Special thanks to the kind folks at This Week in Retro.
They featured my work in their episode on May 27, 2023 (at minute 12:50).

The Portable A500 Mini and How It Ended Up in a Pub

The A500 Mini is a nifty recreated retro computer that can be made to run any classic Amiga software. Here's how to turn it into a portable device using an Android tablet as a screen to bring it to the pub for field-testing. And I shot a video doing it! Let me show you, it's fun.

May 2023

Making the A500 Mini portable and bringing it to the pub: Watch on Youtube

The A500 Mini by Retrogames is quite a favorite in the retro computing community. It is a recreation of a Commodore Amiga from the 1980s using modern technologies. After their success with theC64mini and theC64 (maxi), Retrogames released the A500 Mini in 2022. It is based on an FPGA that mimics the Amiga's hardware. The device comes packaged with an Amiga USB tank mouse, a color-matched HDMI cable, and a game controller like the one that came with the Amiga CD32.

The main device is modelled after the Commodore Amiga 500 but the case is less than a quarter of the original device's size (hence the name A500 Mini). While it appears to have a tiny keyboard built in, it is actually only a mock dummy. You can't type on it.

To get it set up, you need a monitor, an HDMI cable and a power adapter with a USB Type-C cable.

The A500 Mini

The A500 Mini in all its glory. The mouse and gamepad are normal sized, they only look large compared to the main computer because it is mini. (Photo source: RetroGames)

What Can You Do with the A500 Mini?

Out of the box, you can play any of the 25 included games. The Mini boots up into a nice launcher that allows you to select a game using the controller. You can choose between classic games such as the amazing "Chaos Engine", "Simon the Sorcerer", "Zool", "Alien Breed", and many others.

This might be cool as it is, but you can do so much more with it. Retrogames has released a firmware update to add the functionality to load ADF disk images, the most common format for archiving Amiga software. This opens up a vast software library of games available on the web as abandonware or at least neglected by their rights holders. Additionally much of the Amiga's productivity software and demos are available as well on archive sites.

The A500 Mini's case and name suggest that it is an Amiga 500, however it is not only compatible with the Original Chip Set (OCS) in the Amiga 1000 and 500, and the Enhanced Chip Set (ECS) in the Amiga 500 Plus and Amiga 600 but also with the Advanced Graphics Architecture (AGA) in the Amiga 4000 and 1200. So the A500 Mini can run pretty much any classic Amiga software you throw at it.

While the compatibility is amazing, there are some rare games and applications that either have issues running or fail to do so all together. In the grand scheme of things, it is only a small number. The community has put together a list of incompatible software in this Google Doc.

Turning the A500 Mini into a Fully Usable Amiga

If you thought that this is a lot to tinker and play with, then you will be pleased to know that this is by no means everything. The Amiga retro community has adapted AMiNIMiga to run on the A500 Mini. This turns the A500 Mini into a fully usable Amiga. You download the package and install it on a USB thumbdrive by unpacking it. The storage device shows up right in the A500 Mini's launcher and lets you launch the full Amiga Workbench and run a large selection of preinstalled demos, games, developer tools, and productivity applications from the harddisk image.

The AMiNIMiga installation uses the Kickstart ROMs that come with the A500 Mini and runs AmigaDOS and Workbench. It includes art packages like Deluxe Paint IV/V, Brilliance, Real3D, and Lightwave, as well as productivity apps like FinalWriter, DirectoryOpus, and ScalaMM, and dev tools like Amos, AmigaE, BlitzBasic.

It comes with a plethora of games that run using WHD Load. This patches the original games to make them compatible with harddisk loading. Additionally the harddisk image contains hundreds of demos created by the still very active Amiga demoscene and MOD tracker music for easy listening.

And everything works just like on an original Amiga! Albeit one that can connect to a modern screen using HDMI without any issue or the need of a video upscaler. The only feature missing is networking. There is currently no way to connect the A500 Mini to the internet or directly to other computers.

And... It still has a non-functional keyboard.

Fortunately, you can connect any regular USB keyboard to the A500 Mini. There is one issue though. The device only has three USB ports. You definitely need to use one port for the gamepad because the main launcher depends on it. You will need another port for the thumbdrive with AMiNIMiga. This leaves only one free port, which becomes an issue if you want to connect both a USB keyboard and a USB mouse.

A USB hub can solve the problem. It will need to be a powered hub because the A500 Mini does not provide enough power to the USB port for some keyboards and mice. But there is a much better alternative.

You can use a wireless keyboard with an integrated trackpad. It is connected using a wireless dongle. The keyboard-trackpad combo has its own power (either regular AAA batteries or an integrated rechargable battery). Therefore it draws very little power from the A500 Mini.

Two keyboard options

These are two options for a keyboard with a pointer device. Top: Microsoft's all-in-one model with an integrated trackpad. Bottom: Logitech's keyboard that uses the same receiver dongle for both the keyboard and the mouse. (Photo source: Mediamarkt)

I, for one, much prefer an actual mouse to a trackpad. It is much more precise and comfortable to use in an art application like Deluxe Paint or Brilliance. So I bought a wireless keyboard that shares its receiver dongle with a wireless mouse. Connecting the single dongle to the spare USB port on the A500 Mini allows you to use both the wireless keyboard and wireless mouse without the need for a USB hub.

Please note, that as it stands now, the A500 Mini cannot use a Bluetooth input device, you will need a wireless device that has its own dedicated USB dongle for the connection.

If you want to learn more about the nitty-gritty of the A500 Mini, I strongly recommend Holger Weßling's excellent "A Hobbyist's Guide to THEA500 Mini", which is like the missing user guide for the device. I've had the privilege to meet Holger at two demoparties, Evoke 2022 in Cologne, and Revision 2023 in Saarbrücken. He graciously helped me out with an issue I had with an early version of AMiNIMiga. Here's his German language Youtube Channel Tentelian Retro.

Making the A500 Mini Portable

I have taken my A500 Mini to quite a few demo parties. These are gatherings of enthusiasts from the demoscene, a subculture focused on the creation of demos - non-interactive multimedia presentations that showcase programming, artistic, and musical skills. At demo parties, we often compete in different categories such as coding, music, graphics, and animation. These events can last from a single day to a whole weekend, and are notable for their creative and collaborative atmosphere.

My setup at Revision 2023

This was my setup at Revision 2023. You can see the A500 Mini in the back connected to a large monitor and a Microsoft keyboard/mouse combo (My Surface Go2 and my iPad Pro are in the foreground). The monitor needs a power source. Its stand needs to be assembled and disassembled. I will replace this with the new portable solution for the A500 Mini. (And yes! That is the USB version of a Competition Pro joystick in a body made of transparent plastic.)

Getting the A500 Mini ready on a new location can be a bit of a hassle. The device itself is quite small and handy. Adding the game controller, the mouse and the keyboard is also still fine. But the screen! You'll need a monitor. And this is where the hassle starts. First of all, dragging this thing to remote demoparties is a pain in the neck. Then you will need to bring along a power strip for the screen and the A500 Mini.

There is a better solution: make the A500 Mini portable! This would make it much easier for me to just pop over to a demoparty and easily set up my stuff.

And how would I prove to you that it really is that easy? I'd do it already now without having to go to a demoparty. Rather, I'd put it to a "field-test" by going to the pub and casually setting up my A500 Mini on a table and using it under the watchful eyes of the other patrons like it's nothing. Yes, an actual Irish pub!

Or better said, since I'm in Vienna, Austria, it is the simulacrum of an Irish pub. It's actually my favorite branch of a chain in the style of Irish pubs we have here in Vienna. The interior design is very authentic and makes for marvelous backdrop for my video. If you look very closely you can see some adaptations to local tastes that make it slightly less authentic. In the video one of the boards with the day's specials features pizza. I'm neither Irish nor an irishologist but I'd bet that pizza is not generally regarded as an Irish dish.

So... what do you need for a portable A500 Mini?

The portable A500 Mini in a Pub

The portable A500 Mini at the Pub

First of all, you need a USB power bank, then a USB video capture dongle, and finally an Android tablet to act as the display (in addition to the HDMI cable, USB-C power cable, gamepad, mouse and keyboard).

The A500 Mini is very power efficient. This means that it runs perfectly fine using a powerbank. I use my old but trusty Anker 20,000mAh powerbank. There are much better ones available these days. Please find below the links to all the products discussed in this article.

For input I use the RedThunder K84 wireless gaming keyboard and mouse set with a German QWERTZ layout because it comes with a colorful LED backlight. I hope some day this will make me look cool (though I'm not holding out hope that this will happen). Both devices use a single wireless receiver dongle to connect and they can be charged through their USB Type-C connector. There are other pretty good keyboard and mouse combinations that look more serious and business-like from Microsoft and Logitech.

And now the interesting bit: using an Android tablet as an HDMI monitor.

Before we do that, let's get the most obvious solution out of the way: using a portable monitor. I know that there are a few portable monitors ranging from 13" to 15" in size. Some even have their own rechargeable battery so they do not need to be connected to a power source. However they still take up a lot of space and are single-use devices. If I had one, it would probably gather dust for weeks and months until I use it at a demo party. This is admittedly a great option. I'd nevertheless like to rule it out due to size contraints.

Any halfway decent and cheap Android tablet can do the job. I have a Samsung Galaxy Tab S6 Lite. It is a low-to-mid-range model from 2022 that I use for drawing in the delightful Infinite Painter and running Linux through Termux and Andronix (one of the great strengths of Android, that even I as a dedicated iPad user have to admit to).

It is a 10.4" tablet, so the screen is not really particularly large. I like the size and it can handle any resolution the A500 Mini throws at it. There are Android tablets available with much larger screens, even crazy large screen like 14.6" and 15". These devices have a vastly higher performance. They are a heckuvalot more expensive, and I'm not sure that this setup really needs a lot of raw CPU/GPU performance.

By default, Android tablets can only mirror or extend their own display to an external HDMI monitor, they cannot take the input from an external HDMI source and display it on their screen. This is where an HDMI to USB Capture Card comes in. I have no idea why they are still called capture cards because they are actually dongles with an HDMI connector on one side and a USB connector on the other. They convert the HDMI signal and pass it through USB to a computer, or in our case, a tablet. I'll just run with the "cards" moniker because I don't want to upset anyone.

A while ago I bought the Papeaso USB Video Capture Card/Dongle for no particular reason and without much research, only based on its small size and the fact that it comes with a USB Type-C adapter. I used it to capture the video output of the Micomsoft Framemeister XRGB-Mini video upscaler connected to my original Atari Mega STE hardware. (Sorry, not sorry! I love both the Atari ST and the Amiga. Take a look at the mini-comic I made on my STE here.)

Any other video capture device should do the job nicely. No need to get an expensive models because the A500 Mini cannot produce a higher resolution than regular HD.

All items used to make the A500 Mini portable

All items used to make the A500 Mini portable

You connect one end of the HDMI cable to the video capture card and the other end to the A500 Mini. Before connecting it to the Android tablet, you will need an app to handle the input. The Android app USB Camera Capture is available on the Google Play Store as an ad-financed free version and as low cost pro version without ads. After launching the app, you connect the video capture card to the USB type-C port of the Android tablet. The OS will ask you for permissions for video and audio input.

Et voilá! HDMI Video is displayed on the screen of the Android device crisp, clear and vibrant. Like on a regular monitor. Not only that: the tablet also outputs the A500's audio. (To be fair, the speakers on cheap tablets are nothing to write home about, but if the tablet has a headphone jack, you can connect headphones.) The tablet can be propped up with a cheap tablet case folded as a stand.

This solution is not limited to Android tablets. If you don't mind the small size, you can use an Android smartphone with a USB type-C port. You can also probably use an iPad with an app similar to USB Camera Capture (though you'd need to put in some research to find it).

There are no two ways about it: there is a slight screen lag when you use this. I personally do not mind it at all and it does not interfere with gaming much. I can still get very far in "The Chaos Engine" and completely play through "Paradroid 90". Using the Amiga CLI, a word processor or text editor is also fine. Though I must admit that painting in Deluxe Paint does take some getting used to due to the lag. The mouse pointer feels slightly drunk.

Overall, I still love this solution because it is much more portable, quick and easy to setup, and the tablet has its own battery so it does not need to be connected to a power source.

How all the items get connected

How all the items get connected

This is what we have:

  • An A500 Mini
  • with a USB powerbank connected to the A500 Mini's USB type-C power port,
  • one end of the HDMI cable connected to the A500 Mini,
  • the other end connected to a video capture card, which itself is connected to the Android tablet running the USB Camera Capture app,
  • the gamepad connected to the first USB port,
  • the wireless dongle connected to the A500 Mini's second USB port to connect the wireless keyboard and mouse that are powered by their own internal rechargeable batteries,
  • and finally the USB thumbdrive with AMiNIMiga in the third USB port.

It takes me around three minutes to assemble this setup. I have done this at a retro computing meetup, in a public library, in a Viennese café, and in an Irish pub (see video above). If you don't mind people giving you the occasional odd look, then it is a really cool portable solution. (Contrary to popular belief, I don't spend all of my time in pubs and cafés, though its close enough.)

I haven't run exhaustive battery tests yet. There are just too many components with their own battery power to make a reliable statement. The powerbank should keep the A500 Mini running for a good eight hours. I'm not sure how long the Android tablet will stay up with its screen on while crunching the video data. If I had to guess, I'd say around four to five hours. Finally, the keyboard and mouse will run out of their own power at some point, though I think that would take a couple of days to happen.

More Transportable than Portable

In the end I'd say that the portability of the A500 Mini really improves my enjoyment of the device. I feel, the less tethered you are to a location, the likelier it is (for me at least) to use a device more often and for a wider variety of uses. While I like to think of this as a "portable" A500 Mini, I do think it is actually more of a "transportable" A500 Mini. It does require some assembly to get it up and running on a different location. Please see the video above, at the end I run through the assembly. It is not that terrible.

I can think of other ways to make a portable A500 Mini. You could use the LapDock/NexDock by Nex Computers. This is like a "dumb" laptop without its own CPU, memory or storage. It has a clamshell laptop-like design with a screen, keyboard and trackpad. You can connect a Raspberry Pi or an Android phone running the Dex desktop environment to it. The NexDock even has its own 5,800 mAh battery to power a connected device like the A500 Mini. The NexDock support pages describe how to use it with a Raspberry Pi by connecting the power cable and the HDMI cable. I see no reason why it shouldn't work with an A500 Mini. The official Raspberry Pi magazine MagPi has reviewed it here.

The Nextdock is a laptop-like device that can be used for a Raspberry Pi, Android smartphone, or A500 Mini
The NexDock used with a Raspberry Pi (Photo source: MagPi Magazine)

I can also imagine someone building their own A500 Mini laptop by taking the board out of the case and incorporating it into a 3D printed enclosure that holds a screen, battery, keyboard, and trackpad.

For me at least, the solution described in this article and video is ideal to travel lightly to any demo party and still have my A500 Mini up and running within minutes.

Thanks for indulding me with this weird little interest of mine. Wish you happy A500ing!

Featured Products

Here are links to all the products mentioned above, I don't make money any money from these referrals:

PS: I know that I am being verrrry petty here by complaining what a drag it is to bring equipment to a demoparty or retro computing meetup.

There are folks at demo parties who bring multiple computers carefully packed in transport boxes, heavy CRT displays they keep repaired and in a great condition, large LEDs that illuminate their tables like rainbows captured in threaded pearls, massive loudspeakers blasting sweet sweet chip music, and other large equipment. It takes them hours to set up before the demo party even starts.

The result of their efforts are stations of remarkable beauty and lots of stories. I admire their dedication and craftiness. I love to visit their tables and chat with them forever, while I gawk at their awesome tech.

I just don't want to be the one carrying any of this around.

Just two example of the great tables of participants at Revision 2023

Just two example of the spectacular tables of participants at Evoke 2023.

PPS: No, I won't disclose which Irish pub in Vienna I went to because I didn't actually ask for their permission to shoot the video. I just found the lovely interior decoration and setting very compelling and started making the video there. Anyone who knows their way around the city will be aware that there are many independent Irish pubs but only one actual chain of pubs. You can figure it out.

I just got lucky that most angles I used in the video had no other patrons in the background. (I think there still is one shot where you can just about make out someone in the distance). Of the few people there on a Sunday morning, no-one cared that I did my thing.

Rest assured that I spent some good money there by having a full English breakfast, a few coffees, and probably around four liters of lemon shandies. I gave the waitress a good tip. She was very kind and helpful. She actually even waited sometimes until I had completed a shot before coming to my table.

PPPS: Just to address another thing that seems to bug some folks: the name of the device. I know I have been referring to it as the "A500 Mini". It is actually called "THEA500 Mini".

I just struggle with the use of the full name in a readable sentence when addressing it with a definite or indefinite article. I can't bring myself to write something like   "...a THEA500 Mini is..." or even something goofy like   "...the THEA500 Mini has...". It just doesn't sound right.

I swear to Batman that this is the last PS I will add to this article.

Batman says: Swear to me!