needs 24 bit truecolour or CGfonts-the simple
block letters of some early Amiga wordprocessors would work great here, and
the older Star 9pin colour dot matrix printers would be a cheap alternative
to say, expensive colour inkjet supplies. One word of advice-stay away
from floppies in this situation-a hard disk is a better choice, because
floppies tend to get corrupted in the dusty environment of a school, plus
kids and teachers don't like waiting around for slow drives.
This is NOT an alternative to a PC if you're aiming to run incredible
multimedia software like Encarta, unfortunately, the Amiga hasn't
progressed to that point. But again, for simple tasks, that's not a
Idea 2: Using the Amiga as a Basic Video CG / SEG / Edit Controller
Many school boards want to integrate video into school curriculums, but
have no idea to do it. When it's done right, it can really enhance the
educational process. I've seen examples of video use from rapping teachers
to in house television studios. Schools often spend lots of money on
expensive equipment, on some sort of contract buy for the entire board.
They get mediocre hardware with little idea on how to use it. Why not put
an Amiga to work in a journalism classroom, or as an after school video
club? Not just a geeky AV Squad, but a hip, cool, radical activity for
people interested in making television, be it rock videos, interviews,
documentaries or strange art films.
A good choice would be an A2000, with hard disk, and a genlock. The
benefit of the A2000 is that it has a large industrial style case, which
can either fit in a rackmount edit bay, or be easily mounted onto a rolling
cabinet-it can take a pounding. Stuff goes inside, where it isn't easily
stolen. A major attraction of this machine is the video slot, which can
handle a cheap little genlock like a Commodore A2300, or a full fledged
switcher/SEG like Toaster. Who cares about broadcast quality? An A2300 is
adequate for VHS and SVHS output, and there are similar boards/external
modules like it. A setup like this is more flexible and of a higher
quality than say, one of those trashy Videonics products. Wire this system
to the school edit suite and you're "Doing Video Just Like the Pros".
Remember that video is kind of fuzzy anyways at VHS/SVHS level, so top
resolution and colour depth isn't that big a deal.
Software-wise, a paint program can get you started, but you should check
out the discount bin at your local Amiga dealer-perhaps an old copy of
DeluxeVideo, or some titler software. It doesn't have to be state of the
art. Go online and download a pile of fonts, and away you go! You see,
video (and everything else creative) isn't held back by the tools, but how
much imagination you have. You can do wonders with just a genlock- you
don't need digital nonlinear or even a switcher. 3D work isn't that far
away either, but you'll absolutely need an accelerator board. Again, the
A2000 can house cheap accelerators, like the A2620 Commodore 14 Mhz 020
with 4MBytes RAM. If you want to splurge, you could go for a GVP GForce or
even an 040/060 later. Output of 3D animation is difficult, but you could
use 3D stills for CG backgrounds, or alternatively, try using a DCTV or
similar device to get 15-20 fps anims out to tape.
Other effects outside of simple CG can be achieved using used Amiga video
peripherals. A chromakey from yesteryear, or perhaps a framegrabber can
add odd and amusing elements to videos. Don't forget editing
controllers-old Gold Disk VideoDirectors were sold in Toronto for $25.
This was a LANCS Sony Control L and IR control cable with some simple edit
software which worked on a basic EDL setup. You cataloged your tapes with
the LANCS control going into your 8mm Camcorder, and then set up for
assemble edits via the IR control cable pointed at your VCR for recording.
Idea 3: Using the Amiga as a Slide Projector
Sure, some might convince you that you need Macromind Director or even
Scala MM300, but even the smallest Amiga can be used as a slide projector!
This can be used for doing school presentations where you attach the Amiga
to a large colour TV or videoprojector. Any Amiga can be used to do this,
even an A500 with a single floppy. You'll need a Commodore 520 or similar
composite adapter to hook up, but some Amigas already have the hardware-an
A600 or A1000 have built in composite colour out.
Simply prepare some slides using a paint program, restricting yourself to
NTSC mode non interlace modes, and copy them into a "Boot and show" disk.
This floppy should include a simple script to show all the images on boot,
pausing for a keypress or mouseclick. When you do your talk or
presentation, just click or press for each slide, instead of fussing with
overhead transparencies. It may take a while to load each frame, so you'll
want to experiment with using a RAM disk or hard disk to buffer frames.
You could also get creative and set yourself up for paging forward and
backwards. One negative aspect is that you can't write on the screen the
way you can with transparencies.
Animations and other visual elements could be used in
educational/instructional settings too.
This idea can be extended further into presentation or electronic signpost
systems. For instance, say your community center has an old closed circuit
TV system. Don't laugh, I've seen this before-someone writes messages up
on scraps of paper, and puts them under a camera, which is displayed around
the building. Why not put an Amiga there? You could use an A500 to
display upcoming events, maps, and logos. That's all done via a paint
program like DeluxePaint and a "show" script. You can get more complex, by
adding an onscreen clock, scheduling, showing digitized photos, etc.
I recently saw a university system which used a pair of A4000's for
something much like this. Their setup cost $60,000, and used 25 colour TVs
and an SVHS edit suite, but with some used televisions and spare wiring,
you can setup a simple system much like it.
Idea 4: Bring Your Amiga to a Rave
Okay, truthfully, I have never been to a rave, and promise myself not to do
such a thing, so I can't say I know too much about this subject. However,
you could try using the Amiga as a sound generator and hook it up to a
spare input on the production mixer. Play around with samples, MODs, live
distortion effects etc.
A while ago, I brought a pair of Amigas to a high school dance and wired up
to a LCD colour projector through a cheap genlock. My friend and I ran
animations, copperdemos, textures and all sorts of visual imagery projected
onto a 40 ft wide white wall through the crowd. We even at one point
accidentally opened a Workbench screen, and typed stuff in open Shell
windows. We wired my A3000 and my A600 to the inputs on the projector.
The A600 was configured to show background animations, which could run
while we were drawing up new images on the A3000 for display. We also used
a VHS VCR and played back old commercials and cartoons, both direct and
through the genlock. So, while I'm sure some rave productions are quite
professional, there's always room to try out something at a high school or
college pub or dance, provided you don't look too stupid or nerdy and
refuse to answer the question "Is that Windows95?"
As a side note, a lot of Amiga users are artists and they produce fine work
on a variety of media, from print output to video animations. Some even
combine Amiga output with traditional art tools or produce their pieces on
large sized murals. However, you can also use the Amiga in installation
art and the like, putting the system directly into the display.
Idea 5: The Amiga as a Sample Player
School plays and college productions often use sounds to enhance a scene.
Traditionally, they played it off of tape or CD, cued by the sound board
operator. Recently, I saw a production using a Macintosh Classic II to
play back sound cues. The fellow who set it up did a really good job-he
even wrote a HyperCard application which arranged sounds by scene, and had
the lines/text surrounding the actual sound cue. When the proper time
came, the sound operator just clicked on an onscreen gadget/button to set
off the sound. No screwups, flubs, mistakes, etc.
An Amiga can do this job too, and may even do it better in some ways. For
one, Amigas have good sample editors and multimedia sequencer programs, so
you don't have to learn HyperCard. Second, we have DMA bandwidth, so we
don't get bogged down loading samples direct from hard disk. Sure wish we
had CD quality output though.
Idea 6: Using the Amiga to Control the World!
Amiga applications don't stop at video and sound. You can also interface
the machine to a variety of different devices to control your home, office
or even...the WORLD! Mwahahaahah! The X10 System, a collection of modules
for turning on and off appliances via radio and AC waves, had some
shareware Amiga software, and there are similar devices both in shareware
kit form and commercially. You could use an A500 set up on your TV to save
energy by starting up lighting and powering down devices at preset times.
If you're really technically oriented, you can try using the Amiga as a
robotics controller. Building small robots to be controlled via a
colourful Amiga screen would be great fun for small children, and you can
integrate them into school projects as well. There's lots of information
about Lego robots and simple robot controllers on the Internet, around
MIT's Miniboard design. This can be used with the Amiga via a serial
The Amiga can integrated into realworld hardware for measuring and sensing
things. With electronics design experience, you could build exhibits for
science museums and the like. For example, you could build a temperature
sensor and with approrpriate electronics, feed the data into an Amiga to
show on a visually attractive or interactive display. It's cheaper than
using a Mac or PC with expensive video output boards, especially when you
need to use a video projector or wide television.
Idea 7: An Amiga Fax Server
Instead of controlling the world, you can SAVE the planet, by using an
Amiga with a fax modem as a fax server, receiving inbound faxes and storing
them to floppy. Then, when you come home, power up the monitor, and delete
junk faxes, printing or saving only the important ones, instead of having a
pile of unrecyclable fax paper trailing out of your normal fax machine.
Amigas can be used as voicemail systems and outbound fax services, which
means you can CONFUSE the planet too. Wouldn't it be cool to have people
call up your home, even if it's a bachelor's apartment, and get voicemail
boxes for you and your dog?
Hardware will always define what kind of applications you can run, because
software always drives the development of new processors and technologies.
To begin, examine what original model of the Amiga you have. If it's an
A3000 or A2500, that's adequate to handle most current Amiga software! You
should be USING this machine primarily! :) However, if it's an A500, 1000,
or 2000, you'll probably want to look at adding some more hardware to it to
enhance your options. Used hardware is easily found at user group swap
meets, local Amiga dealers, and through private individuals. You can find
out about these through local Amiga BBSes, and user groups. Actually, a
user group should often be the first stop for learning about old Amigas and
their uses: almost every user group has someone who loves to tinker.
Be careful not to pay too much, because this isn't your primary system.
Sometimes people post prices that are too high, and it's customary to
bargain down, unless they've noted they are firm. Don't bother them then
with requests for lower prices, and in general, don't pester people with
stupid offers like $5 for a A2000 or whatever.
A second floppy drive, for single floppy systems, is certainly a must if
you're not going with a hard disk. Single floppies like the A1010/1011 or
the multitude of clone external floppies are cheap and easy to find.
Expect to pay $10-50 for one. However, a better alternative is to go
directly for a hard disk, it'll save you frustation and agony, and let you
run a lot of newer software.
Hard disks used to be really expensive for the Amiga, but now are really
cheap, because subsequent models integrated the controller onto the
motherboard. For an A500, a hard disk consists of the controller and a
"shoebox" which slips on the side of the machine. These often include
extra RAM and an external SCSI port for chaining more disks outside. An
A2000 hard disk solution is much cheaper, where you can get an old A2090 or
A2091 board for $50 or less (sometimes A2090 owners even PAY YOU to take
the thing away! :) You couple this with a small SCSI disk like a 20MB
Miniscribe or 40MB Quantum, or perhaps a ST506 like a Rodime 40 or Seagate.
Hard disks make the Amiga much more usable, and they're preferred for large
applications or situations where waiting is unacceptable.
Amigas really like more memory, and expanding them isn't too hard. A500's
can be upgrade to a full megabyte via their A501 trapdoor, and anyone
considering using an A500 should automatically do this. A501's and their
clones are cheap and plentiful. A quick way to kill two birds with one
stone is to get a shoebox expander like a GVP Impact A500 or SupraDrive
500XP. 16bit RAM boards for the A2000 are similarily inexpensive, and you
can often find old RAM for it, making population of the board easy (and
often free). I like the SupraRAM 2000, for five years, it's never failed
me. However, there's always the Commodore 2052/2058 boards, and you can
always put 2MB on the A2091 hard disk controller, which has ran nicely on
my A2000 too.
Monitors are difficult to find for the Amiga. In your application, you may
just want a TV, say, if you're using it for a slideshow. However, if
you're using it in a video suite, or at home, a good monitor is a must.
The older Commodore 15 Khz monitors, like the A1084S, C2002, and 1080 are
great, and don't cost a lot. Hooking up SVGAs and the like is hard, you'll
need a flickerfixer, which is pretty expensive.
In presentation situations, you can also use higher quality inputs for your
Amiga. I have my CDTV, which has a special SVHS output, connected to our
Sony TV, which has SVHS in, and the picture is fantastic! Older,
expensive, models of Sony's Trinitron line, and their professional monitor
range, have RGB inputs and you can build a special cable for them.
[Much has been made of Toshiba's TIMM, a 20" monitor/TV that does 15-40khz,
in other words, the entire Amiga range. Perhaps a review will be
Printers aren't hard to find, and most models work easily with the Amiga,
since we have pretty decent official and public domain driver support. Aim
to get a parallel port printer, which simplifies connection. School kids
can try a colour dotmatrix, while a low end inkjet is quite nice for home
use. You'll want an inkjet for reports, seeing dotmatrix print is pretty
tacky these days, but they're not at all expensive. You can even find new
ones at bargain basement discount from large electronics superstore chains.
One model I always see being sold at ridiculously low prices is the Canon
Bubblejet BJ5 or 10ex model. And remember that you can always bring this
to a new PC, so your investment of $150 isn't lost on just an Amiga. No
one can tell if you used FinalWriter on a 68000 3MB A2000, or MSWord 16 MB
Pentium 133-the output is the same.
Other Neat Stuff.
There's always some wacky devices and software made for the Amiga and you
can often find them in discount bins or at user group swap meets. Who
can't resist an old Sunrize PerfectVision framegrabber? Or a DigiView
slowscan digitizer? An Easyl drawing pad? An Okidata Okimate 20 colour
thermal printer? A trackball? You can find cool uses for these, like
say...a "take a picture of you and alter the colours of the image" kiosk,
for instance, or added fun to an old Marble Madness game.