Making Intel Mad, Retrocomputing Edition

Intel has had a deathgrip on the PC world since the standardization around the software and hardware available on IBM boxes in the 90s. And if you think you’re free of them because you have an AMD chip, that’s just Intel’s instruction set with a different badge on the silicon. At least AMD licenses it, though — in the 80s there was another game in town that didn’t exactly ask for permission before implementing, and improving upon, the Intel chips available at the time.

The NEC V20 CPU was a chip that was a drop-in replacement for the Intel 8088 and made some performance improvements to it as well. Even though the 186 and 286 were available at the time of its release, this was an era before planned obsolescence as a business model was king so there were plenty of 8088 systems still working and relevant that could take advantage of this upgrade. In fact, the V20 was able to implement some of the improved instructions from these more modern chips. And this wasn’t an expensive upgrade either, with kits starting around $16 at the time which is about $50 today, adjusting for inflation.

This deep dive into the V20 isn’t limited to a history lesson and technological discussion, though. There’s also a project based on Arduino which makes use of the 8088 with some upgrades to support the NEC V20 and a test suite for a V20 emulator as well.

If you had an original IBM with one of these chips, though, things weren’t all smooth sailing for this straightforward upgrade at the time. A years-long legal battle ensued over the contents of the V20 microcode and whether or not it constituted copyright infringement. Intel was able to drag the process out long enough that by the time the lawsuit settled, the chips were relatively obsolete, leaving the NEC V20 to sit firmly in retrocomputing (and legal) history.

The Book8088 Gets A Post-Hype Review

Last year, a couple of rather unusual computers emerged from China: a 386sx-based palmtop and an 8088-based mini-laptop. The average person isn’t exactly clamoring for a DOS machine these days, but they attracted quite a bit of interest among the retrocomputing scene. Now the dust has settled, [The Retro Shack] has taken a Book 8088 and given it an honest review. Do you need portable 1980s computing in your life, and if so it this the machine to give you it?

The first impression of the machine is just how svelte it is, being like a small but chunky netbook. He explores the hardware and finds as expected an NEC V20 instead of the Intel part running the show, and what would have been a hugely expanded DOS PC back in the day with its VGA and sound card, not to mention a solid state hard drive.

We’re overcome with a bit of nostalgia here at the sight of DOS running Lemmings, and on a machine we’d have given anything to own back in the 1980s. His final conclusion is that it’s a very nice little PC but around $160 seems a little much for what is essentially a toy. We have sadly to agree with him though we really want one, though noting that such a machine would have retailed for a huge amount more than that in 1980s dollars and we’d have considered it a huge bargain then.

If you’re still curious, we covered the arrival of these machines last year.

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Book8088 Slows Down To Join The Demoscene

As obsolete as the original IBM Model 5150 PC may appear, it’s pretty much the proverbial giant’s shoulders upon which we all stand today. That makes the machine worth celebrating, so much so that we now have machines like the Book8088, a diminutive clamshell-style machine made from period-correct PC chips; sort of a “netbook that never was.”

But the Book8088 only approximates the original specs of the IBM PC, making some clever hardware hacks necessary to run some of the more specialized software that has since been developed to really stretch the limits of the architecture. [GloriousCow]’s first steps were to replace the Book8088’s CPU, an NEC V20, with an actual 8088, and the display controller with a CGA-accurate Motorola MC6845. Neither of these quite did the trick, though, at least not on the demanding 8088MPH demo, which makes assumptions about CPU speed based on the quirky DRAM refresh scheme used in the original IBM PC.

Knowing this, [GloriousCow] embarked on a bodge-fest aimed at convincing the demo that the slightly overclocked Book8088 was really just a 4.77-MHz machine with a CGA adapter. This involved cutting a trace on the DMA controller and reconnecting it to the machine’s PIO timer chip, with the help of a 74LS74 flip-flop, a chip that made an appearance in the 5150 but was omitted from the Book8088. Thankfully, the netbook has plenty of room for these mods, and with the addition of a little bit of assembly code, the netbook was able to convince 8088MPH that it was running on the correct hardware.

We thoroughly enjoyed this trip down the DMA/DRAM rabbit hole. The work isn’t finished yet, though — the throttled netbook still won’t run the Area 5150 demo yet. Given [GloriousCow]’s recent Rust-based cycle-accurate PC emulation, we feel pretty good that this will come to pass soon enough.

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Hackaday Links: July 23, 2023

It may be midwinter in Perth, but people still go to the beach there, which led to the surprising discovery earlier this week of what appears to be a large hunk of space debris. Local authorities quickly responded to reports of a barnacle-encrusted 2.5-m by 3-m tank-like object on the beach. The object, which has clearly seen better days, was described as being made of metal and a “wood-like material,” which on casual inspection is clearly a composite material like Kevlar fibers in some sort of resin. Local fire officials teamed up with forensic chemists to analyze the object for contamination; finding none, West Australia police cordoned off the device to keep the curious at bay. In an apparently acute case of not knowing how the Internet works, they also “urge[d] everyone to refrain from drawing conclusions” online, which of course sent the virtual sleuths into overdrive. An r/whatisthisthing thread makes a good case for it being part of the remains of the third stage of an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV); reentry of these boosters is generally targeted at the East Indian Ocean for safe disposal, but wind and weather seem to have brought this artifact back from the depths.

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