toshiba

PCMCIA 1.0, SRAM and linear flash cards

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Although mounting remote HDDs over a serial cable to my Olivetti Quaderno was a nice solution, it was not very fast. I wanted to add persistent storage using a PCMCIA card, but Quaderno has just PCMCIA 1.0. I used to work a lot with PCMCIA, but it was always the newer standard (2.0) typical for 386/486 laptops. PCMCIA 1.0 does not support IO devices (so no ethernet cards) or CompactFlash cards (as they are IO cards in the ATA mode). PCMCIA 1.0 can work only with linear memory mapped cards. For linear flash cards, there were two incompatible standards (FTL and MS FFS). SRAM cards had just a single standard. In addition to all of this, simpler devices (industrial, embedded) required attribute memory on the card in order to work at all (fortunately, this laptop supports full Card Services and does not need it).

I took a 4MB PCMCIA SRAM expansion from my Amiga 600 and put it in Quaderno. The ROMDOS drive contains a Microsoft program called MEMCARD.exe (very similar to FDISK.exe, but for early PCMCIA cards), so I used it to format the card, rebooted the machine and got 4MB of persistent storage (the SRAM card has a battery to retain the data even after removing the card from the computer).

These early PCMCIA cards don’t work in Windows out of the box. However, there is already a DOS driver included in Windows 9x. You just need to add two lines in the config.sys and you can use the SRAM card in a “more modern vintage computer” (it still allows you to use the slot with other cards and use hot-plug features). Btw these direct mapped SRAM cards have one big advantage – they are super-fast.

I know it’s almost 30 years late, but I finally understood, how these old PCMCIA devices work…

Final step in PowerBook 100 restoration

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Although I’m not a collector, I always wanted to have one PowerBook 100 just to remind my childhood. It was the coolest Apple notebook from the early 90s. Last year, we brought back to life two out of three dead PowerBooks 100 from a friend of mine, so we could keep one for free. The restoration was not finished though. All the 2.5-inch Conner SCSI hard drives were dead.

These drives are hard to find so I installed the PowerMonster II adapter last weekend. I would do it maybe half a year ago but the first experiment was with a 2GB CF card and resulted in the “SCSI Bus Not Terminated” error. I was later told that old SCSI Mac don’t like large hard drives. With a 512MB CF card, the system immediately detected a new drive on the bus.

Making it usable with Mac was a different story. OS installer diskettes contain an utility for hard drive setup but it refuses to work with non-Apple drives. I tried even “hacked” versions that should work with other drives but with no success. Finally, after trying multiple utilities, Lido 7 rescued me five minutes before I wanted to give it up. I clicked on “Easy Setup”, set a name and icon for the drive and everything was ready to install the operating system.

Unlike DOS and UNIX systems, old Macs never had universal utilities to set up any third-party hardware. I don’t like that approach but Apple had that as a part of its strategy.

Bright Text on 1-bit Displays

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XT-class Toshiba laptops started to use “double-scan CGA” displays with a resolution of 640×400 in the late 80s. This allowed for better graphics and much sharper text in comparison with ordinary CGA solutions. However, the LCDs which Toshiba used worked only in 1-bit mode so there were no shades of grey (blue). Lower resolutions in graphics emulated (four) colors using 2×2 patterns. The text mode, on the other side, emulated the intensity bit (bright text) using bolt characters.

Toshiba experimented a lot with hi-res fonts in ROM and I’m not pleased with the results. Standard (thin) font is hard to read and not visually appealing. Fortunately, it is possible at least to swap the bold and standard fonts using a keyboard shortcut. It is strange that the highlighted characters are in fact less readable then but overall experience is still better than with the default setup.

Toshiba T1200XE (1990)

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T1200XE belongs to the first generation of Toshiba portables equipped with 2.5-inch hard drives which allowed to make the machines smaller and lighter (3.6 kg). It has 12-MHz 80C286, at least 1 MB RAM (up to 5 MB) and a gorgeous 9,3-inch sidelit blue-and-white LCD. This LCD has a resolution of 640×400 and it is combined with a graphics chip that can utilize the full resolution for text and graphics (32 kB of video RAM).

“Grayscale” in 320×200 is emulated using 1-bit 2×2 patterns so the picture looks more like on Hercules cards emulating CGA. On the other side the screen is very sharp and blue text and backgrounds look cool.

Pocket Computing

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HP 200lx (1994) and Poqet PC (1989) are x86/XT compatibles with DOS in ROM. Poqet PC is more like a standard PC and has a better keyboard. On the other side HP is loaded with full-featured productivity programs (PIM, Lotus spreadsheet, word processor, scientific and financial calculators…) and a special easy-to-use graphics environment.

Libretto 70CT (1997) runs standard Windows 95/NT. Except for the size this is a normal laptop. Toshiba somehow managed to squeeze a 2.5-inch hard drive and the Pentium CPU in a package with the size of Windows CE handhelds.

Laptop Display Troubles

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IBM PS/2 Model P70 (1989) on the left side and Toshiba T2200SX (1991) on the right side. The IBM machine is equipped with a gas-plasma display and Toshiba has a typical side-lit passive-matrix LCD. The photo can hardly show how superior the plasma screen is. Its black is so deep that it cannot be beaten with any modern LCD. It is as fast as CRT monitors (unlike passive-matrix LCDs with 300ms response time) and as sharp as active-matrix LCDs (that were introduced a year after this machine).

There are no plasma screens in laptops today so where was the catch? It was in power consumption which was significantly higher. Typical machine with a gas-plasma display was either AC-only or with battery life usually up to one hour. Active matrix displays started to be affordable in 1992-1993 and with their color capability and lower power consumption they pushed plasma screens out of the market. Until then gas-plasma displays were the hi-end choice for many portables.

My P70 in action: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RaaIg8mrBkE

Kids Do Like History of Computers

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I’ve been pretty amazed that kids attending my computer class are aware of many historic moments in microcomputer history. At first they were scared when I told them that the lesson will be dedicated to history because they are used to the wrong style of teaching history through bullet points and dates. We talked about minis and micros and I’ve brought a lot of hardware from different eras of micro-computing.

It was nice to see that they were interested in historic hardware. They even play on 80s video game consoles at least using emulator software. This photo is from the end of a lesson about history of PC gaming (from beginning to 1996). Some kids were very interested how it is to play the first game from Need for Speed series.

My class is not about retro hardware but I’ve realized that using old computers is an effective and entertaining way to explain computer basics.