Saturday, June 6, 2015

Don't throw your old computer away!

I have had quite a break in posting to my blog, mostly because I spent last year collecting and playing around with vintage computers. As a kid I only had C64 and Amiga 1200 before I got a PC, so I decided to make up for it and buy a couple of machines popular in my country those days. It turned out to be so much fun that I got completely lost in it. I was absolutley amazed how much retrocomputing is alive and how many people are actually actively involved in it.

Let's start with Atari. 8-bit Atari machines were one of the most powerful home computers of the late seventies and early eighties. They featured an incredibely powerful graphics chip, Antic, which allowed fully programmable graphics modes. You could even use more than one screen resolution at a time, a trick that was later only possible on Amiga thanks to the Copper chip. No wonder if you take into account that both Atari and Amiga graphics chipsets were designed by the same man, Jay Miner.
There is a lot of great software written for the 8-bit Atari computers, and new one is still being developed. My favourite game for 8-bit Atari is Yoomp!, created in 2007 by a demoscene group taQuart, and there are also many great tools, like SpartaDOS X, which gives you the power comparable to CP/M or MS-DOS. Once I put SpartaDOS X on a programmable cartridge I never looked back at any other Atari DOS again. SpartaDOS X also works great with new Atari storage devices, like SIO2SD or Side, which use modern flash memory and not only can seamlessly replace your regular Atari disk drive (Side can also work as a hard drive), but also allow you to exchange data with a regular PC easily. Speaking of hardware - today, apart from buying a flash based disk drive for your Atari, you can also upgrade memory (up to 1MB, bank switched), install a graphic card (VideoBoard XE) or even a CPU accelerator (based on 16-bit MOS 65c816, compatible with 8-bit MOS 6502 originally mounted in Atari 400/800/XL/XE).

16-bit Atari computers can also be upgraded. Two most popular upgrades are Satandisk and Ultrasatan, which are flash based hard drives compatible with Atari ST/STE and Falcon. You can also replace original disk drive with HxC and use floppy images saved on regular pendrive as floppy disks. This is a very comfortable solution, because quality floppies are becoming more and more difficult to buy (those produced today are much less reliable than original ones). If you have enough RAM in your Atari, you can even connect to the Internet thanks to NetUSBee device. Additional RAM is required not by the device itself, but by the software. I have Atari STFM with 4MB RAM and I can comfortably use some simple software for FTP or IRC, I even managed to open a few simple web pages with Crystal Web Browser. Unfortunately in most cases I ended up seeing garbage (I use freeware CAB v1.5, which comes form 1996 and does not support any modern web standard) or running out of memory. Still, connecting to the global network from a 16-bit computer, designed before the beginning of the Internet revolution, is an unforgettable experience.

Atari had many comptetiors at the time. One of them was Commodore, run by Jack Tramiel, who later left the company and bought Atari. Commodore machines were very famous in 1980s and 1990s due to two very popular lines of computers: VIC-20/C64 and Amiga. VIC-20 was the first home computer to sell one million units, and C64 is listed in the Guiness World Records as the best selling single computer model in history, with estimated number of around 12.5 million units sold. Unfortunately, I don't have any VIC-20 in my collection, but I have a C64 and I use two hardware extensions with it: Epyx Fastload Reloaded cartridge and SD2IEC flash based disk drive emulator. Epyx has built-in software to accelerate disk operations (up to five times), but if you don't want to buy a cartridge you can use SJLOAD, which is a software only fastloader. From my experience SJLOAD works as well as Epyx, but I just find the cartridge more comfortable to use (plus it has some additional software, like memory monitor, extended DOS commands, etc). As for SD2IEC - it's quite cheap and works with most software, but unfortunately cannot serve as a full replacement for the original disk drive. A real 1541 has it's own MOS 6502 CPU and RAM, which is extensivelly used by some utilities, like fastloaders, and although SD2IEC can emulate some of them, it does not contain a full MOS 6502 emulation and therefore some programs, like GEOS, will not work with SD2IEC. So if you are not tight on budget, I'd recommend buying a device like Ultimate or UK1541, both of which offer full 1541 hardware emulation.

If you are lucky Amiga owner, you can also enjoy a few interesting hardware extensions. You can replace your floppy disk with HxC, or Gotek, which is much cheaper option than HxC. I have Gotek drive emulator working in my Amiga 600 and so far experienced absolutely no problems with it, so in my opinion it's worth buying. If you have Amiga with IDE controller on board (like A600 or A1200), you can buy a very cheap CF to IDE adapter, which allows you to use Compact Flash cards as hard drives, because they have built-in controllers which work with IDE protocol. Amiga also features probably the most powerful (and most expensive) CPU accelerators in the market. Some of them, like FPGA based Vampire 600, can speed up your machine up to one hundred times! If you have Amiga 1200 you can extend it with PowerPC CPU card, 256 MB RAM, dedicated graphics card, install the latest version of Amiga OS (an operating system designed for Amiga computers, still actively developed) and work on it almost like on any other modern computer. It's because Amiga hardware architecture, combined with dedicated software, makes it much less resource hungry than an Intel based PC.

There is also one more computer brand that holds a special place in my heart: Sinclair. Sir Clive Sinclair is often compared to Steve Jobs, not only because of his temper, but also because he was one of the greatest visioners of his era. He was the first one to introduce pocket calculators in 1972 and pocket TV in 1978, he also introduced the first affordable (priced less than 100 GBP, a few times less than the competition) home computer to the British market: ZX80. It featured a 3.5MHz CPU, only 1kB RAM, no high resoultion graphics (only text mode), no sound chip and no disk drive - you could only use a tape recorder as a storage device. It was very little even those days, but ZX80 was extremely cheap and became a huge success. Sir Clive Sinclair supposedly said that at that price, everyone would want a computer, even if they had absolutely no idea what to do with it. Apart from that, Sinclair devices were always designed to look slick and elegant. Even today, white ZX80 looks beautiful, and so do all later black models. ZX80 featured a built-in Basic interpreter and, despite it's horrible keyboard, allowed users to write their own programs, and many future programmers began their careers from it.
ZX80's successor, ZX81, featured a black case and the same hardware capabilities, but due to more compact chip design it was even cheaper. It also fixed a lot of ZX80 problems (especially screen flickering) and became the first European computer to sell over one million units. ZX81 became successful in United States, where it was sold by Timex as TS1000. In fact, a company called Zebra Systems sells ZX81 kits until today. An essential hardware extension for every ZX81 is a memory pack, which adds more RAM to the system. It's true that 1kB may be enough even to play chess, but most software for "Zeddy" requires at least 16kB RAM. You can also use your PC as a tape recorder and make tapeutils load software into ZX81 - just remember to use mono audio lead (regular stereo leads will not work) and set the PC audio output volume to maximum (ZX81 requires a strong input signal). If it's not enough for you, there is a ZXpand interface, which adds 32kB RAM, allows instant software loading from a flash card, and features an AY sound interface.

But the most successful Sinclair computers were ZX Spectrum 48k and it's descendants. It was also the most often cloned computer, especially in communist countries, which were cut off from the world computer markets due to Cocom regulations. As a consequence, most of Sinclair fans beyond Britain are located in Eastern Europe. Russian ZX Spectrum scene is especially strong, and they even developed their own, extended models, most famous of them being Pentagon and Scorpion.
The most problematic hardware part of ZX Spectrum was its keyboard, but you can easily buy a new membrane and replace it yourself, following one of many online tutorials - it requires only a screwdriver, and a bit of patience.
If you have a fully functioning Spectrum you can, just as with ZX81, use a PC as a tape recorder. There are two programs that I would recommend using: OTLA and PlayTZX. The first one recognizes a lot of different tape formats (TAP, TZX) and can work in "turbo mode", which due to a smart audio signal modulation allows loading programs a few times faster. Unfotrunately, some games, especially copy protected, don't load with OTLA. In this case, you can try PlayTZX, or its Windows counterpart, winTZX. PlayTZX is a console only tool, which can work only with files encoded in TZX format (it's less popular format than TAP), while winTZX can work with both TAP and TZX files. On the other hand, TAP and TZX formats are very similar, and there are many tools to convert between those two formats to be found online. To avoid load errors remember to use a mono audio lead and very loud audio output (just as with ZX81). It is also important to use verified TAP and TZX files: I found that many of them available online are somehow broken, and although they work with emulators, they fail to load into real hardware. So far the most reliable source of Sinclair software I know is World Of Spectrum - I never found a single file which would refuse to load with a real computer.
And, of course, just as for all aforementioned computers, there is also a flash based storage device for ZX Spectrum: Divide. Just as ZXpand, it connects directly to the system bus through the expansion port, which allows you not only to use TAP and TZX files, but also emulator snapshots (SNA). It means that you can, for example, freeze a game state in a software Spectrum emulator on PC and load it directly into Speccy.

There are of course dozens of computers from the "good old times" that you can have fun with: Apple, Acorn, Amstrad, even an old PC. If you have such computer - don't throw it away! Instead, try to put a new life in it and give it to someone who can still find it enjoyable - like your kid or a geek friend. If not, just sell it online - there are many people out there who will be happy to have it.

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