vintage computers

A cheap CPU in a very expensive computer

In the mid-1990s, there were so many articles about how cheap all the RISC CPUs were compared to what Intel offered. You could read it in an every computer-related magazine every month. Scientist friends of mine at universities desperately wanted to have such RISC CPUs in their own personal computers. They never really liked x86 design and they were used to work on UNIX workstations, so they didn’t even need any support for running Windows. However, although these CPUs were marketed as inexpensive, it was nearly impossible to build a computer based on them. You could only buy a complete UNIX workstation or a hi-end workstation-class mainboard with a lot of unnecessary features. There was no way to buy a reasonably priced basic mainboard.

At least that was the situation here in Central Europe. What was your experience? Was it different in your country?

(image source)

B&W Macs and Games

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Games on early B&W Macs traded colors for a higher resolution and they often looked very good. However, this was difficult to do in Warlords, a turn-based strategy game with eight nations, where the color was the only way to differentiate between them. The Mac version has unique graphics for buildings and flags (held by warriors) to overcome the lack of colors and the result is surprisingly nice, but the colors on PC are more practical anyway.

Transferring old files from Atari floppies

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David asked me if I could help him with transferring all files from the pack of floppy disks he used during the late 80s with an 8-bit Atari (800XE). We are working on the Atari version of our Sieve Benchmark (to compare the performance of old computers) and he told me that, as a kid, he  created many assembly programs that can now speed up the development . The ultimate goal is to compare extremely optimized assembly versions of the benchmark for 6502, Z80 and 8088 to find out, which CPU is faster.

I didn’t have any modern disk emulator for the system so I transferred the files to the PC the old way. I used Atari 800XL and two floppy drives (1050 and XF551). At the beginning, I had just one drive, but then I realized that I was not able to create at least a small RAM disk on a 64k machine with MyDOS – that would allow me to copy files from one disk to another without using multiple drives (this is not straightforward when each of the disks has different density).

Copying files to different disks was necessary. David used the 130KB “ehnanced density” format that is not readable on floppy drives in PC. The Atari XF551 disk drive supports all the Atari formats up to the 360KB double-sided double density that is sort of compatible with PC drives. With the two drives connected to the Atari, I copied the files from the old disks to a few “new” ones and started searching what is necessary to do on the PC side.

At the end, I used two MS-DOS programs – ATUTIL for reading/writing individual files and WRITEATR for creating ATR disk images out of real floppies. All of this took me two evenings, but I’m happy that I didn’t have to use modern hardware to copy files both ways between 8-bit Atari and PC.

(btw David also decided not to use modern hardware so he is programming directly on the Atari 800XL with Atmas II macro assembler from 1985)

Shark demo (1994) running on a SGI O2 workstation

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This is one of the demos that were used by Silicon Graphics and Nintendo to show the graphics features of their upcoming game console (Project Reality / Ultra 64 / Nintendo 64) during CES in 1994.

SGI used an Onyx supercomputer to run the demo. I recorded it in 1024×768 (true-color) on a much less powerful SGI O2 workstation (released in 1996). O2 is based on a graphics architecture similar to what was actually used in Nintendo 64. It was a perfect fit for an inexpensive highly-integrated computer as well as a game console.

I would rather use a different SGI computer (Octane2 was my first choice), but O2 was the only machine that was compatible with my cheap VGA-to-HDMI converter.

Vintage Computers at Work

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We prepared a small room with old computers as a part of a bigger event at work. After careful consideration, we selected Atari 800XL and Commodore Amiga 500 for the contest purposes. Atari was running Space Invaders and each visitor played with the highest difficulty (three lives, level 12). For Amiga, we chose Pinball Dreams and the goal was to get the highest score using just a single ball.

To make the room more appealing, we brought several old computer magazines and 80s props. Curious visitors could also experience ZX Spectrum+ with the Who Dares Wins game. The feedback on our room was very positive and people were talking a lot about their first computers there. However, the biggest surprise for me is that the joystick survived all the players. Some of them gave it a hard time.

New SGI Stuff Directly From SGI

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SGI guys are moving to an HPE office building so I’ve visited them to take some junk that would be otherwise thrown away. I took one SGI 320* and three SGI O2 workstations plus few small industrial (non-SGI SGI-branded) computers. There was a lot of old hi-end servers, JBODs, FC switches, NUMA link boxes and so on but the storage capacity of my house is limited so I had to let them there.

*) It’s one of their first x86-based visual workstations. It’s not PC compatible and its architecture is similar to O2. The only supported OSes are Windows NT 4.0 and Windows 2000 and you need a special loader to get Windows running on this system.

Expanded Sinclair QL

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This is my Sinclair QL setup. It is 0.9 meters wide when a 512kB RAM expansion, floppy controller and floppy drive are connected. You need a really big desk for this.

Quaderno Resurrection

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After several hours and twenty replaced capacitors this Olivetti XT-compatible sub-notebook is finally alive. Yay!

Old CGA Laptops and Monochrome TV Output

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When I tried a composite video output on my Bondwell Model 8 for the first time I was disappointed that there were no colors in the picture. I searched over the internet and old reviews and found that the output is “monochrome only”.

Bondwell used the V6355 chip sold under Yamaha brand. This chip was quite popular in early CGA laptops (and MSX computers) and according to a datasheet it can handle multiple output modes: digital monochrome LCD, TTL RGB, analog RGB (for SCART connection) and color/mono composite. The problem is that the chroma pin on the chip is shared with signals required for LCD and wrong voltages/clocks on the pin could damage the LCD screen.

It looks like engineers wanted to have color composite output as there are missing parts on the logic board around these signal traces. However there was probably no business justification for having it in the laptop. Mobile users used the composite output mostly on the road when stayed at hotel (any hotel TV was better than the first generation of laptop LCDs).

I have found that Toshiba used monochrome TV outputs on their LCD CGA laptops as well (and IBM probably too). Since adding a color burst logic to the laptop would need heavy hardware modifications and some disassembling of BIOS I have to stay without a mobile device that could handle special multi-color (>4) CGA modes.

3D modeling in 1988

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Long time ago (before I went to college and then got a job) I played a lot with 3D modeling software on PC. My favorite one was LightWave3D. Recently I tried its very beginning – there is something called VideoScape 3D which is kind of predecessor. In the package there is a small program Designer3D which (unlike other 1988 modelers for home micros) allows to make a 3D model using graphical interface instead of text commands.

You can see in the video how creepy the interface was. There are three viewports that cannot be resized or zoomed. I’ve modelled a simple “space ship” with only 20 polygons and it took me an hour to do this.

However, I see very interesting that there is a 10-page manual program that can describe all functions of the program so even somebody who never did anything in 3D can understand it. This is not so easy with today’s 3D modelers.