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Decades of Fun: Computers Built to Last

The Amiga as "a computer built to last 50 years"

Early 2022

I've recently thought a lot about the essay The computer built to last 50 years by Ploum. It's a delightful piece about the author's ideal, long-lasting computational platform - precisely the thing I enjoy reading. It's got a nice blend of slow tech and libre computing advocacy mixed with personal ponderings centered around the computer as a tool for creativity and healthy interpersonal communication.

The text feels especially relevant to me in the context of the new year, because 2022 marks some very special occasions in computer history. It's now 40 years since Commodore launched the phenomenally popular C64, an era-defining 8-bit home computer that sold in millions and stayed in production for over a decade. Ten years later, in 1992, Commodore launched the Amiga 1200, a successor to their popular Amiga 500 model. Other computer models launched those years are Sinclair's ZX Spectrum (1982), Atari's Falcon 030 and Acorn's Archimedes A4000 (both in 1992) - but Commodore's models are the ones closest to my heart.

Ploum's text is centered around an imaginary computer model that's "open source, sustainable, decentralized, offline-first and durable." He also emphasizes modularity and repairability, and stresses an overall software environment focused on working with text. What strikes me as interesting, though, is that he starts off with an example about typewriters -- "We basically built enough typewriters for the world in less than a century. If we want more typewriters, the solution is not to build more but to find them in attics and restore them." -- but follows up by suggesting we build a completely new computer.

By now, my proposition should be fairly obvious: I suggest that the "50 year computer" already exists - in various shapes and flavors - and that all we have to do is find them in attics and restore them.

It already exists!

An Amiga 1200 thickly adorned with various computer- and demo scene-related stickers
My first Amiga 1200. Still going strong and aging like a fine wine.

I'm going to use Ploum's writing as a sort of springboard for my own thoughts around a 50 year computer, starting with my model of choice: The Amiga 1200.

While the C64 is a legendary computer that has delivered and keeps on delivering huge amounts of fun and creativity, I feel that it falls outside the sweet spot. It's just a little bit too primitive to be a viable platform for actual work in the long run. Plenty of games, tunes, pictures and demos are still released for it, but the vast majority of them are developed on modern computers with modern tooling. I know people who still do some composing and the odd bit of coding on real hardware, but they are few and far between. The actual C64 is nowadays mostly a machine for demo consumption and games playing: a target platform with limitations that provide an interesting technical challenge but poor working conditions.

My platform of choice is instead the Amiga 1200. Even an unexpanded specimen is capable of performing most of the tasks Ploum describes: It's got a multi-tasking OS with both a GUI and a command line, a massive software library for anything from text editing to painting to programming and music creation and plenty of hardware still available. While it may not be my ideal 50 year computer (there's always room for improvement), it comes much closer than any other machine I can think of. Let's see how it fares compared to Ploum's!

Sustainability

A computer that's been in use for roughly 30 years seems fairly sustainable to me. What it lacks in power efficiency is surely made up for in other ways by its longevity.

Durability

Computers manufactured three or four decades ago have a proven track record of being extremely durable. I've seen plenty of old PC:s, Amigas, Ataris and C64:s dug out from attics and basements which, even after decades of neglect, boot happily. This is not to say that I haven't also seen plenty of old computers that instead refuse to power on completely and/or cause various states of mild panic in their owners. The distinct "fish food" smell of leaky electrolyte capacitors can be quite alarming - especially when expecting the subtle, calming scent of warm plastic. On the whole, though, the durability of these machines is time tested and proven. My own A1200 has survived three mechanical hard drives, five or ten mice, one floppy drive and being rather carelessly transported to countless demo- and copy parties.

Repairability

A keyboard membrane for the A1200
A replacement keyboard membrane for the A1200.

Even in a fairly sad state of decay, there's hope for old hardware. The low complexity in design and manufacturing that makes old computers so durable is also what makes them highly repairable. The Amiga 1200 (not to mention the C64) was still built at a time when motherboards were decidedly roomy affairs. The tools required to mend them are cheaper, less specialized and require less precision than what you need for working on, say, the latest Macbook. Amigas were also designed from the ground up with repairs in mind: authorized service centers (usually your local Amiga dealer) had in their employ some dude with a soldering iron and a stash of spare parts, dutifully fixing broken hardware according to the rules stipulated in the 12 month warranty. The Amiga 500 (though, sadly, not the A1200) even came with schematics - Commodore's way of saying "This is a home computer, hence you can repair it yourself in your home."

I bought my first Amiga 1200, used, in the spring of 1994. It was probably manufactured in 1993 which makes it 29 years old. Not quite three decades, but not far from it - and it still works perfectly. During this time, some parts have been preemptively exchanged and others repaired. Although there were no functional or olfactory problems with the capacitors, I had new ones fitted a couple of years ago. Getting 25+ years out of them isn't bad and provided the new ones last at least as long, we're well into the realm of a 50 year computer.

The other major issue is of course mechanical wear. I've replaced the broken floppy drive with a new one, fitted a new keyboard membrane and replaced the power and hard drive LEDs. The original 120 meg, 2.5" mechanical IDE hard drive has been replaced with a Disk On Module, eliminating both noise and mechanics.

Similar solutions are available as floppy drive replacements - in my Amiga 500, I've got a Gotek floppy emulator that reads disk images from a modern USB stick in one end and pretends to be a mechanical drive in the other. It works surprisingly well.

A Gotek drive fitted in an A500, with a USB stick inserted.
A Gotek floppy emulator fitted in the internal floppy bay of an A500.

Even though the Amiga is not an open platform, there is extensive documentation available regarding all of the components in the computer. Replacement parts, including motherboards, are manufactured regularly by hobbyists and small scale businesses. The hardest parts to come by are the custom chips that make up the sound and graphics hardware, but these are now available in steadily improving FPGA implementations.

Modularity

Some design choices in the A1200 seemed quite out of tune when it was originally released. The strangest decision was probably the PCMCIA port on the left hand side of the computer. In 1992, there wasn't a great deal you could do with it, except use it as a novelty small storage device or a sub-par RAM expansion. Turns out that decades later, it would become a highly useful interface for file transfers (by way of Compact Flash card adapters) and networking (by way of PCMCIA network cards intended for PC laptops).

Peripherals for transferring files from a PC to the Amiga: a CF card, a PCMCIA adapter and a USB CF card reader.
Compact Flash card and adapters: PCMCIA for the Amiga, USB for the PC.

RAM and CPU expansions are plentiful and easy to install in the trapdoor slot on the bottom of the computer. I believe that some kind of trapdoor expansion has been in production since the Amiga 1200 was introduced - and they still are. Models range from simple RAM expansions (that will roughly double the speed of the computer) to rare and expensive cards featuring PowerPC RISC CPU:s. A popular though pricy option is the coveted 68060 CPU, Motorola's 68040 successor, which will give roughly Pentium performance at matching clock rates (commonly 50, 66 and 75 MHz).

Apart from spare parts, storage and networking solutions, there are also MIDI and USB interfaces, display enhancers, adapters for USB mice and a plethora of second hand peripherals available.

The biggest problem, especially when looking forward, is getting usable video output. In 1992, it was still acceptable to hook a home computer to a TV screen and the Amiga is built around the NTSC and PAL standards. The default output in Europe is 15 kHz/50 Hz PAL, and it's becoming very hard to find screens that accept 15 kHz video. While the A1200 is capable of outputting VGA compatible frequencies, much of the software available is still hard coded to open 15 kHz screens - though for productivity software, there's usually a way around this. What's worse is that 5:4 screens with VGA connectors are disappearing from the market. The Amiga is capable of connecting to a TV via RF modulation (terrible), color composite (acceptable in emergencies) and RGB SCART, which works well on some flatscreen TV:s but not all. Various solutions are now cropping up to enable HDMI output. They're not perfect yet, but they're getting better.

A trapdoor memory expansion card for the A1200
The Blizzard 1200/4, a 4 megabyte RAM expansion for the A1200. This one is also fitted with an FPU. The battery for the real time clock has been removed to avoid corrosive leakage.

Decentralized and Offline First

This is a no-brainer. The Amiga architecture and OS were designed when "getting online" meant calling a BBS with a 300 baud modem.

If you do want networking, there are capable TCP/IP stacks available and if you're lucky, you can still find a PCMCIA network card for sale. A newer piece of hardware is a memory expansion called Witcher, which can be fitted with an Ethernet module.

Other options include a null modem cable. This not only lets you use E.G. a Raspberry Pi Zero W for SLIP, but can also be used for physical peer-to-peer similar to what Ploum writes about in his text. There are also similar cables and solutions for PLIP over the parallel port, which means that you could chain a number of Amigas together by alternating between serial and parallel connections.

Personally, I've long since stopped using the Internet on my Amigas and do all my file transfers using a CF card and PCMCIA adapter, but it's nice to know the online option exists.

A PCMCIA ethernet card
An Amiga compatible PCMCIA network card.

Open Source

AmigaOS and a lot of the applications I personally use on it are closed source. Despite that, I trust them more than I trust both high profile Linux distros such as Ubuntu and open source web browsers such as Firefox and Chromium. On Amiga, the OS and programs are designed to work smoothly on a 7 MHz machine with 1 megabyte of memory and no connection to the outside world whatsoever. They were written in the days when what we today call "telemetry" would have been considered a resource hogging computer virus.

For those still not convinced, the Amiga can also run Minix, EmuTOS and, provided an MMU is fitted, Linux and NetBSD. Last time I tried NetBSD/amiga was in 1998, but it worked just fine back then.

Daily Usage

Ploum describes wanting a sturdy computer - but it also seems he wants a portable, laptop-like machine. The Amiga 1200 is a nice compromise: the main unit is sturdy but portable, though it requires an external screen and PSU. For me, this adds to the appeal and is even more in line with the kind of computing Ploum describes. If you want to use your Amiga, you can't just flip open a notebook lid anywhere. Instead, you have to plan your computer use and set aside time for it. This makes it feel much more special, enjoyable and, ultimately, purposeful.

To me, this purpose is creativity. Ploum discusses a text-centric interface on an e-ink screen, since this would prohibit passive video consumption and reduce the risk of succumbing to doomscrolling on the modern web. I understand the rationale behind this, but it also seems a bit dull to me. I want to draw pictures! I want to hear music! I want to program animations! Why limit our mode of computational expression to monochrome characters when there's a world of visual beauty to be explored and countless songs still unwritten?

Unlike Ploum's device, the Amiga won't realistically be able to store a local copy of Wikipedia and it comes with a friendly GUI desktop. Nevertheless, doomscrolling isn't going to be an issue on a device that limits RAM and CPU cycles to a mid-1990s level, even though it's capable of truecolor graphics and features 8-bit PCM sound.

All the other features, apart from resource-heavy modern crypto, will be there: No notifications, no distractions, no surveillance capitalism or spying governments. Just you, your ideas and a tool to turn them into reality.

Even if the durability was unintentional on Commodore's part, I'm very happy with my Amiga - built to last for 30 years. I have high hopes it'll last me 30 more.