Archive for the ‘Hacks & mods’ Category

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

An Arduino keyboard for the Apple II

November 20th, 2017 7:50 AM
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My first computer was an Apple IIe that my father purchased to help manage the family business. Given the wealth of games that were also available for the Apple II, it was inevitable that its use spread to his four sons. All was going well until one of us reached for a box of floppies on the shelf above the computer and dropped it on the keyboard, busting a keycap. My father angrily decreed his expensive business computer was henceforth off-limits to us kids — a restriction that I don't recall lasting more than a week.

With the exception of that mishap, our keyboard always performed admirably, without failures or flaws. I don't recall the Apple IIe showing any other signs of wear, tear, or distress in the five years we owned it.

The same can't be said for Max Breedon, who recently unearthed his Epson AP-200 an Apple IIe clone he acquired from a pawn shop twenty years ago. The keyboard decoder chip, a C35224E, was non-functional — but that didn't stop Breedon. After consulting Mike Willegal's keyboard page and doing some testing of his own, Breedon put an Arduino on a daughterboard that connects the keyboard to the motherboard. His solution is actually better than the original, since it speeds data entry of program listings found on the Internet — something the clone's manufacturers never anticipated:

[T]he Arduino can not only decode the keyboard but also you can upload text directly into the Apple as if you typed it in. This is achieved through serial communication from your PC to the Arduino: the Arduino is listening for serial data and any that it receives it converts into keypresses and pipes it into the Apple. This means that you can cut and paste basic programs directly off the internet and upload them into the apple as if you typed it in on the actual keyboard!

Arduino keyboard

That's a neat trick! I've never used an Arduino, so I wouldn't be able to duplicate this functionality — but it could be the underpinnings for a product I'd purchase for an official Apple II. There's more technical information on Breedon's website, should anyone else wish to investigate or re-create his work.

(Hat tip to John Baichtal)

A timeline of monitors and displays

April 10th, 2017 11:18 AM
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There are as many ways to connect an Apple II to a display as there have been display types across the decades. Each machine had its own protocols, standards, and benefits. Although the Apple II was designed for color — hence the six-color Apple logo — most people remember a monochromatic experience, due to the black-and-green monitors to which many early computers were connected. The first laptop Macintosh I ever used had a black-and-white display, which was great for playing Crystal Quest but not much else.

A new interactive infographic, "The Evolution of Computer Screens", attempts to chronicle the different ways computers have visually presented data to us over the eras, inviting us: "Take a trip through time and experience the most noteworthy achievements in computer screens, from little known discoveries way back in 1968, to the heated battles between Apple and PC and beyond."

Naturally, such a timeline would be remiss to overlook the Apple II:

Monitor timeline

There are a couple problems with this artistic rendition, though. First, that looks like a mockup, not an actual screenshot, of VisiCalc — the font just seems odd to me. Second, the accompanying text offers the prompt A>dir, which would never be valid on an Apple II unless it had a PC Transporter running MS-DOS, or a Microsoft Z-80 SoftCard running CP/M — a more representative prompt would've been ProDOS or DOS 3.3's native ]CATALOG. Third, the text doesn't actually say anything about the monitor or the display — there's no explanation justifying the Apple II's inclusion on this timeline.

This timeline is produced by AT&T with no individual bylines attached to it. I don't believe corporate sponsorship of a product is inherently suspicious, but not knowing the pedigree of the creators leaves me wondering what their familiarity with or interest in the topic was.

Fortunately, the timeline includes citations to resources referenced during their research. One such link is to Benj Edwards' 2010 feature for PCWorld, "A Brief History of Computer Displays". As a slideshow, it may lack the pizazz of the above timeline, but Edwards' content is, as always, top-notch. Spanning 1951–2010, the twenty slides cover a range of technologies and applications, including both the Apple-1 and Apple II, with technical explanations for what made each innovation a milestone.

Any acknowledgement of the Apple II in mainstream media is one I appreciate; early Apple's flagship product is otherwise too often overlooked. But clarity of audience, intention, and detail do the Apple II justice and ensure that the reference will be understood and appreciated by those familiar with the topic.

(Thanks to Paul Hagstrom for added details.)

Connecting to an Apple Cinema Display

March 27th, 2017 10:07 AM
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It sometimes feels like display technology has outpaced the Apple II's evolution: connecting to a modern display, such as via VGA, often requires expansion cards that are rare or still in development. I'm hopeful a future Juiced.GS article will outline all the possibilities for bridging these technologies.

In the meantime, Matthew Pearce has demonstrated how to connect the Apple II to a relatively modern and high-quality monitor: the Apple Cinema Display.

This setup has its own hardware requirements and challenges: used in this video are a Portta AV/CVBS RCA composite-to-HDMI mini-converter ($18.99), a Kanex XD HDMI-to-Mini-Displayport converter ($71.49) — and, of course, an Apple Cinema Display, which was discontinued six years ago, in 2011. With Matt's video having been produced in 2015, that means he was showing us how to connect two equally unsupported Apple products.

It's not a perfect solution, and one that we saw Matt demo in 8-bit mode only with Oregon Trail; Herbert Fung warns it won't look great with the 640 x 200 mode of the Apple IIGS. But as a proof of concept, it's a pretty cool configuration — and one that could have applications for other HDMI or MiniDP devices. For lack of turnkey alternatives, this hardware combination is a good one to add to your bag of tricks.

For more from Matt, check out his factual overview video of the Apple II.

(Hat tip to Buster Hein)

Lon's Apple II yule log

December 26th, 2016 7:32 AM
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There are plenty of Apple II programs that demonstrate the holiday spirit, as amply showcased by Blake Patterson's impressive annual playlist. So while such software is commonplace, it's rare to find retrocomputing hardware that's seasonally appropriate.

Lon Seidman inadvertently has filled that gap. He's built a YouTube empire of over 122,000 subscribers with almost daily reviews of any tech he can get his hands on — from the Xbox One video game console to Lenovo laptops to Samsung hard drives. His latest video is of the Apple IIGS, of which he produced a 33-minute review:

Unfortunately, his shoot was not without fatalities. When his computer started smoking, he thought the monitor had fried a capacitor, so he quickly hustled the display outside while leaving the camera running. But the culprit proved to be the CPU itself, which continued to quietly smoke in front of the camera. Lon took his lemons and made lemonade, offering the following festive video:

There may not be any actual flame (thank goodness), but this is as close as I'd want to get to an actual Apple II yule log.

Merry Christmas and Hanukkah, Lon — I hope your IIGS was okay!

(Full disclosure: I back Lon Seidman on Patreon.)

The Apple IIGS turns 30

September 26th, 2016 8:56 AM
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September 15, 2016, marked the 30th anniversary of the release of the Apple IIGS, the last model of Apple II to be developed and produced by Apple Computer Inc. Released two years after the introduction of the Macintosh, the IIGS was the only 16-bit Apple II, offering an entirely new operating system and suite of software.

Happy 30th to the Apple IIɢs!

I was 9 years old when we got our first Apple IIGS. I'd already been weaned on a steady diet of Apple IIe software, from VisiCalc and AppleWriter to Castle Wolfenstein and Choplifter — so that's how we used the Apple IIGS: as an accelerated Apple IIe. It wasn't until I started plundering the games library of the Apple II Users Forum on CompuServe that I started exploring what the Apple IIGS was uniquely capable of. With advice from Scott Everts and Loren Damewood, we invested in some hardware upgrades from Quality Computers that made the Apple IIGS a far more powerful machine than the IIe we once owned.

It wasn't long before my gaming hours were being spent on Bouncin' Ferno, Milestones 2000, Copy Killers, DuelTris, Floortiles, GShisen, and Xenocide. For telecommunications, I moved from ProTERM to Spectrum and its infinitely scriptable environment, where I crafted many chatroom games for CompuServe and GEnie. This budding podcaster got his start manipulating people's voices in AudioZap. And for word processing — well, I stuck with AppleWorks, of course. But for the most part, I never looked back once I "upgraded" to the ultimate Apple II.

Yet today, it seems the vast majority of today's retrocomputing programmers are developing 8-bit software. Quinn Dunk is hacking the Apple IIc Plus ROM, Martin Haye and company are building the world of Lawless Legends, French Touch is crafting 8-bit demos… the quantity and quality of Apple II software seems to dwarf releases for the Apple IIGS.

I can think of two reasons why this may be true. Given its late arrival and relatively limited number of models, the Apple IIGS was never as popular as its predecessors nor as likely to be someone's first Apple II. Thirty years ago, there were more 8-bit users than there were 16-bit users, and the two communities have experienced attrition proportionately. And with more secondhand 8-bit Apple II computers available, it's more likely to be the gateway for new community members than the Apple IIGS is.

The second reason is that the 8-bit Apple II offers a greater programming challenge than the Apple IIGS, in that constraints breed creativity. Although the Apple IIGS has more software and hardware resources at its disposal, it's more of a challenge and an accomplishment to create a cool program when you have only 48 kilobytes of RAM and not 4.25 megabytes.

It's similar to what Eric Shepherd said at KansasFest 2013: the Apple is finite and capable of being entirely grokked by a single developer. That's more true for the Apple II than it is for the IIGS.

The IIGS is the youngest Apple II, just as for many years, I was the youngest of the Apple II community. It'll always hold a special place in my heart. Now I'm curious to know why you think this technically superior machine doesn't hold that place in the hearts of more Apple II users. Share your theories in the comment belows or on Facebook or Twitter!

Dust cover

September 12th, 2016 8:49 AM
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I'm someone who likes to keep his Apple II at the ready: you never know when you'll need to convert a disk image, access an old document, or just chill with a round of Oregon Trail. At my last two day jobs, I had easy access to my IIGS, with it occupying a position of prominence on my office desk, right next to my work-supplied machine. It was a great diversion, conversation piece, and point of pride.

Sadly, my current workplace has not yet been graced by my favorite retrocomputer. Bringing outside, unmanaged machines into a HIPAA-compliant environment is always frowned upon; that and other factors have compounded to leave my Apple IIGS at home, where it's kept in storage.

Fortunately, I recently cleaned and reorganized my unfinished basement such that my Apple II gear now has a dedicated workspace. It's not convenient, but at least it's neat, visible, and easy to find.

Still, a basement is a basement, and all the dust and other particles from elsewhere in the house will eventually settle there. Wanting to keep my Apple II clean from falling particulates but lacking the rolltop desk of my childhood, I asked on Facebook's Apple II Enthusiasts group, "Any recommendations for a dust cover?"

I was surprised by many of the answers I received, which included Saran wrap, garbage bags, and pillow cases. All these affordable, makeshift approaches were offered sincerely, but they didn't strike me as particularly retro or especially classy — an Apple II doesn't deserve to ever be placed in a garbage bag!!

Sean Fahey of A2Central.com to the rescue: he pointed me to an eBay listing for a "Heavy Duty Clear Vinyl Waterproof Desktop Computer Monitor & Keyboard Dust Cover". The well-rated seller has hundreds of the item available for only $14.90 each with free shipping within the USA. The product arrived 48 hours after I ordered it and came with two separate covers: one each for the computer and the keyboard. The computer case is clear, sturdy, and spacious rather than form-fitting (measuring 19" tall, 17" wide and 16" deep). In this photo, you can see it enveloping the Apple II with room to spare:

Dust cover

Bubble computer.

Since the cover is hardly touching the Apple II itself, it comes off easy, making for easy access to the machine, which might not have been the case with a garbage bag or plastic wrap. (While those would be good for a computer in storage, I can't imagine them facilitating use of the protected Apple II.)

So thanks, Sean, for steering me to a product that meets both my functional and aesthetic needs!