I got some new SGI computers. I was surprised because I thought the SGI guys from the Czech Republic gave me all their leftovers. I had to go to one of the original SGI offices in Brno this time. The office design was very 90s and there were classic SGI artworks on the walls. All the people there are now HPE employees but many of them started there working for SGI when every employee had an Indy or O2 on their desk.
The “loot” contains:
Two SGI O2 / MIPS R5000 / 2x SCSI HDD / the one with the older logo has an analog AV module installed
SGI Visual Workstation 320 / 1x Pentium II / a basic configuration with an IDE HDD
SGI Challenge / MIPS R5000 / basically an Indy without audio ports and a graphics card
Two sets of keyboards and mice, the PS/2 one is for O2 and the USB one for SGI 320
For those of you who are new to the world of vintage computers, this article can provide some valuable context and perspective. I delved into why the 386 was such a crucial milestone for PCs and a few lesser-known details. I absolutely adore this machine. I don’t think I own any other portable computer from the 80s that brings me as much joy while working on it. If only it were just a tad lighter..
I am trying to avoid buying any old computer, but a friend of mine and I made an exception in this case and bought this together. Somebody in Prague offered a non-working HP Integral Personal Computer (1985) for $420. It was just 15 minutes of traveling from my friend’s home, so he visited the seller and told him that he would buy it if he could look into it, measure voltages and check for corrosion (either from caps or a leaked battery). The seller agreed. They briefly started the computer, but only horizontal bars were flashing on the screen. Then he disassembled the system, and everything was in pristine condition and all voltages were ok. After reassembling, he just paid and took it home.
When I visited the friend, he showed the computer. I asked him to start it so I could record a video of the error. To our surprise, the machine started directly into its HP-UX 5.0 UNIX system stored in ROM. Maybe the reseating of the internal boards helped it. Who knows. Anyway, we haven’t played with it more. I will first clean it and it is necessary to check capacitors in the power supply, repair the power button and check why the machine does the high-pitch sound when operating – it sounds like a hard drive which is not there.
I love how the machine looks like and it is even smaller than I expected. When carried, it is just as tall as my 1989 Toshiba T3200SX with a 386SX CPU, 3MB of RAM and a VGA gas-plasma display… and it is not much heavier. HP Integral Personal Computer is based on the Motorola 68000 CPU and has at least 512KB of RAM. In addition to the ROM storage containing the operating system, there is just a single internal floppy drive (720KB 3.5”). More storage devices can be connected using HP-IB though. I always wanted this machine. I even have a HP Journal magazine from 1985 with a very in-depth description of each internal component.
Last summer, I put new set of alkaline batteries in this portable beauty as I needed it for a photoshoot. A few months later, I used the machine also during a vintage computer event and (both times) I forgot to remove them. The stand-by energy consumption is apparently so low that nine months, the computer still holds the data in its RAM disk.
After years, I’ve finished a long in-depth write-up about an interesting piece of history – the SGI IrisVision 3D accelerator from 1990. It was a scaled-down version of the graphics board set from the SGI Personal IRIS and was intended for PC compatibles (16-bit AT bus) and PS/2 computers (MCA).
The whole thing started when IBM licensed the graphics hardware and the IRIS GL 3D API for their IBM RS/6000 UNIX workstations. Although the IrisVision was not very successful (like all 3D accelerators of the era), it is cool that IRIS GL programs could run under DOS.
At the end of the article, there is a video showing the card in action in a high-end IBM PS/2 Model 70 with a 25-MHz Intel 386 and 387.
I recently acquired a shiny Model 100 portable with necessary accessory. I played a bit with the machine before cleaning it and I was a bit surprised that it could retain data in the RAM disk for minutes after disconnecting the power. That gave me the impression that there was a backup battery inside, which scared me enough to open the machine immediately… and yes, although the battery still provided some voltage, it started destroying itself and the computer. I removed the residue from both the backup battery and the battery compartment for AA cells and cleaned the rest of the machine. It looks almost like new now.
I have to say that I am very impressed with the Model 100. The user experience is closer to professional computers of that time than home 8-bit machines. The programs in ROM can read/write the same files, switching between them is fast and there is even a shared clipboard. I particularly like the built-in terminal emulator with handy access to download/upload features and easy configuration. This was a true mobile companion for those working on the road and accessing the company minicomputer over modem.
My version does not have the modem, but at least the null-modem communication works flawlessly. I think I should install an old UNIX somewhere and try accessing it like in the old days. Somebody even created a Model 100 termcap definition file, so it is possible to use control functions of its terminal emulator in UNIX.
A guy contacted me that he found a complete TRS-80 Model 100 at the recycling center, ready to be destroyed. He was not a vintage computer collector but realized that it could have value for some, so he started to google somebody who can appreciate it and found my Czech blog. He wrote me a message that I could take it for free if I was interested.
… and I indeed was. This particular machine travelled to our country during the socialism era and it is quite rare here. I love portable computers of all kinds, so I am very curious to see whether this 1983 ultra-mobile machine was just a useless toy or a valuable companion on the road. The next step is to clean everything. The original suitcase started to disintegrate, and everything is covered with the black filth.
TIGA is a strange beast. Texas Instrument’s TMS34020 (introduced in 1990) was the holy grail of 2D graphics acceleration for a certain period in the world of PCs. This chip is fully programable general purpose processor, so you can offload even non-graphics tasks to it (my low-cost SPEA Graphiti HiLite 1024 has 1MB of program/data memory in addition to 1MB of framebuffer memory). If you add a floating-point coprocessor (like Intel i860 or TMS34082), you can create a 3D accelerator that processes both rasterization and geometry processing.
On the other side, fixed-function graphics cards soon became cheaper and faster, which took the mass-market appeal away from TIGA. There were also multiple reasons, why TIGA was not a user-friendly standard. Unlike CGA, EGA and VGA, TIGA has a vendor specific part of the graphics driver. That means that you cannot just put a TIGA card in your computer and hope that programs or operating systems listing TIGA among supported graphics standards will work. That’s the reason why most TIGA collectors not even try if their cards are in a working condition.
This SPEA card (like many other TIGAs) is supported in DOS and Windows 3.x only. You need to configure the card (the configuration is stored in its EEPROM), initialize it during every boot using a vendor specific driver and load a generic TIGA library. Once all the steps are done, you can run any TIGA-enabled program.
This approach means that there cannot be any generic TIGA driver for UNIX, Linux, Windows NT and other operating systems that cannot work with drivers loaded from DOS. Windows 3.x has a generic TIGA driver and one can be installed also in Windows 95, but that’s all.
SPEA didn’t bank on the generic TIGA support in programs. They provided “direct” drivers for multiple DOS CAD programs (including AutoCAD) and Windows 3.1. These drivers work only on compatible SPEA cards and bypass all TIGA libraries. SPEA made them more performance optimized for CAD work. The Windows driver also offers an easy way to change resolution and color depth. Only 256-color (8-bit) and true color (32-bit) modes are supported, so my entry-level board with just 1MB of framebuffer memory can show millions of colors in resolutions no higher than 640×400.
(The first photo shows the SPEA card compared to a standard “dumb” ISA SVGA card. This SVGA card is one of the best choices from the early 90s thanks to its fast Tseng ET4000AX chip and 1MB of 32-bit video memory.)
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…
You might think that the machine is useless without a working HDD and no floppy drive, but that is not true. Quaderno has a small bootable “ROMDOS” drive with basic system files, COMMAND.COM, a RAMDISK driver (up to 320KB of EMS memory can be used and you still have full 640KB of conventional memory) and Interlink software. This drive is interesting, because it acts like a read-write one. You can edit config.sys and autoexec.bat (the changes are there even after shutdown, if the CMOS battery is ok or AC is connected). You can even copy files there, but if it’s more than a few KB, the system will crash hard (requiring you to reinitialize the ROMDOS).
With Interlink, you can mount remote HDDs over a serial port. I used it to run VC (Volkov Commander) to edit the config.sys (no EDIT.COM in ROMDOS) and enable the RAMDISK driver. After this, I had my small but fast local storage (non-persistent) and everything bigger was started directly out of the remote HDD from another computer. This is a good way to test the computer before fixing the HDD or installing a flash/SRAM card in PCMCIA 1.0.