Category Archives: Blog

Atari, my love.

This blog post is due to the fact I was just reanimating my Atari 2080ST, which triggered lots of memories I urgently needed to write down… so here we go:
Yes, the 1st proper (i.e. not soldered) computer I owned was a C64… I loved it, really. I loved it for 3 years… and seriously dreamt about getting an C128D – until I’ve read the fist reports about that Atari 260ST.

I was hooked just by the specs on paper. For me it looked like a Macintosh but with a realistic chance to own one some fine day.
Actually there was a day in the beginning of 1985 when I sat with Heinrich-Hermann Huth, (one of the founders of later Application System Heidelberg, ASH for short) discussing what’s the best upcoming computer. He was 100% Commodore 128… until I started my Atari ST anthem.
Around June or July, he invited me to his parents house to “show me something exciting”. There it was, one of the first STs in Germany, serial number 6, directly picked-up at Frankfurt airport. TOS came on an awesome 3.5″ floppy, the included Basic was slow as hell and the the Digital Research SDK left me puzzled. C? Compiler? Linker?
It became clear that I have to learn a lot to be worthy for such a serious system.
Looking back I wonder if ASH would ever been founded without my evangelism ūüėČ

So in early 1986 it was my turn: My Confirmation. This is a big deal over here and the most “profitable” observance. While the standard wish of kids in these days were big stereos, mine was clear.
Thanks to perfect timing, the 520ST just became 520ST+ and now had a whopping megabyte… it was heaven.

The glory of the 80s… bad jumpers and paper 3D-glasses.The right half shows the C64 moved into a far corner before it was sold to buy a 2nd floppy for my ST.

Just about that time, Application Systems Heidelberg was founded… in the child’s room of Heinrich-Herrmann, who somehow managed to get the exclusive distribution rights of Megamax C for Germany.
This proved to be a lucky pick, because the ST was taking the German market by storm and there was no good SDK available. So magazine ads were needed and I was the only one who had a design talent. This was my first design made with my brand new 520+:

The company logo was cut out and glued onto the b/w print which came out of a 9-needle-printer.

Mind the small pencil in the lower left corner. In German, that’s a “Stift”, which is also slang for “apprentice” – which was me ūüėÜ
There’s even an article about this ad in the german ST-Computer magazine over here (pg. 7/8).¬† Quote:

Doch selbst der Software¬≠Gigant aus Heidelberg fing klein an: Auf einer Viertelseite bewarb die Firma in der Ausgabe 07¬≠08/1986 das Megamax C¬≠ Entwicklungssystem, gestaltet wurde die Anzeige mit der Systemschrift und den F√ľllmustern des STs.

Which translates into “Even the software giant from Heidelberg started out small: In issue 07-08/1986 the company advertised the Megamax-C SDK¬† on a quarter-page, designed using system fonts and the fill-patterns of the ST“.
Yeah, that’s all true. And “The Stift” was payed for this and other ads by being allowed to keep the glorious Citizen MSP-20 9-needle printer.

In the following years I spend my time mostly in 3 places: In school because I had to, at home in front of my Atari ST or in the ASH office because it was just so cool. During these days I did many thing for them:

  • Packed so many, many, many Megamax, Signum! and STAD boxes, labeled 100s of floppy-disks (was payed in M&M currency)
  • Some levels for Oxyd, Bolo and Esprit.
  • Some Signum! Fonts (forgot which ones, but they were in the 1st 251-Fonts book)
  • Phoenix Ornitho Database (containing samples of each bird singing)
  • The cartoon on the last page of their in-house magazine. Was quite a fancy oversized, glossy thing.
  • Probably 10 other things I forgot…

Icons and Infobox for Script v1

…and Scarabus.

Boy – this was definitely one of the top-5 times of my life. Thanks for this H3, Volker, Ojo (always in my heart), Karen (my heart ;)), Oili, Thomas and all the other great guys’n’gals from back then! Love y’all!

Fight obsolescence!

There’s the saying that “The shoemaker’s son always goes barefoot” and looking at my workhorse desktop computers, i.e. those I use for surfing the web, writing stuff and every other creative task, this is very true in my case.

Namely there’s a PC I’ve assembled back in 2011 and an ‘early 2008’ MacPro (= 3,1). And for both I’ve decided to use them to the bitter end… just to fight against the planned obsolescence which comes with ‘innovation’.

The dark side of the force

I assembled the PC back in 2011 while working at my ex-company from which I bought it a year later. I have to congratulate myself how wisely I picked the parts for it… even 8 years later, that box is still pretty capable: The Intel i7 2600k (still benchmarked to recent cpus) was very good choice and its 16GB were insane back then and are still appropriate today.
Looking good in a MacPro-a-like case, strongly steaming along on Windows 10 and Linux, it just had its first moment showing its age: An Nvidia GTX 680 could not be detected, no matter what. Even taking the brave step flashing the last UEFI BIOS could not help.

Cheese-Grinder on wheels… and a floppy.

The even darker side…

A new graphics card? Why that? Are you a gamer, Axel?
Well, as we all know, MacOS is free… but it’s tied to hardware which isn’t. And to make you upgrade your old hardware (read: make $$$), Apple has pretty short ‘support tail’.¬†
So that GTX 680 was meant for my beloved MacPro. A MacPro from 2008 and officially not supported since OS X 10.11.x (aka El Captain). This means no Sierra or any other recent desert-codenamed OS. Well, not if you’re not patching it ūüėČ
While this was relatively easy with Sierra and High Sierra, Mojave is a different thing, requiring a Metal compatible GPU… which my 8800GT was not. Actually it was already slowing down the whole thing (e.g. no WebGL) and so it was about time to replace it.

The real thing – still one of the best cases ever made.

Here’s an important hint, just in case you haven’t read it elsewhere:
If you plan to upgrade to Mojave, do not use an AMD card! This is because the required AMD drivers use¬†SSE4.2 instructions, the early 2008 MacPro Xeon CPUs do not have. So Nvidia it is… and the GTX 680 is the best choice in my humble opinion:

  • Fast – I mean really, really, really fast (~10x compared to the 8800GT)
  • Cuda – speeding up many creative applications
  • Cheap (~60‚ā¨/$70)
  • Flashable (i.e. you’ll get an Apple boot-screen)

So I got myself a used ‘680 and thought “Hey, just plug it into the good ol’ PC, boot DOS, flash the beast and off it goes into the mighty Mac”… how wrong I was!

Try’n’error darkness

Plugged into my PC did not even output a signal to the display. Nothing but black… is it broken?
Plugged into the MacPro instantly tripped its safety breaker when powered on… can it really be broken?
Then I read that my PCs ‘legacy BIOS’ could be the reason why – so after 8 years I finally had a reason to enter UEFI-land. No difference. It’s probably because of the Z68 chipset which is just too old.

Back (in)to the MacPro. Maybe the power provided by the two motherboard PCIe connectors is too low? (The power-supply itself provides a whopping 900 Watts!)
So I connected the GTX’ two PCIe power-cables to an external power-supply and… ‘tadaaa’ the Mac greeted me with his boot chime, no boot-screen (yet) and finally the desktop. Woohoo! At least the card is fine.

And there was light!

So I had to ‘mod’ the Pro… there’s this so-called ‘Pixlas Mod‘ which is just a simple power-line bypass, directly splicing into the wires after leaving the power-supply. Having done that I was able to run my GTX in parallel with the 8800GT, using a DOS boot-CD (USB isn’t an option) I could flash the GTX and after a final card swapping my Mac Pro is ready for Mojave! Yay, another one or two more years for my workhorse…

And the moral of this post/rant/story?

Don’t give up your old hardware too quickly – put some love and a bit of money into it and fight the marketing-obsolescence!


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, Рthe 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 no 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¬† ūüėĮ

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.¬†¬† ūüėē

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‚ā¨ – 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‚ā¨ 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.


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).


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 ūüôĄ ) 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 Ersch√ľtterungs 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”¬† ūüėČ


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:, 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, 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 ¬†ūüė•
My beloved Microdrive started to make those noises you don’t want to hear from a harddrive: Click, click, toc, toc…


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


[Oct 2014]
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. Several Mails with their engineer (Hi Iver!)  flew back and forth, during which he created a multi-panel board out of my single board design and turned it into a Gerber file and let me having it for a final check before everything went into production.


Manufacturing and shipping was OKish (20 days in total). At first sight, everything looked great. Nice, professionally framed SMD stencil, PCBs etc were carefully bubble wrapped.
When squeezing the whole stack of PCB it felt a bit ‘bouncy’ – looking at it from the side, it became clear why:


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

Well, when the PCBs were from the 3-part panel separated 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:


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-wiring.
I guess all those glitches are the price you have to pay when going “cheapo”.

Update Nov 2015:
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!

Update March 2017:
I asked for a quote for the same design, same number of boards but their price increased 30% within 15 months – so I had to find another manufacturer capable of doing 6 layers.

Dirt Cheap PCBs

For my QFP-to-BGA adapter Рwhich just uses 2 layers РI 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 so-so.
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 ūüôĀ


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.


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‚ā¨ 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


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.


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.


So after ShenZen2U became too expensive for my budget (They’re still cheaper than European services) I found PCBWIN being another Chinese manufacturer able to provide 6 Layers for a reasonable price.


The order process was very convenient. After ¬†requestin a quote online I’ve been contacted by my ‘personal sales assistant’ (Hi Betty!) straight away.
Their engineers checked my Gerber, clarified some measurements, v-groves etc. which I could explain by sending photographs and drawings. All in all, very a professional and reassuring process during which you also can contact your personal contact by Skype, e.g. if you’re really on a time-pressure.
I can’t give a usual delivery time for this order, as my fell into the ¬†Quingming Festival season, so that added some extra days of delay – but they informed me about this, so all OK here! Including this delay, it took 10 days until shipping. After the usual 20 days wait and some more queuing at the customs office I got this:


The PCBs and a new stencil were well packed – and a quick visual check (ENIG, masks, printing) was quite satisfying. If there’s anything to critic, maybe the silkscreen printing was a bit ¬†‘thin’ – but that’s really a minor thing. The first PCB I’ve populated and tested worked fine – so I assume the other 29 will be fine, too ūüėČ

After-sales are great, too. So your personal assistant will stay in touch and is honestly interested in how everything worked out etc.


So as with any other PCB service, it’s the people that make the difference. Yeah, the price is an important item on the list, but as the saying goes: If you buy too cheap, you’ll buy twice.
For me PCBWIN was a win. Thumbs up!

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