Hardware Archive

IBM PC 8088 replaced with a Motorola 68000

I was wondering what the IBM Personal Computer would have been like if they had chosen the Motorola 68000 instead of the Intel 8088, so I used my MCL86+ to emulate the 68000 and find out! The MCL86+ is a board which uses a Teensy 4.1 to emulate a microprocessor in C code as well as use its GPIOs to emulate the local bus of the Intel 8088. It can be used as a drop-in replacement for the Intel 8088 and can be cycle accurate as well as run in accelerated modes. That’s a neat trick.

First ROM Shadowing

The other day I was asked an interesting question: What was the first BIOS with support for ROM shadowing? In the 1990s, ROM shadowing was common, at first as a pure performance enhancement and later as a functional requirement; newer firmware is stored compressed in ROM and must be decompressed into RAM first, and firmware may also rely on writing to itself before being locked down and write protected. Old PCs did not use ROM shadowing because it made no sense. ROMs were only marginally slower than RAM, if at all, and RAM was too precious to waste on mirroring the contents of existing ROMs. Over the years, RAM speeds shot up while ROM remained slow. By about 1990, executing BIOS code from ROM incurred a noticeable performance penalty, and at the same time devoting 64 or 128 KB to ROM shadowing was no longer prohibitively expensive. But who did it first? The OS/2 Mussum’s content never fails to be deeply interesting. And the answer to the question is the same answer it always is when it comes to who did something first in the early years of the PC platform. It’s always the same.

CISC-y RISC-ness

If you’ve kept a close eye on the technology space of late, you probably know that this is perhaps one of the most interesting times for processors in many years. After a number of stagnant generations, Intel has started competing again; AMD’s Ryzen chips are still pretty solid; ARM is where a lot of the innovation is happening; and RISC-V looks like it’s going to be the coolest thing in the world in about a decade. But none of these chips, honestly, can hold a candle to the interestingness of the chip I’m going to tell you about today. It didn’t set the world ablaze; in fact, it was designed not to. In the end, it was used in relatively minor systems, like internet appliances and palmtops. But technologically, it bridged the gap between two camps—RISC and CISC. And that’s what makes it interesting. Today’s Tedium looks back at the Transmeta Crusoe, perhaps the most interesting processor to ever exist. The Crusoe was absolutely fascinating, and the most bonkers what if?-scenario with the Crusoe is that in theory, there was nothing preventing the Crusoe’s software translation layer from emulating something other than x86. If this technology had evolved and received far more funding and success, we could’ve had a vastly different processor and ISA landscape today.

ARM is developing its own prototype chip, says report

British chip designer ARM is working on its own advanced semiconductor to showcase the power and capabilities of its design, Financial Times reports. According to people briefed on the move, ARM will work with manufacturing partners to bring the new chip to fruition. They’re not intending to get into the chip game, as this will only be a prototype chip to demonstrate what they can do.

Loongson’s 3A5000: China’s best shot?

Loongson’s 3A5000 is the most promising domestic Chinese CPU we’ve seen so far. Compared to the Zhaoxin KX-6640MA and Phytium D2000, Loongson’s 3A5000 is a wide core with a better balanced backend and a better cache hierarchy. But it suffers the same fundamental issues as the other two in its quest to be a general purpose CPU. Loongson’s LA464 simply cannot deliver performance in the same class as any recent Intel or AMD architecture. Compared to its western counterparts, LA464’s architecture is smaller, the L2 and L3 caches are worse, and the DDR4 memory controller is embarrassingly bad. Even though Loongson has gotten their cores up from 1 GHz to 2.5 GHz, no one runs desktop or even laptop CPUs at clocks that low. Because of its massive clock speed deficiency, Loongson can’t even get in to the same performance ballpark as recent desktop CPUs. It even struggles against Neoverse N1 running at 3 GHz. This is a far more detailed looking at these processors than we posted a few days ago.

Chinese Loongson 3D5000 features 32 cores

Amid the push for technology independence, Chinese companies are pushing out more products to satisfy the need for the rapidly soaring demand for domestic data processing silicon. Today, we have information that Chinese Loongson has launched a 3D5000 CPU with as many as 32 cores. Utilizing chiplet technology, the 3D5000 represents a combination of two 16-core 3C5000 processors based on LA464 cores, based on LoongArch ISA that follows the combination of RISC and MIPS ISA design principles. The new chip features 64 MB of L3 cache, supports eight-channel DDR4-3200 ECC memory achieving 50 GB/s, and has five HyperTransport (HT) 3.0 interfaces. The TDP configuration of the chip is officially 300 Watts; however, normal operation is usually at around 150 Watts, with LA464 cores running at 2 GHz. China’s rapid improvement in microprocessors isn’t really all that interesting for us in other parts of the world, because chips from companies like Loongson don’t really make their way over here. What is interesting about this, however, is the implications this continued trend will have for the geopolitical state of the world. A China not dependent on Taiwan’s TSMC for its chips is a China that can more freely invade Taiwan.

Ampere’s new 128-core Arm workstation runs Windows

Ampere has quietly launched its Altra developers kit aimed at software creators for cloud data centers. Along with Dev Kit featuring the company’s system-on-chips with up to 80 cores, the Ampere also offers a pre-built workstation running its 128-core SoC, according to Joe Speed, the company’s edge computing chief. An unexpected twist is that the workstation can run Windows and even has driver support for Nvidia’s GeForce RTX graphics cards.  The Ampere Altra Developer Platform (AADP) is a prototyping system for general embedded applications, but it can obviously be used for building software for the cloud. The machine can use a variety of add-in boards, including Nvidia’s GeForce RTX cards. What is a bit surprising is that it can run Windows, making it perhaps the most powerful Arm-based machine that runs the consumer-oriented Microsoft operating system. Ampere’s ARM workstations have been high on my list of desirable hardware I cannot afford and have no use for.

Pine64’s RISC-V Star64 goes on sale April 4 for $70

I come bearing great news for everyone waiting for Star64 – the SBC will be available for purchase on April 4th. Due to some last-minute logistics issues we failed to make the March launch date announced in February – our apologies for the slight delay. The boards have now finally been delivered and getting packaged and ready for dispatch. Let me just quickly reiterate the Star64 features: Quad core 64bit RISC-V, HDMI video output, 4x DSI and 4x CSI lates, i2c touch panel connector, dual Gigabit Ethernet ports, dual-band WiFi and Bluetooth, as well as 1x native USB3.0 port, 3x shared USB2.0 ports, PCIe x1 open-ended slot and GPIO bus pins (i2c, SPI and UART). The board also features 128M QSPI flash and eMMC and microSD card slots. The board will be available in two different RAM configurations – with 4GB and 8GB LPDDR4 memory for $69.99 and $89.99 respectively. I’ll await some reviews first, but this seems like a very obvious buy if performance is at least reasonable. I really want to support RISC-V hardware, but so far, it’s been rather slim pickings. Here’s top hoping it gets better soon.

My4TH: a minimalistic FORTH computer with a discrete CPU

FORTH is an early programming language developed by Charles H. Moore in the late 1960s. More developed FORTH on an IBM 1130 minicomputer, which had a 16-bit CPU and only 8 KB of RAM. To keep things simple and reduce memory consumption, he implemented FORTH as a stack-based virtual machine using the Reverse Polish Notation (RPN). But FORTH is much more than just a programming language. Because FORTH has a built-in interpreter, compiler and disk I/O support, a computer running FORTH is also called a “Forth system”. My4TH is such a Forth system. You can develop and debug your Forth programs directly on My4TH. You can enter your source code with the built-in text editor and store it in the on-board EEPROM memory. From there you can compile and run it directly on the My4TH board. This is well beyond my capabilities, but it seems like an incredibly cool piece of hardware. Niche, sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some of you were into this sort of thing.

Framework unveils major upgrades to their 13″ laptop, and new 16″ model

Today, we’re introducing a major set of upgrades to the Framework Laptop spanning two new models – the Framework Laptop 13 (13th Gen Intel® Core™) and the Framework Laptop 13 (AMD Ryzen™ 7040 Series). We’ve not only scaled up performance and enabled an AMD-powered version for the first time, but we’ve also delivered refinements to the day-to-day user experience with a higher capacity battery, matte display, louder speakers, and more ridgid hinges. And Framework kept their promise: these new mainboards can be ordered separately and fit into the existing Framework 13″ laptop. The company also showed off their next product – a 16″ laptop that not only comes with an upgradeable GPU, but also a completely configurable input deck, so you can configure the keyboard and trackpad area in any configuration you like. I’m so happy Framework is doing well, as it shows that glued shut, non-repeairable, and non-upgradeable laptops are not some sort of universal inevitable truth.

Refurbishing a Cobalt RaQ 2

Cobalt Networks were one of the early pioneers in network appliance hardware and produced some of the first turn-key webserver boxes you could buy, founded in 1996 as Cobalt Microserver. Cobalt boxes are immediately identifiable from their distinctive deep blue plastic bezels starting with the 1998 Cobalt Qube 2700. The Qube used a 150MHz QED RM5230; these CPUs are part of QED’s R5000 family and we’ll talk about their architecture a bit later. They came with 2.1GB hard disks with later larger options, 10Mbit Ethernet, 16MB of RAM standard with up to 256MB supported, and a “console” consisting of a backlit rear-mounted 2-line LCD and control buttons (on later machines, but not the original 2700, a serial port provided an actual console if you held down a button during startup). A fair number of typical configuration tasks such as setting its IP address could be done directly from the panel and the rest were intended to be done through its Perl-based web console. They were designed to run Linux from the ground up and shipped with Red Hat using a 2.0.x kernel. Cobalt’s network appliances were so exotic back in the day, and once they started hitting the used market, I almost pulled the trigger quite a few times. These days, they’re harder to come by, and their use is, of course, inherently limited now, but that doesn’t make them any less eye-catching.

RISC-V Business: testing StarFive’s VisionFive 2 SBC

The JH7110 isn’t amazing. But it’s not bad, either. I still wouldn’t recommend most people buy this board, unless you already know a lot about Linux and SBCs in general. That may change a year from now, but right now, this board isn’t targeted at the same market as a Raspberry Pi. At around $100, and not being quite production-ready, I’m only recommending this board to people interested in exploring RISC-V for now. This seems like an expected experience for a relatively new architecture that still has rather limited hardware and software support. When the first Raspberry Pi came out, the situation wasn’t much better either, so give it a few years and RISC-V will be in a better place in the market for sub-€100 single-board computers.

OpenPA and internet history

Paul Weissmann, maintainer of OpenPA, the definitive source of information on HP’s PA-RISC hardware and software, has published an article about how the state of information preservation on this topic has changed substantially since OpenPA’s founding in 1999. The main challenges for OpenPA at the time were both finding all the available information, as search engines were still young in the late 1990s, as well as making sense of it all as it was just so much and new sources kept appearing. This went on until the mid to late 2000s, when solid and stable sources could be found and referenced, which OpenPA did. The Internet and information on it changed since then, slowly but surely, in a profound way. Many original sources have disappeared and so much information has been lost in only two decades – making OpenPA the authoritative source for PA-RISC in some ways. A long journey from documenting complex information of the 1990s to an historic archive on the PA-RISC era. OpenPA is an amazing resource, so if you happen to have any information worth sharing with Weissmann, please do so.

“I own porn I can’t watch”

So, Cartrivision tapes came in two formats: Black Tapes and Red Tapes. Black tapes you’d buy at the store like any other product, but for Red Tapes (which were relatively recent movies), you instead would go to the store and place an order from a catalog. The store would have it delivered by mail, then you’d come back in and get the tape. You’d take it home, watch it, and then return it back to the store. So… Video rental (like Blockbuster!), except they didn’t have any stock on hand, and only got the tapes on-demand by mail? Seems annoying. BUT OH NO: it’s far more annoying than that. See… Red Tapes aren’t mechanically like Black Tapes. You can’t rewind them. I’m a sucker for weird formats, and this one is definitely right up there as one of the weirdest.

The parallel port

I wrote a popular post about serial ports once, and serial ports are something I think about, worry about, and dream about with some regularity. Yet I have never really devoted that much attention to the serial port’s awkward sibling, always assuming that it was a fundamentally similar design employing either 8 data pins each way or 8 bidirectional data pins. It turns out that the truth is a lot more complicated. And it all starts with printers. You see, I have written here before that parallel ports are popular with printers because they avoid the need to buffer bits to assemble bytes, allowing the printer to operate on entire characters at a time in a fashion similar to the electromechanical Baudot teleprinters that early computer printers were based on. This isn’t wrong, it’s actually more correct than I had realized—the computer parallel port as we know it today was in fact designed entirely for printers, at least if you take the most straightforward historical lineage. Let’s start back at the beginning of the modern parallel port: the dot matrix printer. The serial port still sees tons of use today, but the parallel port seems to have vanished entirely.

Here be four bits of dragons: the Mattel Dungeons & Dragons Computer Labyrinth Game and the TMS1100

This is the bigger, more deluxe of the two Mattel dedicated D&D games (the Intellivision of course had its own set, and we had a Tandyvision ourselves), the other being the DUNGEONS & DRAGONS™ Computer Fantasy Game. That was a handheld unit with a surprisingly compelling implementation of Hunt the Wumpus, and something we might talk about another time. This one is more like a board game, but with a computer antagonist and audio. The box says copyright 1980 but I think we got it late 1982 or early 1983. Either way, I was probably too young for this game at the time: it advertises 8 and up, and I would have been around six or so. It requires you to juggle a number of different audio signals and build up the maze and the objects in it (you, your competitor, the dragon, the treasure, your lifeless defiled corpses when you try to get the treasure, etc.). My recollection is that we barely played it at all. Well, better late than never. And hey: let’s find out what makes it tick. (Teaser: it’s four bits and we have an annotated die photo. Read on.) And read on you should – if you’re into amazingly detailed looks into children’s toys from the late ’70s/early ’80s based on 4 bit chips, that is. And you are, aren’t you?

SAIC Galaxy 1100: a pre-CDE VUE of the PA-RISC with a security clearance

Here’s an in-depth look at a portable, ruggedized, third-party PA-RISC system running a pre-CDE version of HP-UX. The SAIC Galaxy family consisted of two systems, the 1000 and the 1100. Both the 1000 and 1100 were essentially recased 9000/712 workstations with minor hardware modifications and custom added electronics, but all of the systems I’ve seen including mine are Galaxy 1100s, based on an 80MHz PA-7100LC (the 1000 reportedly ran the 60MHz version).

Chuck E. Cheese still uses floppy disks in 2023, but not for long

On Sunday, a Chuck E. Cheese employee named Stewart Coonrod posted a TikTok video that documents the process of installing a new song-and-dance show on an old Chuck E. Cheese animatronics system—a process that involves a 3.5-inch floppy disk and two DVDs. Coonrod says it is the last update before his store undergoes a remodel that will remove the animatronics altogether. I’ve never visited this restaurant chain, but I always love peeks behind the curtain of the technology places like this use. It reminds me of our favourite bar near the red light district in Amsterdam, which used a touchscreen computer running BeOS to manage its music playlist.

When is a PC not a PC? The PC-98

So the Japanese market had very specific requirements, that PCs could not fulfill in the early DOS days. You couldn’t just replace the character ROM on your PC and make it display Japanese text (IBM did later develop the 5550 and the JX, a derivative of the PCjr, specifically for the Japanese market, and later, they developed the DOS/V variant, which added support for Japanese text to their PS/2 line, using standard VGA hardware, which by now had caught up in terms of resolution). Instead, Japanese companies jumped into the niche of developing business machines for the home market. Most notably NEC. In 1981 they introduced the PC-8800 series, an 8-bit home computer based on a Z80 CPU and BASIC. In 1982, the PC-9800 series followed, a more high-end 16-bit business-oriented personal computer based on an 8086 CPU and MS-DOS. These families of machines became known as PC-88 and PC-98 respectively (Note that the ‘PC’ name here is not a reference to IBM, as NEC had already released the PC-8000 series in 1979). I love these machines.