Author Archive for Andrew Danson

07
Aug
19

Teac USB Floppy drive FD 05PUB

Recently I bought a new Ryzen based PC, which has a distinct lack of legacy support and even lacks optical drives. This is hardly surprising as this is the logical conclusion of what has been an increasing trend of storing and transferring data with flash drives, on the “cloud” or other network enabled means.

It does however pose a problem for someone like myself who collects and uses a number of older machines of various vintages and architectures. Many older machines don’t have network support and don’t accept USB flash drives natively. So without the ability to use older mediums such as floppy or optical discs it can be quite difficult to transfer data to and from vintage hardware.

There are fortunately some options for adding some legacy support to modern machines, such as USB optical and floppy drives. There are also some options for adding modern device support to old machines such as a floppy emulator that accepts USB flash drives as input. For me, rather than getting numerous floppy emulators, I thought it would be better to add floppy support to my new modern machine.

So off to ebay I went and got a generic USB floppy drive for about $12 AUD. It turned out to be a Teac FD 05PUB (also known as UF000x). This model turns up everywhere as it has been made for a while and re-badged as IBM, HP and DELL drives all at some point or another. Looking around I found this was basically the only model of USB floppy drive currently available, which could be a problem as some people have had trouble getting these to work on windows 7 and 10 due to driver issues.

I was unluckly because my particular unit appeared to be faulty, not being able to read disks created by known good drives and not even being able to read data it has itself written. I suspect it had suffered some damage in shipping as the seller had not packaged it well, using a cardboard envelope with no padding for shipping. Although it could also be the build quality as the unit feels extremely cheap, which frankly it is. Either way I’ve returned my unit for refund (hence the reason there’s no photo of it).

It’s now several months later and I’ve finally decided on and received a new solution. This nifty little doo-daa is basically a USB to 40 pin floppy adapter. This allows me to use any standard 1.44Mb 3.5 inch floppy drive I have laying around as a USB device. This has the advantage that I can use known good drives that are in alignment and have clean heads, and if something mechanical fails I can simply swap the drive. Here’s a photo of it with a Sony 3.5 inch floppy drive, one of the younger drives in my collection.

The USB adapter and a Sony 3.5″ drive.

It does have some downsides, such as not having a case and requiring a power supply for the drive itself. This is hardly surprising as it’s really designed for adding internal floppy drives to modern machines that lack the legacy controller. It also supports only one type of drive, so you won’t be using any 5.25 inch floppies with this. Interestingly it is reported by the OS as being the same device as the first drive I bought, confirming to me that the first drive was indeed faulty as it uses the same device driver.

At least I now have a very basic solution for data transfer, although it’s not ideal. I’m yet to investigate using serial ports on my new PC, which luckily the motherboard has a header for. This is mainly for larger data transfers, with the initial software loaded on the target machine likely by floppy.

13
Jul
19

Epson EX 1000 Dot Matrix Printer

As is usual for this time of year I’ve come to my parents place for a visit. Some of our old computer hardware is still in storage here, some of which I’ve already documented. Today we’re going to take a quick look at our old printer, an Epson EX 1000.

We got this particular example with our first computer early in 1990, at the time I remember there being many dot matrix printers in service, but technologies such as inkjet and laser were emerging as better alternatives.

It was quite noisy when printing, and shook the computer desk which it sat on. We had the tractor feed option which allowed the use of continuous paper, which was handy when printing a large amount of text such as program code. It could print graphics, which we occasionally used, but with only the black and white ribbon the images weren’t of a high quality. I remember having a colour ribbon for ours, but never actually using it.

Looking inside we can see the print head, and the wire that is used to move it back and forth. Many other printers used rubber belts that would eventually perish, this arrangement lasts significantly longer and would continue to work even now. Although looking at the guide rails they would need polishing and lubricating before it could be used.

The printer has a small control panel to set the font and print quality manually. This could be controlled by software, I remember MS works would change these settings and allow for different fonts in the same document.

There is this curious slot with a connector which isn’t described in the manual. I assume it’s for additional buffer memory or perhaps for adding other type faces. There is an internal slot for connecting other types of interfaces such as IEEE-488, but on our printer this isn’t populated as we just used the standard parallel interface.

The tractor feed mechanism can be seen here, with some teeth that engaged with holes in the paper. Setting this up initially was a bit tricky, but saved constantly feeding in paper manually and gave you a wider printing area. You could feed in standard A4 sheets as well.

Dot matrix printers such as this one have many draw backs, such as being noisy and having lower quality print. However they stuck around partly because they were generally quite reliable and were very cheap on consumables. I remember a printer much like this one at my fathers old workplace hidden away under a sound proof hood continuously printing almost every day. This printer remained in service until we upgraded to a new PC and printer some seven years later.

 

27
Jun
19

Silly Knight for DOS

Today I’m looking at a small home brew game named Silly Knight made by Petr “AfBu” Kratina in 2017. It was made for a DOS game creation competition hosted at high-voltage.cz. It uses a special CGA text mode for drawing at 160×100 resolution with 16 colours by using code developed by Jason M. Knight originally for Paku Paku. The story and game are fairly simple: you’re a silly knight trying to make your way to the throne to become king, killing anything that gets in your way.

Whilst the graphics are blocky due to the low resolution they are quite well drawn and animated. The animations in particular are quite impressive as they move quite fluidly despite the large pixels. Sound support is PC speaker with some bleeps and bloops for player actions like jumping and picking up power ups. I’d say it would probably work on 286 class machines quite well, and perhaps be playable on 8Mhz 808x systems, but wouldn’t perform well on a 4.77Mhz machine.

The game controls are fairly simple, left and right for basic movement, space for attack and up to jump. The knight is fairly easy to control and goes where you expect him to. I’ve heard some people are critical of using up for jump, but I didn’t have any problem with it on this particular game.

Now what do those boots do?

The level design is good in much the same way the graphics are. It is limited by the technicalities of the game engine, but designed very well given those limitations. Basically there are a number of screens which you travel between by using doors. Each screen has some obstacles to overcome, such as bad guys or pitfalls. Generally the bad guys can be overcome with patience and your sword, but in sections that are more difficult you’ll probably die multiple times. Death just sends you back to the last check point with no other penalty, the check points are fairly common so you usually don’t have to travel far to try again.

One issue I did have was working out what the boots power-up gave me. It enables double jumping, which is necessary to escape where you pick them up. I looked up someones play-through on youtube to find out how to escape that area. I did feel pretty silly for not working it out on my own, but some kind of documentation or notification of what it was in game would have helped.

Other than me being a bit silly with the power-up, the only real criticism I have is the game is a bit short, I easily completed it in around half an hour. Granted it would need more features such as more bad guys if it were to be larger, and being short isn’t really necessarily a bad thing. It’s just I liked it enough I wanted to play more. This is totally worth a download, whilst I couldn’t find an official website for it, you can find it at the doshaven home brew website.

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17
Jun
19

My Old PC

Quite recently I bought myself a new Ryzen based PC as my main desktop rig. The machine it replaced is around 10 years old, whilst it’s definitely not vintage in any way it’s interesting to look back at the hardware. For some context I was working for a local IT company when I built this machine, and we were just starting to build the first i7 based machines. We were having issues with getting compatible RAM working with them, and we had to sink a significant amount of time getting the first ones to run well. This influenced my decision to go with an AMD based system at the time. Here’s a photo of the system.

It is built in an Antec Sonata Proto chassis as it came with a nice 500W power supply that we had experience with having reasonably good reliability. I removed the door as it was an annoyance when using the optical/floppy drives. I have two Pioneer DVD drives and a floppy drive which is unfortunately the wrong colour for my case. Lets take a look inside.

The CPU is an AMD Phenom II x4 955 which runs @ 3.2 Ghz. It’s not as fast as many of the early core i7 chips, but compared quite favourably in terms of performance per cost at the time. Surprisingly it actually continued to perform quite well for basically everything except newer games, it did manage to play World of Warships and Minecraft right up to its retirement. It’s installed in a Gigabyte MA490FX-UD5P which is a high durability design featuring solid capacitors, more copper and decent heat sinks for the VRM and chipset. These measures seem to have been effective given the longevity of this machine.

4Gb of Corsair 1333Mhz DDR3 memory was quite good when I first built this machine, but started to look a bit limiting later in its life. Upgrading this would have been a nice performance boost, but wasn’t really possible for me during it’s working life.

The GPU is an ATI Radeon 4850 HD made by Gigabyte. Again this was alright when everything was new, but it doesn’t perform well on newer software. I suspect it held the machine back the most when it came to running newer games, although it has proven to be quite reliable, something many other graphics cards can’t claim. Oddly the board seems to have drooped or bent during its life perhaps from the weight of the power cabling, that can’t be good for it, but it hasn’t failed.

Three 1TB hard disks make up the storage. The black WD1002FAEX stores the operating system and software installation as well as some of my data. Bulk data such as disk images and media are stored on the first of the two green WD10EADS drives, the second drive acts as a backup of the other two. Surprisingly I’ve never run out of space on these drives. The only reason to replace them is really the extremely high power-on hours count. In my chassis the drives are mounted using silicon vibration damping grommets.

Initially I had Windows XP installed on this machine, mostly as I wasn’t all that enamoured with Windows Vista and Windows 7 was a couple of months out. I used it in this software configuration for quite a long time, way past the end of XP’s life. As software like Firefox (and others) gradually dropped updates and support it became harder to use, so about half way through its life I installed Debian Linux on it. I was able to get most games and software I needed to work running. I retained the old win XP install (dual boot) so I could use anything that didn’t work, although in practice that was very infrequent.

This old PC certainly lived longer than most desktops, and I’m kinda sad to retire it despite my newer machine performing better in every measurable way. With a memory and graphic card update it would still make quite a usable machine today, but with my newer system I enjoy energy savings and higher performance that made the upgrade very worth while.

12
May
19

Paganitzu: Romancing the Rose for DOS

Whilst Apogee were better known for publishing action games they also had some puzzle games in their catalog. Todays game, Paganitzu is one of those puzzles games, having some features in common with Sokoban. I’m just playing the shareware episode, but you can still buy Paganitzu on steam or through the 3drealms website. It was originally released late 1991 and made by Keith Schuler.

The story of the game is fairly simple, it’s a continuation from the first game. Alabama Smith (totally not a rip-off of Indiana Jones) had gotten famous from his exploits in Chagunitzu. Now his fame is fading and he is busily researching a new pyramid to raid, that is Paganitzu. The game starts having just entered the pyramid.

The game is like Sokoban in that it is played on a grid of tiles with items you can push around to solve problems. Unlike Sokoban there are hazards in each level that will kill you if you’re not careful. Spiders move quickly, usually hugging either the left or right wall and snakes spit fire at you if they catch sight of you. Your task is to collect all the keys so you can move through the pyramid to accomplish the greater goal of the story. In some parts of the levels you will find hints, parts of the story, or little jokes that add a bit extra to the experience.

CGA and EGA graphics are supported, with EGA looking reasonably nice but CGA not looking so hot for some of the more detailed graphics. Animations are pretty good in general with the exception of the player or enemies moving. Each entity sort of jerks a whole tile at a time, some with no animation at all. I suspect this is because it’s a tile based game. PC speaker is the only sound device supported, with only a few bleeps and bloops for various events, it’s not annoying but is totally optional.

The controls use the normal cursor arrow keys on the keyboard, so the control layout is generally fine. However I’ve found that the game doesn’t buffer key presses and doesn’t always accept input when you’d hope. This left me sometimes mashing the keyboard trying to move as fast as I could, but actually moving significantly slower instead. This made some puzzles harder to finish than they needed to be.

The levels and progression are generally well done, although there are a few levels that are out of place because they are easier or harder than they should be for that point in the game. The shareware episode I played today is 20 levels long, although I wasn’t able to complete that set in the time frame I had to play. The two registered episodes each have slightly different mechanics and hazards, so are refreshingly different from the shareware portion.

Despite the control issues I managed to almost complete the shareware episode in roughly 2 hours, getting stuck on level 19. Only because I couldn’t move fast enough to escape the spider and block it in. I did for the most part enjoy playing Paganitzu, and I recommend it to people who enjoy puzzle games.

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09
Apr
19

Modern BASIC: PCBasic and QB64

Last month I had intended to make the next Sparcstation desktop post, but unfortunately have been having trouble getting the software I had intended to cover to build. So that’s still in the works and today we’re going to look at something else interesting: modern implementations of old BASIC Languages. It seems I’m not the only one that feels nostalgia for the old BASIC interpreters that were common to almost every machine. The two I’m looking at today are particularly nostalgic for me as I learned to program on the original interpreters.

The first, PC-BASIC is made by Rob Hagemans and is an extremely well polished GWBasic emulator. It seems to be 100% compatible as I’ve been able to run all of my old basic programs including ones that use graphics and sound. Here are some images of programs running.

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The graphics and sound are indeed very accurate compared to MS-DOS hardware and the original interpreter. There is good support for all the graphics modes including those from special machines such as the Tandy/PCjr and Olivetti machines that had special versions of the interpreter. The PC speaker is emulated quite well (better than under Dosbox) and support for Tandy 3-voice sound is included. I’m not sure if it was deliberate, but it seems that the processing speed on my laptop is similar to what I used to experience on our old 386sx back in the day.

The next program, QB64, is a new language designed to mimic QBasic and QuickBasic with extensions that provide access to modern graphics and sound libraries. It can build native executables for Linux, Windows and Mac OS, so it’s pretty impressive and capable of producing programs for modern systems. Here are some programs running.

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I tried to compile some of my old programs, from both GWBasic and Qbasic, and found some worked without modification whilst others didn’t work or required modification. I had some issues with the programs that did build, the first and most obvious is that the programs started in what is initially a very small window. Resizing the window doesn’t stretch the display, but pressing alt+enter does give a nice full screen display. The second issue is more complex and arises from the fact the programs are compiled and not interpreted. Basically they run way too fast because they are running at native speeds on modern hardware. This issue however should be fixable by modifying your programs with better timing code. Thirdly I’ve found one or two features from the old languages aren’t implemented, meaning some old programs won’t work, the Gorilla game that came with Qbasic being one.

An IDE is provided which looks almost identical to QBasic, so it’s very familiar and relatively easy to use. Auto indentation seems to fix old programs as they are loaded and parsed, and there is some very nice syntax highlighting, making even old programs much more readable. Although one negative point is the built-in help only covers items specific to QB64 and has omitted a language reference for the base QBasic language.

Given that we can run the original interpreters in Dosbox, how do these modern interpretations compare?

PC-BASIC is quite good in the compatibility department, working with basically everything I threw at it. The only real disadvantage it has is speed compared to running GWBasic in Dosbox, and the ability to change the emulation speed. On the other hand it has some features that appeared in real hardware, but aren’t emulated in Dosbox. (such as screen borders on CRTs) It also gives access to features found on special versions of GWBasic, such as the special Tandy graphics and sound that would be otherwise inaccessible on the standard interpreter. You can get this interpreter from his github website, I recommend using the development version as it is more compatible and has fewer bugs.

QB64 doesn’t fair so well with every older program, those that work do so quite well however. Many programs will work with a little modification, whilst others will require major re-working. I suspect the main benefit of QB64 is less about running old programs and more about building new programs. It features some extensions to the QBasic/QuickBasic language that allow more modern features of the operating system to be used such as 3d graphic acceleration and digital sound. You can get QB64 from their website, I used the stable version and found it worked quite well.

28
Feb
19

QB Debugger Heroes for DOS

I wasn’t sure whether I should include today’s game as a home brew as it’s creator, Gemini (Kris Asick), has produced commercial games. From the file date it was made sometime in November 2017. He made it using QBasic during a live stream, which is certainly interesting, unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be a recording to watch now.

QB Debugger Heroes is a fairly simple Robotron 2084 clone using text mode for graphics and lacking any sound effects. This is relatively common for games implemented using gwbasic or Qbasic languages as it makes development much faster, and whilst there are graphics commands they don’t generally perform well so aren’t suited for action games. Although it is technically possible. Whilst it’s just textmode style graphics, they are nice to look at and includes some basic animation that looks quite nice.

The game controls requires the numpad on your keyboard, so you won’t be playing on a laptop. It works kinda like the twin stick design of the arcade game, with two clusters of keys, one for movement and the other for directing your fire. However unlike a real joystick each keypress changes your movement and gun fire, but you continue moving and firing in that direction until you press a key to change it. This is partly because of limitations within Qbasic when reading input from the keyboard.

For best results I suggest using a modern machine with Dosbox to run it, as you’ll be able to adjust the speed as needed. 30,000 cycles was suggested and is about right for a faster more challenging play experience. If you’re playing on real hardware you’ll need a Pentium era machine to get a decent challenge. Older 286 and 386 machines will work, but it runs slower and will be significantly easier.

The game play has the main elements of Robotron, but is simplified and has some elements removed. Like the arcade game, enemies spawn in continuously (in short bursts) and you finish a wave when your destroy a set number of them. However it appears there are fewer enemy types and there aren’t any humans to rescue. This was to be expected as it was developed in a relatively small time frame, and additions such as those would have degraded the game speed. Difficulty ramps up with each wave mostly just by number of enemies present.

Obviously QB Debugger Heroes isn’t anything special as far as Robotron clones go, but it is a good example of what can be done fairly quickly with a language like QBasic. Gemini has managed to create a reasonably faithful Robotron clone that is polished in 6 hours, which in my book is pretty darn impressive. You can find a download for it on his website.

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