Thanks for the Memories: Touring the Awesome Random Access of Old

I was buying a new laptop the other day and had to make a choice between 4GB of memory and 8. I can remember how big a deal it was when a TRS-80 went from 4K (that’s .000004 GB, if you are counting) to 48K. Today just about all RAM (at least in PCs) is dynamic–it relies on tiny capacitors to hold a charge. The downside to that is that the RAM is unavailable sometimes while the capacitors get refreshed. The upside is you can inexpensively pack lots of bits into a small area. All of the common memory you plug into a PC motherboard–DDR, DDR2, SDRAM, RDRAM, and so on–are types of dynamic memory.

The other kind of common RAM you see is static. This is more or less an array of flip flops. They don’t require refreshing, but a static RAM cell is much larger than an equivalent bit of dynamic memory, so static memory is much less dense than dynamic. Static RAM lives in your PC, too, as cache memory where speed is important.

For now, at least, these two types of RAM technology dominate the market for fast random access read/write memory. Sure, there are a few new technologies that could gain wider usage. There’s also things like flash memory that are useful, but can’t displace regular RAM because of speed, durability, or complex write cycles. However,┬ácomputers didn’t always use static and dynamic RAM. In fact, they are relatively newcomers to the scene. What did early computers use for fast read/write storage?

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Toroid winding cheat

When you need a toroid the easiest source is often to wind it yourself. The problem being that placing a few hundred windings around a ferrite ring is a real drag, especially if you have to make several of them. This cheat developed by [Jim W.] will save a lot of time. He cuts the ring in half for the winding and reassembles it afterward.

Here you can see that he has half of the core mounted in a drill chuck. To get to this point he scored the ferrite before clamping half in a vice and whacking the extruding half with a block of wood and a hammer. He hasn’t found a perfect solution for scoring the material (a utility knife or a triangular file both work but have drawbacks). Leave a comment if you’ve got any bright ideas.

Once the core is in two pieces he used some copper pipe with one end flattened and bent to the shape of the ring segment. With it hot glued in place he takes it for a spin (shown in the clip after the break). Once the windings are done a bit of super glue recombines the halves. This sort of thing is great for monitoring power use.

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