Four Colors Into Sixteen: Terminal Innovation on the Atari ST

I’ve been spending a lot of time in the growing telnet BBS world lately and it’s really been a blast. I’ve been “dialing” in to my favorite BBSs by way of Paul Rickard’s WiFi232 Internet Modems (which I covered in a recent post). So far I’ve used my WiFi232s on five different systems. Among them is the Atari 520ST.

I purchased my first Atari ST back in the fall of 1986. Shortly thereafter I added an Atari SX212 1200-baud modem (my second modem, after the Prometheus ProModem 1200A on an Apple IIe) to the setup. The only terminal program I had ever used on the ST was ST Talk, a rather basic VT-52 terminal emulator program. When I reached for my 520ST to use with the WiFi232, I figured there was probably a more full-featured ST terminal program out there, so I did a YouTube search for people using the Atari ST as a serial terminal and found someone demonstrating the WiFi232 using a program called TAZ. What caught my attention was the fact that it supported ANSI emulation (with the IBM extended character set) and, more impressively, seemed to do so in 16 colors in the ST’s Medium Resolution mode. Medium Resolution on the ST is 640×200 pixels, which can display 80 column of text, but in only four colors (out of a palette of 512 colors).

So, how was it displaying 16 colors?

The Atari ST can display 16 colors onscreen in Low Resolution mode, which is 320×200 pixels, but not in Medium Resolution. So, I left a comment asking the poster what was going on. He responded, saying that the 16-color display was achieved using dithering.

Well, it didn’t look dithered; it looked rather sharp. So, I downloaded TAZ, put it on the SD card that is my 520ST’s floppy library (thanks HxC2001) and fired it up. As soon as it loaded it became clear what the developers had done here, and it was impressive. I logged into an ANSI graphics-heavy BBS and was blown away by the accurate and colorful ANSI display.

TAZ, by Neat n Nifty software circa 1994, does not use dithering in the traditional sense to achieve 16 colors. But it does use dithering of a sort — it uses what you could call temporal dithering. TAZ alternates two different palettes every frame. That means that, on a 60Hz display, TAZ‘s 16-color terminal screen is effectively 30Hz. You would think that this would introduce substantial display flicker — and you’d be right! It flickers notably but, amid the flicker, what is achieved is a very usable, 16-color ANSI terminal running on a machine limited to just four colors onscreen at a time. And the font the developers chose is particularly nice, as well.

Continue reading

Posted in Atari | 2 Comments

The Wonderful WiFi232: BBSing Has (Literally) Never Been Easier

Over the past year or so, I’ve been loading up SyncTerm and logging in to various telnet-accessible BBSs here and there — nothing too consistent. But, thanks to a piece of kit released by Paul Rickards, over the past month I have become fully immersed in the telnet BBS scene. Paul’s WiFi232 Internet Modem is an inexpensive device that lets you BBS the way it was meant to be done, on hardware from the golden age of the Bulletin Board System.

In a nutshell, it works like this: The WiFi232, as far as your vintage computer is concerned, is a Hayes telephone modem. It accepts standard AT commands as well as AT commands that go rather beyond the standard Hayes commandset. The purpose of the device is to act as a bridge between your serial port and your local WiFi router. It has a 25-pin RS-232 data interface and a Mini-USB connector for power — it should work with any computer sporting a standard serial port.

The WiFi232 is configured by connecting to the device’s built-in web server and loading the configuration page or by issuing extended AT configuration commands. For example,

AT$SSID=MyWifiHotspotName

points the device to your WiFi hotspot. Once things are configured (it supports 300 to 115,200 baud), just load up your favorite terminal program, type:

ATDT bbs.myfavbbs.com

and the WiFi232 “dials” into that telnet BBS. Your vintage computer thinks its talking on the phone.

I had early access to the device (well, I have two) and have been enjoying them on my Apple //c at the office as well as my enhanced Apple IIe, Amiga 1000, and TI-99/4A (recently upgraded to 80-columns with an F18a FPGA video board (that’s a blog post for later)) at the house. The WiFi232 is easy to move around, works exactly as advertised — it is an oldschool modem to my vintage systems — and gives me a compelling, new reason to spend time on a variety of machines in my collection.

I hope the demo video I put together gives a taste of what the WiFi232 enables, and I wholeheartedly recommend that any vintage computing fan grab one and get back online.

Here’s a list of telnet BBSs to get you started.

Posted in Multi-Platform | Tagged , , , , , , | 18 Comments

A Glimpse of Paradigm Simulation’s ‘Certain Impact’ for SGI / IRIX

I’ve been spending some time over the past few days with my SGI O2 which sits on a desk in my DC office. I took it off the shelf and brough it in to work so that it could get a little lunchtime use a few months ago. Adding an IRIX machine to my daily, lunch-at-the-desk, retrocomputing podcast ritual definitely levels-up the experience.

The other day I was running through a number of the IRIX system demos, as one does, and fired up one of the more historically notable programs that’s ever appeared on an SGI. Certain Impact is a WW-I era 3D flight simulator / game created by Paradigm Simulation (later Paradigm Entertainment and later still, acquired by Infogrames) using their Vega and AudioWorks2 simulation toolkits. Unlike a number of other simple flight simulators that can often be found on SGI workstations, Certain Impact is fully textured, adds a combat game element, offers network play, and supports SGI’s VR headset.

What I find most notable about Certain Impact is that it shortly preceded the critically and commercially successful Nintendo 64 launch title, Pilotwings 64 [ video ], which was developed by Paradigm under contract from Nintendo. Pilotwings 64 is one of my favorite games of all time (I’ve always loved flight simulations in most any form) and has a special place in the hearts of many who knew the Nintendo 64. I find the experience of playing Certain Impact to be quite amazing, knowing that I am flying around inside the world (and the minds of the developers) that spawned that superb N64 launch title.

There’s not a lot on the web about this game and many of the SGI-oriented people I chat with have never seen it run in person, so I took a quick and dirty video (with my iPhone 7 Plus) showing a few minutes of gameplay on my SGI O2. The system is based on a 175MHz R10000 CPU and the display is an SGI 1600SW. As can be seen in the video, the game doesn’t take advantage of a widescreen display; it’s rendering at 1280×1024, which leaves 320 pixels free for a system monitor app that shows CPU and GPU utilization while the game is running.

I wrote a bit about Certain Impact here back in 2005 (I’m shocked to see how long ago that was…), shortly after acquiring my O2. At that point I had not yet installed the game from the SGI IRIX 6.5 CD bundle I gathered to freshly setup the system.

Wrapping up, I wanted to give a nod to YouTuber and SGI aficionado “Dodoid” who has put out an excellent 6-part (and counting) video series on the history of SGI and its workstations. Watching part 1 of that series is what prompted me to take my O2 off the shelf and get it up and running, once more. I urge readers to check out all of his videos — they’re definitely worth your time.

Posted in SGI | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

To Upgrade, or Not to Upgrade, That Is the Question

The other day I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, the Retro Computing Roundtable, when the host topic really struck a chord in me. In this episode, no. 148, Paul Hagstrom was hosting and his topic for discussion was: Venturing down the retro upgrade path.

How far should we go down the upgrade path toward modernity? If you have a, say, 68030 Mac, would you want to put a third-party 68040 accelerator in it? You would have in 1993. But what is the point today?

Lately I’ve been taking advantage of the wide availability and relatively low cost of FPGA and Systems on a Chip technologies to upgrade a number of my systems to allow flash-based floppy emulation which brings a huge usability and manageability boost. Also, simply maxing out the RAM on a system is something I’ve often done. These are “reasonable” upgrades from any perspective, really, and are not very costly. But these are not the upgrades that Paul was referring to.

And I definitely have some first-hand experience with the upgrades he was referring to.

I’ve gone far down the road of such upgrades on a few systems, and while the experiences were adventures, oftentimes they weren’t the sort of adventures I originally had in mind. The eventuality in these cases has typically been something like a ball of best intentions, memories of power-user fantasies of days long past, rationalized expenditures, and a dose of regret. Let me share an account of my most stand-out example.

Continue reading

Posted in Amiga, Apple II, Just Rambling | 2 Comments

The Amiga 1000 Doing Its Thing – A Video

My love for the Amiga began before I got my first, back in October of 1985. Of the various models released during its lifetime, my favorite is the original, the Amiga 1000. Over the past few weeks I’ve spent a lot of time on my 1000 and, as is always the case, the capabilities of this nearly 32-year-old machine amaze me.

I’ve put together a bit of a usage demo to highlight some of the system’s features that stand out to me. It’s quite casual and without any particular direction, just me using various programs and prattling on about them. I hope those familiar will enjoy a bit of nostalgia and those not will be intrigued to some degree by this amazing computer.

Posted in Amiga | 2 Comments

My January 1986 Macworld Is Missing Page 13

The reason why is a funny little story.

I grabbed a few computer magazines from the 1980s off of my shelf the other day and sat down to flip through them, as one does. Shortly after opening the January 1986 issue of Macworld (volume 3, number 1) I noticed it was missing a page. Page 13 had been torn out, fairly cleanly. I pondered this for a moment and then the memory came back to me.

In January of 1986 I owned an Amiga 1000 and had since the first units appeared in the local computer store in October 1985, shortly after the Amiga launch. I had been wanting and waiting (to sell an Apple //c) for a Macintosh during the summer of 1985. And, I got one…but returned it after a week or so because of encountering the Amiga in person at the aforementioned store. I was still receiving my Macworld subscription, though.

On page 13 of the January 1986 issue, in the publisher’s column, David Bunnell ran a piece entitled “If the Mac Only Had Color–and Then What?” The piece spoke of the frustration some Mac owners were feeling, seeing GUI-based machines sporting color displays such as the Amiga and Atari ST hitting the market. (The Macintosh II, offering a color display, did not appear until the following year.) Bunnell tried to allay such reader envy, pointing out that his three-year-old office PC had two monitors, one color and one black and white, and that he almost never used the color display. He went on to speak in high terms of Apple’s new ImageWriter II printer, reviewed within the issue, capable of printing seven colors, even on the Macintosh.

Bunnell then headed in a direction that raised my 13-year-old ire. He indicated he had recently spent time evaluating the Amiga and — well, I’ll let him speak for himself.

I recently spent some time evaluating Commodore’s Amiga, the new computer that features advanced color graphics. What I discovered really surprised me: the resolution of color on the Amiga is actually not that much better than the resolution of color on the IBM PC.

The Amiga’s really super resolution is on its black-and-white monitor, just as it is on the Mac.

So if you want to use serious business applications with the Amiga, you still need a black-and-white screen. If you want color, you need a different screen, and you end up with lower resolution. The color screen appears to be good only for games or for certain small niches in the computer market, such as graphic art or screen presentations.

By not making the Macintosh a color machine right off the bat, Apple recognized that today’s color technology is still too primitive to dabble in. Creating the same screen resolution in color as you have on a black-and-white screen is not really worthwhile at this stage because the color rinses out in the wash.

On the Amiga you can’t even draw a proper circle in color. It looks more like a rounded bunch of jagged lines and is virtrually irreproducible on paper.

Right now color is best for games and educational programs. Therefor having color on the Apple II is a natural, while color on the Macintosh makes less sense.

As a (13-year-old) Amiga user, that really pissed me off. Commodore did not launch the Amiga with or promote any monochrome display. The Amiga’s high-resolution screenmode was 640×400 pixels (plus overscan) in 16 colors out of a 4096-color palette (while the Mac’s was 512×342 pixels, black and white). In order to work with less expensive 15kHz screens, this mode was interlaced (like television), and so GUI-type on-screen images exhibited flicker. I have heard that Commodore planned to release a long-persistence (slow-phosphor) RGB monitor to reduce flicker, but I don’t believe that ever made it to production. I spent hours and hours using Deluxe Paint to create video art in the interlaced mode. And the circles were smooth.

I had recently received an Okimate 20 high-resolution color printer for Christmas and my bedroom wall was covered with full-color printouts of my “paintings.” I was in such a lather after reading Bunnell’s article slighting the Amiga that I sat down and typed out a letter — to Commodore — making them aware of the shots fired, complete with a few (smooth) circles drawn in color at the bottom. I printed it out on that printer, evidence of the Amiga’s ability to reproduce color circles on paper, and mailed it off to West Chester, PA along with page 13. I have no recollection as to whether or not I expected some kind of response. (I received none). I suppose it was mainly catharsis.

Since my copy of this Macworld is missing page 13, I had to consult the Internet Archive to capture the page in question.

Posted in Amiga, Just Rambling, Macintosh | 5 Comments

Did You Hear About That Nutter Who Dropped $4K on No Man’s Sky?!

NMS-ATLASPeople who know me both online and IRL know that I’m a pretty big fan of Hello Games’ No Man’s Sky.

Actually, that’s something of an understatement.

I’m about 330 hours in so far (405 planets across 128 systems). I’ve been rather prolific on Twitter, sharing experiences and evangelizing the game (out of a sense that unhappy players don’t quite “get” it), I’ve been a denizen of the related Reddit subs since Launch Day (9 August, 2016) and have gained some note there, and I’ve made several posts about No Man’s Sky here since launch: A Few Words About the Best Game I’ve Ever Played: No Man’s Sky, My Skylake Gaming PC Build, Procedural Planetary Exploration Across the Decades. My wife and my 10 year-old daughter are pretty tired of hearing NMS anecdotes, I’m quite sure.

In a nutshell, it started out like this. I first heard of No Man’s Sky in the summer of 2015. The previews looked pretty amazing and, as I had a PS4, I was excited for its release. Not long after, I grabbed Elite:Dangerous, which I had been following with interest for some time, when it landed on the Mac (I wasn’t a PC guy…at the time), and was amazed by its realism. Comparatively, my impression of NMS at that point was that it would be less of a “whole scope” universe simulation than E:D; it seemed from previews that NMS wouldn’t be presenting an “I can fly from point A to point B across the galaxy without ever breaking frame” environment and I wondered if that would make for a much “smaller” experience. Months passed and I was spending time in E:D, mining, fighting, but became frustrated because the difficulty of amassing assets in order to upgrade ships was, to me, a huge barrier and I eventually lost a good deal of interest. I wasn’t having much fun and as a result I pretty much stopped playing.

Months more passed and No Man’s Sky was released. I purchased a digital download of the game for PS4 on day one and began playing. I fell in love immediately.

ps4_nms_1200px_2

I recall waking up on my genesis planet and walking about the lush alien landscape in a sort of wonder. I had to make an extremely long trek in order to find the elements needed to repair my initial ship so that I could venture onward. Along the way, walking through the trees, boosting up cliff faces with my jetpack, gazing at planets hovering on the horizon, running around with the various creatures skittering about the landscape, I experience a feeling of incredible immersion and the scale of the thing reality sunk in. I could explore every inch of this massive planet if I wished. And there are over 18 quintillion planets in No Man’s Sky‘s procedurally-generated universe. My earlier concerns about NMS feeling “smaller” than Elite:Dangerous were certainly for nought.

gtx1080_450pxThe PS4 I played with was in my den entertainment center with a few other consoles, tied to the wall-mounted screen. After just a few days in, I wanted to get as deep into the experience as I could, so I pulled one of my Mac’s displays off the desk to clear a space in the basement computer room, bought a 32-inch curved 1920×1080 display, and plopped it and the PS4 down next to the Mac and started playing. This turned out to be a great move — so much nicer than playing from the couch across the room. I ran like this for a couple of weeks, getting up well before dawn to get some time in before heading to the office most days, and it was awesome. So awesome, in fact, that I wanted to take things farther, to get all that I could out of the game. I decided to build a high-end gaming PC specifically to play No Man’s Sky.

Continue reading

Posted in Gaming, No Man's Sky | 25 Comments

Tapping the HP-9000 Gecko for “Not x86 Week”

This past week was “Not x86 Week” over at r/Retrobattlestations and I decided to stand the HP-9000 712/100 “Gecko” RISC workstation out front for my entry.

gecko_1120

I happened upon a boot sale one weekend back in 2003 and spotted an HP-9000 712/60 in a stack of Sun workstations in the back of a truck. I had always wanted to play around with a Gecko, knowing of the unique video hardware onboard from a system review I read in NeXTWorld magazine years earlier, so I bought it — for just $20. Getting it home, I pulled out my NEXTSTEP 3.3 CDs and got it up and running in no time. Its video output, and the manner in which it generates it, is pretty amazing.

Not too long ago, I found an HP-9000 712/100 motherboard on eBay for a reasonable price and replaced the 712/60’s board with it, upgrading it from a PA-7100LC CPU running at 60MHz with 64K of L1 cache to a 100MHz unit with 256K of L1 cache. NEXTSTEP really flies on this system, as does HP-UX, which I recently installed on an external drive to allow dual-booting.

I consider the HP Gecko to be the most interesting NEXTSTEP-compatible system out there, and it’s certainly one of the most prized systems in my collection.


A complete list of the fun I've had with r/Retrobattlestations' challenges over the years can be seen below. Good times!

Posted in NeXT, Other Platform, r/Retrobattlestations | Leave a comment

Have a Helping of 8-bit Holiday Cheer! (2016 Edition)

‘Tis the season, and that means it’s time to push out the sixth annual Byte Cellar vintage computer Holiday demo video roundup so everyone can feel that warm, fuzzy, pixellated holiday glow. With scanlines. Enjoy!

I’ve been a computer geek for a long time now, but I’ve been enjoying The Holidays even longer.

I got my first computer, a TI-99/4A, on Christmas morning in 1982. I was 10 years old and from that Christmas on, it was nothing but games and computer hardware that I wanted Santa to leave me under the tree. On through my teenage years, part of my ritual for getting into the Holiday spirit was downloading and watching Christmas demos on whatever system I had at the time (and every platform out there had a few of them).

Enjoying these demos is a personal tradition that I had, sadly, long left behind until 2010 (the year before I began writing these posts) when I was inspired to seek out the demo I remember best, Audio Light’s 1985 musical slideshow for the Atari ST. With the help of an emulator, I captured it to share online with readers.

A year later, I fired it up again and watched it run through it’s 16-color, pixellated images and 3-voice musical holiday greetings. As I watched, it occurred to me that it might be nice to gather a few of the other demos I remember from the good ole’ days and present them here, in order to try to share some of the holiday cheer that they used to inspire within me.

The following list of demos ranges across a number of platforms of olde and includes the aforementioned Atari ST demo I recorded (see the first video of the 2011 collection). Happy holidays, and I hope you enjoy the shows!

The 2016 collection:


Atari Falcon – Wee Gift by The Pixel Twins (2016)


C64 – Dan Kovaks’ Christmas Demo (2011)


Tandy 1000 – A Tandy Bear Christmas (1988)


BBC Micro – Melvyn Wright’s Musical Snowmen


C64 – Electronic Christmas Card & Fireplace


Apple IIgs – Polymorph’s Christmas Demo


Amiga – 17 Bit Software’s Christmas Music (1989)

Continue reading

Posted in Just Rambling, Multi-Platform | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Remembering the Apple IIgs Sales Demo

introducing_the_apple_iigsIt was a Saturday morning in September when we saw the Apple IIgs for the first time. By “we,” I mean those of us who headed to local authorized Apple dealers across the country (which for me was Chaney Computer in Newport News, VA) to get some hands-on time with Apple’s new II during that launch-day event 30 years ago, back in 1986. But the hands-on session came only after the machine was (physically) unveiled and the Apple IIgs Sales Demo was booted up and presented to the crowd in attendance.

Apple planned an event for participating dealers that centered around a IIgs system equipped with two 3.5-inch floppy drives, the 12-inch AppleColor RGB Monitor, a 1MB RAM card, and a decent set of speakers. The main event was the two-disk Sales Demo which was written by Tom Lichty and Tom Crosely in order to let the IIgs show off its talents.

After the black cloth was thrown aside revealing the platinum-hued system underneath (and after the “oohs” and “aahs” had abated), the IIgs was switched on, the drives began pulling in data, and suddenly the room was filled with the music of a jazz saxophone while colorful shapes danced about the screen. The quality of that sax and the instruments that began to accompany it was shocking to everyone present; the 32-second piece was digitized 8-bit audio (hence the need for the 1MB RAM expansion board) and very few other systems could pull that off. This was not something that most in attendance had experienced before. Apple’s original plan had been to use synthesized instruments to play the intro piece, but the demo team was unable to get things sounding of the level of quality demanded by this important demo in the allotted amount of time. It was an impressive demo of the GS’s Ensoniq sound chip.

While this year marks the 30th birthday of the Apple IIgs, what really got me thinking about this demo was a post I wrote a few weeks back, concerning the Atari ST, in which I mentioned the Apple IIgs Sales Demo. In writing that piece, I went looking online and was surprised to find no full, proper video of this demo that made such an impression on me and at least a few of you readers out there. Troubled by this, I decided to properly record the demo and upload the video so that it’s out there for anyone searching for this glimpse of a memorable piece of the Apple IIgs‘ infancy.

Posted in Apple II | Leave a comment