That didn’t go as I had intended

One post. That’s as far as I made it for Retrochallenge. I knew I’d peter off at some point, but damn.

If anyone came looking for more of my project, I’ll have a more detailed write-up soon. In short, I needed to replace a single discreet chip and I stopped there as I don’t currently have the tools to do any kind of board-level repairs. I will return to it once I’ve acquired the tools I need, but I’m not sure how long that will take.

In other news, I’ve been asked to document my PS Vita physical release hunting. I’m not going to go nuts like the last time…

header

I’m up to 22 physical games. This time around it’s going to be, “Only things in a box that I could pick up in a store in North America.” Plus a little, “Special Limited release stuff like from Limited Run Games.”

I’ll have an intro written up for that later too.

Retrochallenge – Day 1

Welcome to the start of what I hope will be a productive and fun Retrochallenge. Let me begin by stating my goals for this round of Retrochallenge:

  • Take inventory of my available Atari hardware and software
  • Refurbish or repair anything that needs to be brought up to working order
  • Go through each of the floppies I have for the system and catalog what software might be resident
  • Teach myself how someone would have used the system for general use back when the system was current and relevant
  • Evaluate any productivity software I find on the floppies for my other research projects

On the surface, these seems like relatively simple goals. Hopefully, they will prove to be.

Setup

Let me introduce you to the main components of my little project.

Day_1-setup

I’ll be working with an Atari 800XL, a 1050 Disk Drive, an Epyx 500XJ joystick, a few carts, and a box of floppies with unknown software. For backup, I have a 130XE that I can call upon in case the 800XL proves to be unusable for whatever reason.

All of the hardware was acquired in a lot from Craigslist. The floppies came from an IRC friend of mine in the classic gaming community.

Atari 800XL

I’ve messed around with the computer and disk drives before, but I never really gave them a deep look. The 800XL does have some modifications to the ROMs. The OS ROM seems to be a custom affair, and it’s missing the BASIC chip entirely. Here’s a not so perfect shot, but it shows the basics of what I’m working with.

Day_1-800_insideDay_1-800_roms

 

 

 

 

 

 

The computer itself seems to work fine, though sometimes I’ll get a green screen instead of blue on my TV. Banging the machine around a little bit will usually shake it back to blue, but that is something I need to look into once I figure out what can be causing it. I can load most XL/XE compatible carts just fine, and I’ve got a few games that boot and play without issue.

I’ve previously gotten a little bit of help with figuring out the custom OS ROM at this AtariAge post. There was some useful information, but I think I remained more confused than I was before I asked my questions. I’ll be starting from scratch on it now so I’m ok with that. The main change I can see in the ROM is a custom character set. This quick clip of the In-Store demo cart shows it off nicely.

I’ve learned that peeking certain memory locations in BASIC will reveal clues as to what versions of BASIC or the OS are contained in memory. This photo shows the results of a few of these locations. This is also a pretty good look at the custom character set.

Day_1-custom_font

As to the character set itself, this is what has been suggested to me by Rybags at the AtariAge forums: “Looks like it’s got the character set as used by Adventure International games like Sea Dragon and Preppie.” I’ve looked up the games and it appears pretty close.

Until I get a chance to pick up a ROM programmer and dump the contents of this ROM chip, I think it would be in my best interest to find an original or replacement with the original OS on it, just to keep things stock. Same with the BASIC chip. Physically, the machine seems stock, it’s just those two pieces I need to get back to reliable working condition.

Atari 1050

The disk drive is one of three that came in the original Craigslist haul. The other two were a Happy modded 1050 that worked perfectly fine once I reseated a few of the chips, and a partial Happy mod that was never completed. I sold those off a while ago to other collectors as the third seemed to be close to stock. Or, that’s what I thought at the time. What can you fine people discern from this picture?

Day_1-1050_inside

Please, tell me. I have no clue what I’m looking at. Again, the fine folks at AtariAge were able to guess that the previous owner was attempting to do a homebrew US Doubler mod to it. If so…nice!

Testing

Alright, now that we’ve identified the important hardware, it’s time to talk about what I’ve discovered so far. Basically, I’m kind of screwed. The drive powers on just fine, it does the initial head seek and tracking. The Track 0 sensor seems to be working fine. When I insert a disk, it does the normal ¼ inch track seek and returns to track 0, but then…nothing. It just spins forever until I reset the computer or pop the latch on the drive.

I’ve checked that all the chips are seated properly. All the cable headers are in the right place. I just get an infinite quick repeating BOOT ERROR message on the TV. I know the drive and the computer are communication though. When I insert a disk and flip the latch, the boot errors will pause for a second or so before continuing. The computer is getting word from the drive that there’s a disk, but the drive isn’t giving the computer anything to work with.

Here’s a short video I made showing what happens with the cover off to show the internals. I wasn’t thinking and filmed it vertically so it’s a bit…vertical.

Just for shits and giggles, I pulled out the 130XE that I know is in perfect working order and tried the drive with that machine. Same response. I’ve tried all 97 floppies I have and not one of them gives a different response. If anyone has any suggestions on what to do with the drive next, I’d love to hear it. Speaking of the floppies…

Software

A friend from IRC heard that I was in need of some SSDD floppies and sent me a box full of them. In all, there are 97 total. The vast majority of them are either copied disks or without a label. Only a few of them are commercial disks. There’s a PQ Party Quiz Game set, and what looks like software that may have come with a Koala Pad. I’ll have to explore those later.

Overall, the disks look like they may have come from a school environment. There are lots of unlabeled disks, but some have handwritten labels that look like children’s handwriting. There are a bunch of quiz type games. Aside from that, there’s several copies of AtariWriter, or least the labels say that. I’ve also seen most of the Syn* series of productivity software. That may come in handy for my other research if I can get them to work.

Of the carts I own, most will work fine. I’ve got a few that are in blank cart cases, and some that are obvious custom chips on the boards. A couple of the carts require OS A/B so I haven’t been able to confirm that they work.  The one cart that made me wonder was Pac-Man. If I turn on the computer with the cart inserted, it goes straight to the self-test. However, if I hold down the Option key, it’ll boot the cart. Dunno, something I’ll have to look into.

Day_1-cart_3 Day_1-cart_2 Day_1-cart_1

Project Scope

So, with all that said, and this deeper look into the functionality of the hardware, I believe I can define the following action items to achieve my goals:

  • Replace the OS and BASIC ROMs inside the 800XL. This will bring me back to a stock configuration and I can work from there.
  • Figure out a final diagnosis for the floppy drive. Without this, the rest of the project is pretty much screwed. It’ll be awhile before I can find another one so getting this one working is paramount.
  • Pick up a ROM programmer. This will let me dump the current ones I have and replace any I need to replace on my own.
  • Find a 5 ¼” floppy box. This is kind of silly, but it’s better than keeping almost 100 floppies in a cardboard box.

Retrochallenge – Before I Begin…

I’ve been meaning to get this post done days earlier, but I just couldn’t find the time to fit it in. With tomorrow being the first day of the Retrochallenge, I want to get this out before the official start.

As I’ve followed the challenge twice a year for several years now, I always wondered what I could possibly contribute if I ever decided to join in. Crazy ideas of building a homebrew 8-bit machine shared time with the myriad of programming projects that I might once have had an errant spark of enthusiasm for. Being my first time joining in, and this being traditionally the winter warm-up, I decided on something very simple to ease myself in. I’m going to take one of my existing systems, get it up and running as needed, and explore what software I already have for it.

Perhaps a little bit about myself first? I’m 33 years old and have been fascinated with computer culture for as long as I can remember. My personal history with 8-bits didn’t reach beyond the Apple IIs that I had access to in school. It wasn’t until my later teenage years that I was even aware that computers by the likes of Atari or Mattel even existed. Awareness of the technology in the relevant time-period was just not something I had. I was a kid, and once a week they would take us to this room at the end of the hall and we’d have an hour or so to play with the box of games that sat on a shelf at the head of the room.

When the true bug to explore older computers, instead of just older video games, finally kicked in I dived head first into learning everything I could. This became a quest to acquire whatever actual hardware I could. There was a point where I found myself drowning in old machines and parts. I reached a breaking point and dissolved a good bit of what I had. I kept a few things here and there, but my ridiculous amount of spare parts and such are all gone now.

Of the machines I managed to keep, I find myself with an Atari 800XL and a 1050 disk drive. These were part of a much larger haul that I’d picked up from Craigslist (one of the few times I can say I found anything retro and not stupidly priced).

atari_stuff

As you can see, there were more than just the two items I have remaining. You can read about the fun I had trying to identity parts of that haul in a few posts I made on AtariAge here and here.

If you read through the linked posts above, you’ll know that this Retrochallenge project isn’t the first time I’ve mucked around with my Atari hardware, but it is the first time I’ve really tried to use them for anything other than just trying to get them to run.

I’m hoping that should I find myself with a perfectly working Atari computer setup, I can use it as the basis for any Atari software I research for my old productivity software project. But, I think I’ll save that for another series of posts.

Retrochallenge 2016/1

Well, I’ve decided it’s finally time to throw my hat in the ring and participate in a Retrochallenge. Being that this will be during what is traditionally considered the Winter Warm-Up round, I figured it was as good a chance as any to get my feet wet.

I’ll be doing something rather tame for my first go, but it’ll do to get the retro juices flowing.

I have an Atari 800XL and 1050 floppy drive that need some love and care. I’ve also got a box of random Atari floppies that a friend sent to me and I have yet to go through them.

Assuming I can get the hardware functional and able to read the floppies, part two will be to go through the disks and catalog exactly what’s on them…if I can figure out how the hell Atari files and disk structures work.

Either way, it’ll be fun to mess around with the old hardware. Never know, might find a copy of AtariWriter or something else in there I can use for first-hand experience in my productivity software research.

Office Suites

I’ve long been fascinated by Office software. The very first computer that my family brought home had Microsoft Works 3.0 pre-installed. For many first-time computer buyers in the mid-90s, this was a very common thing to find on your hard drive. The one program that stated how easy it would make your life intrigued me and I played around with the different modules. At 12, I had no clue what spreadsheets or databased really were, but the word processing module was like a typewriter on a screen, so I grasped that part relatively quickly.

Over time, I figured out how to use the other modules, though I had little use for them as a kid. In school, most of the computers were Apple and thus had ClarisWorks on all of them. A few had the other common Mac software from years earlier, MacWrite, WriteNow, etc. It wasn’t until high school when I was doing my summer volunteer hours at a hospital that I had my first real exposure to full-fledged productivity software, Microsoft Office.

I knew that the programs that made up Office were essentially the bigger brothers to the integrated packages I’d been used to, but I didn’t really understand how they all worked together in a business setting. I’d just never had any experience with that level of use. As time went on, I looked into other software, collected what I could find, tried others out. I spent a few years bouncing between different computers just to try out older versions and obscure, long-dead packages.

I’ll be using this blog as a place to offer up the in-progress research I’m doing on the history and evolution of Office Suites. Hopefully, someone will find the information useful, or at least entertaining. Either way, I’ll be enjoying every bit of it.