Category Archives: Blog

SPARC – time flies

Recently a good friend of mine gave me a super-duper, crazy-as-hell Oracle SPARC M7 CPU for my CPU collection forcing me into another stroll down the memory lane… and I couldn’t refrain from taking a special “family photo”

SPARC M7 next to SPARC 1 - 29 years appart

Yes, the couple sitting next to the huge M7 is a SPARC (1) from a SPARCstation 1 @ 20MHz, – the CPU was manufactured 1989 by LSI (S1A0007), the FPU came from Weitek (3170).
BTW: I personally pulled both back in 1992, when I worked in my 2nd company selling SPARC clones.

If I counted correctly, the there are 26 model-generations and about 29 years are between them (just SUN/Oracle models). Ignoring all the M7 hyper-modern stuff like in-silicon-SQL accelerators etc. numbers are still breathtaking:
The SPARC M7 -still one of the fastest CPUs around (as of 2016)- has  10.000 times more transistors, a 206 times higher clocking, 31 more “cores”. It’s 64MB L3 cache(!) is the same amount, a SPARCstation could address as a maximum system RAM.
Sadly there’s not way to compare their actual computing power, as benchmarks which where ran on the SPARC 1 aren’t applicable on the M7 and vice versa. Or do you have Dhry/Whetstones for an M7?

Anyhow: It’s just so amazing to be able to witness this crazy development in just 2/3rds of an average-life-time. Don’t you think so, too?

My new MacBook Pro from… Redmond!

F*ck me! I would never-neverever thought that this might happen… but last week was the time I switched to the dark side  😯

Say hello to my new “MacBook Pro”:

Whaaaat? Yeah, I know… but wait a sec before you pull your light-saber.

My Macs are both officially obsolete since macOS Sierra was released. A mighty 2008 Mac Pro as well as my 2010 MacBook Pro. Boy, believe me – did I anxiously wait for the presentation of the new MacBook Pro! That was in 2015… and ’16.. and then the big moment came. And went. I was, mhh, not impressed.
Many Mac users of the “first hour” complained about, well, everything. I have to say, I am a Macintosh user since 1984 – I moaned about the loading times of System 6 on a 128k Mac, I jubilated about the 1MB and SCSI in the “Plus”,  drooled over the IIfx, even admired  the doomed AV’s, ran A/UX, owned the first PowerMac etc.etc.etc… but this time, they just lost me.   😕

Missing ports aside (and I really need USB-A) the main reason for loosing me was the price they slapped onto the 15″ Pro… 2699€ – holy bat-wallet! That’s nearly $2900US$… $400 more than in the US. I was speechless. Angry. Flabbergasted.

So, after squinting into the Surface Book corner for some months already, I gave it a closer look (I quit using Windoze seriously when VIsta popped up) and had to admit that it helped Microsoft having been pushed into 2nd row. They at least got some things right and there’s always a VM with Linux at hand.
So I did it. Found an i5/8GB/256GB for a whopping 1000€ less and must admit: I like it a lot up to now. A speedy, stylish, well designed laptop, a big tablet and it natively runs all the FPGA IDEs, my logic analyser tool from china and Cygwin gives me an instant bash and GNU.

Never thought it would happen…. let’s see how it works out in the long run.

P.S: Apple Mail, I do miss you, though.

Did you drop your Macbook Pro dream, too? Think different? Post a comment!

Updates for Apple OSes… but not what you think.

Yeah, iOS got an Update a couple of days ago… and so will Mac OS,  MacOS X, OS X, macOS in 4 days, making your 2010 Apple device obsolete (perfectly fitting in my last rant blog post). Boring… not the Apple OSes we’re looking for.

No, what I’m talking about is ProDOS just got updated to version 2.4! Yes, THAT ProDOS from  1983 running on Apple IIe computers.
Thanks to internet goddess, you can even play around with it in your browser.

prodos_2_4

But not enough: After 22 years, 2 months, 2 days and 2 hours GS/OS got an update to V 6.0.2, too. That’s the System 6 look-alike OS running on the 8/16 bit Apple IIgs machine. By the way, one of my favorite Apples (also used in some of my projects).

welcometo602

That’s the spirit guys!

Sometime it just works…

Those are rare moments but sometime it happens:
My brother-in-law gave me a very simple schematic drawing (a ppt file 🙄 ) asking if i could “turn that into reality”. It should be a Arduino shield to measure vibrations created by passing trains (in German that’s a “Zug Erschütterungs Detektor”).

Well, out went trusty Eagle CAD and some interpretation fun began. Some components were described as “resistor 1-10k” others had unknown dimensions like “pushbutton bought at eBay”.
After sending some photographs back and forth I was pretty clear that everything makes sense… and after some optimizing  the shield had plenty of space left. So in went a nice breadboard section with the option of placing a RTC there as well.

Then the DirtyPCB drill started again – and after 2.5 weeks the PCBs arrived and bro’-in-law happily started to assemble the “ZED 1.0”.
What should I say? It just worked. Immediately…  wow. That should happen more often, or like Hannibal says “I love it when a plan comes together”  😉

ZED1_0

Obsolete through progress

Well, we all know that especially software isn’t created for eternity. Sometimes even not for years. But sometimes dying software also means the end for your not-so-old device…

For me this became truth in 2013 when my trusty Chumby alarm clock became a very simple clock after the company ran out of money – thanks to its open design, the community was able to revive it (a bit).

But sometimes you just end up with a brick – or at least with just 25% of the functionality you had before:

  • In this recent letter from Revolv, they announce the end of their connected home solutions due to the change of ownership (first Nest, then Google)
  • Philips TVs (when sold to Gibson) stopped their SmartTV support for many TV products since 2010
  • Samsung and other TV manufacturers do not support/update the Skype app anymore, rendering a built-in camera to a NSA-only device
  • Some more key-words your devices might have been built for using them:
    last.fm, podcasts, Second Life, MySpace or even Altavista (All things you might have thought they last for 10+ years)
  • … not mentioning web browsers which are useless because of missing support for CSS, JS, HTML4+ etc.

So even before planned obsolescence of your hardware strikes, you might loose functionality by a decaying piece of software.

Do you own a piece of hardware with software-orphans in it, too?

Loosing my instincts

Damn, am I angry about myself of what!?

I spent nearly a week fiddling around with my new “DOS/Windoze retro workhorse” (a newer version of the Compaq Deskpro 2000). Setting up/moving DOS was a piece of cake and so I went on to install NT 4.0 which is the most recent (sic!) version of Windows supported by INMOS tools as well as it’s the favorite weapon of choice of Michael of transputer.net, so it’s wise to have it handy if you like to play around with his latest creations.

I stopped counting how many times I installed NT in different versions, languages and service packs. It constantly crashed, BSODs mostly hinting towards filesystem errors. So I swapped the drive – 3 times. Each time formatting, creating partitions for DOS etc…
Just today, in total desperation I tried Win XP and finally I got an error message which rang a very silent bell in the back of my head: “PAGE_FAULT_IN_NONPAGED_AREA” – this steered me away from possibly faulty drives and filesystems… towards RAM.

Blindly following my rule not to leave any socket empty, I stuffed that little machine to the brim. Replacing the ‘bad apple’ fixed it all. NT4SP6 is running like a charm – happy dance. Fine.
What really nags me about that is that I would have suspected RAM issues much earlier some years ago – it was a reflex, an instinct back then. MemTest86 was a trustworthy companion all days.

Are you loosing nerd-instincts too while piling new knowledge on old skills?

Wonders that die

Yesterday it happened again. Another (little) wonder died in action  😥
My beloved Microdrive started to make those noises you don’t want to hear from a harddrive: Click, click, toc, toc…

microdie

I must admit that I already forgot about it, as it silently ran in my dual CF-card adapter as slave drive to store the swapping partitions/files for the Linux/Windows NT installations living on the primary drive (a real flash card) to prevent the massive wear-out through constant reading and writing.

The Microdrive was one of those things which were, when released, considered as a real miracle by myself. When I took part in the presentation at CeBit 1999 it was just sooooo unbelievable that IBM managed to build a 1″ harddrive and pack everything into a Compact Flash Type II card. Announcing the will squeeze 1GB into it the next year doubled the amazement.
Thinking back, those ‘wonder moments’ became quite rare these days. I mean really breathtaking releases that make you think “WTF!?” and stop breathing for more than 10 seconds.

Now it’s dead. Built 2003, in hard-working duty for me since 2008. Rest in peace little wonder.

Do you remember your last ‘real wonder moment(tm)’ in IT space?

Manufacturing PCBs in China?

Ever thought about manufacturing PCBs in China?

If you google this, you most certainly end up with “your mileage my vary”. Indeed it does… and here are my 2 cents:

Because the grass might be greener on the other side of the river, I’ve tested and will keep on testing several PCB houses over the time. So I’ll update this Blog post every now and then… until now, I wrote about

ShenZhen2U

For my AM-B404 TRAM I hadn’t had any other option than have them manufactured in china. 6 Layers and sub-20$ weren’t possible anywhere else. So I tried ShenZhen2U
After sending in the Eagle-CAD files their support was great. Manufacturing and shipping was OKish (20 days in total). At first sight, everything looked great. Nice, professionally framed SMD stencil, PCBs carefully bubble wrapped.
When holding the whole stack of PCB it felt a bit ‘bouncy’ – looking at it from the side, it became clear why:

ShenZhenBent

Some PCBs were bent. You can see the gaps between some of them.

Well, when the PCBs were separated (I had 3 panels in  PCB) it wasn’t that obvious anymore. So I started populating them.
This brought me to the next issue. The silkscreen was quite a bit off on some of the PCBs. Luckily, all of them had enough solder pad left to be usable:

ShenZhenMask

In the end, 3 of the 60 boards were completely unusable. They had shorts within the internal layers which couldn’t be fixed even by cutting traces and re-wireing.
I guess all those glitches are the price you have to pay when going “cheapo”.

Update: I ran a 2nd batch of the same boards from the same gerber files and mentioned the non-working boards in the 1st order.
This time the quality was very good and they silently added 2 extra boards to my order. Thumbs up, ShenZen2U!

Dirt Cheap PCBs

For my QFP-to-BGA adapter – which just uses 2 layers – I tried Dirt Cheap PCBs. I really like the attitude of their site and for just 25 bucks for 10 PCBs it was worth a shot.
It’s a no-brainer. Upload your eagleCAD/Gerber file and wait – after some minutes you can even look at a rendering of the top- and bottom layer of your boards. They explicitly state, that this function is beta and yes, 1 of the ~5 times I used their service, that rendering wasn’t totally correct – so don’t wet your pants if this happens. Use a real gerber viewer instead. That said, you normally have 1-2 days to update your files if I might have found a mistake later.
About 20 days later I got my little brown envelope. Everything’s fine, I’m totally OK with it.
Before using their service, be sure to check their FAQ. You’ll find jewels like this:
The board house will add three tiny numbers to your board: batch ID, a customer number, and our PCB ID. This is so everyone knows which crappy PCBs to send you. Don’t like it? Tough. Buy an entire panel somewhere else.

Update: I also tried their 4 layer service (for which they use an external board house) and while the price is good, the results were OK’ish.
They did not place the solder-mask on the most fine-pitch part (QFP 100pin) which is a pain in the a** to reflow without getting shorts 🙁

Seeedstudio

A more posh version of manufacturing PCBs in China is Seeedstudio who asked me to check out their “Fusion” service. They even offered me a $30 coupon (thanks!), so why not give it a try?!

Before sending my Gerber files I had a couple of questions and their email service is very good an responsive.
As they offer hard-gold finishing, I thought it might be a good time to create an expansion card with its connectors being plated with hard-gold to make it more robust to plugging the card in and out a couple of 100 times… some mails flew back and forth but in the end they asked for the same price for having the connector-fingers done in hard-gold as having done the whole PCB done in this process (the rest was planned in HASL). That’s 30 vs 230 bucks! Erm, no thanks… not this time.

Ordering

So I ordered some standard 2-layer, HASL finished PCBs, no bells and whistles on Fri. Nov. 25th. Their order form is well designed and shouldn’t leave you with any questions – they even offer a Gerber viewer of your uploaded files, which I think is very cool!
(One hint: When entering your address, the form insists that you enter an EORI tax-number which private persons normally don’t have. A simple dash “-” does the trick, though).
They offer 3 ways of shipping, ~10€ for normal post (10+ days), DHL and FedEx (both 3+ days). I went for DHL – I’m pretty sure “normal post” wasn’t an option for my order when I had the choice. Maybe because of the weight…
Next day the boards went into production.  You’ll be updated about the proceedings by mail – pretty standard today – as well as in you accounts order history on their page.

On Nov. 29th I got an email confirmation, that my PCBs are finished and shipped… and on Dec. 3rd I got the boards in my mailbox. That was blazing fast indeed! 9 days from ordering to receiving

Quality

The cool thing is, that I’ve ordered the predecessor of this design at “Dirt Cheap PCB”, so I have a direct comparison.
Given the simplicity of the design, I haven’t found any glitches or mistakes… the two boards are nearly identical.
If you’re super picky about your design: like Dirt Cheap PCB, Seeed does print some internal ID on your silkscreen – and that’s not in their FAQ.

Conclusion

For a simple design (2-4 layers, no extras) Seeedstudio is comparable to other PCB houses – even a tiny bit more expensive.
Where they shine is when it comes down to support and all those extra features like penalization, V-grooves etc. which the other houses just can’t offer or leave you in the cold when it comes down to getting help.

Do you have/had any good/bad experiences with Chinese PCB manufacturers? I’m happy to hear about it in the comments below!

Too poor for cheap tools

There’s a deep wisdom in one of my fathers favorite saying (posed every time we went into an home improvement store): “I’m too poor for cheap tools”.

I should have remember that, when I started to shopping for an EPROM programmer (or ‘burner’ as we call’em in Germany) in 2002. I started cheap with a simple, used Batronix Parallel Port programmer which very soon reached its limits not supporting PALs/GALs and mid-size EPROMs (27C020 to be precise) only, so I was again looking for a better programmer.

batronix

In 2006 the GALEP-4 seemed to be the wet dream of every device-programing nerd. While not totally high-end it was quite expensive (~400 Euro)… well “I’m too poor…” you know.

galep_big

After 2 years it became obvious that especially vintage ICs (e.g PAL16L8) aren’t supported – honestly, why should they, who’s crazy enough to support EOL devices!?!!

Elnec is! Ok, the BeeProg series is really everything else than cheap but it’s worth every cent. While I though the supported devices list of the GALEP was huge (6057), Elnecs list is a behemoth (85347 and counting).

BeeProg-am-588-600
And on top of that, there’s their free AlgOR (Algorithms On Request) service. If you have an unsupported device and some sort of specs/datasheet you can ship it to them and they’ll do their best to add your device-from-mars to the endless list.
I just used this service, and it just went great. For my AM-B404 TRAM I need to test quite some SRAMs from a “New-Old-Stock” source, which I don’t completely trust. While my BeeProg+ supports a wide range of SRAMs already, of all things these weren’t on the list. So I’ve sent two samples to Slovakia and a week later that type was included in the most recent release of their software!

So – if you’re into vintage hardware restauration – don’t waste time & money with half-hearted solutions. Even the price is steep, given their quality and service I’m very confident that this is the one and only programmer you’ll ever need. Period.

Flat is the new 3D

Ok, so we all had a close look at if there was a “one more thing” at WDCC. Well, not for me – but that’s a personal view.

Looking through my Yester-Tech pair of glasses, one thing caught my eye (pun intended ;)): OS X UI design is getting flatter (and flatter). It just struck me this time as I was just thinking how to get a more modern window manager running on Helios’ X11, which offers twm and mwm for now, looking like this:

HELIOSX

Doh. That looks flat. And simple. But it just does its job: Manage windows (move, pop-over/under etc.). But from the beginning of UIs, everybody was looking left and right what Apple, SGI or even Microsoft did design-wise. And they were all trying hard to get a more 3D’ish look, mostly by using embossing and beveling.

So, at a time MacOS 7.x looked like this

macos7

Windows 95 tried to catch up (W98/NT/2k looked pretty much the same)

and the free fvwm was the free alternative to $$$ Motiv on X-Window:

Then came Mac OS X with its Aqua-look and all of the sudden spherical buttons, rounded corners and lolli-pop colors became a must-have. The original:

macosx101

And the look-alikes from MS (Windows XP):

…and yet another X window manager (KDE this time):

After that hell broke loose and all sorts of crazy, mostly Hollywood inspired and supported by the capabilities of all those l33t 3D video-cards, 3D user interfaces hit the street web. Bumptop was one of many:

bumptop

Then, slowly people recognized that while a UI might look cool, it might also be unusable or gives you a headache when using it for real work. So things cooled down and the clock went backwards.
With Windows 8 (and Windows Mobile following) UIs started to get flat again. And rectangular. Besides the “Windows 8 Modern UI” (aka Metro), even standard desktop windows and dialogs got pretty flat

And last but not least with iOS 7 and soon-to-be-released MacOS X 10.10 Apples UIs also will get flatter…

OSx1010

Am I the only one who feels “been there, done that”? Is flat the new 3D after it’s been very flat before?