Hardware Archive

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.

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.