Friday, June 14, 2013

Hola, Mi Amiga!

Out of the dozen computers I or my family have owned, my favorite remains the Commodore Amiga. The system still stands out from the pack, although the rest of the computing world will still see it as a glorified game machine.

I actually owned two models. My first was an Amiga 500, a Motorola 68000 machine bought off a young student in Kansas who had loaded it up with lots of extras, including the monitor, a digitizing camera, an audio sampling device, a modem, an extra floppy drive, a printer and stacks of software -- some of which he'd copied from a friend in the computer business. The system cost me about $1000. It could've easily sold for twice that.

The 500, as did all the Amiga systems, came with built-in multitasking. To switch programs, you clicked a box in the corner of the screen, or grabbed it with your mouse and pulled it down to reveal what else was running. Neat. But what was neater, for me, was its graphics and video capabilities. The previous owner threw in a genlock, a device that overlaid the Amiga's graphics onto a television signal. Instantly, I had a $5000 television CG system on my desk. This was 1989, more than a decade before digital video production became cheap and ubiquitous on PC's. I used the Amiga's graphics to help Dad produce a couple of training videos for his job.

A lot of the games went unplayed, but I had gobs of them: Chessmaster 3000, Universal Military Simulator, The Three Stooges, to name a meager few. I bought the original SimCity for Amiga. Through the modem, I improved the software line-up with oodles of freebies and utilities. At college, I was able to grab some hard-to-find freeware through networks linked to the mainframe when grabbing files from the Internet was nearly unheard of among most people.

A few years later, I added a hard drive from Great Valley Products. It snapped onto the left side of the 500 and also included slots for memory. Dad happened to have a couple of DRAM sticks he wasn't using, and they worked flawlessly.

I wished the rest of the system did. The external floppy choked from time to time. The mouse cord had a short in it, and it needed to be replaced. WordPerfect on the Amiga was less than perfect; it nearly ate one of my college term papers. I later replaced that software with much-stabler ProWrite. But I never seemed to find a stable power supply. They kept going bad, putting out enough power to turn the machine on but not to run the disk drives. Replacing them cost a chunk of change.

The external hard drive's power supply started flaking out as well, prompting a curious diagnosis from a technician with Great Valley Products in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania: "Maybe you have bad power in your house."

How could that be? The house was barely two years old at the time, and the power wasn't damaging any other electronics.

"I've had that problem in my house," he added. I faintly recall him saying I needed to get some sort of line conditioner, another expensive proposition.

The point was moot, because I was moving up to an Amiga 3000, the 68030 flavor. It ran without any headaches, although I had to give up the 500's awesome monitor, which doubled as a razor-sharp TV display. This system followed me through the remainder of college all the way to my first real-world job.

Through the years, Commodore faded into the sunset, and finding support for machine got harder. At the University of Missouri, I found a small but dedicated users group and a Commodore dealer -- which I fortunately never needed. In McAllen, Texas, the most I had was one guy in a messy, second-floor computer shop. I saw him to ask about a RAM upgrade, but I feared I was walking into the shade-tree computer shop.

With sadness, I kissed the 3000 goodbye in December of 1994 and prepared to move to a first-generation Pentium 90 PC, which I would purchase a few months later. It cost $2300 without a monitor, printer, modem, or extra drive. I was now in the IBM ranks... but it wasn't as much fun.

No comments: