Hackaday Links: May 26, 2019

Thinkpads are great, especially the old ones. You find a T420, and you can have a battery hanging off the back, a battery in the optical drive bay, and for some old Thinkpads, there’s a gigantic ‘slice’ battery that doubles the thickness of your laptop. Here’s the most batteries in a Thinkpad ever, with the requisite reddit post. It’s 27 cells, with an all-up capacity of 212 Watt-hours. There are two interesting takeaways from the discussion here. First, this may, technically, be allowed on a commercial flight. The FAA limit is 100 Watt-hours per battery, and the Ultrabay is a second battery. You’re allowed two additional, removable batteries on a carry on, and this is removable and reconfigurable into some form that the TSA should allow it on a plane. Of course no TSA agent is going to allow this on a plane so that really doesn’t matter. Secondly, the creator of this Frankenpad had an argument if Hatsune Miku is anime or not. Because, yeah, of course the guy with a Thinkpad covered in Monster energy drink stickers and two dozen batteries glued on is going to have an opinion of Miku being anime or not. That’s just the way the world works.

Prices for vintage computers are now absurd. The best example I can call upon is expansion cards for the Macintosh SE/30, and for this computer you have a few choice cards that have historically commanded a few hundred dollars on eBay. The Micron XCEED Color 30 Video Card, particularly, is a special bit of computer paraphernalia that allows for grayscale on the internal monitor. One of these just sold for two grand. That’s not all, either: a CPU accelerator just sold for $1200. These prices are double what they were just a few years ago. We’re getting to the point where a project to reverse engineer and produce clones of these special cards may make financial sense.

The biggest news in consumer electronics this week is the Playdate. It’s a pocket game console that has a crank. Does the crank do anything? No, except that it has a rotary encoder, so this can nominally be used for games. It will cost $150, and there are zero details on the hardware other than the industrial design was done by Teenage Engineering. There’s WiFi, and games will be delivered wireless on a weekly basis. A hundred thousand people are on the wait list to buy this.

If you want a pick and place in your garage workshop, there aren’t many options. There’s a Neoden for about ten grand, but nothing cheaper or smaller. The Boarditto is a two thousand dollar pick and place machine that fits comfortably on your desk. It has automatic tape feeders, a vision system, and for the most part it looks like what you’d expect a small, desktop pick and place machine to be. That’s all the information for now, with the pre-order units shipping in December 2019.

The Repair And Refurbishment Of Silicone Keyboards

There are a lot of retrocomputers out there sitting in garages and attics, and most of them need work. After thirty or forty years, you’re looking at a lot of corrosion, leaking caps, and general wear and tear. When it comes to extreme refurbishment, we haven’t seen anyone better than [Drygol], and this time he’s back with an exceptional example of how far repair and refurbishment can go. He’s repairing the silicone keyboard of a Commodore 116 using some very interesting techniques, and something that opens up the door to anyone building their own silicone keypad.

This project comes from from a member of a demoscene group that found an old C116 that needed a lot of work. The C116 shipped with a silicone membrane keyboard instead of the mechanical keyswitches of the C64 and other, higher-end computers. Unfortunately, this silicone keypad had a few keys ripped out of it. No one, as far as we can tell, has ever figured out how to make these silicone keypads from scratch, but [Drygol] did come up with a way to replace the ripped and missing keys. The process starts with making a silicone mold of the existing keyboard, then casting silicone into the negative of that mold. After a few attempts , [Drygol] had a custom silicone button that matched the shape and color of the original C116 keyboard. The only thing left to do was to attach tiny conductive carbon pads to the bottom of the newly cast buttons and fit them into the existing keyboard.

This is an interesting refurbishment, because there are a lot of vintage computers that used silicone keyboards in the place of mechanical keyswitches. The Speccy, The Commodore TED machines, and a lot of vintage calculators all used silicone keyboards. Until now, no one has figured out how to make DIY silicone keypads, and repairing silicone was out of the question. [Drygol]’s attempt isn’t perfect — it needs key labels, but screen or pad printing will take care of that — but it’s the best we’ve seen yet and opens the doors to a lot of interesting projects in the world of vintage computer repair.

Faster Computers Lead To Slower Experiences?

Ever get that funny feeling that things aren’t quite what they used to be? Not in the way that a new washing machine has more plastic parts than one 40 years its senior. More like “my laptop can churn through hundreds of gigaflops, but when I scroll it doesn’t feel great.” That perception of smoothness might be based on a couple factors, including system latency. A couple years ago [danluu] had that feeling too and measured the latency of “devices I’ve run into in the past few months” (based on this list, he lives a more interesting life than we do). It turns out his hunch was objectively correct. What he wrote was a wonderful deep dive into how and why a wide variety of devices work and the hardware and software contributors to latency.

Let’s be clear about what “latency” means in this context. [danluu] was checking the time between a user input and some response on screen. For desktop systems he measured a keystroke, for mobile devices scrolling a browser. If you’re here on Hackaday (or maybe at a Vintage Computer Festival) the cause of the apparent contradiction at the top of the charts might be obvious.

Q: Why are some older systems faster than devices built decades later? A: The older systems just didn’t do much! Instead of complex multi-tasking operating systems doing hundreds of things at once, the CPU’s entire attention was bent on whatever user process was running. There are obvious practical drawbacks here but it certainly reduces context switching!

In some sense this complexity that [danluu] describes is at the core of how we solve problems with programming. Writing code is all about abstraction. While it’s true that any program could be written directly in machine code and customized to an individual machine’s hardware configuration, it would be pretty inconvenient for both developer and user. So over time layers of sugar have been added on top to hide raw hardware behind nicer interfaces written in higher-level programming languages.

And instead of writing every program to target exact hardware configurations there is a kernel to handle the lowest layers, then layers adding hotplug systems, power management, pluggable module and driver infrastructure, and more. When considering solutions to a programming problem the approach is always recursive: you can solve the problem, or add a layer of abstraction and reframe it. Enough layers of the latter makes the former trivial. But it’s abstractions all the way down.

[danluu]’s observation is that we’re just now starting to curve back around and hit low latency again, but this time by brute force! Modern solutions to latency largely look like increasingly exotic display technologies and complex optimizations which reach from UI draw functions all the way down to the silicon, not removing software and system infrastructure. It turns out the benefits of software complexity in terms of user experience and ease of development are worth it most of the time.

For a very tangible illustration of latency as applied to touchscreen devices, check out the Microsoft Research video after the break (linked to in [danluu]’s piece).

Continue reading “Faster Computers Lead To Slower Experiences?”

VCF West: Adding A Front Panel To The 6502

When you think about vintage computers from the 1970s, the first thing that should spring to mind are front panels loaded up with switches, LEDs, and if you’re really lucky, a lock with a key. Across all families of CPUs from the ’70s, you’ll find front panel setups for Z80s and 8080s, but strangely not the 6502. That’s not to say blinkenlights and panel switches for 6502-based computers didn’t exist, but they were astonishingly rare.

If something hasn’t been done, that means someone has to do it. [Alexander Pierson] built The Cactus, a  6502-based computer that can be controlled entirely through toggle switches and LEDs.

If you’re wondering why something like this hasn’t been built before, you only have to look at the circuitry of the 6502 CPU. The first versions of this chip were built with an NMOS process, and these first chips included bugs, undefined behavior, and could not be run with a stopped clock signal. These problems were fixed with the next chip spin using a CMOS process (which introduced new bugs), but the CMOS version of the 6502 would retain the contents of its registers with a stopped clock signal.

The specs for the Cactus computer are what you would expect from a homebrew 6502 system. The chip is a WDC 65C02S running at 1MHz, there’s 32k of RAM and a 16k EPROM, dual 6551s give serial access at various baud rates, and there are 16 bits of parallel I/O from a 65C22 VIA. The ROM is loaded up with OSI Basic. The real trick here is the front panel, though. Sixteen toggle switches allow the front panel operator to toggle through the entire address space, and eight flip switches can set any bit in the computer. Other controls include Run, Halt, Step, Examine, and Deposit, as you would expect with any front panel computer.

It’s a fantastic piece of work which I missed seeing at VCF East so I’m really glad [Alexander] made the trip between coasts. Cactus is truly something that hasn’t been done before. Not because it’s impossible, but simply because the state of the art technology from when the 6502 was new didn’t allow it. Now we have the chips, and the only limitation is finding someone willing to put in the work.

The Interesting Fate Of Kenya’s First Computers

If you are an enthusiast for 1950s computer hardware, you are probably out of luck when it comes to owning a machine of your own. Your best chance will be to join the staff of one of the various museums that preserve and operate these machines, at which you can indulge your passion to your heart’s content. But what if we told you that there is a 1950s computer available for pick-up at any time, to whoever is prepared to go and get it and has suitable transport? You’d be making plans straight away, wouldn’t you? The computer in question is real, but there’s a snag. It’s at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, just at the start of international waters off the coast of Kenya. The story of Kenya’s early computing and how the machine met its fate is the subject of a fascinating article from a year or two ago on owaahh.com that had us riveted from start to finish.

Like large state-owned enterprises worldwide, the Kenyan railway and power monopolies were among the first commercial customers for computing. In the final years of the British Empire, those were ordered from a company in London, International Computers & Tabulators, and it was their ICT1202 that served the railway company. The article goes into detail about the history of the company’s East African operation, the problems of running a tube-based computer in an African climate without air-conditioners, and the 1202’s demise and replacement. We’ll not spill the beans here on how the computer ended up on the seabed and how its replacement ended up being spirited away to China, for that you’ll have to read it all. It’s worth saying, the author also has a personal website in which he goes into much more detail about his experience with computers in the 1950s and ’60s.

Not had enough ancient computer tech? A couple of years ago we toured the primordial electronic computer, Colossus, and also took a look at the National Museum Of Computing that houses it.

Respectfully Modifying The Amiga 500

Modifying the Amiga 500 to speed up access to RAM in a memory expansion pack is a well documented procedure, with guides on the process written in the early 1990’s when the hardware was only a few years old. But as they were written for contemporary hardware, they make no concessions for how one should be treating a vintage computer that’s now over 30 years old. In 1993, cutting traces on the Amiga 500 motherboard was just a last ditch effort to eek a few more months of service life out of an outdated desktop computer. But in 2018, it’s kind of like when that old lady tried to “restore” a fresco of Jesus in Spain; it might be done with the best of intentions, but you still screwed the thing up good and proper.

Such things don’t fly over at [Inkoo Vintage Computing]. There you can find a guide that details the impressive lengths one can go to if they want to perform the classic modification without any irreversible changes to the motherboard. To avoid the cut traces and soldered bodge wires, this version of the modification makes use of a novel adapter that breaks out the necessary connections on the 8372A chip.

The adapter is simply a homemade PCB with both male and female plastic leaded chip carrier (PLCC) connectors. The few pins on the chip that needed rerouting are exposed as solder pads on the adapter for easy wiring. There are even a couple jumpers on the adapter to turn the modifications on and off.

Not surprisingly, the trickiest part of building this adapter was sourcing the antiquated PLCC connectors. Assuming you can even find them, you are then left with the challenging task of soldering them together. Judging by the pictures on the [Inkoo Vintage Computing] page, it’s no walk in the park.

Another similar arrangement is used in the expansion bay of the Amiga, where a pin is virtually “cut” in the connector. A tiny PCB is soldered to a 3×2 header to reroute the signals, and another jumper is used to enable and disable the pin. Luckily, the long pins on the Amiga memory expansion are forgiving enough that the little board can fit in between them without breaking electrical contact.

We’re no stranger to the Amiga 500 around these parts. We’ve covered how to get the 1987-vintage machine online in the 21st century, as well as employing a Raspberry Pi to emulate the original floppy drive. You can even make your own faux-Amiga with a 3D printed case, if you suffer from a sort of existential dread when working on a computer that’s older than you are.

Next Week: Vintage Computer Festival Pacific Northwest

Next week something magical is happening. Seattle is getting a Vintage Computer Festival. It’s the Vintage Computer Festival Pacific Northwest, and it’s happening Saturday, February 10th and Sunday, February 11th at the Living Computers Museum and Labs.

As with all Vintage Computer Festivals, this is one with plenty of exhibits, speakers, and the ever-popular consignment shop. A few of the more interesting exhibits include a demonstration of the Syntauri alphaSyntauri, a synthesizer card and controller designed for the Apple II. When it was released in 1980, this was the first affordable digital synthesizer that competed against the Synclavier and Fairlight CMI. The difference? Synclaviers cost as much as a house, where the alphaSyntauri cost as much as a car. Also on deck is the dis-integrated MOnSter6502, a complete NMOS 6502 constructed out of individual, surface mount transistors. The Digi-Comp II from Evil Mad Scientist will be there, there will be BlinkenBones, and for anyone who wants to assemble their own front panel for a vintage minicomputer, [Oscar Vermeulen] will be there with the Pi-DP/8. This isn’t an event to miss.

As an aside, we’d really like to commend the Vintage Computer Federation for their incredible work in putting these shows together. The VCF West at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View is an incredible show, VCF Southeast has some amazing displays, and VCF East in New Jersey is a pretty incredible gathering going down May 18th through the 20th this year. The people working behind the scenes to make these shows happen are doing a service for all vintage computers and performing digital archeology that benefits us all.

Hackaday is proud to be a sponsor of VCF Pacific Northwest.