Archive for the ‘New entries to my collection’ Category

Pick-Master – A Soviet Spectrum Clone?

May 10, 2018

From time to time I like to acquire computers that a so obscure that the Internet cannot tell you what they are. You have to get physical access and examine them (and then describe them for the Internet :-).

Update: I found out more about this computer. See the reveal at the end.

So I bought an allegedly “Soviet Spectrum Clone” from Ebay called “Pick-Master”.

top

The (rattly but) real keyboard is all-latin and has the original Spectrum key settings on some of the keys (even if the “J.J.” and “J.F.” keys seem quite strange). The grey metal top plate proudly tells you this is a “ZX-Spectrum original system” with a Z-80A CPU, Basic, and 48 kB RAM, and that it “run(s) with any tape recorder and TV set”. Compared to an original ZX Spectrum, the case is huge.

bottom

The bottom is boring, but has a paper sticker that seems to bear a serial number “00243”.

serialnumber

The bottom features two fold-out legs, ok, that’s nice.

The back

back

has 4 interfaces, all marked in latin:

interfaces

RGB seems clear, JOY is probably joystick, DC5V seems clear enough. “TYPE” though: very strange. Maybe a typewriter interface? Now, the elephant in the room, of course, are connectors. I never saw these types of connectors. Each one has 8 pins.

So, this was the situation before I bought the thing. Google knows nothing at all about a “Pick-Master”. There is no photo that ressembles this thing. I am excited allthough I know that the number of Eastern Block spectrum clones are legion, that I cannot read kyrillic and that there are currently not enough resources in English on this topic.

Ok, what can we tell from the inside of our computer? This is our computer opened:

topopen

Now it is clear why the computer is so large: the functional parts are ordered around the keyboard, not underneath.

The build quality is good, the parts look hand-soldered. No helpful markings on the board. The keyboard baseplate is probably not designed for this model, it looks as if it has space for an additional row of function keys on the top and as if it was cut at the top right corner in order to give space to some components on this PCB.

Here is a picture from the interesting part of the PCB:

pcbdetail.jpg

We find:

  • the CPU: a (Z)80A MME9212. This is a Soviet version of the Zilog Z80A. MME might hint to being manufactured in Erfurt, GDR (i.e. at that time East-Germany). This seems to be an “export version” whatever that means. Maybe exported to the Soviet Union.
  • 8 * KP565PY5 64 kbit chips
  • KA1515XM1: a Russian ULA chip
  • KP563PE2: PROM 32kx8 (maybe 32 kB?)

Ok, so this is definitively a Soviet Block Spectrum. Maybe designed to be exported to the West because the top is so much advertising the machine.

In every case a very, very rare machine, and an interesting one, too.

Update: Thanks to a very resourceful native Russian speaker (Hi, Anastasiia!) we found out more about this machine. Spoiler alert: it is still very rare and this variant is not yet described. So, what do we have here?

According to http://zxbyte.ru/pik.htm, this is basically a Soviet “Peak” computer, made by the “Terminal” (Терминал) company in Vinnitsa, Ukraine. If you are as able to read Russian as I am, here is the Google Translate link: https://translate.google.de/translate?hl=de&sl=ru&tl=en&u=http%3A%2F%2Fzxbyte.ru%2Fpik.htm

The Russian model name is “Пик”, which translates to “peak”. The manufacturer was known “in the whole (Sovjet) Union” for its – terminals (hence the imaginative company name). So, still an industrial manufacturer 🙂

According to the above web page it has a Kempston joystick interface (which is to be expected). The “TYPE” interface I was wondering about is a – tape interface. Maybe a translation typo? The connectors are all the same, so there is the danger that you put e.g. the power cable into the joystick interface, ugh…

The ROM seems to contain a Sowjet standard image of the Spectrum software from Didaktik Skalica, copyrighted 1989. It was used also in other Sowjet Spectrum clones. The model itself seems to be made around 1992.

Now the best part: if you compare the pictures of the computer on the Russian page with mine you can see:

  • the Russian version has the model name and the “advertisment text” in Russian, mine in English – so I seem to have really some sort of meant-for-the-export-to-the-West version. Whether a Spectrum clone could still be sold in the West in 1992 is very questionable, 10 years after its introduction. The model name on my version is “PiCK-MASTER”. Maybe a play on words with the original PIK name…
  • the Russian version has a socketed Goldstar Z80A in a plastic case. My version has an soldered Sovjet Z80A copy in a ceramic case.
  • My version has a small daughter PCB in the top right corner which does not exist in the Russian model. I have no clue on the function of this “patch”.
  • The Russian model has the serial number 168, mine has 243. I have no clue what this means.
  • Either my version was earlier (and they have a different serial number range for both models). They started by trying to market these to Western markets, did not come far, and switched back to the domestic market. As they could not get Sovjet Z80A clones any longer, they switched to Western versions. They found some problem, made a patch PCB and added that into the machine, and in later versions, they changed the main PCB and incorporated the patch on the mainboard. Or, my version was later (maybe the serial number range was consecutive), they added some hardware in order to cope with e.g. Western TV sets (therefore the patch PCB). The Goldstar CPU could have been a replacement to the original CPU at a later date.

All in all, I am very pleased. Thanks to Anastasiia, I could find out who made this computer and when. It is an unknown export variant of a very rare Sovjet Spectrum clone. And, I agree to the author of the Russian page on the Peak, “one of the most beautiful clones of the Spectrum“.

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GRiD “Convertible” Model 2270

April 29, 2018

closed

GRiD was a legendary company that existed from 1979. In 1988 it was purchased by Tandy Corporation, whose computer manufacturing division in turn was then bought by AST Research in 1993, which in turn was bought by Samsung in 1996. It was always a company that targeted not the mass market, but niche markets where the price of a product was less important than the technical features. As a result, GRiD had e.g.

  • the firstclamshell-design portable computer (GRiD COMPASS, 1982)
  • use of the Intel 8086 and 8087 floating-point co-processor in
  • a commercial productnotebook that had a built
  • in hard drive (GRiDCASE 12xx, 1984)pen-based tablet computer (GRiDP
  • AD 1900, 1989)portable to have a built-in pointing device (GRiDCASE 1550sx, 1990)

GRiD mainly sold solid computers to audiences with special needs, e.g. the military, or NASA.

open.jpg
Another one of their “firsts” was the first convertible computer, i.e. a model that could be used as a tablet and as a notebook computer: the two models 2260 and 2270 from 1992.

Except in the recent time there weren’t that many convertibles out there because a convertible needs a market demand for a tablet computer that then also shall be used as a notebook as writing text a lot is a pain on a tablet. Pen-based tablets were a hot topic in the first half of the 1990s. Afterwards, pen computing by and large vanished from the list of hype topics (with the notable exception of pen-based PDAs from 1996 to the early 2000s). Only with the (re-)advent of touchscreen-based User Interfaces by Apple’s iPhone from 2007, tablets re-appeared from 2009, this time without needing a pen. With the new interests in tablet computers, also convertibles re-appeared on the market.

Back to the GRiD 2270. In 1992, GRiD presented the convertible computer in two models (2660, 2670) that differed only internally. Both models were PCs that offered both a tablet mode using a Wacom pen subsystem and a notebook mode with a compact, but full-fledged keyboard. Both models had a 9.5″ 64 gray levels VGA LCD, a built-in HDD, and 4 MB of RAM. An external FDD could be connected to the parallel port. The 2260 used a 80386SL processor running at 25 MHz, the 2270 a 80486SL processor running also at 25 MHz.

There is a whole slough of names under which the two models are known. To the best of my research, these are officially the GRiD Model 2260 and 2270, respectively. My (German) manual to the 2270 has the title “GRiD Convertible GT” on the front. The Internet knows them also under the aliases “GRiDPAD 2260”, “GRiDPAD Convertible 2260”, and “GRiD Convertible 2260”. As AST models, they were known under the designation AST PenExec 3/25SL and 4/25SL, respectively.

battery.jpg

There were two battery options, a small one and a big one. The batteries were NiCad and there are two peculiarities about it. First, you can load the battery directly from the PSU without a need for the computer as the battery has the power interface. As a consequence, you cannot power the computer without the battery because the computer does not have another power interface.

batteryempty.jpg

Second, the battery hangs on two metal heads from the computer. To connect the battery, after putting the battery on the heads, you move the battery to the right where a peg goes into a hole.

batteryopen.jpg

The peg is then secured by a flap that needs to be pressed down.

batteryclosed.jpg

That’s a quite special arrangement. Especially as the big battery that I have cannot hand freely from the computer, but is some millimeters thicker than the computer case. As a consequence, when placing the computer on a flat surface, the battery raises away from the heads and looks awkward. Probably, the smaller battery fits better onto the case.

penholder.jpg

The system has the typical WACOM pen, and the usual problems finding a space at the device for storing it. Their solution was a somewhat flimsy pen holder in a niche on the right lower part. This solution is not ideal, so in order to fix it, there is an accessory which consists of a string attached to a cap which can be put on top of the pen. The other side of the string is to be attached in a hole that exists for that purpose in the case.

manualpens.jpg

As you might or might not know, I’m rather interested in the PenPoint operating system. This machine falls right into the time period where it could run PenPoint, and there are contemporary GRiD models that were delivered with it, so the question is, was there a PenPoint for the 2260/2270 models? Well, I do not know for sure, but it seems not (according to Dr. Google…). However, there is a mention of a “2260 MIL for PenPoint” file in [http://www.sandyflat.net/digerati/ast486/drivers/grid/index.htm], so maybe PenPoint was initially targeted. We will never know. The hardware, however, could have been easily used, even if the screen in keyboard mode was oriented in landscape, not portrait mode.

Technical Data

Manufacturer: GRiD Systems (AST Research)
Model: 2270
Introduced in: 1992
Initial price: $2995
CPU: Intel 80486SL@25 MHz
RAM: 4 MB (up to 20 MB)
HDD: 80 MB or 120 MB
OS: MS-DOS 6.0, Windows 3.1
Screen: 9.5″, 640×480, black and white, LCD, 64 gray levels
Battery: NiCad, 2.3 Ah, 9.6V, 0.6 Kg (this might be the larger one)
Interfaces: serial, parallel (also used for external FDD), VGA, 1 Type 1 PCMCIA
Weight: 2.1 kg without battery

References

Digital Equipment (DEC) VK100 “GIGI”

April 8, 2018

gigiThe Digital Equipment VK100 or „GIGI“ (General Imaging Generator and Interpreter) seems to be one of DECs approaches of creating an “intelligent” graphics terminal that is capable of processing complex graphic commands. It is not only the device for which the ReGIS system was developed, it even contained a Basic interpreter whose programs could be loaded, saved, and executed via the serial connection from the host computer. It used 8-color bitmap graphics and was based on the Intel 8085 processor. It offered a VT-52 and (some sort of) a VT-100 mode. It connected to an external Barco GD33 RGB monitor.

ReGIS, short for Remote Graphic Instruction Set, was a vector graphics markup language developed by Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). ReGIS supported rudimentary vector graphics consisting of lines, circular arcs, and similar shapes. Terminals supporting ReGIS generally allowed graphics and text to be mixed on-screen, which made construction of graphs and charts relatively easy.

One thing very nice about the machine is that there is a complete set of extensive manuals available electronically.

The GIGI Basic Handbook tells us the following:

“BASIC is provided as a tool to be used in making GIGI an intelligent terminal. For this reason, only a limited amount of user memory is provided with GIGI. It is therefore recommended that applications and instructional programming be done on the host computer as there is no guarantee of source language transportability between the BASIC in this version of GIGI and that provided in the future”. Now that’s a statement you will read rarely in any manual. Basic programs can have a length up to 7.8 kB.

It also tells us of two Basic modes in GIGI:
“One mode is called local BASIC. In local BASIC mode, the terminal user is in control of the GIGI BASIC system; […] The other mode is host BASIC. in host BASIC mode, the host computer is in control of the GIGI BASIC system; commands and programs come from the host computer, and all input and output default to the host computer.”
In other words: the local Basic mode is the one we know from any other computer, and the host Basic mode gets its instructions from the serial interfaces and write its output to the serial interface.

From a collector’s point of view, the VK100 is somewhat of a conundrum. On the one side it’s only a terminal and has no mass memory interfaces. Therefore, there is also no software for it. On the other hand it’s a full-blown computer with 32 kB of RAM (16kB of which are used for graphics!) and even Basic. It connects to a high-quality monitor and is one of the earliest examples of a terminal that is intended to execute code sent by a server. It is extremely rare and virtually unknown.

Technical Data

Manufacturer: Digital Equipment (DEC)
Model: VK100 (GIGI)
Introduced in: 1982
Initial price: $1500
CPU: Intel 8085A@ 3(?)MHz
RAM: 32 kB (16 kB System RAM, 16 kB Video RAM)
ROM: 28 kB (26kB are used)
Text Modes: 84×24, 42×24
Resolution: 768×240, 8 colors
Interfaces: RS-232C, 20 mA current loop, composite video, printer
Weight: 5.7 kg

References

 

Amper Exeltel VX

January 1, 2018

Exelvisions EXL 100 and Exeltel are some of the most interesting under-appreciated home computers of the 80s. This under-appreciation stems partially from the fact that they were available basically in only one country (France) and that they had stronger competition (Thomson) in this market. And, of course, that also had all the ingredients of computer models that often appear in this blog: from a consumer point of view they were neither price-wise nor feature-wise appealing.

The story starts with former employees of Texas Instruments France who take a lot of the technologies developed there for the TI CC-40 and build a home computer around it: the EXL 100 from 1984. The features that owe to this heritage are:

  • the CPU (a TMS 7020)
    As far as I can tell this is and the CC-40 (which uses a CMOS version) are the only computers with this CPU.
  • the speech synthesizer and sound chip
  • the infrared connection between keyboard, game controllers, and main unit
  • the graphics chip
  • the Basic (although in an improved form)

The system is highly modular, with detached keyboard and game controllers, the Basic is on a cartridge. Therefore, the ROM is with 4 kB very small.

The next (and last) model of the family is the Exeltel from 1986. As the name indicates, this model is all about communication (i.e. the communication that was broadly available around this time frame: telephone-line-based things). The main difference to the EXL 100 is the now integrated V.23 modem using, of course, a TI chip (1200/75 bps, it was an accessory for the EXL 100). Smaller differences are the upgraded CPU (now a TMS 7040 (this is the only computer with this CPU)), the possibility to connect a (better) keyboard, more RAM, and much more ROM (82 kB). The ROM still does not include the Basic, but a program that allows to exchange files between Exeltels via the modem, an answering machine feature (in some versions, uses an attached cassette recorder), a speech synthesizer program, some educational programming language, and some windowing support. Exeltels also come with 16 kB RAM module bundled with them.

From now on, newer models differ only in ROM content, not in hardware.

The Exeltel VS renders the Exeltel into a Prestel terminal supporting the French Prestel standard, Minitel. For our younger audience I have to explain what Prestel, Minitel, BTX, etc. actually is. You see, kids, before the Internet took off widely, in Europe people thought it would be a good idea to have some sort of cloud network on some central computers that ordinary people can use by small computers and telephone modems, possibly connected to TVs. The computers would be so small (and cheap) that they were not expected to execute programs, but to display pages with text and pseudo graphics as well as forms that could then be send back to the cloud. Using this simple system, users could use electronic telephone books, send messages to each other or do Electronic Banking. For a limited amount of time (say, 1983 to 1993) this was very popular, also because it was by and large the only alternative and because it was offered by the national telephone companies. The first of these systems was Prestel in the UK. Later on, Minitel in France, and BTX in Germany offered similar systems. The systems were roughly the same, but were not standardized completely (although some partial standards were used).

The Exeltel VS is said to have bundled also a connector module that offers a serial and a parallel interfaces as well as a mouse interface.

The next model is the Exeltel VX, which is an Exeltel VS, but with multi-norm Prestel support, namely for:

  • CEPT 1 systems like BTX (Germany, Austria) and VTX (Switzerland)
  • CEPT 2 systems like Minitel (France)
  • CEPT 3 systems like Prestel (UK, Australia)
  • Ibertex (Spain)
  • Mistel (Belgium)

Now, you might think, ok, so this is your model, right? Are we done? Well, the answer is: not yet. You see, I got an *Amper” Exeltel VX. So, what’s the difference?

Well, Exelvision wanted to expand into other European markets, in this case the Spanish market. Therefore, they partnered with the Spanish telecommunication manufacturer Amper, owned by the national Spanish telco, Telefonica. The firmware is translated into Spanish, even the speech synthesizer is fitted with a new software version that can output Spanish sentences. Also software is translated into Spanish (in the end about 50% of all titles are also available in Spanish). The Amper Exeltel is sold exclusively via the Spanish “El Cortes Ingles” chain of shops. Apart from giving its name Amper is not involved too much in the lifecycle of the devices, however, they do Quality Assurance for the Spanish models and also After Sales Service.

The Spanish market in the 80s has a funny peculiarity: If you import a computer into Spain with 64 kB RAM or less, you have to pay some hefty additional fee (like 90 Euros). Therefore, there exist models like the Amstrad CPC 472 which has an additional 8 kB RAM soldered on the PCB that is non-functional. Exelvision solves this problem (as it has nominally only 2 kB RAM) by bundling a battery-buffered 64 kB RAMdisk module with the Amper Exeltel.

As in Spain, Prestel is not widely used for a long time (until this changes in 1992), the Amper Exeltel is not a success. Especially as Exelvision closes down for good in 1991.

Technical Data

Manufacturer: Amper
Model: Exeltel VX
Introduced in: 1986
CPU: TMS 7040@4.9 MHz
RAM: 66 kB + 64 kB Ramdisk
ROM: 38 kB
Text Mode: 24 x 40
Resolution: 320 x 200, 8 colors
Interfaces: cartridge slot, exelmémoire slot, expansion slot, tape-recorder, keyboard, IR, power, telephone line, RGB video output

References

http://www.ti99.com/exelvision/website/
The premier resource (in French). Most of the information in this entry were taken (and translated) from that site.

NCR 3125 under PenPoint

December 3, 2017

Yesss, finally. After having a presentation on GO and PenPoint and a booth on “A short history of Mobile Computing” at VCFB 2017 (I’ll soon report on both) with a NCR 3125 and an EO 440 but no working computer running PenPoint, I finally acquired another NCR 3125. And this time running PenPoint!

pp

Oh, yes, plus a (probably) complete set of PenPoint developer documentation (only 2 volumes are missing).

books

Plus some replacement tips for the WACOM pen (comes in handy as the tip of the other pen disappeared).

pens

You’ll get some photos soon and then I can submit one to Wikipedia (for their PenPoint entry).

My plan is to extract an HDD image of PenPoint and provide it on this blog. I think some people might be interested in that… If this image from oldcomputers.net is true also for my model, the HDD is a 2.5″ PrairieTek Prairie 120 IDE model (20 MB). So this sounds manageable. Update: Yes, the HDD is the model above. I was a little bit confused upon opening the computer when all I saw coming from the HDD were 2 flat flexible cables (I was looking for IDE connectors). Upon closer inspection I noticed that the HDD controller (usually screwed on top of the HDD) was mounted detached positioned next to the HDD body obviously to make the package more flat. You can see this in this picture quite well, the HDD is the black box on the top left corner plus the controller on the right:

ncr-3125-motherboard

(Picture taken from oldcomputers.net, in this case this page on the 3125)

The controller, of course, has the IDE connector.

In contrast to my old 3125, this one is equipped with 8 MB of RAM. I wonder whether this is required by PenPoint. Hmm, all the early mobile computers being able to run PenPoint (3125, EO 440, IBM 701T) had minimally 4 MB of RAM, so probably not. BTW, the PenPoint is a 1.0a version. Sounds quite early.

My first impression of this version of PenPoint on the 3125: quite slow! You have to be patient to work with this system… The computer came with a bare PenPoint, no additional software seems to be installed. The most fun part after the tutorial on how to use PenPoint is the feature to getting the gestures explained and then being able to train them.

practice

Upon playing with the new system I realised the first time that the on/off switch of the 3125 is located on the (detachable) battery pack, so no switching on the system without a battery. Even the manufacturer’s name and the model name on the front is printed on the battery. I never saw a battery made an integral part of the system so clearly 🙂

Oh, yes, and a word of advice on starting an NCR 3125. Sometimes (e.g. when the battery was dead), it seems to employ a strange double booting procedure (probably due to the usual dead battery). First, the “BIOS” part of the computer is started and the memory tested (namely the main PC memory (640kB) and the extended memory). The computer will complain about invalid CMOS memory content and stuff and will allow to enter the BIOS settings. But do not worry. Simply exit this stage, and the real OS booting process will start. Again with a RAM test, but this time including 3 memory parts. For exiting the first stage your pen needs to work (maybe a keyboard will do, too). Clicking on the “<EXIT>” text usually does the trick.

Sony Clie PEG-VZ90

January 15, 2017

I am probably one of the few collectors of Sony’s Palm PDAs (which are not really rare). However, now I got also the rarest model of this series: the VZ90!

Sony Clie PEG VZ90

This last Sony PDA model was sold in 2004 in Japan only and had an OLED screen (actually it was the first PDA with an OLED screen). Back in the day it costed (list price) 95k Yen (about 780 Euro, or $830). Mine even works, horaay!

Atari ATW800

August 16, 2015

There are rare computers and there are very rare computers, and there are computers that are extremely hard to come by. Recently, almost by accident, I was able to acquire one of the latter, one that I always (since the time you could actually buy it as a brand new product) wanted to have. It looks gorgeous, even nowadays, because it is basically a steel case where the colour is not ageing (and because it comes from a collector that obviously took very good care for this machine). But enough rambling, let’s look at my precioussss…

The Atari Transputer Workstation (also known as ABAQ, ATW-800, or simply ATW) was a workstation class computer released by Atari in 1989, based on the INMOS Transputer.

As some of you might remember, Transputers were considered to be the Next Big Thing in the late 1980s. Transputers wanted to solve the problem of increasing the performance of a computer system without the need of having to develop faster CPUs (which was already then considered to be economically feasible only up to a certain limit. This limit was reached in a way in 2001). Instead, an arbitrary number of cheap but complete CPUs should collaborate to provide the needed performance. Sounds familiar? Yes, its basically the same concept as multi-core machines today with the difference that Transputers were separate chips that also did not share caches. As the collaboration of CPUs was very important for this approach fast (for the time) interconnections between the Transputers were built into each of them that could extend even outside a single computer system and therefore connect multiple Transputer computers to a combined system. Transputers contained a built-in RAM controller, so RAM could be added easily.
Transputers were the product of a single British company, Inmos that released the first Transputer in 1985. Transputer systems could not hold up to their more traditional competition, and in 1989 Inmos was sold to SGS Thomson. After that, Transputers were basically discontinued.

Inmos designed these Transputer CPUs models in it’s lifetime:

name clock word remarks
T212 17.5, 20 MHz 16 bit
M212 17.5, 20 MHz 16 bit with on-board disk controller
T222 20 MHz 16 bit
T225 20 MHz 16 bit
T414 15, 20 MHz 32 bit
T425 20, 25, 30 Mhz 32 bit
T400 20 Mhz 32 bit stripped-down T425
T800 20, 25 MHz 32 bit 64 bit floating point support
T801 20, 25 MHz 32 bit 64 bit floating point support
T805 20, 25, 30 Mhz 32 bit 64 bit floating point support

The ATW and its operating system, HeliOS, was conceived by Perhelion, a company that was founded by former employees of MetaComCo. As MetaComCo had good connections to both Atari and Commodore, Perhelion tried to interest both companies in releasing a Transputer workstation running HeliOS. Commodore had expressed some interest in their new system, and showed demos of it on an add-on card running inside an Amiga 2000. It appears they later lost interest in it. It was at this point that Atari met with Perihelion and work started on what would eventually become the ATW.

The machine was first introduced at the November 1987 COMDEX under the name Abaq. Two versions were shown at the time; one was a card that connected to the Mega ST bus expansion slot, the second version was a stand-alone tower system containing a miniaturized Mega ST inside. The external card version was dropped at some point during development. It was later learned that the “Abaq” name was in use in Europe, so the product name was changed to ATW800.

The ATW system came in a large tower case. It consisted of three main parts:

  • the main motherboard containing a T800-20 Transputer and 4MB of RAM (expandable to 16MB)
  • a complete miniaturized Mega ST acting as an I/O processor with 512kB of RAM
  • the Blossom video system with 1MB of dual-ported RAM

All of these parts were connected using the Transputer’s 20 Mbit/s processor links. The motherboard also contained three slots for additional “farm cards” containing four Transputers each, meaning that a fully expanded ATW contained 13 Transputers. The bus was also available externally, allowing several ATWs to be connected into one large farm. The motherboard also included a separate slot for one of the INMOS crossbar switches to improve inter-chip networking performance.

HeliOS was Unix-like, but not Unix. Of particular note was the lack of memory protection, due largely to the lack of an MMU on the Transputer. This is not quite the issue it might seem, as the Transputer’s stack-based architecture makes an MMU less important. Meanwhile HeliOS was Unix-like enough that it ran standard Unix utilities, including the X Window System as the machine’s graphical user interface (GUI). In addition HeliOS ran on all of the Transputers in a farm at “the same time”, which allowed all computing tasks to be fully distributed. Turning off an ATW would not affect the overall farm, the tasks would simply move to other processors on other systems. Later HeliOS was ported to other processors including the ARM architecture.

The Blossom video system was developed specially for the ATW. It offered 4 different video modes up to 1280 by 960 pixels at 16 out of 4096 colours. The Blossom also included a number of high-speed effects (128 megapixels/s fill rates) and blitter functionality, including the ability to apply up to four masks on a bit-blit operation in a fashion similar to a modern graphics processing unit’s ability to apply several textures to a 3D object. The team in charge of the Blossom would later work on another Atari project, the Atari Jaguar video game console.

There is an ATW price list in Pound Sterling (GBP) stating the prices for the machine and various options excluding VAT:

Product Price Education Price
ATW 5000 2500
Farm Card 2000 1500
+4MB RAM 750 562
Expansion 500 375

5000 GBP in 1990 equals to about 13700 DEM or 8000$ at the time which corresponds about 9900 GBP or 14000$ today. Quite a price… On the other hand, an Atari TT was 3000$ in 1990.

It took quite long in a PC before a machine could handle more than 4 processors or cores.

I also looked into how the ATW compares to other product-level Atari computers in terms of speed. MIPS-wise, a corresponding list looks like this:

model clock CPU MIPS year
ST 8MHz 68000 1 MIPS 1985
MegaSTE 16MHz 68000 2 MIPS 1991
Falcon 16MHz 68030 3.84 MIPS (Motorola DSP: 16 MIPS) 1992
TT 32MHz 68030 8 MIPS (I guess because is runs at 2*16MHz) 1990
ATW 20MHz T800-20 10 MIPS (per T800, i.e. 130 MIPS for 13 T800-20) 1989

One can argue that the DSP inside the Falcon has a quite hefty 16 MIPS, and that a combined 20 MIPS for the Falcon (CPU + DSP) is more than the combined 11 MIPS of the ATW, but first, a DSP is not a general purpose processor, so this power is not available to every program. Second, you could add up to 12 T800-20 inside an ATW… So, although the ATW did not run TOS, and it therefore not the fastest ST that has been sold by Atari, it was the fastest computer by Atari. Of course, later projects (e.g Hades) would have been much faster.If we look at the cost per MIPS, we can state the following:

model cost per MIPS configuration
TT 375$
ATW 800$ no farm card
ATW 240$ 1 farm card
ATW 135$ 3 farm cards

So, if you needed to have compute power, a loaded ATW was an economic option.It is said that only between 200 and 350 ATWs have been built, out of which 50 to 100 were prototypes that were released already in in May 1988. The production run has been released in May 1989. Another rumour is that 200 ATWs were sold to Kodak. The label on the back of an ATW say something like:

Serial Number: AB84A 90XXXX

The serial numbers that I know are:

  • 909131
  • 909215

It says also: Made In Germany. That sounds unusual. It probably means that the ATW was assembled by a 3rd party.If you have ever heard of Transputers outside this text, it was probably a long time ago. This effect typically indicates that a technology was not successful as it is also the case here. For the ATW 800 there are three groups of reasons for the failure of this machine:

  • this machine was ways too pricey for the mass market
  • Atari seem not to have invested much time and effort in supporting this model or to develop successors (I can also imagine they made a loss on every machine)
  • HeliOS was a too exotic environment
  • Perihelion remained the exclusive distributor in England (and it was always a small company)
  • Transputers as a technology failed because they had problems in terms of pricing, and later on performance compared to the (traditional) competition
  • Inmos as the sole manufacturer of these CPUs was a too small company
  • finally, Inmos folded basically in the same year as the ATW was published

Still, despite the failure of the machine for the masses (:-)), the ATW 800 was a good computer and had the potential to be used advantageously in some niches like scientific computing. A running ATW 800 is still the best opportunity to experiment with the Transputer technology. If you can get one, that is. It is rare to a ridicule degree.Technical Data

  • CPU: Inmos T800-20 @20 MHz (10 MIPS)
  • RAM: 4MB (expandable to 16MB)
  • HDD: 44MB
  • OS: HeliOS
  • Graphics: Blossom video system with 1MB of dual-ported RAM, supporting
    • mode 0: 1280 by 960 pixels, 16 colours out of a palette of 4096 (including 16 true greyscales, on a monochrome monitor)
    • mode 1: 1024 by 768 pixels, 256 colours out of a palette of 16.7 million
    • mode 2: 640 by 480 pixels (2 virtual screens), 256 colours out of a palette of 16.7 million
    • mode 3: 512 by 480 pixels, 16.7 million colours
  • Interfaces: RGB component display interface
  • Contains: a miniaturized Mega ST with 512kB RAM with all its interfaces
  • Released: May 1989
  • Number of produced machines: between 200 – 350 (of which 50 – 100 were prototypes)
  • Initial price: 5000 GBP

Links

Western Digital Pascal MicroEngine WD900

May 1, 2014

Image

The WD-900 is the main board of a very rare computer whose CPU can execute P-Code (compiled from Pascal) directly. Before I come back to this computer please allow me a short detour 🙂 .

There are few computer architectures that aim at executing code that is closer to a certain programming language directly on the CPU. And none of them were successful in the sense that they sold to a larger extend because simply the technical progress on CPUs that do not have to obey such restrictions is faster than for these special CPUs. As a result, executing the programming language on general CPUs of the next generation is faster than doing it on the special CPU.

The list of programming languages for which such special CPUs exist(ed) is rather short:

  • Lisp (starting in 1975)
  • Forth (starting in the early 80s)
  • Prolog (starting in the 80s; research level only)
  • Java (starting in 1996)

Lisp machines did have some commercial success, but vanished in the early 90s.

Prolog machines never came out commercially although their development was one of the promises of the Fifth Generation projects.

Forth is considered by some not so much a high-level programming language, but something very close to computer hardware. There are still some interesting Fort CPUs products, so it’s probably more the low interest in Forth that leads to a low interest in Forth hardware (don’t get me wrong – I love Forth).

In contrast to that, Java is a high-interest programming language. Now, Java does not need to be executed directly on a CPU as it is often compiled into “Bytecode” anyway. Bytecode is a stack-oriented language like Forth. Of course, in contrast to Forth Java supports e.g. objects, but the principle is the same. Bytecode is a much simpler language than Java and better suited to be executed in hardware.

Now, the concept of Bytecode was not invented by Java. It existed long before Java, notably as the runtime system of UCSD Pascal, and now we are back at the WD-900.

In 1979, Western Digital, then a manufacturer of CPU and controller chips, looked for another use case of their MCP-1600 micro-coded, multi-chip microprocessor consisting of 3 types of chips:

  • CP1611 RALU – Register ALU chip
  • CP1621 CON – Control chip
  • CP1631 MICROM – Mask-programmed microcode ROM chip (512 – 22 bit words)

The main use of this CPU was as the processor in DECs LSI-11 computer, a compact, integrated version of the PDP-11 minicomputer. As the CPU was micro-coded and as the microcode was stored in one or more separate chips, it was easy to let the CPU execute a different command set by switching the microcode storage chips.

So what they did was to change the microcode to directly execute “p-code”, the bytecode of UCSD Pascal (of course, also p-code is a stack-oriented language). To that end they developed the WD-9000 chip set consisting of

  • CP2151 Data chip (was no different from the CP1611 of the MCP-1600 chipset and could be interchanged)
  • CP2161 Control chip
  • 3 CP1631 MICROM chips

The difference was in the CP2161 control chip (and of course the MICROMs).  Though the CP2151 contained multiple registers, but as the the p-code implementation was a pure stack machine, it did not use the registers.

In 1979, the competition were mainly 8bit machines. As a result, the MicroEngine outperformed e.g. a Z80-based machine at the same clock speed by almost a factor of 10. Of course, later 16bit machines like the 68000-based HP9836 (at 8 MHz, sold from 1981 for $11950) were faster by a factor of 3. Also, the performance advantage was eroded by the later availability of p-code to native machine code compilers.

The WD-900 board that I own is reportedly a New Old Stock board bought as a spare for a WD-90 computer that never has been used. It is boxed. The WD-900 board contains all the electronics: the CPU, RAM, serial interfaces and a floppy disk controller (WD1791/2) for two disks.

The WD-90 system contained a WD-900 board and a power supply. The (up to two) floppy disk drives needed to be attached externally.

The first boards shipped were poorly designed (power and ground traces the same size as signal traces, very few capacitors), required a large number of modifications, and even then did not work reliably. A couple of years would pass after introduction before a well-engineered MicroEngine was available. Between a damaged reputation and the introduction of the IBM PC, in the end the MicroEngine was not successful. You can see the lack of craftsmanship in the board design very clearly if you have a closer look on the photo of my board. Many patch wires, additional components and hand-soldering on a New Old Stock board…

The MicroEngine series of products was offered at various levels of integration:

  • WD-9000: five chip microprocessor chip set
  • WD-900: single board computer ($2995)
  • WD-90: packaged system ($5000)
  • SB-1600: MicroEngine single board computer
  • ME-1600: Modular MicroEngine packaged system

Technical Data:

  • CPU: WD-9000@ 3.0 MHz
  • RAM: 64 kB (32k 16bit words)
  • Interfaces: 2 x RS232, 2 x parallel (i.e. floppy disk)
  • Released: 1979
  • Initial price: $2995

Links

Dauphin DTR-1

April 27, 2014

DTR-1 pictureReleased in 1994, the optimistically named “DeskTop Replacement 1” is an early pen-based, mobile computer. Like the NCR 3125 3 years earlier it’s a PC that you can carry in your hand and that  you can operate using a pen as a mouse. Of course, the DTR-1 used updated hard- and software, but the idea is the same. Therefore, the architecture of these devices did not allow much freedom and required a desktop-class performance CPU. As a result, all these devices are the most heavy mobile pen computers with a weight almost twice as much as  the one of an Apple Newton or a Magic Cap-based PDA. Not only were they heavy, the PC architecture also meant that the price was double or triple the price of a Newton or a Magic Cap device (a similar problem exist nowadays
in a lesser form for Windows-based tablets as opposed to Android-based tablets).  The upside of the used PC architecture was that it sported all the standard interfaces also found on desktop PCs.

The machine ran on NiMH batteries. They were advertised to last for 3.5 hours.  The pen ran on SR48 batteries and lasted for 350 hours.

The Dauphin DTR-1 could recognize handwriting and convert it to text on the fly.

The DTR-1 was manufactured by IBM.

The operating system was “Windows 3.1 for Pen Computing”.

Another very interesting feature about this computer is that it uses a tiny HP Kittyhawk 1.3″ harddisk.  It seems to be the only computer where this drive came as a standard (it was an option in AT&T’s EO 440 Personal Communicator).

Of course, the DTR-1 was not a success (else this blog would not write about it 🙂 ). A quite steep price tag of  over $2500 dollars where the initial Apple Newton costed only $700 a year earlier, a high weight, and  an OS that was very exotic in the mobile market made the company starting to collapse in 1995. From the reported assets and debts, divided  by the price for a DTR-1 I assume that Dauphin made at least 18000 units. Dauphin, however seemed to survived  somehow at least until the year 2000.

The power supply of the DTR-1 is notoriously bad. People who own DTR-1’s recommend to use modern 12V DC power  supplies instead of the original one. The original one is specified at 2.1A. The plug is center-positive. As a pen replacement old Fujitsu pens can be used.

In 1996 Dauphin also released a second model (called DTR-2) which was selling for $4445, but very few of them (in the few hundreds)  seem to exist. The DTR-2 had a 486SLC2@50 MHz CPU, a 120 MB HDD, and 2 PCMCIA2 slots.

There are articles from 1999 about a “Dauphin Orasis” computer based on a Pentium@266 MHz, and there are people  that report that they once had such a device, but these machines seem to be even more rare.

Technical Data

  • CPU: Cyrix 486SLC @ 25 MHz (has about 35 MIPS)
  • RAM: 4MB(expandable to 6MB)
  • HDD: HP 1.3″ Kittyhawk microdrive 40MB
  • Size: 5 x 9″
  • Weight: 1100 grams
  • Pen: active, requires batteries
  • Display: pen-sensitive, backlit, passive-matrix, monochrome VGA (640 x 480)
  • Interfaces: VGA (800 x 600, 256 colors), parallel and serial ports, Ethernet, Modem
  • Modem: Hayes-compatible (the modem and serial port are set to the same interrupt, so they can’t be used simultaneously)
  • Ethernet: the Ethernet module (apart from the connector) is an option
  • Keyboard: separate, but included
  • Released: 1994
  • Initial price: $2595
  • Options:
    •  3.5″ floppy disk drive $200
    •  Ethernet module $300

Links

 

Siemens NotePhone

August 16, 2013

A lucky find on a recent local flea market.
NotePhone

  • Apple-Newton (OMP)-based Siemens-branded telephone (German version only)
  • This Newton has a special case so the Siemens modem (box on the right) can be attached (very firmly) to it
    • The Newton plus the modem can be used separately from the phone
    • The Power Supply connects to the modem which then can feed the Newton (this PSU is a generic 7V one; no need for the very special Newton PSU)
  • Then the two devices can be attached to the phone via a connector hinge
  • The modem would use the phone as its connection to the telephone line so you could dial a call from the Newton’s contact list or send a fax directly
  • The phone itself does not need any external power supply
  • iF product design award 1994 – TOP 10
  • RAM: 640KB
  • ROM: 4MB
  • CPU: ARM 610 @20 MHz
  • Newton OS: 1.11 (German)
  • Screen: 336×240, no backlight
  • Fax/Modem:  2400bps Data / 9600bps Fax modem
  • Original price (1994): DM 2400 ($ 1000 at that time)
  • Today’s value: about € 170 – 490
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