An Amiga 500 in a matchbox? The Armiga pulls it off! ( Hardware Review )


It's a classic story really: two guys geek it out together in their proverbial garage and deliver something amazing, or at least really interesting, like the Armiga. At its core, the Armiga is about nostalgia. It sets out to recreate the warm fuzzies of playing that most awesome game of yesteryear while taking full advantage of today's sweet hardware. The Armiga intends to give you a fully decked-out classic Amiga 500 in a tiny box. And even though the product is still in the prototype stage, it works quite well!

So what do you get when you order one? That depends on which version of the Armiga you prefer. The device comes in two distinct versions: a bigger one with an actual real-life floppy drive, and a small one which cannot handle floppies.

My own floppies were converted to ADF files years ago, but if you're still sitting on a box of precious DS/DD the larger Armiga may be a great fit. I chose to go for the smallest form-factor because I intend to eventually velcro the box to the back of my bedroom-TV. Now you may try this with an actual vintage Amiga 500, but the experience will likely be disappointing. Not so with the Armiga.


The Armiga prototype comes in a box that I assume is Spain's postal service's standard fare for packages. Nothing at all would hint at the contents, but that's fine. At least the box is very sturdy. On with the unboxing!


The contents of the box are wrapped in a generous amount of bubble wrap, making sure nothing will break in transit. Here's what's left with all the packaging materials removed.


The top-left box is the main Armiga unit. It's about the size of a robust matchbox, albeit made of sturdy 3D-printed plastic with a very Amiga-like retro look. Next to it on the right is a USB-to-power cable which plugs into the wall-wart below it to power the main unit. The Armiga also comes with a micro-SD-to-SD adapter, a USB-to-mini-USB cable that I haven't found any use for yet, and a standard HDMI cable that will transport sound and video to your TV all in glorious 720p resolution.


Of course that's not all there is to this. I'm usually one for the more hardcore unboxings, so I decided to take apart the main unit as well. This device being a prototype, there wasn't any warranty for me to void anyway. Inside I found a Cubieboard2, essentially the Raspberry Pi's quiet Chinese cousin that never gets any attention at parties, and an 8GB micro-SD card which holds the Amiga software goodies.

Speaking of software, the Armiga is a bit of a mixed bag. By virtue of the Cubieboard2, it has 4GB of flash RAM embedded which stores a copy of Android 4.4. It boots this operating system when there's no SD card present in the board so you can use the 10/100Mbit ethernet port to surf the internet.

The Amiga-goodness is all stored on the micro-SD card that I just popped out. With the card present, the Armiga boots up a standard-looking Linux kernel which originates from the Linaro project. It's really just a huge stream of text that flows by until the device goes into graphics mode and treats you to a very basic but also quite functional menu.



The top-left button has no purpose on the small edition of the Armiga. On its larger brother, this button allows you to browse the ADF-images of floppies you have cloned in the past. The top-middle button allows you to browse ADF files that are present on the micro-SD card, and the top-right button does likewise but for any attached USB memory stick.

On the lower left there's a tiny button that allows you to change settings. Presently this allows you to manipulate the emulated Amiga's display to look more like the CRT tubes of yore.


After picking a floppy disk image from one of the three possible sources, you should use hit the big orange button in the lower row of the main menu. This resets the emulation, essentially booting or rebooting your virtual Amiga 500. From this point on, the device functions very similar to any software emulation based on the venerable UAE. The Armiga uses a slightly customized build of UAE4All, which permits fast and accurate emulation even on a platform as dinky as the Cubieboard2.

Performance

For all its modesty in the hardware department, the Armiga packs a fairly good punch. I've tested a multitude of games and demos and only in very rare cases does the emulation struggle noticeably. The game "Jim Power in Mutant Planet" is one such case which sadly was almost unplayable due to it overloading the hardware. The sound would glitch horribly and joystick input wouldn't register well anymore. Fortunately such a complete breakdown is the exception, certainly not the rule.As it stands now, with firmware revision 0.4, I'd estimate that this prototype box will run 95% of the software you throw at it without even blinking. It's even got the framerate, 50Hz. refresh rate and vsync issues right, straight out of the box, giving you silky-smooth scrolling on a modern TV.

Obviously I'm reporting any and all issues I find straight back the Armiga project for them to ponder over and fix, if possible. Despite the already quite polished look of the system, this is in fact still a prototype and all the safeties are off.

Ease of use

On the software side, this device is exactly what I want it to be: simple and fast. Apart from the one that will end up behind my bedroom-TV, I also have one that I intend to give to my nephew of 10 who happens to love my real Amiga 500. This device finally makes emulation simple enough for him to enjoy without needing to learn all the intricacies of what it means to emulate a device that's three times as old as himself. Armiga clearly is a winner there.

However! The Cubieboard only provides two USB ports. At first glance this should be enough. The Amiga 500 only has two joystick/mouse ports anyway, so it matches that. Unfortunately, you'll quickly notice that most Amiga titles take the presence of the keyboard for granted. So I whipped out a cheap USB keyboard I had in my box of spare parts, connected a USB mouse for good measure and was left without a place to plug in my joystick. An afternoon of testing quickly turned into a hardware-swap-fest, greatly accelerating wear and tear on the Armiga's USB ports.

To be honest, any finished Armiga really should have at least four fully functional USB ports. One for a keyboard, one for the mouse and two joysticks for multiplayer gaming. A fifth port would be a luxury for loading ADF's from, although I get how difficult it is to increase the number of ports on such a small board. That said, he Raspberry Pi 2 does have four ports nowadays so I hope the Armiga guys really do manage to pull this off before a final product ships.


Conclusion

The Armiga devices being shipped today are prototypes, unfinished models created for testing purposes. With that in mind, they do a surprisingly good job of emulating the much-beloved Amiga 500 with its 512KB trapdoor expansion and Kickstart 1.3 (included fully licensed from Cloanto). Despite all the big-box Amiga snobbery going on these days, the 500 is the one most of us got to know and love back in the day. It's this machine -and no other- that the Armiga project intends to revive.

If you're looking to replace your Amiga 1200 or something even bigger, the Armiga is not for you. It deliberately does not do hard drives, AGA, complex RAM configurations or CPU's other than the bare bones 68000 and I praise the team for its restraint in this regard. Any of these features would increase the complexity of the device's operation in exchange for very marginal returns.

It's quite obvious that the Armiga is an unfinished product so I'll reserve final judgement until the product is done. However, the lack of USB ports could become a deal breaker to many, as well as the quality of the emulation under heavy load. A device this simple to operate should really "just work" for the consumer in all respects. Right now I'd give this box a 7 out of 10 and I don't regret my purchase one bit. It's the most portable Amiga I've ever seen!

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Article by Bas Van de Wiel

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