Hardware Archive

Upcyling a 40-year-old Tandy Model 100 Portable Computer

The M100’s LCD is really 10 separate displays, each controlled by its own HD44102 driver chip. The driver chips are each responsible for a 50-by-32-pixel region of the screen, except for two chips at the right-hand side that control only 40 by 32 pixels. This provides a total screen resolution of 240 by 64 pixels. Within each region the pixels are divided into four rows, or banks, each eight pixels high. Each vertical column of eight pixels corresponds to one byte in a driver’s local memory. The Tandy Model 100’s odd display arrangement was done to make it considerably faster, but it does mean that modernising the hardware inside the M100 today can be a but of a challenge.

The Texas Instruments TMX 1795: the (almost) first, forgotten microprocessor

The first 8-bit microprocessor, the TMX 1795 had the same architecture as the 8008 but was built months before the 8008. Never sold commercially, this Texas Instruments processor is now almost forgotten even though it had a huge impact on the computer industry. In this article, I present the surprising history of the TMX 1795 in detail, look at other early processors, and explain how the TMX 1795 almost became the first microprocessor. (Originally I thought the TMX 1795 was the first microprocessor, but it appears that the 4004 slightly beat it.) Very detailed article about early micrprocessors, including lots of pretty pictures.

We spoke with the last person standing in the floppy disk business

Tom Persky is the self-proclaimed “last man standing in the floppy disk business.” He is the time-honored founder of floppydisk.com, a US-based company dedicated to the selling and recycling of floppy disks. Other services include disk transfers, a recycling program, and selling used and/or broken floppy disks to artists around the world. All of this makes floppydisk.com a key player in the small yet profitable contemporary floppy scene. While putting together the manuscript for our new book, Floppy Disk Fever: The Curious Afterlives of a Flexible Medium, we met with Tom to discuss the current state of the floppy disk industry and the perks and challenges of running a business like his in the 2020s. What has changed in this era, and what remains the same? With the amount of legacy systems still running all over the world, there’s probably decent longevity in this business still.

Digital museum of plugs and sockets

A website containing a vast, vast collection of domestic electrical plugs and sockets from all over the world, including more information and details about them than you knew existed. I’ve been stuck here for hours. Be wary of going in – you’re never coming back out. But you’ll be happier for it, since there’s enough information here to last a lifetime. One of my favourites is this one from Sweden – I was baffled by these at first when emigrating to Sweden a few years ago, but now I appreciate their genius and safety compared to just tying down live wires for ceiling lamps like we do in The Netherlands. Another fun and weird one is the Perilex plug, which is incredibly satisfying to plug into its corresponding socket (I used to work at a hardware store that sold a huge variety of plugs and sockets). I could go on for hours!

The death of the PCIe expansion card

With the AM5 platform from AMD on the horizon, five major motherboard manufacturers have annonced their flagship motherboards with the X670E chipset. Some of them are having fun with this generation’s multi-faceted step into “five”: AM5, PCIe Gen 5.0, DDR5, 5nm process, boost clocks over 5GHz, you catch the drift. But do you know what every single announced motherboard has fewer than five of? PCI Express (PCIe) slots. Other than a GPU and the occasional WiFi card, I haven’t really had any need for my expansion slots in a long time. I just don’t know of anything useful. I doubt they’ll actually go away any time soon though.

USB4 v2 will support speeds up to 80 Gbps

The next generation of USB devices might support data transfer speeds as high as 80 Gbps, which would be twice as fast as current-gen Thunderbolt 4 products. The USB Promotor Group says it plans to publish the new USB4 version 2.0 specification ahead of this year’s USB Developer Days events scheduled for November, but it could take a few years before new cables, hubs, PCs, and mobile devices featuring the new technology are available for purchase. USB4 version 2.0. That’s the name they went with.

Japan declares ‘war’ on the humble floppy disk in new digitization push

Japan’s digital minister, who’s vowed to rid the bureaucracy of outdated tools from the hanko stamp to the fax machine, has now declared “war” on a technology many haven’t seen for decades — the floppy disk.  The hand-sized, square-shaped data storage item, along with similar devices including the CD or even lesser-known mini disk, are still required for some 1,900 government procedures and must go, digital minister Taro Kono wrote in a Twitter post Wednesday. I understand wanting to dump the floppy and CD, but why dump MiniDisc? Us people of culture know the MiniDisc is the end-all-be-all of storage media, and nothing has ever surpassed it. Japan is about to make a grave, grave mistake.

Janet Jackson and the power to crash system

A colleague of mine shared a story from Windows XP product support. A major computer manufacturer discovered that playing the music video for Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” would crash certain models of laptops. I would not have wanted to be in the laboratory that they must have set up to investigate this problem. Not an artistic judgement. One discovery during the investigation is that playing the music video also crashed some of their competitors’ laptops. And then they discovered something extremely weird: Playing the music video on one laptop caused a laptop sitting nearby to crash, even though that other laptop wasn’t playing the video! What’s going on? I did not see that one coming.

Citing danger of “ink spills” Epson programs end of life for some printers

You have a perfectly healthy, functioning Epson inkjet printer in your home office. It’s served you well for years and you use it frequently. Then, one day, you go to print a document and realize that the printer isn’t working. A message on the display reads “a part inside your printer is at the end of its service life. Service is required.” That’s funny, you think. You hadn’t noticed anything wrong with your printer before this message appeared. The device was working well and the quality of the printing was fine. If nothing was broken, why are you suddenly getting this message? More important: how do you get rid of it so that you can continue using your printer? This should absolutely be criminal behaviour. If there was ever an industry that could do with a worldwide judicial probe and investigation, it’s the printer makers. They employ so many clearly scammy business practices, and get away with them too.

Mojo’s smart contact lenses begin in-eye testing

I’ve brought a tiny, chip-studded, display-enabled contact lens made up to my eye, but I never was actually able to wear it. But by the end of 2022, I might get a chance. Mojo Vision’s smart contact lenses, which have been in development for years, are finally being worn internally, starting with the company’s CEO Drew Perkins. Perkins, who I spoke to over Zoom, has only worn the lens for an hour at a time so far. He likens the first tests to a baby learning to walk: “We’ve now taken that first step. And it’s very exciting.” I already have my doubts tech companies will be able to convince people to wear AR glasses, so you can guess how much faith I have in people voluntarily wearing contact lenses.

Raptor CS: fully owner-controlled computing using OpenPOWER

Peter Czanik did an interview with Timothy Pearson of Raptor Engineering, the company behind POWER9 systems like the Talos II and Blackbird, which I reviewed last year. There’s some good stuff in there, most importantly the reasoning as to why there isn’t any POWER10 hardware from Raptor yet. At this time we do not have plans to create a POWER10 system. The reasoning behind this is that somehow, during the COVID19 shutdowns and subsequent Global Foundries issues, IBM ended up placing two binary blobs into the POWER10 system. One is loaded onto the Microsemi OMI to DDR4 memory bridge chip, and the other is loaded into what appears to be a Synopsis IP block located on the POWER10 die itself. Combined, they mean that all data flowing into and out of the POWER10 cores over any kind of high speed interface is subject to inspection and/or modfication by a binary firmware component that is completely unauditable – basically a worst-case scenario that is strangely reminiscent of the Intel Management Engine / AMD Platorm Security Processor (both have a similar level of access to all data on the system, and both are required to use the processor). Our general position is that if IBM considered these components potentially unstable enough to require future firmware updates, the firmware must be open source so that entities and owners outside of IBM can also modify those components to fit their specific needs. Were IBM to either open source the firmware or produce a device that did not require / allow mutable firmware components in those locations, we would likely reconsider this decision. This information isn’t new, but you had to read Twitter posts or forum messages to get at it, so it’s nice to see it all laid out like this. IBM really missed the mark here, and it’s incredibly sad we won’t be seeing any POWER10 workstations from Raptor any time soon. I do admire Raptor’s uncompromising stance here, though, since it’s rare to find a company with principles they’re willing to stand by. And these principles matter – as the story about the problems getting Linux to run on the Rock64 showed. As Pearson puts it: An owner-controlled device is best defined as a tool that answers only to its physical owner, i.e. its owner (and only its owner) has full control over every aspect of its operation. If something is mutable on that device, the owner must be able to make those changes to alter its operation without vendor approval or indeed any vendor involvement at all. This is in stark contrast with the standard PC model, where e.g. Intel or AMD are allowed to make changes on the device but the owner is expressly forbidden to change the device’s operation through various means (legal restrictions, lack of source code, vendor-locked cryptographic signing keys, etc.). In our opinion, such devices never really left the control of the vendor, yet somehow the owner is still legally responsible for the data stored on them – to me, this seems like a rather strange arrangement on which to build an entire modern digital economy and infrastructure. He’s not wrong.

My unholy battle with a Rock64

I’ve got this rock64, which is an aarch64 board comparable to a Raspberry Pi 3 B+ with 4 gigs of ram. For years I’ve wanted to put a distribution on here that doesn’t have a premade image available, mainly because out of all the options on that page I don’t actually like any of them. Well, except NetBSD, but NetBSD doesn’t have GPU drivers for it. Problem is, everything I do want to use provides rootfs tarballs and tells you to figure it out. To do that I’ve got to get a Linux kernel, track down the device trees so it knows what hardware it has, and then wrangle u-boot into actually booting the whole thing. I figured that would be the hard part; little did I know the depths that Single Board Computer Hell would reach. Unlike x86, ARM is far, far from a standardised platform. The end result of this is that unless you can find tailor-made images specific for your particular ARM board, you’re gonna have to do a lot of manual labour to install an operating system that should work.

Restoring a Tadpole SPARCbook 3

Tadpole Technology was a small British computer company formed in 1983 and originally based out of Cambridge, who amongst other things manufactured VMEbus boards for industrial applications, along with military spec, small server and laptop computers. During the 1990s and perhaps most famously, Tadpole produced a range of high-end laptops that were based on the SPARC, PowerPC and Alpha RISC architectures, running Solaris, AIX and OpenVMS respectively. A previous series of articles followed the restoration of a SPARCstation IPX, noting how Sun UNIX workstations were a much-coveted object of geek desire in the early 1990s. However, Tadpole laptops which boasted a RISC processor were a great deal rarer than such workstations, with an almost legendary status and you were lucky if you even got to see one in the flesh. In this series of posts, we’ll take a look at restoring a third-generation Tadpole SPARCbook, which was introduced in 1994 at a starting cost of $10,950 — which with inflation would make the price tag equivalent to almost $20,000 or £15,000 in today’s money! SPARC hardware in general has a special place in my heart, but the Tadpole SPARC laptops are in a whole league of their own – mythical beasts I know exist, but which are incredibly rare, and even more stupidly expensive when they come up for sale than even regular SPARC hardware. I’d not give up my firstborn for one, but we can talk about a kidney. Or two.

The very weird Hewlett Packard FreeDOS option

In this installment: some strange things I discovered when purchasing a FreeDOS laptop from Hewlett Packard. I suspect that the audience for this will be somewhat limited but I had fun exploring this. Perhaps you, dear reader, will find a chuckle in here too. Some background: I recently purchased a HP ZBook 17.8 G8 as I run Fedora Linux I decided to have a little fun with the OS selection and picked the FreeDOS option (Other options include Ubuntu, and various flavors of Windows 11). I can guarantee you this will be a lot weirder than you think.

Homemade TPM 2.0 Module

With the recent launch of Windows 11 Microsoft also made having a hardware TPM module mandatory. Although this technology is not new (it was introduced in Windows 10 and Windows Server 2016), now, that most people can’t upgrade to Windows 11, it will (slowly) become mainstream. (My personal opinion on it is that is probably a step in the right direction, but Microsoft could have handled mandating it better..) Several months ago, when I heard about this new requirement, I checked how much this upgrade for me would cost. At the time prices for a TPM2.0 module for my motherboard (Gigabyte AORUS GAMING 3) started at around €150, which is not much less then, but definitely comparable with, the price of the motherboard itself. Not prepared to pay that much for a “free” Windows 11 upgrade, I started to look into if and how I could create the same thing on my own. A cool and actually useful project – and the required code and schematics are available on GitHub.

Celebrating 40 years of ZX Spectrum

Well color me old! The ZX Spectrum (affectionately known as “Speccy” or just “Spectrum” by its fans), one of the best-selling microcomputers of all time, was released 40 years ago today. Can you believe it still has a large and active community creating new content, archiving old content, and hacking on all sorts of hardware? I have never owned or used one, but the Spectrum is one of those machines everyone is familiar with – like the C64, the Apple II, TRS 80, and so on.

QEMU 7.1 released

QEMU 7.0 is out today as the newest version of this important piece of the open-source Linux virtualization stack. Since QEMU 6.2 at the end of last year, developers at Red Hat and other organizations have been busy working on QEMU 7.0 as this open-source emulator widely used as part of the free software Linux virtualization stack. QEMU 7.0 brings support for Intel AMX, a lot of ongoing RISC-V work, and more. QEMU is one of the great success stories of open source – and one operating system and classic computing enthusiasts benefit from every day.

Calculating Pi digits on the first Intel microprocessor (Intel 4004)

One day I thought about the performance gap between the first Intel processor and modern machines. Of course, we can try to do some estimations empirically – we know clock rate and how the pipeline is organized and what features intel 4004 CPU has (but it would not be standard FLOPS, because there was no embedded support for float numbers yet). But there are few details: architecture bit width (only 4 bits in comparison with modern 64 bits!), very limited instruction set (it’s missing even basic logical operators like AND or XOR) and peripheral limitations (ROM/RAM accesses). So I decided to research the subject in practice. After some thinking, I chose π number calculation as a benchmark. After all, even ENIAC did that (in 1949) and achieved a new record for the amount of calculated digits. Silly, perhaps, but still quite illustrative.

Why not Pentium III?

Word is out there that an individual is trying to develop Pentium III emulation as part of a fork of 86Box, regardless of how slow it is, in the name of “hardware preservation”. But why didn’t we do it in the first place? Why did we, developers of a PC emulator clearly aimed at the preservation of hardware and software, limit ourselves to the Pentium II and an underperforming competitor (the VIA Cyrix III), and why did we do these two knowing they’re already pretty slow to emulate? It’s story time. When I started reading this article I had no idea there was going to be some classic open source/forking drama at the end, but even with that, it’s a good article and definitely worth a read.