Archive for the ‘Hacks & mods’ Category

Jury-rigging the Apple II, either in reality or concept.

Ben Heck's Apple-1

November 24th, 2014 10:31 AM
by
Filed under Hacks & mods, Mainstream coverage;
no comments yet.

Back in 2008, engineer and hardware hacker Ben Heckendorn made headlines in the Apple II world when he built an Apple IIGS in a laptop form factor. Although his first computer was an Atari 800, not an Apple II, the same wistfulness applies to many of Ben Heck's projects. In an interview for Juiced.GS and Computerworld, he told me:

People go to the junkyard, get an old car, and fix it up. There's really no point to that, but people do it because they like the car. Computers are a lot like old cars. "I grew up with this, my dad drove me around in this" — it's the same thing with old computers: I programmed my first program on this old computer, it's such a great memory, now I can remember it… expensively. I think that's what it is, almost a car culture with computers. It's a different object, but the same kind of nostalgia.

Heck insisted the interview be conducted over the phone, not email, so as to better capture his personality. Other media outlets have since recognized that same spark and have given Heck his own web series, The Ben Heck Show, in which he builds and tears down a variety of unusual hardware in zany style.

In his latest project, Heck returns to that IIGS laptop's roots and tackles designing his own Apple-1 clone. Instead of buying Replica 1 from Briel Computers, he assembles and builds his own components from DreamBoard. Over three episodes and 56 minutes that aired Nov 7–21, he demonstrates how anyone with the proper equipment and soldering skill can build their own original Apple.

Heck ends by providing his Apple-1 something the original never had: a case. Keeping in mind the aesthetic of 1977, he designed a wooden frame for his machine.

Ben Heck's Apple-1

Grandpa? Is that you?

As someone who'd never soldered before Vince Briel showed me how at KansasFest 2009, Heck's tutorial is beyond my ken. But among today's retrocomputing enthusiasts, I'm unusual in my lack of hardware familiarity, and I suspect many hardcore fans will enjoy not his step-by-step instructions and energetic delivery.

(Hat tip to Joyniece Kirkland)

Woz's modern optimization of the Apple II

November 17th, 2014 10:58 AM
by
Filed under Hacks & mods, Steve Wozniak;
1 comment.

I've never been a hardware hacker, but I have enough programming experience to appreciate optimized code. I've written some programs that were serviceable but kludgy; had they been meant for widespread distribution and deployment, I would've taken more time to reduce the number of lines and variables, and hence, the execution time. It's one of the challenges I love most about the Apple II: doing as much as possible with as little as possible.

Nowhere is that principle more effectively demonstrated than in the designs of Steve Wozniak. Before he co-founded Apple, he took Atari's BREAKOUT coin-op and reduced the number of chips by fifty. The brain that mastered this design is still at work, as evidenced by a recent email exchange.

Apple-1 cloner and Vintage Computer Festival East alumnus Mike Willegal recently had some questions about the Apple-1 power supply — so he emailed Woz. Tacked onto the end of Woz's reply was this remark:

I awoke one night in Quito, Ecuador, this year and came up with a way to save a chip or two from the Apple II, and a trivial way to have the 2 grays of the Apple II be different (light gray and dark gray) but it's 38 years too late. It did give me a good smile, since I know how hard it is to improve on that design.

How much different a world would the Apple II community be, if this minor change had been made? Probably not very. But it's good to know that, while many of us are preoccupied grafting modern USB and Ethernet ports onto the Apple II, the original genius is still contemplating how he could've laid for us a stronger foundation.

(Hat tips to Luke Dormehl and Greg Kumparak)

Eye of the Dot Matrix Tiger

March 2nd, 2014 10:49 PM
by
Filed under Hacks & mods;
Comments Off

We already know that storage media are musical instruments, with floppy disks playing the Star Wars theme and hard drives producing a rendition of the Imperial March. Now printers are getting in on the orchestral action. Behold as a dot matrix printer plays "Eye of the Tiger" from Rocky:

Such magic is a combination of custom hardware and software. Says the video's creator on how you too can produce this tune:

Learn about electronics, reverse engineering, embedded software development, maybe some hardware description language, the MIDI protocol and some music theory (how notes relate to frequencies). Then take your printer apart, find out how it works, disconnect the original processor from everything you need and add your custom built electronics…

The MIDI files have to be edited a bit to be played on the printer: some channels need to be disabled (percussion stuff), some are transposed to avoid exceeding the frequency limit. Also the volume of the individual instruments never fits when the original settings are used.

Get started with the MIDI file that was adapted to this purpose; it's available for download.

(Hat tip to Geekologie via Colin Druce-McFadden, Geeks Are Sexy, Brendan Robert, and Mark LaPlante)

The Iconic Apple coffee table book

October 7th, 2013 10:17 AM
by
Filed under Hacks & mods, History;
Comments Off

At some point in the last four years, you've probably come across the Shrine of Apple, where photographer Jonathan Zufi has set out to produce a gallery of every Apple product ever, from the Apple-1 to the iPad Mini. It's a gorgeous Web site with intuitive navigation and high-quality photos from multiple angles of all Apple hardware and packaging.

Now this artwork can be on display in your home with Iconic: A Photographic Tribute to Apple Innovation, a 350-page coffee table book, courtesy the author's self-publishing brand, Ridgewood Publishing.

Iconic features over 650 photos across six chapters: desktops (including the Apple II); portables; peripherals; iOS devices; prototypes (whether or not they went into production); packaging; and people. (For those counting, the video says there are six chapters but lists only fives — the narrator forgot about peripherals.)

The book is available in two hardcopy editions: a now-shipping $75 "classic"; and a yet-to-be-released special edition that comes in a slip sleeve that looks like an Apple IIe case. (There is, naturally, no coffee table e-book edition.) Shipping on the classic edition to my New England home is an extra $11.

Unlike a living Web site, a book immediately becomes a moment in time, a product of its publication date and unrepresentative of all the Apple products to come. Regardless, it's something I wouldn't mind as a holiday gift. It's nice to see a book like this become a reality without a Kickstarter project, especially since the book trailer could've just as easily served as a pitch video, which probably would've motivated me to by it on impulse, knowing I was contributing to moving the book from concept to coffee table.

Will you be putting Iconic on your table?

(Hat tip to Betsy McKay)

Remembering the Apple II

April 8th, 2013 9:28 AM
by
Filed under Hacks & mods, History, Mainstream coverage;
2 comments.

A recent CNET story has popularized the unearthing of design schematics for the Disk ][ floppy drive and the contract that outsourced its operating system. This story has been a Big Deal, having been picked up by TUAW, Slashdot, A2Central.com, and others.

This story is also an opportunity to consider the scale and scope of computer history. We Apple II users have gobbled up this news, but I suspect it hasn't achieved awareness outside the small circles of retrocomputing enthusiasts and computer historians. After all, what relevancy does the Apple II have to the Apple Inc. of today, whose foundation lies not in desktop or even laptop computers, but in cell phones, tablets, and MP3 players?

It wouldn't be the first time the Apple II has failed to penetrate the public awareness. When I presented the history of the Apple II to the Denver Apple Pi users group, the audience was eager and receptive — with one exception. When one person learned the topic of my speech would be the computer that Apple made before the Macintosh, her response was, "Apple made computers before the Macintosh?" She didn't see the relevancy in this archaic machine and chose not to stay for the presentation.

Similarly, when I recruited Jason Scott as a guest speaker for my college course, he asked my students the loaded question, "How many of you would agree with me if I said Nintendo is thirty years old?" Nintendo was in fact founded in 1889 and dabbled in many industries, from playing cards to hotels to taxi services, before landing in electronic entertainment. Home video games are just a blip in the timeline of the company that set the standard.

These are just two examples of modern consumers being ignorant or uncaring of the lineage behind their everyday tech. I don't know that this oversight is necessarily evil so much as it is the product of irrelevance. Is it one we need to change? I would presume that awareness of the existence of pre-Macintosh computers has improved since the passing of Steve Jobs, but my experience is that just as many people as ever respond to my stories of the Apple II with a comment such as "That was my first Mac!"

The Apple II was sold for 16 years, 1977–1993. Sixteen years ago this year, Steve Jobs returned to Apple. That second era has achieved historical notoriety, both for the metaphoric prodigal son's return and for the reinvention of Apple Computer Inc. as a profitable company. Yet what was long the flagship product of the company's first 16 years seems to have fallen from public consciousness. Is all tech history susceptible to the vagaries of time? Or is the popularity of computer history directly proportionate the penetration of that era's computers? Since 1970s computers were not widely adopted by the mass market, is their history similarly of limited appeal? Do we need to improve the Apple II's public image — not just for the health of our retrocomputing hobby, but for the annals of time? If so, how?

I welcome your historical perspective on this matter!

Building a Lego Apple

April 1st, 2013 2:26 PM
by
Filed under Hacks & mods;
1 comment.

Creativity in one discipline does not necessarily lend itself to others. My tenures at Computerworld and Juiced.GS have developed my imagination such that I have no trouble pulling ideas for feature stories from thin air. But one area in which I have always gone strictly by the book, doing exactly what I'm told without deviation or desire for variance — is Legos. The lethally edged gouging objects taught me to follow step-by-step instructions, a skill that, as an adult, has proven handy in the kitchen. But it was always the picture on the box, not in my mind, that I was driving to make a reality.

So I'm all the more impressed by Chiukeung (CK Tsang), who used the Lego building blocks to create a model Apple II.

2013_LEGO_APPLEII01e2

Just like Woz intended, you can even open the machine for direct access to its motherboard and expansion slots.

2013_LEGO_APPLEII04e

CPU, lid, keyboard, floppy drive, monitor — this machine has it all! Everything except for scale, actually — there's nothing to compare its size to, though I suspect it's smaller than Steve Weyhrich's virtual Minecraft Apple.

The Apple II is not the first computer CK has rendered in blocks. Check out his model Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), aka the Famicom, which coincidentally also uses a 6502 chip.

(Hat tip to Kelly Hodgkins)