A Quick Tour of the HP-9000 712/100 NEXTSTEP Workstation

Gecko_640February was NeXT Month over at r/Rerobattlestations. Being a huge NeXT fan, I was eager to take part in the event, which entailed taking a photo or video of a retro computer running NEXTSTEP or OPENSTEP. While my first NEXTSTEP system was a high-end 486 66MHz PC that I purchased from a NEXTSTEP for Intel fabricator called eCesys out of Alaska, I currently own two qualifying systems: a NeXTstation Turbo Color setup and an HP-9000 712/100 PA-RISC system. I went with the rather more unique (and powerful!) HP “Gecko” for this competition, and decided to put together a little video tour of the system.

In all, NeXT supported four platforms with the last version of NEXTSTEP: Motorola 68K, Intel x86, SPARC, and PA-RISC. The HP-9000 model 700 systems that supported NEXTSTEP were very powerful for the time and dramatically outperformed NeXT’s own “black hardware” based on Motorola’s CISC processors. The model 712 shown in my video also features a highly unique video subsystem that delivers pseudo-true color video using only an 8-bit frame buffer. The technology is called HP Color Recovery and I go into detail about it in an earlier blog post about my model 712, and discuss it briefly in this video.

The story of how this model 712 came into my hands is kind of interesting. I was at a local shopping center back in 2003 when I noticed what I think the Brits call a “boot sale” happening — a sort-of flea market that picked up in the parking lot, with people selling used things out of the back of their vans: TVs, game consoles, HiFi systems, lamps. As I was walking through, I noticed a van containing a large stack of computers. As I scanned the pile, the distinctive shape of an HP-9000 model 712 slab caught my eye. I recognized it from seeing it pictured in old NeXTWorld magazines that reported on the new HP PA-RISC platform for which NEXTSTEP 3.3 was to bring support (support which was dropped in the next iteration of NEXTSTEP: OPENSTEP 4.0). I asked after it and it turned out to be a model 712/60. The guy sold it to me for $25. When I got it home, I found it had a SCSI drive inside with HP/UX installed. I wiped the drive and installed NEXTSTEP 3.3 on it, though I’ve recently installed HP/UX onto an external drive and have spent some time exploring, which brings back memories of the college HP lab I spent so many hours in, way back when. I’ve also quite recently replaced the motherboard with that of a model 712/100 that I found on eBay, taking the system from a 60MHz PA-7100LC CPU with 64K off-chip L1 cache to a 100MHz unit with 256K off-chip L1 cache. It screams.

So, while the HP PA-RISC architecture was the platform supported by NEXTSTEP for the shortest amount of time, it is certainly the most unique platform the OS ever saw. And was it ever high performance. My Gecko is one of the most prized systems in my collection.

External Links:

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I’m Playing With a Philips Velo 1 H/PC Again

Quick and dirty post, here.

The first Windows CE device I owned was the Philips Velo 1 H/PC. It’s a clamshell mobile powered by a 36.86MHz MIPS R4000-based Philips SOC (what they called a “Two Chip Pic”) that I owned right after its debut in 1998, sold for a Newton MP2000, and reacquired in 2012. It sat in a box until a few days ago when Richard Harris ( @richjharris ), an old DALnet #Macintosh friend, spun me up with his Windows CE fever to bring it on out.

I’m not sure where this momentary re-infatuation will lead. But, here’s a video for you:

Ahh, to have been on the front line of the mobile revolution.

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WHDLoad: The Amiga’s Secret Weapon

Screen Shot 2015-12-30 at 9.54.05 AM

I’ve been in the retrocomputing scene for about 15 years now and in that time I’ve seen the interest in the pursuit grow more and more. This is in large part due to the evolving technology that has brought devices that have made vintage hardware more accessible to users. One of the most influential class of devices that has made things easier for retrocomputing folks is the flash memory-based floppy disk emulator. No longer are physical spinning floppy disks needed to boot up most vintage systems, thanks to these embedded controllers that allow disk image files sitting an SD card to be used in lieu of physical media. I personally have such devices installed in three systems: an Apple IIe, an Atari 520ST, and an Amiga 2000. In the case of the last, however, the floppy emulator is hardly needed, and that’s because of something the Amiga community has going for it that I consider to be much, much better. It’s called WHDLoad, and it’s a dream come true.

WHDLoad is an entirely software-based system designed to allow users to quickly and easy launch floppy-based games and demos and have them accurately run on the entire range of Amiga hardware. It was originally released in 1996 to address the issue of games running improperly or not at all on more recent Amiga systems featuring more powerful MC680x0 CPUs, the more advanced ECS and AGA custom chipsets, and newer versions of AmigaDOS.

WHDLoad works like this: Once installed, the user chooses a title from the lengthy (and growing) list of supported software and provides the original floppies for it. The system reads the floppies and writes out disk image files to the hard disk and effectively patches them so that they run on the local system just as they would on their original, target spec Amiga.

The video below (not mine) shows WHDLoad in action, running once-floppy-based games and scenedemos on an Amiga 1200.

The main advantages that WHDLoad brings, include:

  • Perfect execution — at least — of games and demos regardless of the local platform’s hardware specifications.
  • In some cases, performance is improved beyond the original title running on its target platform (e.g., smoother framerate, menus adjusted, known bugs fixed, etc.).
  • Customizations can be made and chosen via soft-switch, where provided by the author of the title’s importer patches (e.g., unlimited lives, unlimited firepower, etc.).
  • Nearly instantaneous loading through the Amiga’s Workbench GUI, thanks to hard drive speed and the ability to pre-load disk image data as memory permits.
  • When finished playing, a tap to the exit-key perfectly restores the Amiga to its previous state — no reboot needed.
  • Ability to run certain games and demos within emulators such as UAE, that otherwise would not run easily or at all.

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Have a Helping of 8-bit Holiday Cheer! (2015 Edition)

‘Tis the season! And that means it’s time for the fifth annual retro computer Holiday demo / music / game collection to help get you into the spirit of the season!

I’ve been a computer guy 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, 1982. I was 10 years old, and from that Christmas on, it was games and hardware 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 started these posts) when I was inspired to seek out one of the demos 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 pixellated images and 3-voice musical holiday greeting. As I watched, it occurred to me that it might be nice to gather a few of the other demos I remember from those good ole’ days and present them here, in order to perhaps 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 2015 collection:


MSX – MSXlegend Christmas Demo 2012


TI-99 – TI-99/4A Holiday Demos (2015) [ contest ]


Amiga – Amiga Xmas Syman (?)


Atari ST- X-Mas MIDI Demo (1987)


Atari 8-bit- Rybagz’s Christmas Demo 2008


Atari ST – Xmas ’88 Demo


PC DOS – Xmas Demo ’90 by Cascada


MSX – Toshiba MSX-1 Xmas Demo (??)


C64 – Merry Xmas from Micronet 800 (1986)


MSX – LarsThe18th Christmas Demo (2012)

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Posted in Multi-Platform | 1 Comment

Holiday Music Week III at r/Retrobattlestations

Once again the season is upon us, and that means it’s Holiday Music Week over at /r/Retrobattlestations. Holiday Music Week III, to be precise.

While I fired up the Apple IIgs for a previous HMW, this year I’ve put the 160MHz AMD 5×86-based DOS box out front, letting it croon tunes of the seasons through its Gravis Ultrasound sound card (with 1MB sample RAM onboard). I made a three-part post during the building of the system in question, and it was motivated by a “new” release of the long-idle but still-excellent CapaMod player [ download ] that can be seen playing the tune in the video. CapaMod or CMOD is a GUS-only player that was originally released in 1994 by Heikki Ylinen (“flap”) of Capacala and maintained until 1996. Then, out of nowhere, an update came in 2008 with an indication from flap that it’s the last update the player will see. (But he’s said that before…)

The track in question is “December” by Necros of Legend Design, a 400K S3M utilizing nine voices — in this case, hardware voices thanks to the lovely Gravis Ultrasound nestled within this 486-class system of mine.

Happy Holidays!

Posted in DOS / Win PC, r/Retrobattlestations | 2 Comments

On Being Featured in Retro Gamer’s “Collector’s Corner”

The bookshelves down in my basement computer room hold hundreds of computer magazines primarily ranging from the late ’70s through the mid ’90s. Taken together, they more or less completely chronicle the “home computer” era; they detail the technology of the day as it advanced over the years. Despite all of the history preserved in these periodicals of periods past, one of the magazines from which I learned most is the one I’ve been consistently reading the longest. What’s more, it’s a modern publication. Well, modern in the sense that it’s being published today — and in no other. The publication I speak of is Retro Gamer magazine, published by Imagine Publishing out of the UK. I discovered issue #6 on the shelf at a local Barnes & Noble eleven years ago. I’ve read every issue since.

retrogamer_collection

I grew up here in the states seeing the home computer era of the ’70s and ’80s unfold before me, but it wasn’t just happening in the U.S. It was happening at the same time in different parts of the world, and many highly influential developments were taking place in the UK. Over the past eleven years, Retro Gamer has provided me with a vivid and fascinating picture of what was happening on that other side of the Atlantic, way back when. While I was starting out with my TI-99 and Apple //c, kids over there were tinkering on their ZX Spectrums and BBC Micros. There was overlap, but there were many differences between the US and UK scenes and it’s been lovely having a window into that alternate past. The magazine covers modern game and hardware releases relevant to the retro crowd on both sides of the pond, as well.

With that bit of background out on the table, you can imagine how happy I was when Retro Gamer reached out to me a few months ago and asked if I would be interested in being featured in their monthly Collector’s Corner column which highlights the gaming collections of a different reader each month. Of course I was interested, so a short interview followed and, well, have look at the piece for yourself.
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Posted in Just Rambling, Multi-Platform | 1 Comment

We See Farther: A Tribute to the EA that Once Was

EA_LogoSome of my most treasured items in the basement computer room or “The Byte Cellar” (cue my daughter rolling her eyes) are on the wall. The room is full of system setups from the ’80s and ’90s, and I love spending time in front of all of them, but the items I’ve collected, framed, and hung on the walls are some of the most special things in my collection.

One of my most prized retrocomputing possessions is a 1983 poster that celebrates the “software artists” of Electronic Arts. To quote myself in a blog post about the piece,

[Around 1984] the most compelling home computer game studio was Electronic Arts. Back then they spoke of their developers as “software artists” and produced a series of ads that depicted them as rockstars. Their game packaging even looked like an LP sleeve. I recall those ads well and they fed into the mythos that was the Electronic Arts game studio. I had so much fun with Archon, Pinball Construction Set, Music Construction Set, and Seven Cities of Gold in those days it’s silly.

The poster came as a fold-out in the November 1983 issue of Electronic Fun with Computers and Games magazine. Back in 2009 I acquired the poser from an acquaintance on IRC, and since then I’ve kept my eBay eye out for other copies of that magazine. I grabbed one a year ago and gave it to a San Francisco acquaintance with whom I had chatted about the poster at a GDC party. And, about three months ago, I saw another one and grabbed it, not really sure what I wanted to do with it. I ended up trying to sell it on eBay to fund some iOS device purchases, but it didn’t work out, and I felt strange about waving around such a notable artifact of computing history to make a fast buck, I have to say.

So, the auction ended — no takers. And then, a day or so later, I get an email from a guy who said he missed bidding before the auction ended and that he had a great desire to own the poster. He spoke of his appreciation of Electronic Arts’ history as a pivotal publishing house (way back when) and it was clear that he “got it.” Reading his reasons for wanting the poster in his collection, I quickly agreed to send it to him for a rather modest sum. I no had that mildly slimy feeling for having tried to peddle this piece of computing history for large-ish profit, and mailed it off with a smile. And, that was the end of the story…or so I thought.

And then a few days later, the guy emails me a photo of his arrangement of the framed poster on his wall, flanked by six of the LP-style EA game sleeves, and it’s one of the most impressive sights paying homage to the days when games were games that I’ve ever seen. It just blew me away, and I had to share it.

EA tribute

I responded in awe and asked him about his gaming past, to which he told me the following. (And he has asked to remain anonymous.)

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Posted in Gaming, Multi-Platform | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

1997 Wonders: Is There a Future in the ARM SoC?

This morning I reached over and pulled a random issue of Pen Computing magazine off the shelf to use as a backdrop in a photo I wanted to take. After getting the shot, I scanned the cover and noticed the feature article entitled “StrongARM-1100: The Soul of the New Machines?” The issue in question is from October 1997 and details the release of the StrongARM SA-1100, a chip resulting from a collaboration between ARM and DEC that took the original StrongARM SA-110 CPU (used in the Apple Newton Message Pad 2×00 and the Acorn RiscPC) and turned it into a System-on-Chip (SoC), one of the first in the world. The chip was extremely performant for the day and delivered a then-unprecedented 1000 MIPS/watt ratio. The author, after laying out all of the details, opines that the the chip has a bright future.

newtoniphoneToday the ARM instruction set architecture is the most widely used in the world. It’s the same DNA of the StrongARM featured in that Pen Computing mag that lives within the processors that have powered all of Apple’s iOS devices and those of most of their competitors. And that is why, looking down at my desk before putting the magazine back on the shelf, I was suddenly struck by the sight of my iPhone lying on the cover, 18 years after I picked it up off the rack at the Charlottesville, VA Barnes & Nobel. Back then my mobile device was the Apple Newton MP2000 with a 162MHz SA-110 at its core and here today, sitting right beside the StongARM headline on the cover, was my new Apple iPhone 6S Plus powered by the Apple A9, a 1,850MHz dual-core 64-bit ARM processor of Apple’s design that contains that same DNA. Hundreds of times faster, mind you, but the same DNA.

The juxtaposition grabbed me, and I thought I would share.

ARMs

It’s worth noting that things didn’t begin with the StrongARM. Acorn RISC Machines developed the first ARM processor in 1985 in order to, first, expand the BBC Micro computer and, second, to power the Acorn Archimedes system that arrived in 1987.

Earlier, related post: It Occurred to Me That a Lot Has Changed in Mobile Computing over the Last Fifteen Years

Posted in Just Rambling, Other Platform | 1 Comment

An Apple IIgs / FTA Apple Watch Face

I have an Apple Watch and I’ve been liking it, but it became a good bit more interesting when watchOS 2 landed a few weeks back.

The updated OS brought many improvements, among them the ability to set one of your photo albums or a single photo as the watch face (though, sadly, there is no option for using complications beyond the basic date and time). While this is a great way to keep your kid, wife, dog, or crab just a flick of the wrist away, it also invites people to get creative and craft their own watch faces. Clockwork gears, CPU with circuits, high-tech communicator buttons, etc. The challenge presented appealed to me and so I set out to make a custom face.

FTA_apple_watch_wrist_blakespot

Giving it some thought, I decided it would be nice to raise the wrist and get a blast of Apple IIgs along with the time and date. The face I made is a tribute of sorts to the Free Tools Association, FTA, a IIgs demo group from years gone by, headed up by Olivier Goguel. I pulled pixel parts from three of their productions: the Nucleus demo [ video (terrible quality), run in-browser ], the Modulae demo [ video, run in-browser ], and Photonix II [ video (terrible quality) ], a disk copy program with a rich interface. I think the retro Apple IIgs watch face image turned out well and I’ll surely make more. A bonus of this little project was getting familiar with the excellent pixel-art drawing program, Pixen for OS X (just $9.99 USD in the Mac App Store).

Grab the image and beam it over to your Apple Watch if you, like me, have great memories of the IIgs and FTA.

FTA Apple IIgs Apple Watch Face

( The above image is 320×390 pixels, the resolution of the 42mm Apple Watch. The 38mm watch should scale the image down well enough. )

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Recalling My First CD Player, Stereo System

The other day I got into a “what was the first CD you ever owned?” discussion on Twitter. My first was Songs from the Big Chair by Tears for Fears. I purchased the CD in 1985, a few months before I had a CD player of my own, just so I could see what a compact disc looked like up close. Thinking along these lines, I recalled the experience of getting my first CD player back in 1985. I thought I’d share some memories from way back when, and would much enjoy hearing readers’ similar experiences.

After purchasing that first CD, I kept after my parents to get me a CD player of my own. After a few months, they took me to the local Circuit City and I selected a player. It was the Pioneer PD-5010, a component unit of the standard stacking width, sporting an eject button and a slide-out tray. As I recall, a sales rep helped us (me) choose the model, and it was the CD+G video support that made me go for the 5010. Sadly, at the time I had no idea how to acquire a video cable to connect a display to the unit, so the CD+G feature went untested for the life of the player (which was about three or four years; the tray finally stopped ejecting).

Pioneer_PD-5010

Being a stand-alone component unit, the Pioneer CD player required a separate receiver / amplifier to output any audio. Luckily, I had a stereo system on hand that was up to the task. And, as it happens, it was nearly the center of my universe at the time.

On my 11th birthday, May 21 1983, good ole’ mom and dad gifted me with a compact stereo / cassette system. Previously, I had one of those el cheapo record players in a cardboard case with a lid that latched shut and a few 45’s to play on it (ABBA, Air Supply, Tony Basil). I had a little Radio Shack transistor radio, as well. And, sometimes I’d play a cassette in my dad’s Sanyo system down in the den (I had ELO Time and little else).  But, I never had my own stereo system before. That all changed when I tore open that brown cardboard box and pulled out the 10-watt Sears LXI stereo system with integrated cassette deck and 5-band graphic equalizer. Ahh, yes, to my eyes and ears it was a beautiful and magical thing. I can still remember the new-electronics smell it gave off after heating up for a bit.

I recall setting it up on the desk next to my TI-99/4A system, situating the speakers, screwing in the FM antenna wire that ran up the wall, and turning it on for the first time. I rarely listened to the radio before this, just whatever my parents had on in the car, so I ran a ways up the FM dial and landed at 104.5. The song “Always Something There to Remind Me” by Naked Eyes was playing. I’d never heard it before, but I liked it, and so I basically never moved off of local Top 40 station Z-104, WNVZ-FM out of Norfolk / Newport News, VA. (I became too cool for Top 40 around junior / senior year in high school and switched to a Classic Rock station, long after that LXI system had died.)

Sears_LXI_stereo_casette_1982

At any rate, the Pioneer CD player plugged into it nicely and I began enjoying the novelty and fidelity of compact disc audio. Back then, when the CD was a relatively new thing, each album was marked with a three letter code that told you a bit about the audio quality of the disc in question. Back then, most albums were marked AAD, meaning they were recorded with analog equipment, mixed with analog equipment, and digitally mastered. The rare find was the DDD album — “pure digital.” The first pure digital disc I had was Dire Straits’ CD-targetted album Brothers In Arms, one of the first DDD discs ever released. I have to say, even on that somewhat meager stereo system, it sounded phenomenal.

In addition to CDs, cassettes, and radio, I also listened to the extraordinary audio output of my Amiga 1000 through that system, as well as the 6-voice PSG output of the Mockingboard in my Apple IIe system. I certainly loved that little setup. A kid’s first stereo, back in the days before wall-mounted wide-screens and pocket communicators capable of streaming human history’s entire catalog of music into your earphones, was a pretty big deal.

It took some real searching to find a proper photo of the Sears LXI system. I finally found it in a scan of a 1982 Sears Christmas catalog, and it appears here courtesy of Flickr user Wishbook.

Posted in Just Rambling | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments