Setting Out to Build a 486-Class DOS Box

This is a quick post to lay out the plan for a retro project that has recently struck me and to which I have committed fully.

It hit me when I heard that CapaMod was updated in 2008.

So, back in 1994 I purchased an expensive, build-to-order PC from eCesys (of Alaska) to run NEXTSTEP for Intel v3.2. The system consisted of the following:

  • JCIS motherboard w/ Intel 486DX2 66MHz
  • 16MB RAM (that was a lot for 1994)
  • Chips & Technologies Wingine video card
  • DPT PM2021 SCSI controller (ISA) with attached 700MB & 500MB HDs, CD-ROM, and Zip Drive
  • Pro Audio Spectrum 16 soundcard (ISA)
  • 17-inch Altima CRT

And all the hardware was black in color, in the spirit of NeXT. I ran this system under NEXTSTEP for about nine months before I gave in to the lack of mainstream apps under NEXTSTEP and the desire to load up the capacious HD with DOS demos and games and, yes, Windows 3.1. Once I went this route, I replaced the Wingine (take a moment to read about that technology) with a Hercules Dynamite Power VLB video card based on the Tseng Labs ET4000/W32p chipset, one of the very fastest in terms of DOS graphics performance. The Pro Audio Spectrum 16, I replaced with a Gravis Ultrasound (or GUS), an extremely powerful (for the time) wavetable audio card that supported 1MB on-board sample RAM and playback on up to 32 hardware channels, using little more than 0% CPU resources. It was one hell of a machine for early ’90s DOS scenedemos and games.

In time (1996), I replaced the motherboard in that tower with an ASUS PVI-486SP3 in order to jump to an AMD 486DX4 120. That was a nice boost, but I soon took it further to an AMD 5×86 133 overclocked to 160MHz, which is pretty much equal in performance to a Pentium 90.

Coming from an Amiga background and being a fan of the demoscene, I was a big SoundTracker MOD (and similar formats) fan back then. The GUS was one of the best sound cards out there for MOD playback and the most accurate MODplayer app available was CapaMod, a DOS player written by Capacala. I spent weeks in front of that app, cranking tunes through my Bose RoomMates.

So, I was tweeting about the GUS for some reason recently, when someone pointed out that CapaMod had been “recently” updated. So, I fired it up in Boxer (DOSBox) and played a few MODs. They played, but with a bit of stuttering. DOSBox has GUS emulation (hat tip), but it’s not perfectly smooth, at least not on my not-so-meager mid-2011 iMac (quad-core Core i7 3.4GHz with 16GB RAM).

This got me to thinking about how great it would be to once again listen to those tunes played back at high quality on a machine that used custom hardware to overcome CPU limitations — a machine built around an architecture where hardware sound channels and DMA audio matter, distant from the computers of today, where 200 “channels” could be mixed into just two hardware channels in software, hardly taxing the multi-core CPU running at many thousands of megahertz. The thought of again seeing all aspects of such a system pushed to its limits by the many incredible PC scenedemos of the early to mid ’90s began to sound pretty great. Not to mention classic DOS games played on real metal.

In short, I feel things were more fun when exceptional MOD playback and demo performance was a true feat, rather than a cakewalk to the host hardware. This is a be a big part of my attraction to vintage Amiga hardware, and retro systems in general.

And, so, I am setting out to put together a system very close to the one which I’ve described, that I began enjoying nearly 20 years ago. I still have my trusty GUS soundcard and the DPT PM2021 SCSI controller — they’ll be part of the system. It’s off to find the right motherboard, graphics card (anyone have a Hercules Dynamite Power VLB they want to part with?), CPU, and case / PSU.

I’ll keep you posted. Wish me luck!

UPDATE: I forgot to mention, I’m getting lots of good info for this project from an incredible set of forums I only recently discovered: VOGONS (Very Old Games On New Systems).

Posted in Other Platform | 6 Comments

There, But for the Grace of God, Go I

This weekend I happened upon a video created by YouTuber “mrmusdtard2″ and entitled “Doing the Amiga Rock by MrMoonlight and the Amiga Chip Rom Ram Band.” I’ll just go ahead and embed it right here, with its description.

Doing the Amiga Rock, a return to the world stage by mrmoonlight and the Amiga chip rom, ram, band, the music was by a unknown Author who I would dearly like to trace it was titled Piano Boogie 3 and performed on Octamed by the Amiga band, and myself mrmoonlight, the vocals and ukulele were performed my mrmoonlight and on piano was the delectable Paula certainly a chip off the old block, on sound inverter was Denise, always ready to blow her own trumpet, and the sweet Alice destined to travell through a wonderland playing a merry tune and last but not least Agnus on drums steady as a mountain goat and never missing a beat, when asked why the band were making a come back they replyed we do what we do because we can, we are Amiga.

I watch this video and I have to ask myself…”Is this me, in 15-20 years?” Surely not. Surely not…

Of course, no fan-made, Amiga-focused music video can be discussed without mention of the highly unique and possibly legendary performance that is “Only Amiga Makes It Possible,” based on the 1987 Comdex promo video.

And while I’m talking Amiga videos, YouTuber “yazzgo” put together a rather well-done tribute to the Amiga, entitled “Electric Dreams – I’m the Commodore Amiga.” It’s a series of game and app clips set to the the tune “Together in Electric Dreams,” from the 1984 film Electric Dreams (one of my all-time favorites).

Ahh, the Amiga.

Posted in Amiga | 3 Comments

“Logo Week”: More Fun Over at /r/RetroBattlestations

A few weeks ago I posted about the fun to be had over at Reddit’s /r/retrobattlestations. It was BASIC Week and I tackled it with an Atari ST and a few Apple IIs. After that came Spooky Week, and this weekend marked the end of Logo Week. For Logo Week, I grabbed Commodore’s Amiga Logo, installed it on my trusty Amiga 1000, and had a little bit of seasonal programming fun.

I’ll preface this by mentioning that my first experience with Logo was using TI LOGO II on my TI-99/4A back in 1983. The next time I encountered it was in an AP Computer Science class in my junior year of high school … a long time ago.

Logo Week involved getting Feurzeig and Papert’s Logo programming language running on vintage hardware and using a couple of provided procedures to render out a few autumn leaves via “turtle graphics.” Real hardware required — no emulators allowed. For this one, I decided to render the Amiga 1000 upon which I was programming my entry, and rending the leaves upon the rendered Amiga’s CRT. It’s like Amiga^2 or Inception or something. Anyway, I had lots of fun at every step.

Here you see a photo of the final product and a video of my Logo code doing its thing. (Here’s my entry post.) I chose to use the Amiga’s hi-res interlaced screenmode (640×400 pixels) at 16 colors. Unfortunately, both the photo and the video suffer from capturing an interlaced CRT display with a digital video camera. More or less every other scan line is missed (more evident in the video). I should post an actual screenshot. At any rate, rest assured — it looks nicer in person.

Of course, everything is a good bit nicer when you’re sitting in front of an Amiga 1000, isn’t it?

Posted in Amiga | 2 Comments

Happy Halloween, All You Vintage Computing Ghouls!


As I sat on the floor of our den, carving this year’s pumpkin into a jack-o-lantern with my daughter, I was reminded of a bit of caving I did nearly a decade ago as a bit of a Halloween goof for readers of iPodHacks.com, the most successful tech blog I’ve run independently. (Anybody remember it?)

I started iPodHacks shortly after the original iPod was announced (but before it was released), back in late 2001. There, I covered news related to the iPod and the portable digital music player scene at large, and also provided various product reviews along the way. I shuttered the site in late 2008 in order to entirely focus my efforts towards TouchArcade.com, which I started with Arnold Kim (of MacRumors.com) earlier in the year. (Our Editor-in-Chief Eli Hodapp posted a rather impressive TouchArcade logo jack-o-lantern, a few weeks back, that’s definitely worth a look.)

Well, on Halloween 2004, in the site’s heyday, I grabbed a knife and went to work on a pumpkin in an attempt to render in candle light the “Picasso” Macintosh logo-inspired iPodHacks.com logo. It turned out not half-bad, and I took a few photos of the situation on my front steps and posted it it to the site as desktop wallpaper for the season. In that post, a spake thus:

With All Hallows’ Eve just a few, short days a way, we here at iPodHacks let the spirit of the night take hold of us. All it took was a crisp autumn eve with leaves dancing magically on the wind, a patch of uncarved pumpkins, and—yes, perhaps a bit too much time on our hands as well…. The end result? Well, let’s just say we can’t think of a better desktop wallpaper image for this time of year.

Ahh, memories.

Now…is the iPod considered vintage computing hardware yet? Happy Halloween, everybody.

Posted in Just Rambling, Other Platform | 1 Comment

It Occurred to Me That a Lot Has Changed in Mobile Computing over the Last Fifteen Years

This past weekend my wife and I headed down to Charlottesville, VA for the night, to celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary. When we met, she was half-way through law school at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and I soon moved up there (from Williamsburg) to make dating her a little less highway-intensive. (As it happens, four months later we were engaged.)

I’ve been a googly-eyed computer junkie since Christmas 1982, but it was just after arriving in C’ville in early ’97 that I became all about mobile computing (we called them “PDAs” back then). I got hold of a Palm Pilot Personal, and was hooked.

At the time, I was running Debian Linux as my desktop OS, and I started a PalmOS-on-Linux blog that was short-lived and of little utility to anyone. It was my very first blog, though.

The PDA bug bit me hard, and I remember frequenting the local Barnes and Noble — the first one I ever encountered (some years before) — day after day, when it was getting near time for the bi-monthly Pen Computing magazine to arrive on the shelves. That was the one — the only — mobile computing magazine out there. That was my scene and, so, I was voracious for new issues. So unfamiliar were such devices to people back then, that I recall many instances of someone coming over to ask me, “Hey, what is that thing?” (especially in the case of the large MessagePad 2000). It was a happy period in my decades of geekery.

As I stood in that same Barnes & Nobel this weekend, having not done so for a number of years, it struck me just how much has changed in mobile computing over the past 15 years or so, and how ubiquitous mobile devices of all shapes and sizes have become. As I sipped my coffee, not one person came over to ask me about the iPhone 5s in my hand. The odd man out in that bookstore cafe, today, is the person not carrying a mobile device of some kind.

Standing there pondering the situation, I sent out a string of tweets that I wanted to share with those who may not follow me on twitter or who may have otherwise missed them. (For easy reading, the tweets below are temporally arranged top to bottom, and I’ve hyperlinked them a bit for added info.)

Blake Patterson ‏@blakespot 13 Oct
I am standing in the first Barnes & Nobel I ever encountered. I think it was back in ’93 or so. (@ Barnes & Noble) http://4sq.com/1cgJAsE

Blake Patterson ‏@blakespot 13 Oct
It’s interesting…

Blake Patterson ‏@blakespot 13 Oct
I was in here in my early PDA (handheld computers, youngins) crazy days all the time (’97, ‘98) following the technology…

Blake Patterson ‏@blakespot 13 Oct
…always searching the shelves for the latest issue of Conrad Blickenstorfer’s Pen Computing magazine ( http://www.pencomputing.com ).

Blake Patterson ‏@blakespot 13 Oct
I had a Palm Pilot back then, moving to a Philips Velo, a Newton MessagePad 2000, and then the Philips Nino.

Blake Patterson ‏@blakespot 13 Oct
The Nino inspired my first second blog, back in ‘98. Here it is, derelict: http://blakespot.com/nino/ Frozen (basically) for 15 years.

Blake Patterson ‏@blakespot 13 Oct
There was no easy internet on these devices. Some had jacks to dial out to a PPP account over the phone line. All of these had b&w screens.

Blake Patterson ‏@blakespot 13 Oct
And, it’s interesting…

Blake Patterson ‏@blakespot 13 Oct
Here I stand, my iPhone 5S in hand, tweeting this, cross checking in Safari, getting alerts, with a fast, wireless connection to the ‘net.

Blake Patterson ‏@blakespot 13 Oct
Pen Computing was the one. Bi-monthly. Today, here, I see about 2/3 of the computer mags on the shelf are about mobile.

Blake Patterson ‏@blakespot 13 Oct
A lot has happened in the last 15 years in mobile. (Most of it in the last 5-6.)

Blake Patterson ‏@blakespot 13 Oct
The Palm Pilot, I spoke of, has a 16MHz 16-bit processor. The Philips Velo has a 36MHz 32-bit processor.

Blake Patterson ‏@blakespot 13 Oct
The iPhone 5s, here, has a dual core 64-bit Apple-designed CPU running at 1,300MHz.

Technology marches on.

Posted in Handhelds, Just Rambling | 5 Comments

Siri and Eliza Have a Conversation

Eliza is an early computer program that served as an experiment in natural language processing. It was written at MIT by Joseph Weizenbaum in the mid-’60s and is best known as a simulation of a Rogerian psychotherapist. Siri, perhaps better known in today’s world, is a natural language personal digital assistant for iOS devices, released by Apple in 2011 as part of iOS 5.

This morning, I happened across a reddit post by user ReddInternet, showing Siri and Eliza (running on an Apple //e) engaged in a back and forth conversation. It is an amusing thing to behold, and I thought I would share it with readers. The poster drew inspiration from an earlier, similar exercise carried out by the father of Karateka, Jordan Mechner.

As it happens, my first experience with Eliza was through her inclusion in Electronic Arts’ Software Golden Oldies: Volume 1 collection, which was one of the first commercial packages available for the Amiga 1000, both of which I purchased in October of 1985.

Posted in Multi-Platform | Leave a comment

“BASIC Week” Fun Over at /r/RetroBattlestations

Last week was BASIC Week over at one of my haunts, /r/RetroBattlestations. Retro guy Chris Osborn (@FozzTexx) created a BASIC program that renders out the subreddit’s logo along with Snoo (Reddit’s mascot) to the computer screen. Chris provided ports to several 8-bit platforms and challenged folks to type in the program on real metal — no emulators — and take a photograph of the glowing, rendered image after a successful run of the program. The greater challenge was to port the program to a system not yet represented. The prizes were retro stickers for several winners, and three months of Reddit Gold for the two grand prize winners.

Intrigued, I fired up ST BASIC on my Atari 520ST and spent some time adapting the Commodore Plus/4 version to the ST. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out why ST BASIC’s ELLIPSE function was behaving differently than I expected, and I finally switched over to the dot-plot approach of the Commodore 64 version. I think I would’ve had it, too, but ST BASIC, it turns out, is rather limited. (It was a nesting thing.) So, with the clock ticking away, I stepped back and typed in the existing Apple II version and had a little BASIC fun on my Apple IIe and //c.

It’s interesting that Applesoft BASIC on the IIe can handle deeper subroutine nesting than MetaComCo’s ST BASIC. At any rate, I intend to go back soon and spend some more time on the ST to get that version working, just for fun.

In the end, there were some impressive ports worked out by the winners. Did you take part?

Posted in Apple II, Multi-Platform | 4 Comments

Assembling the Lego Apple //c

Lego Apple //cI enjoy fiddling about with vintage computers of all makes and models, but early Apple machines hold a special place in my heart. As such, I was most intrigued a few months back when I read of apparent master-of-plastic-block-architecture Chris McVeigh’s miniature Lego likeness of the original Macintosh. McVeigh offered up the plans for the Mac and various other designs of his creation gratis, on his website, as well as offering parts-compelte Lego kits that can be ordered from the Powerpig’s online store.

I was deeply tempted by that model of the most lovely Macintosh of all, but I did not order. McVeigh’s latest creation, however, was more than I could withstand.

The My First Computer (Two Seeds Edition) [PDF] is a 4-inch-tall Lego model of perhaps the sexiest computer I’ve ever owned, the Apple //c, the first Apple product to feature the Snow White design language created by the famed Frog Design innovation firm. The finished model features the Apple //c main unit, the Apple Monitor //c with stand, and the Apple Mouse //c. There are even cables for the mouse and the CRT. The detail is amazing, really.

The kit was a no-brainer for me. I saw it. I instantly ordered it. I received it. I assembled it. But, I did so on camera! A big part of the fun I’ve had with this kit was recording its construction to share with fellow vintage computing fans out there. And, so, without further ado…enjoy the video.

If you’re an Apple fan, or a Lego fan, or a Commodore fan, or — well, just check out Chris McVeigh’s work. It’s certainly worth a look.

Posted in Apple II | 1 Comment

Susan Kare Gives Kutcher the 32×32 Treatment

So, what do you think?

Susan Kare, who designed the icons and fonts for the original Macintosh, also created 32×32 pixel micro-portraits of the Macintosh team, at their request, back in the early ’80s. One team member who definitely did not request a pixel portrait was Steve Jobs, but he got one anyway. I’ve become quite familiar with it, actually, as regular readers may be aware…

Marking the release of the film Jobs, starring Ashton Kutcher (which opened this weekend), Kare recently tweeted a new diptych of her own design showing a 32×32 pixel Kutcher beside the classic Steve Jobs icon. I don’t think I’ll be getting as up close and personal with the Kutch’ icon as I have the Jobs.

I need to catch the film soon, despite what people are saying…

Posted in Just Rambling, Macintosh | 1 Comment

Found Photo: Me and My Apple QuickTake 200 Camera

I was recently digging about the storage shelves, looking for an old box of floppies when I came across a large box full of photos that I hadn’t opened since moving into this house ten years ago. I spent an enjoyable hour looking through this trove of photos that spanned a good five years, all at least ten years back down memory lane. One of the earliest photos I found in the mix is of myself standing on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, holding my first digital camera, the Apple QuickTake 200. This photo was taken in early 1998 — fifteen years ago, at the time of this post.

I used the QuickTake heavily on this first, real trip my wife and I took together, about a year after we met. She brought her film camera along, hence this photo.

The gallery of photos I took on that San Francisco trip with that QuickTake 200 can be seen here.

Much more recently, I used the QuickTake to create the first photo panoramas of my computer room (“the Byte Cellar”). It, along with Apple QuickTime VR Studio 1.0, did a particularly good job with the panoramas, I thought.

Another piece of now-vintage hardware I had with me on that trip was my new Newton MessagePad 2000. I did lots of dialing onto the Internet with it from the hotel room, I recall. Good times.

Posted in Just Rambling | 1 Comment