Bye Bye Linux On The 486. Will We Miss You?

A footnote in the week’s technology news came from Linus Torvalds, as he floated the idea of abandoning support for the Intel 80486 architecture in a Linux kernel mailing list post. That an old and little-used architecture might be abandoned should come as no surprise, it’s a decade since the same fate was meted out to Linux’s first platform, the 80386. The 486 line may be long-dead on the desktop, but since they are not entirely gone from the embedded space and remain a favourite among the retrocomputer crowd it’s worth taking a minute to examine what consequences if any there might be from this move.

Is A 486 Even Still A Thing?

Block diagram of the ZFx86 SoC
An entire 486 PC in a chip that only uses 1W, that would have been amazing in 1994!

The Intel 80486 was released in 1989, and was substantially an improved version of their previous 80386 line of 32-bit microprocessors with an on-chip cache, more efficient pipelining, and a built-in mathematical co-processor. It had a 32-bit address space, though in practice the RAM and motherboard constraints of the 1990s meant that a typical 486 system would have RAM in megabyte quantities. There were a range of versions in clock speeds from 16 MHz to 100 MHz over its lifetime, and a low-end “SX” range with the co-processor disabled. It would have been the object of desire as a processor on which to run WIndows 3.1 and it remained a competent platform for Windows 95, but by the end of the ’90s its days on the desktop were over. Intel continued the line as an embedded processor range into the 2000s, finally pulling the plug in 2007. The 486 story was by no means over though, as a range of competitors had produced their own take on the 486 throughout its active lifetime. The non-Intel 486 chips have outlived the originals, and even today in 2022 there is more than one company making 486-compatible devices. RDC produce a range of RISC SoCs that run 486 code, and according to the ZF Micro Solutions website they still boast of an SoC that is a descendant of the Cyrix 486 range. There is some confusion online as to whether DM&P’s Vortex86 line are also 486 derivatives, however we understand them to be descendants of Rise Technology’s Pentium clone. Continue reading “Bye Bye Linux On The 486. Will We Miss You?”

Bionic Eyes Go Dark

If you were blind, having an artificial retinal implant would mean the difference between seeing a few hundred pixels in greyscale and seeing all black, all the time. Imagine that you emerged from this total darkness, enjoyed a few years of mobility and your newfound sense, and then everything goes dark again because the company making the devices abandoned them for financial reasons.

This is a harrowing tale of close-source technology, and how a medical device that relies on proprietary hard- and software essentially holds its users hostage to the financial well-being of the company that produces it. When that company is a brash startup, with plans of making money by eventually pivoting away from retinal implants to direct cortical stimulation — a technology that’s in it’s infancy at best right now — that’s a risky bet to take. But these were people with no other alternative, and the technology is, or was, amazing.

One blind man with an implant may or may not have brain cancer, but claims that he can’t receive an MRI because Second Sight won’t release details about his implant. Those bugs in your eyes? When the firm laid off its rehab therapists, patients were told they weren’t going to get any more software updates.

If we were CEO of SecondSight, we know what we would do with our closed-source software and hardware right now. The company is facing bankruptcy, has lost significant credibility in the medical devices industry, and is looking to pivot away from the Argus system anyway. They have little to lose, and a tremendous amount of goodwill to gain, by enabling people to fix their own eyes.

Thanks to [Adrian], [Ben], [MLewis], and a few other tipsters for getting this one in!

Digital Preservation For Old Batteries

The times they are a-changin’. It used to be that no household was complete without a drawer filled with an assortment of different sizes and types of batteries, but today more and more of our gadgets are using integrated rechargeable cells. Whether or not that’s necessarily an improvement is probably up for debate, but the fact of the matter is that some of these old batteries are becoming harder to find as time goes on.

Which is why [Stephen Arsenault] wants to preserve as many of them as possible. Not in some kind of physical battery museum (though that does sound like the sort of place we’d like to visit), but digitally in the form of 3D models and spec sheets. The idea being that if you find yourself in need of an oddball, say the PRAM battery for a Macintosh SE/30, you could devise your own stand-in with a printed shell.

The rather brilliantly named Battery Backups project currently takes the form of a Thingiverse Group, which allows other alkaline aficionados to submit their own digitized cells. The cells that [Stephen] has modeled so far include not only the STL files for 3D printing, but the CAD source files in several different flavors so you can import them into your tool of choice.

Like the efforts to digitally preserve vintage input devices, it’s not immediately clear how many others out there are willing to spend their afternoons modeling up antiquated batteries. But then again, we’ve long since learned not to underestimate the obscure interests of the hacker community.

Magnetic Bubble Memory Farewell Tour

There’s something both satisfying and sad about seeing an aging performer who used to pack a full house now playing at a local bar or casino. That’s kind of how we felt looking at [Craig’s] modern-day bubble memory build. We totally get, however, the desire to finish off that project you thought would be cool four decades ago and [Craig] seems to be well on the way to doing just that.

If you don’t recall, bubble memory was going to totally wipe out the hard drive industry back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. A byproduct of research on twistor memory, the technology relied on tiny magnetic domains or bubbles circulating on a thin film. Bits circulated to the edge of the film where they were read using a magnetic pickup. Then a write head put them back at the other edge to continue their journey. It was very much like the old delay line memories, but with tiny magnetic domains instead of pressure waves through mercury.

We don’t know where [Craig] got his Intel 7110 but they are very pricey nowadays thanks to their rarity. In some cases, it’s cheaper to buy some equipment that used bubble memory and steal the devices from the board. You can tell that [Craig] was very careful working his way to testing the full board.

Because these were state-of-the-art in their day, the chips have extra loops and would map out the bad loops. Since the bubble memory is nonvolatile, that should be a one time setup at the factory. However, in case you lost the map, the same information appears on the chip’s label. [Craig’s] first test was to read the map and compare it to the chip’s printed label. They matched, so that’s a great sign the chip is in good working order and the circuit is able to read, at least.

We’ve talked about bubble memory before along with many other defunct forms of storage. There were a few military applications that took advantage of the non-mechanical nature of the device and that’s why the Navy’s NEETS program has a section about them.

VGA Signal In A Browser Window, Thanks To Reverse Engineering

Epiphan VGA2USB LR VGA-to-USB devices

[Ben Cox] found some interesting USB devices on eBay. The Epiphan VGA2USB LR accepts VGA video on one end and presents it as a USB webcam-like video signal on the other. Never have to haul a VGA monitor out again? Sounds good to us! The devices are old and abandoned hardware, but they do claim Linux support, so one BUY button mash later and [Ben] was waiting patiently for them in the mail.

But when they did arrive, the devices didn’t enumerate as a USB UVC video device as expected. The vendor has a custom driver, support for which ended in Linux 4.9 — meaning none of [Ben]’s machines would run it. By now [Ben] was curious about how all this worked and began digging, aiming to create a userspace driver for the device. He was successful, and with his usual detail [Ben] explains not only the process he followed to troubleshoot the problem but also how these devices (and his driver) work. Skip to the end of the project page for the summary, but the whole thing is worth a read.

The resulting driver is not optimized, but will do about 7 fps. [Ben] even rigged up a small web server inside the driver to present a simple interface for the video in a pinch. It can even record its output to a video file, which is awfully handy. The code is available on his GitHub repository, so give it a look and maybe head to eBay for a bit of bargain-hunting of your own.

Planned Obsolescence Isn’t A Thing, But It Is Your Fault

The common belief is that big companies are out to get the little people by making products that break after a short period, or with substantially new features or accessories that make previous models obsolete, requiring the user to purchase a new model. This conspiracy theory isn’t true; there’s a perfectly good explanation for this phenomenon, and it was caused by the consumers, not the manufacturers.

When we buy the hottest, shiniest, smallest, and cheapest new thing we join the wave of consumer demand that is the cause of what often gets labelled as “Planned Obsolescence”. In truth, we’re all to blame for the signals our buying habits send to manufacturers. Dig in and get your flamewar fingers fired up.

Continue reading “Planned Obsolescence Isn’t A Thing, But It Is Your Fault”

Hard Drive Speaker IPod Dock

This looks like someone watched the Obsolete Technology Band, and had to have one of their own. It appears to be a dock, driving several different sizes of old hard drives. While the concept isn’t new, we thought they did a decent job of putting the whole display together. It could be fun to have that mounted on our wall, waiting for geek friends to impress.