Hardware Archive

The lost key of QWERTY

The Sholes and Glidden typewriter (sometimes called the Remington No. 1) was the first successful typewriter ever brought to market (in 1873), and the forerunner of most other successful typewriters. The unidentified key was, as far as I can tell, on this model and only this model. It was gone on the Remington No. 2 introduced in 1878, never to appear again (in this form), and as far as I know never found on competitors either. So what the heck is it? I love stuff like this.

16-bit RISC-V processor made with carbon nanotubes

Our ability to continuously shrink the features of our silicon-based processors appears to be a thing of the past, which has materials scientists considering ways to move beyond silicon. The top candidate is the carbon nanotube, which naturally comes in semiconducting forms, has fantastic electrical properties, and is extremely small. Unfortunately, it has proven extremely hard to grow the nanotubes where they’re needed and just as difficult to manipulate them to place them in the right location. There has been some progress in working around these challenges, but the results have typically been shown in rather limited demonstrations. Now, researchers have used carbon nanotubes to make a general purpose, RISC-V-compliant processor that handles 32-bit instructions and does 16-bit memory addressing. Performance is nothing to write home about, but the processor successfully executed a variation of the traditional programming demo, “Hello world!” It’s an impressive bit of work, but not all of the researchers’ solutions are likely to lead to high-performance processors. The rate of progress on this particular technology is astounding.

Reliable after 50 years: the Apollo Guidance Computer’s switching power supplies

We recently restored an Apollo Guidance Computer, the revolutionary computer that helped navigate to the Moon and land on its surface. At a time when most computers filled rooms, the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) took up just a cubic foot. This blog post discusses the small but complex switching power supplies that helped make the AGC compact enough to fit onboard the spacecraft. The Apollo project is one of the greatest scientific and engineering achievements in human history, and apparently that goes down to the details. Amazing.

The STC Executel 3910

Standard Telephone & Cable made quite a few phones for British Telecom in the 70s/80s that most people will recognise instantly even though they didn’t actually know who made them. Probably like me they thought that BT made all their own stuff which I later found out was completely wrong but hey. In the early 80s they branched out into computerised telephones with this lovely looking beast, the Executel 3910. Fellow collector Tony brought this one to my attention and on seeing the pictures I said ‘what the hells is THAT!’ and bought it. It’s a desk phone, pure and simple, but massively computerised with an AMD8085 processor and 32K RAM plus a 5″ monitor for displaying diary and phonebook entries AND, and it’s a big AND, PRESTEL access! A recent video by Techmoan – who bought a working model – brought this device to my attention, and I instantly fell in love with it. This is an incredible piece of engineering and forward-thinking.

Understanding modern UEFI-based platform boot

To many, the (UEFI-based) boot process is like voodoo; interesting in that it’s something that most of us use extensively but is – in a technical-understanding sense – generally avoided by all but those that work in this space. In this article, I hope to present a technical overview of how modern PCs boot using UEFI (Unified Extensible Firmware Interface). I won’t be mentioning every detail – honestly my knowledge in this space isn’t fully comprehensive (and hence the impetus for this article-as-a-primer). A rather detailed overview of the UEFI boot process.

The last working Olivetti mainframe sits in a Tuscan high school

Then they heard about a working model of the ELEA 9003, Olivetti’s first commercial mainframe, introduced in 1959. They lost no time tracking it down. This 9003 had originally belonged to a bank in Siena, where it was used for payroll, managing accounts, calculating interest rates, and the like. In 1972, the bank donated the computer to a high school in the Tuscan hill town of Bibbiena. And there it’s been ever since. Today, former Olivetti employees periodically travel to the ISIS High School Enrico Fermi to tend to the machine. A unique piece of computing history that must be saved at all costs.

Reviving an HP 660LX in 2019

I had spent some time several years ago trying to get Linux running on this machine via the (defunct) JLime project, so I had some of the pieces available to actually get this little “pocket computer” going again – mainly compatible CompactFlash cards and an external card reader. But I was mostly joking. Then I starting thinking how funny it would be to actually sit in a talk and take notes at DEF CON on an ancient “laptop”… These things are a thing of beauty.

Technician keeps computer made in 1959 still humming along

Long obsolete and not just a museum piece, an early massive computer developed 60 years ago remains working, thanks to a technician dedicated to preserving it for future generations. Tadao Hamada believes that keeping the historic FACOM128B operational will help hand down Japan’s technological heritage to posterity. “I will maintain it forever,” said Hamada, 49. The importance of the work done by people like Tadao Hamada cannot be understated. A lot of technology from the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s is getting ever more obscure, and as their original designers, maintainers, and users die of old age, we need some way to document their knowledge and pass it on so that we can preserve the technology for posterity. Hamada went one step further, and actually had to teach himself how the system and its operating system worked, since there was nobody around to teach him. That’s some serious dedication, and I applaud both him, and Fujitsu who set up the project to preserve technology.

A tale of pointlessness: retro 5″ black and white TV as a computer monitor

When my brother’s old 1980s 5″ black and white TV was recently discovered during a “I wonder what’s under here?” exercise and amazingly seemed to still be working my first thought was, of course, “Nice!! 3rd monitor for my PC”. I knew that wouldn’t be exactly simple as the TV only appeared to have a 3.5mm “EXT. ANT” socket. …I can’t do anything but applaud this.

How many kinds of USB-C to USB-C cables are there?

Classic USB from the 1.1, 2.0, to 3.0 generations using USB-A and USB-B connectors have a really nice property in that cables were directional and plugs and receptacles were physically distinct to specify a different capability. A USB 3.0 capable USB-B plug was physically larger than a 2.0 plug and would not fit into a USB 2.0-only receptacle. For the end user, this meant that as long as they have a cable that would physically connect to both the host and the device, the system would function properly, as there is only ever one kind of cable that goes from one A plug to a particular flavor of B plug. Does the same hold for USB-C? We all know the answer to this mess.

RISC-V Foundation ratification of the RISC-V base ISA and privileged architecture specifications

The RISC-V Foundation, a non-profit corporation controlled by its members to drive the adoption and implementation of the free and open RISC-V instruction set architecture (ISA), today announced the ratification of the RISC-V base ISA and privileged architecture specifications. The RISC-V base architecture is the interface between application software and hardware. Software that’s coded to this specification will continue to work on RISC-V processors in perpetuity, even as the architecture evolves through the development of new extensions.

VESA publishes DisplayPort 2.0 video standard

The Video Electronics Standards Association today announced that it has released version 2.0 of the DisplayPort audio/video standard. DP 2.0 is the first major update to the DisplayPort standard since March 2016, and provides up to a 3X increase in data bandwidth performance compared to the previous version of DisplayPort (DP 1.4a), as well as new capabilities to address the future performance requirements of traditional displays. These include beyond 8K resolutions, higher refresh rates and high dynamic range (HDR) support at higher resolutions, improved support for multiple display configurations, as well as improved user experience with augmented/virtual reality (AR/VR) displays, including support for 4K-and-beyond VR resolutions. The fact that standards like HDMI and DisplayPort have version numbers all with the same kind of plug always bothered me. It’s not always clear exactly which standards devices support, which can lead to some unfortunate surprises. I wish there was an easier way to figure this sort of stuff out.

Raspberry Pi 4 on sale now from $35

We have a surprise for you today: Raspberry Pi 4 is now on sale, starting at $35. This is a comprehensive upgrade, touching almost every element of the platform. For the first time we provide a PC-like level of performance for most users, while retaining the interfacing capabilities and hackability of the classic Raspberry Pi line. The specification bump is quite something, and the pricing is as good as it’s always been. This is a no-brainer buy for me.

Arm’s new Cortex-A77 CPU micro-architecture: evolving performance

It’s a hardware day today, and since AnandTech is the most authoritative source on stuff like this, we’ve got more from them. Arm announced its next big micro-architecture – which will find its way to flagship smartphones soon. Overall the Cortex-A77 announcement today isn’t quite as big of a change as what we saw last year with the A76, nor is it as big a change as today’s new announcement of Arm’s new Valhall GPU architecture and G77 GPU IP. However what Arm managed to achieve with the A77 is a continued execution of their roadmap, which is extremely important in the competitive landscape. The A76 delivered on all of Arm’s promises and ended up being an extremely performant core, all while remaining astonishingly efficient as well as having a clear density lead over the competition. In this regard, Arm’s major clients are still heavily focusing on having the best PPA in their products, and Arm delivers in this regard. The one big surprise about the A77 is that its floating point performance boost of 30-35% is quite a lot higher than I had expected of the core, and in the mobile space, web-browsing is the killer-app that happens to be floating point heavy, so I’m looking forward how future SoCs with the A77 will be able to perform. As linked above, the company also announced its next-generation mobile GPU architecture.

Comparing 21 sub-$1 microcontrollers

In 2017, we saw several new MCUs hit the market, as well as general trends continuing in the industry: the migration to open-source, cross-platform development environments and toolchains; new code-generator tools that integrate seamlessly (or not so seamlessly…) into IDEs; and, most notably, the continued invasion of ARM Cortex-M0+ parts into the 8-bit space. I wanted to take a quick pulse of the industry to see where everything is — and what I’ve been missing while backed into my corner of DigiKey’s web site. It’s time for a good ol’ microcontroller shoot-out.

20 years ago, Microsoft changed how we mouse forever

Based on technology developed by Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft’s IntelliMouse Explorer arrived with a price tag that could be justified by even cash-strapped students like me. Even better, the underside of the mouse was completely sealed, preventing even the tiniest speck of dirt from penetrating its insides, and it improved on its predecessors by working on almost any surface that wasn’t too reflective. I remember getting back to my dorm room and plugging in the Explorer for the first time, wondering who had a rig fancy enough to use the included PS2 to USB adapter. There were undoubtedly a few driver installation hiccups along the way, but once Windows 98 was happy, I fired up Photoshop and strapped in for the smoothest mouse experience I’d ever had. Problem solved. The changeover from ball mice to optical mice is something few will ever rave about, but I remember it as one of the biggest changes in computer use I’ve personally ever experience. Everything about optical mice is better than ball mice, and using an optical mouse for the first time roughly two decades ago was a complete game-changer.

Why I don’t care about CPU architecture: my emotional journey

When OSNews covered the RISC V architecture recently, I was struck by my own lack of excitement. I looked into it, and the project looks intriguing, but it didn’t move me on an emotional level like a new CPU architecture development would have done many years ago. I think it’s due to a change in myself, as I have got older. When I first got into computers, in the early 80s, there was a vibrant environment of competing designs with different approaches. This tended to foster an interest, in the enthusiast, in what was inside the box, including the CPU architecture. Jump forwards to the current era, and the computer market is largely homogenized to a single approach for each class of computing device, and this means that there is less to get excited about in terms of CPU architectures in general. I want to look at what brought about this change in myself, and maybe these thoughts will resonate with some of you.

How to improve MacBook Pro performance and thermals

From personal experience, I am aware that heat issues on laptops are often caused by a poor application of the stock thermal paste (also known as “thermal interface material” or TIM), provided that the cooling system is functioning. The reason is simple: the thermal paste – as the name suggests – is supposed to facilitate the transfer of the heat from the CPU/GPU to the heatsink. This only works efficiently, though, if a very thin layer of thermal paste is applied between CPU and heatsink in such a way that minimises the chance of creating “air bubbles” (air has a bad thermal conductivity). So the problem is that very often, the stock thermal paste is applied in factories in ridiculously large amounts, that often spread out of the die of the CPU and that most certainly achieve the opposite effect by slowing down, instead of facilitating, the transfer of heat from CPU to heatsink. Sadly, Apple doesn’t seem to be any different from other manufacturers from this point of view, despite the higher prices and the generally wonderful design and construction quality. Plus, often the stock thermal paste used by some manufacturers is quite cheap, and not based on some very efficient thermally conductive material. This is a very common problem, and one that is actually fairly easily rectified if you have even a modicum of understanding of how a screwdriver works. I’m planning on replacing the stick thermal paste on my XPS 13 9370 just to see if it will make a difference. I run Linux on it – KDE Neon – and Linux is slightly less efficient at decoding video than Windows, causing more fan spin-up. There’s a very real chance replacing the thermal paste will give me just enough thermal headroom to address this issue.

Adventures of putting 16 GB of RAM in a motherboard that doesn’t support it

Here’s the interesting part. This motherboard doesn’t officially support 16 GB of RAM. The specs on the page I linked indicate that it supports a maximum of 8 GB. It only has 2 slots, so I had a suspicion that 8 GB sticks just weren’t as common back when this motherboard first came out. I decided to try anyway. In a lot of cases, motherboards do support more RAM than the manufacturer officially claims to support. I made sure the BIOS was completely updated (version 946F1P06) and put in my two 8 gig sticks. Then, I booted it up into my Ubuntu 16.04 install and everything worked perfectly. I decided that my theory about the motherboard actually supporting more RAM than the documentation claimed was correct and forgot about it. I enjoyed having all the extra RAM to work with and was happy that my gamble paid off. Then, a few months later, I tried to boot into Windows 10. I mostly use this computer in Linux. I only occasionally need to boot into Windows to check something out. That’s when the fun really started. A deeply technical exploration into this particular issue, and definitely worth a read.

Teardown of a 50 year old modem

A few years ago, I was out at the W6TRW swap meet at the parking lot of Northrop Grumman in Redondo Beach, California. Tucked away between TVs shaped like polar bears and an infinite variety of cell phone chargers and wall warts was a small wooden box. There was a latch, a wooden handle, and on the side a DB-25 port. There was a switch for half duplex and full duplex. I knew what this was. This was a modem. A wooden modem. Specifically, a Livermore Data Systems acoustically coupled modem from 1965 or thereabouts. Turn down the lights, close the curtains, and put on some Barry White. You’re going to need it.