Archive for the 'Hardware' Category

24
Aug
17

Motherboard: Another unknown Socket 3

Today I’m looking at another 486 socket 3 motherboard that unfortunately I can’t identify. Unlike the last one, this one actually had it’s model number on the silk screen, but the OEM who put it into a machine has covered the silkscreen label with either white paint or white out so that it is unreadable. Obviously this is a massive pain as I have no chance of finding a manual for this board, which is needed because of the large number of jumpers. I suspect they didn’t want end users finding out that it was a low quality board. Here’s a photo.

Again it’s a later 486 board as it has PCI slots rather than VLB slots. Reading the date codes on the chips reveals it was made in mid 1995, around the same time as the other socket 3 I have. The chipset was made by UMC, which I’m unfamiliar with. After having done some forum lurking over at VOGONS and reading some of the Red Hill Guide, it seems that it’s a fairly common chipset found on a variety of boards. I can’t comment on the performance myself, but others have had success getting decent performance out of their chipsets.

There are very few integrated peripherals, it has an old school DIN keyboard connector and two IDE ports, but strangely no floppy disk controller, serial or parallel ports. This ultimately wouldn’t have saved much money for the end user as they’d have to use add in cards to replace the functionality. Weirdly the IDE ports each use different styles of socket, another sign of cheapness.

The cache chips and system ROM are all socketed, which is a good sign that the cache is probably not a fake. The EPROM unfortunately had the sticker missing, exposing the window for the UV erasable chip. I’ve since put my own sticker over the window to protect it.

In an effort to identify it, I decided to pull the ROM chip and read it in my TL866 universal programmer. I was hoping to find a string that had the model name in it directly,but after an extensive search I only found the BIOS version string, “2A4X5B05”, which was enough to identify the manufacturer as Biostar but not the model.

Another unfortunate feature of this board is this real time clock chip with integrated battery. The idea is great in theory, but results in an unusable board when the battery runs flat, which it has.  Some of these RTC chips had the option of an external battery, unfortunately this isn’t one of them, so the only option I have is to either replace the chip (it’s not socketed) or hack it open and attach an external battery. Unfortunately this board doesn’t even remember the settings through a warm reboot, preventing it from actually booting an OS.

Like many 486 boards much of the basic configuration is done with jumpers. This usually means looking them up in the manual, but this board does have the basic settings for voltage, FSB speed and L2 cache size. Still there are obviously many more jumpers that are undocumented on the board, so the manual would be really handy. Luckily the silk screen has enough information you could install a CPU and not make the magic smoke escape.

At the time this board was made it was fairly low end, and windows 95 was just around he corner. It would have probably performed ok with MS-DOS and Windows 3.1, but would have been inadequate for Windows 95 when it came out later the same year. Most 486 machines didn’t really perform well with windows 95 so that’s hardly a surprise. The lack of integrated peripherals is probably the worst point with this particular board, as you’ll need add-on cards even for basics such as a floppy drive and serial port (which you’ll need for a mouse). Otherwise it would have made a serviceable, but not powerful machine.

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01
Jun
17

SparcStation Desktop project.

Unfortunately I’ve been neglecting my poor old Sun hardware, mostly because of time and space constraints. I thought I’d try to go some way to correcting this by actually beginning the process of setting up the SparcStation 20 as a vintage desktop work station. I’d been planning on doing this for ages, as long ago as when I built the replacement server machine.

Hardware wise I’ve not acquired anything new, although everything needed a test and some basic cleaning to get it working. I’m still having issues, but I’m unsure if it’s an hardware fault or a problem with the software I’m installing. We’ll get to the software in a moment, first we’ll look at the hardware installed.

At the moment I have 3 CPUs in the machine. They are all V8 Supersparcs with two 50Mhz chips on one module and a 60Mhz one on a module on it’s own. Each module has 1Mb of cache memory which doesn’t sound like much now, but was a large amount when these machines first appeared.

Frame Buffer

Frame Buffer

I’ve currently got about 304Mb of memory installed, I had more but unfortunately one of the sticks that was in it fails to detect anymore. I’d like to have a VSIMM as that would allow me to use the built in cg14 frame buffer (graphics card) which is probably the best performing one available for machines of it’s type. I managed to purchase a 2Mb TGX+ frame buffer and adapter to connect it to a VGA screen, which is doing an odd resolution of 1152×900 at 8 bits per pixel. It’s obviously not the fastest, but it does the job. I’ve selected an 136Gb 10K RPM SCA drive for the hard disk, certainly a bit of overkill, but it would just be sitting on my shelf otherwise.

The initial issue I had was stack under run errors after the boot screen came up and the machine attempted to boot. My first instinct was of course failed memory, which lead me to find the undetected memory module. But no matter which memory I ran I had the same problem. After some poking into the system environment (kinda like the BIOS settings in the PC but without the nice interface.) I found some items that were not at their defaults and changing them back seems to have fixed the stack under run.

Dual CPU MBUS module

Dual CPU MBUS module

Unfortunately that’s not the end of the issues, as after installing and running NetBSD for a while the machine will hang, reset or have a watchdog timer trigger. This certainly could be faulty RAM, but the power supply is also a potential suspect as is the operating system itself. I need to follow this up with some more testing, unfortunately I don’t have a spare PSU to test with.

Software wise I’m much more prepared and have had much more success. I’ve been using Qemu, which does full-system emulation for a number of old and different platforms, including Sparc systems. Qemu has been useful for building packages and the kernel specifically for my machine. Something I had done ages ago when I first intended to do the install.

At the time I built for NetBSD 6.1.4 which is the OS I’ve installed and tried out on the machine. It’s out of date by quite some margin now, so I’ve set up a new virtual machine to start work on getting 7.1 packages and kernel built. It has a bunch of improved hardware support, particularly in the frame buffer acceleration, so I’m keen to see how it goes. I’m still building packages I want for it, but I’m happy with 7.1 under qemu so far. I’m hoping the improved hardware support helps with the hang/watch dog/reset issues.

When it’s all done, I’ll post about what it’s like to use the machine for specific tasks, like say browsing the web and checking email.

05
Apr
17

Motherboard: Aopen AX34-U

I’ve been rather busy of late, and it’s been raining here in buckets, so finding the time for photographing a board has been tricky. In any case I had some time today and have found a socket 370 board made by Aopen.

I wasn’t able to decipher the date of manufacture from any of the date codes on the board, but it’s almost certainly made around the early 2000’s. It supports the Tualatin and Coppermine cores of the Pentiun III and Celeron chips. The Coppermine ones had a reputation of being quite good at over-clocking at the time.

Looking at the board as a whole the layout is pretty standard for the time, although I’m puzzled as to why the AMR slot is right next to the AGP slot. I’ve never seen an AMR card in the wild, probably because they were pretty poor software modems. On this board it occupies what would be a prime spot for a PCI slot, which I’d much rather have.

You’ll also note it still has a legacy ISA slot, something which disappeared from consumer hardware in a few short years around the time this board was made. ISA slots stuck around for a surprisingly long time, partly due to the amount of hardware that was made for it. It was used for many unusual cards some for controlling industrial machines. I have one somewhere that was used as a lighting controller for dance floor lighting in a pub. Machines made for industrial conditions kept the ISA slot for much longer.

Unfortunately this board seems to have suffered leaky caps, a common cause of failure for many electronics. One has coated a surrounding chip with it’s goo. This kind of problem can be repaired, but it isn’t usually done because of the time or cost involved if you pay someone to do it. If you have the time, patience and skill you can clean up the goo and replace the caps, often restoring the device to functionality. I’m not confident I can repair this yet, as my soldering skills are pretty much hobbyist level. It’s easy to damage a board like this as it has very fine traces and small pads designed for machine assembly.

Performance wise this would have been quite a nice piece of kit. It has a VIA Apollo Pro 133T chipset which was a reasonable performer as well as being cheaper than alternatives. It had room for 1.5Gb of RAM providing you used the expensive-at-the-time 512Mb modules. With only 3 SDRAM slots you couldn’t use many of the cheaper sticks to make up the difference, but few people were going for more than 0.5Gb of RAM at the time.

From a technicians point of view it’s fine in terms of specs, but the board silk-screen isn’t as helpful as others when connecting the front panel and setting jumpers. The front panel is marked, but isn’t real easy to read, which can be worse in the tight confines of a case. Luckily there aren’t too many jumpers as software controls much of the settings, most of the jumpers you won’t need to touch with perhaps the exception of the one that sets the FSB speed. The manual is also still available if you need further help.

As an end user this would have been quite a good buy, it has most things you need integrated (except NIC) and has a decent chipset with support for a decent range of configurations. You could build either a cheap and cheerful machine, or something with pretty good performance with a board like this one.

 

02
Nov
16

Campbell Scientific C20 Cassette interface

Today we’ve got something unusual, a RS-232 Cassette interface made by Campbell Scientific. They seem to have always been specialised in making data logger and acquisition system. I can’t be sure, but I think this device was used for storing digital data on audio cassette, a common media of the time. Micro computers of the time did this as well, but usually had this function built in. It’s likely that this would have been used with machines that didn’t have that capability natively, like a PC or perhaps some scientific equipment that can speak RS-232.

It’s built in a very sturdy and quite large metal enclosure. It feels very well made, the few switches on it (including the small DIP switches) feel like quality components that have held up quite well.

The enclosure probably could have been smaller, but here you can see it probably wasn’t specific to this one device. The card cage only houses two cards here, but could have had 5 which would have been enough room for something more complicated.

Here is the processor board, it has a Z80 CPU which would be running at 4Mhz. Around it are mostly simple logic chips in the 74 series, but directly bellow the CPU are two 2k word x 8bit SRAM chips as well as the EPROM. Interestingly the SRAM chips (CDM6116AE3) were used in the memory expansion socket on the MPF-1, I may be able to use one of these to expand my unit. Handily every chip is socketed, so repair (or salvage) is significantly easier. The board appears to have been designed by hand, as you can see many of the traces are quite curvy, it’s clear a great deal of care went into its design.

The front panel board has very similar construction, everything in sockets and hand designed PCB. All the input and output circuitry is on this board and includes a Z80 serial IO chip and two CTC (counter timer circuit) chips. Given that this is a tape interface there is a distinct lack of DAC or ADC chips, most of the smaller chips are 74 series logic, a couple of opamps and serial line drivers and receivers. I suppose other machines (like the ZX spectrum) didn’t have those chips for storing digital information on tape, so they probably use a similar technique. It does make it clear that analogue or audio data is not supported by this device.

I’m a bit conflicted about what I’ll do with this particular device, the collector in me says keep it, but I don’t have a lot of space or use for it. I may end up just keeping the boards for parts, as they are all fairly usable chips with data sheets available.

 

15
Sep
16

Motherboard: ASUS P4S800 MX SE

Today is another of my more modern mother boards, the ASUS P4S800. It was made late 2003, roughly half way through the life of the Pentium 4, which was starting to look old compared to the new AMD Athlon 64 processors that were released that year. This board is clearly designed for the cost conscious but still has an impressive feature set. Here’s an overview of the board.

My particular example has had a custom heat sink clip fitted, likely for a custom heat sink made for increased heat dissipation. That’s a little strange as it was later P4 processors that were known for using lots of energy and running hot. Unfortunately the clip is broken, but could be replaced with an original clip to get the board working.

CPU support includes 800Mhz FSB processors such as the Northwood, Williamette and Prescott cores. If you had a newer operating system such as Windows XP or Linux you could also take advantage of Hyper threading which essentially takes unused resources in a core and makes them available for use as a secondary logical core. To the casual user it looks like you get two cores for the price of one, however, if the primary core needs more of the processing resources the second one can get slowed down significantly as it gets starved of resources. It could also cause problems with the cache as both logical processors shared it and it consumed more power adding to the heat problems.

There is support for DDR400 which is as fast as that memory standard went. It does not support running the memory in a dual channel configuration, likely because there is only a single memory channel. Having only two memory slots is probably the most limiting part of this board as it would have meant a practical maximum of 1GB of for most users.

The chip set was made by SiS, which was known for making more of the budget parts. By this stage they had managed to sort out the driver and software problems that plagued earlier chip sets, so you can expect reliability from a board like this one. The chip set integrated graphics would have been ok for basic desktop use, but completely inadequate for much else. Luckily there is an AGP slot for adding your own GPU.

The P4S800 has quite a few integrated peripherals such as USB 2.0, SATA, LAN and audio. For a small form factor board this was basically necessary as there is little room for expansion slots in many mATX chassis which sometimes also require low profile expansion cards. It also has quite a number of useful legacy ports such as RS-232, parallel, and joystick ports (with a header).

img_2536Looking closely at the CPU voltage regulation there are a number of parts not populated on the board. The missing parts are filter capacitors and power transitors/MOSFETs. It’s not really a problem unless your processor requires lots of power. I wouldn’t put a Prescott core P4 processor in this board for this reason, as they have a much higher power demand.  It might work (or not), but would almost certainly shorten the life of the board.

Working on this board is fairly easy, almost all the jumpers are labeled quite well, and the front panel section is colour coded as well. Auto detection and software configuration (in the BIOS) take care of most configuration like modern motherboards. The only reason you would need the manual is to check the compatibility lists within for memory and CPU. Most of the integrated components are either integrated into the chip set or are Realtek devices, both of which are easy to get drivers for.

For the end user this board is very similar to the Aopen P4 board I’ve looked at before, only a little newer and faster. It probably wouldn’t suite someone looking for high performance, and may be have limited expandability depending on the chassis it is installed in. For general office/internet use it would probably have done the job, and would have been reasonably reliable providing the power regulator isn’t overly stressed.

29
Jul
16

The Remains of an Epson and Reply Corp PC.

Whilst I was on holiday at my parents place I did some photography of old hardware I  have. I got out the remains of two currently dead PCs, one an Epson PC AX2 and another, a Reply Corp machine.

The first machine was made by a company called Reply Corporation (or Reply Corp for short). Interestingly there is absolutely no information available about the company online, almost as if they had never existed. I did manage to find a few machine reviews within the Google books archive of some PC magazines, but other than that nothing really. There was a segment or two featuring them in the Computer Chronicles (an old American TV Show) but I couldn’t find the particular episode.

As far as I could tell Reply Corp started out making PC cards for Macintosh machines. These cards brought PC compatibility in a limited degree to Apple machines so that popular software like Lotus 1-2-3 could be used. It seems that somewhere along the line they started making their own clone machines. They were one of the few third party manufacturers to actually purchase the rights and make MCA (mirco-channel architecture) machines. With MCA failing in the market and PC cards being a very niche product, it’s no surprise that Reply Corp disappeared into obscurity.

The machine I have is one of the MCA machines, a model 16 with a 486dx 33Mhz chip, note I’ve stripped out the drives and power supply for use else where. Unlike the IBM MCA machines it doesn’t use a fancy modular and tool-less design, instead opting for more standard mounts for the drives and power supply. This made it easier to replace these components without having to buy proprietary ones like those in the relevant IBM machines. Note the CPU is mounted on a module, we’ll take a closer look.

Here’s the CPU module up close. At the time PCs generally had either the CPU soldered onto the board, a standard chip socket (DIP/PLCC for the 286) or an old style LIF (low insertion force) for the 386 and earlier 486 machines. These solutions made upgrading a CPU a difficult task, if not impossible. Reply addressed this by using an easily replaced module, something quite unique amongst IBM PC compatibles of the time. This particular module has a 486dx chip rated for 33Mhz, but when it was running the BIOS reported it as a 486SX @ 25 Mhz, so I wonder if this is the original chip. The oscillator on the board is 50Mhz, which would indicate the module was made to run at 25Mhz (the oscillator frequency is usually halved).

The motherboard has a Chips and Technologies chip set along with a relatively thick layer of dust. It has on-board VGA graphics and unusually 2 25-pin serial ports and 2 parallel ports. Chips was never known for high performance, but they are usually quite compatible. They may have been one of the few to make a third party MCA chipset.

We got the machine originally as a replacement for our aging 386sx, it served us well for playing MS-DOS games for quite a few years. I believe it may have been ex-government as it had a SCSI hard disk and controller as well as a token ring network card. It has an unfortunate annoyance of requiring a setup boot disk to configure the BIOS settings much like IBM machines did. Unfortunately there doesn’t appear any way to get a disk now. The board has since failed, giving a BIOS beep code indicating a parity error. I’ve tried resuscitating it to no avail.

The second machine is an Epson PC AX2, which is essentially a pretty bog standard clone 286 running at 12 Mhz. My uncle gave it to my Dad for some reason, and it was basically dead upon arrival as it was already missing its power supply.

The insides of this machine are looking bare among our reading material on the table. I had stripped out the I/O cards it had some time ago. It had a MFM hard disk controller, an EGA card and a floppy controller. It doesn’t have much integration on the board despite the number of chips, basically only a keyboard port is provided.

It has a AMD made 286 running at 12Mhz. You may notice it has the Intel copyright on it, this is because AMD was a second source manufacturer of the 286 (and other earlier processors) to ensure availability of the parts. This would be the last processor that AMD would second source for Intel, as they stopped co-operating before the release of the 386.

This machine has a module as well, even mounted and connected in a similar fashion. The difference is this module appears to be for the main memory and ROM for the machine. It’s an odd design choice, but perhaps the ROM and memory design were shared across models and designs of Epson machines. This would not be an upgradable module, memory upgrades often came in expansion cards for the ISA bus.

These three chips seem to confirm what I had seen online, that this model was originally released sometime in 1986. What’s interesting is the date code for these chips indicates the 23rd week of 1989, which would have made this machine quite obsolete at the time of manufacture. I’m surprised they didn’t upgrade the design to 16 or 20Mhz as they were common speeds for the 286. The three chips are almost certainly the base mother board components such as interrupt, timer and DMA controllers.

IMG_2530Here is the reason I can’t run this machine currently. It has a power connector with an unknown pin-out, and with the original power supply missing I don’t have much chance unless there is some documentation around. This is unfortunately common for earlier PCs as standards hadn’t been formed yet.

I’ve been keeping both these old machines in the hope that one day I might find or work out the information needed to get them to work again. They’ve unfortunately languished under a table in my room at my parents place collecting dust, I hope they’ve at least been somewhat interesting to look at today, as they aren’t much use as they are.

07
Jun
16

Storage room finds – part 2

A few weeks ago I salvaged some equipment from a room clean-out, see the first post to see all the ISA bus parts and loose chips. Today we’ll be looking at the PCI cards, which are unsurprisingly all Adaptec parts. They are different from the older parts from last time in a few ways, firstly their construction is radically different because they use mostly surface mount components. They have fewer component counts with much much more integration on ASIC chips instead of off-the-shelf parts. Finally, Adaptec typically made some of the better SCSI cards with more processing done on the card rather than the host machine, this meant more CPU for applications and higher data through-put.

The first card here is an AHA-3940uw. This card was available for UltraSPARC systems as well as PCs. It doesn’t have RAID capabilities, but will do DMA transfers with-out CPU intervention to save processing on the host.  It requires the host system meet PCI specification 2.1 and that PCI-to-PCI bridges work on the host chip-set. I believe that this is because the middle chip is such a bridge and the chips on each side manage one channel each. The bridge chip appears to be manufactured by DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation also known as Digital for short) which is interesting as they weren’t really in the expansion card market.

This card appears to be from the late 90’s, it even still has MS-DOS support even though that wasn’t relevant at the time.

Here we have an ASC-29160 a 64bit PCI-X card from around 2000. PCI-X allowed for faster transfers to and from the card, which could have made quite a difference. Cards such as these could have something like 15-30 devices connected at maximum, although many fewer in practice (due to physical limitations of having that many HDDs). Many hard drives could easily generate more data than the standard PCI bus could handle (133MB/s) thus making the bus a bottle neck in the data flow.

The PCI-X standard can achieve twice the speed of PCI if running at the standard 33Mhz, but can get much faster with higher clock speeds that were offered. The most common speeds you’ll find are 33Mhz, 66Mhz and 133Mhz, but higher speeds were developed although not widely used.

This is a AHA-3940AUW which is essentially a redesign of the first card. It offers the same number of ports (at the same speed) plus a legacy SCSI connector all from the one integrated chip. It seems from the date codes that it was manufactured about a year later, so it’s probably just an incremental improvement (perhaps just for cost).

Adaptec also made lower end cards, here’s an example of one, an AVA-2906. It was made roughly mid 1999, but only supports the older SCSI standards at much lower speeds (10MB/s). It could have been used in the consumer market for scanners and early CD burners, both devices with lower bandwidth requirements. Whilst not being any faster than the ISA cards from last time, it would most certainly have cost significantly less.

Lastly here is a AHA 2940UW, which is basically just a scaled down version of the 3940 cards shown earlier. Whilst it’s not remarkable, it is a handy card as it supports most of the SCSI standards without being complicated or expensive.

That’s all the PCI SCSI cards that were saved, I did note a few things about them collectively as a group. Firstly most of these cards appear to be similar in both age and features, and they are all Adaptec cards. This was a common practice for a few reasons,  mostly ease of replacement (and fewer spares required) and less hassle when commissioning new equipment. It can save lots of time.

I’ve used Adaptec cards frequently specifically for their RAID feature, none of the cards here have this feature. The original machines mustn’t have needed either the additional space, speed or redundancy that RAID affords, as most of the cards featured also came in a version that supported RAID, but would have been more expensive.




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