Breaking Through The 1 MB Barrier In DOS With Unreal Mode And More

The memory map of the original 8086 computer with its base and extended memory made the original PC rather straightforward, but also posed countless issues for DOS-based applications as they tried to make use of memory beyond the legacy 1 MB address space. The initial ways to deal with this like EMS, XMS and UMB were rather cumbersome and often impractical, but with the arrival of the 80286 and 80386 processors more options opened up, including protected mode. More interestingly, this led to unreal mode, DOS extenders and the somewhat more obscure LOADALL instruction, as covered by [Julio Merino] in a new article.

This article builds on the first one which covered the older methods and covered the basics of protected mode. Where protected mode is convenient compared to real mode is that with the former the memory accesses go via the MMU and thus allows for access to 16 MB on the 80286 and 4 GB on the 80386. The segment descriptors and resolving of these that make this possible can be (ab)used on the 80286 and up by realizing that these segment descriptors are also used in real mode. Unreal mode is thus about switching to protected mode, loading arbitrary segment descriptors and switching back to real mode. As this is outside the original processor spec, it is commonly called ‘unreal mode’.

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Protected Mode On A Z80! (Almost)

The microprocessor feature which probably most enables the computing experience we take for granted today is protected mode. A chip with the required hardware can run individual software processes in their own environments, enabling multitasking and isolation between processes. Older CPUs lacked this feature, meaning that all the resources were available to all software. [Andy Hu] has done the seemingly impossible with a Zilog Z80, enabling a protected mode on the chip for the first time in over four decades. Has he found an elusive undocumented piece of silicon missed by every other researcher? Not quite, but it is a clever hack.

The Z80 has two address spaces, one for memory and the other for I/O. He’s taken the I/O request line and fed it through a flip-flop and some logic to call a hardware interrupt the first time an I/O call is made or when a RST instruction is executed. Coupled with a small piece of memory for register contents, and he’s made a Z80 with a fully-functional protected mode, for the cost of a few logic chips. It’s explained in the video below the break, and we hope you agree that it’s rather elegant given the resources in hand. It’s too late for the commercial 8-bit machines of the past, but it would be interesting to see what today’s retrocomputer designers make of it.

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