PCMCIA Flash Card Gives Up Its Secrets Thanks To Retro Gear

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.

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The LCD being replaced in an old laptop

Hackaday Prize 2022: Repairing A Vintage Laptop With Modern Components

Laptop computers may be ubiquitous today, but there was a time when they were the exclusive preserve of rich businesspeople. Back in the early ’90s, the significant added cost of portability was something that few were willing to pay. As a result, not many laptops from those days survive; for those that do, keeping them running can be quite a challenge due to their compact construction and use of non-standard components.

[Adalbert] ran into these problems when he got his hands on a Toshiba T3200SXC from 1991. As the first laptop ever to feature a color TFT display, it’s very much worth preserving as an historical artifact. Sadly, the original display was no longer working: it only displayed a very faint image and went completely blank soon after. Leaky capacitors then destroyed the power supply board, leaving the laptop completely dead. [Adalbert] then began to ponder his options, which ranged from trying to repair the original components to ripping everything out and turning this into a modern-computer-in-an-old-case project.

In the end he went for an option in between, which we as preservationists can only applaud: he replaced the display with a modern one of the correct size and resolution and built a new custom power supply, keeping the rest of the computer intact as far as possible. [Adalbert] describes the overall process in the video embedded below and goes into lots of detail on his hackaday.io page.

Connecting a modern LCD screen was not as difficult as it might seem: where the old display had an RGB TTL interface with three bits per color, the new one had a very similar system with six bits per color. [Adalbert] made an adapter PCB that simply connected the three bits from the laptop to the highest three bits on the screen. A set of 3D-printed brackets ensured a secure fit of the new screen in the classic case.

The internal power supply module of a laptopFor the power supply [Adalbert] took a similar approach. He designed a PCB with several DC/DC converters that fit easily inside the computer’s case, leaving enough space to add a battery. This made the old Toshiba more portable than it ever was — believe it or not, the original T3200SXC could only be used with a mains connection.

Once the laptop was restored to working order, [Adalbert] added a few finishing touches: a sound card and speakers made it suitable as a gaming platform, and a network card gave it rudimentary online capabilities. The end result is a T3200SXC that looks and feels exactly the way it did when it was new, but with a few added features. That’s a really satisfying result: many classic laptop projects add modern computing hardware, or even completely replace the original contents. You might also want to check out [Adalbert]’s unusual 3D printer based PCB manufacturing technique that he used for the new power supply.

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Is It A Cyberdeck Or A Vintage Toshiba?

Cyberdecks, the portable computers notable for a freely expressed form factor, owe much to post-apocalyptic sci-fi. But they are not always the most practical devices. There’s a reason that all laptops share a very similar form factor: it’s a convenient and functional way to make a computer to take anywhere. So for the ideal compromise, why not make a cyberdeck from a vintage laptop? That’s exactly what [Valrum] has done with a non-functioning Toshiba 3100/20, upgrading the display and slipping in a Raspberry Pi 4, along with a handy removable USB e-ink supplementary screen (The red/black rectangle to the right of the main screen).

These older machines were so bulky that once their original hardware is removed there is plenty of space for upgrades. Even the screen enclosure is big enough to hide the LCD driver board behind a modern panel.  It follows a well-worn path for Raspberry Pi builds of using a Teensy as a USB keyboard controller, but unexpectedly the stock keyboard has been entirely replaced with a hand-wired one, which is nicely executed to appear superficially as though it was original. In an amusing twist this machine has no battery, not because it wouldn’t be possible but because the original Toshiba didn’t have one either. The USB ports are brought out to the space where the floppy would once have been.

With a plentiful supply of unexceptional or non functional older laptops to be had it’s clear that there’s a rich vein to be mined in this type of build. It’s something we’ve seen done before, in a more famous Toshiba laptop.

This Machine Is Poised To Join The Fight Against Cancer

Can you imagine a near future where your family doctor can effectively prick your finger and test you for a dozen or so types of cancer? Currently, cancer detection is a time-consuming and expensive process. Existing methods of screening for cancer usually involve taking a whole lot of blood and running tests that cost thousands of dollars. But Toshiba has created a cancer-detecting machine that sounds like something straight out of science fiction.

A researcher tests the Toray method. Image via Nikkei Asian Review

The machine is about the size of a small office copier, and it looks like one, too. But this small machine can do some powerful tricks. Toshiba claims that the machine can detect 13 types of cancer from a single drop of blood with 99% accuracy. What’s more impressive is that it can do this under two hours, as opposed to days or weeks depending on laboratory backlog. Most importantly, they are aiming to do this entire battery of tests for about $180. Ideally, this machine will do everything that current blood cancer detection equipment does, just better, faster, and with fewer resources.

Some of the cancers the machine can test for have been previously difficult to detect, like ovarian, pancreatic, and esophageal cancer. But this machine can screen for all three of these  — great news for early detection of these ravaging cancers — as well as breast, prostate, gastric, colon, liver, biliary tract, bladder, lung, brain, and sarcoma. The only catch is that the machine can’t pinpoint which cancer exactly, it only knows if microRNA one or more of the 13 came up.

Image source: Toshiba Corporate Reserach Center

So, how does it work? Cancer cells secrete certain types of microRNA into the bloodstream that healthy cells don’t. The machine works by assessing the different types of microRNA that show up in the sample drop, and studying their concentrations. Their work builds on that of Toray Industries, who announced earlier this year that they had made a cancer-detection chip based on microRNA accumulation that is 95% accurate. Development of this chip follows on the heels of research that finds testing for microRNA in bloodwork has the potential to detect cancers in earlier stages, and in some cases like for bowel cancer, with a much less invasive testing procedure.

Toshiba, in partnership with the National Cancer Center Research Institute and Tokyo Medical University will conduct a trial of the machine next year. If the trial is successful, they hope to commercialize it soon after.

Modern Linux Runs On Ancient Toshiba

While Microsoft no longer supports those of its operating systems that were in heavy use into the early 2000s, support for old hardware is not typically something that you will have to worry about if you run Linux on your machines. Sure, there will be driver issues from time to time, and you might have to do some things by hand, but if you’re using legacy hardware you’ll want a Linux distribution of some sort. Especially if you’re running it on one of the first laptops to ever feature a Pentium processor of any kind.

This is a Toshiba T4900CT which [MingcongBai] has been able to spruce up by installing a simplified version of the AOSC OS Linux distribution. The distribution is known for its simplified user interface, and this particular one runs a “Retro” command-line-only version. Upon startup (which takes over two minutes), the user can view the hardware and software specs: Linux kernel 4.19.67 (released within the past year) on a 75 MHz Intel processor.

Getting old equipment to work, even if the software is available, is a challenge and this one stands out for the historical noteworthiness of the laptop. We didn’t see it connect to the Internet, but if it ever does we still keep Retro Hackaday up specifically for situations like this.

Decimal Oscilloclock Harks Back To 1927 Movie

Metropolis is a classic, silent film produced in 1927 and was one of the very first full length feature films of the science fiction genre, and very influential. (C-3PO was inspired by Maria, the “Machine human” in Metropolis.) Within the first couple of minutes in the film, we get to see two clocks — one with a 24-hour dial and another larger one with a 10-hour dial. The human overlords of Metropolis lived a utopian 24 hour day, while the worker scum who were forced to live and work underground, were subjected to work in two ten-hour shifts during the same period.

[Aaron]’s client was setting up a Metropolis themed man-cave and commissioned him to build a Metropolis Oscilloclock which would not only show the 24 hour and 10 hour clocks from the film, but also accurately reproduce the clock movements and its fonts. [Aaron]’s Oscilloclock is his latest project in the series of bespoke CRT clocks which he has been building since he was a teen.

The clock is built around a Toshiba ST-1248D vintage oscilloscope that has been beautifully restored. There are some modern additions – such as LED glow indicators for the various valves and an external X-Y input to allow rendering Lissajous figures on the CRT. He’s also added some animations derived from the original poster of the film. Doing a project of this magnitude is not trivial and its taken him almost eight months to bring it from concept to reality. We recommend looking through some of his other blog posts too, where he describes how oscilloclocks work, how he builds the HV power supplies needed to drive the CRT’s, and how he ensures vibration and noise damping for the cooling fans used for the HV power supplies. It’s this attention to detail which results in such well-built clocks. Check out some of [Aaron]’s other awesome Oscilloclock builds that we have featured over the years.

The film itself has undergone several restoration attempts, with most of it being recovered from prints which were discovered in old archives. If you wish to go down that rabbit hole, check out Wikipedia for more details and then head over to YouTube where several versions appear to be hosted.

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Fail Of The Week : Watt A Loss

This one is a bit dated, but the lessons are still relevant. [Zach Hoeken] posted about the challenges he faced building a CNC stepper driver. He was experimenting with Toshiba motor drivers back in 2012.

The modular motor driver boards he built were based on the THB6064AH – capable of 1/64th step, and 4.5 Amps at up to 50V. [Zach] built a test jig to run the boards through their paces. A couple of messed tracks was the least of his problems – easily fixed by cutting traces and using jumper wires to correct the errors. But the header footprints for the motor drive boards got reversed. The only way out was to solder the headers on the back side.

LESSON : Always check footprint orientation and pin numbering before sending boards to fab.

The surprising part was when someone as experienced as [Zach] messed up on Ohms Law. Based on the current he wanted the motors to run at, his sense resistors needed to be 3.2W, but he’d used SMD footprints (0805 likely) instead. Those tiny resistors couldn’t be used at all, and the 5W resistors plonked on looked like an ugly hack.

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