Hardware Archive

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.

PostScript Cartridge Plus for HP LaserJet III

The HP LaserJet III laser printer from 1990 used the “Printer Command Language” PCL 5 by default, but could be upgraded with the “HP PostScript Cartridge Plus” cartridge, which contained 2 MB of ROM with Adobe’s PostScript Level 2 rasterizer. Let’s look at the ROM contents and some of its hidden gems. With how printers have become the butt of jokes, it’s easy to forget they were sometimes kind of cool and had interesting technologies, features, and even expansions. The article has a follow-up, as well.

Used thin client PCs are an unsexy, readily available Raspberry Pi alternative

“Raspberry Pi boards are hard to get, probably also next year,” says Andreas Spiess, single-board enthusiast and YouTuber, in his distinctive Swiss accent. He’s not wrong. Spiess says he and his fellow Pi devotees need “a strategy to survive” without new boards, so he suggests looking in one of the least captivating, most overlooked areas of computing: used, corporate-minded thin client PCs. Spiess’ Pi replacements, suggested and refined by many of his YouTube commenters and Patreon subscribers, are Fujitsu Futros, Lenovo ThinkCentres, and other small systems (some or all of which could be semantically considered “thick clients” or simply “mini PCs,” depending on your tastes and retro-grouch sensibilities). They’re the kind of systems you can easily find used on eBay, refurbished on Amazon Renewed, or through other enterprise and IT asset disposition sources. They’re typically in good shape, given their use and environment. And compared to single-board enthusiast systems, many more are being made and replaced each year. A project I want to undertake is set up an UltraSPARC machine, and then tie several Sun Rays to them. I also want to mess around with using Linux as the host for several thin clients – they’re so cheap, and it seems like they’re really fun to mess around with.

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.