Hardware Archive

The most important computer you’ve never heard of

It’s not unusual to hear that a particular military technology has found its way into other applications, which then revolutionized our lives. From the imaging sensors that were refined to fly on spy satellites to advanced aerodynamics used on every modern jetliner, many of these ideas initially sounded like bad science fiction. So did this one. I had never heard of this.

Intel, AMD, Nvidia announce tons of new products

So, AMD, Intel, and Nvidis all decided to announce their latest products all on the same day yesterday. Let’s start with Intel, who announced the laptop version of their latest generation of processors, and if the performance claims hold up, they’re some damn good chips – but as always, we’ll have to await proper benchmarks. These laptop chips use Intel’s new hybrid processor architecture, which combines larger, faster performance cores with smaller, more efficient cores (P-cores and E-cores, respectively). How many P-cores and E-cores you get depends on the processor you’re buying, and you’ll need an operating system that supports Intel’s “Thread Director” technology to get the most performance out of the chips. Windows 11 supports it now, Linux support is in the works, and Windows 10 doesn’t have it and won’t be getting it. AMD, not wanting to be outdone, introduced its Ryzen 6000 series of mobile processors, which finally move their integrated graphics to RDNA 2m, and are the first to include Microsoft’s Pluton security chip. Yesterday AMD disclosed that they would be launching the new Ryzen 6000 Mobile series today – updated cores, better graphics, more features, all in a single monolithic package a little over 200 mm2. There will be 10 new processors, ranging from the traditional portable 15 W and 28 W hardware, up to 35 W and 45 W plus for the high-end gaming machines. AMD is expecting 200+ premium systems in the market with Ryzen Mobile in 2022. Finally, we have NVIDIA, with the smallest announcement of new high and low-end mobile GPUs.

Untangling the rat’s nest of USB-C standards and cables

The evolution to USB-C connectors just after the release of the USB 3.1 standard promised simplicity. Instead of host device Type-A and peripheral Type-B, Mini-B, Micro-B, and others, a single connector works for both ends of a connection and carries both power and data. Power can flow either way with the same cable: a computer charging a battery or phone; a battery charging a computer. It’s also reversible across its long axis, so it’s impossible to insert it in the wrong orientation. USB-C was supposed to be the last cable you would ever need. It hasn’t worked out that way. Better names for standards, mandatory logos on cables. That’s all we needed from the USB-IF. This has been bungled so hard they couldn’t have messed it up more if they tried.

Dell’s Luna laptop concept is all about repairability

Repairability of electronics is a hot topic when hardware gets discussed, and Dell produced a concept laptop to explore the idea of a highly repairable Dell laptop. On Tuesday, Dell announced a new design concept for a laptop that’s long lived, easy to take apart and fix, and takes a smaller toll on the climate. It’s a collection of ideas that could go a long way toward making the tech giant’s products more sustainable — depending on whether, and how, Dell decides to implement them. Called “Concept Luna,” the proof-of-concept laptop dreamed up by Dell’s design team has a number of unusual features that are intended to make repair and maintenance easy. No screwdrivers or glue solvents are needed to pry loose a broken keyboard or peel off a cracked screen; both components simply pop free after a pair of keystones holding them in place are removed. The entire system contains far fewer screws than a typical Dell laptop, reducing the time needed to replace components. And you’ll never have to worry about replacing a broken fan, because there isn’t one: a shrunken-down motherboard placed in the top cover allows the laptop to passively cool itself. As good as this sounds, there is a red flag. Dell told The Verge that Concept Luna’s board “doesn’t have any more soldered on or integrated components than a typical laptop we sell today”. That’s right. Dreams of user replaceable RAM, CPU, and storage are probably going to remain dreams, and consumers are going to be stuck with however the machine was provisioned at build time. Like concept cars, this probably isn’t going to go into production, but the ideas could find their way into future products.

When HDMI 2.1 isn’t HDMI 2.1

If you’ve followed the display, graphics card or games console market at all recently you will surely have heard about HDMI 2.1. It’s the new connection interface standard widely being adopted on new graphics cards, displays, games consoles and other devices; allowing support for improved bandwidths, resolutions, refresh rates and features. It’s one of the hot topics at the moment when it comes to buying a new device, and promoted heavily by manufacturers, often as one of the leading items in their spec. In this article we want to look at what the “HDMI 2.1” term really means, and address a worrying early sign in the market of things to come. We’ve delved in to what is required for this certification and what that means to you as a consumer if you ever want to buy something labelled with HDMI 2.1. Don’t make any assumptions about what that will give you, sadly it doesn’t seem to be nearly as simple as that. Oh good. More weird cable and port specifications to worry about.

How to boot a PDP-11

So you want to play Adventure, but don’t know how to turn on the PDP-11? These instructions are for booting our dual rack machine from its RL01 drives, although booting the single cabinet machine from the RK05 is very similar. Detailed instructions for booting a PDP-11, including lots and lots of photos.

The secret history of ATAPI

The other day I asked myself a seemingly trivial question: What was the first ATAPI CD-ROM drive and when was it available? Given that ATAPI was a major technology which instantly obsoleted all proprietary CD-ROM interfaces and made SCSI much less desirable, one might expect that there would have been some press releases touting the advantages of the new technology, articles describing the whys and wherefores, but… nope. There is nothing. And so begins a deep dive into the origins of ATAPI, through examining early drivers and their code.

The Soviet 1801VM2 LSI-11 processor

The Soviet-made 1801VM2 CPU (a binary-compatible implementation of the PDP11 instruction set and QBUS interface) was developed in 1982. The 1801VM2 is a further development of the earlier 1801VM1 doubling the original 5MHz clock speed. From a constructive standpoint this CPU is a completely independent development. There’s a wealth of interesting computer technology in the former USSR, and it’s great to see more of it make its way online.

The Pioneer PX-V7: MSX over all?

To capture a composite video signal and display it on my computer’s output, I need to use an upscaler that converts to an HDMI signal, then an HDMI capture device which in turn communicates with my PC over USB. Then, I can overlay my stupid face over it and send it to Twitch or something. But what if it was 1984? Of course, Twitch wouldn’t exist, nor would HDMI. So what’s the next best thing? Ah, the MSX. Most people focus on how popular it was in Japan, but they rarely mention that, because of the involvement of the Dutch company Philips, the MSX was also remarkably popular in my country of origin, The Netherlands. Some of my earliest computer memories took place on an MSX at a friends’ place. The particular model of MSX in this article, however, is something entirely different from the kinds of MSX machines I ran into as a kid. This thing has a considerable number of tricks up its sleeves, and now I just know I’ll be spending considerable time on eBay.

Looking for High Sierra

Some time ago, I thought it would be useful to understand exactly what is the difference between CD-ROMs recorded in the old High Sierra format versus the ISO 9660 standard. This was in part spurred by the fact that I have a number of CD-ROMs/images that use the High Sierra format (Microsoft Programmer’s Library, some IBM Developer Connection issues, OS/2 Warp 4, and more) that both macOS and Windows 10 refuse to mount. The other part of my motivation was the usual insatiable curiosity. I had no idea about the existence of this different format.

The 100 MHz 6502

The 6502 was the CPU in my first computer (an Apple II plus), as well as many other popular home computers of the late 1970s and 80s. It lived on well into the 1990s in game consoles and chess computers, mostly in its updated “65C02” CMOS version. Here’s a re-implementation of the 65C02 in an FPGA, in a pin-compatible format that lets you upgrade those old computers and games to 100 MHz clock rate! Interesting project.

Atari ST in daily use since 1985

This Atari 1040ST is still in use after 36 years! Frans Bos bought this Atari in 1985 to run his camp site (Camping Böhmerwald). He wrote his own software over the years to manage his camp site, as well as reservations and the registration of the guests. He really likes the speed of the machine compared to newer computers. And 6 months every year the machine is on day and night.

D-Wave announces new hardware, compiler, and plans for quantum computing

Tracking quantum computing has been a bit confusing in that there are multiple approaches to it. Most of the effort goes toward what are called gate-based computers, which allow you to perform logical operations on individual qubits. These are well understood theoretically and can perform a variety of calculations. But it’s possible to make gate-based systems out of a variety of qubits, including photons, ions, and electronic devices called transmons, and companies have grown up around each of these hardware options. But there’s a separate form of computing called quantum annealing that also involves manipulating collections of interconnected qubits. Annealing hasn’t been as worked out in theory, but it appears to be well matched to a class of optimization problems. And, when it comes to annealing hardware, there’s only a single company called D-Wave. Now, things are about to get more confusing still. On Tuesday, D-Wave released its roadmap for upcoming processors and software for its quantum annealers. But D-Wave is also announcing that it’s going to be developing its own gate-based hardware, which it will offer in parallel with the quantum annealer. We talked with company CEO Alan Baratz to understand all the announcements. I think I understood some of those words because I, too, watch Space Time.

EU proposes mandatory USB-C on all devices, including iPhones

The European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, has announced plans to force smartphone and other electronics manufacturers to fit a common USB-C charging port on their devices. The proposal is likely to have the biggest impact on Apple, which continues to use its proprietary Lightning connector rather than the USB-C connector adopted by most of its competitors. The rules are intended to cut down on electronic waste by allowing people to re-use existing chargers and cables when they buy new electronics. In addition to phones, the rules will apply to other devices like tablets, headphones, portable speakers, videogame consoles, and cameras. Manufacturers will also be forced to make their fast-charging standards interoperable, and to provide information to customers about what charging standards their device supports. Under the proposal, customers will be able to buy new devices without an included charger. It was the European Union that spearheaded the change from one-charger-per-device to standardising on Micro-USB, which was followed by USB-C later on. There’s a lot of pro-Apple, anti-government, right-wing talking points going around the internet today, especially coming from the United States, but unlike what they want you to believe, laws like this do not stop or even hinder innovation or the arrival of newer charging ports or standards. New charging standards can be rolled into USB-C, and the law can be changed for newer ports if the industry asks for it and there is sufficient consensus. Nobody liked the situation we had where every single device had its own incompatible charger. In fact, I have countless Palm OS devices I have a hard time charging because I lost some of their chargers over time. It was an infuriating time, and it’s thanks to EU pressure that the situation has improved as much as it has. However, due to Apple’s reluctance to play ball, the EU now has to step in and regulate – had Apple been a good citizen and adopted USB-C like everyone else, we probably wouldn’t have needed this law. Too bad for Apple. They most likely won’t be able to buy their way out of this one, and we don’t have historically black colleges Apple can take back promised funding from, either.

Panfrost achieves OpenGL ES 3.1 conformance on Mali-G52

The open source Panfrost driver for Mali GPUs has now achieved official conformance on Mali-G52 for OpenGL ES 3.1, as seen on the Khronos adopters list. This important milestone is a step forward for the open source driver, as it now certifies Panfrost for use in commercial products containing Mali G52 and paves the way for further conformance submissions on other Mali GPUs. Excellent news, and great progress.

Why that Thunderbolt add-in card doesn’t work properly in your unsupported PC

I’ve long been intrigued by Thunderbolt add-in cards. Apparently regular looking PCIe expansion cards, but shipped with a mystery interface cable to the motherboard, of which there is a small list of supported models. It’s not a secret that these cards may work in a motherboard which isn’t supported, but full functionality is not a given. I have spent the past few evenings trawling through many forums, reading about the many different experiences people are having, and have also purchased some hardware to play around with myself, so we can dig into these problems and see what (if any) solutions there are. Excellent deep dive into a topic I had never once in my life stopped to think about. As the author concludes, it would be cool if we ever got working, reliable Thunderbolt add-in cards for AMD or earlier Intel systems, but it seems unlikely.

KDE Slimbook: the best way to run KDE

How do you write a review of a laptop when you’re struggling to find truly negative things to say? This is rarely an issue – every laptop is a compromise – but with the KDE Slimbook, I feel like I’ve hit this particular problem for the first time. A luxury, for sure, but it makes writing this review a lot harder than it’s supposed to be. First, let’s talk about Slimbook itself. Slimbook is a Linux OEM from Spain, founded in 2015, which sells various laptops and desktops with a variety of preinstalled Linux distributions to choose from (including options for no operating system, or Windows). A few years ago, Slimbook partnered with KDE to sell the KDE Slimbook – a Slimbook laptop with KDE Neon preinstalled, and the KDE logo engraved on the laptop’s lid. The current KDE Slimbook is – I think – the third generation, and the first to make the switch from Intel to AMD. With the help of the KDE organisation, Slimbook sent over a KDE Slimbook for me to review, and here’s my impressions. Power and quality The KDE Slimbook is the first modern AMD laptop I’ve tested and used, and it feels great to see AMD at the top again when it comes to laptops. The laptop Slimbook sent me comes in at € 1149, and packs the AMD Ryzen 7 4800H, which has 8 cores and 16 threads, running at a base clock of 2.9Ghz and a boost clock of 4.2Ghz. That’s more cores and threads than in any of my desktop PCs (save for the dual-processor POWER9 workstation I’m currently reviewing as well), which I still find kind of bonkers. Integrated onto the processor die is the Radeon RX Vega 7 GPU, with 7 compute units running at 1600Mhz. This obviously isn’t a gaming-oriented GPU, but it can run less intensive games in a pinch, and since it’s AMD, it works perfectly fine with Wayland, too. My unit was configured with a total of 16GB of RAM, in dual-channel mode (as it should be), running at 3200 MT/s. The motherboard has two RAM slots, both accessible, and can be configured with a maximum of 64GB of RAM – making this a rather future-proof laptop when it comes to memory. It won’t surprise you in 2021 that my review unit came with an NVMe SSD – a 256GB, PCIe 3.0 model from Gigabyte, good for a maximum sequential read speed of 1700 GB/s and a maximum sequential write speed of 1100 GB/s. This isn’t exactly the fastest SSD on the market, but Slimbook offers the option for faster – and more expensive – Samsung EVO SSDs as well. On top of that, the M.2 2280 slot is user-accessible, so you can always upgrade later. Slimbook sent me the 15.6″ model, which comes with a 15.6″ 1920×1080 60Hz panel. There is also a 14″ model with the same resolution and refresh rate. The panel is 100% sGRB, and is plenty bright and pleasant to look at. Sadly, Slimbook does not offer 1440p, 4K, or high-refresh rate options, which is a big downside in 2021. If it were up to me, I’d love to see at least a 1440p/144Hz option on both the 14″ and 15.6″, and I hope the next generation of the KDE Slimbook will offer this as an option. Battery life has been outstanding. The device loses little charge when sleeping, and I easily get 7-8 hours of regular use out of the battery. The keyboard deviates from the norm a little bit, in that it’s not the usual island chicklet type keyboard where the keys are surrounded by metal. Instead, the keys float in the keyboard deck, which instantly brought back memories of Apple’s aluminium PowerBook line. I prefer this type of keyboard design over the chicklet island design, and typing is a delight on the KDE Slimbook – the keys are stable, clicky, and requiring just the right amount of force. I also happen to think it looks really, really nice, and it has full-height inverted T arrow keys. Nice. The keyboard does have two minor niggles, though, and they both relate to the backlight. First, it takes 1-2 seconds for the keyboard backlight to come back on after it has faded off, and that’s a lot more annoying than you would think. The second issue has to do with the lettering on the keyboard. The backlight shines through the lettering on the keyboard, but in some places, it just does not shine through at all. I’m not sure what the underlying issue is – the placement of the individual LEDs or the lettering etching process – but it makes some keys hard to read when the backlight is on. The trackpad is excellent, feels smooth, pleasant, and responsive, and I haven’t experienced any issues. It’s of the diving board design, and I think it’s glass, but I’m not entirely sure. Even if it’s plastic – if it feels and works well, that’s not an issue to me. I am, however, deeply intrigued by that little LED in the top-left corner. I have no idea what it’s for, and I am fairly sure I’ve seen it come on at least a few times. I made it a point not to look it up to see if I could figure it out, but here we are, and I still have no clue. The KDE Slimbook comes packed with ports, which is a godsend in the modern world. On the left side, there’s a microSD slot, a headphone/microphone jack, a USB 3.0 port, a USB 2.0 port, an Ethernet jack, and a Kensington lock. On the right side, there’s a USB-C port (no Thunderbolt, since this is an AMD machine), a USB 3.0 port, a full-size HDMI port, and the barrel plug power connector. That’s a solid set of ports, and I have no complaints about the selection. The one big miss here is that the machine does not support charging

This unsuspecting Lightning cable packs an implant that can log everything you type

Dubbed OMG Cables, these new variants are more capable than their counterparts. According to their creator, payloads can be triggered from over one mile away. Attackers can use them to log keystrokes and change keyboard mappings. There is also a geofencing feature, a kill switch and the ability to forge the identity of specific USB devices, like those that can leverage a specific vulnerability. While it’s unlikely us random, generic people will ever be the target of tools like this, there’s no doubt in my mind they’re being used all over the world to monitor dissidents, spy on competing companies, and so on.

NEC’s forgotten FPUs

The story of NEC’s FPUs is interesting, but as is usually the case, something led me down this path. While looking through loads of old scrap boards I found a most curious arrangement, a board with a normal unassuming V30 processor, but right next to it was another 40-pin chip, a chip with a HUGE die lid labeled D9008D, dated similar to everything else, in the 1989-1991 range curiously copyrighted 85 86 and ’87. I pulled the chip (soldered in , of course) and it sat on my desk, for a year until I decide to open the lid on it, and what did it reveal? A die that most certainly was a floating point data path. This odd chip was an FPU, and an FPU that was directly connected to the V30 CPU. Very interesting article about a very obscure topic.

The semiconductor heist of the century: Arm China has gone completely rogue

Arm is widely regarded as the most important semiconductor IP firm. Their IP ships in billions of new chips every year from phones, cars, microcontrollers, Amazon servers, and even Intel’s latest IPU. Originally it was a British owned and headquartered company, but SoftBank acquired the firm in 2016. They proceeded to plow money into Arm Holdings to develop deep pushes into the internet of things, automotive, and server. Part of their push was also to go hard into China and become the dominant CPU supplier in all segments of the market. As part of the emphasis on the Chinese market, SoftBank succumbed to pressure and formed a joint venture. In the new joint venture, Arm Holdings, the SoftBank subsidiary sold a 51% stake of the company to a consortium of Chinese investors for paltry $775M. This venture has the exclusive right to license Arm’s IP within China. Within 2 years, the venture went rogue. Recently, they gave a presentation to the industry about rebranding, developing their own IP, and striking their own independently operated path. This is not the first time the Chinese government – through its companies and investors – has gained access to a large amount of silicon IP (both VIA and AMD fell for this too). Not that I care much for Arm here – they were blinded by greed, and will pay the price – but hopefully this opens the eyes of other companies in similar positions.