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I recently spoke with Loriano Pagni about his successful  X500 Plus Kickstarter campaign and his experiences with the platform.

* Hi, thank you for taking your time to answer my questions.

Hi. 
* First I’d like to congratulate you on leading first Amiga related hardware project successfully crowd funded on Kickstarter.

Thank you. 

A lot of its success is due to the dedication of some members of the Amiga community; especially members of amigaworld.net and amiganews.it, some of them have worked really hard, spreading the word about it and my thanks goes to them. 

*Many personal projects in the Amiga community are promoted and distributed through Amiga websites and forums. What convinced you to choose Kickstarter instead?

Originally I thought to keep the project within the Amiga community, like I did with the Minimig and the 1541Utlimate cases (within the C64 community). I knew that there were some people, like me who like wedge shaped cases. Of course such design has little sense in the 21st century where expendable, cheap, detached keyboards are the norm but many, and I’m one of them, love the shape, the object. They like looking at it, they like tinkering and modding it if necessary, see how much they can fit inside, changing it and improving it. It’s not just a box thrown out of the way, hidden under a desk. I thought the community alone would have been enough to finance it but it didn’t turn out that way, mainly because of the high production costs for such a niche product and the continuous alterations and prototyping. People nowadays like small, flat things…  so at this point I decided that Kickstarter was the way to go.

* After 7 years, the X500 Plus case is your longest design in the making. Kickstarter may be over, but there is still hard work ahead of you?

Oh yes, we’ve only just started… 

It’s nearly fourteen days and Kickstarter are still working hard collecting all the pledges, I’ve not seen a cent yet… 
Unfortunately a few people haven’t paid what they pledged so this is going to slow the process down a bit, I’ll probably have to go back and cut down some features to make do with the money we have.
Working on and off on this case it’s been a mixture of fun and hardship for many reasons; you hit so many obstacles during the process. I redesigned the case so many times I don’t actually remember its original shape anymore.  What I’ve shown on my webpage, Amiga sites and youtube is only a fraction of the complete work.

Seven years ago this was just an idea. I remember looking inside my A1200 with the BlizzardPPC 060 60Mhz and PPC 266MHz, 256 MB Ram and BVision and thinking it was a great machine but I wanted more so it went inside a Power Tower with a Mediator, Voodoo cards, Ethernet card, Soundblaster, you name it.  But I’ll never forget a few months later looking at the 1200 shell next to my A500 Plus…
One thing that kept pushing it back was trying to include features people were asking and trying to make it compatible with as many motherboards as possible (the SAM boards for AmigaOS4, some x86 boards for AROS/Linux/Windows, offering the expansion slot etc…etc…) every time I added something a new prototype had to be made…so I’m now glad the design is set. The case has gone through so many changes it would take a day to list them all. 

* Since you decided to crowdfund the X500, how long it took to prepare a presentation for the Kickstarter page and accepting pledges?

I’d say a week to set up the page, maybe two with adjustments, but you’re always adding, modifying, writing descriptions, thinking about rewards etc… I’m not sure I can calculate the time spent on it, whenever I wasn’t working (my day job) or spending time with the family I would work on it, sometimes every night until late, during holidays. You get totally absorbed.

* While preparing the campaign have you been concerned to what was the main factor to determine fundraising goal? 

The production costs are your main concern, you want to make sure you get enough funding to pay the people who do work for you, in my case the aluminium and steel factory, the plastic factory and then add all the parts you need to purchase; screws, nuts, bolts, rubber feet, fans, glue, keyboards, LEDs etc…etc…that is the minimum, then add the Kickstarter fees, the VAT and the amazon payments fees and then listen to what Kickstarter say which is “ask for the minimum required”. 

Also adding your time and money to the project is something that you have to write off unfortunately.
Another concern was the rewards; for a project like this it’s difficult to come up with rewards. As you can see the majority of the pledges came from people who REALLY wanted the case. For other projects it’s easier to come up with rewards, for example with a music CD you can give a track away, a download, the CD case, the artwork etc…etc…

* You mentioned that the Kickstarter campaign was meant only to cover parts and production costs. If you knew earlier X500 Plus will be crowd sourced, would you have made different design choices?

That is a difficult one to answer. Crowd funding was never in the plans. At one point I remember having to decide between stopping development (as it had already sucked up a great amount of money and time), disappoint those who really wanted it or carry on regardless, I decided to go for the second option. 

It was always going to be a homebrew project so I never really thought about crowd funding until the very last moments, if I had known from the beginning I would probably have changed a few things or stuck to the original (non-cost saving version). Initially the case was going to be even more expensive but it didn’t go down well with the community  so I went back to it and cut design features and things which make it “cheaper”, but I’m happy the way it turned out considering my limited resources..

* Despite X500 being a one-man project, you engaged the community from the beginning. Have you tried reaching outside before Kickstarter? Any results?

Not really, it was always going to be a project with me and some members of the community as the targets. 
I’m glad to have mentioned websites and Amiga related companies in my Kickstarter campaign, I saw this as a great opportunity to publicise our community and refresh people’s memory, showing that we’re very much alive.

At one point I was worried that it wouldn’t get funded and it would have made our community look absent…but it turned out well. 
Free publicity is always good especially for our “small” community. I like to think that the X500 Plus and Evo have, if only for 40 days, put the Amiga name in the spotlight. 
Naming ACube, Hyperion, AROS, MOS, amigakit, A-Eon, amigaworld, amiganews.it, Relec, Vesalia etc…etc…several times on the project page was, of course, intentional…it was my small contribution towards these companies and group of people who have given and still give so much.

* After an initial surge of supporters, around 31st backer, there was quite a long stretch of time when it just stopped. Did you have any contingency plan? 

Apparently that is something that happens often, especially with “niche” products but I have to admit that I became worried when it stalled.

That is when I decided to make the Evo (the case with a mechanical keyboard, laser etched keys, Amiga keys etc…). This was a good and a bad move. Good as it invited more people to pledge bad because it costs a lot more to make. I never accounted for the Evo initially; it was always going to be the Plus. With a couple of weeks to go I decided to make the Evo for those who love mechanical keyboards and requested one. The Evo version meant spending more money and time and producing two different cases so it’s easy to see that not even the full Kickstarter funding will be enough and I’ll have to absorb the high cost of making the Evo with time.

* AmigaWorld.net with amiganews.it account for little over a third of pledges. Did you expect so many backers from outside the community? 

The Amiga related sites did a great job but to be honest I wasn’t expecting so many people outside the community to support the project. People from the C64 and Atari community, some people who had never heard of these types of computers before and were interested in creating their own “retro looking” case with modern hardware inside. I’ve had people saying that there wasn’t enough publicity and only heard about it after the event. I’m just glad I’ll be able to build them for those few who were longing for one.

* Do you think it would be possible to reach to so many backers without Kickstarter?

Honestly? I always thought that the community alone would have been enough. My only advice? Make sure you ARE going to make some money because otherwise it becomes a very expensive hobby. 
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has supported this project. In a sense you’ve become part of it and made it happen either by donating or just mentioning it to someone else. I’d also like to thank ACube for their support, Trevor of A-Eon, Hyperion, the Aros guys and everyone at amiganews.it and amigaworld.net. You’ve been great!

* Thanks again for taking your time!

You’re welcome.

01. Zydec AMRAM-X Iss. 2

Although Amiga 500 was released with only 512kb of stock RAM it was very often bundled with memory expansion. For many users it was most important Amiga upgrade to buy and rightly so. as it not only made games look better (and in later years run at all) but allowed use of many productivity applications in a meaningful way.

A501 and it’s equivalent where so ubiquitous that Amiga 500 beefed up to 1Mb quickly became a standard, baseline that game programmers expected. There was variety of compatible memory upgrades that were following similar design principles. Like most of them Zydec’s Amram 500 included battery backed Real Time Clock.

Unfortunately, nickel batteries at the time weren’t designed to last 20 years and checking for battery damage should be your top priority whenever you buy or rescue Amiga. They have tendency to leak corrosive electrolyte which effects include damaged components, corroded PCB traces and even dead Amigas. They were used aplenty at the day and are very common circuit board wreckers. It’s easy enough to replace old battery with modern CR2032 at a budget.

As expected Workbench couldn’t read nor set date on the during the boor, so I removed the culprit from it’s trapdoor slot and started assessing the damage.

And we can admire fill extent of the leakage

Sure enough, whole area around battery was covered in electrolyte. It’s small blessing that A500 relied on external Real Time Clock due to budget constrains as it keeps corrosives away from motherboard.

Oh no! More electrolyte

It isn’t pretty sight, especially green stuff on IC pins, but upgrades can be tinkered with or exchanged while Amiga stays functional, albeit with only 512k of system memory. Use q-tips dampened interchangeably in isopropyl alcohol and white vinegar to clean affected area.

It looks much better after cleaning. Electrolyte burned thru vias and traces, but really critical damage is concentrated in small area battery’s negative connector.

First time recreating PCB traces, could be done much better.

It was my first time recreating PCB traces and hope to do much better next time. At this point I decided it’s time to see how I’ve done, so Amram back into trapdoor went.  Unfortunately as long as jumper was set to enable trapdoor memory, Amiga would greet me with sadness on her screen.

guru-meditation-small

Memory is much more important to me than real time clock, so I decided to convert my expansion into 500+ compatible model by removing IC clock and supporting circuitry. At that point I already downloaded expansion schematics, but they had such poor resolution they were barely readable. I found all the info I needed on Big Book of Amiga Hardware. After comparing pictures of both models I desoldered all unnecessary parts and added some headers, just in case I’ll change my mind about having RTC.

512k trapdoor expansion for Amiga in it’s most minimalistic form

I decided not to rely on corroded traces and used jumper cables to bypass them. Instead of connecting PIN 16 of  DRAM chip to jumper’s ON pin I connected it directly to PIN 32 on the connector and ran it to  middle jumper to have it always ON and to spre. Thanks to corrosion there was no metal for solder to sink into in jumper thru holes, so cables are soldered to pins themselves.

With Amram 500 stripped to bare minimum I tried booting Workbench disk again. It loaded without Guru Meditation this time, but it didn’t recognized upgrade.

Troubleshooting

  • Using multimeter I checked if expansion gets enough power from Amiga. Voltage between PIN 32 on trapdoor connector and ground (RF Shield or metal jacket on any of external ports) should be 5V.
  • Individually checked if ram DIPs are being fed current. Thanks to pinouts on Amiga Stuff website I knew to measure voltage between PIN1 and PIN 10 of each memory chip. All four were being fed enough current.
  • I checked continuity on all connections I resoldered earlier to find they are conducting as supposed.
  • Then I realised I ran one cable on the other side of PCB than originally, connecting it through depopulated battery solder point. And surprise, surprise, no continuity there.

Let’s hope it worked! Amram 500(+) sits nice and tight in trapdoor, time to boot Workbench and see if my efforts paid back.

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I don’t think there’s much more I can do without logic probe or oscilloscope, or is it? Would it help if I replaced decoupling caps and resistor banks? I guess if that wont work, it’s 1MB Chip Ram hack for me.

Jumpdrive after visit in Internet Cafe

Jumpdrive after visit in Internet Cafe

Just go print some files to the CyberCafe

Most of the Amigas in the wild spend recent years hidden in the attics and cupboards. There are multiple reports of people rescuing A500 computers from skips and garages. Chances are that hardware you got haven’t been stored in optimal conditions. Layers of dust (if only) and ageing components create deadly mix with effects ranging from various errors crippling your machine to serious motherboard failure.

I know you’d like to play games, watch demos or use utility software as soon as possible, but it’s of paramount importance to perform thorough hardware check up beforehand. It will ensure long and healthy life of hardware, preventing future faults and will benefit you with better understanding of Amiga hardware architecture.

View full article »

Dave posted excellent teardown of Amiga 500 on EEVBlog

Starwind V2V Image Converter FreeVirtual machines are blessing and can be useful for home users and professionals alike. Whenever I’m testing some new system configuration ideas, trying software or learning how to remove newest virus, I can do it without fear for my system. I get to check on niche OSes like Aros and Haiku without need for server farm in my room. I was using VMWare Workstation recently as they offer 30-day trial, but found it too heavy on resources – with my moderate usage and one VM at most, four Windows Services are overkill.

It’s back to Windows Virtual PC for me. Unfortunately Microsoft virtual machine doesn’t recognize disk images other than it’s native format. You can convert live drive to virtual disk but can’t import VMWare Workstation files which are in an open format. Good luck trying to find support on Microsoft website, their solutions aren’t helpful or are hidden behind dead links.

Read after break to learn how to convert *.vmdk to *.vhd for free in Windows

View full article »

X500 Plus Prototype

I have to admit, I’m blown by Loriano Pagni’s project. Inspired by classic Amiga 500 form factor he spent last 7 years working on X500 Plus custom case. During this time he hand crafted 5 different prototypes as project evolved.

Designed mainly with AmigaNG and Classic hardware requirements in mind, X500 Plus is surprisingly versatile. If you’re planning retrocomputing project, crave PowerPC goodness in your desktop, need compact FPGA platform or just want to have unique PC to remind you of days long gone, X500 Plus is for you.

It is well thought out and carefully planned construction that goes far beyond novelty factor or nostalgia appeal. It offers more than enough expansion and customisation options to make your dream keyboard computer come true. View full article »

My friend asked me to look into his laptop that died without any warning. After checking motherboard i found out that chipset was fried. Unfortunately my soldering skills aren’t mad enough to resolder chipset, so i had to look for different solution.

After searching on eBay I could tell that buying replacement motherboard would cost almost half the price of the laptop, so this option was dismissed as unreasonable. After all my friend could add another 100 euro to get laptop with better specs.

Fortunately I managed to find motherboard from the same model of Dell missing just SATA connector. We decided, that despite purchase being bit of a gamble it’s still worth a try. Few emails later we managed to haggle price down to 50 quid including shipping – third of replacement motherboard price.

When it arrived, testing begun. I put radiator on the CPU, connected all the necessary cables and started praying to Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Dell Inspiron 1520 Motherboard during preparations to testing.

Fortunately lack of SATA port was the only problem with motherboard and it started nicely, showing us Dell logo. It went through POST and informed that cannot find hard drive to boot system from. After changing boot options to USB, Ubuntu started nicely.

Patient is alive. Waiting for transplant.

I shared great news with my friend. I used his dead motherboard as a donor of missing port and desoldered it. It came out much easier than I expected, but I didn’t have to worry about damaging motherboard. After all it’s hard to kill something twice.

After soldering connector to new board, we connected RAM, hard drive and pressed the power button. Laptop started straight away and booted Windows without any problems at all.

SATA connector soldered. Waiting for first boot.

And that’s what I call a bargain.

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