Friday, September 22, 2023

The W65C265SXB gets a SXY case

Don't worry — my favourite single-board computer remains the 6502-based classic MOS/Commodore KIM-1, and I've got some future projects in the works. But these were recently on sale on Amazon and I couldn't resist getting a little sort-of RPi-sized SBC that runs the 16-bit 65816, the W65C265SXB. With 32K of RAM and a flash option, plus lots of UARTs and I/O, it seemed more practical for projects than the WDC MyMENSCH even if the Mensch is a little smaller. Serial and power are provided over a single on-board USB connection and it has a built-in ROM monitor. Handy!

The big question was finding it a case, since it was inconvenient to be slapping the bare board down all the time. Here's the current solution.

Having messed with it for a couple weeks, I've decided I like a lot of things about this little bright red board, but not everything: in particular the form factor needs to keep up. Today's SBC world is all RPis and clones, and if Western Design Center reworked this to fit in RPi cases, they'd probably sell a boatload even though the product enclosure explicitly disclaims it as a consumer product. Instead its dimensions (82mm x 63mm, or a hair under 3.25" x 2.5") are just different enough to not fit well in any purpose-built SBC case I could easily find.

My first attempt was a QILIPSU (does anyone know where they come up with these brand names? Do they drop acid and play Scrabble?) junction box I found on Amazon that measured 5.1"x3.1"x2.8". The internal mounting plate is always smaller than the box, so the real measurement you care about is the distance between the mounting screws inside. This one was inexpensive and nearly a perfect fit for the SXB.

At 89mm x 68mm, the board sat almost exactly square on the plastic mounting plate and the screws could be ... coerced to go through the holes (don't tighten all the way down, you'll bend it). But I found that access to the board was highly limited: after all, this is for things sitting outside you don't want exposed to the elements. I couldn't see the LEDs and I couldn't access the pin headers without unscrewing everything and taking the top off, and the box was too deep to be comfortable working in. I sent it back.

The second attempt, and the one I'm using now, is a more expensive TICONN junction box at 5.9"x3.9"x2.8".

It has a clear lid so I could see what's going on and snap closures that were easier to get into, so I bought it. The fit of this one is not so precise; the screw holes in the mounting plate cause the board to be slightly off-centre. Although it's even deeper, it's also a little bigger, which turned out to not be a bad thing.
After deciding just to go with it, I got out a borer and drilled a hole for the USB cable to exit (and big enough for my fingers to put the cable back in if needed). This hole is dead on in the middle and the board is slightly off, though it looks fine from outside. Ideally you'd use cable glands for this but I'm not putting this unit on sprinkler or weather station duty ... yet.
Now I can see the LED(s), and if I want to hook it up to something, I just open the lid and attach jumpers. Because it's a bit wider than the other box, it turns out it's easier to work in. When I'm done, I close the lid and loop up the cable (or remove it). I'll have more to say about this fun little device later, but for now there's a nice unofficial 265SXB Guide you can read.

Saturday, September 16, 2023

The Fossil Wrist PDA becomes a tiny Gopher client (with Overbite Palm 0.3)

I don't always often wear watches. But when I do, I prefer Palm PDAs. Wired to my wrist.
Announced at COMDEX in 2001 but infamously stalled, cancelled and revived prior to release in January 2005, it's still not much bigger than my wife's Apple watch:
The opinion of reviewers at the time was something like "nice try anyway." Battery estimates were overoptimistic, some buttons were missing, and the CPU and operating system were already outdated. Nevertheless, it was a real Palm OS PDA that could sync to your desktop and run real Palm OS applications, complete with a tiny screen and a ludicrously tiny stylus.

But little was said at the time about connectivity and networking. It could IR-beam (consuming the battery) and sync, but other than muted complaints about missing Bluetooth (which would have consumed even more battery), no one said anything one way or the other about getting it on the Internet. And I'm all about Palm devices on the Internet.

It turns out there's a reason for that, and we're going to patch the operating system so we can make the Fossil Wrist PDA into what may be the smallest (and first wrist-mounted) Gopher client. That also required an update to the Overbite Palm Gopher client (which you'll want for your 68K Palm anyway), and then there's the matter of the battery refusing to charge as well. And finally, we want to make all of this portable!

But let's start with the history first ...

Monday, September 11, 2023

The spawn of AtariLab and the Universal Lab Interface

We were a Commodore 64/128 household growing up, and Apple IIe systems at school, but that doesn't mean I was unaware of Atari 8-bits. There was a family at church who had an 800XL and later a 130XE — and a stack of COMPUTE!'s I used to read through for hours — and it was interesting to compare the two worlds, especially the relatively luxurious Atari BASIC and DOS against Commodore's spartan accoutrements. On the other hand, there was a lot more software and peripherals for the C64 by then, and you ended up becoming a lot more proficient with the guts of the hardware because you had to. Plus, Jack Tramiel's Atari was a lot like Jack Tramiel's Commodore and not always in a good way. I have an XEGS (functionally a 65XE when you add the keyboard) and a 1050 disk drive I should set up somewhere and mess around with a little.

But that doesn't mean Atari didn't try. Prior to all that, Atari in the Warner Communications days put forth substantial effort to make it competitive in all kinds of settings, notably education. Ataris had some unique hardware in that niche; an Atari was the first non-Control Data microcomputer to access the PLATO network, for example. And then there was the AtariLab.

With a very simple interface box, your Atari 8-bit could read the temperature and sense brightness. You could run experiments on it at school, including polarized and coloured light, or testing how quickly things cool and heat. You could use it at home with your own programs thanks to its comprehensive documentation.

But the surprising part is that even though these were the only such devices released under the AtariLab name, they weren't the end of the line: besides its stealthy revival for other home computers like the Commodore 128 running it here, its creator also turns up in one of the more interesting scientific data acquisition devices I've run across in its price range. We'll test-drive the software, hack on the platforms a little, and try some even more outlandish sensors. Let's go down the rabbit hole with AtariLab — and its full-fledged descendants.

Saturday, September 2, 2023

Refurb weekend: PowerBook Duo 2300c

Ah, the last and mightiest of Apple trying to have it both ways: the 1995 PowerBook Duo 2300c, and the only PowerPC laptop in the entire series before Apple canned the line in 1997. It had the Duos' biggest screen, the most memory and disk space, and the fastest CPU of all, yet crammed everything into a 9.5" 640x480 display and an 88% keyboard that feels like typing on a bouncy castle.

But being Apple's smallest laptop — even today the Duos are still the fourth smallest, width-height-wise — wasn't the (main) point of the Duos. Arguably, the main point was the Dock. Even Jerry Seinfeld had one.

With the Dock, your little, relatively underpowered laptop was hoovered up into a beige plastic maw to make it into an average-sized, somewhat less underpowered desktop. But you got slots and ports and the ability to use it like a desktop computer — two computers in one! — and that was crucial because without any Dock, even the smaller Mini and MicroDocks, you had hardly any ports at all (MacBook Air has entered the chat). Docking was so important that Apple even intentionally gimped the 2300 by keeping the 100MHz 603e on a 32-bit bus to maintain Dock compatibility. Yet because Duos were irrepressibly cute, they turned up in many other TV shows and even movies, most notoriously Hackers:
(People hate on Kate Libby's offhand comment that it has the new "P6 chip" especially when the trackball gives it away as a 68K Duo, but allegedly the unit in the film had a 2300 logic board, Apple did call the 60x series "P6" in some marketing material, and the "28.8 bps" [sic] modem did at least exist as a prototype. The greater technical sin is Dade Murphy saying it has a PCI bus even though no Duo ever did; the first PowerBook to be PCI was the 3400.)
Unfortunately, one of my two 2300c systems is showing evidence of the same problem that ruined the front of my favourite PowerBook 1400: the metal hinges are starting to tear out of their attachment points in the plastic back of the display, and naturally it's the one with all the upgrades in it. The most common symptom, besides bulging or split hinges when the display is closed at the point where the back and front come together, is the bottom front bezel cracking from the strain as you open it. If you learn one thing from this blog post, when opening pre-G3 PowerBooks, place your thumbs on each side of the bottom bezel of the display as you open them to support the hinge attachments. It's time for a Refurb Weekend.

Friday, September 1, 2023

Adding a cooling fan to the Commodore 128DCR

Call it a "refurb weekend sequel" to our previous work on my beloved Commodore 128DCR. It's been a hot, horrid summer in Floodgap Very Sub-Orbital Headquarters and I was somewhat concerned about the heat in the house computer lab even with the A/C cranked up to "Vegas weekend for Southern California Edison's Board of Directors" levels. But it's even worse for cooling when your one and only rear vent looks like this:
(No, I don't know what spilled there either.) The European plastic-case 128D (not this metal-cased "D Cost Reduced") has a cooling fan — and I recently landed an Australian one, more on that later — but as part of becoming CR the fan was eliminated, relying entirely on that vent and whatever warm air comes out of the rear ports to save the 8502 from being "well done." Fortunately Commodore determined it was also too much C to remove the mounting holes, so let's put in a fan instead of hoping the convection cooling is good enough.