A Sound Card David Made 30 Years Ago

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This is a sound card designed and built by David (a friend of mine who does most of hardware repairs here on my tumblr) in the early 90s. He was a 15-16 years old high school student when he created this thing. It’s a custom design with 12-bit DAC, DMA support and connections for mono out and mono in. He was forced to use an 8-bit ISA bus because 16-bit AT prototyping card PCBs were not available in Czechoslovakia stores at the time (not long after the Velvet Revolution). There was also a problem to get necessary parts for stereo output.

The sound card is not compatible with any standard, so he wrote a program to playback wave sounds and created a “driver” for MODPLAY to playback tracker music. His reason to make his own sound card was simple – 8-bit Sound Blasters had worse sound quality and 16-bit sound cards were too expensive for him.

He still has one of the assembled cards, a prototyping board, all technical drawings and a WordPerfect document describing the design and operation of the card.

There is a quick video of the working card:

ATI Graphics Solution rev 3 and monochrome ADI DM-14 (1985-6)

My Vienna 286 (1987) has finally got a monochrome MDA monitor so I can put back the original graphics card (ATI Graphic Solution rev 3). This first ATI chip (CW16800-A) has functions necessary to drive CGA and MDA/Hercules modes, so you can connect both types of monitors although the card is very small. In fact, I was thinking that it was something much newer than the rest of the system but that was not true. ATI implemented most of the circuits in a big GAL (Gate Array Logic, maybe that’s why they were called Array Technologies, Inc.) which allowed them to make the card very compact.

I’ve started with MCGA graphics in 1989 and then with SVGA graphics in 1990. I had never had an opportunity to play with Hercules graphics modes, so I was extremely curious. Using high-resolution text-mode applications in an MDA mode (IBM Monochrome Display Adapter) is a pleasure on this long-persistence screen. Especially when you consider that the same experience was possible since day one with IBM 5150 PC in 1981.

Hercules Graphics Adapter (HGC) used almost the same signal timing as MDA and added a graphics mode where each pixel (720×348) could be changed independently. This allowed business applications to use high-resolution monochrome graphics (black/white) and the card became quite popular (ATI was not the only company making HGC clones).

HGC mode is not the best choice for gaming. Although a lot of games supported the HGC mode, they usually used a simple hack with CGA data. These were the typical approaches:

  • Prince of Persia: 320×200 CGA graphics is horizontally stretched to 640 pixels where each two adjacent pixels are used for dithering (4 shades -> 2 shades). There is no vertical expansion used in the game. The developers just put the 200-row graphics in the center of the 348-row screen.
  • Stunts improved the approach used in Prince of Persia. There is always a black row after two standard rows, so the screen is expanded to 300 rows. I’m surprised that it doesn’t look bad at all on the real CRT.
  • F-15 Strike Eagle tries to expand the graphics to the whole screen area. The vertical expansion is done by doubling every second row.
  • Microsoft Flight Simulator 3.0 looks great because it works with vector graphics. Thus, it can use the full HGC resolution. The result is better than with CGA with exception of the 16-color composite CGA output.

Bringing “Vienna 286” back to life

A friend of mine found an early 286 computer from the 80s in his garage. It was built in 1987 in Austria and then sold to an engineering school in socialistic Czechoslovakia for an incredible amount of money. The system contains 8-MHz Intel 80286 & 80287, a 1.5MB RAM expansion card, a Hercules clone (the first ever PC graphics chip from ATI) and a 30-MB Seagate hard drive for the ST-506 interface. We were not sure if it worked after decades in garage but to our surprise, we were able to boot. The system was fully working once we set up CMOS variables.

A few notes:

  • Modern computers with USB floppy drives are still usable for creating and testing DOS boot floppies without a need for emulators
  • The Czech “old computing” community is very generous. We forgot to take a PS/2-DIN adaptor and didn’t want to go back to Prague for one (two hours of driving) so I wrote a message on Facebook and got a keyboard (with mechanical switches) for free from a person living in a city near us.
  • Copying a whole 30-MB disk drive over a 115 kb/s serial port is faster than copying modern drives over USB 3.0
  • Booting to DOS prompt takes only 12 seconds (including BIOS)
  • I had to find a generic BIOS setup utility, because the early Phoenix BIOS didn’t
    have it built-in. GSETUP31.EXE was a solution. Check this for good DOS stuff (more
    info in 00_index.txt).

Higher Refresh Rate in DOS Games

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I decided to stay in my parent’s house for a weekend and although almost all my computer equipment is somewhere else for a long time, under a thick layer of dust I’ve found my old Compaq DeskPro SFF box and a 17-inch CRT that my father bought new in 1998. Surprisingly, the system still works and its hard drive is loaded with many DOS and early 3D-accelerated games… Great time to play all episodes of Blood (a game based on the Duke Nukem 3D engine).

I like playing old games on CRTs but I hate low refresh rates used in DOS games (60-70Hz). If you have as sensitive eyes as I have, there is a solution called UniRefresh. It can modify default refresh rates for each supported resolution and it works well with most games that use VESA. That allowed me to play the game in 640×400@120Hz. Yay!

UniRefresh needs a graphics card supporting VBE 3.0 (VESA BIOS Extensions). Use the latest DOS version of SciTech Display Doctor to emulate VBE 3.0 support on older cards.

Acorn A3020 with a PC HW Emulator

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It was common for many computer platforms to have a complete IBM PC compatible on a card in the 80s and early 90s. Software PC emulators were also a choice but their performance was usually very low. Having a card with a x86 CPU could solve the issue.

Acorn PC Card equipped with Cyrix 486SLC (25MHz) is almost as fast as Intel 486SX for certain tasks (main difference is in cache size: 1kB instead of 8kB) and the card allows you to get all the CPU performance. However if you expect full PC replacement, you would be very disappointed. The main limitation is in graphics performance. The card is usable only with text-mode programs and static graphics. Although VGA modes are emulated, even simple CGA games (like Alley Cat) are unplayable due to slow screen refresh. Good to mention that refresh speeds are somehow worse when PC Card output is changed from full-screen to windowed display.

I believe that it was better and probably not more expensive to buy a cheap PC clone instead of this card.

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.