Hardware Archive

MusicStudio: a Music/SFX editor for Commodore 64

Music Studio is a Windows-based SID music creator software. For an accurate C64 sound, it utilises the newest RESID-FP emulation available, both old (6581) and new (8580) SID chips. MS2 is capable of creating 1x speed tunes and many SID chip parameters can be edited directly using the various commands. Classic and new C64 sounds can be created with envelope parameters that can be set up in few simple steps. While I’m sure purists will greatly prefer real hardware, the cold and harsh truth is that the number of real, authentic Commodore 64 models is slowly running out, and there’s only so many Adrian Blacks in the world capable of repairing the few that can actually be repaired. Emulation – even for specific features of the C64 such as its sound capabilities – will make the C64 immortal.

Redditor discovers legendary 1956 computer in grandparents’ basement

On Monday, a German Redditor named c-wizz announced that they had found a very rare 66-year-old Librascope LGP-30 computer (and several 1970 DEC PDP-8/e computers) in their grandparents’ basement. The LGP-30, first released in 1956, is one of only 45 manufactured in Europe and may be best known as the computer used by “Mel” in a famous piece of hacker lore. This is the vintage computing version of finding a 33 Stradale in a shed in the Italian countryside.

The Motorola PowerStack

The PowerStack was one of the Motorola Computer Group’s entries into the personal computer (PC) market around the time the Microsoft Windows/Intel x86 juggernaut was stumbling with their mass market Windows 3.11 replacement. It’s a compact, modular, efficient platform featuring IBM/Motorola’s PowerPC CPUs as well as best-in-class contemporary interfaces like PCI and SCSI. A compute element could be stacked with other modular I/O and storage cases to expand its capabilities without having to rehome the computer in a larger chassis. I had never heard of this machine before, illustrating just how much random non-x86 machines were produced in the ’90s. This one definitely looks more out there than most, and most likely utterly impossible to find anywhere.

The Talos II, Blackbird POWER9 systems support tagged memory

Thus for many years the possibility of getting memory tagging working on these systems was an interesting possibility, but there was no idea of whether it was actually feasible or whether IBM fused off this functionality in the CPUs it sells to third parties. The POWER CPUs IBM sells to third parties are fused slightly differently to those it uses in most of its own servers, being fused for 4-way multithreading (SMT4) rather than 8-way multithreading (SMT8); it would be entirely plausible that the tagging functionality is fused off in the SMT4 parts, being that IBM i was only ever intended to run on SMT8 systems. While the ISA extension is undocumented, fairly complete knowledge about it has already been pieced together from bits and pieces, so this was not actually the major obstacle. However, there was no idea as to whether use of the memory tagging functionality might require some kind of appropriate initialization of the CPU. In theory, one need simply set a single undocumented bit (“Tags Active”) in the Power Machine State Register (MSR). However, simple attempts to enable Tags Active mode on OpenPOWER systems such as the Talos II did not succeed. This all changed when someone discovered that it was in fact possible to enable Tags Active mode on Talos II and Blackbird systems. This discovery was made by Jim Donoghue and all credit for this discovery goes to him; I publish this finding with his permission. As it turns out, memory tagging is not just limited to IBM’s own proprietary SMT8 POWER processors; it’s hiding in its SMT4 processors too. You can find these processors most notably in the systems built and sold by Raptor Computing Systems, one of which I reviewed not too long ago. Of note is that some of Raptor’s systems can now also be bought in Europe through their partner Vikings Store.

NVIDIA’s hot 12VHPWR adapter for the GeForce RTX 4090 with a built-in breaking point

Those who are now beating up on the new 12VHPWR (although I don’t really like the part either) may generate nice traffic with it, but they simply haven’t recognized the actual problem with the supposedly fire-hazardous and melting connections or cables. Even if certain YouTube celebrities are of a different opinion because they seem to have found a willing object of hate in the 12VHPWR once again: This connection is actually quite safe, even if there are understandable concerns regarding the handling. However, the “safe” is only valid if e.g. the used supply lines from the power supply with “native” 12VHPWR connector have a good quality and 16AWG lines or at least the used 12VHPWR to 4x 6+2 pin adapter also offers what it promises. Which brings us directly to the real cause of the cases that occurred: It’s the adapter solution exclusively provided by NVIDIA to all board partners, which has fire-dangerous flaws in its inner construction! GPUs have gotten absolutely insane these last few years, and it was only a matter of time before something like this was going to happen.

Alibaba T-Head TH1520 RISC-V processor to power the ROMA laptop

The ROMA RISC-V laptop was announced this summer with an unnamed RISC-V processor with GPU and NPU. We now know it will be the Alibaba T-Head TH1520 quad-core Xuantie C910 processor clocked at up to 2.5GHz with a 4 TOPS NPU, and support for 64-bit DDR at up 4266 MT. The TH1520 is born out of the Wujian 600 platform unveiled by Alibaba in August 2022, and is capable of running desktop-level applications such as Firefox browser and LibreOffice office suite on OpenAnolis open-source Linux-based operating system launched by Alibaba in 2020. This is a very important first step into ‘normal’ computing for RISC-V, but availability and pricing are, for now, major barriers here. I’d love to get my hands on one of these, but at these prices, that’s a massive ask.

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.