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Bytefest 2019

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These were the computers we brought to Bytefest – a Czech vintage computer show. David and I decided not to bring more than two desktop systems. Amiga 2000 was an obvious choice – we fixed it not a long time ago and I played a lot with it recently. The other computer was SGI Indy with the original set of peripherals including the Indycam camera. There are not many vintage UNIX computers to see on vintage computer shows in this country. Thus, it is my duty to bring at least one every year.

The Aritma Minigraf plotter sitting on top of the Indy was connected using one of the Indy’s serial ports though a special ARM-based module that David built. The module contained the control software that allowed it to draw faster and with better precision than the plotter was originally designed for. From time to time, there were couple of people standing in front of the plotter, being hypnotized by the smooth movement of the pen. The Indy itself was communicating with the module as a serial terminal with the ability to send HPGL files that needed to be drawn.

I’d never played that much with Indy before (aside creating the OpenGL 1.0 version of our 3D graphics benchmark) and this was a nice experience. The graphics card in our Indy is able to display no more than 256 colors (or 16 colors for double-buffered 3D), but it’s pretty fast and allows you to have a different 256-color palette for an active window and the rest of the system. Therefore, the color flickering effects are minimized in comparison with PCs set to 256-color modes. I was surprised by the visual quality of the composite input from Nintendo 64 in 256 colors.

Commodore Amiga 2000 was configured to show the capability of this platform during the late 80s (thus, Workbench 1.3 and Kickstart 1.3 only). It didn’t have any accelerator board and the only expansions were a simple hard disk controller, 2-MB fast RAM card and A2088XT PC emulator (with an 8088 and 512kB of RAM). During the show, I also added an ISA card with a serial port (for Microsoft InterLink purposes) and a VGA adapter.

The other devices that we showed were: Apple PowerBook 100 (this year with a working hard drive and full of software), Digital DECpc 325SLC (because a 386 with color LCD is cool) and HP OmniBook 900 (just a service laptop to convert the Wi-Fi Internet into a cable form for the Indy).

Digital DECpc 325SLC (1993)

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Digital (DEC) always made interesting computers and their PC laptops were no exception. DECpc 325SLC was a laptop with the first generation of color passive-matrix displays. The picture quality (aside the ability to display colors) was on par with monochrome passive-matrix screens with all the drawbacks they had. On the other side, the computer was equipped with a 25-MHz Intel 386SL and SVGA graphics for just $2.100 – the price where other laptops from most other brands have just monochrome screens and VGA graphics.

The 386SL is the first CPU specifically designed by Intel for use in laptops. It integrates almost a whole PC into two chips, with the main chip containing (among other things) a 386SX core (with 16-bit data bus) and 64kB of cache (16-bit as well). Intel built the platform to support then new power management functions like the sleep mode (“suspend to RAM”). The performance of this CPU is halfway between 386SX and 386DX.

Graphics chip was not integrated in the two Intel chips. Digital decided to use a chip from Western Digital with 512kB of video memory and the support for 256 colors with a resolution up to 800×600. The chip was attached using the ISA bus and had no acceleration. On the other side, the support for VESA VBE 1.2 and ~3MB/s throughput to video memory made it a good mainstream solution among ISA based cards of the time.

There was also a detachable trackball module available for the computer. It’s not hot-plug and you need to reboot the system, but it works surprisingly well even after decades. Note the mouse icons on the arrow keys and Z/X – these are for the mouse emulation. The laptop with no trackball or mouse attached transparently emulates PS/2 mouse on these keys and the result is way more usable than the Windows feature called “MouseKeys”.

Amiga for Bytefest

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I’m still preparing my computers for the upcoming Bytefest. Amiga 2000 with a A2088XT PC emulator card is the second computer I want to have there. Unlike others, I want to show the computer with Kickstart 1.3 / Workbench 1.3, original upgrades and late-80s programs.

I often see only heavily expanded Amiga systems with latest versions of Workbench, PowerPC accelerators and PCI cards. However, these machines don’t say much about this platform when it was really used by professionals.

Preparing my SGI Indy for a vintage computer event

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Bytefest 2019 is coming and I have only two weeks to prepare all the machines I want to take with me. I want to the show this Indy with a Nintendo 64 game console because Indys were often used for N64 game development (after all, N64 hardware was designed by SGI). It is nice to see that Indy’s VINO interface supports progressive scanning (used by game consoles and old 8bit computers) on its composite/S-Video inputs – unlike newer SGI O2 and SGI Visual Workstation 320. Anyway, the main planned part is to connect a vintage Czechoslovakia plotter (Aritma Minigraf) using our custom interface (modified to use a serial port) and plot processed images of visitors taken using the Indy’s bundled webcam.

I’m surprised that serial ports on Indy support speeds only up to 38.4 kb/s. Pretty slow for a computer introduced in 1993. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why the serial port speed was not even mentioned in the user guide. They just didn’t care.

Amiga 2000 (1987) – Part 2

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It took me two years to find some time to disassemble the machine and then another year to start fixing it. Repairing the PSU with the blown EMI suppression capacitor was an easy task and that’s what we started with. Worse part was the instability – machine often crashed to a guru meditation error during certain tasks and sometimes a restart resulted in a “color screen” error.

David created and programmed a small device with eight differential inputs for voltage measurement (and logging) so we could check if the electrolytic capacitors did their job properly. To our surprise, they were fine. We also tried different programs to test memory and other hardware but the computer successfully passed all the tests.

Based on the Guru error codes, we found the root cause in the faulty EPROM chip (Kickstart 3.1). It started to lose data and reading of certain regions of the chip was sometimes affected. Thus, CPU executed faulty code (like a word or long word access on an odd address boundary).

The system is now running with Kickstart 1.3 and Workbench 1.3 and all original upgrades are inside except one. The Commodore A2630 accelerator card (25MHz 68030+98882, 2MB 32-bit RAM) crashes with dark blue and green screens and I’m afraid that there is a mechanical issue.

Next steps: Fix A2630 and reprogram the EPROM chip.

Backing Up DD Floppies

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I was asked by my manager to download data from multiple boxes full of floppy disks he used in the early 90s. I’m used to people at work asking me for help with old UNIX systems, but reading 5.25-inch floppies is here for the first time. He used to be a musician when he lived in Israel and used his 386 PC as a sequencer with an E-mu Proteus/1 external wavetable synthesizer.

I picked my Vienna 286 computer to read the floppies. It’s quite a high spec machine with an 8MHz CPU, math coprocessor, Hercules-compatible Graphics and 1.5meg ISA RAM card… and it’s my only computer with a 5.25-inch drive. If you ask why I removed the CRT before I started copying the files, ugly mold smell goes from it every time it’s turned on and I hate it. I rather configured the machine to work in a headless mode (straight boot into Microsoft InterLink Server) and accessed the drives from a laptop over a null-modem cable.

Kermit Setup and CP/M

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Don’t expect fancy setup utilities in CP/M. This is the process to create a machine compatible version of Kermit (terminal emulator software). MLOAD.COM takes the main program file in HEX and modifies it using the machine specific HEX file. The result is an executable file (COM) of the desired program.

Although there were text-based DOS programs around even in the 90s, their interface was usually far more user friendly with all the setup utilities, pull-down menus and other cool features. CP/M and early DOS programs were a perfect example of how simple and crude the software from the early- and mid- 80s was.

Kermit also reminds me a big advantage of the “PC compatibility”. In theory, the CP/M software was universal. However, different floppy formats, different pinouts on serial/parallel ports and different screen handling commands made life much tougher for both software developers and users.

Porting Sieve Benchmark to Mac

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I play a lot with my PowerBook 100 these days. It’s a part of a large article about early Macs for my main blog (in Czech). PB100 is a cool office machine and it’s always a pleasure to work with it. I mostly run a text editor and a terminal emulator (the 9600 baud connection to a Linux box that can be used for the Internet access). When I need to relax, I have Test Drive II: The Duel (among other games). The Mac version of this game is somehow more fun than on PC even though it displays just black and write pixels.

Anyway, my obsession is to port our Sieve Benchmark to every single old computer I play with. PB100 was not an exception. I already had a version for Mac so I only needed to modify the code to run on the plain Motorola 68000 and System 7.x.

PB100 with a 16-MHz 68HC000 CPU runs twice as fast as Amiga 600 (with no fast memory). That’s not bad. However, my another small laptop from the same era – Toshiba 2200SX – is still three times as fast as PB100 thanks to its 20-MHz Intel 386SX. I’m not surprised that higher-end models (with 68030) from the first generation of PowerBooks were more popular. Still, this PowerBook is my favorite machine among early portable Macs.

Dead DEC Multia… any ideas?

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I was given a Multia a few months ago from a former Digital employee. He told me that the machine could not start (no sign of life, even fan didn’t spin on). I cleaned it, checked all cables and the machine started without any issue. However, after an hour of work, screen went black and the machine was not able to boot anymore (no smoke effects).

I thought this was maybe the well-known issue with the two chips on the bottom side of the system board dying due to overheating. Ordering these chips looked easier than doing any diagnostic so we ordered the replacement and “fixed” the board. However, it didn’t help. My Multia still blinks the error code E – “Failed while configuring memory”.

These chips are octal bus transceivers – they are between the CPU and RAM slots. There are nine of them (8x8bit for data, 1x8bit for ECC). Two of them on the bottom side. We did some checks using oscilloscope to see what was happening there. At least OEAB signal was changing rapidly. !OEBA seemed H all the time (cannot tell for sure, maybe there were just too few changes). There was some data on two out of the nine chips. The rest of transceivers had no visible data receiving from the CPU (L).

We don’t have a usable logic analyzer at the moment so it is hard to move further. I tried to find some documentation and block diagrams of the machine with no success (I have a reference board design for the CPU though). Also, all Multia pages just mention that there are issues with the two transceivers that we already replaced… but there is no further explanation how the machine behaves if these are faulty (to check that we are on the right way).

Any ideas what to do next? Burn it with fire?

DEC Multia Restoration #2

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In the first part, I cleaned this little machine and convinced it to boot. Sadly, it died an hour after the first start. Anyway, you can see photos containing:

  • Video card self-check (color stripes)
  • ARC firmware for loading Windows NT (blue background)
  • SRM console integrated in the firmware for booting UNIX and VMS (black background) … yes, it has dual firmware
  • Digital Tru64 UNIX boot
  • CDE graphics environment

Today, I will try to replace two suspicious chips. Let’s hope that it will bring the machine back to life.