Archive for the ‘Hacks & mods’ Category

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

Keyboard latency

January 29th, 2018 10:15 AM
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Having just started working at Automattic, I'm anticipating a future where I'll spend even more time than ever sitting at a keyboard. Computers have been where I've spent most of my career, but they've always been interrupted by presentations, meetings, and the like. With even those now being done at a keyboard, I'm investigating ways to improve efficiency, such as switching to a DVORAK or Colemak layout.

Blogger and programmer Dan Luu recently identified another potential area of keyboard efficiency: latency. Regardless of the keyboard's layout, the actual time between keypress and result can also vary among brands and models — and even eras.

Turns out keyboard latency is one area in which our Apple II computer excels. Writes Luu: "… computers from the 70s and 80s commonly have keypress-to-screen-update latencies in the 30ms to 50ms range out of the box, whereas modern computers are often in the 100ms to 200ms range when you press a key in a terminal."

The author elaborates that modern keyboards themselves often have more, faster circuitry than an entire computer from the 1977 — yet, perhaps due to that simplicity, older keyboards are still faster:

consider that an Apple 2 has 3500 transistors running at 1MHz and an Atmel employee estimates that the core used in a number of high-end keyboards today has 80k transistors running at 16MHz. That’s 20x the transistors running at 16x the clock speed – keyboards are often more powerful than entire computers from the 70s and 80s! And yet, the median keyboard today adds as much latency as the entire end-to-end pipeline as a fast machine from the 70s.

Naturally, that led me to thinking that the best way to reduce my latency would be to replace my laptop's inbuilt keyboard, or even its external USB or Bluetooth keyboard, with an Apple II keyboard — a connection made possible by Charles Mangin of Retroconnector's keyboard shield. But, suspecting more steps between the keyboard and the computer would negate any improvement, I reached out to Charles for additional insight. He confirmed:

It would definitely add to the latency. The processor in the Arduino is running at 16mhz, and takes several cycles to register each switch state change. That is translated to the proper keypress, then it has to send that result as a USB signal, which takes more time. At best, it would be equivalent to a normal USB keyboard, but likely slower due to the Arduino overhead.

Alas, while the Apple II remains king of keyboard latency, that benefit is firmly tied to its classic architecture.

… The answer: replace my entire Automattic machine with an Apple II!

(Hat tip to mmphosis!)

iMac Pro memory comparison

January 22nd, 2018 2:26 PM
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Last week was the beginning of the semester at Emerson College, where I teach a graduate course on electronic publishing. To give my students context, I start each semester with a history of computers, the Internet, and data storage. That last aspect includes a brief mathematics lesson about binary, bits, and bytes, as well as how they scale to kilo, mega, giga, tera, and beyond.

Sometimes, even I need a reminder of just how massive the difference is in the scale between the Apple II and modern computers. The latest model of iMac Pro debuted last month, and with 11 times more memory than an Apple II, said one Twitter user. That's not surprising: early models of Apple II shipped with 48K of RAM, so 11 times that would be only 528K, or a bit more than half a megabyte.

But what Bruce "Tog" Tognazzini, Apple employee #66, was referring to wasn't a comparison of a single Apple II to a single iMac Pro — but every Apple II ever, combined:

It's an impressive comparison — but is it true? Let's check the math. Six million Apple II computers at 48K each is 288,000,000 kilobytes of RAM, or 281,250 megabytes, or 274 gigabytes. Hmm… that's not quite right. Let's work backwards: 64 gigabytes is 67,108,864 kilobytes, divided by six million is 11 kilobytes each.

I don't have a precise number for the average amount of stock memory shipped over the lifespan of the Apple II and its various models, but I would guess it was more than 11K. Perhaps Tog is taking into account other factors, like SSD storage… but it still doesn't seem an Apples-to-Apples comparison.

But I appreciate Tog's intent, which may be more applicable to that hard drive. 4TB of storage is equal to 15,339,168 double-sided, 5.25;" 140K floppy disks. That's a lot of disks! I wonder how many floppy disks were ever made?

I'd love to get an unusual yet mathematically sound comparison of these two platforms' attributes that would help my students understand how far we've come. Please leave a comment with your suggestions!

(Hat tip to Luke Dormehl; featured image courtesy ReActiveMicro)

Unboxing Hayes Smartmodem

December 18th, 2017 2:40 PM
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Like most Apple II users, my first modem was a revelation, connecting me to people and resources I'd never imagined. For me, that modem was the Apple Personal Modem, a 1200-baud brick that connected me to CompuServe, where I "met" such folks as Loren Damewood, Tony Ward, and Ray Merlin. It wasn't until I'd attend KansasFest more than a decade later that I'd finally put faces to these names.

Sometimes, the introduction works the other way. At recent KansasFests, I've had the pleasure to getting to know Justin Scott, who I was recently surprised to discover has his own YouTube series, "Modem Monday". The first video I watched was Justin's sixth, which focused on connecting the Apple II to a Hayes Smartmodem.

It's been a long time since I used a dial-up modem on an Apple II, so to see Justin doing it today brought a big smile to my face. It made me recall connecting to Tymnet nodes and local BBSes, such as the one Justin telnets to in this video in 40-column monochromatic glory.

Beyond the content, I also enjoyed the production of the video itself. I've done a few Apple II unboxing videos myself, and I wish I had a setup like Justin's: except for one out-of-focus shot, the videography and lighting are excellent. It also seems Justin rehearses or scripts his dialogue while still sounding natural, as he brings a bevy of insights and trivia to each product he examines. When he pries open the Smartmodem case, we get live narration of each step as he's doing it. This is unlike earlier parts of the video, where the camera's audio is muted and the dialogue dubbed in later. In those scenes, I missed hearing the sound effects of the box being opened and the manual being flipped.

As a YouTube creator myself, I know how time-consuming these productions can be. If you like Justin's videos, you can support production of future Modem Mondays on his Patreon.

(Hat tip to Justin on Facebook)

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)