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.


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.


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. )

Posted in iOS | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

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).


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.)


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

The Mockingboard Sings a Few New Songs

Mockingboard-v1a-Docs-resizedI remember feeling that one of the coolest things about my Apple IIe setup back in 1986 was the 6-voice sound card with which I outfitted it. The Apple II line (aside from the IIGS with it’s superb Ensoniq DOC audio chip) featured only a simple, 1-bit beeper which provided rather basic sound effects for games and did not allow for any sort of in-game score; a true theme song track, quality aside, would take too much CPU time. And, while there were a number of speech synthesizer cards available for the system at the time, few offered musical capabilities. Of those that did, Sweet Micro Systems’ Mockingboard was the king.

The Mockingboard was available in several configurations. The base unit, the Mockingboard A, was a card that featured two General Instruments AY-3-8910 audio chips, each offering three FM voices along with one white-noise generator. This chip, or nearly identical variations, was widely used in computers of the ’80s such as the MSX machines, Atari ST, ZX Spectrum 128, BBC Micro, Intellivision, Colecovision, and IBM PCjr. It provided decent simple waveform music and could be hacked to deliver low-quality digital sound samples. The board I owned was a Mockingboard C, featuring the two AYs as well as a Votrax SSI-263 speech chip.

Electronic Arts’ Music Construction Set by Will Harvey supports several sound cards, including the Mockingboard, and was a lot of fun to play with at a time where beeps, buzzes, and clicks were the stuff of most computer “music.” A handful of games and other programs [ info PDF ] support the card as well. I’ve personally enjoyed enhanced sound in: Lady Tut, Skyfox, Adventure Construction Set, Pitfall II, Night Flight, Apple Cider Spider, and Ultimas III, IV, and V (which supports dual Mockingboards for 12-voice sound).

After (re)acquiring an Apple IIe setup a few years back, I began searching for a Mockingboard to slot in, but was having no luck when I ran across what has become colloquially known as a Mockingboard K — a Korean-made clone board. So, I grabbed one from eBay and began to relive some nice memories. What I didn’t expect was that the Mockingboard’s killer app would come in 2015.

Apple II scenedemo coders French Touch [ English translation ] have recently released a disk, for the 128K Apple IIe equipped with a Mockingboard, entitled (NOT SO) Cheap Tunes (a play on the term “chiptunes“). It contains a selection of notable Atari ST game and scenedemo tracks, in a massaged file format, composed for the ST’s Yamaha YM2149F sound chip, a variant of the GI AY-3-8910. Along with these tracks is a player app that utilizes the Mockingboard’s two sound chips to play the bundled ST tracks in a sort of pseudo-stereo achieved by alternating sound chips with every screen refresh during playback. And the results sound impressive — significantly better than the tracks playing back on a native, monophonic Atari ST. (My Apple IIe and Atari 520ST happen to share the same desk in the Byte Cellar.)

Continue reading

Posted in Apple II, Atari | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

My Earliest Memories of Microcomputing — And How I Came About Them

I was lately in a twitter back-and-forth with some of my vintage computing brethren when the topic of the earliest systems each of us owned came up. My first was a TI-99/4A gifted me (I coached the parents on the purchase carefully beforehand) on Christmas morning, 1982. It was a nice first step, and from there it was off the the Apple //c, Macintosh, Amiga 1000, etc. I have first-hand knowledge of a great many systems given the speed at which I leapt most fickle from one to the other, but my the bulk of my knowledge of the microcomputer revolution came not from first-hand experience but from a small cinderblock room in a private school in southern Virginia.

From 6th grade through high school graduation, I attended Hampton Roads Academy, a private school in Newport News, Virginia. I started in the Fall semester of 1983 and was already a computer geek (long, long before computers were remotely cool). I’d hand in book reports written in TI Writer, printed on my Smith-Corona TP-1 daisywheel printer well before anyone else in the class had seen a word processor, I believe. A burgeoning computer geek, I was. And, given this, I took the opportunity to explore the library for books and magazines on the subject.


In short order, I located the tiny periodicals room, off of the main library, and found several years of Creative Computing magazines to pore through. [Read them for yourself, at the Internet Archive.] On most days, I would spend part of the lunch hour in that room reading about a great number of systems I’d never before heard of. Put together by David H. Ahl, Creative Computing was unique in covering basically every platform out there — and there were many. Way back when, each system was its own ecosystem; it was very different from today’s world of Mac OS X, Windows, Linux, and basically nothing else. The intricacies of these disparate system fascinated me, which is why I remember salient details of most every computer described within, even to this day over 30 years later.

I read about the ongoing MSX situation, initiated by Spectravideo‘s systems. I was amazed by the Dimension 68000. The industrial design of Wang word processors intrigued me (and HRA had one in their finance office). Kaypro seemed the CP/M system to have. Data General had the most impressive laptop. The Mindset graphics computer was a marvel to behold from a technical and design perspective. Heathkit, Leading Edge, NEC, Sharp, AT&T, Actrix, and GRiD had some particular stand-outs, as well. These details are still with me today.

Adding to the fun of that tiny periodicals room was the fact that one of the first Apple II’s in the school was eventually setup on a desk inside. With that, a somewhat larger crowd grew, but my main focus was still the magazines. (I had a //c at home by then.)

Continue reading

Posted in Just Rambling, Multi-Platform | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Upgrading the Atari 520ST to 4MB of RAM

This one’s been a long time coming.

I purchased an Atari 520ST back in late 1986. It has a particular charm and is one of the systems I most fondly remember. Shortly after I got it I ordered a system organizer / stand known as the A520 STation. It made the somewhat awkward keyboard-unit computer ergonomically close to ideal.


Before and after that ST, I owned several Amigas. Years later, when deciding what systems I wanted to have on-hand in the Byte Cellar, I decided I didn’t really need an ST because the Amigas are something of a superset of them, capability-wise, and most game titles exist on both platforms. (No offense ST people, among whom I count myself.) I did love that particular setup I used to have, though. So, eventually I decided if I could ever source an extremely rare A520 STation, I would build a proper 520ST system around it. Sort of a cart before the horse scenario, I suppose. At any rate, after years of searching, wild chance threw the system organizer I was seeking into my lap. So, I went ahead and built an ST system around it, a 520ST system — not a more common 1040ST; I’ve always found the latter’s elongated case profile to be aesthetically inferior to that of the original 520ST.

HxC2001_STAfter assembling the system, I enjoyed it with a handful of floppies I had to play with, and then decided to fit it with an HxC2001 floppy emulator, after earlier having success with such a unit on my Amiga 2000. Now, while a lot of ST users have embraced the HxC2001, they’ve been fitted to the far more common ST models that contain an internal floppy drive. The original 520ST (a.k.a. STM) has no internal drive, and I’ve seen no other instance mentioned online of someone mounting the HxC2001 in an Atari external boot floppy drive. My system, I believe, is unique in this respect.

So I had the 520ST setup like I wanted, with the loading of new floppies being as simple as copying disk images to an SD card on a net-connected machine and sticking it back into the ST. The only remaining problem was the price I paid in sticking with the short 520ST formfactor I love — it has only 512K of RAM. Lots of games and scenedemos require 1MB or more. And, that’s a problem that I finally solved, but with a great deal of adversity. It’s an arduous tale, and getting it finally sorted is what prompted this celebratory post.

Continue reading

Posted in Atari | 3 Comments

A Review of “CoCo: The Colorful History of Tandy’s Underdog Computer”

coco_bookI love spending time sitting down and using the various vintage computer systems I’ve collected over the years, but more than that I enjoy learning new bits of history about these  systems and how they came to be. While my vintage collection is sizable — 16 systems (excluding consoles and handhelds) — I’ve been a hardware geek for over 30 years and I love to research, so I’ve got pretty rich histories of most of these systems in my head at this point. That’s why I was so happy to see the publication of vintage computing notables Boisy G. Pitre and Bill Loguidice’s CoCo: The Colorful History of Tandy’s Underdog Computer.

When I was a kid, I had to sell one system to fund the next, and so I went through a slew of  computers as my fickle self became enamored with the next platform…and the next, and the next. (Long before eBay, it was an ad in the local newspaper.) Most of my collection consists of systems I have owned before, and know well. However, there are a few systems in my collection I’ve picked up because I had a particular interest in them way back when, but never actually owned. One of them is the Tandy Color Computer 3.

Growing up, I fiddled with the CoCo line from the grey, chicklet-keyed original to the final  CoCo 3 in Radio Shacks around town. While the CoCo was evolving, I was spending time at home in front of a TI-99/4A, Apple //c, Amiga 1000, and Atari 520ST. Although I found all of the models interesting, it was the CoCo 3 that, to me, held the most appeal given its enhancements over the previous models; it was Tandy’s answer (albeit an 8-bit one) to the Amiga and ST. So finally, back in 2012, I grabbed a nice system on eBay [my CoCo photo gallery] and began exploring the CoCo ecosystem. I found it to be a fascinating little computer, but I couldn’t fully embrace the system because my knowledge of its history was pretty light. That is, until Pitre and Loguidice’s excellent CoCo retrospective brought me fully up to speed.

Continue reading

Posted in TRS-80 | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

The Amiga Turns 30

Thirty years ago today, on July 23, 1985, the Amiga was introduced in a star-studded gala featuring Andy Warhol and Debbie Harry at the Lincoln Center in New York City. Warhol demonstrated the Amiga’s incredible graphics capabilities by “painting” an on-screen portrait of Debbie Harry as attendees looked on.


The Amiga (which later was called the Amiga 1000) began shipping in September, and I got mine in early October at Chaney Computer in Newport News, VA. I have reason to believe it was the first unit sold in the state of Virginia. I took the photo above shortly after I brought it home, in my bedroom in York County, VA in late 1985. I still have this photo of my first Amiga, framed, sitting atop the third Amiga 1000 I’ve owned, down in my Byte Cellar.

Happy birthday, Amiga.

A few other Amiga-related posts I’ve made over the years:

Posted in Amiga | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

That Time I Ran Linux on the Desktop

A GNU/Linux logo circa 1996I stumbled upon a discussion of GNU/Linux on the desktop on Reddit recently, with someone predicting that “next year” will be the year of Linux on the desktop (with tongue-in-cheek and as it ever was). This got me thinking about the one time that I ever ran Linux as my primary desktop OS, and I thought I’d write a little about it.

I’ll set the scene. After graduating college in December 1995, I immediately found employment as a systems administrator of a LANtastic network of Windows 3.1 machines at an engineering firm in southern Virginia. I was living alone (the only year of my life I ever did so) in an apartment in lovely Williamsburg, VA. It’s good that I was alone, as the work hours were occasionally late and the Playstation had just launched, so I spent an inordinate amount of time in the wee hours on that console. Or down at the delis (the Williamsburg equivalent of pubs). Or anything other than cleaning what eventually became a shockingly wrecked bachelor pad. Ahh, the halcyon days.

Anyway, I had an eCesys 486 66MHz PC that I purchased in 1994 to run NeXTSTEP for Intel during college. After a while I installed Windows 95 beta on it and then upgraded the motherboard and CPU to an AMD 486 DX4120. Shortly thereafter, I bumped the CPU once again, this time to an AMD 5×86 160MHz. Most of the time I spent on that PC while living in that apartment (1996) I was running Windows 95, playing Phantasmagoria and Zork Zero with my girlfriend, and exploring the new World Wide Web via dial-up PPP. Then one day, late in the year, it struck me to try out desktop Linux.

Debian Linux v1.2 - 1996In the labs in college we used SunOS on SPARCstations and HP/UX on HP workstations (there were even some Tatung Sun clones about), and as I mentioned, I ran NEXTSTEP for a while at home, so Linux was a comfortable notion. After looking around, I decided to go with Debian Linux — their latest development build (v1.2 “Rex”). And it wasn’t a download, it was an order for media shipped by mail. And that media wasn’t a CD, but around 15 3.5-inch HD floppy disks. It arrived, I installed.

Or tried. It turns out there was a path issue in the install script, which I discovered in the newsgroups, and so I ended up having to edit a script on one of the floppies, correcting a path, in order to get Debian running. The whole process took every night of a week, plus some of the weekend. It was painful. But, I was finally greeted with a lovely X-Windows desktop.

In greyscale. You see, the video card I was using was a Hercules Dynamite Power 2MB VLB featuring a Tseng ET4000/W32p, the fastest DOS-mode chipset available at the time. I chose this card through a desire to wring the most graphic performance out of DOS-based scenedemos of the day. But, when it came to XFree86, well, the support was minimal.

Continue reading

Posted in OS, Other Platform | 7 Comments

Smithsonian’s “Places of Invention” Exhibit Highlights the Rise of the Personal Computer


On the first of this month, the National Museum of American History in Washington D.C. re-opened its west wing, loaded with new attractions, among them the Places of Invention exhibit. While the entire exhibit is fascinating, a particular portion of it I found to be of particular interest and am certain that regular readers would find it likewise.

As Smithsonian describes the display I speak of,

first_mouseThe rise of the personal computer in Silicon Valley, Calif. in the 1970s–80s adds up how suburban garage hackers plus lab researchers equaled personal computing.

I recently visited the museum and there saw many legendary things, among them: the Xerox Alto; a MITS Altair 8800; Douglas Engelbart‘s (father of hypertext) invention: the first, wooden mouse; the original Macintosh computer; a general history of Silicon Valley at the genesis of personal computing; a hobbyists’ billboard pulled from the Valley’s long past; and a lovely display highlighting the work of distinguished iconographer Susan Kare.


Kare started her career as an early Apple employee who created all of the icons and fonts for the Apple Macintosh, the first consumer-oriented computer featuring a graphical user interface, released in 1984. I’ve a particular fondness of Kare’s work and it’s that which drew me to the exhibit.

Her display was the centerpiece, featuring two early “Macintosh computers” connected to 12×12 tile flipboards, allowing visitors to create their own icons which would, at the click of a mouse, appear on the Mac’s screen. It’s interactive fun that I watched a great many kids clamor to enjoy firsthand (video). (I use quotes, as I observed that the Macs in question had their CRT’s replaced with LCDs and were likely not being powered by a 7.8MHz MC68000…)

alto_mac_altairWhile there, I took a few photos and placed a gallery online. Note the recreation of Ralph Baer‘s workshop located just outside the Places of Invention exhibit, complete with a Simon electronic memory game, “The Brown Box,” a video game system Baer created in the late ’60s, as well as it’s commercial incarnation, the Magnavox Odyssey which was the first game console ever to hit the market (1972).

Have a look, and if you’re in any way able, make your way to the American History Museum and experience this excellent exhibit for yourself.

Other Smithsonian exhibits covered here, likely of interest to readers:

Posted in Macintosh, Multi-Platform | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments