Winning the Console Wars – An In-Depth Architectural Study

From time to time, we at Hackaday like to publish a few engineering war stories – the tales of bravery and intrigue in getting a product to market, getting a product cancelled, and why one technology won out over another. Today’s war story is from the most brutal and savage conflicts of our time, the console wars.

The thing most people don’t realize about the console wars is that it was never really about the consoles at all. While the war was divided along the Genesis / Mega Drive and the Super Nintendo fronts, the battles were between games. Mortal Kombat was a bloody battle, but in the end, Sega won that one. The 3D graphics campaign was hard, and the Starfox offensive would be compared to the Desert Fox’s success at the Kasserine Pass. In either case, only Sega’s 32X and the British 7th Armoured Division entering Tunis would bring hostilities to an end.

In any event, these pitched battles are consigned to be interpreted and reinterpreted by historians evermore. I can only offer my war story of the console wars, and that means a deconstruction of the hardware.

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Slide Rules were the Original Personal Computers

Unless you are above a certain age, the only time you may have seen a slide rule (or a slip stick, as we sometimes called them) is in the movies. You might have missed it, but slide rules show up in Titanic, This Island Earth, and Apollo 13. If you are a fan of the original Star Trek, Mr. Spock was seen using Jeppesen CSG-1 and B-1 slide rules in several episodes. But there was a time that it was common to see an engineer with a stick hanging from his belt, instead of a calculator or a cell phone. A Pickett brand slide rule flew to the moon with the astronauts and a K&E made the atomic bomb possible.

Slide rules are a neat piece of math and history. They aren’t prone to destruction by EMP in the upcoming apocalypse (which may or may not include zombies). Like a lot of things in life, when it comes to slide rules bigger is definitely better, but before I tell you about the 5 foot slide rule in my collection, let’s talk about slide rules in general.
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The IBM 1401’s Unique Qui-Binary Arithmetic

Old mainframe computers are interesting, especially to those of us who weren’t around to see them in action. We sit with old-timers and listen to their stories of the good ol’ days. They tell us about loading paper tape or giving instructions one at a time with toggle switches and LED output indicators. We hang on every word because its interesting to know how we got to this point in the tech-timeline and we appreciate the patience and insanity it must have taken to soldier on through the “good ol’ days”.

[Ken Shirriff] is making those good ol’ days come alive with a series of articles relating to his work with hardware at the Computer History Museum. His latest installment is an article describing the strange implementation of the IBM 1401’s qui-binary arithmetic. Full disclosure: It has not been confirmed that [Ken] is an “old-timer” however his article doesn’t help the argument that he isn’t.

Ken describes in thorough detail how the IBM 1401 — which was first introduced in 1959 — takes a decimal number as an input and operates on it one BCD digit at a time. Before performing the instruction the BCD number is converted to qui-binary. Qui-binary is represented by 7 bits, 5 qui bits and 2 binary bits: 0000000. The qui portion represents the largest even number contained in the BCD value and the binary portion represents a 1 if the BCD value is odd or a 0 for even. For example if the BCD number is 9 then the Q8 bit and the B1 bit are set resulting in: 1000010.

The qui-binary representation makes for easy error checking since only one qui bit should be set and only one binary bit should be set. [Ken] goes on to explain more complex arithmetic and circuitry within the IBM 1401 in his post.

If you aren’t familiar with [Ken], we covered his reverse engineering of the Sinclair Scientific Calculator, his explanation of the TL431, and of course the core memory repair that is part of his Computer History Museum work.

Thanks for the tip [bobomb].

One Dollar USB Sound Card Turned O-Scope

Using the inputs on a computer’s sound card is an old trick to fake a very simplistic, AC coupled, slow oscilloscope. You can get DC operation by desoldering a couple capacitors, but if the sound card is integrated into the motherboard it raises the stakes if you mess that up.

[TMSZ] has a better option, a ~1 dollar USB sound card which is easily hacked to work as a simple oscilloscope. Easily found on eBay, the 7.1 virtual channel sound card is identical in brains to a more expensive c-media model, but the layout of the PCB makes it easier to bypass the DC blocking caps. Software and DLL files to use the sound card with Miniscope v4 — a Windows GUI for oscilloscopes — are also linked, so getting set up should be fairly simple.

Now of course this is not lab-grade measurement equipment: the sampling rate is limited to 44KHz and the voltages must be in the typical “line level” range, under two volts. If you don’t mind a little extra noise, you can increase the input impedance with a single resistor. This extends the input range up to six volts, which covers most hobby and microcontroller usage.

So if you’re really in need of a scope, but only have a buck to spend, this may be just the hack for you! Those willing to shell out a hefty sum for a high-end headless oscilloscope should look onto the virtual bench.

Microsoft Surface Book Teardown Reveals Muscle Wire Mechanism

It’s hard to resist the temptation to tear apart a shiny new gadget, but fortunately, iFixIt often does it for us. This helps to keep our credit cards safe, and reveal the inner workings of new stuff. That is definitely the case with the Microsoft Surface Book teardown that they have just published. Apart from revealing that it is pretty much impossible to repair yourself, the teardown reveals the mechanism for the innovative hinge and lock mechanism. The lock that keeps the tablet part in place when in laptop mode is held in place by a spring, with the mechanism being unlocked by a piece of muscle wire.

We are no strangers to muscle wire (AKA Nitinol wire or Shape Metal Alloy, as it is sometimes called) here: we have posted on its use in making strange robots, robotic worms and walls that breathe. Whatever you call it, it is fun stuff. It is normally a flexible wire, but when you apply a voltage, it heats up and contracts, much like the muscles in your body. Remove the voltage, and the wire cools and reverts to its former shape. In the Microsoft Surface Book, a single loop of this wire is used to retract the lock mechanism, releasing the tablet part.

Unfortunately, the teardown doesn’t go into much detail on how the impressive hinge of the Surface Book works. We would like to see more detail on how Microsoft engineered this into the small space that it occupies. The Verge offered some details in a post at launch, but not much in the way of specifics beyond calling it an “articulated hinge”.

UPDATE: This post was edited to clarify the way that muscle wire works. 11/4/15.

Who Said FORTRAN is Dead?

NASA has an urgent need for a FORTRAN developer to support the Voyager spacecraft. Popular Mechanics interviewed Voyager program manager [Suzanne Dodd] who is looking to fill [Larry Zottarell’s] shoes when he retires.

We had a lot of people comment on my recent Hackaday article, “This Is Not Your Father’s FORTRAN”, who studied the language at some point. Maybe one of you would like to apply? You need to do so soon! NASA is hoping to give the new hire six to twelve months with [Zottarell] for on-the-job training. You’ll need to brush up on your vintage assembly language too.

light data system hwThe two Voyagers were some of the first NASA spacecraft to use computers. The resources are limited in the three 40 year-old computers found on each probe. They handle the spacecraft’s science and flight software. The software is a little more recent having been updated only 25 years ago in 1990.

A big problem is a lot of the engineering design materials are no longer in existence. People’s memories of the events and reasons for decisions made that long ago are bit hazy. But NASA does have an emergency list of those former engineers when questions arise. That means this could be more than just a job where you program for ancient hardware, you could find a lot of reasons to interact with the people who pioneered this field!

This will be an awesome hack. Anyone up to doing remote computing at a distance of 12 billion miles?

A video on the history of the two voyagers is found after the break.

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[Quinn] Uses “Forsooth” To Win The Internet! –Also Fixes Apple IIc+ Beep

By this point we are all familiar with [Quinn Dunki] and her awesome engineering and retro hacking. [Quinn] aims her latest blog post at the Apple IIc Plus and its tone deaf bleeping beep. You can hear it for yourself in her beep comparison video after the break.

[Quinn] gets straight into the source code as expected and works through a logical process that she explains quite nicely while looking for the origin of the problem. There are some interesting and hard to follow moves in the source as control jumps around the ROM(s) all in the name of minimizing RAM. In proper form [Quinn] uses the ROM bank switching ability to her advantage as she see’s [the Woz’s] efficiency and raises him some fancy footwork of her own along with a beep that doesn’t make our skin crawl.

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