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.

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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!

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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)

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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.

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My SGI O2: Down Off the Shelf and Back On the Desk

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A quick update regarding the SGI O2 system I’ve written about a few times over the years. I grabbed an O2 setup on eBay back in 2003 (went in looking for an Indy, but the O2 seemed a better proposition) which consisted of an SGI O2 unit with a 64-bit 175MHz MIPS R10000 CPU, the O2 media interface card with camera, and a new-in-box 17-inch SGI 1600SW display and video interface card. It’s a sweet little system that I had setup and running down in the basement computer room for several years until I picked up an Apple Lisa 2/10 (in 2005) and needed desk space to set that up. I shelved the O2, intending to bring it back out one day.

screen-shot-2016-11-28-at-11-23-40-amThat day was last Tuesday.

What inspired me to bring it out was a series of videos that “Dodoid” / “DodoDude700” is publishing which take a look at the history of SGI. Here’s part I and part II. They’re worth a watch.

While there’s zero unused desk space across the six desks I’ve got down in the Byte Cellar, my office in DC has a huge amount of unused space. Two morning Uber trips in to the District was all it took. In the three years I’ve been working here I’ve brought in my Apple //c, my SAM440ep-Flex PowerPC-based “Amiga,” and a Raspberry Pi. And, joining them now, is the O2. It’ll be nice to be able to use it occasionally, as I do the other systems on my desk.

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Procedural Planetary Exploration Across the Decades

nomansfractalus_lqRegular readers are surely aware that I’m rather addicted to the space exploration game No Man’s Sky by Hello Games. I recently detailed my love for the title and gave an account of the high-end gaming PC I built specifically to play No Man’s Sky to the fullest, after having fallen in love with it on the PS4. And while there are those who may look askance at me for cherishing a game that’s not in any way retro, I make no apologies! Recently, however, a particular video comparison came to mind that I believe all of my readers can get behind.

No Man’s Sky provides a universe featuring over 18 quintillion planets to explore, which is made possible by utilizing procedural generation to create the nearly infinite number of worlds. It’s not the first game that has offered up procedural planet generation, however.

In 1985 Epyx released Rescue on Fractalus by Lucasfilm Games. It is a game that puts the player in the role of rescue pilot negotiating a hostile alien landscape in search of downed comrades. What made the game special was the mountainous procedural landscape through which the player would fly. This fractal landscape may appear extremely primitive to the modern eye but they were very impressive at the time, generated by the modest 1MHz, 8-bit CPUs of the day.  I used to spend hours playing the game on my Apple IIe 30 years ago, imagining I had descended onto LV-426 in a bid to save my shipmates from the terrible fate of becoming alien host cocoons. It was pretty awesome.

Because of certain similarities between the two games and the 30+ year span of time separating them, I thought it would be interesting to set them side-by-side, so to speak, for a quick and dirty comparison. (Game maker Jeff Minter also invoked Rescue on Fractalus in his recent blog post about No Man’s Sky.)

Here I have captured a bit of gameplay of both Rescue on Fractalus and No Man’s Sky. For the former, I chose perhaps the best looking version of the game, the original Atari 8-bit release, which is running in an emulator (Altirra) on the PC. For the latter, I chose a planet in the system I am currently exploring (consisting of five planets and one moon) that features no flora or fauna to speak of, in order to present a more or less base No Man’s Sky planetary state for the comparison. (More verdant worlds are out there, however.) The elevations on the shown planet are about half as tall as the tallest I’ve seen in game. Rescue on Fractalus is being rendered in the Atari’s 160×96-pixel color graphics mode (obviously enlarged dramatically in the emulator) while No Man’s Sky is running at the 32-inch LCD’s native 1920×1080-pixels — 135 times more discrete pixels than the Atari is pushing.

What a difference three decades, on both the hardware and software front, make. Not surprisingly, bringing out Rescue on Fractalus for this video has me playing it again after all these years. Both of these games are definitely worth spending some time with.

UPDATE [11/15/2016]: I’ve just learned over at the RetroGamer mag forums that someone is working on a PC (Windows) remake of Rescue on Fractalus entitled Fractalus (video). Looks interesting — give it a whirl.

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The Year that ‘Starglider’ and the Atari ST Saved Halloween

(The U.S. presidential election took place yesterday, and today I am greatly in need of some serious distraction, so I thought I’d write a post about a particular computing memory from decades past that’s been on my mind lately, but is not something I would typically sit down and write about. This is going to meander a bit, but I hope you enjoy it.)

pumpkinpixOnce again, Halloween has come and gone. As a youth, the season as a whole and the spooky night of ghouls and goblins in particular, was one of the best times of the year for me. These days, however, it’s my ten-year-old daughter’s candy wrappers that litter the living room floor. These Halloweens are very special to me as a father, but of the Halloweens of my youth, one in particular — 30 years ago — stands out as the best of them all.

In the summer of 1986 my parents went through a divorce and my mother and I moved to a new neighborhood in Newport News, Virginia. I remember, quite clearly, unpacking, setting up my new bedroom, and getting my Apple IIe system up and running on a desk by the window. This was about the time school was starting up after the summer. I was 14 going into the eighth grade.

Around this time the Apple IIgs was released, and I went to one of the launch-day dealer demos on a Saturday in September at Chaney Computers in Newport News. I saw the memorable Dealer Demo and got to play around with the unit a little. I really wanted a IIgs, and shifted into my sell-the-old-, plead-with-parents-for-the-new-system mode. As I was ramping that up, for reasons I can’t recall, I decided that I wanted an Atari ST instead, and so put the 520ST in my sights. I ran the Apple IIe in the local Daily Press‘ classified ads section and got it sold. I recall sitting in Spanish class on the day we were to go to Games ‘n’ Gadgets in the nearby Coliseum Mall to purchase the system after school. I told a classmate sitting next to me, a computer geek like myself, my plans for the afternoon and I remember him trying to convinced me to buy an IBM PCjr setup (like he had, discontinued at that point) instead. It’s odd, the little thing one remembers.

At any rate, my mom took me to the mall and we came home with an Atari 520ST, an RGB monitor, and two games: Time Bandit and Major Motion. I had fun with those titles, but that’s all I had to run on it, well, aside from bundled NEOchrome (paint program) and Megaroids. I didn’t (yet) have a modem for it to dial into BBSs and hadn’t (yet) joined a local users group. So, while I consider Time Bandit to be one of the best games I’ve ever played, I was wanting a new game.

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Posted in Atari, Gaming | 6 Comments

Getting Spooky with the Apple IIe for October

apple_ii_spooky_month_16

October was Spooky Month over at r/Retrobattlestations. The contest required submitting a photo of a vintage machine playing a Halloween or “spooky” video game. As you can see, I fired up Polarware’s text/graphic adventure Transylvania — one of my favorites — on my 128K enhanced Apple IIe. The 16-color Double High-Res version of the game can be seen on the screen (very sharp).

I was a sticker-winning runner-up at the end of this competition. Go Apple II!

Back in 2013, I tapped my Amiga 1000 and Fright Night for the October “Spooky Week” competition.


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

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My Skylake Gaming PC Build [Updated]

iMac_Skylake
A month ago I shared my feelings about Hello Games’ space exploration game No Man’s Sky. (Spoiler: I loved it — and still do, about 150 hours in.) In the post I mentioned that parts were in the mail for a high-end gaming PC build that would allow me to enjoy NMS at 60fps with adjustable POV angle as well as mods. Well, the parts arrived, I built the PC, and I wanted to check back in with a brief report. (Apologies for two non-retro-related posts in a row.)

blake_gtx_1080With the exception of the retro-recreation of my circa 1996 5×86-based PC that I put together three years ago, this is the first PC I’ve built in 18 years. The last was an AMD K6 233-based machine sporting (originally) the ill-fated 3dfx Voodoo Rush board (later a Voodoo II). I assembled it in 1998. I went with Asus for the motherboard on that K6, the recent 5×86 rebuild, and this Skylake gaming PC. They know how to make a motherboard.

It’s an Intel Skylake Core i7-6700K 4.0GHz + Nvidia GTX 1080 system running on the Z170 chipset (full parts list here). The tower is on the floor and on the desk is a curved Samsung 32-inch 1080p display plus a 7-inch secondary display that I use to monitor CPU load and temperature so I can see what kind of a workout games are putting the system through. The curved primary display adds to the “cockpit” feel of the setup to a surprising degree. One detail I’m particularly happy about is that I was able to put the 10,000RPM, 6Gb/s SATA WD VelociRaptor that booted my old Mac Pro back to use as a data drive in this build. The system is running Windows 10 Pro 64 and gaming is really all I’m using it for; in all other regards I’m an OS X (/ UNIX) guy. I pulled the ten-year-old 30-inch Apple Cinema Display off the desk in order to make room for the new system, so it’s down to one external screen on the iMac.

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A Few Words About the Best Game I’ve Ever Played: No Man’s Sky [Updated]

[ I want to note that this post was written prior to the major Foundation 1.1 update released by Hello Games in November 2016 ]

NMS-ATLASThis is one of my very occasional Byte Cellar posts not pertaining to vintage computing, but it’s something I’ve really had on my mind and have been needing to share for the past few weeks.

Earlier this month Hello Games released their much anticipated space exploration / survival game No Man’s Sky for the Playstation 4 and Windows PC. The game was five years in the making by Sean Murray and his small team and just might be the most highly anticipated title to come along in as many years. The promise of No Man’s Sky was a ticket to a procedurally generated universe with infinite worlds to explore. Well, 18.4 quintillion planets (2^64) — entire planets, every inch of which you could explore if you so chose. The media hyped the game incredibly, building up a massive fervor in the months prior to its release. (When, earlier this year, Murray announced that the game would be delayed several months, both he and the reporter who broke the story received death threats.) And then the release came…and so did the haters.

Many review sites who, in previews of the game months earlier, referred to No Man’s Sky in messianic terms were now giving it 6/10 ratings. Particularly vocal hardcore PC gamers were screaming that the online aspect of the game was less than they felt Hello had promised — there was no true multiplayer. People were finishing the storyline quest (which one has the option to ignore at the outset) in a week or two and writing off the game as too short, with too little substance. And the PC launch was, unfortunately, fraught with performance issues. There was much vitriol.

blakespot2_nms_1

Not everybody felt “cheated,” however. There were some who felt…amazed. In awe. Immersed utterly. Emotionally moved. I count myself among those fortunate individuals.

Playing No Man’s Sky is the best and most breathtaking gaming experience I have ever had in my life. The sense of the infinite and of limitless discovery is tremendous. I am just lost in this game.

NoMansSkyIsAwesome“Game.” Is it a game? It certainly seems more of a pursuit, a hobby, even a passion than a game to me. Inserting one’s self into No Man’s Sky is to begin a potentially endless adventure, visiting world after world after world that no eyes have ever seen before. Worlds placid, worlds violent. Worlds teaming with beautiful and fascinating life both plant and animal. Dead worlds, as well. You can never know what’s waiting down below when you drop into atmo.

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A Little App Called ‘FlyLab’ Running on My NeXTstation

Last week was Back To School Week at r/Retrobattlestations. The challenge was to photograph your vintage computer running an educational program of some sort. For this one, a rather obscure little app that I ran across when first loading up the NeXTstation that I acquired in 2000 came to mind. FlyLab by Robert Desharnais of California State University, Los Angeles. It is a genetics application that visually conveys inheritance through mating pairs of flies with configurable traits, sort of a fly construction set. The app really stood out for me because it is an ideal demonstration of what NEXTSTEP could bring to education, and its interface a model of the strengths of the NeXT Interface Builder development tool.

FlyLab_NeXT

Desharnais and Melvin Limpson of the American Physiological Society developed a variety of NEXTSTEP applications as part of CSU’s Virtual Courseware Project, funded by CSU as well as major grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

In response to an email I sent at the time of my Back To School Week submission, Desharnais shared a bit of history surrounding FlyLab. A portion of his email follows.

FlyLab on NeXTSTEP was my first major app written for that platform. I did create a few more NeXTSTEP educational apps before NeXT went under. I love your NeXTstation! Brings back fond memories.

FYI, FlyLab begat a number of progeny. It’s son, Virtual FlyLab was a web-based server-script that went online in July 1995 and was very popular. In 2001 Virtual FlyLab begat a Java version called FlyLab that was part of a commercial product (Biology Labs OnLine) marketed by Pearson Ed, but is now available on our servers for free. Then came the great-grandchild called Drosophila, also free, which was developed using Flash and has lots more bells and whistles. Drosophila is currently being used in lots of colleges and high schools. The app bred like, well, fruit files.

It’s nice to hear the backstory of this little app that stood out to me way back when. I have searched online and cannot find an FTP archive hosting FlyLab, but will dig through my NeXTstation’s filesystem and try to find the original archive I downloaded (sixteen years ago…) to post shortly. It does little to bolster my personal illusion of youth to realize that my early retrocomputing endeavors are, themselves, becoming retro.

UPDATE (8/28/2016): I have tarballed FlyLab.app (v1.0.1) on my NeXTstation and placed it online for anyone interested in playing around with it on their NeXT workstation or perhaps under Previous, the NeXT emulator. (I do not believe it is a Multi-Architecture Binary able to run under NEXTSTEP for PA-RISC, SPARC, or x86.)


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, r/Retrobattlestations | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments