There are two ways to recover data from an obsolete storage medium. One way is to pull out all the tools in the hacker’s kit — with logic analyzers, oscilloscopes, and bit-banged software in a desperate attempt to reverse engineer the original protocol. The other way is to have a really, really deep junk bin that just happens to contain exactly the right pieces that would have been used decades ago.
For recovering data from a 25-year-old PCMCIA memory card, [Dave] from Vintage Apparatus chose the latter method. But to be fair, characterizing the stash of gear he had to select from as a “junk bin” is pretty insulting. It’s more like a museum of retro technology, which just so happened to hold Toshiba Libretto, a subnotebook computer hailing from the late 1990s. The machine sports a pair of PCMCIA slots and was just the thing to read the data from the old 32 MB SanDisk flash card, which once lived in a backpack-mounted GPS system for surveyors.
If this hack sounds as easy as plugging things into an old computer, you’d be right — if you just happen to have a stack of floppies containing the Windows 98 drivers for said things. So [Dave]’s task became a game of finding the right combination of cards that already had the drivers installed and would provide the connectivity needed to get the data off the flash card. Between a suspiciously crunchy-sounding floppy drive and an Ethernet card dongle badly in need of some contact cleaner, cobbling together the right hardware was a bit of a chore. After that, a lot of the hack was [Dave] just remembering how we used to do things back in the day, with the eventual solution being transferring over the files to an FTP server on a Raspberry Pi.
The video below tells the whole saga, but the real treat might just be the Vintage Apparatus collection of gear. Incidentally, we really like [Dave]’s idea for storing associated bits and bobs.
Bringing modern connectivity to retro computers is an endearing field- with the simplicity of last-century hardware and software being a double-edged sword, often, you bring a powerful and tiny computer of modern age to help its great-grandparent interface with networks of today. [yyzkevin] shows us a PCMCIA WiFi card built using a Pi Pico W, talking PCI ISA. This card brings modern-day WiFi connectivity to his IBM PC110, without requiring a separate router set up for outdated standards that the typical PCMCIA WiFi cards are limited by.
The RP2040 is made to talk PCI ISA using, of course, the PIO engine. A CPLD helps with PCI ISA address decoding, some multiplexing, and level shifting between RP2040’s 3.3V and the PCI 5 V levels. The RP2040 software emulates a NE2000 network card, which means driver support is guaranteed on most OSes of old times, and the software integration seems seamless. The card already works for getting the PC110 online, and [yyzkevin] says he’d like to improve on it – shrink the design so that it resembles a typical PCMCIA WiFi card, tie some useful function into the Pico’s USB port, and perhaps integrate his PCMCIA SoundBlaster project into the whole package while at it.
This is a delightful project in how it achieves its goal, and a pleasant surprise for everyone who’s been observing RP2040’s PIO engine conquer interfaces typically unreachable for run-of-the-mill microcontrollers. We’ve seen Ethernet, CAN and DVI, along many others, and there’s undoubtedly more to come.
We thank [Misel] and [Arti] for sharing this with us!
Back in the 1990s I was fascinated with small computers. I used the HP200LX palmtop computer for almost ten years, which I wrote about back in December. Naturally, the Franklin Rex 3 PCMCIA-sized organizer caught my attention when it was released in 1997. Here was a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) the size of a credit card that could fit not just in your pocket, but in your shirt pocket.
Viewed today, it was an interesting paradigm. The screen takes up almost the entire front face of the device with a few buttons for navigation. But isn’t it a deal-breaker that you can’t enter or edit contact info on the device itself? This was long before cellphones were pervasive, and if you had the option to connect to the internet a telephone or Ethernet cable was involved. The ability to have a large data set in your pocket viewable without slapping a brick-like laptop on a table was pretty huge.
I think the killer feature was the PCMCIA interface. I challenged myself to reverse engineer the API so that I could sync data outside of the